Archivo de la categoría: Journal of Film Preservation

El Puño de Hierro, a Mexican Silent Film Classic

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.

Fotograma de El tren Fantasma

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.

Hortensia Valencia

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.

El Tieso

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:

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:

*Taken from Journal of Film Preservation 66, 10/2003, pp. 10-21. Revue de la Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF).

La venganza de Pancho Villa (a lost and found border film)

La venganza de Pancho Villa (The Vengeance of Pancho Villa): A lost and found border film*

Gregorio C. Rocha

On January 5, 1914, Frank N. Thayer, representing Mutual Film Corporation and General Pancho Villa, head of the Constitutionalist army in the Mexican revolution, gathered in the office of attorney Gunther Lessing in El Paso, Texas, to sign a contract.

In it, Pancho Villa agreed to give exclusive rights to Mutual to film the triumphant campaign of his army on its way down to Mexico City. As a result of this contract, the film The Life of General Villa was made, becoming perhaps, one of the first biographical films ever made and “…one of the oddest episodes in film history”, according to film historian Kevin Brownlow.1

The Life of General Villa opened its commercial run in the Lyric Theater in New York, in May, 1914 and afterwards, once World War I had started, the film was apparently junked by the same company that produced it, becoming another lost film, but quite a legendary one.

After an exhaustive two-year search, digging in the film archives in Amsterdam, London, New York, and Mexico City, while looking for film materials for my documentary The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa, I stumbled into one of the most precious treasures a film researcher may aspire to find: dozens of nitrate film reels from the 1920’s, lobby posters, photographs, film artifacts, glass slides and memorabilia, which had been sitting in the basement of the house of the Padilla family in El Paso, Texas, since the late 1930’s.

The amazing find followed an earlier one: while visiting the Special Collections in the library of the University of Texas at El Paso, a set of photographs was put in front of me. To my surprise, the photographs showed many unknown scenes from The Life of General Villa, showing Raoul Walsh, Teddy Sampson and other players hired by Mutual Film Corporation. Since this film was the ultimate goal of my quest, my pulse accelerated with the belief that I was getting close to it, if there was a surviving print. Along with the photographs, there were copies of exhibition leaflets announcing the film La venganza de Pancho Villa, (The Vengeance of Pancho Villa), a title of which I had never heard before. Since the leaflet was dated 1937, my first thought was that they were announcing a talkie film, but small letters at the bottom of the page read: “We will soon count with sound equipment!” Then, I was positive that they were referring to a silent film, but there was only one film made about Pancho Villa in the silent era, The Life of General Villa. Where and what was this new “lost” film? It happened to be very near, in the vault of the library, nested in a metal container, since 1985, when it was donated to UTEP ( University of Texas at El Paso).

Raoul Walsh as young Villa in The Life of General Villa, 1914

La venganza de Pancho Villa had been slowly decaying in its container. When we opened up the lid, a strong smell of nitrocellulose filled the air. We pulled seven reels out of the container. While examining the positive print, multiple glue splices showed that the film had been cut from different sources – both fictional and documentary – and using different brands of film, namely Eastman Kodak, Pathé and Agfa. At first glance, it was possible to date most of the strips of film as being 1916 nitrate film stock. All seven reels showed melting of the emulsion in the section proximate to the core, for which it was possible to foresee that at least one third of the film was irretrievably lost. At first glance too it was possible to see in some of the frames the image of Raoul Walsh playing the young Pancho Villa, and fascinating bilingual English-Spanish inter-titles, telling a somewhat obscure story about Pancho Villa. My conclusion was that I had found not the lost, but another lost film about Pancho Villa.

Subsequently, with the help of the Institute of Oral History, I came to meet the Padilla family, former owners of La venganza de Pancho Villa, who welcomed me in their home, allowed me in their basement to open those rusty cans filled with film treasures, investigate in their documents, and shared with me the story of their ancestors.

Edmundo and Félix Padilla

Between 1920 and 1936, Mr. Félix Padilla, an empresario from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, traveled extensively with his son Edmundo throughout Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, exhibiting silent films that he rented or purchased from film distributors based in Mexico City and Los Angeles. Félix and Edmundo Padilla toured in a pick-up truck, carrying with them 35mm films, a portable film projector, a manual phonograph, lobby posters and several 78rpm records, which they used to add music to the projections. In the afternoons, Mr. Padilla would traverse the center of each town, announcing the day’s program, using a megaphone. Screenings usually took place in the local theater, where Mr. Padilla shared the profits on a 50-50% basis with the owner. Occasionally, when movie theaters were not available, Mr. Padilla would set a huge white canvas in the main plaza and the screening would take place in the open air, with the assistants bringing their own chairs.

For 5 cents and 10 cents (children and adults respectively), the people from places like Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; Gomez Palacio, Durango; Coyote, Coahuila; or Deming, New Mexico, could enjoy the exhibition of American short comedies, followed by silent Mexican melodramas, such as En la hacienda, by Ernesto Vollrath, 1922.

In the early 1930´s, when the family had already moved to El Paso, Texas, Félix and Edmundo decided to create their own version of the life of Pancho Villa in film, cutting and re-editing fragments from films they had in their collection. By doing this, they unknowingly became the first Mexican-American filmmakers. Edmundo Padilla´s fascination with Pancho Villa probably began when, as a child, he witnessed the Mexican revolution: 

“…At midnight you could listen the gunfire. The shout of “Viva Villa!” would unleash yelling and thundering all around. Sometimes the revolutionaries would take the town, but at other times they would be defeated. I also became aware of the executions that took place in the municipal cemetery, where federal soldiers would fire their rifles against the revolutionaries standing in front of a wall. I also got to see Pancho Villa in person, when one time he arrived in his own car pulling a wagon loaded with corn and beans. He personally distributed the goods with the poor people who arrived carrying baskets.”2

The Padilla´s fascination with Pancho Villa rivaled their fascination for the moving image. As a result of the first assemblage of appropriated footage, they came up with a compilation film which was exhibited under different titles, depending on the version. El reinado del terror (The Reign of Terror) was the first release of the film. It is possible that Félix and Edmundo Padilla began their project out of the remaining few reels of the legendary The Life of General Villa.

One fact that may prove the hypothesis that The Life of General Villa was the basis for the Padilla film is provided by the stills which were used for the lobby cards in advertising their film. These are in fact images from The Life of General Villa. By carefully examining those photographs, it is possible to see the “Eastman Kodak Nitrate Film” brand printed in the borders, which suggests that they are frame enlargements, rather than “stills” taken during production. In the same interview recorded by Magdalena Padilla in 1976, Mr. Edmundo Padilla remembered that:

“The film of Pancho Villa was about the Mexican Revolution. There were many scenes shot in real battlefields. My father brought that film to the U.S. and exhibited it in many places here, Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas, always in small towns. He would bring his projector, rented the theaters and went for a percentage, including schools. The film of Villa was about when Villa was young, how he was pushed into the revolution, his first accomplishments after he was a bandit and then when he became a general. People loved this film, especially Mexican people.”3

This statement from Mr. Padilla clearly references the story line of The Life of General Villa. Though Félix Padilla claimed it as his film and never mentioned the sources from which he gathered the scenes for El reinado del terror, it is possible to establish now, that in addition to The Life of General Villa, they also drew from other sources, mainly from the 20-episode serial Liberty, a Daughter of the U.S.A. directed by Jacques Jaccard, and produced by Universal Film Manufacturing Co. in 1916. Most likely, Félix had purchased several episodes of Liberty at a low price, after it had lost its commercial value. This episodic film, released in August, 1916, showed a “patriotic” response to the attack of Villista forces on the town of Columbus, New Mexico on March 8th, that same year. This attack, which resulted in the complete destruction of the center of the town, caused several American civilian and military casualties, and marked a downturn in Pancho Villa´s image in North American public opinion. The response of the American government, led by President Woodrow Wilson, was the immediate invasion of Mexican territory with an army of 15,000 soldiers under the command of General John Pershing, in pursuit of Pancho Villa. The attack to Columbus and the resulting “Punitive Expedition” set both countries on the brink of war and exacerbated nationalist feelings on both sides of the border.

Photogramme of Liberty, Daugther of the U.S.A., Jacques Jaccard, 1916

For Mexicans, Pancho Villa´s dimensions as a hero grew as the sole man able to defy the imperialist power by attacking U.S. continental territory. On the North American silver screen, however, Pancho Villa´s image once compared to that of Napoleon or Robin Hood in The Life of General Villa, shifted to that of the worst of villains, becoming Public Enemy number one. In an advertisement published in August, 1916, by Moving Picture World, Liberty was announced as: “A great love story; scenes laid along the Mexican border; with enough of the military atmosphere in each episode to stampede your audiences into bursts of patriotic feeling and appreciation.”

In Liberty, a Daughter of the U.S.A., the actress Mary Walcamp plays the young heroine Liberty, who is kidnapped by an evil character named Pancho Lopez, a Mexican bandit who demands ransom to finance his revolution. While doing this, Pancho Lopez invades Discovery, destroys the town, and kills most the inhabitants. Major Rutledge, played by Jack Holt, heads an army of Texas Rangers into Mexico to rescue Liberty and to get rid of Pancho Lopez and his band.

Though Liberty seemed to be an innocent American episodic melodrama, nowadays, it offers a very interesting reading from an ideological point of view. On one side, it represents an excellent example of female protagonists finding a Utopian space to develop as the “New Woman”4, but Liberty may also be considered as the ultimate greaser film due to its profound and furious anti-Mexican content, perhaps not surpassed by any other American film of the period. Liberty also offers ground for the study of the symbolic representations of gender, race and politics in early American melodramas. This same kind of analysis could be applied to Patria, a “war readiness” serial also related to the American paranoia regarding Mexico as well as Japan, produced a year later by William R. Hearst.5

Padilla´s strategy in including this episodic film in his project, was to eliminate most of the scenes where Liberty appeared, bringing Pancho Lopez into the foreground as protagonist of the story. When creating new inter-titles in Spanish and English to convey his desired meaning, Padilla re-named the characters and places that Universal´s screenwriters invented in order to avoid any direct offense to Mexican sensibilities, using their real names. Thus, “Pancho Lopez” became Pancho Villa and “Discovery” became Columbus. But, in the few scenes where Liberty appears, she became “La güera Amalia” (the “blonde Amalia”). With nationalist fervor, a common attitude in Mexican border-landers in order to exercise cultural resistance, Mr. Padilla transformed the original anti-Mexican intention of Liberty into a dubious glorification of Pancho Villa, in spite of the original portrayal of him as a merciless murderer.

With all this, Padilla released another version, or more precisely, another episode of the film: Pancho Villa en Columbus, which he probably exhibited to the same audiences. Mr. Mariano de la Torre, grandson of Mr. Félix Padilla, witnessed some of the screenings when, as a child, he was hired as phonograph operator:

“I was cranking the phonograph and when the attack on Columbus appeared on the screen, my grandfather would cue me to crank it with more impetus, making the crowd go wild. They would yell: ´Viva Villa! Mueran los gringos!´”6

It is important to remember that during the Depression, when the Padillas were screening their films, intolerance towards Mexican immigrants was high and racial segregation was the norm in the border area. However, the Padillas edited their film to be appreciated by both Anglo and Mexican audiences. Due to the use of bilingual inter-titles and to the interpretive ambiguity, the film could have had different readings and therefore satisfy audiences from both cultures.

Columbus a few days after Villas's Attack

Pancho Villa en Columbus was an open-structured film. When Mr. Félix Padilla passed away in 1936, Edmundo followed up the family tradition and he came up with the definitive version of the film, La Venganza de Pancho Villa. Edmundo added historical value to the film by incorporating documentary scenes borrowed from Historia de la Revolución Mexicana, a Mexican compilation documentary made by Mr. Julio Lamadrid in 1928. From it, Edmundo drew sequences showing the “real” Pancho Villa and different events of the Mexican revolution such as the Battle of Celaya, which might be an example of his method: he would start the sequence showing a Mexican newsreel of the actual event, and suddenly, would cut to an action-packed fake battle, filled with hundreds of extras, from one of the episodes of Liberty.

While trying to arrive to a coherent cinematic discourse on the life of Pancho Villa from this extremely contradictory materials, Edmundo Padilla found it necessary to film additional sequences that would later be inter-cut within his assemblage of appropriated footage. These include the opening sequence, now lost, when the mother makes a fatal confession to the young Pancho Villa; the abduction and subjugation of his father by federal soldiers, which sparks the rage of Pancho Villa, and his own assassination, recreated with friends and relatives in the outskirts of El Paso in 1930.

The film incorporates scenes shot in Texas by Edmundo Padilla exclusively for the final work

Some sequences which he did not modify and we see for the first time in a silent film in La venganza de Pancho Villa, represent some polemical historical events that shaped the United States and Mexico´s hazardous border in that era: The attack on Columbus, New Mexico; the Santa Isabel incident where 16 American engineers were slaughtered; and the little known event of the Battle of Ojos Azules, when Pershing´s expedition unsuccessfully confronted Villista soldiers.

But perhaps the best example of Padilla´s method is an amazingly edited denunciation of the 1914 American invasion of Veracruz, where he inter-cuts scenes from Birth of a Nation, 1914; naval battle newsreels from World War I; Liberty, 1916 and The Life of General Villa, 1914; to contest American representations of the other, of the enemy, in this case the Mexicans.

Perhaps acting not only as a metaphor, the title The Vengeance of Pancho Villa, suggests Padilla´s unstated intention: La venganza de Pancho Villa is a revenge against cultural stereotypes imposed by early American cinema. 

La venganza de Pancho Villa may now be considered as a film maudit, a precursor of what may be called Border Cinema, not only due to the geographical location of its practitioners, but in its attempt to freely cross, back and forth, the dividing lines set between political and non-politically correctness; fact and fiction, Anglo and Mexican cosmogony, Gringo and Greaser stereotypes, but most of all, because of its intended – and at times successful – transformation of meaning.

It is stated in Mr. Padilla´s logbook that La Venganza de Pancho Villa made $1280.00 pesos from September, 1936 to May, 1937. This figure represents the paid admission of at least 12,000 spectators, considering a 10-cent admittance fee.7

The Padillas´ leaflets of La Venganza de Pancho Villa suggest that it had its last run in October, 1937. Small letters at the bottom of the leaflet, read: “We will soon have sound equipment and films!” But Empresas Padilla never made the leap to the sound era.


1 Kevin Brownlow explored the participation of cameraman Charles Rosher and his relationship to Pancho Villa in The War, the West and the Wilderness, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1978.

2 From an interview with Mr. Edmundo Padilla, recorded by Magdalena Arias. Institute of Oral History, UTEP. El Paso, Texas, 1976.

3 According to Moving Picture World, it is possible to establish the following figures: In 1914, four feature films with Mexican villains were released. The figure rises to nine in 1915, and twenty in 1916, after the Columbus incident. Between 1914 and 1920, at least seventy nine greaser feature films were released.

4 From an interview with Mr. Mariano de la Torre, recorded by Gregorio Rocha in El Paso, TX. June, 2001.

5 There is an excellent study of the role of women in early American films in Benjamin Singer´s Melodrama and Modernity. Indiana University Press. 2001.

6 It is important to mention that William Randolph Hearst owned enormous tract of land and large numbers of cattle in the state of Chihuahua. By 1917, when Patria was released, Pancho Villa had already seized Hearst´s cattle and distributed it among the peons. The contents of Patria were so offensive to Mexico, that President Woodrow Wilson ordered Hearst´s film company to remove all signs in the film that referred directly to Mexico. Ever since 1914, Hearst had heralded an American armed intervention in Mexico.

7 Félix and Edmundo Padilla´s notes were written in a logbook, preserved by the Padilla family. This logbook has been a helpful tool in reconstructing the history of the different versions of La Venganza de Pancho Villa.

*This research was possible due to grants from the Fulbright-García Robles Research and Lecturing Program and the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, México.

I would like to thank the Library Special Collections Department of the University of Texas at El Paso, The Library of Congress Film Preservation Center, Filmoteca U.N.A.M, in Mexico, and above all, the Padilla family for their generous support in the development of this research.

Films cited:

La Venganza de Pancho Villa. Félix and Edmundo Padilla. Mexico/U.S.A. ca. 1930.

Liberty. 20-episode serial. Jacques Jaccard and Norman McRae. U.S.A. 1916.

The life of General Villa. William C. Cabanne and Raoul Walsh, U.S.A. 1914.

Historia de la Revolución Mexicana. Julio Lamadrid. Mexico, 1928.

*From Journal of Film Preservation 65 12/2002, pp. 24-29. Revue de la Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film.

El cine alemán y el cine soviético en México en los años veinte

El cine alemán y el cine soviético en México en los años veinte*

 Aurelio de los Reyes

Desde el inicio de la historia del cine, a México llegó lo más destacado de la producción cinematográfica mundial, comenzando con las clásicas películas de Edison y Lumière, incluidas El beso y Vida, pasión y muerte de nuestro señor Jesucristo de Hâtot, respectivamente; siguiendo con películas de Méliès, de Segundo de Chomón, de Zecca y de otros directores que trabajaban para Pathé; del Asalto y robo al tren correo de Porter (1904). A partir de 1906 la sistematización de la distribución con la apertura de agencias de fabricantes europeos y norteamericanos (Eclipse, Gaumont, Vitagraph, Selig) enriqueció notablemente el panorama cinematográfico con el arribo de las películas de Griffith; en 1908 la agencia Pathé trajo las películas de dicha marca filmadas en Berlín, Rusia y Estados Unidos; hacia 1909 comenzaron a llegar películas italianas y danesas. La Primera Guerra Mundial trastornó el comercio cinematográfico al entorpecer el arribo de películas europeas, sobre todo italianas y francesas, lo que ocasionó depender del producto norteamericano, desde el momento en que la producción nacional era prácticamente inexistente. Como es sabido, el pacto de Versalles firmado en 1919 estableció el boicot de los países aliados a los productos alemanes, sin embargo por la neutralidad de México en la Guerra se abrió sin conflicto en 1920 una agencia, F. Hollmann y Cía., para distribuir películas alemanas. Se agregarían Álvarez Arrondo y Cía. Sucesores, que compraba las películas a la Victory Film en Londres, y Germán Camús, que las adquiría en Barcelona. No deja de ser interesante la venta de películas alemanas en Inglaterra, puesto que, como se dijo, ese país había declarado el boicot a todo producto alemán. Hubo pleitos entre los distribuidores al declararse propietarios de la misma película. El enriquecimiento en la distribución facilitó la llegada del expresionismo en diciembre 1921 con la exhibición de El gabinete del doctor Caligari (1919) de Robert Wiene. Por otra parte, la no ruptura de relaciones diplomáticas con Rusia a raíz de la Revolución bolchevique, y la relación cordial de los gobiernos posrevolucionarios con ésta facilitó la llegada del mejor cine soviético a partir de 1927. El 26 de julio de 1920 F. Hollmann y Cía. registró en la Dirección de Derechos de Autor la propiedad intelectual de las películas alemanas La princesa de los ostiones “comedia por Hans Kraly y Ernest Lubitsch”; ocho días después aseguró la propiedad de La difunta viva, Mónica Voorlsang, El viaje incierto las tres con Henny Porten, El viaje y La muñeca (Die Puppe) con Ossi Oswalda, y El calvario de una esposa (Kreuziget Sie!) con Pola Negri.

Fotograma de El gabinete del Dr. Caligari de Robert Weine

El primer anuncio de F. Hollmann y Cía. se publicó dos días después, el miércoles 28 de julio de 1920.i Era un anuncio novedoso que ocupaba un cuarto a lo ancho de la cabeza de la plana con escasos y llamativos elementos tipográficos, dominados por el geometrismo característico de la publicidad alemana, lo que resultaba novedoso e innovativo en el escasamente desarrollado anuncio cinematográfico mexicano. No deja de ser interesante que el 5 de agosto el despacho de abogados Villela, Benítez y Arroyo, apoderados de F. Hollmann y Cía. hiciera saber a través de la prensa a los exhibidores que sus representados tenían el registro de la propiedad industrial e intelectual de películas, aparatos de proyección y accesorios de la UFA de Alemania,ii porque resintió el anuncio de otro distribuidor de haber recibido películas alemanas en Veracruz, próximas a llegar a la ciudad de México.

La apertura de la agencia UFA se daba en el marco del incremento comercial entre México y Alemania a partir del fin de la Primera Guerra Mundial; comercio que había alcanzado un alto desarrollo antes de estallar dicho conflicto, mismo que se encargó de reducir a cero, pero a partir de 1918 se reinició con un ritmo acelerado. Por otra parte, la República del Weimar, intento de gobierno socialista, veía con simpatía a México por su revolución y por su neutralidad durante la Gran Guerra. Había un ambiente favorable entre ambos países lo cual propiciaría el viaje del general Plutarco Elías Calles a Alemania de julio a octubre de 1924, en su calidad de presidente electo. Esa mutua simpatía haría prohibir a los respectivos gobiernos las películas norteamericanas consideradas ofensivas para la dignidad nacional de cada país, pues la representación de los respectivos nacionales solía ser caricaturesca, la de los mexicanos como una venganza por los males ocasionados a los bienes norteamericanos por la revolución, y de los alemanes por su involucramiento en las causas del estallido de la Guerra. En noviembre de 1922, por ejemplo, México prohibió la exhibición de la película Lo que olvidó el Kaiser en sus memorias a petición del conde de Montgelas, ministro plenipotenciario y enviado extraordinario de la república alemana, quien percibió la molestia que la cinta causaba entre los alemanes residentes en México; en su petición al gobierno de la ciudad de México, encargado de ejercer la censura, advirtió que temía que los alemanes manifestaran ruidosamente su inconformidad en el cine donde se exhibía e incluso, añadía, eran capaces de destruir éste por enojo.iii Una circunstancia favorable, pues, permitió un intenso comercio cinematográfico entre ambos países en los años veinte. Pese a haberse registrado la propiedad intelectual de las primeras películas alemanas en llegar en agosto de 1920, la exhibición se inició hasta el 2 de noviembre con Madame DuBarry con Pola Negri de Ernest Lubitsch,iv tal vez por no encontrar de inmediato cine disponible. El 20 de noviembre se exhibió la segunda película, Reencarnación, “tres épocas, catorce partes”.v El público y la crítica las recibieron bien. A juicio de Marco Aurelio Galindo, uno de los críticos más notables de la época, llamaba la atención “la fastuosa y brillante presentación de la vieja época romana. En película ninguna habíase hecho esto tan admirable y acertadamente como en Reencarnación.” A su juicio y en comparación con las películas de Hollywood las películas alemanas, tenían mayor interés por la calidad de los argumentos, la cual se reflejaba en el sutil manejo de la psicología de los personajes. Este avance en hondura psicológica le hizo pensar que el cine alemán había alcanzado mayor grado de realismo y que por tanto se acercaba más al ideal del arte cinematográfico:

Ernest Lubitsch

Han sido pocas, demasiado pocas, las películas en las que hayamos podido admirar todo el realismo de que hace gala la cinta alemana de la marca UFA y cuyo principal ornato es precisamente ese realismo llevado a su máximo y logrado tan sinceramente, tan vívidamente, que deja en nosotros la inmensa satisfacción de haber visto una gran película, una obra verdadera de arte.

[…] el realismo, la sinceridad: he aquí lo que es el arte de la cinematografía […] en Madame DuBarry apreciamos lo que muy pocas veces hemos apreciado: la verdad en la manifestación de los diversos estados de ánimo y los múltiples sentimientos de los

Jacobo Granat, el exhibidor cinematográfico más importante de esos años, en un afán competitivo exhibió simultáneamente Madame DuBarry de la Fox con Theda Bara, pero no gustó, porque al público le era antipática la actriz. UFA pidió al público comparar ambas películas y aquél se inclinó por la película alemana,

que a nuestro juicio es muy superior en todo. Este triunfo del arte alemán, y lo satisfactorio que han resultado todas las películas presentadas hasta hoy de la misma procedencia, dejan abierto francamente el mercado de Méjicovii

opinó el corresponsal de Cine Mundial, versión en español de Moving Picture World, el semanario más importante de los exhibidores norteamericanos. Su comentario se debía a que el resto del año de 1920 se exhibieron cuatro películas alemanas más, El galeote, Seducción, La condesa Doddy y Por el amado, pese a todo, cantidad insuficiente para competir y desplazar al cine norteamericano. Con todo, el cine alemán continuó su exitosa exhibición de películas al grado de inaugurar el 26 de mayo de 1921, menos de un año después del registro de la propiedad de la primera película alemana llegada al país, el cine UFA Cinco de Mayo con El carrusel de la vida de Ernest Lubitsch con Pola Negri, convertida en la actriz “favorita del público mexicano”,viii quien recibía numerosa correspondencia en su casa todavía en Alemania de América Latina, especialmente de México.ix De El castigo de Dios o La peste en Florencia la publicidad subrayó que había costado siete millones de marcos alemanes de oro:

esta emocionante película, basada en hechos psicológicos, que ha causado tremendas discusiones entre los católicos de gran criterio y los prohombres, es verdaderamente digna de admirarse. El público juzgará por sí mismo el gran mérito e interés de esta grandiosa obra moderna basada en el amor libre.x

La película de las controversias religiosas aprobada por el ilustrísimo señor Arzobispo de Colonia, cardenal Von Hartman el 6 de julio de 1919. Interpretación insuperable de la Baronesa Maria von Kierska, la más bella actriz de la UFA.xi

Con la apertura de la agencia CIPE Eugenio Motz y Cía., en noviembre del mismo año, distribuidora de DEULIG, se intensificó la exhibición de películas alemanas.xii En diciembre Germán Camus exhibió El gabinete del doctor Caligari de Robert Wiene (1919). La prensa invitó al público a ver esta “extraña y fantasmagórica película”, “éxito ruidoso en todo el mundo, asunto, actuación, ciudades y decoraciones según el moderno arte ‘cubista’”.xiii De esa manera, aunque espaciadamente, en México se exhibió lo mejor de la producción alemana, como Ana Bolena de Ernest Lubitsh, Las arañas, El doctor Mabuse, Los nibelungos, Metrópolis y otras más de Fritz Lang, Nosferatu, El último de los hombres, Tartufo, Amanecer y otras de Wilhelm Murnau, El gabinete de las figuras de cera, por citar unos cuantos títulos; e incluso de otras nacionalidades como austríacas, Sodoma y Gomorra de Michael Kurtiz o danesas, Hamlet con Asta Nielsen. Se exhibió también producción española y francesa.

El cine alemán significó un reto para la crítica cinematográfica, de la misma manera que ocurrió con Intolerancia de David Wark Griffith, película llegada a México por contrabando en 1916 el mismo año de su inicio, pero a diferencia de entonces, había madurado en sus apreciaciones y lo supo enfrentar exitosamente, como lo prueban el texto de Marco Aurelio Galindo sobre Madame DuBarry ya citado, o el de Carlos Noriega Hope, Silvestre Bonnard a propósito de Caligari, para ilustrar con dos ejemplos:

[…] hemos de conceder que en el cinematógrafo, El gabinete del doctor Caligari es la obra más avanzada y que, dentro de sus normas, alcanza con mayor perfección un ideal estético. Porque es necesario gritar a los cuatro vientos que la alegría de un idealista que ve en su ideal hecho forma, con la fe de un convertido por el milagro, que El gabinete del doctor Caligari es una obra trascendental, dentro y fuera de la cinematografía.xiv

Esta película estuvo lejos de la comprensión de un público mayoritario, según comentario del mismo Noriega Hope:

Una señora, gorda y soñolienta, decía:

– La verdad no entendí esas cosas raras. ¡Lástima que no vimos a la Bertini!

Un caballero delgado, de lentes y con inconfundible aspecto de comisionista, exclamaba:

– Debían meter al manicomio a los que hicieron este mamarracho cubista. ¡Vaya frescura!

Y por último un conocido intelectual, de aquellos señores que nunca asisten al cinematógrafo porque lo consideran un arte inferior, demasiado popular y demasiado imperfecto, me decía lentamente, mientras abandonábamos el salón:

– Usted no me ha convencido todavía, amigo. Ciertamente que esta película es una obra maestra pero eso no quiere decir que el cinematógrafo sea un verdadero arte. Mire usted a sus devotos y verá que están descontentos. Desean películas iguales a todas las mediocres películas que se ofrecen diariamente, y cuando surge algo original, algo artístico, donde está latente el divino temblor de la inspiración, entonces protestan… Con un público así no puede llegar a ser un verdadero arte el cinematógrafo.

Bajé la cabeza y callé. A mi lado pasaban y repasaban honestas damas y respetables caballeros, casi indignados por esta “vacilada” que se llama El gabinete del doctor Caligari.xv

El impacto del expresionismo alemán se percibe en la obra pictórica del muralista José Clemente Orozco, quien afirmó haber asistido con frecuencia a la exhibición de películas UFA; impacto perceptible sobre todo en la perspectiva distorsionada, en la arquitectura deformada y en algunos de los ambientes tétricos de sus pinturas murales, o en los rostros de varios de sus personajes caricaturezcos, con enorme parecido a Caligari.

Respecto a la Unión Soviética, no hubo propiamente una ruptura de las relaciones diplomáticas entre México y Rusia con el ascenso de los radicales al poder. Se puede decir que dichas relaciones murieron de muerte natural, aunque la representación zarista permaneció un tiempo en calidad de representante “de la Rusia Blanca”, en oposición a la “Rusia Roja o Colorada” o bolchevique. Esta última tendió lazos a la clase obrera mexicana al enviar una misión diplomática, al frente de la cual se encontraba un señor Stephens, “antiguo representante de Lenin en los Estados Unidos”.xvi En el México posrevolucionario la clase obrera tenía una fuerte presencia, en particular a través de la Confederación Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM), cuyo líder Luis N. Morones estaba estrechamente ligado al poder. No es extraño, pues, que el mencionado Mr. Stephans comiera con el ministro de Gobernación y que el gobierno correspondiera a la gentileza de los “rojos” al enviar a la Unión Soviética al ingeniero Luis León acompañado por líderes obreros en misión especial a la Tercera Internacional.xvii En respuesta, para presionar al gobierno, la representación de la “Rusia Blanca” pidió el reconocimiento oficial a las relaciones comerciales entre ambos países. El gobierno mexicano se mantuvo indiferente. Con seguridad dicho comercio incluía las películas rusas filmadas en el exilio en París, Berlín y la península de Crimea, que se asomaban en las pantallas mexicanas al mismo tiempo que las películas expresionistas alemanas, como, por ejemplo, Dubrowski, exhibida con esta advertencia “Película […] basada en una novela que describe costumbres rusas del tiempo imperial y no tiene tendencia bolshevique.”xviii

Octubre de Serguei Eisenstein

Durante el gobierno del general Álvaro Obregón (1920-1924) continuaron los contactos entre la clase obrera mexicana y la clase obrera soviética, particularmente a través de los organismos radicales del Partido Comunista Mexicano y de la Confederación General de Trabajadores. Con seguridad no se formalizaron las relaciones diplomáticas entre ambos países, México y la Unión Soviética, por la presión norteamericana, que otorgó su reconocimiento al gobierno mexicano hasta agosto de 1923, después de aceptar condiciones en los Tratados de Bucareli. Un año después, en agosto de 1924, se anunció la reanudación de relaciones entre México y la Unión Soviética. Se rumoraba que el señor Petskovsky sería el primer embajador,xix como en efecto lo fue. También se dijo que posiblemente el general Calles visitase Rusia después de visitar Alemania en su calidad de presidente electo, lo que no sucedió por falta de tiempo, lo cual no impidió que la embajada soviética en Alemania lo agasajase durante su estancia en Berlín. El 7 de noviembre el señor Petskovsky presentó sus credenciales al general Obregón, quien en su discurso de aceptación subrayó:

que nunca ha habido qué vencer por nuestra parte dificultad alguna para la reanudación, pues México siempre ha reconocido el derecho indiscutible que todos los pueblos tienen para darse el gobierno y leyes que mejor satisfagan sus propios anhelos y aspiraciones y es por eso que cuando informalmente se iniciaron las pláticas para la reanudación de relaciones, el gobierno que me honro en presidir declaró que no había necesidad de ningún arreglo previo sino que bastaría que ambos gobiernos procedieran a acreditar sus respectivos representantes diplomáticos.xx

El 24 de diciembre de 1926 Alejandra Kollontay, feminista radical, sustituyó a Petskovsky. Un mes después, a fines de enero de 1927, la embajadora sostuvo una entrevista con el general Plutarco Elías Calles, presidente para el período de 1924 a 1928, para aclarar un rumor nacido en los Estados Unidos, de que la embajada soviética en México pretendía ser foco de propaganda bolchevique para América Latina y de que la embajadora introdujo a México películas tendenciosas. Se ignora el contenido de las pláticas.

Alexandra Kollantai

El lunes 21 de marzo de 1927 se estrenó en el cine Imperial La bahía de la muerte, “primera super-producción rusa” exhibida en México.xxi El sábado 26 el gobierno de la ciudad clausuró el cine, no tanto por la película, sino por los carteles que la anunciaban pegados en los muros de la ciudad, que, según la prensa, contenían propaganda bolchevique.xxii Desde luego que la Kollontay introdujo las películas por valija diplomática, como lo recuerda Juan Bustillo Oro, hijo del administrador de dicho cine, además de no existir registro autoral de éstas en una época en que los distribuidores acataban con escrúpulo este trámite para defenderse de la piratería. Se desconoce quién redactó el texto de los carteles. Los impresores se negaron a identificar a la persona que ordenó la impresión. El incidente parece haber ocasionado la remoción de la Kollontay, quien se despidió del gobierno mexicano el 28 de mayo de 1927 no sin atestiguar el estreno de El crucero Potemkin de Sergei Eisenstein el 22 de abril, película que continuó la presencia espaciada pero continua del cine soviético en nuestro país. Como en el caso del expresionismo alemán, el público, como la crítica cinematográfica, se enfrentó a un concepto de cine que les era desconocido, y que enfrentó con dificultad; por ejemplo, de La bahía de la muerte Luis de Larroeder, crítico de Excélsior, no supo cómo enfrentarla, narra el argumento y hace el siguiente comentario: “Pertenece esta vista al género espeluznante, trágico en grado sumo, produciendo por tanto un efecto terrorífico en toda la extensión de la palabra […]”.xxiii De su parte ni Rafael Bermúdez Zataraín, el más veterano de los críticos cinematográficos, ni Carlos Noriega Hope, el mejor informado, manejaban todavía el concepto de montaje cinematográfico, como lo vemos en sus textos. Dijo el primero a propósito de esta película

nos sorprende porque aunque en principio lo que usa es la técnica americana, va un poco más allá: desenvuelve procedimientos más rápidos, más concisos, lo cual da por resultado una impresión más fuerte en el espectador.xxiv

Mientras que el segundo, a propósito de Octubre, exhibida por la embajada soviética a un grupo de conocedores,

Un modo intenso, rápido. Ese continuo “flash” –llamarada que es privativo de las películas rusas, viene a ser una demostración del talento de los grandes directores del Soviet. Nada de escenas en que el ojo de la cámara perdure más de medio minuto, nada de explicaciones totales. Todo es corto, infatigable, sugerente.

He aquí la palabra exacta: sugerencia. La nueva literatura está hecha de ello. El cinema, en su afán de escalar la cúspide de las artes superiores va paralelamente a la literatura. Recuerdo ahora las frases de mi amigo John Dos Passos, uno de los nuevos [literatos] de yanquilandia: “Hace años, para iniciar una novela, teníamos qué decir: bajo una luna llena, en el lomo de una cabalgadura, iba un caballero de cincuenta años, de ceño adusto, de largo bigote, sumido en una honda meditación. Hoy, en cambio, el escritor presenta de golpe el estado psíquico del caballero, sin hablar de la luna, de la hora, de la cabalgadura…”

Eso han querido realizar los directores rusos. La epopeya gráfica en que la cámara piensa, en que la cámara, inquieta como un mono, es ya un fin y no solamente un medio de expresión, como acontece con la mayoría de las películas norteamericanas o europeas. El ojo de la cámara va diciéndonos, no a nuestros ojos sino a nuestro espíritu, la siempre labor episódica. Pero como es a la retina sino a la parte psíquica, el ojo de la cámara resulta elocuente y gráfico. Todo, en ella, es tan patético como un discurso, precisamente porque es un discurso que no estamos diciendo nosotros mismos.xxv

El cine soviético marcará un parte aguas en el concepto de cine que debía hacerse desde las esferas oficiales, donde aquél lo dividió en dos tendencias fundamentales: el norteamericano, que propagaba el american way of life, y el soviético, del que admiraba su capacidad educativa. Dada la problemática socio-educativa del país el gobierno optó por el segundo, lo cual en 1933 será determinante para la producción por la Secretaría de Educación Pública de Redes (Waves) de Fred Zinnemann y Emilio Gómez Muriel.

El cine alemán y el cine soviético llegaron a México relativamente pronto debido a la cordialidad en las relaciones diplomáticas entre México y dichos países, lo cual permitió que la crítica estuviese al día en su enfrentamiento con los avances del lenguaje cinematográfico y que el cineasta soviético Sergei Eisenstein fuese ampliamente conocido antes de llegar a México en diciembre de 1930 para filmar su malograda película ¡Que viva México!


i “Anuncio”, Excélsior, miércoles 28 de julio de 1920, p. 8

ii “Anuncio”, Excélsior, jueves 5 de agosto de 1920, p. 8.

iii “Por qué se prohibió una película de cinematógrafo”, Excélsior, sábado 18 de noviembre de 1922, segunda sección, p. 8.

iv “Anuncio”, Excélsior, martes 2 de noviembre de 1920, p. 8.

v “Anuncio”, Excéslior, sábado 20 de noviembre de 1920, p. 9

vi Citado por Angel Miquel, Por las pantallas. Periodistas mexicanos del cine mudo, Guadalajara, Universidad de Guadalajara, 1995, p. 123.

vii “Crónica desde Méjico”, Cine Mundial, diciembre de 1920, p. 1018.

viii “Anuncio”, El Demócrata, jueves 26 de mayo de 1921, p. 5.

ix “Pola Negri habla”, Cine Mundial, octubre de 1921, p. 680.

x “Anuncio”, Excélsior, domingo 6 de febrero de 1921, p. 9.

xi “Anuncio”, Excélsior, domingo 13 de febrero de 1921, p. 9.

xii “Anuncio”, El Universal, lunes 14 de noviembre de 1921, p. 4.

xiii “Anuncio”, El Demócrata, jueves 8 de diciembre de 1921, p. 6.

xiv Carlos Noriega Hope, “La locura en el cinematógrafo. El gabinete del doctor Caligari”, en El Universal, domingo 11 de diciembre de 1921, tercera sección, p. 4.

xv Idem.

xvi “Misión diplomática de Rusia en México”, El Universal, domingo 27 de marzo de 1921, p. 1.

xvii Idem.

xviii “Anuncio”, Excélsior, jueves 8 de diciembre de 1921, p. 7.

xix “Rusia reanuda sus relaciones con México”, El Universal, miércoles 13 de agosto de 1924, p. 2

xx Archivo General de la Nación, Presidentes, Obregón-Calles, expediente 104-R-28, noviembre 7 de 1924.

xxi “Anuncio”, El Universal, lunes 21 de marzo de 1927, p. 7.

xxii “Anuncio”, El Universal, domingo 27 de marzo de 1927, p. 9.

xxiii Luis de Larroeder, “Crónicas cinematográficas”, Excélsior, jueves 24 de marzo de 1927, p. 8.

xxiv Rafael Bermúdez Zataraín, “Notas fílmicas. La bahía de la muerte, miércoles 23 de marzo de 1927, p. 8.

xxv Carlos Noriega Hope, Silvestre Bonnard, “Octubre, la magnífica obra de la Sovkino, ha sido una revelación de técnica cinematográfica moderna”, El Universal, domingo 9 de septiembre de 1928, tercera sección, p. 3.

*Journal of Film Preservation / 60/61 / 2000