María Félix was born in Álamos, Sonora. This is a brief account of the city and spaces via a virtual tour.
Let’s start with its location in the northern state of Sonora. It was rich in silver mines but went into temporary decline once these were exhausted. Currently, its main industries are agriculture and tourism.
This summary from a tourist site gives a sense of the city and how it markets itself.
Here’s information from INEGI [Mexican national statistics office] on the population of Álamos. It was a booming city when Félix was born there. But, it would see its population decline in the early part of the Twentieth century. There was another decline from 1995 (when statistics are available for the city) to an upward rise from 2005-2015.
Compare this decline to the consistent state-wide population rise from 1910-2015.
Part of the increased population in Álamos is a rise in owners of second homes and a boost from tourism. It’s home to an annual music festival, Festival Alfonso Ortíz Tirado, held in January. Here’s a link to the 2020 lineup. According to Lonely Plant it is:
One of northern Mexico’s premier cultural events, Álamos’ nine-day late-January festival features top-class classical and chamber music, blues, bossa nova and trova (troubadour-type folk music) performed by artists from across the globe. The festival’s namesake, an Álamos native, was a revered opera singer and well-respected physician (Frida Kahlo was among his patients).
Like many of Jean Renoir’s films, French Cancan (1955) is an ensemble piece. María Félix’s character, Lola de Castro de la Fuente de Extremadura aka La Belle Abbesse is pivotal to the narrative. She is a dancer and high class prostitute attached to wealthy men in Paris society, but in love with only one, Danglard (Jean Gabin), a theatre impresario. Danglard also loves her and needs her for her high society connections to fund his projects, but has a tendency to fall for young starlets. This practice is presented as roguish, although there are glimpses into the personal and emotional impacts on the starlets of his behaviour. Viewed from a post-MeToo world, his actions are unsettling. Unlike the worst of what has emerged about the industry from the MeToo accounts, he never promises favours, the relationships are consensual, and women often pursue him. At the same time, he is a man with the power to hire and fire performers and his charm and honesty normalises the potential abuse of such power.
I came to this film with high expectations and there were two key reasons why. Firstly, I recently watched Le Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937), a powerful reflection on the damage wrought by war and, secondly, the high praise given by Criterion on their release of French Cancan as part of a “stage and spectacle” collection* by Renoir, implies that French Cancan should measure up to Le Grand Illusion. On its site, Criterion declares itself “proud to present these three majestic films by Jean Renoir for the first time on DVD” and states that French Cancan is a “Technicolor tour de force by a master of modern cinema”. These assertions nearly convinced me to spend $55.96 on this trilogy. I was hampered by the pandemic and unsure about the high cost. The collection is only available via their US site, which makes it very difficult to source at the moment. Therefore, I got a much cheaper DVD in the BFI edition. Like Criterion, they are effusive about French Cancan, “The tale allows for an affectionate re-creation (complete with luscious impressionist colours) of the milieu Renoir fils knew as a child. Sheer cinematic joy.” I can’t say I echo any of these sentiments.
The plot is convoluted and involves two central dramas, a tense love triangle between La belle abesse, Danglard, and the up and coming dancer Nini (Françoise Arnoul), on the one hand, and the stop-start attempts to set up Le Moulin Rouge and revive cancan dancing for a broad (and highly profitable) audience, on the other. All three central characters have an interest in how the club does or does not succeed. It is Danglard’s idea and he has the capacity to bring it to fruition. Initially, La belle absesse supports the project through her financial connections and encouragement, but, when Danglard makes her jealous, she purchases the site mid-construction to stall the project. She later relents and the site is bought by another and work resumes (it changes hands many times). Nini has the talent as a dancer, is familiar with the cancan, and she works hard to hone her skills in order to become a famous performer.
Whilst widely extolled, it is a film of limited appeal that has some laudable ambitions. It did prompt me to think about the effort and athleticism of dance and the limited life opportunities for women at the time. None of which are novel, but are unusual for films of the 1950s. The fact that it mocks any moralising yet presents the challenges faced by these women when they do choose to take to the stage is novel. La belle abesse’s failings lie in her jealousy not her success as a sex worker. While Nini’s fiancé rages at her decision to take to the stage, he is presented as unstable and a poor match for her. Meanwhile, although Danglard leaves Nini for another starlet, this is his failing not Nini’s. In similar Mexican films made in the 1950s women get punished for rejecting conventional life choices. In French Cancan there are few consequences.
It is a flamboyant tale full of excesses (nudity, costume, high drama, dramatic gestures), that is overly complicated in its telling. Félix’s performance falls flat. Her physicality is different from her typical style and the dances she performs lack her usual grace. The film is farcical with a tinge of tragedy and poignancy that suggests at some reflection on the precarious nature of working in theatre and of working class life in Paris of the late nineteenth century. For example, there is an alcoholic former dancer who is a haunting presence throughout the film. Shot on set it feels curtailed by the spaces. This could have the potential of being a referential commentary on theatre spaces, instead it feels hemmed in. I don’t want to expend too many words on what doesn’t work. Instead, I just want to note the significance of the film in Félix’s career.
French Cancan is one of the few films Félix does not get the starring credit. She is the third named actor in the credits. It is one of six French co-productions she starred in between 1951 and 1959. The others were directed by Carmine Gallone (Italy-France-Spain), Luis Saslavsky (Spain-France), Richard Pottier (France-Italy), Yves Ciampi (France-Germany), and Luis Buñuel (France-Mexico) with mixed success. Many of these are set outside of France. In all of these she is a seductress. Some are in Spanish, others in French, which she learnt for those roles, while the remainder are in Italian and are dubbed as was practice in Italy at the time.
I cannot say I commend this as a film, but I would also not want to damn it outright.
*The other two films in this collection are: The Golden Coach (1953) and Elena and Her Men (1956).
A close reading of Una mujer cualquiera (Rafael Gil, 1949) has led me to consider the comic writer, dramatist, and scriptwriter, Migues Mihura (1905-1977). Best known for the film Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (Luis García Berlanga, 1953). Trying to puzzle through who he as I came across an engaging analysis of his use of humour by Emeterio Díez (2002). In the article Díez compiles a long list of adjectives used about Mihura across a range of obituaries that I want to share, here.
He obviously divided opinion. Getting to the crux of what his work dealt with requires navigating someone who was variable, contradictory, and mutable.
Díez, Emeterio. 2002. “Miguel Mihura: ‘Yo No Soy La Mata-Hari.’” Anales de La Literatura Española Contemporánea 27 (1): 69-87.
José Arroyo has a good summary of the many failings of Sonatas o aventuras del Marqués de Bradomín (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1959). I will not rehearse these again. Just to add, I think that I saw a better version on Flix Olé than the copy he managed to see. The quality is good, which improved the viewing experience, but did not compensate for the many failings of the film.
The first half of the film is in Spain, the second is in Mexico in the 1830s. Given my interest in Mexico and María Félix, I’ll reserve my comments for the second half. In Sonatas Mexico is reduced to a series of folkloric images. Shot by Gabriel Figueroa, who has been criticised for creating a nationalist iconography using highly stylised close-ups of cacti and wide shots of people set against an expansive sky, this film seems like self-parody.
The Count of Bradomín (Paco Rabal) is attired as a colonial gentleman guided through the countryside experiencing an authentic Mexico.
He falls for a local noblewoman, La niña Chole (María Félix). Her evolution as a character is tracked through her wardrobe.
The people of Mexico simply act as folkloric colour for the romance and adventure of Bradomín and La niña Chole’s story. They are mere objects in space whose function is to tell us we are in Mexico much as the cactus, buildings, sand, or props.
Despite being set in the previous century, Sonatas draws on much of the iconography of the films set during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). The clothing of the ordinary foot soldiers and country labourers are identical to what can be seen in films of the Revolution. The only difference is in the uniforms of the official army and Félix’s wardrobe. This sense of being out of time, whilst simultaneously marked by time, normalises the idea of Mexico as a place constantly in revolt. This is a troubling notion that allows for terrible assumptions and conclusions about Mexico as essentially and endemically troubled and Mexicans as inherently violent. Sonatas has little to commend it and slips into dangerous culturally reductive stereotypes and clichés about Mexico.
I have re-read Adela Fernández’s memoir-biography* of her father, El Indio Fernández: vida y mito (1986) paying particular attention to mentions of María Félix, subject of my current project. Adela Fernández y Fernández (1942-2013) was an author, scriptwriter, and director who, at the time of writing her father’s biography was estranged from her father, Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. Her funeral was celebrated in the house Emilio** had built, La Fortaleza [the fortress] in Coyoacan, Mexico City, and she was buried alongside him which suggests some form of reconciliation.
The book is a fascinating insight into a highly creative, troubled, and difficult individual at the centre of what was the peak of the Mexican film industry known as the Golden Age (1930s-1950s). Dolores Tierney (2007) has written an academic monograph about Emilio Fernández that is an invaluable insight into his films. Here, I want to give some sense of Adela’s text.
It is not a typical star biography, told as it is by a family member it slips into memoir for the most part with all the contingent loose attachment to subjectivity that label supposes. While Adela is estranged from her father, it is not a bitter book. But she can be critical, in particular of his attitude to women and his sometimes violent mood swings. Her account is of living with a man at the height of his creativity, who was highly social, and liked to hold court at home and host lavish parties. She drops the names of the many famous individuals who came to the house, but she is never starstruck.
Adela describes Emilio as someone who had conservative expectations about women’s behaviour and rigid ideas about their appearance and eating habits. He favoured women with long hair, who were thin, and conformed to specific ideas of femininity. In this vein, both María Félix and Dolores del Rio (Adela suggests that Emilio and del Rio had a relationship) conformed to his idea of the ideal women. Of course, Emilio did not invent these norms, but he did choose to impose them rigidly on “las muchachas” [the girls] who lived in his house (11). Full of contradictions, he expected purity from women, but was incapable of fidelity. Again, such double standards were not of his making. Aside from gossip about who some of these women were, Adela foregrounds the labour carried out by women to facilitate his lifestyle and the emotional toll of his behaviour on those around him.
Myth is in the title and Emilio’s self-mythologising and the myths told about him are addressed throughout, “Adjuntas a su fantasía personal, están las fantasías del pueblo” [alongside his personal fantasies, there are the public’s fantasies] (18). Describing him as a “monstruo sagrado” [sacred beast] (28), she unpacks these myths, but also presents his many charms. In bricolage style, the book is told in a mix of direct quotations from Emilio, Adela’s commentaries or framing of these, and her own reflections on what it meant to live in his household. Divided into eight chapters detailing key aspects of his life. The first chapter provides detail on his childhood and early career, sometimes countering at others validating some of the myths. The first chapter largely addresses a period before Adela’s birth and, therefore, would have required that she carry out research, later chapters draw on her life experiences. Chronologically told this chapter gives the effect of careful and authoritative biographical research, whereas later chapters are focused on other thematic or relational issues and are more subjectively told as is usual in a memoir and less attached to chronology.
Chapters two through eight address Emilio’s obsessions: his collection of animals of all sorts (dogs, snakes, chickens, horses, etc); the energy and money he put into his house (here she gives a guided tour of the house); his nationalism and scholarly engagement with indigenous traditions; his work rate and expectations of others; his capacity to drink and entertain; and his many affairs. In Adela’s version, he was a man of extremes, “El regalar una flor o el sorrajarle a alguien un golpe, en él son cosas de mera rutina” [he was as quick to gift someone a rose as to knock them sideways] (109).
The long lists of what he bought for the house or the detailed account of the animals he took in are less interesting than the insight Adela gives of what it meant to grow up amongst a creative milieu in mid-century Mexico with a powerful and volatile individual. Some of what she witnessed are the arbitrary decisions of a man who wielded his power over women’s careers when he felt that they did not live up to his standards or spurned his attentions. This is further evidence of how long such stories have been told and not taken seriously, that is, up to the recent shifts as a result of the MeToo movement. But, this is not purely a story of control, it is also an insight into moments of tenderness where Adela acknowledges her admiration for his many talents and provides glimpses of moments of domestic intimacy. For example, there is a section where she details the small private pleasures she shared with him that evoke the happy times they had (160).
There are accounts of his relationships with many collaborators, but for now I am interested in the María Félix. For Adela, Emilio and Félix had a unique relationship. Adela describes Félix as having a reputation for being “una mujer difícil de satisfacer” [hard to satisfy] (180), who, nonetheless, had an excellent working relationship with Emilio. She describes them as working as equals, “Las relaciones de trabajo entre ellos han sido de las mejores que han habido en el cine mexicano: respeto, ductilidad, predisposición en rendirse homenaje uno a otro, empeño por imprimir lo mejor de ellos mismos en una obra de arte” [their working relationship was the best there ever was in Mexican film. There was respect, flexibility, a predisposition to pay tribute to one another, and determination to put their best work into each film] (182). Adela does not think they ever had a romantic relationship, but Emilio was enamoured with Félix’s walk and the way she moved (183). She credits Félix with Emilio’s return to acting. She used her influence in to have him case in La Cucaracha (Ismael Rodríguez, 1958) which led to numerous subsequent roles (221-222).
The above quotation also gives a sense of the occasional slips into hyperbole in the memoir-biography, and conveys the admiration Adela had for her father’s artistic output. As star biography and as memoir, this book merits a close reading. It is an intelligent and emotionally complex account of what it means to grow up at the edges of fame. It also gives a fuller sense of Emilio, myths and all.
*There are slippages between these two types of writing in the text, which make it difficult to fully ascribe a single label. Paul de Man (1979) has written about life writing (specifically autobiography) as a reading position, which could be a useful way to think about this text.
**Because both are Fernández, I will use their given names to avoid confusion. Tierney discusses the gnarly issue of the nickname “El Indio” in her work. I will avoid using it for some of the reasons she details although it is the name Adela uses throughout her book.
De Man, Paul (1979) “Autobiography as De-facement.” MLN 94, no. 5: 919-30. Accessed May 1, 2020. doi:10.2307/2906560.
Fernández, Adela (1986) El Indio Fernández: vida y mito Mexico City: Panorama Editorial.
Tierney, Dolores (2007) Emilio Fernández: Pictures in the Margins Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press.
Mare Nostrum* is a spy drama set in Naples, Italy at the outbreak of World War II. It was the first of three films María Félix starred in that were directed by Rafael Gil. It was adaptated from a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez whose books inspired numerous film adaptations. This was the second adaptation of the novel. The previous version directed by Rex Ingram (1926) was set during a previous war, but was loosely based around the same plot.
I’m going to recount the plot using screenshots from the film.
There are so many ambivalences in the film narrative. Ulises is prepared to betray his neutral country and help the Germans. Freya is a noble patriot (the word is used repeatedly) to the end. No mention or symbols of Nazi Germany are used in the film. This does more than appear to de-politicise the film so much as make it strange in a World War II film. More than Una mujer cualquiera (1949), this film reveals Gil’s politics and sympathies with Francoism.
As an aside, it was one of the few in which her character sings. She was not known for her singing talent. Ana María González performed the song which was dubbed in post-production.
This was Félix’s first film in Spain and received much acclaim on arrival from the public with her moves carefully tracked by the popular press (see, Taibo I 2004, 195). Spain was a major consumer of Mexican film and Félix was at the height of her fame at the time.
A look at a review of Ingram’s 1926 version in Sight and Sound suggests that the previous adaptation played up to the over-blown sexuality of the source text. In that review Fuller describes the novelist as having a “fear of monstrous female sexuality in his work […which] drew on the misogynistic cult in fin-de-siècle art and literature” (2014). In Gil’s version Freya and Ulises wrestle with similar conflicts. Ironically, his ambivalence about Spain’s neutrality in the war as well as the decision to cast Félix in this role allowed more space for a nuanced female character than were evidente in either the source text or Ingram’s versions.
María Félix starred in three films directed by Rafael Gil, Mare Nostrum (1948), Una mujer cualquiera [Loves of a Lost Woman, lit. any woman] (1949), and La noche del sábado [Saturday night] (1950). I have yet to find much written on Gil’s work, which may be linked to his politics (1). The obituary in El País indicates that he was a supporter of the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. With 85 directing credits to his name (according to imdb), he was prolific and, by all accounts, had most success (box office and awards) in the 1940s and 1950s. Félix starred in his films when Gil was at the height of his career. However, none of these films appear in the limited ‘best of’ lists in his obituaries and most are hard to source outside of Spain (2).
In Una mujer cualquiera Nieves Blanca (3) (Félix) lives in Madrid and is from an indeterminate Latin American country (4). She leaves her wealthy husband when their daughter dies because he refuses to give his permission to have her treated. This was his right under the way patria potestad was framed during the dictatorship. This could be an implicit critique of the system. Nieves falls on hard times because, as her husband tells her before she leaves, “no sabes trabajar, sólo sabes ser guapa”, that is, she has no skills, just beauty. Like many Félix films, Nieves’ beauty is not only visually reinforced through key lighting, it also comes up in dialogue or through focus on the male attention she receives throughout the film. Una mujer cualquiera is beautifully shot by Theodore J. Pahle (5).
The rest of the plot is slightly convoluted, but I will touch on the most salient details. Nieves goes to live in a boarding house with a good family. One of the inhabitants, Rosa (Carolina Jiménez) is about to announce her engagement on her name day. The day before, Nieves is picked up by a man, Luis (Antonio Vilar), when she is out alone at night. It’s not clear whether it was her intention to meet someone. However, it is clear that she is broke, is out when ‘good’ women should be at home, and appears very aware of what this encounter should involve. They go to his house. They do converse, but, she is taken aback when he seems disinterested in anything amorous. She wanders around his home and then hears a scuffle. She sees him kill a man and she flees the scene. It soon emerges that this encounter was a ruse and Luis appears to have set her up to be accused of the murder. He wipes his fingerprints off everything and leaves hers around (on a glass, a monogrammed handkerchief, and a scent bottle).
The following day Nieves is out of sorts and reluctantly joins the name day celebration at the boarding house. Luis turns up. He is Rosa’s supposedly decent and hardworking intended. Nieves is shocked and says nothing. They both pretend not to know each other. The plot continues in a mix of melodrama and thriller as the pair are thrown together through this terrible crime and, because Nieves is so beautiful (as we are repeatedly told) and has already fallen so low, they become lovers.
After hiding out in Madrid where it is difficult to evade being handed over to the police by (sometimes creepy) vigilant neighbours or former friends, they flee the city by train using complicated ruses to avoid detection. They arrive in Vigo, where Luis’ father lives, steal a car, and Luis shoots a police officer on a motorbike. He tries to plant the murder weapon on Nieves and leave without her. On realising this she picks up the gun and shoots him at point blank. Her downfall is complete. She does not put up resistance when she is arrested. She hasno defence for her actions and and explains her complicity with Luis as “cosas de mujeres” [women’s stuff].
Félix’s star turn and her facility to operate within the melodramatic mode provides space to reflect on the place of women in a conservative society. Una mujer cualquiera fits within certain tropes of films starring Félix as a beautiful temptress (in this case despite herself), as a woman who gets revenge, and as someone who falls outside of the confines of behaviour expected of women at the time. Melodrama is this doubly coded mode. You watch a woman transgress norms for much of the film knowing that in the end she will be punished. It allows for the simultaneous thrill of breaking rules all the while evading censorship. The film does not present Spanish society or people as easily conforming to the conservative standards I would have expected of films under the dictatorship. Nieves is melodramatic character and, as is common in the genre in Mexico, it is society that is to blame for her downfall. Her husband’s abuse of the law, her lack of skills and education, and the police delay in solving the crime, are all reasons for her eventual undoing.
These subtle critiques are interesting in a filmmaker who was a supporter of the regime. Some of these may be thanks to a script written by Miguel Mihura who wrote Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (Luis García Berlanga, 1953), a film that was critical of Francoist Spain. I would be interested in a wider analysis of Gil’s oeuvre to understand where these films fit within it.
(1) There are a small number of articles written about his adaptations of literary texts. These are two examples, Fernando Sanz Ferreruela (2019) “National Catholicism and Censorship as Conditioning Factors of the Cinematographic Adaptation of Literary Works in Spain in the 1940s: Rafael Gil’s La Fe (1947)”, 1616 8 (0): 143–66 and Pilar García Pinacho (2018) “La Duda (1972) De Rafael Gil: Reconsideraciones Acerca De La Adaptación Cinematográfica De El Abuelo, De Benito Pérez Galdós”, Anales Galdosianos, no. 53 (January): 11–31.
(2) I watched them on FlixOlé a Spanish site. I availed of a monthly subscription at a lockdown discount in April 2020.
(3) A note on her name. It reads as Snow White “Blancanieves” in reverse, literally White Snow. Presumably, this suggests innocence spoiled.
(4) Her place of origin is a recurrent point of dialogue in the film. Several characters say, “tú no eres española, ¿verdad?”, to which she replies, “no” and refuses to elaborate.
(5) I have found no research on Pahle. I would love to read some, he looks like a fascinating individual and the cinematography is extraordinary.
Continuing my look at films starring María Félix, here’s a short review of Canasta de cuentos mexicanos [Basket of Mexican Stories] (Julio Bracho, 1956). Adapted from three stories by B Traven, a mysterious author about whom I have previously written in relation to Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1959). The voice over in the opening sequence privileges this literary source and tells us that Traven is the acclaimed author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1954) and La rebelión de los colgados [The Rebellion of the Hanged] (Alfredo B. Crevenna and Emilio Fernándex, 1954). Such foregrounding of the literary source is not unusual in Mexican screen adaptations. An anthology film that foregrounds the location of each story Canasta de cuentos mexicanos comprises: “Solución inesperada” [unexpected solution] set in Taxco; “Canasta” [basket] set in Oaxaca, Acapulco, and New York; and “La tigresa” [the tigress] set in Cuernavaca and an unnamed ranch location in Michoacán, Northern Mexico.
Briefly, the stories have unexpected twists. In “Solución inesperada” a husband (Arturo de Cordova) is faced with a dilemma when his son announces his engagement. Thinking that his son’s fiancée is his biological daughter he forbids the wedding but does not want his secret revealed. When he does tell his wife (Lorraine Chanel) after some rumination, this dilemma is upended when she reveals that their son is not his biological son. Both had affairs at about the same time. Thus, the dilemma is resolved without anyone else finding out. “Canasta” considers what happens when modernity confronts indigenous productive capacity and priorities. A honeymooning US couple (Jack Kelly and Marie Blanchard) get their comeuppance when they hope to get rich exploiting an indigenous family weaving baskets. The unnamed (and uncredited) indigenous basket weaver lays out the reasons why he can produce the work cheaply on a small scale, but scaling up for their profit is not possible. Thus, the couple must return to their middle class life and the indigenous family retain their traditional way of life. Both of these are attempts to play with prior assumptions about women (in “Solución inesperada”) and the indigenous (in “Canasta”) with mixed results. They upend and reinforce societal norms.
The final story, “La tigresa” [the tigress] stars María Félix. It also plays with assumptions, but has the most conventional ending of the three. Félix stars as Luisa Bravo -she gets top billing in the opening credits- and her character is as brava (wild, unruly, untamed) as her surname suggests. An adept horsewoman and chess player, she is New York educated with a hot headed temperament which no man has been able to tame. That is, until Carlos Cosio (Pedro Armendáriz) comes into town. Carlos is smitten with her on first sight when he goes to her saddlery to buy a saddle. After a relatively brief and fiery courtship, they marry and she moves to his ranch in the North.
Most of the story is concerned with the courtship watched over by her grandmother and aunt. An intentionally comical pair, they comment on Luisa’s unsuitability for marriage because her foreign education led her astray, “le duele vivir en un mundo en que dominan los hombres” [it hurts her to live in a world dominated by men]. Like many films starring Félix as a feisty, independent character, most screen time is spent on her skills and abilities and how attractive her beauty and intelligence is for men.
Nonetheless, because of the conservative mores of the time, her characters either get punished or tamed for these same characteristics. This is the case in “La tigresa”. In the last few minutes of the narrative, Luisa is dominated by Carlos. Although, interestingly, this is not shown on screen. What we do see is her hand lighting a cigarette and their clothes strewn about the room. All of which suggests that they have (after some months) consummated their marriage. The dialogue in this scene suggests that he has the upper hand, but it’s not unambiguous. In an earlier montage sequence it is implied that Luisa (unlike a ‘good’ wife who should consent only to have children) has a sexual appetite and is turned on by Carlos, a desire heretofore he has refused her. Therefore, is not definitive that he is the one who “won” this dispute. So, the Luisa we come away with is the powerful and capable woman not the submissive that could be suggested by a surface reading of the ending. Such ambiguity is one of the reasons Félix’s star text as independent, rebellious woman persists. The punishment for her transgressive behaviour happens off-screen or is implied, but seldom shown. As Paco Ignacio Taibo I states in his assessment of her performance and casting in the film, “La leyenda de María Félix parecía convenir a la <<Tigresa>> y la <<Tigresa>> encajar en el comportamiento social de María” [María Félix’s reputation was that of a “Tigress” and the “Tigress” matched María’s public self] (2004, 302). He compares her character’s treatment on screen to similar treatment of Elizabeth Taylor and Mary Pickford in their star turns as, “mujeres independientes y autoritarias [quienes] fueron ofrecidas a la venganza del público, en papeles de fierecillas domadas” [independent and assertive women who were offered up for public retribution, in roles as tamed shrews] (Taibo I 2004, 303).
Canasta de cuentos mexicanos is one of several anthology films starring Félix that draws on her star persona. They are a curious style of film that make for interesting compendiums of contemporary Mexico. Reportaje (Emilio Fernández, 1953) is another good example in which her character (in metafictional fashion) is a famous star. Canasta de cuentos mexicanos is one of the three films by the director, Julio Bracho, starring Félix as a seductress. The others are: El monje blanco [the white monk] (1945) and La mujer de todos [everybody’s woman] (1946).
Taibo I, Paco Ignacio. (2004), María Félix: 47 pasos por el cine. Mexico: Ediciones B.
This interview between María Félix and Iván Trujillo has been made available by the Filmoteca at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México [National Autonomous University of Mexico] (UNAM). It is possible to download it or stream it from the site for free. Carried out in 1992 as part of a celebration of her life on screen and off at the UNAM, Trujillo asks a range of questions related to her life’s work, her relationship with fellow cast and crew, her approach to film projects; and reflections on some of the paintings that also form part of the celebration.
The interview is in two parts. In the first Félix is seated in an opulent throne-like seat.
For the second part, Félix speaks from a comfortable upholstered seat.
The mise-en-scène is the only indicator that there has been a break in the interview. The camera moves between two shots of Félix and the interviewer, and close shots of Félix’s face and hands.
Through references to the space and the placement of art, it is clear that this is Félix’s own home. There is a presentation of wealth in the furnishings, her clothing and accessories, and she repeatedly describes herself as a collector of art and objects.
For the most part Trujillo asks Félix questions about her working relationships with several well-known names and she mostly avoids saying very much about individuals or, at least, much that is revelatory. She is more forthcoming in her attitude to particular films. For example, she has high praise for Luis Buñuel with whom she made one film, Los ambiciosos/Fever Mounts at El Pao/La fièvre monte à El Pao (1959). She describes Buñuel as a great friend and an intelligent man, who is an actor’s director, whilst in no uncertain terms she declares that the film is bad.
Félix’s supreme confidence is evident in this interview. She repeatedly talks about her disciplined approach to her career, the diligence with which she learnt her craft, and the control she has had over her career. At a running time of 43.32 it is a brief insight into Félix’s star persona twenty years after she made her last film.
I am continuing my occasional posts about films starring María Félix with a short post on La estrella vacía [the empty star] (Emilio Gómez Muriel, 1958). The film is adapated from the eponymous 1950 novel by Luis Spota, a well-known chronicler of twentieth century Mexican urban life and, in the words of Sara Sefchovich a “fenómeno sociológico-literario” [sociological-literary phenomenon] (1979, 839), because of his attention to Mexican politics and society. A bestselling author whose work has been given little attention by scholars, Spota’s novel is indicative of his interest in exploring the “abuse by the powerful” of those less powerful in society (Pouwels 1994, 424-5). This is reflected in the adaptation.
María Félix stars as Olga Lang, a young woman of modest means who has moved from her village to Mexico City to become a film star. It soon becomes clear that she is ruthless in her pursuit of fame aligning herself with powerful men in order to fulfil her ambitions. Whilst this could be a simple story of a glamorous femme fatale, the plot is not concerned with Olga as a seductress. Instead, it is centred on everything she endures and the great sacrifices she makes in order to become rich and successful. The challenges are multiple and mostly inflicted by the powerful film industry men who have a say over her career and life. The hardships range in difficulty and include controversial issues that receive little attention in mainstream melodrama. These include being forced to undergo a botched abortion that leaves her unable to have children; missing her mother’s funeral; being subject to sexual harassment by the studio executives; and experiencing domestic violence and controlling behaviour by multiple partners. This exploration of the costs of fame has elements of what has been revealed through the MeToo movement campaigns. La estrella vacía foreshadows these revelations and suggests that such abuses have been a long-kept open secret. The studio bosses, Raúl Tovar (Ramón Gay) and Federico Guillén (Carlos López Moctezuma), are particularly prone to abusing their power. While the lowlier men, such as the novelist Luis (in what could be an allusion to Spota himself), Arvide (Ignacio López Tarso), Olga’s driver, Tomás (Wolf Rubinskis), and Olga’s father (José Luis Jiménez) are all more noble allies to Olga. Nonetheless, none of them shield her from the abuse.
Ambition has its challenges, but so too has a quest for independence. It is clear that life for a woman in the city is difficult, as evidenced in her friend, Teresa’s (Rita Macedo), struggle with her alcoholism, which is understood as a consequence of the challenges of city life rather than addiction. As Olga reflects after visiting Teresa in a psychiatric hospital, “hay que hacerse dura…muy dura”, implying that Teresa has that quality and, whilst Olga does, it has come at a cost.
I’m not interested in a like for like comparison with the novel, but what is retained in the adaptation is structural experimentation, flashbacks are a framing device of both the novel and film (Pouwels 1994, 425). The film begins with Olga’s departure from the airport to Madrid which cuts to a news headline of her death in a plane crash. This then cuts to a modernist mansion and a panning shot of an open-plan room inside with men in different poses. Over the course of the narrative it becomes clear that these are all men who had a relationship with Olga as her parent, lover, friend, or employee. There are several flashbacks to this scene in the film to remind us of their significance and her death.
It would be easy to classify this film as a conservative lesson in punishment for female ambition. Whilst some of that is present in the film, that reading is simplistic and ignores the cruelty of the powerful that is being revealed to us over the course of the narrative and the significance of Félix’s star text that can be read as both sub-text and text in the film. As someone with insider knowledge of the film industry, Spota claimed that Olga was inspired by Félix, Dolores del Rio, and Gloria Marín (Taibo I 2004, 347). In part, this is Félix’s story. There is some moralising about women’s ambition, but this is not a cautionary tale about being ambitious, it is a warning about how power is abused by those who wield it.
Taibo I, Paco Ignacio. (2004), María Félix: 47 pasos por el cine. Mexico: Ediciones B.
Pouwels, Joel B. 1994. “Luis Spota Revisited: An Overview of His Narrative Art.” Revista Hispánica Moderna 47 (2): 421-435.
Sefchovich, Sara. 1979. “Luis Spota, La Costumbre Del Poder.” Revista Mexicana de Sociología 41 (3): 839. doi:10.2307/3540092.