Archive for November 3, 2022

FORBIDDEN DIVAS: Kiss of the Super Woman

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2022 by dcairns

At last! The return of David Melville Wingrove’s Forbidden Divas.

“I will do the impossible – and God will help me!”

  • Libertad Lamarque, End of the Night

In the classic Manuel Puig novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, a gay Argentine prisoner named Molina is obsessed with a fictitious Nazi musical set in Occupied Paris. Her Real Glory tells the story of a glamorous chanteuse called Leni Lamaison who falls in love with a dashing SS officer, flees the nefarious clutches of the French Resistance and dies heroically for the cause of the Master Race. So intense is Molina’s fixation on this movie that Puig includes page upon page of production notes – in bold defiance of the fact that no such film ever existed.

Of all the book’s multiple movie narratives, only Her Real Glory found its way into the 1985 film of Kiss of the Spider Woman. This film-within-a-film is floridly and flamboyantly over the top, but still several shades more believable than the po-faced political drama that surrounds it. An audience can leave the cinema not even knowing that people actually did make movies like this once upon a time – and not such a long time ago either. An Argentine musical melodrama from 1944, End of the Night is essentially the same movie as the one so vividly imagined by Puig. The main difference is that it is propaganda on the side of the angels.

Completed in 1943, End of the Night was initially banned by Argentina’s neutral but right-wing government – who feared offending their (unofficial) Nazi allies. Set in Occupied Paris, it tells the story of a glamorous chanteuse called Lola Morel who falls in love with a dashing Resistance leader, flees the nefarious clutches of the Nazi secret police and dies heroically in the cause of freedom. Its cast and crew include a number of high-profile refugees, with a score by the French Jewish composer Paul Misraki and a juicy supporting role for Florence Marly, a Czech actress who fled the Occupation with her Jewish husband Pierre Chenal. It was not released until late in 1944, once it was clear that Hitler’s Germany was losing the war in any case.

End of the Night opens with hordes of jack-booted Nazi soldiers stomping through the darkened streets of a lovingly studio-built Paris. Shutters close, doors lock, records playing French chansons are turned off in mid-play. Careworn elderly ladies cross themselves in sorrow; from a balcony, a patriotic youth lobs a grenade at the invaders. As his comrades make a last hopeless stand, a pitched battle breaks out in the street. A dark and broodingly handsome Resistance fighter (Juan José Miguez) suffers a flesh wound and staggers through the film noir-inflected shadows to the safety of the nearest house.

It turns out this is the home of Lola (Libertad Lamarque) a South American singer trapped in war-torn Europe with her small daughter. Like any halfway responsible parent, she wants only to flee the horrors of war to the neutral safety of her homeland. But that is harder than it sounds. Her daughter Jeanette was born to a French father and holds a French passport. She can leave France only with an exit visa issued by the occupying Germans. An odious Nazi agent named Herr Kleist (Alberto Bello) has offered to be helpful in this regard. But any fool can see that his offer comes with strings attached.

The last thing Lola wants (or needs) is a wounded Resistance hero hiding out in her basement. But she does the decent thing and gives him shelter anyway. Opening up his shirt to inspect his wound, she offers us a glimpse of his exquisitely sculpted neck muscles. This is not to say she wouldn’t risk her life for a man who was just plain ugly…but it does help to look like a hero if you are going to play one. The two fall in love, which makes things rather awkward when Lola gets sent on a secret mission by the Nazis in exchange for that elusive exit visa she needs to get her daughter out of France. Would you believe the man she adores is the top secret Resistance leader it becomes her job to betray?

To make this dilemma even faintly credible takes some high-wattage emoting indeed. But at this Libertad Lamarque is one of the all-time Olympic champions. An angular and rather gawky woman with a pronounced squint, Lamarque was nobody’s idea of a conventional screen beauty. But she sang tangos in a voice of near-operatic intensity and emoted with a melodramatic fervour that made Bette Davis and Joan Crawford look distinctly half-hearted. She would leave Argentina a year or so after End of the Night following a very public spat with Eva Peròn, an ambitious would-be actress whose husband had just become the dictator. She fled to Mexico and remained a huge star until her death in 2000.

It is no surprise that the action in End of the Night comes to a halt every twenty minutes or so to allow Libertad to sing. It happens first in Paris, when a patriotic French girl refuses to sing for a hall full of Nazis in uniform. Libertad goes on in her place and wows ’em. That is what gives the villainous Herr Kleist the idea of sending her on that secret mission. Her job is to infiltrate the Resistance by posing as a singer in the Unoccupied Zone. Her cover is nearly blown when an ex-boyfriend spots her and calls her by her real name. It does not help that the girl she is impersonating (Marly) is shadowing her incognito and plotting to expose her. One marvels that this should even be necessary; it is hard to think of two women who look less alike.

But it goes without saying that True Love and the collective fight for freedom will triumph in the end. End of the Night is as blatant a work of propaganda as Casablanca or Mrs Miniver. But given the historical moment, it is hard to fault a movie for that. The political climate of Argentina in the early 40s makes it an act of considerable heroism by all concerned. Puig in Kiss of the Spider Woman was keen to show how the kitsch magic of movies can coexist all too easily with the vilest of right-wing ideology. End of the Night is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way. It shows us that good guys can do kitsch with the best of them.

David Melville