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