The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
HI is for Historia de un amor (Story of a Love)
In the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Libertad Lamarque was an unlikely star. For a start, she was not even Mexican. Born in Rosario, Argentina in 1908, she was a top star in her native country for two decades – before relocating to Mexico in the late 40s. What’s more – in an industry ruled by the incandescent glamour of Dolores del Río, María Félix and others – Libertad Lamarque was less than a classic beauty. A gawky, angular woman with a pronounced squint, she looked a bit like a none-too-successful drag queen impersonating Norma Shearer.
Yet Lamarque reigned supreme as a star in Mexico for at least four decades (from the 40s to the 70s) and was still appearing in telenovelas at the age of 90. Her secret was that of any Latin American star of her era. The ability to play any situation with total and complete conviction – no matter how contrived, melodramatic or absurd it might be. That was coupled, in her case, with a high soprano voice so crystal-pure that it sent a long, cold thrill down your spine, like silver needles. Her forte, of course, was musical melodrama. Luxuriant suffering in the manner of Lana Turner or Joan Crawford, only with half-a-dozen hit musical numbers thrown in.
It was as a singer that she first made her mark. The popular Argentine tangos of the 20s and 30s had two great interpreters – Carlos Gardel for the ladies, and Libertad Lamarque for the gents. Her fame on radio and records won her the title “la novia de América” (Bride of the Americas) so, even if she was not conventionally photogenic, a career in movies lay ahead. Her lush musical weepies of the 30s were akin to those of Zarah Leander in Germany or Imperio Argentina in Spain, both of whom thrived around the same time. It would be fascinating to know why this genre flourished particularly in countries that were prone to nasty right-wing dictatorships – but that’s probably a whole other article.
Why did Libertad abandon her home country for Mexico? Rumour has it that, on the set of one her films in the early 40s, she had a run-in with an untalented but fiercely ambitious starlet named Eva Duarte. During a break from filming, the tired newcomer made the unforgivable mistake of sitting down in the Great Lady’s chair. Outraged, and determined to show this little hussy who was boss, Libertad pulled the girl out of her chair and slapped her sharply across the face. (One may assume this was standard diva behaviour at the time.) Unfortunately for her, Eva – who never forgot a grudge – was soon to marry the most powerful man in Argentina, Colonel Juan Perón, who would become absolute ruler of the nation in 1945. Libertad soon realised that her best, and safest, career options lay elsewhere.
Within a year of landing in Mexico, Libertad was back on top. Her first Mexican film, Gran Casino (1946), was directed by a little-known Spanish refugee named Luís Buñuel, who spent the rest of his career trying to pretend he hadn’t made it. Historia de un amor, in contrast, is the work of Roberto Gavaldón, one of the all-time great directors of melodrama – and one who wore the genre as a badge of honour. Made in 1956, when both his and Libertad’s careers were at their height, Historia de un amor is deluxe musical soap opera with bells on. One of those films that elevate shameless wallowing to the level of High Art.
It’s the story of a singer (Libertad seldom if ever played anything else) and the trials and traumas she faces in her inevitable rise to stardom. The “love” of the title (in theory, at least) is her on-and-off affair with a composer (Emilio Tuero) who discovers her and promotes her until she hits the top. A boozer and a womaniser, but blindly devoted to her deep down, he marries Libertad only so she can adopt her maid’s illegitimate child and prevent it being snatched away by the father’s family. Our heroine enters a false marriage in order to sustain a false motherhood, and expects – in her self-involved and profoundly delusional way – to find true love and happiness at the end of it. As a poet of career ambition versus romantic illusion, Gavaldón is a rival to Douglas Sirk; the falsity of Libertad’s suburban Art Deco home (by ace production designer Günther Gerzso) is up there with Lana Turner’s in Imitation of Life.
It’s a telling detail that most of Libertad’s key dramatic moments are played not with the man she “loves” (or any of the other characters) but with strategically-placed reflections of herself – in the mirrors, polished surfaces and gigantic picture windows that dominate the sets. When she rejects Tuero’s first offer of marriage – because she doesn’t think he really loves her – she asks him if he even knows the colour of her eyes. Turning away as she speaks, she contemplates her own (exquisitely gowned) image in a darkened pane. Later, as they share a brief and fragile happiness, she turns to the mirror in her dressing room and exults: “What a happy woman I am!” (A sure sign, in a movie, that tragedy is about to strike.) Sure enough, a few scenes later, the child’s rich, mean old grandfather has stolen her away. Libertad sits and mopes, artistically, above her own face reflected in the lustrous dining room table.
Libertad’s other “big” moments are all musical numbers, in which she communes passionately with herself and the one other being that truly matters to an artist – her slavishly adoring public. On tour in Caracas, Venezuela, she stars (without dancing) in a ballet number that’s an eye-popping black-and-white pastiche of The Red Shoes. Titled “The Girl in the White Shawl” it casts Libertad as a pure young maiden whose spotless shawl protects her from “the evil of the world” – in much the same way that her own romantic illusions protect her from even a nodding acquaintance with reality. As the choreography and décor grow ever more bizarre, her dancing alter ego fragments into three. Not just a girl in virgin white, but a sexy gypsy temptress à la Carmen, and a Greek tragedy figure in robed in black like Medea. Just like Moira Shearer in the Powell film, Libertad’s character is confronting her own suppressed demons, who may well hold the key as to why her life is such a mess!
Naturally, once its audience has sobbed and sung along for the requisite 100 minutes, Historia de un amor winds up in a tear-stained, if none too convincing, happy ending. Working-class audiences in Latin America had enough tragedy to contend with, so the least that Libertad could do was live blissfully ever after on their behalf. (The lady herself died in 2000, at the ripe old age of 92.) Call me a cynic, but the joyous finale of Historia de un amor was the one moment I found seriously hard to believe.