During the Mexican Revolution, insurgent general José Juan Reyes captured the town of Cholula in the central Mexico state of Puebla. While he has triumphed over bullets, he is helpless against Cupid’s arrow: He falls in love with a beautiful woman – who happens to be Beatriz Peñafiel, the daughter of a prominent businessman.
That’s the premise of “Enamorada,” a 1946 film from what is called the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. The movie stars María Félix as Beatriz and Pedro Armendáriz as José Juan.
Today, as international audiences and award shows increasingly notice Hollywood-connected films coming from Mexico and the Mexican diaspora, it’s worth looking back at a moment when the cinema catching everyone’s eye came from south of the border.
Scholars disagree on the extent of Mexico’s mid-century golden era, generally placing it between the 1930s and 1950s. What’s unquestioned, though, is the period’s impact. Directors such as Emilio Fernández, stars including Félix, Armendáriz, and Dolores del Rio, and legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa won international acclaim. Fernandez’s 1944 film “María Candelaria,” starring del Rio as the eponymous indigenous woman and Armendáriz as her lover, won a Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival two years later.
Then, in 1951, another Mexican film – “Los Olvidados,” a sobering look at poverty and violence among Mexico City youth, directed by Spanish émigré Luis Buñuel – won Best Director at Cannes. Throughout, the famous comedian Mario Moreno “Cantinflas” was making audiences both laugh and think in films that explored the tensions of a rapidly urbanizing nation. His distinctive manner of comedy and speaking became so well-known beyond Mexico that it was captured in an officially recognized Spanish word – cantinflada. He was also famous enough outside Latin America to star in U.S.-based films, including the 1956 “Around the World in 80 Days,” for which he received a Golden Globe. Cantinflas became an international star during the Golden Age, a phenomenon that brought new attention to Mexican creatives from U.S. studios and even the U.S. State Department.
“In many ways, during this period … people had created – like Fernández and the cinematographer Figueroa … a Mexican iconography and aesthetic in terms of cinema,” said University of Michigan associate professor Colin Gunckel, a scholar of Latin American cinema, Mexico in particular. “A lot of really great films were produced during those years that defined that era to some degree. The stars themselves are what people remember of the Golden Age … the creation of icons such as María Félix, Cantinflas, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante.”
Yet U.S. influence from Hollywood and the State Department helped make the Golden Age possible. For example, the American studio RKO assisted in the Golden Globe-winning Mexican film “La Perla” – from which Fernández adapted the novel, “The Pearl,” by John Steinbeck, who co-wrote the screenplay. In the film version, the villain has a German accent – reflecting U.S. wartime policy, not the actual book.
Similarly today, there is extensive U.S. studio involvement; scholars note the extent that the U.S. film industry has been involved in recent productions related to Mexico that have generated Oscar buzz, including the Disney film “Coco,” and “Roma,” directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón but produced by the U.S. streaming service Netflix.This year, another acclaimed Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, has his U.S.-produced film “Nightmare Alley” nominated for Best Picture.
“I think it gets to a lot of messy issues here,” said Mónica García-Blizzard, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Emory University. “First of all, what is a Mexican film? Even beyond that, who is Mexican?”
Regarding the first question, she said, “we need a flow chart. Is it nationality? Is it ancestry? … People born in Mexico acting in or directing a film? Or their descendants in the diaspora? … The number two issue is, does everything Mexican nationals and descendants do have to be somehow related to Mexicanidad in order to count as a Mexican film? "As far as I can tell, del Toro's currently nominated film does not appear to be related to Mexico."
That makes today’s golden time for Mexican filmmaking different from The Golden Age films that had a distinctly Mexican quality.
Consider “Enamorada,” with Figueroa’s cinematography capturing gorgeous interior shots of Cholula’s San Francisco Acatepec church and its town arcades, as well as sweeping scenes of insurgent armies. The local priest, Rafael – played by the director’s cousin, Fernando Fernández – sings a poignant Ave María with an indigenous children’s choir, reflecting both his nickname as the Crooner of Mexico and elements of the country’s religious and cultural iconography.
“[Hernández’s] goal was to create a Mexican cinema,” said Charles Ramírez Berg, a media studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “He wondered what would a Mexican cinema be like – really made by Mexicans, with Mexican subjects, for Mexican audiences. He tried to get authentic Mexican cinema. I think he succeeded, in a way.”
As for Figueroa, he “ended up one of the great cinematographers in world cinema history, not just Mexico,” Ramírez Berg said. “He created a look for Mexican cinema,” including, “from the way it was shot, from the landscape, the clouds in the sky, everything. It looked Mexican.”
Many Golden Age films built plotlines around Mexico’s history and culture, notably the revolution, including a 1930s trilogy by director Fernando de Fuentes, the last of which – the 1936 “Vámonos con Pancho Villa” – helped inaugurate the era, Ramírez Berg said.
He noted that films with this subject matter from the late 1930s and early ‘40s were “in a sense about the revolution, but they also established kind of a national mythology,” including “the birth of a unified Mexico in terms of mestizo identity.”
The Golden Age had a Mexican sound as well. Some of the country’s top recording stars got top billing, including Negrete – Félix’s third husband. Music helped inaugurate the period, carrying “Allá en el Rancho Grande,” also directed by de Fuentes in 1936. Tito Guízar sings the now well-known title song. This film and others of the era highlighted regional music as comedias rancheras – the countryside comedies. A series of films were called rumberas and featured the popular Afro-Cuban sound.
Another sound heard frequently in theaters was laughter.
“The Golden Age of Mexican cinema produced one of the most famous comedians in Mexican history – Cantinflas, the Charlie Chaplin of Mexico,” said Adela Pineda Franco, the director of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at UT-Austin.
“It was the era of Mario Moreno,” Ramírez Berg said. “He was a superstar … Everyone knew him, saw his films. He was very, very popular.”
Ignacio Sánchez Prado, a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, explained that Cantinflas rose to stardom from “a very active scene of carpas, popular theater done in tents and public squares, variety shows with comedy, singing, music and so on. Cantinflas was the most famous to come out of the carpas, a very successful one.”
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In 1956, Cantinflas achieved crossover success in a Golden Globe-winning performance for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. He played Passepartout to David Niven’s Phileas Fogg in the U.S. film, “Around the World in 80 Days.” It reflected the fact that many of Mexico’s Golden Age stars looked to do the same thing. Only a handful never appeared in a Hollywood film – including Félix, who famously turned down an offer to do so.
“In terms of proximity to the U.S. and the global popularity of Hollywood, the Mexican industry always had to grapple with its influence,” Gunckel said. “It was a very peculiar relationship – a lot of collaborations, a lot of influence … There was a lot of ambivalence. You couldn’t escape its orbit in some ways. You had to find an economically viable way. There were multiple levels of exchange.”
During the Golden Age, the plot thickened. The administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted Mexican support in World War II and used soft power toward ensuring that its southern neighbor was an ally. Hollywood, which dominated the Mexican box office, backed off from competition while the U.S. State Department allowed film stock – hard to find in wartime – to reach Mexico. American support came with caveats: Mexican filmmakers were encouraged to pursue certain themes – and they did.
“FDR had a policy of creating a type of Latino cinema that would appeal to Latin Americans,” Pineda Franco said. “It was going to have a subtle message of democracy and freedom.” She added, “It was a very interesting strategy to provide the [Mexican] national film industry with economic resources.”
Overall, “the U.S. was heavily involved in Mexican industry” during World War II, said Mónica García-Blizzard, an assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Emory University. “Cinema was no exception. It became the fifth-most important sector of the Mexican economy, because, in part, of the investment of the U.S.”
However, the Mexican government made investments too – including the Banco Nacional Cinematográfico, established in 1942 to help finance the national film industry. And Spanish-speaking audiences beyond Mexico – in Latin America and the U.S. – lined up to see films in their language that did not reflect the stereotypes of Latinos as sidekicks or bandits that at the time marked many American films.
“It’s true for the ‘40s and ‘50s that the era was one of wide distribution of Mexican cinema,” Gunckel said. “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was a major market in Latin America. Even after the war in some places like Colombia and Venezuela, Mexican cinema gets more screen time than Hollywood films. There were Spanish-language distributors in Europe, Spanish-language distributors in the U.S. Mexican cinema went everywhere – Eastern Europe, East Asia, the Middle East … In many ways, Mexican cinema essentially traveled the world.”
The world contracted around Mexican cinema after the end of World War II.
“I suppose the Golden Age ended when the State Department and Hollywood withdrew support,” Gunckel said, although other scholars give the era a longer lifespan. “Studios wanted their markets back in Latin America. Hollywood returned to those markets in Latin America.” He added, “In some ways, [the Golden Age] was kind of an artificial creation.”
Sánchez Prado expressed similar concerns about Hollywood’s role in helping to both create and end the era: “Mexico was able to lift a very unusually strong industry because competition from Hollywood was not there … The decline, very obviously, it began in the 1950s, when Hollywood films came back [to Mexico] – enormous films like “Cleopatra,” all the technicolor films of the 1950s. Mexico did not have the resources to combat. The U.S. could be dominant in the market overseas.”
The question of support from the American film industry has come up again in recent years with the resurgence of interest in films related to Mexico, such as ‘Coco’ and ‘Roma.’
“‘Coco’ is Disney-Pixar,” García Blizzard said. “Of course, there was cultural consultation. In my opinion, it was well done, but … because it goes through the Disney-Pixar machine, they have a very big project that would be noticed by U.S. spectators.
“In the case of Cuarón, it’s not an accident he made that film [‘Roma’] at that time. He did the work to be in a position to be able to attempt what would be a risk to someone starting off their career who can’t make a film in Spanish, partly mixteca, in black and white, semi-autobiographical. There’s an accumulation of political capital he had to have before he was in a position to make the film, supported by Netflix.”
Sánchez Prado lamented that in Mexico, “more people saw “Coco” the year it was released than every single other Mexican film together.”
He cites other telling statistics: 88% of films screened in Mexico in 2017 came from Hollywood, according to the Yearbook of Mexican Cinema, while last year, per the Mexican Chamber of Cinema, U.S. films comprised all of the top 10 productions screened in Mexico.
As for the Mexican directorial “Three Amigos” – del Toro, Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu – Sánchez Prado has mixed feelings about their Hollywood connections.
“It’s understandable – they’re ambitious, talented directors leveraging the wealthiest film industry in the world,” he said. “I understand why it would interest them.” Yet, he added, “I’m not so happy Hollywood takes care of directors coming out of Mexico because Hollywood’s dominance is destructive to the Mexican film industry.”
Over a half-century ago, Mexican critics had similarly mixed feelings about their recently-concluded Golden Age.
“There was a generation of critics after the Golden Age who saw Golden Age cinema as a problem, inherently conservative, as politically conservative, just like [it was] unsophisticated, cheesy,” García Blizzard said. In a follow-up email, she explained, “Critics immediately after the Golden Age tended to see those films as staged, inauthentic portrayals that tended toward political conservatism and a conformist view of Mexican society. They have seen cinema of the period as an almost anesthetizing force in 20th century Mexican society.”
However, she said, “it’s been sort of more recent scholarship – I include myself here – that’s basically tried to return to the films and what they can tell us.”
One such history lesson, she reflected, is that Golden Age films “were the dominant culture for Spanish-speaking people. Even today, whether you’re from Chile or you’re from Peru, Guatemala, even Spain, everyone knows who María Félix is, who Cantinflas is. Like it or not, that cinema created a kind of lingua franca in terms of a shared repertoire of the region, which is not something to be dismissed so easily.”
Reposted with permission from palabra