Almost from the time of the birth of Mexican cinema, José and Rafael Calderón built grand movie palaces in Mexico and the U.S. Astute entrepreneurs and promoters, with access to Hollywood moguls, stars and business models, they understood the value of a reliable product flow to their screens, and so anointed their sons Pedro, Memo and José Luis producers. Beginning in the 1940s, Cinematográfica Calderón, the production and distribution infrastructure they built, produced nearly 200 films. And the story behind those films was strange.
The Calderóns employed thousands to create incomparable, hugely successful, often reprehensible populist genre films utterly and uniquely Mexican. At first, their sensationalist musicals—inadvertent gems—like Aventurera, Victims of Sin and Sensuality defined the dark cabaret/gangster genre, the precursors of today’s telenovelas. The Calderóns gradually made more populist, gimmick-titled productions, eyebrow-raising and scandalous spectacles of nudie B-girls, sybaritic nightclub debauchery, masked wrestlers, cheapie robots, fizzle rockets, vampire sex send-ups. And then, most controversially, their trademark salacious fichera melodramas. The family’s cinema sausage-factory defined a subset of Mexican film history for more than 70 years.
Mostly shunned and dismissed by a scandalized Mexican mainstream press, the 1950s-era Calderón movies became completely identifiable exports, sometimes mythologized by European critics and curious intellectuals. Likely seeking obscure auteurist experiences, critics like Georges Sadoul, Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Francois Truffaut reveled equally in the improbable talents of Cuban singer/dancer Ninón Sevilla (and her legs) and their discovery of the musical gangster melodramas, or cabareteras.
Later, the 60s-era masked wrestlers Santo and Blue Demon became the stuff of international legend among nerdy fanboys. These portly, bare-chested social activists and global saviors—in Ford Falcons, lamé suits and/or bad leotards—fended off all manner of mad scientists and off-the-rack monster hybrids including Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman, along with their own Human Robot and the Aztec Mummy.
The Calderóns were compared to better-known genre producers including Roger Corman, William Castle, Dario Argento, Sam Arkoff, Ed Wood and, later, the Troma subculture. But these comparisons only approximate the Calderón sensibility. Luis Buñuel described one notoriously inept director (fellow Spanish expatriate Juan Orol) as “the world’s only unconscious surrealist.” Buñuel’s comment might help us understand why the Calderón creations were so iconic, with such resonance in Mexican culture. Could it be the appeal of their most bizarre films, like some kind of burlesque haiku, resides outside of all reason, in some deeper region of the Mexican collective unconscious?
Also underpinning the Calderóns’ success is a Spanish-language cultural adoration of melodrama. The international success of Mexican telenovelas, the absurdist dramas of Almodóvar, Arrabal, Buñuel and the traditional self-delusional Cervantine characters (even Latin Boom novelists) all rely on this sensibility. For them high drama is a precise tool to explore, reveal and comment on our shared emotional realities.
No matter how cheesy or improbable the Calderóns’ films were, the music was terrific. Mauricio Calderón, an L.A.-based family member, had impeccable taste and access to A-list acts that were liberally incorporated into the films. Pedro wisely allowed Ninón Sevilla, his unrequited love and their greatest star, to manage most aspects of song selection, arrangements, costumes, choreography and background performance in her films. With Ninón’s participation, musicians Dámaso Pérez Prado, Trio Los Panchos, Agustín Lara, Pedro Vargas, Los Ángeles del Infierno, Ana María González, Luis Aguilar, and composer Antonio Díaz Conde all brought their best stuff. The brothers were as astute about popular music as their father and uncle were about theaters.
After decades of female objectification, nudie scandals and assaults on middle-class values, the Calderóns had learned to dodge criticism and censorship (even the Catholic Church went ballistic upon discovering a forged papal endorsement and Vatican seal on a Calderón poster for a religious-themed film). But Memo’s 1970s fichera genre sent them into new exploitative territory. These night-tripper edecanes sensationally teased the average insecure Mexican male (their chances with “a woman like that” were nil). Virtually unknown outside their B-girl genres, screen vixens like Lyn May, Sasha Montenegro and the more talented Isela Vega let it all hang out for their hopelessly unworthy male screen partners.
Finally, in a tough stance against the Calderóns—by then commercial lynchpins of the Mexican and U.S. Spanish-language theatrical industries—an exasperated Mexican President Luis Echeverría openly chastised the family (and others) for abandoning their civic responsibility. He established a national film bank to support more rigorous cineastes, hoping to retire the old guard.
Ironically, the massive success of the ficheras, coupled with the dollar-paying U.S. Spanish-language audience, extended the Calderons’ careers by another decade. But by the mid 1980s, the genres were exhausted, television was king and Mexican families had grown alienated by films too racy for their children to see. The Calderóns had succeeded for decades because the family understood the rules and business of burlesque. Now, their films were reviled, useful only as a source for parodies for a new generation of filmmakers.
But these imitators could never really outsmart the incomprehensible success of the Calderón formula (in Hollywood, they say, “You just can’t write this stuff”). For reasons deserving of study, the Calderón productions deeply resonated with their Mexican audiences (and as a cult phenomenon in the U.S.). In retrospect, the Calderón films, as hated as they were by some, remained enormously popular, for several generations, for a reason. They were savvy enough to satisfy deep societal needs.
Could anyone else have made these films? On the one hand, the narcissistic parallel theatrical universe the Calderóns created—unencumbered by logic, artistic tradition, good taste or critical feedback—was impelled by a pure gut-level commercial response. On the other, these films seem to reveal something crucial about the producers’ own lives and experiences. Titles like Victims of Sin, Sensuality; I Don’t Deny My Past; Lady Temptation; Sinner; Sacrificed Women; Why She Sins; Seduction; Worse Than Vultures; Belles of the Night and one of my favorites, Impossible Motherhood might ultimately strip bare more about themselves than the Calderóns intended.
The deeply personal discoveries that Viviana García Besné lovingly and honestly explores and shares in Perdida connect us to some of the dark secrets of the Calderón universe. We see glimpses of utterly unknown zaftig, saturnine actresses, overweight masked wrestlers, human robots, Aztec mummies, all manner of inconceivable super-heroes spawned from some alien Borat-like subconscious. At the same time, Perdida reveals the real-world family labyrinth of internal sibling strife, power struggles, uncomfortable marital relations, film business clashes, Hollywood affairs, bankruptcies and anti-intellectual tirades.
Through her prism we experience a cinema dynasty stalled in some Grey Gardens variation. García Besné discovered it all as she made her own way into the film industry. See Perdida and you will know that you are not in Kansas anymore!
Michael Donnelly is a veteran of both the exhibition and production worlds, and an expert in Latin American production and film history. He is the curator of the Mexican cinema collection at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Mexico, 2011, 94m
Director: Viviana García Besné