Archive for Pedro Armendariz

R is for El Rebozo de Soledad

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville returns with another installment of his alphabet of Mexican Melodrama –

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 CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

R is for El rebozo de Soledad (Soledad’s Shawl)

I’ve never been a fan of movies that set out to uplift us morally. Art succeeds, not in making us better or worse people, but in revealing to us more intensely who we are. So El rebozo de Soledad (1952) is a film to approach with caution…

Dealing with the travails of an idealistic doctor (Arturo de Córdova) in a remote and impoverished village, it marked a change of pace for its director, Roberto Gavaldón. Best known for his dark-tinged portraits of flamboyant urban depravity (The Other One, The Kneeling Goddess, In the Palm of Your Hand) Gavaldón plunges us here into an Edenic rural landscape populated by stoical and virtuous peasants. Churches are floodlit, a la Caravaggio, with shafts of celestial light; ranks of angelic choirboys sing the Hallelujah Chorus on cue. There is, of course, trouble in this paradise. (There would, otherwise, be no film.) The good doctor, in theory at least, is a lot less saintly than the bucolic types that surround him. “I’m a sinner and happy to be one,” he boasts to the local priest (Domingo Soler). Yet his main sin – on the surface, a dramatically unpromising one – is his longing to escape from this hick town and land a job at a big research institute in Mexico City.

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Early on in the film, his wish comes true. The priest drives him, by donkey-trap, to the nearest train station. Stationed conveniently on a bench outside are a poverty-stricken mother and her baby – who faces imminent death from respiratory failure. Some rapid cutting ensues. Firstly, from the doctor, who pulls out his medical kit and performs an emergency tracheotomy out there under the blazing sun. Secondly, from Gavaldón, whose camera darts back and forth from close-ups of the operation, to the mother’s anguished face, to the train chugging slowly away into the distance. The doctor, of course, is not on board. He has realised – through the overwhelming power of montage – that his destiny lies here, in the village.

This potentially maudlin scene is staged and edited with a high-precision intensity worthy of a Hitchcock set piece. Stylistically, Gavaldón lifts his material above schmaltz. Emotionally, he plunges us headlong into chasms of cheap sentimentality and leaves us no visible sign of a way out. Manipulation, of course, of the lowest (or the highest) order. But perhaps that is what melodrama means?

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The doctor’s reward comes in human form. Soledad – a misty-eyed peasant Madonna, her angelic face wrapped in a tattered shawl – who seeks his help when the local witch doctor tries to amputate her brother’s broken arm. Unable to pay for treatment, she moves in with the doctor instead, becoming his housekeeper and (strictly platonic) companion. She is played, not by one of Mexico’s established divas (her role is too small, and her wardrobe is far too limited) but by a lesser-known actress, Stella Inda. Normally cast in small roles as exotic vamps (Amok) or overdressed floozies (Bugambilia) Inda won the Ariel as Best Actress for this part. In fact, she does little but look soulful and gaze admiringly at the doctor – but such restraint (in the context of Mexican movies) was refreshing at the time.

Soledad, of course, is madly in love with the doctor. (The dashing Arturo de Córdova was Mexico’s biggest male star; he even had an abortive Hollywood career, as a love interest for Dorothy Lamour and Joan Fontaine.) He, alas, is fixated solely on his work – not to mention terminally, frustratingly obtuse – so does not realise that he loves her until it is too late. Rejected by her true love, Soledad falls prey instead to a sexy hell-raiser (Pedro Armendáriz) who rides a tap-dancing horse (no, I’m not making that up) and fixes her with his hot and lustful gaze. He pursues her for most of the movie and even offers to buy her a new shawl. Soledad is shocked by the suggestion. “A shawl, a woman and the land,” she says – enumerating the movie’s three main symbols. “All these deserve a man’s respect.”

Realising that more subtle methods are fruitless, Armendáriz rides hell for leather over the brow of a hill and disrupts a village fiesta. He hunts Soledad on horseback across the open fields – ravishing her, at last, underneath a convenient bridge. She becomes pregnant, as wronged virgins in Mexican films invariably must. But in a rare moment of female emancipation, she disdains to reveal the father of her child. “If the soil is good, what does it matter who sows it?” (Yes, most of the dialogue is like this.) Of course, suspicious tongues start to wag…and the good doctor, inevitably, gets the blame. There are several more crises to go, before the inspirational finale.

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Watching El rebozo de Soledad, one is struck by an awkward truth that Mexican films of the Golden Age often gloss over. Even though it boasted one of the world’s largest and most glamorous film industries, most of Mexico was still a Third World country. The urban sophisticates who populate most of Gavaldón’s films, divinely decadent as they may be, were in no way representative of the population at large. (The noble revolutionary peasants of an Emilio Fernández film were, if anything, even less so.) The reality of life for most Mexicans was one of grinding rural poverty with little if any hope of change. This is what the high-flown escapism of the Golden Age melodramas was an escape from.

In its rather treacly way, El rebozo de Soledad was an attempt to address the conditions of the rural poor – much as Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950) did for those in the city. It is comparable, in Hollywood terms, to the ‘male melodramas’ of King Vidor – Cynara (1932) or The Citadel (1938), H M Pulham Esquire (1941) or The Fountainhead (1948). In all of these, a sensitive and idealistic professional man suffers the sort of emotional turmoil that’s normally reserved for Joan Crawford or Bette Davis (not to mention María Félix or Dolores del Río). If it did not pander so resolutely to one’s better instincts, it might almost be some sort of classic.

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David Melville

Cine Dorado: K is for Konga Roja

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2012 by dcairns

Regular co-Shadowplayer David Melville presents the eleventh installment of his handy-dandy alphabet of Mexican melodrama — he is to be congratulated on finding a Mexican movie beginning with the letter “K,” a letter which does not even exist in the Spanish alphabet… now read on –

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

K is for Konga roja

It’s a steamy tropical night. A boat chugs its way down river into a seedy jungle port. The whole scene is swathed in darkness and mist. The only light is the beam from a lighthouse – which pulses and illuminates the scene in flashes, like a strobe. Directed by Alejandro Galindo in 1942, Konga roja takes place in a world of dazzling light and deepest shadow. Not sure if this look has a name, but you could call it ‘tropical noir

The boat docks in the seedy town of Puerto Largo. Even though it’s midnight, a chorus of peons are waving their sombreros excitedly from the dock. A swarthy fat man, with a ragged moustache and three days’ growth of stubble, trundles up the gangplank and warns the captain to hoist his anchor and be gone by sunrise. “Strange boats aren’t welcome in Puerto Largo!” The captain looks suitably chastised – but Pedro Armendáriz, our hero, swans off the boat and onto the dock with the sort of élan that only a Mexican film star can muster.

Mexico’s great matinee idol of the Golden Age, Armendáriz is an imposing figure of a man. His white linen suit clings, like a second skin, to his muscular bronze body. His Panama hat casts a shadow, sexily, across his dark moustachioed face. (His is, in truth, the most formidable moustache this side of Freddy Mercury.) He checks into the town’s once hotel, and it’s no surprise that half the town seems to drop into his room while he’s taking a shower. I was wondering that the management didn’t hang a sign outside and sell tickets.

He has a typically heroic role as the loner who brings justice to a corrupt town. An agent for a big North American fruit company, he’s come to investigate shady goings on in the local banana trade. (In a witty reversal of the usual Hollywood cliché, this Latino hero even has a fat, clueless gringo sidekick called Mr Powers.) It seems a gang of nefarious crooks is sabotaging the town’s banana shipments – and will stop at nothing to see Pedro doesn’t find out. “We still use machetes to harvest our bananas,” growls one shady character. “And machetes, as you know, have other uses.”

Not being an expert in the marketing of tropical fruit – and missing, doubtless, some of the finer points in the unsubtitled Spanish dialogue – I can’t quite see the financial incentive for anybody in not selling a boatload of ripe bananas. (Indeed, I half expected Groucho Marx to show up and announce that customers must pay extra for buying the fruit and not eating it!) Still, that’s the cod-Hitcockian MacGuffin on which this action thriller seems to hang.

A kingpin in this nefarious scheme turns out to be Pedro’s long-lost bosom pal (the suave but rather oily Tito Junco) who saved his life years ago in Puerto Rico. We know at once that Tito’s a big man in town. He has a flunky to walk behind him and hold a parasol over his head. He’s also running a tandem with two of the ladies who entertain at the local nightspot, The Seven Seas. (What else would you call a bar that’s God-knows-how-many miles up a river?)

Like any other sleazy movie bar in the middle of nowhere, The Seven Seas boasts a roster of top musical talent. (Ludicrous, yes, but no more so than Rick’s Café American in Casablanca, which was shot in Hollywood the same year.) The big attraction is María Antonieta Pons, a Cuban rumba-dancer who became a huge star in Mexican films of the 40s. She doesn’t so much sing and dance as shout and gyrate enthusiastically, and her acting makes María Félix look like Eleonora Duse. Still, all she has to do is provide a visually attractive love interest, and she does it adequately enough.

Tito lusts after María Antonieta but it’s Pedro who wins her heart. We know this right from their first encounter, when she slaps him hard across the face for not paying attention during her big number. She even makes a number of impassioned speeches that call Pedro’s stalwart heroism into question. (“Women don’t love a man because he’s brave, or love him any less because he’s a coward. We just love. That’s all we know how to do!”) Also on the bill is an Afro-Caribbean chanteuse named Toña la Negra. She genuinely loves the slimy Tito – and what’s more, she can genuinely sing.

The big question of who is doing what to whose bananas seems to work out smoothly enough – but only after Pedro and Tito find themselves on opposite sides of the law! Galindo keeps it all going with his spectacular pre-noir lighting (the cameraman is one Victor Herrera) and some moments of sharp visual wit. When a gun battle breaks out in The Seven Seas, the card-players simply duck under the table and keep on playing. When Pedro and the chief bad guy face off at the end, the whole bar freezes with suspense. The barman, who’s in the middle of pouring a shot of tequila, just lets it overflow and dribble onto the bar.

The final shoot-out, in the street outside the bar, has a shadowed splendour that anticipates Carol Reed and The Third Man. Pedro and the villain stalk each other in pitch darkness and deathly silence – illuminated only, at key moments, by that all-important lighthouse. (It also shines, conveniently enough, just outside María Antonieta’s window, adding some much-needed mood and atmosphere to the love scenes.) Justice being duly done, we can go home, knowing our bananas will be on sale at their usual price.

Things did not end quite so smoothly, alas, for Pedro Armendáriz. His career began with a string of heroic roles for Mexico’s most illustrious director, Emilio Fernández (María Candelaria, Enamorada, Río Escondido). Later, he made forays to Hollywood to work for John Ford (Fort Apache, Three Godfathers) and to Europe to star in costume romances with Martine Carol (Lucrezia Borgia) and Lana Turner (Diane).

In 1963, just before playing the Turkish Chief of Police in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love, Armendáriz was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Once his work was finished, he asked director Terence Young if any retakes would be needed. When the answer was ‘no’ he flew home to Los Angeles and shot himself in the head.

His death left the Mexican cinema without a hero. No actor in the last 50 years has been up to the job.

David Melville

F is for Flor Silvestre

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 27, 2011 by dcairns

David Wingrove was reluctant to depart from alphabetical order for his Cine Dorado series — “That’s the only source of cohesion I’ve got!” —  but was persuaded to do so in order that Maria Felix’s last film, LA GENERALA, could land in the Late Show Late Movies Blogathon last week. “I suppose as long as I WRITE them in alphabetical order…” So here, at last, is the delayed letter F, standing for FLOR SILVESTRE… and maybe also for Emilio Fernandez?

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

F is for Flor silvestre (Wild Flower) 

Roots that grow together can never grow apart.

Although it’s one of the films that inaugurated the Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama, Flor silvestre (1943) is far from being the most interesting. In her triumphal return home from 15 years in Hollywood, Dolores del Río stars as an insufferably virtuous peasant girl who marries a sickeningly noble and self-sacrificing rich boy (Pedro Armendáriz) on the eve of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. His land-owning father, naturally, is less than impressed. “The stars will fall from heaven before a son of mine marries the daughter of a nobody!” “That’s what I want, father,” says Pedro, his eyes a-twinkle with revolutionary fervour. “To make the stars fall from heaven!”

Dramatically, this is hackneyed stuff. Artistically and ideologically, though, Flor silvestre is a work of vast importance. Like certain films from Germany and Italy around the same time (Rolf Hansen’s Die große Liebe/The Great Love (1942) starring Zarah Leander, or Mario Soldati’s Piccolo mondo antico/Little Old-Fashioned World (1941) starring Alida Valli) it conceives an entire nation, its fears and aspirations, in terms of romantic melodrama. It is impossible, in this film, to separate the destiny of the two lovers from the fate if Mexico as a whole. Their love story is inextricably linked to notions of class equality and social justice.

The director, Emilio Fernández, was clearly angling for this sort of national myth-making. The most resonant images are not the turgid family quarrels and perfunctory scenes of courtship, marriage and childbirth – but, rather, the musical interludes, in which the plot takes a breather and Fernandez stages his vision of Mexican society in near-operatic terms. Early on, at a fiesta, a peasant girl sings a ranchera ballad while the landowners fan themselves under an awning, and the workers bake under a fierce afternoon sun. A few scenes later, a mariachi band plays off-screen as Pedro rides across a stark landscape of clouds and cacti (dazzling photography by Gabriel Figueroa) with Dolores’ peasant grandfather. We see the two men, at first, from a distance; by the end of the song, they are side by side in close-up – and both dead drunk on tequila. When the Revolution turns sour – and thuggish bandidos loot the family hacienda – the camera pans over a chorus of half-naked men, sprawling on the floor and singing a lament to dreams gone wrong.

All of which makes Dolores del Río, one of the very greatest of Mexican stars, seem almost like an extra in her own movie. (She came, ironically enough, from a land-owning family that had been ruined by the Revolution – and entered showbiz only because her once aristocratic parents were now penniless.) Dolores, as ever, is ravishing to behold. Whether lying in bed recovering from a near-fatal buggy crash, or fleeing across the desert from a rapacious bandido (her new-born son cradled in her arms) she looks as if she has her own personal Hollywood beautician stationed just off camera. She does, incredibly, manage to play the heroine’s unwavering goodness without ever once becoming sickly or tedious. But if you’ve seen Dolores in more complex roles – the spoiled rich girl in Bugambilia, the good and evil twins in La otra – it’s as if Vivien Leigh had missed out on Scarlett O’Hara, and got stuck playing Melanie Hamilton instead.

As her love interest, Armendáriz is equally stalwart and uninteresting. Given the lack of any dramatic tension between them, Fernández understandably grows bored with his romantic leads and gets sidetracked into ever more lurid and gratuitous imagery. An angelic chorus croons (incongruously) off screen as Pedro hunts down the varmint who killed his father, then strings the corpse up over the old man’s grave. Kidnapped by the bad man’s brother, Dolores is made to crawl across the floor of a brothel, begging for her life and the life of her child, while a chorus of hookers and bandits jeer and guffaw at her agonies. At the end, when Pedro faces a firing squad, Dolores flings her arms round him and begs to be shot as well. Not once, but three times. Flor silvestre is not dull by any means. Except dramatically, as Fernández seems unable to conceive of a lead character with a single redeeming flaw.

Of course, I’m being unfair. Pedro and Dolores are not characters at all, in the conventional sense, but symbolic archetypes of the Mexican nation – so any drama between them might well be considered unpatriotic. The fascination of Flor silvestre lies less in what it is than in what it began. Emilio Fernandez, with the help of two gorgeous and iconic stars, is giving a nation (and, by extension, the whole of Latin America) a way of seeing itself on film. There will, inevitably, be far more interesting aspects to see. But first of all, we have to start looking. 

David Melville

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