Roberto Gavaldón

Roberto Gavaldón

7 June 1909, Chihuahua, Mexico

4 September 1986, Mexico City

The so-called Golden Age of Mexican Cinema in the 1940s and ’50s remains a mythical terra incognita for most film lovers. We may know the names of its legendary stars – Dolores del Río and María Félix, Arturo de Córdova and Pedro Armendáriz. We may perhaps even know one or two directors, such the Spanish exile Luis Buñuel, whose crabby asceticism was uncomfortably at odds with the romantic flamboyance of Mexican movies, or Emilio (‘El Indio’) Fernández, whose operatic visions of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 were serenely untroubled by memories of real life. We may even have heard, once or twice, of Roberto Gavaldón.

One of the supreme artists of the melodrama – a rival to Sirk and Minnelli, Stahl and Ophüls – Gavaldón remains stubbornly little known outside the Spanish-speaking world. This neglect is due, in part, to a scarcity of good-quality subtitled prints. Also, perhaps, to a widespread misperception of Mexican films as primitive and undeveloped.

For two decades, the Mexican industry was a serious global rival to Hollywood, and Gavaldón – from his first big hit, La otra/The Other One (1946) to his final masterpiece, El gallo de oro/The Golden Cock (1964) – was that industry’s biggest and brightest star. He was even invited to shoot two minor films for Hollywood, The Adventures of Casanova in 1948 and The Littlest Outlaw in 1953.

Most of his films do not fit easily into the restrictive criteria of “arthouse” cinema. As Carlos Monsiváis describes, Mexican films of the Golden Age were overwhelmingly popular and populist in their appeal:

In Mexico, the idea of cinema as art does not even get a look-in. It is a mass entertainment, offering an immediate link to the metropolis, a subliminal modernisation of rural and urban groups. The visits to the flea-pits or the cinemas in the villages, in city suburbs or city centres becomes a daily or Sunday ritual observed by fascinated children, adolescents, young single people and families. The surrender towards the new medium is almost unconditional and almost explains the ideological resentment towards Hollywood.1

Hence it is natural that most of Gavaldón’s films have absurdly melodramatic plots, extravagant and larger-than-life star performances, feverish and hyperbolic mise-en-scène and thunderous and over-the-top musical scores. We should remember that film melodrama – much like bel canto opera or classical ballet – is a stylised, not a realistic, art form. Watching La escondida/The Hidden One (1956), some will complain that María Félix at 40 looks far too old and too glamorous to play an 18-year-old peasant. That is as absurd as carping that Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake does not look like an actual swan.

The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema was closely tied to the country’s transformation from a largely agrarian rural society to an urbanised modern state. Gavaldón, like other filmmakers of the age, provided the mythology that explained a changing nation to itself. There were, of course, multiple and radically different ways of doing this. Chief among them was the juxtaposition of the rural and urban worlds:

[T]he opposition between a utopian province (the land of hard-working Christian people who respect mother and family and are in touch with Nature) and the city (a chaotic universe leading to vice, immorality, sensuality, venereal disease and death).2

In this context, it is handy to describe Gavaldón as an “urban” filmmaker, in contrast to the “rural” Fernández. Such films as La diosa arrodillada/The Kneeling Goddess (1947), En la palma de tu mano/In the Palm of Your Hand (1950) and La noche avanza/Night Falls (1951) have marked Gavaldón as the supreme exponent of that tantalising and perverse sub-genre known as Mexican noir. When Gavaldón sets a film in the country, he shows it most often through the eyes of an alienated urban outsider – for example, Arturo de Córdova as the misfit doctor in El rebozo de Soledad/Soledad’s Shawl (1952). Even when the characters and setting of a Gavaldón film are entirely rural, as in the masterful but little-seen Rosauro Castro (1950), they are stripped of the sentimentalised nobility on which Fernández and others would normally insist.

Roberto Gavaldón

Arturo de Cordova in En la palma de tu mano

In the urban melodramas of Gavaldón, the characters are fully at one with the depraved metropolis around them. Among the fauna are Pedro Armendáriz as the cynical gigolo and jai alai player in La noche avanza, and Arturo de Córdova as the compulsive seducer of married women in Las tres perfectas casadas/The Three Perfect Wives (1952). Others include María Félix as the bed-hopping courtesan turned “actress” in Camelia (1953) and Dolores del Río as the rapacious and homicidal twin sisters in La otra. Corrupt, cynical and ruthless to the point of psychosis, these characters do more than inhabit the dark twentieth century city – they embody it and exemplify the evil that surrounds them.

At the end of the 1950s, once melodrama died as a commercial genre, Gavaldón took his filmmaking into areas that Hollywood could scarce imagine – the vein of Magic Realism that was starting to hold sway in Latin American fiction. Without being any less successful as melodramas, Macario (1959), Días de otoño/Days of Autumn (1962) and El gallo de oro straddle the line between the fantastic and the everyday in ways that films made elsewhere have never quite been able to grasp. If Gavaldón’s work in the 1970s shows a sad but undeniable decline, his work in the preceding three decades should enshrine him as a leading artist of world cinema.

An Artistic Rebel and Mexican Noir

The details of Roberto Gavaldón’s early life are sketchy at best. Born on 7 June 1909 to a middle-class family in Chihuahua, he migrated north to Los Angeles in the early 1930s. He lived on the fringes of Tinseltown – among the Mexican actors and technicians who made Spanish-language versions of Hollywood films – and earned a living as a bouncer in nightclubs. It is no accident that most Gavaldón films boast at least one nightclub scene, ranging in tone from the seedy to the downright surreal. Moving to Mexico City, he joined the film industry proper and worked his way up from bit-part actor to assistant director. By the early 1940s, he was co-director on super-productions such as El conde de Montecristo/The Count of Monte Cristo (Chano Urueta, 1942) with Arturo de Córdova, and Nana (Celestino Gorostiza, 1944) with the one-time Hollywood star Lupe Vélez. With the industries of Hollywood and Europe engulfed by the Second World War, these films marked a bid for a new global audience.

It was no surprise, in this context, that Gavaldón’s first solo outing had a European source and setting. Based on a novel by the Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, La barraca/The Hut (1944) tells of a farmer trying to scratch a living on a plot of land said to be cursed. This curse may well exist, but is by no means supernatural in origin. Rather it is the bigotry and downright savagery of the neighbours, who persecute Batiste (Domingo Soler) and his family for being outsiders. These yokels shoot the family’s mule, cause the death of the youngest child and end up burning the hut to the ground. “La barraca is a story of irrational intolerance,” writes Carl J. Mora, “and the inability of a good man to cope with it.”3 With its focus on the mendacity and pervasive ill-nature of a small farming community, La barraca undermined the myth of rural nobility on which most Mexican cinema was based.

Two years later in La otra – his first big international hit – Gavaldón subverted yet another sacred national myth. In this case, the persona of Mexico’s greatest and most glamorous star, Dolores del Río. Returning to Mexico after a Hollywood career dating back to the silents, she teamed up with Emilio Fernández for a series of films – starting with Flor silverstre/Wild Flower and María Candelaria in 1943 – that enshrined her as an implacably virtuous, eternally suffering peasant Madonna. “If Garbo is a woman who becomes a goddess,” Carlos Fuentes wrote, “Dolores del Río is a goddess who makes herself a woman.”4 Gavaldón demolished this aura of sanctity by casting del Río as rival twin sisters. One of them is poor and morally dubious; the other is rich and frankly, unapologetically depraved.

Deciding to murder her rich sibling and take her place, the poor sister lures her victim to her squalid garret. There she shoots her through the head and passes it off as her own suicide. Coldly, she strips the stockings off the dead woman and replaces them with her own. Once she has ‘stolen’ her sister’s life, she finds out (too late) that the dead woman was a murderess and a victim of sexual blackmail. Pure rip-roaring melodrama from start to finish, La otra is also a poignant and deeply subversive portrait of a country schizophrenically divided by social class. Del Río, seizing gleefully on a chance to play two villains, turns in a performance to outclass those of Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946) or Bette Davis in A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946), two films that La otra resembles but effortlessly tops.

Roberto Gavaldón

Dolores del Rio in La Otra

In his next foray into film noir, Gavaldón took on two more sacred monsters of the screen. In La diosa arrodillada, Arturo de Córdova plays a wealthy chemist and María Félix the sleazy femme fatale who lures him into poisoning his wife. What makes Gavaldón’s approach so fascinating is the way the madness of one feeds insistently – almost atavistically – off the madness of the other. When de Córdova’s homicidal resolve shows signs of flagging, Félix crashes a party at his house, dressed in a figure-hugging Schiaparelli-style gown that makes her look like a mermaid on dry land. She looms, like the Sphinx, in a giant mirror that covers an entire wall – haunting de Córdova whichever way he turns. Psychologically these two are twins, doubles and mirror images, like the lookalike sisters in La otra.

Having established himself as the master of Mexican noir, Gavaldón burlesqued his own status with Han matado a Tongolele/Who Killed Tongolele? (1948). A light-hearted caper about the murder (or is it?) of an exotic dancer, it is also a Baroque visual fantasia of secret passages, deadly potions, escaped leopards and murderous clowns. Peerless in its high-style absurdity, Tongolele may well rival Cobra Woman (Robert Siodmak, 1944) as the most perfect camp film of the 40s. Its much face-lifted star, Yolanda Montes, still makes the odd nostalgic appearance on Mexican TV.

The Melodrama of Machismo

Having made his name in the 1940s as a master of noir, Roberto Gavaldón turned in the ’50s to the conflicts and complexes of the male psyche. While melodrama is often defined as a woman’s genre, the tradition of male melodrama – in Hollywood and elsewhere – is surprisingly rich and complex. The five films that Gavaldón made in this vein are an unsparing attack on the Mexican cult of machismo.

The first, Rosauro Castro, stars Pedro Armendáriz as a ruthless rural landowner who lives to impose his will on those around him. He rigs the local elections and guns down anyone who stands in his way. Normally cast by Fernández as a coarse but noble-hearted peasant hero, Armendáriz is uniquely terrifying as a homicidal small-town megalomaniac. Yet Gavaldón is too canny to make him purely a monster. He is also a doting father, who takes his six-year-old son to a puppet show and watches it as raptly as any of the children. Like most monsters, this man is a child who never grew up.

A year later in La noche avanza, Armendáriz further undermines his noble rural persona, this time in a corrupt and wholly urban setting. An amoral and opportunistic jai alai player, he uses his sporting prowess to market his sexual favours to rich women. He is also in hock to gangsters, who precipitate the film’s crisis by calling in their debts. The action unfurls in a sleazy urban night world as compelling as that of Farewell My Lovely (Edward Dmytryk, 1944) or The Big Combo (Joseph H Lewis, 1955). Yet it is marred at moments by Gavaldón’s occasional tendency to overstatement. We could perhaps live without the final scene – the morning after this anti-hero’s well-earned demise – where a dog lifts its leg on his poster as it blows, torn and forgotten, down a squalid city street.

Gavaldón’s last three male melodramas centre on the other great male star of the Golden Age, Arturo de Córdova. As opposed to that of Armendáriz, his image was urban, sophisticated and European, and his first film of the 1950s with Gavaldón, En la palma de tu mano, is seen by many as the apogee of Mexican noir. His character is the depraved Doctor Karin – a bogus medium who provides psychic (and sexual) services to the bored society ladies of Mexico City. Meeting a seductive “black widow” (Leticia Palma) who has done away with her husband, Karin knows at once she is a match made in his own personal circle of Hell. He pulls out a gun and invites her to shoot him with it. She obliges and shatters his reflection in a giant mirror, a scene with more impact than the iconic but overhyped Hall of Mirrors climax in The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948). The filmmaker and critic Ariel Zúñiga writes:

These films… insist on the importance of a baroque conception of death: the decrepitude that afflicts biological man and proclaims the death of his flesh and his spirit, the decay that afflicts social man and renders him classless, the decomposition that overtakes man sociologically and entails the disintegration of the social itself.5

This “disintegration of the social” takes a different form in El rebozo de Soledad. Córdova here plays an ambitious medical researcher who winds up as a doctor in a tiny and impoverished village. Resenting his loss of status, he longs to get back to his plush laboratory in Mexico City. His wish seems about to come true when – waiting at the station to board his train – he spots an anguished peasant mother whose child is dying of respiratory failure. In a set-piece of Hitchcockian montage, Córdova performs a tracheotomy on the platform while the train pulls in, stops and leaves without him. He realises, without a word of dialogue, that the fly-blown hick town he once despised is now the home where he belongs. Stella Inda won a Best Actress Ariel for looking soulful as his adoring but strictly platonic housekeeper in the shawl of the title.

The last and most grandly baroque of the male melodrama cycle, Las tres perfectas casadas, is an improbably macho variant on A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1949). A notorious womaniser (Córdova) dies and leaves behind a confession to his three best friends: he has slept with not one but all three of their wives. In a stylistic tour de force, the film opens as a light social comedy in the manner of Lubitsch (albeit one with a Gothic thunder-and-lightning storm raging outside). As the three ladies recall their infidelities in flashback, the shadows lengthen, the curtains billow and we find ourselves in a full-blown noir melodrama. The Argentine actress Laura Hidalgo (known as “the Hedy Lamarr of South America”) emerges not only as the anti-hero’s true love but also as the one who discovers he is not dead after all. Their final encounter is as heady as the Liebestod in Tristan und Isolde – only shorter and vastly more entertaining.

Viewed together, these five films make us question the notion of melodrama as a female genre. They allow Pedro Armendáriz and Arturo de Córdova to behave as badly, to suffer as grandly, and to emote as extravagantly as Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, Dolores del Río or María Félix ever did. In his ever more flamboyant mise en scène, Gavaldón brings the operatic emotionalism of the “woman’s picture” to the hard-edged world of machismo. A lesser director might have neglected women and their concerns while doing so. That was emphatically not Gavaldón’s way.

Of Women and Their Worlds

Before and after his cycle of male melodramas, Gavaldón made a further three films with Dolores del Río. The first of these, La casa chica/The Little House (1949) is a tale of forbidden love in the style of the old Hollywood warhorse Back Street. A young girl in the provinces (del Río at 45, looking a tad incongruous in pigtails) falls in love with a married doctor (Roberto Cañedo) from Mexico City. She follows him there, becomes a wealthy and glamorous scientist but lives only for the forbidden hours they share in a tiny secret flat. Gringo versions of this story invariably grant their heroine some solace, but Gavaldón stresses her desperate and total isolation from the outside world. One night at the opera, the lovers are forced to pass each other without a sign. Del Río (in radiant close-up) can do nothing but gaze after her man with longing, as the whole screen slowly fades to black.

Shot entirely amid the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, Deseada (1951) casts del Río as a virginal teacher who falls for the handsome fiancé (Jorge Mistral) of her younger sister. A Latino answer to Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947), it is a film composed entirely of hyperbolic dream images – pyramids soaked in moonlight and swathed in mist, black stallions on the rampage as symbols of unbridled passion. In El niño y la niebla/The Boy and the Fog (1953), del Río won an Ariel award (her third) as Best Actress, playing a small-town wife and mother who goes slowly but oh-so-decoratively mad. Much as Billy Wilder did with Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gavaldón exploits a strain of lyrical unreality in her acting – a legacy of the silent era – a quality larger than, yet queerly remote from, actual life.

That same year, Gavaldón began a series of four melodramas with del Río’s great rival, María Félix. Ten years younger and more blatantly erotic in her appeal, she had none of del Río’s lyricism, subtlety or range. Her acting was largely a matter of flashing her eyes, flaring her nostrils and tossing her hair. Hence she is ideal in Camelia, a modern-day reworking of The Lady the Camellias. Her character is a courtesan who plays the Dumas heroine on stage, but only as a publicity stunt to boost her value. Meanwhile, she is dying from a brain tumour and falls in love with a bullfighter (Mistral), who spurns her for being a Fallen Woman. She dies simultaneously in the play and in real life, bidding farewell to her onstage co-star and to Mistral, who stands repentant and sobbing in the wings.

Roberto Gavaldón

Maria Felix in Camelia

An epic tale of the Mexican Revolution, La escondida tells the story of an ambitious peasant lass (Félix), who becomes the mistress of a pre-Revolutionary general – even though she is in love with a Revolutionary bandido (Pedro Armendáriz). Superficially it was the most clichéd of film subjects, as Carlos Monsiváis spells out:

The dominant trend was to metamorphosise the historical movement into a nationalist spectacle filled with trains, soldaderas, executions, horse cavalcades, cannons, admirable deaths on the portals of Progress, and an indifference to bullets as a sign of faith in the supernatural power of reified historical figures.6

La escondida may boast all of these, yet their interest is strictly secondary. The core of the film is a sadomasochistic game of passion and power played out by the lovers who – as in La diosa arrodillada – mirror one another in their violence, ruthlessness and egomania. A scene where Armendáriz is stripped to the waist and crucified on a giant cactus, while Félix watches raptly through a train window, is on a level of perversity worthy of The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974). Only the sheer scale of the production reminds us we are watching a historical epic.

Roberto Gavaldón

Maria Felix in La Escondida

The more intimate Flor de mayo/May Flower (1957) was the closest Gavaldón came to a Hollywood melodrama in the style of Douglas Sirk. A fisherman (Armendáriz) is lured by an unscrupulous Yankee adventurer (Jack Palance) into fishing outside of legal limits. He is motivated by his dream of a luxurious American-style home for his wife (Félix) and their five-year-old son. In a Mexican seaside village, this lavish villa looks grotesquely out of place, as artificial as Lana Turner’s mansion in Imitation of Life (1959). What the hero does not realise is that Palance was his wife’s lover and, also, the father of their son. In this most erotic of Gavaldón’s films, Palance is posed constantly in states of provocative semi-undress – shirtless on the deck of his ship, a symbolic mast or tiller in the background. He becomes the twin mirage of Money and Sex, dangled by Yankee capitalism as a lure to an unwary world.

This cycle of films ended on an intriguing but subdued coda. Miércoles de ceniza/Ash Wednesday (1958) is a virtual two-hander, a sort of non-sexual Brief Encounter between a man who turns out to be a priest (de Córdova) and a woman who turns out to be a deluxe hooker (Félix). Neither role is exactly a stretch and the film – uniquely for Gavaldón – becomes static and talky, all too clearly betraying its origins as a stage play. By the late 1950s, Roberto Gavaldón was starting to look like an artist whose inspiration was running dry. If he was not to lapse into slick and well-heeled irrelevance, he needed a fresh impetus. He and his audience would not have long to wait.

A Cinema of Magic Realism

Throughout the 1950s, world literature was set alight by a new school of Latin American writing known broadly as “magic realism”. The Cuban author Alejo Carpentier saw it as, “the capacity to enrich our idea of what is ‘real’ by incorporating all dimensions of the imagination, particularly as expressed in magic, myth and religion.”7 The term applies, to a greater or lesser degree, to Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. The notion of magic realism has received far less attention in cinema – odd when you consider that film, by its very nature, is inherently both. Yet such Latin American films as Orfeu negro/Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959) and El ángel exterminador/The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962) fit as comfortably within this category as any works of prose fiction. The same is true for the last major works of Roberto Gavaldón.

Of course, Gavaldón’s work had always had an oneiric and surreal quality. The candles, the mirrors, the billowing curtains and lengthening shadows – most if not all of his films seem to tremble, at odd moments, on the borders of reality and dream. Yet his work before the late 1950s had never been overtly fantastical. Only once, in an extended musical sequence for a minor film – Historia de un amor/Love Story (1956) – did Gavaldón and his mise en scène take leave entirely of the real world. The film’s “Girl with the White Shawl” number is a black-and-white rehash of the title ballet from The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948) – in which the Argentine tango star Libertad Lamarque does her valiant best not to look bewildered. Yet from Macario to El gallo de oro, Gavaldón displays a magic realist aesthetic as consistent as any in world cinema.

Roberto Gavaldón

Libertad Lamarque in Historia de un amor

Released to worldwide acclaim in 1959, Macario is a step into an entirely new world. Its hero, a half-starved peasant (Ignacio López Tarso), dies after gorging himself on a whole turkey. In dying, he is vouchsafed a vision in which Death (the gaunt and terrifying Enrique Lucero) grants him the power to heal all illness, but only at the cost of his own immortal soul. Critics have compared the film to Der müde Tod/Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921) and Det sjunde inseglet/The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1956), yet visually it owes a great deal more to the native Mexican festival, the Day of the Dead – a grotesque carnival of flaming candles and Roman Catholic icons, haunted by grinning skeletons made of candy. Its folkloric atmosphere is so convincing that “some years later, an anthropologist researching the legends of southern Mexico discovered that the plot of the film had been totally assimilated into the mythology of the region… as an ancient myth.”8

If Macario was hailed internationally – and even nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film – Rosa Blanca/White Rose (1961) was banned by the Mexican government and not released until 1972. In Gavaldón’s most overtly political work, a noble but naive landowner (López Tarso) struggles to protect his hacienda from rapacious Yankees, who want to bulldoze the whole estate and drill for oil. The film is unsparing in its depiction of the Mexican authorities, who are shown to be hand-in-glove with the vile gringos. As Zúñiga explains: “Rosa Blanca caused Gavaldón’s fall from grace, and he was abandoned to his own devices in a country where film production was fundamentally linked to the state.”9 Still, it represents a further step into magic realism, with the hacienda shown as a mythical and almost Edenic realm menaced by forces of darkness. A shot of freshly drilled oil splashing on white roses sums up the tone of corruption and defilement.

Both Macario and Rosa Blanca were based on stories by the enigmatic US-Mexican author Bruno Traven, whose best-known novel became The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948). A third Traven story inspired Días de otoño, a heartbreaking study of loneliness, alienation and fantasy. A small-town girl (Pina Pellicer) moves to Mexico City and gets a job as a cake decorator. After a casual encounter with a chauffeur, she fantasises a whole courtship, marriage, honeymoon and pregnancy – managing to convince herself and her co-workers that it is all true. Her imaginary life is as delicate and fanciful as the spun-sugar creations with which she adorns her cakes. In the end, she succumbs to reality and the attentions of her kindly shop manager (López Tarso) but we are left in some doubt as to whether she and the real world will be a comfortable match.

For his last major film, El gallo de oro, Gavaldón pursued this theme of a lone fantasist adrift in a heartless world. An impoverished town crier (López Tarso) adopts a rooster that is abandoned and dying after a cock-fight. He nurses it back to health and it becomes invincible – a mystical talisman that wins every fight. Such quasi-supernatural good fortune attracts a ruthless femme fatale (Lucha Villa) and her gambler lover (Narciso Busquets) who exploit the poor fool until he winds up with nothing. As in Macario and Días de otoño, the film turns in a circle and everything in it may well be a fantasy, an illusion. Yet the splendour of the mise en scène, the recurrent musical numbers and the dazzling colour photography (by Gabriel Figueroa) turn rural Mexico into an exotic and oneiric dream world where magic actually does happen. Like its hero’s unexpected run of luck, El gallo de oro is a dream from which we fear to wake up.

Roberto Gavaldón

Ignacio Lopez Tarso in El gallo de oro

Gavaldón’s own run of luck seemed to end with the release of this film. He spent much of the 1960s trying, and failing, to mount a large-scale epic of the Mexican Revolution. Finally admitting defeat, he returned at the end of the decade with more modest projects. Las figuras de arena/Sand Sculptures (1969) is a claustrophobic drama of a macho father, an overbearing mother and a sexually ambivalent son. Doña Macabra (1971) is a horror comedy devoid of scares or laughs. Only his last film, Cuando tejen las arañas/When the Spiders Spin (1977) has something of his old stylistic flourish. A young heiress descends into a perverse sexual labyrinth after finding out that her late father (on whom she had an incestuous crush) was actually gay. The flamboyant baroque images rival Losey and Fassbinder, but the acting would scarcely pass muster in a telenovela. By the time of his death in Mexico City in 1986, Gavaldón was seen as a spent force – a relic of a bygone age.

After his admittedly dismal final decade, it became alarmingly easy to deny the impact and importance of Roberto Gavaldón. Yet many from the 1940s to the ’60s saw him as, “aside from Buñuel, the only exponent of Mexican film whose work was respected abroad.”10 Inaccurate and unfair, this label distracts attention from his unique and unmistakeable achievement. Few directors in the history of world cinema have been so fully and passionately dedicated to melodrama – not just as a movie genre, but as a distinct and legitimate art form in its own right. If we take melodrama seriously today – in the films of Arturo Ripstein in Mexico, Pedro Almodóvar in Spain, François Ozon in France, or Todd Haynes in the USA – that is due largely to the dignity and the status that Roberto Gavaldón gave it. Whether they have seen his films or not, each of those directors is working in his shadow. As Gustavo García writes: “His melodramas are perfect, spectacular, intense and ironic.”11 In short, the sum total of everything a melodrama should be.



  • La barracca/The Hut (1944)*
  • Corazones de México/Hearts of Mexico (1945)
  • Rayando el sol/Touching the Sun (1945)
  • El socio/The Partner (1945)
  • La otra/The Other One (1946)*
  • La vida íntima de Marco Antonio y Cleopatra/Antony and Cleopatra (1946)
  • A la sombre del puente/In the Shadow of the Bridge (1947)
  • La diosa arrodillada/The Kneeling Goddess (1947)*
  • The Adventures of Casanova (USA, 1948)
  • Han matado a Tongolele/Who Killed Tongolele?(1948)*
  • La casa chica/The Little House (1949)*
  • Rosauro Castro (1950)*
  • Mi vida por la tuya/My Life for Yours (Argentina, 1950)
  • En la palma de tu mano/In the Palm of Your Hand (1950)*
  • Deseada/Desired (1951)*
  • La noche avanza/Night Falls (1951)*
  • El rebozo de Soledad/Soledad’s Shawl (1952)*
  • Acuérdate de vivir/Remember to Live (1952)
  • Las tres perfectas casadas/Three Perfect Wives (1952)*
  • Camelia (1953)*
  • El niño y la niebla/The Boy and the Fog (1953)*
  • The Littlest Outlaw (USA, 1953)*
  • Sombra verde/Green Shadow (1954)
  • De carne somos/Of Flesh We Are (1954)
  • Después de la tormenta/After the Storm (1955)
  • Historia de un amor/Love Story (1956)*
  • La escondida/The Hidden One (1956)*
  • Aquí está Heraclio Bernal/Here Comes Heraclio Bernal (1957)*
  • La venganza de Heraclio Bernal/The Revenge of Heraclio Bernal (1957)*
  • La rebelión de la sierra/Revolt in the Mountains (1957)*
  • Flor de mayo/May Flower/Beyond All Limits (1957)*
  • Miércoles de ceniza/Ash Wednesday (1958)*
  • Macario (1959)*
  • El siete de copas/Seven of Cups (1960)*
  • Rosa Blanca/White Rose (1961)*
  • Días de otoño/Autumn Days (1962)*
  • Los hijos que yo soñé/The Children I Dreamed Of (1963)
  • El gallo de oro/The Golden Cock (1964)*
  • La figuras de arena/Sand Sculptures (1969)
  • La vida inútil de Pito Pérez/The Useless Life of Pito Pérez (1970)
  • Doña Macabra (1971)*
  • Don Quijote cabalga de nuevo/Don Quixote Rides Again (Spain, 1972)
  • Un amor perverso/A Perverse Love (Spain, 1974)
  • El hombre de los hongos/The Mushroom Man (1975)
  • Las cenizas de un diputado/A Deputy’s Ashes (1976)
  • La playa vacía/The Empty Beach (Spain, 1976)
  • Cuando tejen las arañas/When the Spiders Spin (1977)*
*Films currently or recently available commercially on DVD or Blu-Ray.



Benét, William Rose, ed., The Reader’s Encyclopedia, Third Edition (London: Guild Publishing, 1988).

Hershfeld, Joanne and Maciel, David R., eds., Mexico’s Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers (Wilmington DE: Scholarly Resource Books, 1999).

Mora, Carl J, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896–1980 (Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press).

Paranaguá, Paulo Antonio, ed., Mexican Cinema, trans. Ana M. López & John King (London and Mexico City: British Film Institute and IMCINE, 1995).

Passek, Jean-Loup, ed., Dictionnaire du cinéma (Paris: Larousse, 1995).


Web Resources

Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir from Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age

Women and the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema

Seven Circles South of the Border: Mexican Noir

Shadowplay – Cine Dorado an A-Z of Mexican Cinema



  1. Carlos Monsiváis, “All the People Came and Did Not Fit Onto the Screen: Notes on the Cinema Audience in Mexico” (translated by John King), in Mexican Cinema, ed. Paul Antonio Paranaguá (London and Mexico City: British Film Institute and IMCINE, 1995), p. 147.
  2. Gustavo García, “Melodrama: The Passion Machine” (translated by Ana M. López), in Mexican Cinema, p. 153.
  3. Carl J. Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896–1980 (Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press), p. 72.
  4. Paulo Antonio Paranaguá, Dictionnaire du cinéma, L–Z, ed. Jean-Loup Passek (Paris: Larousse, 1995), p.1825, translation from French by the author.
  5. Ariel Zúñiga, “Roberto Gavaldón” (trans. Ana M. López), in Mexican Cinema, p. 199.
  6. Carlos Monsiváis, “Mythologies” (trans. Ana M. López), in Mexican Cinema, p. 119.
  7. William Rose Benét, ed., The Reader’s Encyclopedia, Third Edition (London: Guild Publishing, 1988), p. 602.
  8. Zúñiga, p. 200.
  9. Ibid, p. 196.
  10. Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro, “The Decline of the Golden Age and the Making of the Crisis,” in Mexico’s Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers, eds. Joanne Hershfeld and David R Maciel (Wilmington DE: Scholarly Resources Books, 1999.
  11. García, p. 161.

About The Author

David Melville is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature at the University of Edinburgh Centre for Open Learning. He teaches courses on Michael Powell and Dark Fairy Tales and is currently working on a book about Cinema and Queer Spectatorship.

Related Posts