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.
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)
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?”
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.”
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!”
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.
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.