Mar 29, 2012

Book Review: Mexican Movies in the United States

Mexican Movies in the United States: A History of the Films, Theaters and Audiences, 1920-1960
By Rogelio Agrasanchez, Jr.
McFarland, 2006

This book was born from a pile of documents, specifically the records of Clasa-Mohme, Inc., one of the largest US distributors of Mexican movies. Author Agrasanchez was a devoted collector of Mexican movie posters, and his search for new treasures led to the astonishing discovery of the booking files, box office receipts, correspondence and other assorted documents in these files. They were essentially a history of Mexican movies in the United States. Agrasanchez expanded his research to tell the story of an industry that has received very little attention to date.

From the silent age to the explosion of the home video market in the 1980s, there was a thriving market for theaters showing Spanish language movies. These movie houses flourished in little pockets of the United States, from establishments that catered to Puerto Ricans in New York City to the hundreds of theaters that served Mexican immigrants in Texas and California.

The films on display in these theaters came from all over the world. Many came from Argentina and a small percentage arrived from Spain. Hollywood also attempted to produce its own Spanish language movies for a while in the thirties, but while the industry got the language right, it could not capture the essence of Latino culture. It was the Mexican films that dominated this thriving industry.

Glamorous stars like María Félix and Dolores del Río were the charismatic beauty queens, while handsome Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante serenaded their audience with lively songs. Any theater looking for good box office was sure to find a hit with any film starring comedian Cantinflas. Some of these stars made appearances and even found some fame in Hollywood and European movies, but they were the royalty of the Mexican industry.

Theaters would often book live appearances of stars to boost box office income. In order to stay in business, these show places had to pick their titles carefully. Some genres, such as melodramas, musicals and action series almost guaranteed strong returns. With an eager audience and weekly changes, these theaters would make thousands of dollars a few pennies at a time.

I got an exciting glimpse of this world from the book, though it took me a while to become fully engaged. Part of the problem is that it is organized by city, with each chapter telling the story of the industry theater by theater, in a specific location. While this worked for the individual chapters, as a whole it led to a lot of repetition. I read essentially the same information about various stars, movies and audience habits a few times over as I progressed through the book.

Overall, this is a fascinating resource. It is a detailed and intelligent analysis of both the phenomena of the US Mexican movie industry and the character of its audience. From the legendary theaters to the stars that drew audiences to them, I felt like I had entered a new world reading about this once thriving industry that seems to be mostly forgotten today.

Thank you to McFarland for providing a review copy of this book. It can be purchased via their website and order line, 1-800-253-2187.

Mar 25, 2012

Quote of the Week

The night that I won the Oscar, [my dad] called me very late and said that he thought it was fine and that I should send it back to the hardware store and he'd put it on the knife counter. That's what I did, and it stayed there twenty years under a cheese bell.

 -Jimmy Stewart

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Mar 24, 2012

March in March Blogathon: Nothing Sacred (1937)

This post is part of the March-in-March blog event at Sittin' On a Backyard Fence. Check out the rest of the entries here.

Though I love Fredric March in dramas, his comedies usually leave me kind of ‘eh.’ He tends to be a bit wooden in these roles, as if he doesn’t quite know how to loosen up. The way he sort of announces his lines in that barky tone makes it seem like he’s reading them off cue cards.

As I’ve long been aware of this aversion, my adoration of March in Nothing Sacred (1937) has confused me. Why does his performance in this movie charm me so much when there are Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly and Charles Winninger to overshadow him? Not to mention all those silly bit parts.

I’ve decided it’s got to be the slapstick. I love the way March moves in this movie. He’s goofy, but precise. While his motions are nearly always exaggerated, he never seems to lose control. For this reason, I think this is one of the best March performances to watch (I’m still not fond of the way he speaks).

I tested this theory by playing the movie without sound, and I thought he was even funnier. His double-takes, raised eyebrows and generally baffled reactions play out like a screwball ballet.

March plays Wally Cook, a newspaper reporter who is on the hunt for a new sensation to bring him back from the scandal of a faked story and demotion to the obituary department. He thinks he’s found his way back to the top with a sob story about Hazel Flagg (Lombard), a small town girl who appears to be dying of radium poisoning. Wally whisks her from her wretchedly peaceful Vermont hometown to New York, where she becomes a celebrity for facing her sure to be painful death with cheerful bravery. Hazel isn’t really sick, but she can’t resist a free trip to the big city. Wally is doomed.

Some of March’s funniest slapstick is in the scenes set in Hazel’s hometown. As he moves among the hostile and suspicious townspeople, their constant insults inspire a flurry of flinches and grimaces. It is as if these small town folks are shooting at him with tiny arrows and he’s an angry giant stomping in the main square, grunting like Frankenstein’s monster. An exchange of unintended spittle bombs between March and a huffy store keeper played by Margaret Hamilton has got to be rare if not unique in the history of the movies. Though he reacts in the exaggerated style of a silent movie actor, he somehow isn’t overacting.

When a little boy actually bites March in the leg, you can see him almost give up. He rips his hat off his head and flings it to the ground. He doesn’t just toss it, he lifts it way over his head and gives it a good slam. I think part of the reason this is so funny is that he puts so much more energy into that than he does tending to his leg.

 March uses his arms enthusiastically in Sacred. He swings them energetically when he walks and he often holds them up to protect himself. It’s as if he thinks that if he is handy enough with those appendages, he can protect himself from the insanity around him. Several times he is literally holding characters back at arm’s length, as they lean towards him menacingly, or even try to take a swing at him.

Nothing Sacred is probably most famous for a big fight scene between Lombard and March at the climax of the film. As much as I love March’s flailing in the rest of the movie, Lombard kicks his behind in this scene, at least for laughs. Her frantic puffing and uninhibited swings would overshadow anyone. Still, he makes his mark in the scene. He is an honorable straight man when Lombard has him beat.


 I like the big-headed figurines in the opening credits, but what the heck? Does this look at all like March?

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Mar 18, 2012

Quote of the Week

What is always most difficult in musicals is the bridge from dialogue to music. In the old musicals, they just said, "I love you" and started singing. Finally, the public said, "This isn't real.". . .You have to stay in character or come out of that character in some kind of fantasy way, but not lose the character.

 -Gene Kelly

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Mar 11, 2012

Quote of the Week

I introduced Elizabeth to beer; she introduced me to Bulgari.

-Richard Burton

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Mar 9, 2012

Gone Too Soon Blogathon: Robert Williams

This post is part of Comet Over Hollywood's Gone Too Soon blogathon. Check out the rest of the contributors this weekend.

When I signed on to write about Robert Williams for the Gone Too Soon blogathon, I was excited to learn more about him. I’d always meant to research his life. After searching through loads of books and websites, I’ve ended up knowing only slightly more about him than I did before. That is, in essence, that he was a comic from North Carolina who started to make a break-through when the new talking movies needed performers who had a flair for dialogue.

Williams made only one memorable movie, Platinum Blonde (1931), costarring Jean Harlow and Loretta Young and directed by Frank Capra. Shortly after that, he got appendicitis while on vacation and died of peritonitis as he waited for surgery. Four days after the premiere of the film, he was gone at age 37.

Before Platinum Blonde, Williams appeared in six films: a few silents (two of them shorts) and three talkies in which he played secondary roles. He started to hit his stride with sound films, and Capra’s movie would likely have been the one to set him on his way to a strong career.

Williams’ distinctive blend of sharp humor and sweetness distinguished him from the more abrasive comedians of the day. He wasn’t matinee idol handsome, but with his tousled hair and gently blinking eyes he was attractive, and he had a way of being courtly to a woman that surely led to a few swoons.

The funny thing about Robert Williams is that while he is easy to compare to other actors, his appeal was unique. He was just about a dead ringer for Lee Tracy, though he was better looking. He also had a similar skill for rattling off lines, but in a smoother and less obnoxious style. Williams also had the same sleepy eyes, floppy hair and loose physicality of Robert Mitchum, though he had a sweeter, less rugged demeanor. He pulls his words out like James Cagney, though when he says “is she bee-you-ti-ful?”, it isn’t as snappy. Instead, he touches gently on each syllable.

 Williams’ performance style was also somewhat reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s. It may seem like a stretch, but the more I watch him, the stronger that connection feels. The most satisfying bit of information I was able to drag up in my research was this quote from an interview with Christopher Plummer. The actor said that Williams was: of the most realistic comedians the screen had. He made Cary Grant look like he was overacting....To watch Robert Williams act was like seeing a comic using the Method, long before the Method became famous.

It is this quality that brings Brando to mind. Williams had a similar sense of seeming laidback and natural, while clearly staying in control. He’d throw out lines out like he was tossing cards into a hat, but his timing was precise. His loose manner brought life to the static world of early 30s films, where Hollywood was starting to understand how to make a talkie, but not quite there. It would have been fascinating to see him play opposite Brando in a 1950s drama.

While Williams had all the snap and crackle of a 1930s film actor, he also had several modern qualities. There’s a rebellious tone to his performance in Blonde that would have translated well to modern movies. You could see him as a counter culture hero or a police detective fighting the system in a gritty 1970s flick. With his fast-talking and snappy style, I think he made his mark in the right time, and it would have been interesting to see how he developed throughout the decades to follow.

I have the feeling Robert Williams would have kept at it until the end, no matter how long he lived. Sadly, it wasn't long enough.

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Mar 6, 2012

Book Review-- Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman

Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman
By Dan Callahan
University Press of Mississippi

Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman is more a critical review of Stanwyck’s career than a traditional biography. This is an appropriate choice, because the woman lived to work. Author Dan Callahan demonstrates how her anger, frustration and the violence and neglect of her hard-luck childhood helped to mold her performances. For what is essentially a career assessment, he ends up revealing a great deal about her character. I’ve been reading about Stanwyck for years, and I feel like I’ve never known her better.

The book is divided by films, with some chapters consisting of several movies from certain periods, such as pre-codes, and films made with specific directors including Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. Some are grouped into genres, including Stanwyck’s favorite, the western. Movies with a big reputation are given their own chapters, even if the author does not necessarily feel them worthy of the extra analysis.

This respect for popular and critical attention to Stanwyck’s films helps to keep the book from drowning in personal opinion. Callahan is clearly a fan, and he has strong views on Stanwyck’s work. Sometimes this drove me crazy, and I felt like I was in a coffee shop having an argument after seeing a film. Often I gained a new, and sometimes delightful, perspective from his analysis. Overall, these opinions come from a knowledgeable critic. Callahan has clearly done his research and has spent enough time in Stanwyck’s world to have a good idea where she came from and how she operated.

I relished the detail in Miracle Woman. It pays great tribute to the small gestures and moments that can color a whole performance. Stanwyck was not a stage actress; she worked specifically for the camera, and by understanding the nuances of her acting, Callahan captures much of what made her so arresting.

There’s a lot of plot detail in the book, including spoilers, and it could be frustrating reading for those who have yet to dig deep into Stanwyck’s filmography. I believe that these kinds of readers would find it worthwhile to attempt to skim past those plot points before seeing the films. I found myself both curious to check out the films I hadn’t seen and to re-watch titles I’d already seen many times. Even the supposedly lousy movies seemed intriguing once I learned more about them.

I’d love to see this author try the same treatment with different actors, though I suspect that he’d have to be as invested in them as he is Stanwyck. You get the sense he cares about her, and that he is as aware of her faults as her strengths. It is that quality which lends the book a special sensitivity. He demonstrates an understanding of Stanwyck that helped me to trust his point of view. I was open to hearing her story from his perspective, whether or not I agreed with his conclusions.

Thank you to the University Press of Mississippi for the opportunity to review this book.

Mar 4, 2012

Quote of the Week

Harry Cohn told me, "I got this awful script that Alfred Hitchcock wants you to do. If it weren’t for Hitchcock, I’d never let you do it."

-Kim Novak, about Vertigo (1958)

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