William M. Drew and Esperanza Vázquez Bernal*
In 1927, a startling silent film about drug addiction and trafficking was exhibited in a city in Mexico. With a narrative blending social commentary, fast-paced adventure, and surreal elements, the film marked a new departure in Mexican cinema. Entitled El puño de hierro (The Iron Fist), it was the work of a young director named Gabriel García Moreno and was produced for his own company based in Orizaba, Veracruz. However, the film failed to register with audiences of the time and quickly disappeared from public view. It would not find an audience again until the very end of the 20th century when a revival of interest in the early cinema history of Latin America finally brought it to light.
Born on February 23, 1897, in the town of Tacubaya near Mexico City, Gabriel García Moreno came from a notable heritage. His paternal great-great uncle, also named Gabriel García Moreno, had been the dictator of Ecuador from 1860 to 1875. His controversial rule, blending ultra-Catholic conservatism with progressive measures that helped to modernize the country, ended with his assassination, and members of his family took refuge in Mexico. While the relation who bore his name did not share the Ecuadorian leader’s ideological fervor, the drama of his life did intrigue him. Indeed, not long before his death, he was thinking of making a biographical film about the 19th century president of Ecuador.
The younger Gabriel García Moreno’s own circumstances were far more modest than those of his distant relative. The García Morenos of Mexico had intermarried so that, in both background and culture, the future filmmaker was ethnically largely Mexican. The son of Vicente García Moreno and Dolores González, Gabriel was the second of three siblings, brother Vicente, Jr. being the oldest and his sister Cecilia the youngest. Their father died when they were very young and, to support the family, their mother worked as a seamstress. Gabriel received his elementary and high school education in a town near Tacubaya. At the age of 18, he found work as a motion picture projectionist in a theatre in Tacubaya and also became a cameraman, shooting local scenes for newsreels that were exhibited in the theatre. While this work would presage his later career, his initial goal was to enter the banking profession. He had studied to be an accountant when he was in school and soon found work in a bank in Tacubaya. The bank often sent him to check on their branches in other cities throughout Mexico. It was on one of these trips that, in April 1921, he met Hortensia Valencia, a beautiful young woman of 22, in a bank in Hermosillo in the north of Mexico. They fell in love and were married in Nogales, Sonora, in August 1921. The newlyweds made their home in Tacubaya where García Moreno became more and more fascinated with motion pictures. He began writing scenarios in his spare time and one of them, a full-length feature, was produced sometime around 1922.
In 1925, while still employed by his bank, García Moreno purchased a motion picture camera. Reportedly financed by his brothers-in-law, Oscar and Octavio Valencia, he wrote, produced, and directed a feature film, El Buitre (The Vulture), an adventure story about cattle thieves in which he sought to emulate the American films that had impressed him. It was shot near Mexico City and featured his wife, Hortensia, as the heroine. Playing the male lead was a handsome young man by the name of Carlos Villatoro. In the early 1920s, he lived in New York where he studied film acting after a friend suggested he would be good on the screen but was forced to return to Mexico when his father became ill. There, he met García Moreno who cast him in El Buitre. Villatoro played the leads in García Moreno’s subsequent features and continued for many years as a prominent actor in Mexican sound films, later branching out into writing, producing, and directing.
The success of El Buitre encouraged García Moreno to leave banking in order to concentrate exclusively on filmmaking. In early 1926, he released a documentary short he had directed, Carnaval de la Ciudad de México, and began making plans for his own production company. As a result of his travels for the bank, he had made the acquaintance of a number of wealthy individuals in the city of Orizaba whom he persuaded to invest in his films. All affiliated with Orizaba’s Rotary Club, they included a car salesman, the local brewer, and the owner of a cigar factory, William Mayer, the Mexican-born son of an immigrant from Great Britain. With their support and capital shares of $100,000.00, García Moreno in 1926 established his motion picture company, Centro Cultural Cinematográfico, headquartered in a building on the outskirts of Orizaba. Regional production was widespread throughout Latin America in those years. For example, at this very same time, the legendary filmmaker, Humberto Mauro, similarly formed a company in Cataguases, Brazil. Far from the structuralism of a large studio, there was a charming informality, a familial atmosphere in an approach that fostered personal artistic visions and shaped the performances. When directing his players, García Moreno would tell them what they had to do, what they might feel, but they acted their roles very naturally. For the most part, García Moreno did not employ established stage actors or prominent screen stars, preferring to work with newcomers, like Carlos Villatoro, and nonprofessionals. However, one of his leading actors, Manuel de los Rios, was a veteran actor in Mexican films and also had a career as a bullfighter. Other players, including feminine leads Lupe Bonilla and the Ibáñez sisters, Clarita and Angelita, and the child performer, Guillermo Pacheco, were local residents with no previous acting experience when García Moreno selected them for his films. Family members took part, too, with Hortensia and Octavio Valencia playing major roles, while another brother-in-law, Oscar, was employed as a technician. The principal cameraman on the Orizaba films, Manuel Carrillo, also appeared in front of the camera as an actor while Juan D. Vasallo took his place operating the machine. Carrillo demonstrated exceptional talent for cinematography but left films after his stint in Orizaba. It is thought by some that he might be the same Manuel Carrillo who, decades later, became one of the most important still photographers in Mexico. The films, although well made, did not utilize costly budgets or a large production staff. For example, everyone working on the films designed their own clothes. The building housing the company, located in the Molino de la Marquesa, a large hacienda at Avenida Poniente 8 Número 21, Orizaba, that García Moreno rented, served as a studio, laboratory, and residence of the García Morenos and other company members during the period that they made the films.
García Moreno’s first film for Centro Cultural Cinematográfico was Misterio (Mystery), released in 1926. In the only surviving reel a group of youngsters dance the Charleston at a party attended by a magician and a detective. Apparently a love story, the film cast Carlos Villatoro as the hero and Clarita Ibáñez as the feminine lead. Its success led to the production of two other films, both eight reels in length. The first, El tren fantasma (The Ghost Train), filmed from September to December, 1926, is an action-filled story of Adolfo Mariel, a railroad engineer (played by Carlos Villatoro) sent by his superintendent to Orizaba to investigate a series of robberies and acts of sabotage on the railway’s El Ferrocarril Mexicano line. The narrative places him in a romantic rivalry with Paco Mendoza (Manuel de los Rios) for the love of the stationmaster’s pretty daughter, Elena del Bosque (Clarita Ibáñez). Unbeknownst to Elena, Paco is secretly the Ruby, the chief of the bandit gang attacking the railroad, and is involved with another woman, the jealous Carmela (Angelita Ibáñez).
The emphasis on adventure melodrama resulted in a succession of fights, robberies, pursuits, and railroad action sequences, including a scene in which the heroine finds herself on a runaway train before being saved by the hero. The actors did their own stunts. For example, Carlos Villatoro himself made the jump from the horse he was riding to the runaway train. For all the film’s stress on suspense-filled action, García Moreno’s direction enabled the actors to give convincing performances. Carlos Villatoro is a dashing, charismatic Mexican counterpart to contemporary American screen idols like Richard Dix, while the Ibáñez sisters memorably enact strongly contrasting feminine roles. Particularly striking is the portrayal by Manuel de los Rios of a man leading a double life. His constant wish to prove himself in deeds of bravery, a need that plunges him into a life of crime, leads him at one point to substitute for an ailing bullfighter in the ring. In the end, Paco’s character is transformed from a scheming bandit to a self-sacrificing hero. Learning of a plot to blow up the train, on which the newlywed Adolfo and Elena are passengers, Paco seizes the bomb just as it is about to explode and is killed.
In the 1920s, the Hollywood cinema, with its universal appeal, dominated the world market. After a surge of activity and creative inspiration in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Mexico’s silent film production by the mid-20s was starting to suffer from North American competition. Influenced by contemporary Hollywood productions, García Moreno sought to respond to the cinematic invasion from the north with an action adventure film, a genre he had mastered. Yet, while reflecting North American influences, El tren fantasma is solidly in the tradition of the Mexican silent cinema, the heir to Enrique Rosas’s 1919 classic, El automóvil gris, in which Manuel de los Rios had a key role as a bandit. Often ranked as Mexico’s greatest silent film, El automóvil gris, originally released as a 12-part serial and later shortened and reedited as a 10-reel feature, relates the exploits of a gang of bandits who terrorized Mexico City in the 1910s. Like El automóvil gris, El tren fantasma combines elements of the documentary with breathtaking adventure to create a film with a genuine Mexican flavor shot on actual locations. The scenes depicting the railroad, the bandits’ lives, the bullfight sequence, filmed in the ring at Orizaba with shots of the toreador, Juan Silveti, the faces of the local people taking part in the film—all these have a unique, unpretentious vitality that captures the time and place with an authenticity beyond later studio reconstructions.
In the production of the film, García Moreno received full cooperation from the National Railroad to use their track and train. In order to climb the high hills between Esperanza, Puebla, and Orizaba, Veracruz, the electric train of the film’s title had been installed on the Ferrocarril Mexicano as recently as 1922. Indeed, the film has broader national implications since its images of the modern wonder of electric railways unmistakably suggested the triumph of 20th century progress in an emerging Mexico. Like the Mexican government in the 1920s restoring order to the country after the years of chaotic violence in the revolutionary 1910s, the state-owned railroad in the film triumphs over the lawless bandits attempting to thwart its spread into the countryside. The patriotic motif is implied in the very name of the train, “El Mexicano”, and the film’s final image of the Mexican flag flapping in the breeze.
Following its February 1927 premiere in Orizaba, El tren fantasma was presented with considerable success in Mexico City. It even played for one day in a theatre in the city of Corona, California, in August 1927. Intending his films to be released in the United States, García Moreno captioned the inter-titles in both Spanish and English. However, in a time before international film festivals, he failed in his efforts to reach a foreign market—an all-too-common problem for silent era filmmakers in Latin America, the Orient, and Australia when Hollywood and the larger European cinema industries monopolized world distribution. García Moreno climaxed his work in the silent cinema with El puño de hierro, the third and final feature film that he wrote, produced, and directed for the Orizaba company. Its immediate inspiration arose from contemporary social realities. In the 1920s, addictive drugs circulated by criminal gangs were inundating Orizaba, and El puño de hierro, shot from January to May of 1927, was the first Mexican production to examine this problem. As a precedent for films dealing with drugs and criminality, García Moreno could look to American silent films, notably the celebrated, now lost 1923 feature, Human Wreckage. Produced by Dorothy Davenport Reid (who also co-starred) after the death of her husband, superstar Wallace Reid, from drug addiction, Human Wreckage was a serious narrative about the devastation that the use of narcotics causes in the lives of ordinary people. The film argued that powerful, wealthy individuals were part of a protected inner circle profiting from the sale of illegal drugs. While it included a sequence with distorted sets inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari depicting the hallucinations of a drug addict, Human Wreckage was essentially a realistic film with a strong social message.
Despite García Moreno’s incorporation of this tradition in his film, he created a narrative springing from his fertile imagination that was truly singular, collapsing reality with a hallucinatory vision of its own. García Moreno himself was never a user of drugs. Nor was he any more than a moderate social drinker. Yet the research he undertook for his film seems to have given him a special insight into the world of the drug culture and its broader implications of a societal disorder and corruption still eating away at the heart of Mexico after the revolution. Whereas El tren fantasma dramatized the triumph of modern progress and civilization, El puño de hierro showed, with a great deal of humor and narrative excitement, the dark underside of Mexican society in which urbanization spread the noxious stimulants of narcotics across the country, and vice itself often wore a mask of respectability.
The film opens in a vice den with a young man named Carlos (Octavio Valencia) eager to experiment with drugs. He receives an injection of morphine from a sinister-looking individual known as the Hawk (Ignacio Ojeda) and is next seen outdoors in a delusionary state, passionately caressing and kissing a donkey on the lips, thinking it is his sweetheart, Laura. When Laura (Hortensia Valencia) observes him in this condition, she decides to take him to a public lecture on drugs being held in the town plaza. There, the crusading Dr. Anselmo Ortiz (Manuel de los Rios) addresses a crowd, describing the horrors of drug addiction and the new methods being adopted to treat it. Among the onlookers are Antonio (Carlos Villatoro), a young man who is secretly the Bat, the head of a bandit gang, and Esther (Lupe Bonilla), a girl who is actually a prostitute in the employ of drug traffickers. Without knowing the other’s true activities, the two are attracted to each other and a romance soon develops. Antonio joins his gang to attack a car bringing passengers to the Diamond Ranch owned by Laura, but the gang is pursued by cowboys on the ranch when Perico (Manuel Carrillo), a young man serving as the driver, warns them about the bandits. The gang escapes and Antonio hides out on the ranch, doffing his bandit disguise in favor of everyday apparel. Later, Perico, on the trail of the robbers, joins forces with Juanito (Guillermo Pacheco), a ten-year old boy who thinks himself a great detective. Meanwhile, Carlos, suspecting Antonio’s true identity, persuades him to join the ring of drug traffickers. In the vice den, Antonio meets the boss of the traffickers, an old man known as El Tieso (the Rigid One). To his surprise, he also encounters Esther who introduces him to cocaine. Seeking to cure Carlos’s addiction, Laura goes to Dr. Ortiz for help. Ortiz, who secretly has designs on her, takes her to the vice den that Carlos frequents. There, the Hawk gives Carlos another shot of morphine. Recognizing the doctor’s true nature and that both Carlos and Laura are in danger, Antonio struggles with Ortiz who manages to escape from the room. In their pursuit of the criminals, Perico and Juanito discover the den and are able to save Laura from the advances of the Rigid One who has reappeared. The old man opens a trap door after a fierce fight, hurling Perico into a tank full of water. Outside the den, Juanito alerts Antonio to the fact that the Rigid One is actually Dr. Ortiz in disguise. When he emerges from the den, the Rigid One is attacked by Antonio while Juanito lunges at his leg with a knife. In the ensuing struggle, the Rigid One is finally unmasked as he falls to the ground and revealed to be Dr. Ortiz. Inside the den, the Hawk opens the trap door to fling Esther into the tank to drown. Carlos, lying on a canopy, awakens from his drugged state and flees from the den to discover that all the adventures he has experienced—the narrative of virtually the entire film—has been a hallucination caused by his initial injection of morphine. He finds a happy Antonio and Esther frolicking on the beach and then goes to Laura’s house to be reunited with his sweetheart as the film ends.
To develop his unique vision, García Moreno not only continued his presentation of contrasting personalities and incorporated documentary footage, but also included bizarre characters and incidents and experimented with narrative structure. As in El tren fantasma, there are striking performances by his players. Octavio Valencia as Carlos embodies a hapless young man caught up in a world over which he has no control. By contrast, Carlos Villatoro as Antonio is the daring and forceful leader of a robber band who eventually becomes enmeshed in a drug ring dominated by others. The two lovely feminine leads are unforgettable and sharply different in character. Hortensia Valencia’s Laura is a young woman of integrity seeking to aid her beau, yet naive about the doctor’s true intentions, while Lupe Bonilla’s Esther is a flirtatious girl who uses her charms to entrap Antonio only to herself fall victim to the drug ring’s brutality. The performance of Manuel de los Rios is multilayered. As Dr. Ortiz, he appears first as a bespectacled, impassioned idealist and is gradually revealed as a sleazy individual more interested in seducing Laura than aiding drug victims. In his guise as the Rigid One, he is authoritarian in manner, bearded, walking with a pronounced limp, his left hand encased in a leather glove, the “iron fist” of the film’s title holding the other characters in a deadly grip. Among the nightmarish figures in his vice den are the Hawk, with his skullcap, long, waxed mustache and evil grin, and another denizen with most of his upper teeth missing so that he appears as a fang-like monster. A further contrast to the adult criminals is the child Juanito, played by Guillermo Pacheco who had also portrayed Carmela’s little brother in El tren fantasma. Juanito, who wears glasses, smokes a pipe and reads Nick Carter detective stories, strikes a note of light comic relief. Yet, in joining forces with Perico and finally helping Antonio subdue the Rigid One, Juanito plays a central role in the resolution of the narrative.
In presenting his narrative, García Moreno did not utilize distorted sets in the expressionist style nor a variety of impressionistic camera tricks. The only example of a subjective cinematographic effect is near the beginning when the morphine-addicted Carlos, while caressing the donkey, sees a double-vision image of Laura as the young woman approaches. Otherwise, García Moreno creates his strange narrative amidst settings of complete reality, including extensive locations, and in the classic style of editing employed in American silent action films. The tendency towards cinematic realism is exemplified by Dr. Ortiz’s lecture in the town plaza, illustrated by cutting to documentary footage of hospitals and drug victims that García Moreno filmed in Mexico City. The haunting images of deformed children suffering from their parents’ vice add a particular urgency to the film’s depiction of the drug menace. Yet the fact that these revelations come from a man who will turn out to be a main source of the problem proves to be the story’s ultimate irony. García Moreno also continued his mastery of action melodrama in the film’s numerous fights and pursuits, sequences that made many demands on his troupe. For example, Hortensia Valencia recalls falling off a horse during the shooting of a riding scene. Most of the sequence depicting the attack of Antonio’s band on the car was actually taken from the earlier El Buitre, filmed near Mexico City in 1925, with new close-ups of Perico and others shot in Orizaba in 1927 and spliced into the new film.
The combination of realistic social comment, action adventure, outright fantasy, humor both light and dark, sexual motifs ranging from the romantic to the perverse—all encased within a narrative revealed to be a hallucinatory vision—seems to have been without precedent in Mexican cinema. Louis Feuillade’s masterpiece, the classic French serial, Les Vampires (1915-16), much admired by the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel, had anticipated El puño de hierro in its similar approach to fantastic adventures shot in settings of total realism. García Moreno took this tradition even further into the realm of dreams and the unconscious, creating a kind of parallel universe in which the perception of a child like Juanito can expose and defeat the corrupt criminality of adults. On one level, of course, the final realization that the film’s nightmarish adventures have been, in fact, only a figment of the imagination can be seen as a comforting reassurance that all is well with our everyday world. Carlos will now be motivated to abandon harmful drugs and urge others to do likewise. Yet, given the revelatory nature of Carlos’s drug-induced dream, the spectator has also been confronted with dark, disturbing truths about society that cannot easily be dismissed. The viewer of the film has discovered that appearances, those masks we often employ to cover our true selves, can indeed be deceiving and that social conventions can draw a veil over the mind. At the outset, Dr. Anselmo Ortiz appears to be the hero of the film, the upstanding civic leader dedicating his life to the destruction of the drug trade and the salvation of its victims. By contrast, Antonio heads a gang of thieves who disguise themselves in masks and robes that resemble a black-gowned Ku Klux Klan. Alluding to his nickname, several scenes involving Antonio are preceded by symbolic insert shots of a bat. In the end, however, it is Dr. Ortiz who is revealed to be the true criminal and Antonio who emerges as the heroic rebel against the vice den, unmasking the pillar of the community.
Sexuality also appears in the film in a distorted manner as the product of a society in which everything has been reduced to a commodity. This is apparent from the very beginning when the drug-addled Carlos kisses the donkey, a scene with black comic overtones of bestiality. Following the playfully romantic scenes of Antonio and Esther on a park bench, they are seen together in the vice den. When Esther virtually forces cocaine on Antonio, the camera focuses on a close-up of her legs wrapping around his in a manner strongly suggestive of sexual intercourse. In effect, Esther rapes Antonio. Later, there is a homosexual orgy in the drug den. A grinning elderly man, crowned with a wreath on his head, in a reversion to infantilism wears only a loincloth and cradles a doll in his arms. A young man passionately embraces him, while another drug-crazed young man caresses the old man’s bare leg and plays with his toes.
Although García Moreno was not known to be an adherent of any particular artistic school nor did he state for the record his broader aesthetic ambitions, with El puño de hierro, he had created what may very well be the first Mexican film with surrealist elements. Surrealism, with its parallels in Mexico’s ancient pre-Columbian art blending the fantastic and the realistic, would later become central to modern Mexican culture as artists like Frida Kahlo expressed their dreams in their work. Indeed, when he visited the country in 1938, André Breton declared that Mexico was a surrealist nation. Luis Buñuel, for his part, would find Mexico ideal for the realization of films that dramatized his surrealist view of life. For all its roots in Mexican culture, however, García Moreno’s El puño de hierro proved to be ahead of its time. Mexico’s film-going public in the 1920s was accustomed to works offering more straightforward realism, such as García Moreno had demonstrated in El tren fantasma. El puño de hierro premiered in Orizaba on May 21, 1927, at the Teatro Llave, and apparently failed to resonate with the local audience, due, one must suppose, to its challenging vision. But whatever the reason, the film failed to gain wider distribution and was never shown in Mexico City. Shortly after, Centro Cultural Cinematográfico went bankrupt. The first and, until the 1970s, the only film studio producing in Orizaba, the company was beset with all the difficulties that can accrue to a small, ambitious enterprise operating far from the country’s central metropolis. The collapse of the studio and the lack of contemporary response to his masterpiece, El puño de hierro, must have had a devastating effect on García Moreno. For while he would remain active in cinema until the end of his life, never again would he direct a film.
After Centro Cultural Cinematográfico folded, Gabriel and Hortensia moved to Tijuana at the invitation of his brother Vicente where they managed a chicken ranch for a short time. But the lure of the movie capital to the north, then in the throes of the new technological revolution of sound, proved much stronger to Gabriel. At the end of 1929, García Moreno, by his own initiative and without anyone’s recommendation, obtained work at the Hal Roach Studios in the Backgrounds and Miniatures Department. The Roach studio, located in Culver City not far from its distributor, MGM, was in the forefront of the industry with its output of classic comedy shorts starring Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, and Our Gang. García Moreno also worked for another leading Hollywood producer of the period, Howard Hughes, who had just completed Hell’s Angels and would follow it with other celebrated classics, including The Front Page and Scarface. For an experimenter like García Moreno, these studios were the perfect environment to study the latest in film techniques in order to come up with devices of his own. While working in Hollywood, García Moreno invented a continuous-speed camera for the shooting of feature-length films. He also worked with two brothers from Mexico, Joselito and Roberto Rodríguez, on the invention of a new kind of sound film equipment, helping them to obtain an American patent.
During their years in Southern California, Gabriel and Hortensia lived in a house near a zoo on Gower Street in Hollywood. Gabriel used to say to her, “Don’t worry, you’ll always be happy,” and indeed, Hortensia would retain the warmest memories of their years together in Mexico and Hollywood. She no longer worked in films, but she enjoyed the California lifestyle of the 1930s and particularly liked to drive her car around Los Angeles. She and Gabriel maintained ties to Hollywood’s Mexican colony and were socially acquainted with such stars as Dolores Del Rio and Tito Guízar and a future director, Emilio Fernández. They were still living in Los Angeles in 1936 when Hortensia gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Raquel.
In 1937, after being away from their country for eight years, Gabriel and Hortensia returned to Mexico. Bringing with him several Hollywood technicians, he rented a large building in Mexico City and turned it into a new, modern film studio, Estudios García Moreno, which later became the Azteca Studios. Among the films that were produced there was Diablillos de arrabal (Little Devils of the Suburbs), made in 1938 and released in 1940. Written, produced, and directed by Adela Sequeyro, one of the few women filmmakers in the cinema at the time, Diablillos de arrabal was a realistic story of a band of poor children growing up in the barrios of Mexico City. García Moreno supervised the sound recording of Sequeyro’s memorable classic. Around 1942, García Moreno left his studio after a dispute with his partners to start a new organization, Laboratorios Cinematográficos Moreno, in Mixcoac, a suburb of Mexico City. There, he experimented with making films in various color processes. Film had always been his intoxicant and he would spend hours in his laboratory seeking to perfect his medium. With the Mexican cinema in the midst of its golden age (la época de oro), it was a propitious time for filmmaking and García Moreno began making plans for many new projects. He was in the prime of life and appeared to be enjoying excellent health when, in January 1943, he took his daughter on a car trip to Acapulco for a vacation. Driving back on the new highway from Acapulco to
Mexico City, he stopped at a restaurant-hotel for a meal. After eating some cheese, he suddenly became ill and called his wife Hortensia who, with his brother Vicente, then hurried to pick him up to take him home. Gabriel was still conscious and complaining of a pain in his side when they reached his house in Mexico City, although the full seriousness of his condition was not yet apparent. A doctor was called to his home and determined that he had uremic poisoning apparently stemming from toxic substances in the food he had eaten in the restaurant. Confined to his bed, Gabriel soon fell into a coma and, within two or three days, died on January 20, 1943, at the age of 45. He was buried in the Panteón Jardín in Mexico City. His passing coincided with the deaths of two other major Latin American film pioneers in 1943, Argentina’s José Agustín Ferreyra and Brazil’s Vittorio Capellaro. García Moreno’s ultimate tragedy lay in his sudden end at a youthful, vigorous age with potentially many more creative years ahead of him, including a possible return to directing.
Hortensia Valencia, a woman of great inner strength, was able through sheer willpower and determination to overcome her adversities. She went back to work and was employed for a time as an administrator at the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City before starting her own business, a store where she sold fabrics for curtains. She managed the store for many years and never remarried. Still remarkably vigorous at the age of 100 when Esperanza Vázquez Bernal interviewed her in 1999, Hortensia said she had not found another man who could compare to Gabriel.
Meanwhile, the films produced by the Orizaba company were for many years preserved by the studio’s treasurer, William Mayer. In the late 1960s, his family gave them to film historian Aurelio de los Reyes who deposited them in the Filmoteca de la UNAM. The archive safeguarded the material, but the films and their director were a long-forgotten chapter in Mexican film history in 1997 when Esperanza Vázquez Bernal began researching them in connection with her biography, Carlos Villatoro: Pasajes en la vida de un hombre de cine, a book she coauthored with Federico Dávalos Orozco. In 1998, El tren fantasma and El puño de hierro were released on VHS tape by UNAM as part of a series of Latin American silent films distributed on home video in collaboration with the Brazilian cultural organization, Funarte. However, unlike the other films in this series, the García Moreno films were still in an incomplete state. El tren fantasma was missing all its inter-titles while one crucial sequence had been lost. The print of El puño de hierro used for the video was in a jumbled state with scenes in the wrong order, along with many missing inter-titles and some footage that was not included. Working in association with Francisco Gaytán, Manuel Rodríguez, and José Antonio Valencia at UNAM, Esperanza Vázquez Bernal then undertook a thorough restoration of the films. She located García Moreno’s original synopses for the films deposited in the national archives, making it finally possible to restore them following the director’s original intentions. The revised edition of El puño de hierro now includes inter-titles recreated for the film, rearranges the scenes in the order intended by García Moreno, and incorporates rediscovered footage that had not been included in UNAM’s earlier edition. The 2001 premiere of the new version marked the first time that the film had been shown theatrically in Mexico City since its creation. In 2002, Ms. Vázquez followed up with a restoration of El tren fantasma that includes inter-titles developed from the synopsis and a reconstruction of the lost sequence with the aid of stills and surviving frames from the missing footage.
It has only been in recent years that a concerted international effort to explore the untapped riches of film history has begun to reveal many previously unknown classics of the early cinema, like El tren fantasma and El puño de hierro. Thanks to the dedicated labors of Esperanza Vázquez Bernal and her colleagues at UNAM, a later generation of film devotees has finally been able to discover the work of Gabriel García Moreno, a remarkable pioneer of the silent era who brought a fresh imaginative vision to the Mexican cinema during its formative years. While the dark, unusual narrative of El puño de hierro was perhaps too unsettling to be appreciated by 1920s sensibilities, its questioning of authority, including reality itself, has made it highly relevant to contemporary audiences who have discerned that inside every Dr. Ortiz loudly proclaiming his championship of ideals, there may lurk a Rigid One, an iron fist squeezing the populace for personal profit. Thus, like so much of lasting value created in the silent era, the vision of El puño de hierro retains its power to enlighten and entrance the viewer.
Esperanza Vázquez Bernal is continuing her research on Gabriel García Moreno. If you can provide further information on his life and career, please e-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A special thank you for research assistance to Rogelio Agrasánchez, Jr. and his wife Xóchitl whose Agrasánchez Film Archives is a major collection of films, publications, and memorabilia from Mexico’s golden age of cinema. Their website is at: http://www.agrasfilms.com/
*Taken from Journal of Film Preservation 66, 10/2003, pp. 10-21. Revue de la Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF).