Part two of David Melville’s occasional alphabet of golden-age Mexican melodrama!
The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
B is for Bugambilia
Fans of old Hollywood may remember Dolores del Rio as a ravishing beauty who couldn’t act. Moving from Mexico to the US in the late 20s, she played decorative roles in largely mediocre films. Even the classic South Seas romance Bird of Paradise (King Vidor, 1932) used her less as an actress than as a live Gauguin painting. The musical Wonder Bar (Lloyd Bacon, 1934) gave her little to do beyond a sadomasochist tango with whips. By the early 40s, not even her liaison with Orson Welles could get Dolores a role in a decent film.
So it was a shock all round when Dolores – who was just short of 40 – returned home to Mexico, and promptly became her country’s reigning dramatic star. Her role as a virginal peasant girl in María Candelaria (Emilio Fernandez, 1943) proved that yes, she could act after all. Just not in English (in which she never seemed at ease) and not in the frankly unactable roles that Hollywood chose to give her. At a time when the US industry, cut off from its European audience, was making half-hearted efforts to woo the Latin American market, the romantic melodramas of del Rio and Fernandez were proof – glorious proof – that latinos could go it alone.
The fourth and most lavish of these is Bugambilia (1945). (The title, and the heroine’s nickname, is a florid purple flower that runs wild on every available wall in hot climates.) In this one, Dolores (refreshingly) does not play a poor but virtuous peasant waif, albeit one who strays in photogenic and melodramatic ways. Her role here draws on her own upper-class background. (Her family, like that of her distant cousin Ramón Novarro, had lost much of their land and fortune to the Mexican Revolution.) Here she plays a spoiled and capricious 19th century coquette, flouncing about in crinolines and bathing in an Olympic-size marble bathtub, afloat with rose petals.
Her character, of course, is instantly recognisable as Bette Davis in Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938) or Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) or even Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County (Edward Dmytryk, 1957). Yet much of our pleasure in Mexican melodrama lies in the way it emulates Hollywood models – yet also transforms them in unexpected, often subversive ways. Her key relationship, for most of the film, is not with her love interest (Pedro Armendáriz) but with her fiercely possessive (indeed, borderline incestuous) father. A rich widower, he cherishes her as “something more than a daughter…more like a living copy of her mother.” A huge Gothic portrait hangs on the wall, Rebecca-style, as if to prove the point.
Into this menage comes Armendáriz – a swarthy, moustachioed peasant whose profession (in a stroke of none-too-subtle symbolism) is that of cock fighter. He drops in to introduce his prize cock to del Rio’s prize laying hen. In what is surely a first for a ‘family’ movie, the cock mounts the hen while Dolores – her eyes widening in her exquisitely sculpted face – does a creditable job of looking shocked. Later on, she attends a grand ball, where she knows her lover is watching from the street outside, and has an enormous sequinned cock (of the bird variety) spangled on her fan.
We know, of course, that the liaison is doomed. Class barriers normally prove to be insuperable in Mexican movies, with a cynicism (or, perhaps, an honesty) that is rare in films from north of the Río Grande. Still, the ball scene is the film’s lyrical highlight, an orgy of billowing gowns and sparkling chandeliers that’s easily comparable to Vincente Minnelli’s film of Madame Bovary (1949). Platoons of waltzing ladies spread across the floor, petal-like, in overhead shots that might have been engineered by Busby Berkeley’s long-lost Mexican cousin.
An obsessively literal-minded viewer might complain (as Michael Caine did after a trip to Mexico) that del Rio and Armendáriz always look like film stars and never look like anything else, and “that is what is wrong with Mexican films.” Such a complaint is only slightly more logical than watching a performance of Swan Lake and saying that Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn always look like ballet dancers – as if that detracts, somehow, from their dancing. We are dealing, in both cases, with a stylised art form that appeals on a supra-literal level of archetype and myth. No sane person, least of all a working class Mexican viewer of the 40s, would take Bugambilia for an exercise in gritty realism.
In fact, the opening and closing scenes (the bulk of the film is a long flashback) move Bugambilia away from the genre we think we recognise and into the realm of a Gothic ghost story. The mise-en-scene shifts to that of Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) or Dragonwyck (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1946) or Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948). Our heroine, sobered by her inevitable defeat, walls herself up inside her crumbling ancestral mansion. The camera (directed by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa) pulls back in a spectacular crane shot; we sense the ghosts of Miss Havisham and Norma Desmond hovering just outside the frame. Dolores del Rio is easily their equal in the high melodrama stakes. A pity that nobody in Hollywood had the sense to see it.