Archive for Cine Dorado

S is for Soledad

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville dishes up another letter from his alphabet soup of spicy Mexican melodrama ~

 CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

S is for Soledad

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What can I say? Soledad must be a popular name in Mexico – in films, at any rate. The ‘R’ entry El rebozo de Soledad (Soledad’s Shawl) was a quasi-melodrama that that sought to ennoble its soap operatics with spiritual and social uplift. The 1947 film Soledad, in contrast, is pure unadulterated soap. One of those relentlessly masochistic melodramas about the joys and sorrows of Mother Love (well, mainly the sorrows) it plays like Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce and Imitation of Life all rolled into one, with songs added. Small wonder it’s one of the classics of the genre, hailed by critics as “the most chemically pure melodrama in the history of Mexican film”. Quite a claim, I know, but Soledad more than lives up to the hype.

Directed by ace melodramatist Miguel Zacarías, it’s the film that established Libertad Lamarque as a top Latin American star. A tango singer from Buenos Aires, Lamarque was a big name in Argentine films of the 30s and early 40s – until an alleged feud with First Lady Eva Perón led her to flee the country and seek refuge further north. Her first Mexican vehicle, Gran Casino (1946), failed dismally, largely because its director was Luis Buñuel, a man spectacularly unsuited to the wallowing orgies of suffering and song that were Libertad’s stock-in-trade. A diva in the grand manner, Lamarque insisted that every detail of her films should be conceived and created in her own inimitable style. Zacarías, unlike Buñuel, was happy to oblige – and Soledad was a thunderous hit.

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In a role that scarcely requires her to act, Libertad plays an ill-treated Argentine refugee who becomes a huge singing star and earns the breathless adulation of all around her. The marquee outside the theatre even bills her as ‘La Novia de América’ (America’s Sweetheart – South, not North, you understand) which was Lamarque’s personal sobriquet in real life. She has a dark secret, of course. (What great star has not?) Her character was brought as an orphan to Mexico from Buenos Aires – that’s one way of explaining her accent – by a rich but cold-hearted family who forced her to work as their maid. The feckless son of the house (Rene Cardona) inveigles her into a secret marriage that turns out to be a sham. By the time she finds out the truth, poor Soledad is already pregnant by this rotter. He dumps her for a wealthy heiress – abandoning her to a life of ignominy as an unwed mother!

Our heroine, in floods of tears, runs away and joins a vaudeville troupe, whose leader looks and sounds like a Latino version of Ethel Merman. (A terrifying thought, I know.) But the evil matriarch of the family traces her to a seedy fleapit theatre and demands she relinquish her baby. The new bride, apparently, is unable to bear children and the family will lose control of her fortune if they fail to come up with an heir. (Invariably, wills in Mexican movies are written, not by lawyers but by some underpaid hack in the Script Department.) As Soledad and the old biddy fight it out in the dressing room, we see a nude stripper (in silhouette, through a thin partition wall) being beaten up by her savage drunken pimp. Clearly, this theatre is No Place To Bring Up A Child. Tearfully but inevitably, Soledad gives her baby away.

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Approximately twenty years later (and, incredibly, a mere 20 minutes into the film) Soledad returns to Mexico City in triumph. She is now Latin America’s most illustrious singing star. Sitting in the Dress Circle at her gala concert is her long-lost daughter (Marga López) who has grown up to be the spoiled-rotten princess of Mexican high society. López (who won an Ariel as Best Supporting Actress) bears an alarming resemblance to Ann Blyth as Veda, the bitchy daughter in Mildred Pierce. I do not think this is accidental. She is, in truth, a thoroughly unpleasant young lady who shouts at the servants and even kicks over a vacuum cleaner in one of her periodic fits of ill temper. Her grandmother and ‘mother’ are dead. Her father is a drunken slob who has already gambled away most of her fortune, but she, of course, doesn’t know that. Yet.

In the audience beside Marga is her young and handsome fiancé (Ruben Rojo), a wannabe songwriter who’s wildly besotted with Soledad. To modern eyes, this makes him the 40s Mexican equivalent of a young man who drags his girlfriend to Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand concerts…but Marga is an old-fashioned kind of a gal. She gets jealous because she thinks he’s about to cheat on her. (Maybe, dear, but not in the way you think.) So she takes a violent dislike to Libertad and dishes her silver lamé Grecian robe as “a bit over the top, vulgar almost”. Mind you, she does have a point– but then, a few scenes later, Marga wears a faux flamenco outfit of truly monumental hideousness, complete with a spangled black mantilla. Girls who live in glass houses…

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With both its leading ladies facing imminent Death by Wardrobe, Soledad has little time left for its very long to-do list. It must reunite its long-lost mother and child. It must also reunite its young lovers (whose mooted marriage looks none too promising, it must be said). There’s also a sleazy and lecherous fortune hunter who is after what’s left of Marga’s inheritance. In the finest Mildred Pierce tradition, Libertad grabs a gun and shoots him full of lead. But don’t worry, there’s still a happy ending. Mother and daughter embrace in triumphal close-up. The camera cuts to each of the other characters, turn by turn, as they burst obligingly into floods of tears. It’s a none-too-subtle hint, but audiences took it at the time.

Nowadays, of course, we’re too sophisticated for that. Or are we? My advice is to suspend judgement until you’ve seen Soledad.

David Melville

R is for El Rebozo de Soledad

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville returns with another installment of his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama –

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 CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

R is for El rebozo de Soledad (Soledad’s Shawl)

I’ve never been a fan of movies that set out to uplift us morally. Art succeeds, not in making us better or worse people, but in revealing to us more intensely who we are. So El rebozo de Soledad (1952) is a film to approach with caution…

Dealing with the travails of an idealistic doctor (Arturo de Córdova) in a remote and impoverished village, it marked a change of pace for its director, Roberto Gavaldón. Best known for his dark-tinged portraits of flamboyant urban depravity (The Other One, The Kneeling Goddess, In the Palm of Your Hand) Gavaldón plunges us here into an Edenic rural landscape populated by stoical and virtuous peasants. Churches are floodlit, a la Caravaggio, with shafts of celestial light; ranks of angelic choirboys sing the Hallelujah Chorus on cue. There is, of course, trouble in this paradise. (There would, otherwise, be no film.) The good doctor, in theory at least, is a lot less saintly than the bucolic types that surround him. “I’m a sinner and happy to be one,” he boasts to the local priest (Domingo Soler). Yet his main sin – on the surface, a dramatically unpromising one – is his longing to escape from this hick town and land a job at a big research institute in Mexico City.

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Early on in the film, his wish comes true. The priest drives him, by donkey-trap, to the nearest train station. Stationed conveniently on a bench outside are a poverty-stricken mother and her baby – who faces imminent death from respiratory failure. Some rapid cutting ensues. Firstly, from the doctor, who pulls out his medical kit and performs an emergency tracheotomy out there under the blazing sun. Secondly, from Gavaldón, whose camera darts back and forth from close-ups of the operation, to the mother’s anguished face, to the train chugging slowly away into the distance. The doctor, of course, is not on board. He has realised – through the overwhelming power of montage – that his destiny lies here, in the village.

This potentially maudlin scene is staged and edited with a high-precision intensity worthy of a Hitchcock set piece. Stylistically, Gavaldón lifts his material above schmaltz. Emotionally, he plunges us headlong into chasms of cheap sentimentality and leaves us no visible sign of a way out. Manipulation, of course, of the lowest (or the highest) order. But perhaps that is what melodrama means?

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The doctor’s reward comes in human form. Soledad – a misty-eyed peasant Madonna, her angelic face wrapped in a tattered shawl – who seeks his help when the local witch doctor tries to amputate her brother’s broken arm. Unable to pay for treatment, she moves in with the doctor instead, becoming his housekeeper and (strictly platonic) companion. She is played, not by one of Mexico’s established divas (her role is too small, and her wardrobe is far too limited) but by a lesser-known actress, Stella Inda. Normally cast in small roles as exotic vamps (Amok) or overdressed floozies (Bugambilia) Inda won the Ariel as Best Actress for this part. In fact, she does little but look soulful and gaze admiringly at the doctor – but such restraint (in the context of Mexican movies) was refreshing at the time.

Soledad, of course, is madly in love with the doctor. (The dashing Arturo de Córdova was Mexico’s biggest male star; he even had an abortive Hollywood career, as a love interest for Dorothy Lamour and Joan Fontaine.) He, alas, is fixated solely on his work – not to mention terminally, frustratingly obtuse – so does not realise that he loves her until it is too late. Rejected by her true love, Soledad falls prey instead to a sexy hell-raiser (Pedro Armendáriz) who rides a tap-dancing horse (no, I’m not making that up) and fixes her with his hot and lustful gaze. He pursues her for most of the movie and even offers to buy her a new shawl. Soledad is shocked by the suggestion. “A shawl, a woman and the land,” she says – enumerating the movie’s three main symbols. “All these deserve a man’s respect.”

Realising that more subtle methods are fruitless, Armendáriz rides hell for leather over the brow of a hill and disrupts a village fiesta. He hunts Soledad on horseback across the open fields – ravishing her, at last, underneath a convenient bridge. She becomes pregnant, as wronged virgins in Mexican films invariably must. But in a rare moment of female emancipation, she disdains to reveal the father of her child. “If the soil is good, what does it matter who sows it?” (Yes, most of the dialogue is like this.) Of course, suspicious tongues start to wag…and the good doctor, inevitably, gets the blame. There are several more crises to go, before the inspirational finale.

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Watching El rebozo de Soledad, one is struck by an awkward truth that Mexican films of the Golden Age often gloss over. Even though it boasted one of the world’s largest and most glamorous film industries, most of Mexico was still a Third World country. The urban sophisticates who populate most of Gavaldón’s films, divinely decadent as they may be, were in no way representative of the population at large. (The noble revolutionary peasants of an Emilio Fernández film were, if anything, even less so.) The reality of life for most Mexicans was one of grinding rural poverty with little if any hope of change. This is what the high-flown escapism of the Golden Age melodramas was an escape from.

In its rather treacly way, El rebozo de Soledad was an attempt to address the conditions of the rural poor – much as Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950) did for those in the city. It is comparable, in Hollywood terms, to the ‘male melodramas’ of King Vidor – Cynara (1932) or The Citadel (1938), H M Pulham Esquire (1941) or The Fountainhead (1948). In all of these, a sensitive and idealistic professional man suffers the sort of emotional turmoil that’s normally reserved for Joan Crawford or Bette Davis (not to mention María Félix or Dolores del Río). If it did not pander so resolutely to one’s better instincts, it might almost be some sort of classic.

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David Melville

Q is for Que Dios me Perdone!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by dcairns

David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, returns to these pages with letter Q in his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama. Now read on…

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

Q is for ¡Que Dios me perdone! (May God Forgive Me!)

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A film even more operatic than its title, the 1948 ¡Que dios me perdone! stars diva María Félix as a Woman With A Dark Past. We know that immediately from her hat. A rich but none-too-canny business tycoon (Fernando Soler) spots her in a seedy but glamorous Mexico City dive. Her exquisite face is masked entirely by a black hat – one that’s roughly as large as the front wheel on a unicycle. This is classic movie shorthand for a lady with something to hide.

Seconds later, María turns her head and looks up. She fixes her admirer with those melting yet ruthless black-opal eyes. Her name, she reveals, is Lena Kovacs – a refugee from war-torn Europe. Her voice, of course, still sounds as Mexican as ever. Helpfully, she explains that she comes from a long-lost community of Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews. Now she is adrift in Mexico, eking out a living as a nightclub singer. The old gent is, to put it politely, toast.

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The director, Tito Davison, is clearly pleased with the staging in this early scene. He repeats it, with varying costumes and props, to signal each and every one of his plot’s never-ending twists and turns. Once María has captured the old man’s heart – with her spirited yet tuneless rendering of the film’s title song – she steals back to her dark flat in one of the city’s ritzier slums. Waiting on a side table, illuminated strategically by a moonbeam, is an ineffably sinister black leather glove.

The hand inside that glove belongs to an evil Nazi spymaster. He orders María to seduce and marry Soler. That way she, as his wife, can steal his company’s top secret invention. Some vital yet unnamed device that may help the Third Reich win the war. Think of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) or Rita Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad (1952) and then absolve them of any responsibility to act or dance. That, in essence, is María’s role in this movie. Or so it seems at first…

She pulls off the first half of her mission swiftly enough. Married to Soler, she acquires an even more fabulous and extravagant wardrobe than the one she enjoyed as a penniless refugee. Yet now she must contend with two other men in her husband’s life. His future son-in-law (Tito Junco) is an oily playboy who boasts of how proud he is to be a war profiteer. His best friend (Juliàn Soler) is a doctor who practices the newfangled art of psychotherapy. Both are promptly smitten with the new bride. They watch her every move obsessively – leaving her scarcely any time in which to spy!

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Just as we’ve decided that even María Félix now has enough problems for one movie, she gets a surprise telephone call from an old friend. A mysterious voice insists that María meet her in a café. All we see – as we cut to the next shot – is a column of cigarette smoke, rising ominously over the back of a chair. Seated in that chair is a sinister and rather mannish older lady (an early model for Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love) who seems to know María, well, intimately. It seems that our gal, in her efforts to survive the war, once practised a profession even less reputable than spying.

A shock revelation (or not) but one that’s soon buried under an avalanche of greater traumas. The old pal brings news of María’s long-lost daughter, whom she left in a concentration camp in Europe. It seems the girl is still alive…and this warm-hearted lady can secure her release, for the modest fee of $50,000. Welcome news, as it allows the star to switch roles in mid-movie! Where she was once a scheming and duplicitous femme fatale, she is now a suffering and sacrificial heroine. Not that this makes any great change to María’s actual performance.

Were this not a Mexican film, you might expect María to go home and explain her new dilemma to her husband. He can’t have thought she was a virgin before they married – and the poor fool is clearly a slave to her every whim. But that, of course, would end the movie long before her fans had got their money’s worth…so instead she hatches a complicated plot to secretly sell a priceless diamond bracelet that Soler gave her as a wedding gift.

This plan (unsurprisingly) goes awry, but not before the lecherous Junco finds out and blackmails her into an affair – as the price of his silence. Their erotic encounter is one of those oddly sadomasochistic moments that were the Félix stock-in-trade. When Junco demands sex from her, she slaps him twice across the face, then spreads her arms in a lurid mock-Crucifixion pose. “Now claim your price!” Just try and imagine Meryl Streep or Katharine Hepburn attempting to act this scene, and you may appreciate María’s own particular brand of genius.

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A few scenes later, Junco has embroiled María in a plot to murder her husband and live together off their ill-gotten gains. (Secret weapons? Missing child? All that was ages ago. Do please try and keep up.) There will, of course, be several more twists before ¡Que Dios me perdone! grinds its way to a tragic and tortuous climax…

Nor is this even the most ludicrous film made by Davison, a Chilean who directed most of Latin America’s great stars. That honour goes to The Big Cube (1969), in which wealthy gringa Lana Turner meets a murderous toyboy (George Chakiris) who doses her up on LSD. But if ¡Que Dios me perdone! were a shade less hysterical, it might well pass as one of Lana’s drug-induced flashbacks.

David Melville

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