Archive for Ricardo Montalban

Davy Jones’ Looker

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by dcairns

OK, nobody wanted to wade in (excuse the pun) and guess which of these Esther Williams stories are true, which is probably just as well they’re ALL true. Even the one about Victor Mature eating cardboard.

As she admitted, Esther’s movies were largely made to a formula, which makes them great comfort food if you’re low, and we were pretty damn low over the purportedly festive season. Esther Williams movies we have watched —

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TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME — not a proper Esther Williams movie — she only swims once, briefly — but a very good musical, though a lesser example of Comden and Green’s scripting and song-writing, Busby Berkeley’s direction, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical staging (they essentially got Berkeley fired so they could handle the dancing themselves) and Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munchin’s team comedy playing. But it does have a great scene of Betty Garrett aggressively pursuing Frankie. A nice limbering-up for ON THE TOWN.

Kelly hated Esther for being taller than him. “The sonofabitch even sits tall!” he complained.

Esther’s singing was dubbed and she struggled to dance but we were so charmed by her acting — she compared notes with her non-actor co-star, Sinatra. “I just talk like I’m talking to one of my friends.” “Yeah, that’s what I do too.” So we wanted to see more of this terrific actress.

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We quickly discovered another part of Esther’s appeal. Her films are sexy, at least as long as the swimming is happening. Actually, her acting is pretty sexy too. (She has a posed, skeptical quality. She always seems like a challenging girl to impress.) In the forties and fifties, an Es film would be one of the few places you could get a realistic idea of the feminine form, shorn of shoulder pads and bullet bras. Though swimming gave her a streamlined form — flat ass, small breasts — it was a form audiences could actually SEE and appreciate. There is absolutely no conflict between her athleticism and her feminine allure.

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BATHING BEAUTY. See here. Esther complained later in life that she overacted in this one — “all that eye-rolling” — but she was too hard on herself. The film is disjointed and overstuffed with random novelty acts, but Esther manages to humanize Red Skelton somewhat and this is the movie that really gave us synchronized swimming. The script calls for Esther to be a little unsympathetic, which in turn requires us to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than we’d have to during the insane water ballet.

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NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER uses the title of an earlier film starring the first screen swimming star, Australian champion Annette Kellerman, but has nothing in common with it. Much business is given to Red Skelton, who we’ve actually started finding funny, and to Betty Garrett, who is ALWAYS welcome. Throw in Ricardo Montalban (I explained the Good Neighbor Policy to Fiona) and you have a pretty entertaining bag of bits.

MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID is the famous one, and it does have the sensational and retina-melting Busby Berkeley number near the end, which is Esther’s real claim to immortality. Just as well, since they contrived to break her neck shooting it. The movie is a bio of Annette Kellerman. Even though they made most of it up, they saddled themselves with a disjointed one-thing-after-another non-structure. Most of Esther’s roles have a mildly feminist tone, but his one craps out by crippling her before the fade-out. I *think* they imply she’s going to recover in Victor Mature’s arms, but it could be clearer, especially since it never happened.

The real Kellerman visited the set, looking morose. “It’s such a pity you’re not Australian,” she told Es.

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This is the costume that broke Esther’s neck. The crown acted as a cup, catching the water when she dove in, and thrusting her head back, HARD. Three vertebrae cracked. When she surfaced, everyone had gone to lunch and she had to tread water until she could get help.

THE HOODLUM SAINT. Dull. This was MGM’s experiment to see if audiences would take to Esther out of the water and out of Technicolor, but it wasn’t a fair test as the script is so sluggish. Too much saintliness, hardly any hoodlummery. William Powell is, of course, enjoyable. In Esther’s very first onscreen moment with him she has to slap his face. They told her just to go for it, disregarding her athletic form… She smacked him, and half his face collapsed like he’s had a stroke. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I broke your face!” Make-up rushed in, to re-attach the little bits of tape tightening his skin to make him look younger…

The main reason this one doesn’t seem such a good vehicle for Es is not the lack of sub-aqua dance, it’s that the plot doesn’t allow her to look around her in skeptical amusement. She can direct some of her disbelief at Powell, but a Technicolor musical gives you far more scope to project that aura of “Can you believe this? Me neither. But let’s play along with it.”

DANGEROUS WHEN WET is the other best-known one, and it actually has a story. Es has great chemistry with the self-satisfied Fernando Lamas — the script stops him from ever getting macho. This is the one where she swims with Tom & Jerry (dream sequence), and though the logic of an underwater cat and mouse escapes me, it’s a fun sequence. Preview audiences couldn’t process it and didn’t know how to response until Hanna-Barbera animated in $10,000 of bubbles to PROVE that it was underwater.

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ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Esther’s bit is beautifully lit and designed — Vincente Minnelli is the man in charge. James Melton sang away but ended up on the cutting room floor. Esther felt his section never made sense because “I was underwater. I couldn’t hear him sing and he couldn’t see me swim.”

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EASY TO LOVE has Berkeley again but he doesn’t get to do much spectacle until the climactic waterskiing scene. Esther, who had never skied, has to do it while avoiding explosive water jets, and she was too short-sighted to actually steer away from the danger spots… Van Johnson and Tony Martin compete insipidly.

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EASY TO WED is a remake of LIBELLED LADY, with Es in the Myrna Loy role, Van Johnson as William Powell and Johnson’s real-life partner Keenan Wynn as Spencer Tracy. Lucille Ball gets some laughs in the Jean Harlow part but can’t actually convince us she’s dumb enough. Buster Keaton seems to have contributed to Johnson’s slapstick duck-hunting scene, which is actually pretty funny (there’s very good canine actor — a veritable Spaniel Day-Lewis). Great mariachi band gag at the end, but not a great end. Johnson appears to come out of it bigamously wed to Esther and Lucille, which is a surprise. Made us want to watch the original.

Mere seconds of swimming in this one.

JUPITER’S DARLING. See here. Has spectacular deep-sea swimming and amazing dream sequence where Greek statues come to life and swim with Esther (rather than sinking to the bottom as you might expect). This one stirred the suspicions of the censor since the scantily-clad marble Adonis seemed a bit too frisky, and had not even been properly introduced to Esther’s character. There’s really no way to read him other than as a sex fantasy by a woman who just isn’t satisfied with what George Sanders is offering…

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P is for Pepita Jiménez

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 9, 2013 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with another entry in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama —

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

P is for Pepita Jiménez

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In the years during and after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Mexico’s film industry saw an influx of writers, actors and technicians from what had once been a distant ‘motherland’. Some of them, notably Luis Buñuel, became small industries in their own right. Most were happy to take whatever work was available and fit in with the prevailing trends. In between these two extremes, a bizarre mini-genre arose – that of the ‘Spanish’ Mexican film. A story that took place in the Old World, but was opportunistically shot and financed in the New.

Based on a novel by the 19th-century Spanish author Juan Valera, Pepita Jiménez (1945) was an odd change of pace for Emilio Fernández – that most fervently ‘Mexican’ of film makers. In place of his usual tale of macho revolutionaries and fiery señoritas (played by Pedro Armendáriz, on the one hand, and Dolores del Río or María Félix, on the other) this film describes the steamy yet stifled passions in a provincial Andalusian town. What we see is a storybook Spain as remote and idealised as the ‘Hollywood England’ of Rebecca (1940) or Mrs Miniver (1942). A world of fans and flamenco – where fountains bubble in moonlit courtyards, and icons of Christ and the Virgin seem to dominate every room.

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Pepita herself is a demure yet passionate young lady who’s left a virgin on her wedding night – when her elderly husband drops dead from excitement. (We cannot, honestly, lament his passing, as he has the worst table manners this side of Charles Laughton as King Henry VIII. At the wedding feast, he dumps a roast chicken on a plate and karate chops it in two with his bare hand!) Rosita Díaz, in the title role, was nominated for an Ariel as Best Actress. Personally, though, I couldn’t summon up great enthusiasm. Her bleached hair and hard gimlet eyes reminded me uncomfortably of Eva Perón.

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All is not lost, though. Pepita Jiménez still has a dusky beauty, with large and languid eyes, whose emotional and romantic travails power the film along. In a fascinating twist, the star in question is not María Félix or Dolores del Río, but a very young (and pre-Hollywood) Ricardo Montalbán! He plays a handsome and achingly horny young priest who’s been let out of the seminary for a short break before taking his final vows. He comes home to the town to visit his widowed father (Fortunio Bonanova) who fancies himself as Pepita’s new husband.

Drafted in to lead the prayers for the dead husband’s soul (Gluttony, after all, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins) Ricardo locks eyes with Pepita as candles flame on the altar. Aroused by sexual desire for the first time, she drops her rosary on the floor. Both of them stoop to pick it up, and their hands touch. The love story that follows is crammed full of such moments – simple yet breathlessly erotic, made even more so by the fact that (as Montalbán is technically a priest and censorship from the Catholic Church was still strong) we never actually see the lovers kiss. A consummate work of what we now call ‘abstinence porn’, Pepita Jiménez might well be the Twilight of its day.

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Just as their forbidden passion breaks the law of the Catholic Church, the reversal of sex roles between the lovers flouts the rules of Mexican cinema. Pepita, in their trysts, is invariably the aggressor. Ricardo holds out, looking anguished and exquisite, and flashing his eyes as adorably as María Félix in her prime. His desire for Pepita lures him to doff his cassock and learn the skills of a ‘real man’ – shooting, sword fighting and, most memorably of all, horseback-riding. He clings on for dear life, as a wild black stallion plunges and rears between his legs, a scene that blends the best of D H Lawrence with the worst of Sigmund Freud.

As the combined id of the lovers rampages out of control, Fernández stages the third-most wondrously lurid Carnival scene in the annals of 40s cinema. (It was bettered only by Veit Harlan’s Opfergang (1944) and Basil Dearden’s Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948).) Fireworks burst in the sky, as revellers in demon masks leap over a roaring bonfire. Husky yet brutal men sweep maidens (literally) off their feet and whisk them off to a Fate Worse (but, one hopes, more enjoyable) Than Death. This, of course, is the night when Pepita and the priest announce their love to his father and resolve to fell the town together.

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No sooner have they left the house than Ricardo is crossing swords with a lecherous nobleman, who has had his eye on Pepita throughout the film. The duel takes place with both men stripped to the waist. (Was this customary at the time? Or did Fernández feel a certain segment of his audience had simply not had enough eye candy in the 80 minutes that lead up to it?) Having only just learned to sword-fight at all, Ricardo naturally slays his foe. He then falls, half-naked, into his father’s waiting arms – a sort of weirdly homoerotic Pietà – as Pepita drops to her knees to kiss his near-lifeless arm.

As the whole town looks on, father grants permission for Pepita to marry his son. So the film does end happily, assuming he ever wakes up from that swoon. Given that few actors swoon as charmingly as Ricardo Montalbán, I cannot say which ending I prefer. If you believe the Tchaikovsky ballet, the Sleeping Beauty loses much of her fascination when she wakes up.

David Melville