Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles at the UCLA Film and Television Archive: La mujer del puerto and Nada más que una mujer

January 16, 2018

From September 23-December 10, 2017, the UCLA Film and Television Archive presented the series Recuerdos de un cine en español: Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960. The program, which featured several new restorations and special guests, was organized as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, “a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles,” which was celebrated at over 70 Southern California cultural organizations.

The series booklet. I can never properly photograph these. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Influenced by Colin Gunckel’s 2015 work Mexico on Main Street, the Archive briefly brought back to life Los Angeles’s lively Spanish-language movie culture, transferring it from downtown, where it was centered for decades, to the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. The event boasted an eclectic mix of entries, varying in genre – drama, comedy, horror, noir, historical – and country of origin – Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, and the US.

 

Besides the movies themselves, I was delighted to learn about this exuberant cinematic history that took place a mere 8 miles from where I currently live. I had no idea that from the 1930s through the 1950s at least six theaters in downtown LA, including the Mayan and the Million Dollar Theatre, presented an array of films from Latin American countries specifically for Spanish speaking audiences; the pictures were so popular that distributors even specialized in this content. Though I was aware that American studios during the early 1930s often produced alternate language versions of their titles for international release across the globe, I was oblivious to the fact that Hollywood studios also made original films only in Spanish that were released in America, too. Pretty cool, right?

 

I only caught about one quarter of almost 40 titles that screened during the series – not a bad amount, but I did have more on my calendar than I ended up making. Though I won’t cover every film I saw here - 1934’s Romance Tropical, for instance, probably warrants its own review - I’m splitting up my recaps loosely based on genre over the next several weeks: for the first two I’ll cover the darker, dramatic entries, and the final one I’ll explore the lighter films. Here we go…

La mujer del puerto (The Woman of the Port, 1934, Mexico)

La mujer del Puerto took any dramatic flairs I witnessed in other pictures in this series (such as La otra, which I’ll discuss next week) and elevated the mood to immense heights. Case in point #1: I read that star Andrea Palmer’s look was modeled after sultry Marlene Dietrich, and I think you’d have to agree with that statement considering the below image, which was clearly used as inspiration in the poster above. Point #2: Along those same lines, the film’s cinematography demonstrated strong German expressionist influences, particularly the dramatic high-contrast lighting. Point #3: And then there’s the story…

#Dietrichvibes

Bleak start aside, La mujer del puerto takes an even darker, even sharper turn after Rosario’s (Palmer) two-timing boyfriend Novio (Francisco Zárraga), accidentally kills her father. As she possessed little money before his untimely death, Rosario turns to prostitution and the ports for work. Tragedy befalls her soon thereafter, as a truth is revealed after her tryst with sailor Alberto (Domingo Soler) – one so horrible it drives her to suicide.

 

As you can probably tell, the tone in La mujer del puerto was never close to bright to begin with. I mean, Rosario’s father builds his own casket for goodness sake. But following the somber spirit of the first act, the picture loosens up a bit and gets wild and rowdy, which involves a speedy topless scene and other general debauchery courtesy a group of sailors and hookers infused with booze. At this point, I wondered where the movie was headed, as the plot wanders aimlessly while Rosario firmly sets her flirtations on one man, eventually prying him from his prospective bed mate. But why is she so focused on him? Following their assumed rendezvous, the pair begin talking, and I figured she might be trying to locate her ex as to enact some sweet revenge, but that wasn’t the case – at all. I don’t think I missed any clues beforehand, but suffice it to say, the twist and ensuing finale gave me cinematic whiplash.

Rosario (Andrea Palmer) and Alberto (Domingo Soler) have got A LOT to chat about, they'll soon find out...

According to IMDb, La mujer del puerto was released in the US in 1936, but I have absolutely no idea how it could ever play with the last few scenes – the climax and ENTIRE ending – intact, as a good chunk is 100% in violation of the Production Code. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed as damning a revelation, even in pre-Code Hollywood. That said, I’d be curious to view the version that screened in America when the film was shown here in August 1936, because I’m fairly certain that was not the cut we saw at this screening.

Nada más que una mujer (Nothing More Than a Woman, 1934, US)

My very first thought: Oh wow. I’ve never witnessed a performance quite like Berta Singerman’s in this picture. Nada mas que una mujer is the Spanish language version of Pursued (1934), a film I haven’t seen. According to TCM, this adaptation, in which performer Mona (Singerman) falls in love with David (Juan Torena), nurses him back to health when he gets hurt, and frets that he won’t accept her, differs in that Mona doesn’t dance at the cabaret she works at; rather, she recites poetry, because she can neither sing nor dance. But the poetry – man, that knocks everyone's socks off. (Yes, you heard that right. Not sarcastic.) 

 

The Russian-born, Argentinian-raised Singerman, appearing in this the first of only two features she ever made, was renowned for her recitation skill, and I must say, I’ve never seen that technique used in such a starkly explicit way before on film, especially in a movie from this era. From the dialogue ("ass" and "breast," for instance) to the suggestive gestures and heated delivery, hers were most definitely passionate performances that left the spectator rapt. During one rendition, she decries the double standard she faces as a woman, asking what’s worse: that she takes payment for sin or men pay to sin? Pre-Code mic drop.

Mona (Berta Singerman) plotting with Gilda (Luana Alcañiz)... or so it seems.

After the screening was over, I heard someone mention how this picture reminded him of a Josef von Sternberg/Marlene Dietrich collaboration (there’s Dietrich’s name again!), and I totally concur. Stylish, uncredited cinematography from Rudolph Maté aside, the cool, confident direction and Singerman’s performance are clear nods to the work of von Sternberg and Dietrich. Speaking of the latter, there’s a scene where Mona, looking beat up but determined, takes a seat and gives despicable boss Julio (Alfredo del Diestro) – at least I believe it’s Julio – the brush off, which screams Dietrich; on the outside, Singerman is cryptic and unaffected, yet she keeps Julio close enough to spout out flirtatious replies, which affords her the upper hand in this situation. This is a man who can get whatever he wants, but he can’t have her, and Mona deviously relishes that control she holds over him. It's refreshing to see strong female characters such as Mona in films made for other cultures, especially during this time period.

Next week I'll explore two dramatic tales that are a bit more suspenseful and mysterious than the above: the film noir La otra (1946) and the Mexican horror classic El vampiro (1957). Stay tuned!

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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