Monday, December 23, 2013


So little has been written about Mexican actor Arturo de Córdova, and even less is available in English in the United States. Thus, it is with great pride that I publish Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro's tribute essay to the actor written for the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) program catalog (pp. 136-143), which this year honored the actor with a multi-film retrospective, most in newly-struck 35mm prints, and a couple on 16mm from private collectors (most notably Quentin Tarantino). My thanks to Alfaro and FICM for their permission to provide this comprehensive survey to a broader audience.  Production stills courtesy of the UNAM Film Archive.

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The film we usually associate with the figure of Arturo de Córdova is Él, which was made in 1952. However, the actor's artistic career that we celebrate this year in FICM has a depth and duration with few rivals in the history of Mexican cinema. For nearly four decades, his voice, first on radio and then on the screen, his elegant figure, his dramatic intensity and his sense of irony against the pretensions of the Mexican bourgeoisie made him a dominant presence in some of the best films from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

From November 24, 1952, to January 27 of the following year, the careers of Luis Buñuel and Arturo de Córdova coincided for the first and only time during the filming of Él, without a doubt one of the Mexican masterpieces of the extraordinary Calanda-born filmmaker, who was [a] landmark figure of the revolutionary and influential surrealist movement headed by André Breton. An impeccable and lucid adaptation of the novel of the same name by Mercedes Pinto, originally published in Uruguay in 1926, Él would be defined (and defended) by its author as one of his favorite works ("Perhaps it is the film in which I've put more of myself. There is something of me in the protagonist," he said years later). More than a few critics and specialists of Buñuelian art have highlighted its great merits and strengths (among them that of being one of the highest expressions of explicit and strictly Sadean cinema) despite the fact that the film is considered a typical melodrama like many made at that time to attract the vast public that liked the genre. As far as we were able to investigate, it was never quite clear what was the cause of which—after the insurgence of his prestige thanks to making Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, 1950) and later two more films for the company Óscar Dancigers (La hija del engaño, 1951, and Robinson Crusoe, 1952) and others for Sergio Kogan (Susana, 1950; Una Mujer Sin Amor, 1951; and El Bruto, 1952) and Manuel Altolaguirre (Subida Al Cielo, 1951)—Buñuel decided to undertake the film version of the novel by Pinto. And there is no reliable proof of why he called on Arturo de Córdova to take the leading role. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Yucatan-born actor was called on because just at that moment his successful career was in full swing (in line with the industrial development of Mexican cinema) and that his figure was inextricably associated with that of the "heartthrob", "tormented" by all kinds of passions, which the director took advantage of to perfection to establish an ironic, inter-textual game with the long tradition of melodramatic cinema cultivated in Latin America. The case is that de Córdova, directed by Luis Buñuel, would achieve one of his most notable performances and confirm his reputation as an "international star" as Él would draw the attention of audiences across Europe.

But how did Arturo de Córdova—whose real name was Arturo García Rodríguez—rise to stardom? Born on May 7, 1907, in Mérida, Yucatán, the future actor grew up in a wealthy family made up of Francisco García, his wife Carmen Rodríguez and their children. The family's status would allow Arturo to study in the United States, Argentina (where he was a student at the famed Colegio Jesuita "Del Salvador") and Switzerland (where he took several classes at the Calvin Institute) and obtain a good education. He developed a keen interest in learning languages, which would be key for the eventual internationalization of film.

After traveling through several countries in Europe, in 1928 he returned to Argentina to finish his studies at Colegio Internacional de los Olivos (apparently at that time he took on the Spanish accent characteristic of that country) and began to work as a correspondent for United Press Agency, where he became assistant director of the office in Santiago de Chile. Determined to get a job as a journalist in the United States and to study at the prestigious Columbia University, in 1932 he stopped off in Mérida on the way and he met Enna Arana, whom he married on August 23, 1933, motivating him to stay and live in his hometown and get work there as a radio announcer and sports reporter. His desire to get ahead led him to move with his wife to Mexico City (where his four children, Arturo, Alonso, Enna and María de Lourdes were born) to work as a radio announcer at XEW, a broadcasting company where he worked with famous colleagues, such as Alonso Sordo Noriega, Ricardo López Méndez, Manuel Bernal and Pedro de Lille, who, according to some sources, suggested that he take the name that he would later be known by. At this time Mexican film production was taking off thanks to the advent of the inventions that allowed sound and image to be integrated. Consequently, there was a dire need for handsome men with good voices.

One of the 23 Mexican feature films made in 1935, Celos was financed by Producciones Mier and written and directed by the Russian immigrant Arcady Boytler, who already had a long career in theater and film in Europe, South America and the United States, and who achieved fame as a director of the remarkable and successful melodrama La Mujer del Puerto. The film needed a solid actor for the role of an attractive young man who threatens the marriage of a doctor, played by Fernando Soler. In agreement with Boytler, the producer Felipe Mier hired the already successful announcer Arturo de Córdova for that role and with this began one of the most outstanding film careers in Spanish-language cinema in the Spanish-speaking world. Inspired by the Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy and by a story of the same name by Mijael Artzivachec, Boytler's work attempted to compare, on its own ground, with Hollywood products like Jealousy (1929) by Jean de Limur, and Jealousy (1934) by Roy Williams Neil. In spite of its notorious defects in various areas, Boytler's film proved to be a prodigy on a visual level (thanks to sublime photography by Alex Phillips) and has been considered, and rightly so, the most remote national antecedent of Él. Pointed out by critics as a novice actor, de Córdova was able to represent very well, for the first time, the figure of an impeccable and neat man—according to his mother, this was one of the things that he had most sought to be since childhood.

Although it became clear that de Córdova did not like the atmosphere of the cinema and in fact resumed his work as a radio announcer, in 1936 he appeared as the male protagonist in Cielito Lindo, a folkloric melodrama set during the Mexican Revolution that, directed by Roberto O'Quigley, formed (together with two other films shot in that same year, Allá En Rancho Grande, by Fernando de Fuentes, and ¡Ora Ponciano!, by Gabriel Soria), the trio of films that contributed to a greater or lesser extent to the enormous commercial impact of Mexican cinema in the markets and imagination of the Spanish-speaking world, which in turn led to an exponential growth in the sector of national film production. As the plot of the film required, de Córdova was forced to sing a song. Without abandoning completely his work as an announcer (his haughty voice was the main character in the radio series Las Aventuras de Carlos Lacroix, very popular at the time), the development of the productive sector allowed de Córdova to represent various forms of masculine charm in ¡Esos Hombres! / Malditos Sean Los Hombres (Rolando Aguilar, 1936) and in Ave Sin Rumbo, La Paloma and La Zandunga, all three of which were filmed in 1937 by Roberto O'Quigley, Miguel Contreras and Fernando de Fuentes, respectively. In the last one, a folkloric comedy reminiscent of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, de Córdova became the partner of Lupe Vélez, from San Luis Potosí, one of the Latina stars forged by the colossal film machinery of Hollywood, which would give him a solid footing to begin to look for opportunities in foreign films.

During 1938, Arturo de Córdova acted in five of the 58 features produced by the national cinema: Refugiados en Madrid, by Alejandro Galindo; Hombres de Mar, by Chano Urueta; Mientras México Duerme, by Galindo; La Bestia Negra, by Gabriel Soria, and La Casa Del Ogro, by Fernando de Fuentes. In addition, by the end of the same year, the actor was added to the cast of Los Hijos Mandan (El Caudal de Los Hijos), made by the above-mentioned Gabriel Soria, which would be one of the last Hispanic films (i.e., spoken in Spanish) made in Hollywood. If all of those films contributed to de Córdova acquiring experience as a performer of characters who pass through a variety of genres, the case of Mientras México Duerme came to represent one of the first major incursions of Latin American cinema into the sordid world of organized crime, which plagued the city in dizzying expansion and would give it the category of a classic. For its part, de Córdova's performance in the film was celebrated even by the great poet and then demanding film critic Xavier Villaurrutia, who said (in the magazine Hoy, November 5, 1938) that "The discrete actor now has a better walked and defined field to display his physognomic game, to express various moods [...] And the truth is that he reaches, in important moments, expressions that he doesn't have anything to envy foreign actors, better trained and better directed, in general, than ours."

Between 1939 and 1959, the artistic career of Arturo de Córdova reached its period of greatest splendor. During that time, he participated in 73 films, including 22 that he made abroad and worked as the narrator of the documentary El Charro Inmortal (Rafael E. Portas, 1955). This period of splendor can be subdivided, in turn, in several ways, but in this case we prefer that the nationality of the films serves as our guide.

An exception is made with Él, ,which we have already referred to. Of the works of de Córdova during this period in Mexican cinema's history, we emphasize, because of their high quality, aesthetic rigor or ambition of authorship: La Noche de Los Mayas (1939), ¡Que Viene Mi Marido! (1939) and El Conde de Montecristo (1941), all three by Chano Urueta; ¡Ay, Qué Tiempos, Señor Don Simón (1941), Crepúsculo (1943) and La Ausente (1951), by Julio Bracho; La Selva De Fuego (1945), by Fernando de Fuentes; La Diosa Arrodillada (1947), En La Palma De Tu Mano (1950), El Rebozo de Soledad (1952), Las Tres Perfectas Casadas (1952) and Miércoles de Ceniza (1958), by Roberto Gavaldón; El Hombre Sin Rostro (1950) by Juan Bustillo Oro; Cuando Levanta La Niebla (1952) and Reportaje (1953), both by Emilio Fernández; Un Extraño En la Escalera (1954) and Feliz Año, Amor Mío (1955), by Tulio Demichelli, and El Esqueleto de La Señora Morales (Rogelio A. González, 1959).

Written by the famed Yucatecan poet Antonio Mediz Bolio, with the collaboration of Chano Urueta, Alfredo B. Crevenna and Archibaldo Burns, La Noche de las Mayas boasted the wonderful photography of Gabriel Figueroa and exquisite music by Silvestre Revueltas to recycle an ancestral legend in which Arturo de Córdova played with aplomb a handsome young indigenous man immersed in romantic and racial conflicts—a clear expression of the policy of protecting ethnic races decreed by the government of Lázaro Cárdenas. In ¡Que Viene Mi Marido!, de Córdova is well suited for an intentionally exaggerated and grotesque plot that also relied on Figueroa's photography and Revueltas' music. For his part, in the sumptuous but failed version of the great novel by Alejandro Dumas of the same name (which in turn marked the beginning of the systematic looting of universal literature by national cinema, taking advantage of the chaotic situation caused by the Second World War), the Merida-born actor played Edmundo Dantés, parsimonious and somewhat rigid, but with a good presence on screen at the moment of wanting to give this character some credible traits.

In the magnificent film of Porfirio Díaz nostalgia, ¡Ay, Qué Tiempos, Señor Don Simón!—the first film by Julio Bracho, one of the great builders of modern Mexican theater—Arturo de Córdova is easy-going and malicious. His successful interpretation of a charming soldier opposite the funny figure of Joaquín Pardavé is regarded as one of the factors that contributed to the enormous box-office success of a musical comedy that, without exaggeration, can be placed at the level of the French and Italian films made during the same time. For the much more ambitious Crepúsculo, inspired by a true story, our actor showed his great potential to embody characters tormented by physical and psychological degradation, as a way of ironizing the purpose of the early decadence of the Mexican bourgeoisie. Developed in expressionist atmospheres and Hollywood film noir (another masterful photographic work of Alex Phillips), the story and baroque style of the film is structured like a spiral that leads inexorably to the annihilation of the main character. And although too much of a tribute to Rebecca (1940), one of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpieces, La Ausente ratified the avant-garde leanings of Bracho (evident in recurrent use of sophisticated camera movements) and the solid performance of de Córdova, now as a petit bourgeois beset by doubt and a guilt complex due to the untimely death of his wife.

Despite fully assuming the conventions proposed by films such as the very successful Doña Bárbara (Fernando de Fuentes, 1943) and Canaima (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1945), both inspired by the literature of Venezuelan Rómulo Gallegos, La Selva de Fuego transcends its period and genre by the sober and careful direction of de Fuentes, the functional photography of Augustín Martinez Solares, the performances of the leading couple (Dolores del Río in the role of an exuberant woman and abstract symbol of beauty who awakens the instincts of a group of chiclero workers, and Arturo de Córdova, whose misogyny at the beginning becomes a devouring passion, tragically frustrated by adverse destiny), and the splendid villains played my Miguel Inclán, Gilberto González, Manuel Dondé and José Torvay.

At least from a formal point of view, the five Mexican films in which Arturo de Córdova worked to the strict orders of Roberto "the Ogre" Gavaldón (another film in which both collaborated, The Adventures of Casanova, belongs to another rank and nationality despite having been made in our country), are all succulent masterpieces filmed during the best period of the career of the great filmmaker from Chihuahua. In La Diosa Arrodillada like in En La Palma De Tu Mano and Las Tres Perfectas Casadas, de Córdova embodied strictly urban characters with marked bourgeois aspirations, but who ended up dominated (or devoured) by their frenetic eroticism and criminal impulses that are inherent in the ambition for money.

At the same time, En La Palma De Tu Mano marks an apex in Latin American film noir and is a worthy example of the pure style of the author and the immense capabilities of his cameraman, again the great Alex Phillips. In contrast, the honest doctor in El Rebozo de Soledad (shot in the Tierra Caliente region of the state of Michoacán) and the apparently aseptic priest who stars in Miércoles de Ceniza (developed at the time of the Cristero rebellion and with splendid initial scenes filmed in Pátzcuaro and its surroundings—majestic photography by Agustín Martínez Solares) are rather emblematic figures that require another type of interpretation. However, both films suffered the weight of the complex expressiveness of de Córdova, who in all the films directed by Gavaldón had the good fortune of sharing roles with other great figures of the Mexican star system of that era, such as María Félix, Leticia Palma, Carmen Montejo, Pedro Armendáriz, Stella Inda, Laura Hidalgo, Miroslava Stern, José María Linares Rivas and Victor Junco.

According to the author's confession, the truculent and sophisticated story of El Hombre Sin Rostro, an undervalued film as none other, was designed to be interpreted by Arturo de Córdova. By then, the actor had already become the stereotype of the psychotic mind, moved by uncontrollable forces from the unconscious, a subject so dear to the studies of Sigmund Freud. But our great expressionist creator and outstanding Vasconcellist soldier Juan Bustillo Oro knew how to surround the protagonist with a sinister and overly comfortable atmosphere that was not far from the rigor reached by the aesthetics of Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. For that reason, the film is a complete lesson in psychologistic cinema in the best sense the term can possess, i.e., that it favors the in-depth study of individual behavior.

The figure and the work of Arturo de Córdova also fit into the world of Emilio Fernández, but it was not by chance that this occurred in two films a little removed from the themes that characterized the film of someone who was considered to be the Mexican director par excellence. Urban and modern melodrama with a psychotic protagonist, Cuando Levanta La Niebla retained much of the "claw" of its author, which allowed de Córdova to show off all of his acting abilities. This last one was also present in the few moments in which the great actor appeared in Reportaje, a film that brought together much of the "star firmament" of the Mexican film industry with the purpose of raising funds for an altruistic foundation.

In the excellent and sumptuous melodramas Un Extraño En la Escalera and Feliz Año, Amor Mío, directed by the Argentine Tulio Demichelli for producer Gregorio Walerstein, the sober and solid work of de Córdova served to prop up the respective careers of its leading female protagonists, Silvia Pinal and Marga López.

Finally, the strange case of El Esqueleto de La Señora Morales, a bold and blunt adaptation by Luis Alcoriza about a macabre story designed by the Welsh writer Arthur Machen, ended, in a very high tone, the best and most prolific period in de Córdova's career. A perfect mix of satire and purified recreation of a petit-bourgeois world in sharp decadence, the masterpiece of Rogelio A. González seems to have been produced so that his male protagonist would put into it all his experience in order to create a character who above all serves to throw chemically pure poison onto the conservative Mexican mentality in which, practically since its very origin, our film industry has been sustained.

Of the 14 Mexican films that Arturo de Córdova participated in between 1961 and 1970, including his works as the narrator in Los Hermanos del Hierro (Ismael Rodríguez, 1961), Así Era Pedro Infante (Ismael Rodríguez, 1963), La Recta Final (Carlos Enrique Taboada, 1964), among others, only El Gángster (Luis Alcoriza, 1964) stands out. That was because of its declared (although not totally achieved) paradoxical sense and for its candidly entertaining character—features that allowed its lead actor to show his great comic vein, which many other directors did not exploit to the fullest.

Parallel to his career in Mexican cinema, Arturo de Córdova also worked on many foreign productions. Of the 24 films that shaped his transnational career (more or less the same number of films made by Pedro Armendáriz at the margin of the Mexican film industry), seven were funded by U.S. companies from Hollywood, six were Argentine, another six were made on locations and in studios in Spain and with money from that country, two more were filmed thanks to the main sponsorship of Brazilian companies and one had Venezuelan-Argentine investment. Those that may be regarded as the most outstanding works for their own sake and for the remarkable work of de Córdova are: ¿Por Quién Doblan Las Campanas? (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sam Wood, 1943), a sober adaptation of the novel by Ernest Hemingway; El Pirata y la Dama (Frenchman's Creek, Mitchel Leisen, 1944), a very romantic work barely disguised as an adventure film; Casanova Aventurero (Adventures of Casanova, Roberto Gavaldón, 1947), which was a good satire of the mythology created around the famous lover, artist and scientist from Venice; New Orleans (Arthur Lubin, 1947), a musical comedy that preserved on screen the appearances of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and other great jazz performers; Dios Se Lo Pague (Luis César Amadori, 1948), a sordid urban melodrama that was a huge success in the majority of Latin American markets; La Balandra Isabel Llegó Esta Tarde (Carlos Hugh Christensen, 1949), an intense erotic-passionate drama which was intended though it did not succeed to lead the way to develop a film industry in Venezuela; and Los Peces Rojos (José Antonio Nieves Conde, 1955), a stylized crime melodrama filmed in Spain.

Our honored star won the Ariel Award for Best Actor three times for his performances in En La Palma De Tu Mano, Las Tres Perfectas Casadas and Feliz Año, Amor Mío, and was nominated for the same recognition for his remarkable performances in La Selva de Fuego, Medianoche (Tito Davison, 1948), El Hombre Sin Rostro and Mi Esposa y La Otra (Alfredo B. Crevenna, 1951). These awards are further proof of his great ability as an actor, but barely offer an idea of all his virtues and of his impact on the public that consecrated him as an idol.

On November 3, it will be 40 years since the death of one of the most prominent representatives of the "star system" from the classic period of Mexican cinema. In the 11th edition of FICM, we remember this date with a sample of some of his best and most dazzling appearances on the screen, which in turn constitutes the first tribute that an international film festival has paid to the figure of enormous artistic dimensions that was and remains to be Arturo de Córdova.

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