Archive for Miguel Zacarias

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

L is for Libertad Lamarque in La Loca

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2012 by dcairns

Delighted to bring you another installment of David Wingrove’s A-Z of Mexican Melodrama –

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

L is for Libertad Lamarque in La Loca(The Madwoman)

In Hollywood in the late 40s, it was the fashion for soignée and glamorous leading ladies to go slowly but photogenically insane. Notable examples were Joan Crawford in Possessed, Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit and Gene Tierney in Whirlpool. The benefits to a star were obvious. She could indulge in the most florid overacting in the name of ‘realism’ and, all going well, be rewarded with a Best Actress nomination into the bargain. (Or even, if she were Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, the Oscar itself!) Clearly, it was a winning formula – and one that was all too ripe for export.

Once it hit Mexico, the Glamorous Star Loses Her Marbles movie got a makeover so torrid it made the gringo prototype look positively tame. La Loca (1951) stars the formidable Libertad Lamarque, an Argentine tango diva who had relocated to Mexico five years before. Driven partly by professional ambition – and partly by the undying enmity of Eva Perón (she had incurred the First Lady’s wrath on a film set in the 40s) – Libertad brought with her a brand of musical melodrama she had pioneered in her native land. One big problem haunts most, if not all, of her films. However overwrought and hysterical the plot and the acting may be, they still cannot match the sheer throbbing emotionalism of Libertad’s voice in song.

A touch of insanity, in that case, was just what the doctor ordered. If La Loca stands today as the ultimate Libertad Lamarque vehicle, that’s not because it’s better made than any of her other films. (Her pet director, Miguel Zacarías, seemed to point the camera at his star and take the rest of the day off.) Rather, it is one film where the operatically unhinged intensity of her performance is justified by a dramatic context. “Loca”, after all, was Libertad’s big hit solo in her first Mexican movie, Gran Casino. Watching the lady self-destruct so melodiously on camera, who would dare to argue with her diagnosis?

The movie opens with a documentary-style peek inside Mexico City’s municipal asylum. We cut, provocatively enough, from a violent schizophrenic throttling his cellmate to a judge passing the death sentence on some hapless offender. Next, from an epileptic in the throes of a fit to some beatniks contorting in a nightclub. (Epilepsy, of course, is a physical and not a mental condition – but at least we know early on that clinical accuracy will not be La Loca’s strong point.) Out on the streets, meanwhile, a disturbed Libertad is wandering with her pet parrot, Archibaldo, perched on her shoulder. She wears a Jazz Age gown that was the last word in chic, circa 1926.

Some idlers in the park hail her arrival, so she obligingly stops and sings her first solo. As a pretext for Libertad to sing, this is no more ludicrous than similar moments in her other movies – and her 20s wardrobe clashes eerily with the 50s ambience all around her. (In a later song-and-dance routine, she’s a dead ringer for Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.) Sharp-eyed viewers may be reminded of Julieta Serrano, the deranged mother in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, sporting her 60s fashions in 80s Madrid. Fuel to my suspicion that most of the good ideas in most of Pedro Almodóvar’s films are, in fact, stolen.

No sooner has she finished her solo than the police arrest her for causing a public disturbance. She comes to the attention of a handsome young psychiatrist (Rubén Rojo) who identifies her – with a speed and efficiency that are truly remarkable – as a long-lost heiress from Buenos Aires. Disowned for marrying against her father’s will, she went mad in 1936 when her father and her husband both died – and her three-year-old daughter vanished, never to be seen again. Unwilling to commit her to the municipal asylum, the doctor reunites her with some rich but shady relatives, who just happen to live close by in Mexico City.

The family takes her in, but only so they can get their paws on her inheritance. The pater familias – her first cousin by marriage – wants to claim the money on her behalf and then shut her up in a private madhouse. (He’s a crooked psychiatrist, so he owns one.) It’s no surprise that he has a beautiful adopted niece (Alma Delia Fuentes) who feels a close bond with Libertad, and promptly falls in love with the young doctor. The family, meanwhile, wants to marry her off to their son – an oily pseudo-Parisian fop who has, we suspect, only a scant interest in women, but a great and consuming interest in vintage Scotch whisky. “If we win,” he says, “I can get drunk elegantly for the rest of my life.”

Naturally, it will take a few more plot-twists (not to mention some impassioned musical numbers) to bring mother and daughter to a final tear-stained clinch. The standout is a lavish soirée, thrown by the family to reintroduce Libertad to ‘high’ society. (“We have to invite some aristocrats,” the son quips. “That’s the only way her madness won’t show.”) For this one scene, la loca throws off her 20s garb and dons a sheer black evening dress with a shoulder-bow roughly the size of the Hindenburg. Led down the grand staircase by her daughter-who-doesn’t-know-it-yet, Libertad sings a heart-rending version of the Carlos Gardel classic “Volver”. This song, too, shows up in an Almodóvar film (alas, in a dubbed performance by the talent-free Penélope Cruz).

Like all the best melodramas from Mexico and beyond, La Loca has the courage of its own absurdity. Every detail of it is unbelievable and overblown, yet its power can move even hardened cynics to tears. It’s beyond even Almodóvar to copy that.

David Melville

Cine Dorado: J is for Juana Gallo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 16, 2012 by dcairns

Regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns with another entry in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

J is for Juana Gallo

As an impressionable schoolboy of nine, my absolute favourite movie (apart from The Wizard of Oz) was Louis Malle’s 1965 film Viva Maria! – a triumphantly camp musical action comedy with Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as two French showgirls who become leaders of the Mexican Revolution. So how much fun, almost forty years later, to see the film that may have inspired it! Directed by Miguel Zacarías in 1960, Juana Gallo stars Mexican über-diva María Félix as a sharp-shooting, tough-talking, high-riding soldadera gal who leads the peasants in revolt against the iniquitous federales.

Of course, Viva Maria! was a parody, while Juana Gallo is deadly serious stuff. It opens with a banner title thanking the current President of the Mexican Republic, Don Adolfo López Mateos, for his “generous and patriotic support” in the making of the film. It closes with a cod-Stalinist montage of factories and football stadiums, super-highways and schools, emblems of the glorious modern nation that Juana and her exploits helped to forge. Ironically, this po-faced patriotic agenda makes for an even funnier film than Viva Maria! What it lacks in satirical wit, Juana Gallo more than makes up in unintentional belly laughs.

We first see our heroine as a hard-working farm girl – immaculately coiffured and made up – driving her team of burros under a blazing sun, as she tills her family’s arid plot of land. Some villainous government troops ride into town, shoot her father and fiancé for sedition and hang their corpses from the nearest tree. Her exquisite dark eyes registering no more than mild annoyance, María digs a gun out of her family grave, waits in ambush…and guns the rotters down single-handed! Before you know it, the whole of Mexico is ablaze with revolutionary fervour and María (aka Angela Ramos aka Juana Gallo) has become its very own Joan of Arc.

As ludicrous as this whole set-up is, it actually does work in movie terms. The reason, perhaps, is that María Félix – in any and all of her screen roles – was never anything less than a one-woman revolution. Strutting imperiously across the Eastmancolor and Mexiscope screen, she elbows mere mortals out of her way – with a toss of her head and a flash of those lustrous black eyes! She storms into a nightclub after her unfaithful lover (Jorge Mistral) and ridicules the idea that no ladies are allowed. “I’m no lady, I’m Juana Gallo!” When she threatens to shoot Mistral, we gape in genuine fear for the actor’s life – and hope the props department at Churubusco Studios has not been rash enough to hand her a loaded gun.

Movie stardom, as we know, is about being and not acting. Perhaps no star in history could be as extravagantly on screen as María Félix. Only her inadequacy as an actress prevents her from overwhelming everything and everybody else in Juana Gallo even more flamboyantly than she already does.  When she and her compadres storm the big city, María gets herself dolled up in an exquisite rose chiffon gown that’s worthy of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Unable to walk in high heels, she slips on a pair of cowboy boots underneath it. Sitting in a powwow and planning the next stage of the Revolution, it’s all she can do not to cross her legs and spit on the floor.

At this point in the film, she seeks out a visiting French danseuse (Christiane Martel) for tips on how to be a ‘real’ woman. And it’s here, too, that Viva Maria! starts to seem like less of an hommage and more of a downright rip-off (albeit one that’s infinitely better acted and better made). While the tone is serious, and some of the violence is downright gruesome, there are moments of visual comedy that seem to foreshadow Malle. When the rebels storm an aristocratic hacienda, one man strides out proudly carrying a wooden toilet seat. Two others steal an enormous gilt mirror; a woman, who has looted some clothes, stops them to check out how she looks.

Loudly as Juana Gallo pays lip service to revolutionary politics and patriotic fervour, it also plays up the clichés of the ‘woman’s picture’ – with its dreams of romance and upward mobility. Jorge Mistral, as María’s romantic interest, is an aristocratic army officer who abandons his class and joins the Revolution out of love for her. She moans orgasmically as he cuts a stray bullet out of her leg, and then looks mildly perturbed when he strips off his clothes to join her in her sickbed. (It’s the only way, apparently, to keep her warms and stop her dying of fever.) When they finally make love, an obligatory thunder-and-lightning storm flashes and bangs outside the window. It’s the classic fairy tale romance…only Cinderella is armed and deadly, more than ready to murder her Prince Charming if he doesn’t measure up.

In the city, once María has risen to power in the Revolution, her followers seize a millionaire’s palace to house her in the style she deserves. Turkeysperch on the banisters of the grand staircase; an impromptu rodeo goes on in the front hall. María draws the line, however, when her faithful sidekick (Ignacio López Tarso) removes her marble bathtub to use as a water trough for the horses. She is brusquely supportive, though, of his efforts to use a captured typewriter. “How can you use that writing machine if you can’t even read?” “If I knew how to read, señora, I wouldn’t need a machine!” One wonders – uncharitably, perhaps – if this man shares partial credit for the script.

Ultimately, Juana Gallo is tosh of the lowest and highest order. It reduces important historical events to the stuff of a Mills and Boon paperback romance…but you could say the same for Gone with the Wind or any number of otherHollywood classics. It has, in María Félix, a heroine who makes Scarlett O’Hara look like Melanie Hamilton’s dowdy kid sister. They no longer make stars like María Félix. In fact, they never did. Like all great movie icons, she was uniquely her own creation.

David Melville

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