From ‘The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema’

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 is offering six titles from both the preceding decade and the 1930s and includes from both silent and sound cinema. The titles were streamed on Tuesdays weekly in February and March; at the moment all the titles remain available on YouTube – search UNAM UK and scroll the horizontal listing. I assume that they are available beyond the bound of Britain. Titles have the UNAM page in the frame and have English sub-titles for the Spanish title cards or the dialogue. Note there are an earlier versions on this platform which do not have sub-titles. And there are panels and similar in the early frames which seem to be cross-feeds from the initial stream using zoom.

Silent Film Titles

Tepeyac. México, (1917)

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.  One involves a young woman Lupita and her boyfriend Carlos. When she fears for his safety she prays to the Virgin. Inset in this drama is a re-telling of the myth of the apparition.

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 valorises the myth but also does give attention to the Indian culture. 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)

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.

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 an 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. 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.

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.

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

El Puño de Hierro. (México, 1927)

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 film includes what appear to be actuality footage of the care and rehabilitation of victims of drug taking.

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 it is the same trio led by Jose Maria Serralde Ruiz, again in fine form.

Sound Film Titles

The three sound films form a trilogy set during the Mexican revolution; all three  films were directed by Fernando Fuentes. The revolution lasted a decade, from 1910 to 1920. Initially there was a rebellion against the dictatorship of President Díaz. 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.

El Prisionero 13, (México 1933)

Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.

The film is an early ‘talkie’ or sound film, in black and white and running 73 minutes.

The story is set during the early days of resistance to General Huerta. The plot follows the family of one of Huerta’s officers, Colonel Carrasco.  The Colonel’s wife and infant son left him and years later, when a rebellion breaks out, their re-encounter leads to a melodramatic finale.

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.

El Compadre Mendoza, (México, 1933)

 Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.

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

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.

A Zapatista General is godfather to Mendoza’s son and the film displays more sympathy for the Zapatistas than the Government forces. But the arrival of the civil war forces Mendoza into a choice between the opposing armies.

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 the 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)

Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.

This was the third and last title in the trilogy of films; 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 Venustiano 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. However, battle by battle, individual members die. Some in battle but some from the ravages that accompany the war.

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. 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.

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