Mexico's Golden Age of Cinema

The Golden age of the cinema of Mexico (in Spanish: Época de oro del cine mexicano) is the name given to the period between 1935 and 1959 where the quality and economic success of the cinema of Mexico reached its peak.

The golden area is thought to have started with the film ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (1935), which is to this date considered the best of the cinema of Mexico. A box-office failure by Fernando de Fuentes that followed his box-office smash hit Allá en el Rancho Grande. The quality and box-office success of Mexican films continued after the end of World War II and a Hollywood that stopped being used as a medium of propaganda of the United States and focused on commercial films.
In 1939 Europe and the United States were involved in World War II and the film industries of these regions were severely affected. The first because it was where the war was taking place and the second one because it rationalized materials used for armament, cellulose (used to produced film) was included. In 1942, German submarines destroyed oil tankers of PEMEX and Mexico joined the allies in the war against the German nation. Mexico gained status of most favored nation and after a reduction in manufacture of many consumer goods, including films, the film industry of Mexico found new sources of materials and equipment to save itself. The low competition from the cinema of France, Italy, Spain and Argentina and the world leader, the United States, focused on war films made it possible for the national movie industry to conquer the Mexican and Latin American markets.
The golden era
One of the first box-office successes was the film Allá en el rancho grande of Fernando de Fuentes which became the first classic of the cinema of Mexico. This producer completed the film after Vámonos con Pancho Villa but because of post-production problems with the second he released the first one a film he had not had many artistic aspirations for but was a success in the box office. The artistic quality of the second film was significantly higher but only lasted in theaters for two weeks. Jalisco canta en Sevilla (starred by ranchera singer Jorge Negrete) was another production of de Fuentes and the first co-produced with Spain. These films are all in the rural genre but also in the musical/comedy genre. The rural genre also produced drama films such as María Candelariz and La perla. This last film was written by Pullitzer-winning author John Steinbeck and adapted to the screen by Emilio Fernández "El Indio" who also directed it.

Another genre of urban comedy with stars like Cantinflas and Tin Tan produced many important films. The first films were produced and written by Arcady Boytler and take place in the middle-class neighborhoods and low-class barrios of Mexico City. These places also inspired urban reality films such as Los olvidados of Luis Buñuel and Nosotros los pobres starred by singer Pedro Infante. The biggest diva of the cinema of Mexico was María Félix who made rural dramas playing as well the roles of a native or a peasant than roles of socialites in La diosa arodillada and La mujer sin alma. However, the role that gave her the nickname "La Doña" was Doña Bárbara.

Decades of labor disputes between studios and talent played a role in bringing about the end of the golden age, but the primary cause was concentration of studio ownership. During the land reforms of President Lázaro Cárdenas, American sugar plantation owner and bootlegger William O. Jenkins sold his land holdings and made a comparatively safer investment in Mexican movie theaters. By the mid-1940s, Jenkins owned two theater chains and controlled all film showings in 12 states. His chains began limiting the exhibition of Mexican films to allow more Hollywood films to be shown. He also used his influence in the industry to dictate regulations that limited film production to a few genres. These low-budget, low quality films became known as "churros".
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The introduction of sound and the ensuing development of well-equipped film production studios in the 1930s (bankrolled by private investment, government loans, and US money) fostered the Golden Age of the Mexican film industry. In 1929 and 1930, a total of approximately ten feature films along with numerous shorts and newsreels accompanied by some form of synchronized sound were released. The ultimate success of the industry was made possible with the support of President Lázaro Cárdenas (served 1934–1940). Cárdenas established a protectionist policy that included tax exemptions for domestic film production, and his administration created the Financiadora de Películas, a state institution charged with finding private financing. He also instituted a system of loans for the establishment of modern film studios.

Two major types of films emerged during this period: first, a state-supported cinema that promoted the ambitions of Cárdenas and projected a nationalistic aesthetic and ideology exemplified by films such as Redes (The Waves, 1936) and Vamanos con Pancho Villa! (Let's Go with Pancho Villa, 1936), and second, films produced primarily for commercial reasons that resembled Hollywood films in terms of narrative strategies, cinematic aesthetics, and modes of production but drew on Mexican literature, theatrical traditions, and contemporary Mexican themes. Measured in terms of box-office receipts, it was the commercial cinema that proved to be the most popular among Mexican audiences in the 1930s. In 1936 the wildly successful film by Fernando de Fuentes (1894–1958), Allá en el Rancho Grande (Out on the Big Ranch), was filmed in Mexico City. Allá en el Rancho Grande introduced one of the most popular genres in Mexican film history, the comedia ranchera, a Mexican version of a cowboy musical that incorporated elements of comedy, tragedy, popular music, and folkloric or nationalistic themes. While the comedia ranchera became the most popular genre (in 1937 over half of the thirty-eight films released were modeled on de Fuentes's film), other Mexican genres also enjoyed relative success, including the historical epic, the family melodrama, the urban melodrama, and the comedies of Tin Tan (1915–1973) and Cantinflas (1911–1993).

Despite foreign control of exhibition, domestic film production managed to increase from forty-one films in 1941 to seventy films in 1943. What is more important, Mexico's share of its own domestic market grew from 6.2 percent in 1941 to 18.4 percent in 1945. This period was marked by the emergence of an auteurist cinema practice represented by directors such as Emilio Fernández (1903–1986), whose films included Flor silvestre (Wild Flower, 1943), a revolutionary melodrama, and Salón México (The Mexican Ballroom, 1949), an example of the cabaretera or dancehall film set in the poor urban barrios (neighborhoods) of Mexico City. Another auteur was Luis Bun Cãuel (1900–1983), who made over twenty films in Mexico between 1939 and 1960, including Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned, 1950), Abismos de passion (Wuthering Heights, 1954), and Susana (The Devil and the Flesh, 1951).

In 1948 the most popular Mexican film of the Golden Age was released. Nosotros los pobres (We the Poor), directed by Ismael Rodríguez (1917–2004), starred Pedro Infante (1917–1957) as Pepe el Toro, a widowed carpenter raising his sister's daughter, Chachita, as his own, and caring for his invalid mother in the poor, sprawling neighborhoods of Mexico City. Incorporating elements of comedy and tragedy as well as popular music, Rodriguez's film romanticizes the position of the urban underclass at the same time that it reveals many of the adverse conditions they encounter on a daily basis: prostitution, alcoholism and drug addiction, violence, and disease.

Under Miguel Alemán (1946–1952), Mexico estab´dito Cinematográfica Mexicano (CCM), whose purpose was to help finance the nation's largest film producers. The CCM quickly moved into production and distribution, buying up studios and movie theaters, challenging the exhibition monopoly held by the American financier William O. Jenkins (1878–1963). The government also instituted a number of protectionist measures that nationalized the Banco Cinematográfico and the CCM and exempted the industry from paying state taxes. In addition, it supported the establishment of state distribution with the institutionalization of Películas Nacionales, S.A., in 1947.

These actions were not enough, however, to prevent the subsequent decline of Mexican cinema in the early 1950s, both in terms of quality and quantity. It became very difficult after World War II for small countries like Mexico to enforce import quotas on foreign films. Hollywood's European markets reopened and the United States withdrew its wartime support of the Mexican film industry. Because all sectors of the industry were either owned or capitalized by foreign investors, this removal of support had an immediate, although temporary, effect on Mexican cinema. Film production dropped from seventy-two films in 1946 to fifty-seven in 1947 while, at the same time, producers turned to tried-and-true formula pictures to draw audiences and ensure profits.

The Banco Cinematográfico became fully nationalized by the 1960s and was responsible for generating most of the financing for feature film production in Mexico. Financing was restricted to those producers who could turn the highest profits, and thus low-budget "quickies" became the films of choice in the industry. Producers who were businessmen rather than filmmakers restricted their product to genres such as soft porn, rancheros, and the masked wrestler films that appealed to a largely urban, lower-class audience. In the end, the government's measures did nothing to further the lished the Cre development of Mexican cinema. Jenkins's monopoly ultimately bought out new distributors and the import quotas were never carried out. Out of 4,346 films screened in Mexico between 1950 and 1959, over half were North American and only 894 were Mexican. This situation continued through the 1960s.

b. Mexico City, Mexico, 13 December 1943
Arturo Ripstein, the son of film producer Alfredo Ripstein Jr., studied filmmaking at Mexico's first film school, the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC), which opened in 1963 at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City (UNAM). A new generation of filmmakers, including Ripstein, was influenced by Grupo Nuevo Cine, a group of young Mexican film critics who published a journal by the same name in the 1960s, and the films of the French New Wave. According to Ripstein, he decided to be a film director after seeing Luis Buñuel's Nazarín (Nazarin, 1959). In 1962 Ripstein worked as an assistant to Buñuel on El Ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel), and fours years later he directed his first film, Tiempo de morir (Time to Die, 1966). One of the most prolific and influential directors of the 1970s and 1980s, Ripstein has directed over twenty-five feature films as well as documentaries and shorts. His films have been screened at many international film festivals, including Cannes, and five of them have been awarded "Best Film" at Mexico's version of the Oscars®.

Ripstein's early films, such as El Castillo de la pureza (Castle of Purity, 1973), El Lugar sin límites (The Place without Limits, 1978), and Cadena perpetua (In for Life, 1979), introduced two themes that would dominate his films over the next twenty years: the repressive nature of the nuclear family and the destructive nature of Mexican codes of masculinity. His films explore central social and cultural topics such as state and familial authoritarianism and homophobia and feature characters doomed by jealousy, guilt, and a nihilistic worldview.

In 1985, with El Imperio de la fortuna (The Realm of Fortune), Ripstein began a fruitful collaboration with the on El A screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego. One of their most successful collaborations, Profundo carmesí (Deep Crimson, 1996), which narrates the love story of an aging gigolo and a homely nurse who embark on a killing spree, is based upon a well-known series of murders that took place in the United States during the late 1940s. Principio y fin (The Beginning and the End, 1993), also written by Garciadiego, and adapted from the novel by the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, returns to Ripstein's earlier themes as it traces the disintegration of a family following the death of the father. His most recent films include El Evangelio de las maravillas (Divine, 1998), a Buñuelian-influenced work, and an adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez's novella, El Coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel, 1999).

El Castillo de la pureza (Castle of Purity, 1973), El Lugar sin limites (Place Without Limits, 1978), Cadena perpetua (In for Life, 1979), Profundo carmesí (Deep Crimson, 1996)

Mora, Sergio de la. "A Career in Perspective: An Interview with Arturo Ripstein." Film Quarterly 52, no. 4. (1999): 2–11.

Reyes Nevares, Beatriz. The Mexican Cinema: Interviews with Thirteen Directors. Translated by Elizabeth Gard and Carl J. Mora. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

Tsao, Leonardo García. "One Generation—Four Filmmakers: Cazals, Hermosillo, Leduc, and Ripstein." In Mexican Cinema, edited by Paulo Antonio Paranagua translated by Ana López, 209–223. London: British Film Institute, 1995.

Joanne Hershfield

President Luís Echeverría Alvarez (served 1970–1976), who campaigned on a platform of populism and reform, superficially promoted the development of a strong film industry devoted to "national cinema." He supported younger filmmakers who had been left out of the equation during the previous decade and advocated an opening up of Mexican cinema to new ideas. Echeverría oversaw the creation of a national film archive, the Cineteca Nacionál, and the establishment of three state-supported production companies,

Arturo Ripstein. 

CONACINE, CONACITE I, and CONACITE II. He encouraged co-productions among these studios, private investors, film workers, and foreign companies. Between 1971 and 1976 the number of state-funded feature films increased from five to thirty-five, while privately funded films dropped from seventy-seven to fifteen as private investors refused to invest their money in "socially conscious films" that had little box-office attraction. In 1974 Echeverría oversaw the establishment of the first national film production school, the Centro de Capacitacio Cinematogránfica, which facilitated the emergence of a new generation of film directors.

However, the next president, José López Portillo (served 1976–1982), reactivated a policy of privatization, thus reversing Echeverría's successes. The Banco Cinematográfica was formally dissolved, and its functions were transferred to a new state agency. López Portillo appointed his sister, Margarita López Portillo, to head the agency. She immediately reduced state financing of films and closed down CONACITE I and II. Again, the Mexican film industry was dominated by low-budget and lucrative comedies, soft porn, and narcotráfico (drug traffic) films.

Miguel de la Madrid assumed the presidency in 1982. The creation in 1983 of the Instituto Mexicano de la Cinematografía (IMCINE), whose role it was to manage Mexico's film policy, was hailed as a significant breakthrough for Mexican cinema. However, while IMCINE helped to finance and promote a few independent films, it had a very small budget and could only support one or two films per year. The Institute's first director, filmmaker Alberto Isaac, reorganized the state-run production and distribution companies and the state film school but proved to be a poor manager, and the tenure of his successor, Enrique Soto Izquierdo, was riddled with corruption. Soto Izquierdo failed to implement a workable state film policy and, as a result, most of the films that saw any kind of fiscal success were low-budget "quickies" funded by private investors.

The election in 1988 of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a Harvard-educated economist, signaled a profound change in the direction of the Mexican economy. Salinas was committed to a free-market ideology, and in 1990 he began negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States. Ignacio Durán Loera, the new director of IMCINE, attempted to increase state financing of production through the creation of the Fondo para el Fomento de la Calidad Cinematográfica (Fund for the Promotion of Quality Film Production). While Durán was able to solicit co-production financing from Spain and other foreign investors, it was not enough to keep the industry afloat as state-owned studios and movie houses shut down at the same time that private investors withdrew from the industry. Film production dropped from one hundred films in 1989 to thirty-four in 1991.

However, the international success of IMCINE-financed films such as Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate, 1992), Amores perros (Love's a Bitch, 2000), and Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother, Too, 2001) gave Mexican filmmakers recognition and thus access to international financing. (Amores perros won numerous awards and grossed $10.2 million in Mexico and $4.7 million in the United States alone.) Perhaps in response to these successes, the Mexican government in 2003 set up a permanent fund with a preliminary budget of $7 million that aims to attract co-production money to support film production. However, today, most of the films and videos in Mexico are still imported from Hollywood. In addition, the Mexican film industry is not just competing with American films or French films, but with multinational co-productions that can generate products with a guaranteed international appeal. It seems that the future of a viable Mexican film industry is dependent on its ability to produce films that appeal to a global audience.

Latinos/Hispanics are people with ancestry in Latin-American countries or the US Southwest, which was part of Mexico prior to 1848. The term "Hispanic," which has been used by the US government since the 1970s, includes people whose ancestry can be traced back to Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries; it tends to emphasize European ancestry. Because many people choose not to trace their ancestry back to Europe, or hail from Latin-American countries that are not Spanish-dominant, the term "Latino" is increasingly a preferred term for individuals of Latin-American heritage. "Latino" also is written as "Latino/a" or "Latina/o"; this designation combines the male designation of Latin o in Spanish with the female designation of Latin a to emphasize reference to both women and men. For the sake of clarity, the term "Latino" is used here to refer to both women and men.

As individuals with ancestry in countries with radically different histories, cultures, and relationships to the United States, Latinos are a diverse group. These histories contribute to widely varied situations for Latinos in the United States in terms of class, education, and citizenship. Latinos also span a range of races as defined by the US census. Mexican Americans made up the largest group of Latinos in the United States in 2000, comprising about 58.5 percent of all Latinos, followed by Puerto Ricans (10%), Cuban Americans (3.5%), and smaller but rapidly increasing numbers of Latinos of Central and South American descent. While Spanish-language usage is at times a commonality among Latinos, that is not always the case, as US Latinos may or may not speak Spanish.

Latinos have undergone an eventful evolution both behind the scenes and on the screen in American film. The participation of Latinos in American film is increasingly important to film scholarship, as the Latino population in the United States continues to grow rapidly. Latinos currently are the largest nonwhite group in the United States, comprising an estimated 13.7 percent of the population in 2003, according to the US Census Bureau.