Archive for Roberto Gavaldon

T is for Las Tres Perfectas Casadas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville writes again, continuing his Alphabet of Mexican Melodrama ~

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

T is for Las tres perfectas casadas (Three Perfect Couples)

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At first glance, Las tres perfectas casadas looks like a Mexican rip-off of A Letter to Three Wives – adapted, of course, to the exigencies of a macho Latin culture. In the Joseph L Mankiewicz original from 1949, an unseen woman writes a letter to her three ‘dearest friends’ announcing that she has run off with one of their husbands. In this 1952 variant by Roberto Gavaldón, a notorious womaniser dies and leaves behind a confession to his three closest pals. Namely, that he has slept with not one but all of their wives.

The reasoning behind this switch is not far to seek. In most of Latin America at this time, it was considered only normal for a man to have adventures outside marriage. (Indeed, when one of the three husbands says he has never had any woman but his wife, the other two stare as if he’d grown an extra head!) A woman who deceived her husband, meanwhile, was viewed as something lower than a whore. A man might kill his wife for adultery – and be let off on the grounds that it was a ‘crime of passion’.

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But appearances, as we know, are deceiving. The scurrilous Don Juan in question turns out to be very much alive – and played, moreover, by Mexico’s greatest male star, Arturo de Cordóva. The feelings of the various ladies for this reprobate – dormant through years (or even decades) of flawless bourgeois respectability – now spring violently, nay, operatically into life. What started out as a light social comedy with serious subtexts now morphs, shockingly but seamlessly, into Gothic melodrama at its most floridly overripe. Just imagine A Letter to Three Wives turning, midway through, into Laura – only with all the sexes reversed.

Are you still with me? The signs, of course, are there from the start, provided we know how to look. The bourgeois dinner party that opens the film is shot and played like a high comedy by Cukor or Lubitsch. (This is a production so lavish that even the mirrors and the billiard tables get a separate mention in the credits.) Yet raging outside is a thunder-and-lightning storm so grandiose, you would swear the guests had come to reanimate the Frankenstein monster – not to celebrate 18 years of ‘perfect’ marriage. In fact, one of the ancestral portraits on the wall is a dead ringer for Mary Shelley. I would love dearly to imagine this is not an accident.

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As the mood of the film darkens – and Córdova turns up both alive and unrepentant – so, imperceptibly at first, does its visual style. Shadows lengthen, curtains billow and candles glow ominously amid the dark. We enter, before even know it, the world of Mexican noir as created by Gavaldón in earlier films. (See La diosa arrodillada, La otra and En la palma de tu mano for more proof.) Few other directors – or none, perhaps – could make this transition without chopping their film into awkward and disparate chunks. With its blatant disharmony of textures but its overarching unity of tone, Las tres perfectas casadas shows that Gavaldón was one of cinema’s greats.

As its multiples passions and conflicts grow more intense, the film narrows it focus, slowly but inexorably, to one of the three wives. In typically perverse fashion, this central figure is not Miroslava Stern – a huge Mexican star who, nonetheless, gets shunted off to the wings after a nicely poignant, tear-stained confession of her infidelity. The star of this movie (and what a star she is) is the Argentine actress Laura Hidalgo, a lady known throughout the 50s as ‘the Hedy Lamarr of South America’. The resemblance is indeed striking but – in all fairness – Hidalgo strikes me as a vastly more animated actress. Lamarr looked exquisite but often seemed on the verge of dozing off on camera. Hidalgo might pass as her energetic tomboy twin.

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Yet Hidalgo, like Lamarr, was Central European in origin. She was born as Pesea Faerman in Bessarabia, which was then a northern province of Romania. Her Jewish family emigrated to Argentina in 1929 when Pesea was two years old. (Wisely, in the light of future events.) Although she was one of Latin America’s biggest and most glamorous stars, Hidalgo – again, like Lamarr – never took her career that seriously. She quit acting in the late 50s and became a poet of some renown. Her most famous film is the 1953 Armiño negro (Black Ermine) where a boy nurtures an incestuous crush on his mother, only to find out she is a de luxe lady of the night.

But back to our main feature…Hidalgo, whose one-night fling with de Córdova leads her husband to doubt the paternity of their daughter, meets him in secret and demands that he set things to rights. Having convinced their entire circle (mistakenly) that he was dead, he must now face up to his duty and commit suicide for real. Naturally, he must leave behind a note insisting that his first confession was lie. A ridiculous ploy, you might think – but strangely convincing when it is argued with such force! With typically Byronic ennui, de Córdova admits that he is bored with life. He is more than happy comply…provided the lovely Hidalgo will pay him one last call.

Their final meeting á deux is an operatic love-death worthy of Tristan and Isolde – only shorter and vastly more entertaining. Hidalgo’s grand monologue sums up this movie and a multitude of other melodramas like it:

All water has mud at its depths – and all women have, at least

once, a monstrous dream. Waking, we try to root out that bad

dream. Torture ourselves as we reach for its roots. But what, in

the end, do the roots matter? If flowers smelled like their roots,

they would stink of manure. But their longing for beauty is so

much higher than that.

Only the very greatest – or the very worst – of actresses could recite such lines and get away with them. I’ll leave you to decide which.

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

CINE DORADO: O is for La Otra

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2013 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with another installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama. One correction — the first theremin in movies featured in Miklos Rosza’s score for THE LOST WEEKEND, in 1945.

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

O is for La otra (The Other One)

A life that could have been but was not.

A fate that chose the most twisted and tortuous paths.

- Dolores del Río in La otra (1946)

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Watching the credits to La otra, you could be forgiven for expecting a sci-fi movie. The camera drifts in outer space, planets aglow in varying shapes and sizes, while a theremin wails frantically on the soundtrack. (The use of this instrument in La otra may well be a movie first.) We might be at a low-budget, black-and-white preview of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Yet this film, as we shall see, takes place on a planet infinitely stranger and more glamorous than Mars…

In the opening scene, a crowd gathers to mourn a dead millionaire. His widow – her face hidden by a black veil – steps daintily out of a hearse. A mousy woman with glasses pushes through the crowd and fights her way to the widow’s side. As the ladies stand shoulder to (padded) shoulder by the open grave, the inconsolable wife turns to the intruder and hisses: “Couldn’t you find something better to wear?”

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The first big hit for its director Roberto Gavaldón, and an acting tour de force for its star Dolores del Río, La otra (1946) is the Mexican melodrama that defines the entire genre. It is also one of the grandest and most flamboyant ‘women’s pictures’ of the 40s. The lovely Dolores plays not one but both those ladies at the graveside – who are, in fact, twin sisters. The wealthy Magdalena is vain, frivolous, grasping, cruel, selfish and generally vile. Her impoverished sibling, María, is pure, virtuous and hard working. Yet her life is poisoned by jealousy and hatred of the sister who has everything she does not.

Such casting was par for the course in the 40s, when no movie diva of any stature was content to play just one role in a film. In 1944, audiences in Mexico had thrilled to María Félix as blonde and dark femmes fatales in Amok and – from that other film industry north of the border – Maria Montez as good and evil twins in Cobra Woman. In the same year as La otra, Hollywood made ‘twin’ movies with Bette Davis (A Stolen Life) and Olivia de Havilland (The Dark Mirror). Davis – in a final bizarre twist – would remake the plot of La otra in her 1964 vehicle Dead Ringer.

Yet while the twin sisters in Hollywood films embody polar opposites of Good and Evil, the siblings in La otra are both corrupt and vicious to varying degrees. After the funeral, the two repair to the wealthy sister’s mansion, a fantasia of white caryatids and chessboard marble floors. Taking pity for once on her sister, Magdalena flings open her closets (a scene that foreshadows Written on the Wind) and throws a few unwanted designer gowns in her direction. “No, not that one!” she says, having second thoughts. “I’ve promised that one to the maid.”

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While callous Magdalena is fretting over her mourning outfits, poor frumpy María sits at the dressing table and wraps herself, for comfort, in one of her sister’s priceless fur stoles. The butler comes in to announce tea and sees her reflection in the giant mirror. He assumes, naturally, that she is the lady of the house. A strange light flickers, momentarily, in María’s eyes. We know, at that moment, that a dangerous (and probably lethal) plot is about to be hatched.

Leaving the mansion, María overhears the staff gossiping about the 5 million pesos her sister stands to inherit. Out in the street, it’s Christmas Eve and the whole of Mexico City is lottery-mad. The jackpot, of course, is 5 million pesos! This sum passes her on the sides of buses, flashes at her from neon signs. It even hangs over the bar where she goes with her detective boyfriend (played by Argentine tango singer Agustín Irusta). When she rails against her poverty, he says in horror: “I don’t recognise you when you talk like that. It’s as if you’d become another woman!”

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In the film’s bravura set piece, María telephones Magdalena and announces she is going to commit suicide. Mildly annoyed by such histrionics, Magdalena summons her chauffeur and drives to the squalid garret where her sister lives. She climbs the stair in the courtyard, as firecrackers explode around her and children sing hymns in a candlelit procession. At the top of the stairs, María is waiting with a gun. She points it at Magdalena – but we do not see or hear the shot. Instead, a child smashes the head of a piñata hanging in the courtyard; it bursts open, with a deafening bang.

Upstairs, Magdalena is slumped in a rocking chair. Dead. In a scene too graphic and visceral for a Hollywood film, María strips naked in silhouette. She then begins, slowly, to peel off the dead woman’s silk stockings. Finally, dressed in her sister’s clothes, she walks down the stairs to the waiting limousine. (She almost forgets to take off her glasses – but she leaves them on the table, with a suicide note, in the nick of time.) She gets into the car and drives off towards her new life.

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Not that she ever has much fun. Soon, she has to witness the late husband’s will. Unable to forge Magdalena’s signature, she burns her right hand with a hot poker so she can sign with her left. We watch the poker as it heats up slowly on an open fire; we get a close-up of del Río’s exquisite face as it contorts in agony. A few scenes later, a sleazy moustachioed gigolo (Victor Junco) shows up and demands her gratitude – sexual and financial – for helping her to poison her husband. Poor María has no choice but to give in. As she was clearly too respectable to sleep with her boyfriend, we wonder if this new man will notice she’s a virgin…

But even Mexican movies, at their most florid, have to draw a veil over some things. A triumph for Gavaldón’s operatic mise en scène – all multiplying mirrors and ominous shadows – La otra is the equal of any classic Hollywood melodrama of the 40s. The performance(s) of Dolores del Río can rank with the best of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck. Mind you, I’m still not sure why they needed those planets. La otra is in a dimension all of its own.

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David Melville

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