Archive for Roberto Gavaldon

Y is for Yucaltepen

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2015 by dcairns

We are, as William Holden complains in NETWORK, nearer the end than the beginning: David Melville offers the penultimate installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama from the golden age. Final episode later this week…

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

Y is for Yucaltepen

Our crime has a name. Its name is love. ~ Dolores del Río, Deseada

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“Yucaltepen…Yucaltepen,” croons a tenor voice over moody and misty shots of the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen-Itza. Crumbling temples and rambling banana trees, populated by stark and geometric sculpted heads. Endless stairways lead up and up, to a sky thick with clouds. Perhaps the only movie theme song with lyrics in a dead language (well, there is “Ave Satanae” in The Omen) this prelude drifts along for five minutes at least. What’s this? A melodrama with nary an emoting diva in sight? Made in 1951 by genre maestro Roberto Gavaldón, Deseada is defiantly and unrelentingly a mood piece.

Well, perhaps it’s not as different as all that. Dwelling amid those oh-so-photogenic ruins is the gorgeous Dolores del Río. She plays an ineffably glamorous spinster school teacher, who dedicates her life to the edification of young ladies. She and her charges waft about the ruins in trailing, diaphanous white gowns; she enthrals them with Mayan legends of the Sun God’s hopeless love for the Moon Goddess. Can you imagine a steamy latino version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? If not, do not even contemplate watching this film. One of her pupils is her younger (much younger) sister, who is played by a pudgy-faced starlet named Anabel. Our heroine has spent years caring for her sibling, eschewing all offers of marriage and earning the nickname Deseada. The woman all men desire but no man can have.

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That will, of course, change dramatically within the next 90 minutes. A train pulls into the dusty local station, carrying a dashing young caballero from Spain (Jorge Mistral) who is betrothed to Deseada’s drippy sister. The young girl flees the station as the train arrives – partly because she has never seen this man in her life, partly because she is not used to wearing shoes. But Deseada is there to greet him and the two plunge, instantly and irrevocably, into the sort of delirious amour fou that movies like this are made of. As she heads for home in her horse-drawn carriage, Deseada gazes into her mirror and sees reflected, not her own face, but that of Mistral as he trots along behind her on his virile black stallion. This may sound far-fetched but is, in fact, strangely appropriate. The swoonily handsome Mistral is the one actor whose bone structure is comparable with hers.

Deseada is one of those movies where every character comes with a symbolic animal attached. Mistral has that rampaging black horse, which breaks out of its stable late at night and goes thundering towards Deseada through a swirl of moonlight and mist. Dolores, meanwhile, keeps a tame fawn with long delicate bones, which looks even more like her than Mistral does. The skinny local witch, who shows up occasionally to cast spells and mumble prophecies of doom, has a mangy black jackal as a sidekick. By way of a chorus, various owls glare and hoot ominously from the branches of trees.

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Unique among Mexican melodramas of its time, Deseada seems to exist in the queer quasi-mystical territory of Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) and Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948), of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1950) and Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950). Strange, as most of these movies were flops in their day but won a fervent cult following in decades to come. Yet their influence was clearly felt in Latin America, where audiences found their flamboyance far less shocking than the gringo public may have done. Following a full-blown Freudian dream sequence, where Dolores wanders about the ruins in a swirl of soft-focus dissolves, she wakes up and rises from her hammock. Gavaldón shoots her, exquisitely à la Sternberg, through a gauze of mosquito netting. Towards dawn, she and Mistral meet, silhouetted by a setting moon. Their shadows make passionate love on the steps of a ruined temple.

We know that this can never end well. “The truth is you suffer much when you love much,” Dolores intones, looking as solemn as one has to look when reciting dialogue of this ilk. Not only is Mistral engaged (inexplicably) to that annoying sister. The other man wracked with desire for Dolores is Mistral’s “uncle” (José Baviera) who is, in fact, his long-lost illegitimate father! As the rivalry between the two men builds alarmingly towards an act of (unwitting) parricide, the poor lovelorn Dolores poses ever so gracefully on the rim of a deep and ominous pool. Will this be a tragic but inevitable solution to the whole mess? A wealth of Powell and Pressburger movies (the whirlpool in I Know Where I’m Going, the precipice in Black Narcissus, the balcony high above the train station in The Red Shoes) suggest that it may well be…

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Dramatically frail but visually exquisite, Deseada is held together by the gilt-edged star emoting of Dolores del Río. A star since the silent days of Hollywood, Dolores was approaching fifty by the time she played Deseada. Her eerily unlined face is monumental, the stuff of legend, easily a match for any of those sculpted Mayan gods. Yet she has the Garbo-like skill of conveying boundless depths of emotion while doing, apparently, nothing at all. “If Garbo is a woman who has become a goddess,” wrote the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, “del Río is a goddess who has become a woman.” You might quibble that Dolores is easily old enough to play the young girl’s mother, and the script might have been rewritten that way with no appreciable loss. But that would be churlish – and an affront to star power as we know it. Like the temples and palaces that surround her, Dolores del Río can never be old. She is, quite simply, ageless.

David Melville

T is for Las Tres Perfectas Casadas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville writes again, continuing his Alphabet of Mexican Melodrama ~

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

T is for Las tres perfectas casadas (Three Perfect Couples)

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At first glance, Las tres perfectas casadas looks like a Mexican rip-off of A Letter to Three Wives – adapted, of course, to the exigencies of a macho Latin culture. In the Joseph L Mankiewicz original from 1949, an unseen woman writes a letter to her three ‘dearest friends’ announcing that she has run off with one of their husbands. In this 1952 variant by Roberto Gavaldón, a notorious womaniser dies and leaves behind a confession to his three closest pals. Namely, that he has slept with not one but all of their wives.

The reasoning behind this switch is not far to seek. In most of Latin America at this time, it was considered only normal for a man to have adventures outside marriage. (Indeed, when one of the three husbands says he has never had any woman but his wife, the other two stare as if he’d grown an extra head!) A woman who deceived her husband, meanwhile, was viewed as something lower than a whore. A man might kill his wife for adultery – and be let off on the grounds that it was a ‘crime of passion’.

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But appearances, as we know, are deceiving. The scurrilous Don Juan in question turns out to be very much alive – and played, moreover, by Mexico’s greatest male star, Arturo de Cordóva. The feelings of the various ladies for this reprobate – dormant through years (or even decades) of flawless bourgeois respectability – now spring violently, nay, operatically into life. What started out as a light social comedy with serious subtexts now morphs, shockingly but seamlessly, into Gothic melodrama at its most floridly overripe. Just imagine A Letter to Three Wives turning, midway through, into Laura – only with all the sexes reversed.

Are you still with me? The signs, of course, are there from the start, provided we know how to look. The bourgeois dinner party that opens the film is shot and played like a high comedy by Cukor or Lubitsch. (This is a production so lavish that even the mirrors and the billiard tables get a separate mention in the credits.) Yet raging outside is a thunder-and-lightning storm so grandiose, you would swear the guests had come to reanimate the Frankenstein monster – not to celebrate 18 years of ‘perfect’ marriage. In fact, one of the ancestral portraits on the wall is a dead ringer for Mary Shelley. I would love dearly to imagine this is not an accident.

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As the mood of the film darkens – and Córdova turns up both alive and unrepentant – so, imperceptibly at first, does its visual style. Shadows lengthen, curtains billow and candles glow ominously amid the dark. We enter, before even know it, the world of Mexican noir as created by Gavaldón in earlier films. (See La diosa arrodillada, La otra and En la palma de tu mano for more proof.) Few other directors – or none, perhaps – could make this transition without chopping their film into awkward and disparate chunks. With its blatant disharmony of textures but its overarching unity of tone, Las tres perfectas casadas shows that Gavaldón was one of cinema’s greats.

As its multiples passions and conflicts grow more intense, the film narrows it focus, slowly but inexorably, to one of the three wives. In typically perverse fashion, this central figure is not Miroslava Stern – a huge Mexican star who, nonetheless, gets shunted off to the wings after a nicely poignant, tear-stained confession of her infidelity. The star of this movie (and what a star she is) is the Argentine actress Laura Hidalgo, a lady known throughout the 50s as ‘the Hedy Lamarr of South America’. The resemblance is indeed striking but – in all fairness – Hidalgo strikes me as a vastly more animated actress. Lamarr looked exquisite but often seemed on the verge of dozing off on camera. Hidalgo might pass as her energetic tomboy twin.

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Yet Hidalgo, like Lamarr, was Central European in origin. She was born as Pesea Faerman in Bessarabia, which was then a northern province of Romania. Her Jewish family emigrated to Argentina in 1929 when Pesea was two years old. (Wisely, in the light of future events.) Although she was one of Latin America’s biggest and most glamorous stars, Hidalgo – again, like Lamarr – never took her career that seriously. She quit acting in the late 50s and became a poet of some renown. Her most famous film is the 1953 Armiño negro (Black Ermine) where a boy nurtures an incestuous crush on his mother, only to find out she is a de luxe lady of the night.

But back to our main feature…Hidalgo, whose one-night fling with de Córdova leads her husband to doubt the paternity of their daughter, meets him in secret and demands that he set things to rights. Having convinced their entire circle (mistakenly) that he was dead, he must now face up to his duty and commit suicide for real. Naturally, he must leave behind a note insisting that his first confession was lie. A ridiculous ploy, you might think – but strangely convincing when it is argued with such force! With typically Byronic ennui, de Córdova admits that he is bored with life. He is more than happy comply…provided the lovely Hidalgo will pay him one last call.

Their final meeting á deux is an operatic love-death worthy of Tristan and Isolde – only shorter and vastly more entertaining. Hidalgo’s grand monologue sums up this movie and a multitude of other melodramas like it:

All water has mud at its depths – and all women have, at least

once, a monstrous dream. Waking, we try to root out that bad

dream. Torture ourselves as we reach for its roots. But what, in

the end, do the roots matter? If flowers smelled like their roots,

they would stink of manure. But their longing for beauty is so

much higher than that.

Only the very greatest – or the very worst – of actresses could recite such lines and get away with them. I’ll leave you to decide which.

David Melville

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

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