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The Golden Age of Méxican Cinema: A Prelude

Posted by keith1942 on February 22, 2021

This is a streaming programme available on several platforms including You Tube.

It is provided by Filmoteca UNAM which is an annexe based in London offering ‘A Centre for Méxican Studies’ on behalf of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Their home web page gives information on their variety of services and studies. This programme is titled;

‘The Golden Age of Méxican Cinema. A Prelude.’

This ‘golden age’ is generally considered to have run from 1930 into the 1950s. This was a period on increased production, high production values, and films made by distinguished directors and craft people. This ‘prelude offered six titles from both the preceding decades and the 1930s; this included titles from both silent and sound cinema. The titles were streamed on Tuesdays from February 16th and then weekly; at the moment all the titles remain available on YouTube. I assume that they are available beyond the bound of Britain. Search under ‘UNAM UK’ and you can scroll horizontally along a listing; the titles all have the publicity frame above.

Titles should have English sub-titles for the Spanish title cards. I viewed the first title on You Tube; note there is an earlier version on this platform which does not have sub-titles. And there are panels and similar in the early frames which seem to be cross-feeds from the other platforms.

16 Feb: Tepeyac. México, 1917 – Silent Film

Directors: Carlos E. Gonzáles, José Manuel Ramos y Fernando Sáyago.

This is a drama set round the myth of an apparition by the Virgin Mary to an indigenous Indian in the 16th century. Tepeyac [Tepeyacac] is close to Mexico City. In the Aztec culture it was the site of a temple to an Aztec Goddess Tomantzin. By the 1520s the Spanish had succeeded in overthrowing the dominant Aztec society and introducing colonial control and exploitation of the lands and peoples. Conveniently in 1531 an Indian, Juan Diego, who had converted to the Spanish catholic religion claimed to encounter an apparition of the virgin Mary on Tepeyac hill. She asked that a shrine be erected at this spot to her. The Spanish authorities were sceptical when Juan Diego reported this to the bishop. However, when he produced a miraculous image of the Virgin they were convinced. So a Basilica was erected at Tepeyac with the shrine known as Our Lady Of Guadalupe. Guadalupe is the name of the local villa, now a suburb of the city. I wondered if the use of Guadalupe rather than Tepeyac was because the latter had associations with a Aztec goddess. The conversion of the Indians and such a myth were instrumental in increasing the hegemony of the Spanish in Mexico.

The title opens with information about the digital restoration of the film in 2016. Title cards briefly refer to the ‘tradition’ of this apparition and its importance in Mexican culture. Then, in a common trope of the period, we are introduced to the cast and their characters. The film has two story lines. Initially we meet Carlos and his girlfriend Lupita. Carlos is sent on a mission to war torn Europe. Lupita gives him medallion of the Virgin for safe keeping. He travels by train to Vera Cruz and takes a steamship to New York. Then Lupita reads of the sinking of an Atlantic liner by a German submarine. She is distraught for Carlos’ safety; unable to sleep she reads an old history book which contains the legend of the Virgin of Tepeyac. This motivates a flashback to the early years of the Spanish domination. We see Aztec Indians secretly worshiping the Goddess Tomantzin. And two Indians assault a Conquistador. Armed Conquistadors invade the Indian temple but a Friar intervenes and, as the Conquistador watch, inveigles the Indians into converting to Catholicism.

Then, in a long sequence, we see the events of Juan Diego’s apparition and his efforts to persuade the Spanish prelates to build a Basilica on Tepeyac. He is assisted by a miraculous image and the cure of a sick relative.

Returning to the present Lupita receives a telegram from Carlos in New York, ‘safe’. Later he returns and the couple go to the Guadalupe shrine on the anniversary of the apparition in December.

The title is in black and white; I wondered if the original had some tinting, possibly for night scenes. The cinematography is in long shots; at several points the camera moves closer to the protagonists but still effectively long shots. The film concludes with a slow pan across the basilica and the city below.

The film valorises the myth but also does give attention to the Indian culture. At various points the subject of the apparition is referred to as:

‘Mexican tradition: ‘Virgin of Tepeyac: Virgin of Guadalupe’: Mexican Virgin’.

And we do see an example of the Indian resistance to Spanish colonialism. However, the friars, whilst sympathetic to the Indians are still in the service of colonialism and they are valorised. There is a limited criticism in the presentation of the Spanish. And a title card notes that the Spaniards changed

‘Santa María Tequatlanspeah’ to ‘Santa María de Guadalupe’

And another title card referenced the 1910 revolution which ushered in the existing government and social forms.

Lupita, Carlos and Lupita’s mother all subscribe to the myth. However, since Carlos is on a steamship to New York rather than crossing the Atlantic Lupita’s medallion is not required to demonstrate any efficacy. And when the couple visit the Basilica we see them in the nearby fair where the relics and souvenirs of the shrine are just commodities; [ an unwitting criticism].

The restoration work has been well done and the images and title cards are pretty good. Note, the English sub-titles are laid across the title cards reducing the clarity of both.

The title has an accompaniment by José María Serralde Ruiz at the piano with Valeria Palomina and Martin Diaz Velez on woodwind.

El Tren Fantasma. México, 1926 – Silent Film

Dir. Gabriel García Moreno.

This is the second silent in the Mexican title season. It is an action drama set on the Ferrocaril-Mexicano line in Orizaba Province, close to Vera Cruz. A railway engineer is sent to Orizaba to investigate ‘irregularities’. He arrives and is met by the rail dispatcher Don Tomas and his daughter Elena. She is accompanied by Paco. Adolfo and Paco become rivals for Elena’s affections. Adolfo’s investigations soon involve him in tracking down the bandit gang behind recent robberies. In fact Paco, known as “Ruby”, is the leader of the gang and already has a moll, Carmela. Predictably Paco and Carmela, she undeservedly so, meet untimely ends.

The plot is fairly basic and the film relies on dramatic action. Great use is made of the rail-road and its engines. There are dramatic sequences, chases and fights on engines and tenders. The action is padded out with ethnic cultural actions. There are several scenes involving lassos. And during the first visit to the bandit den we watch as they indulge in dances, rumbas and jarabes; [traditional Spanish song forms involving dancing]. There is long sequence set in a bull-fighting arena as Paco attempts to display his courage and skill.

The cinematography by mainly uses long shots and mid-shots, though there are several close-up for dramatic detail. The camera is mobile; there are frequent high angle shots, presumably from buildings and possibly platforms or cranes. This is especially so in a fine sequence of a chase in a disused rail works with the actors climbing over a n array of buildings, walls and machinery. At least one of the bandit members is played by an actor with acrobatic skills.

The film also uses moving cameras, frequently placed on an engine or tender or following along rail tracks. This is well done and the actors have some fairly dramatic stunts and actions. And the film uses superimpositions; one very effective one shows Paco watching his rival with Elena, sitting by a pool, and the image in his mind of her superimposed. And the film ends on an iris of the couple. The film effectively combines actuality footage with staged scenes and sequences. The editing of this is sharp and precise. I could not find a credit or listing for an editor on the film; it may have been the director or cinematographer.

And there is a very sprightly accompaniment with José María Serralde on piano: Omar Álvarez on violin: and Roberto Zerquere on percussion.

The restoration in 2002 had to work on a print with many problems and none of the original title cards. There was also missing footage. In this digital version a sequence before the climax is reconstructed using still and titles. I think there are probably other short lengths of missing footage but the overall narrative works and the new title cards provide the necessary information.

El Puño de Hierro. México, 1927 – Silent Film

Dir. Gabriel García Moreno.

This is a later film by the same director and cinematographer as El tren fantasma. The plot shares the melodramatic aspects of the earlier film  but the central theme appears to be moral and educational. This is a expose and riposte to the drug taking habit and the criminal underworld in which it operates. The basic plot of the film is illustrated in a effective title frame which shows a trio in the grip of a hand as a hypodermic enters the forearm.

The key characters include Carlos, a young man drawn into indulging in morphine. Laura is his girlfriend and lives on a fairly large ranch. Antonio is a foreman on a nearby ranch but is also leader of a criminal gang, ‘The Bats’. Whilst the gang have committed a series of robberies they draw the line at drug taking. Pete is also a worker at the Two Diamonds ranch and his friend is a kid called Jackie. Jackie is introduced reading a ‘Nick Carter’ magazine, setting him up as an amateur detective. Doctor Ortíz runs a hospital clinic for drug victims. We first see him giving a street lecture on the evils of drugs; however, a later title card claims that he has a ‘split personality. And then there is the drug den and its denizens, all controlled by “Old Faggin”.

The film opens with Carlos in a drug den; a site central in the later stages of the film. The effects of the morphine are shown as Carlos mistaking a donkey for his girlfriend and bizarre dreams. However, during the lecture by Doctor Ortíz the more serious effects of drug taking are illustrated in quite disturbing scenes. As the story develops there are action sequences, chases, fights, sleazy buildings and hidden trapdoors; all the tropes of early action dramas. There is however a distinctly different feel to the melodramatic action and the actual scenes of drug abuse and hospital treatment. The final scene of the film is missing and is explained in an on-screen title;but the plot is fully resolved in the surviving final scene.

Like ‘El tren …’ the film mixes actuality footage with staged drama. But the footage supporting the moral theme slows the pace of the film and the fights and chase are not as dynamic as in the earlier film. This title was restored in 2001 and digitised in 2016. Many of the title cards were missing and explanatory titles based on the surviving script have been inserted; even so there are some points where not all is clear.

The style of the film is similar to its predecessor. The cinematography mainly uses long shots and mid-shots with a few close ups for dramatic detail; like the injection of morphine which is actually shown. There are hardly any of the tracking shots which added to the dynamism of ‘El tren ..’ The settings though mirror the earlier film; much of the action is set on what seems to be an old ruin, similar in some ways to the earlier rail workings.

The film runs over half-and-half longer than ‘El tren…’ but the actual action lot occupies a similar amount of time to the train plot. I wondered what motivated this title. Perhaps there were some monies for such a moral property or perhaps they reflect The personal experience of the production members. This version looks reasonable and has involved much restoration. The end titles provide a cast list; however the musical credits are missing but this sic aleatory the same trio led by Jose Maria Serralde Ruiz, again in fine form.

El Prisionero 13, México 1933 – Sound Film

Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.

This is the first of three films directed by Fernando Fuentes dealing in some fashion with the Mexican revolution of 1910. The revolution lasted a decade, from 1910 to 1920. In 1911 there was a military coup by a General Huerta; The resistance to his government included the forces led by Emiliano Zapata and a Constitutionalist Army controlled by Venustiano Carranza. When Huerta was overthrown in 1914 a civil war broke out between the forces of Zapata and Carranza. Pancho Villa, initially part of the Constitutionalist armies, sided with Zapata but Carranza’s forces were finally victorious. The film is an early ‘talkie’ or sound film, in black and white and running 73 minutes.

The film opens with Colonel Carrasco playing cards with a friend and drinking. It is clear that the Colonel has a drink problem which he refuses to address. Following scenes show how his addiction oppresses his wife. He also appears to have frequent extra-marital affairs. Finally the wife leaves with his baby son, Juan and their maid. The Colonel frantically tries to trace his missing son without success.

Several lap dissolves of mother and son take us to the adult Juan [Juanito to his mother]. Every evening Juan visits his girlfriend following traditional customs and thus  only able to speak through window bars though these are wide enough to enable a kiss. His mother worries for Juan’s safety as street demonstrations foreshadow the coming revolution.

Colonel Carrasco, an officer in Huerta’s army, is now commander in the district. A group of civilians are planning an insurrection against Huerta’s oppressive rule.  The Colonel orders his soldiers to arrest leading figures in the ‘rebellion’. By this point viewers will probably sense a familiar generic story emerging. However, the plot has at least one surprise in store. And for much of the remaining film the focus is on the Colonel and the imprisoned leaders rather than on Juan and his mother. However, the key protagonists do come together for the climax and resolution of the story.

The film predominately uses long shots and mid-shots with infrequent close-ups. However, the cinematographer Ross Fisher offers a more dynamic style for the climax. Set in the military barracks there are powerful tracking shots along line of prisoners and squads of soldiers. The editing by Aniceto Ortega is also effective with number of lap-dissolves which relate characters and settings.

The soundtrack uses plot-related sound behind the dialogue;and there are occasional bugle and military band music. The film has been restored but the streaming quality was not great with some minor buffering.

Rosalio entertains the Zapatistas

El Compadre Mendoza, [ México, 1933 – Sound Film

Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.

The film’s title translates as ‘My Buddy Mendoza’ but there is also an English title, ‘Godfather Mendoza’, which is some ways is more appropriate.

This was the second title in the Fernando de Fuentes trilogy set during the Mexican Revolution which ran between 1910 and 1920. In the story there are both Zapatistas and the Constitutionalist Army Carrancistas] fighting the dictatorship of General Huerta. This was an early stage of the revolution which, following the defeat of Huerta’s forces, then saw a civil war won by the leader of the Constitutionalist forces Carranza. The protagonist Rosalio Mendoza is a rich landowner who is also involved in other businesses with his two brothers. Rosalio manages to be on good terms both with the Zapatistas and the Government military and we see units of both armies entertained on his hacienda. A frequent trope shows servants changing the portraits that hang in the study; from Huerta to Zapata: from Zapata to Huerta and finally the hanging of that of Carranza.

On a visit to Mexico City to check on his businesses Rosalio meets Dolores [‘Lolita]’] whom he marries. Soon they have son. One of the visitors to the hacienda is General Felipe Nieto, a Zapatista. Felipe becomes the godfather of the son, named after him. But Felipe senior’s devotion to Felipe junior is really motivated by his undeclared passion for Dolores. Dolores is probably aware of this passion but neither initiate an affair. The climax of the narrative is when Rosalio has to make a choice between his relations with the Zapatista and the Constitutionalist army, here led by Colonel Bernáldez.

Most of the action takes place on the hacienda with one visit to Mexico City [only interiors]. Most the action between the Zapatistas and the Government army take place off-screen; and this applies to the later conflict between Zapatistas and Constitutionalist. We see a Colonel Martinez, the leader of the Huerta forces, as well as Nieto and Bernáldez. The ordinary Zapatista enjoy greater attention, greater screen time and more frequent close-ups than those of the Huerta or Constitutionalist soldiers.

There are familiar names and faces from El Prisionero trece, both in front of and behind the camera. However this is a far more dynamic production. The film opens with a excellent touch; the camera tracks along the ground, then on  a rifle butt trailing in the dust as the camera tilts up to show a weary Zapatista at the rear of a military column as it arrives at the hacienda. Entrances and exits to the hacienda regularly show the gate in the walls that surround the property. In the course of the film there are fluid tracking shots and ambitious pans, one describing a complete circle. Interiors make frequent use of dollies which show the sets are often full of lead characters and numbers of extras. The film also uses both high and low angle shots and superimposition to emphasize the drama and forward the action. The flow is assisted by numerous lap dissolves as sequences develop. And the is the judicious use of low key lighting in the frequent night time scenes. The sound track techniques are basic with limiting mixing functions; we hear dialogue, diegetic noises and several songs [again sung by the Zapatista] which also comment on the plot. There are only a few snatches of non-diegetic music, which accompany the different military forces and add to their characterisation.

The cinematography is by Ross Fisher who shot El Prisionero trece and the earlier film had a couple of sequences that shared the dynamic camera work. However, this title was edited by the director [no editor is shown in he credits] and the dynamic approach is apparent right through the 85 minutes running time. Like the earlier film there is a powerful final sequence to the story; a body is shown hanging in the gateway at the exit from the hacienda.

¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa!, (Let’s Go With Pancho Villa!., México, 1936 – Sound Film

Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.

This was the third and last title in the trilogy of films set during the Mexican Revolution and directed by Fernando de Fuentes. It was not successful at the box office and the production company was bankrupted, though Fuentes continued writing and directing films into the 1950s.

The title character, Pancho Villa [originally Francisco] is one of the best known of the figures of the revolutionary decade. A wealthy landowner he entered the wars in the early stages when the rebellion began against the Presidency of Porfirio Díaz. Over the course of the revolution Villas changed sides more than once. He was prominent in the fight against the dictatorship of General Huerta, as part of the Constitutionalist forces. In the film the final stages are set as Villa’s army set off to what became the battle of Zacatecas in 1914. This was the decisive battle which led to the defeat of General Huerta. However, it was followed by a civil war between Villa, allied with Emiliano Zapata, and the Constitutionalist forces led by Venistiano Carranza. Carranza was finally victorious and for some years Villa was not included in the pantheon of the revolution.

The film opens in the small town of San Pablo where an army captain in Huerta’s forces is investigating the deaths of 14 of his soldiers. He suspect a young man, Miguel/Angel. Miguel goes on the run. He calls at the house of a fellow radical Tiburcio. Joined by four other friends they set off to join Villa’s army. We meet Villa as he distributes grain to the peasants from his military train, whilst his soldiers eat, sing, drink and attempt amours. Villa is portrayed as very effective in his rhetoric to the troops and to the peasants. He welcomes the new recruits and nicknames then ‘The Lions’; they are Tiburcio, Miguel, Martin, Maximo, Meliton and Rodrigo.

The rest of the film presents a series of battles between Villa’s forces and those of General Huerta. Villa’s army is generally victorious but there are frequent set-backs and large number of fatalities. There are intervening scenes, mostly of ‘the lions’, of the personal lives of the soldiers; and alongside those showing Villa’s planning and leadership. The Lions’ are brave and very supportive of their fellow members. This includes one point where they are captured by Huerta’s troops and then freed. However, battle by battle, individual members die. Some in battle but some from the ravages that accompany the war. Finally we see the sole surviving member traipsing away into the darkness.

The film has a fairly varied use of camera and editing though it is less dynamic than El compadre Mendoza. In particular there are far fewer tracking shots, though a couple of the forces of Villa, like at the initial sequence on the military train, are impressive. But there are frequent pans and dollies, high and low angle shots and frequent cuts to close-ups of protagonists. Much of the film presents large scale battle sequences: these include trench warfare: charges by Villa’s volunteers: and hand-to-hand fighting during assaults of redoubts and fortresses. The editing, this time by J. B. Noriega; maintains a high tempo that drive forward the action. The opening of the film sets the tone with a short montage of images that will follow in the main narrative.  The soundtrack includes much martial music, in particular to accompany Villa’s forces. There are several songs, sang by ‘the Lions’ and other Villa volunteers; one that is repeated is ‘If they kill me tomorrow …’.

Villa is portrayed as a ruthless character ready to sacrifice his men in the pursuit of victory. Like most generals he commands from behind the troops but on at least one occasion he leads his men in a charge against the enemy. The army of Huerta enjoys supplies of artillery and the Gatling machine gun. Villa’s men are seen in heroic actions against the lethal technology. The representations in the film are pointed clearly in a long opening on-screen title which includes:

“blame for the cruelty [in the war] cannot be put on any group of people …”,

thus inferring that such actions were common to all sides in the conflict. This film, like the two earlier, has a muted support of the revolutionary forces but does not really valorise them. It is individual characters who receive the positive representations in this trilogy.

UNAM partnered with Filmoteca to this exclusive film cycle… ‘The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema: A Prelude’ with ENGLISH SUBTITLES.

Free Access in the following link: http://bit.ly/2MVI7VF – currently the six titles are still available on You Tube.

Thank you Filmoteca UK to make this possible.

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