When applying for film school in Mexico Viviana García-Besné was told that her family had been involved in making some of the worst films in Mexican Cinema history, the Ficheras. Ficheras were racy comedies typically set in cabarets and featured popular music. They were sure-fire money makers at the box office, as a genre they were publicly condemned by the Mexican government. Viviana had grown up not knowing much about her family’s involvement in involvement in the Mexican film industry during a time that is known as the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (1936-1960). She however, had heard her grandmother’s fantastical stories about time she met Walt Disney and how she almost married a Hollywood movie star. In her 2009 film, Perdida (lost) Viviana searched to distinguish the facts from stories.
During the 2013 Border Book Festival in Las Cruces New Mexico after a viewing of Perdida, Viviana García-Besné and her husband Alistair Tremps spoke about ten key objects that were instrumental in their search for the truth. The truth begins with the family’s ownership of theaters throughout Mexico and along the Texas-Mexican border. At one time they owned 10 theaters in El Paso, Texas and three theaters across the border in Juarez, Mexico. Now only one of these original structures is still standing, though it now exists as a store front.
José U. Calderón and his brother Rafael Calderón began their journey in cinema with their work on the railroad in Chihuahua, Mexico. The work with the train sent Rafael to attend the Universal Exhibition in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1904. It was there that Rafael first saw a moving picture. During the Mexican Revolution, many American business owners fled Mexico abandoning thriving businesses such as theaters. The Calderón brothers with their partner Juan Salas Porras were able to purchase these theaters at a bargain. The brothers were also assisted with their connections with the train for transporting films. In the early days, they often had one reel of each film, they would then transport that reel to the different theaters. Sometimes the reel would travel to a different town, sometimes across the street. Though the theaters were not directly involved with the revolution, Pancho Villa allowed the reels to be transported on the trains without any interference.
The two brothers would write to each other often about the day-to-day business affairs of the theaters. There were many details that went into running the theaters, one such correspondence dealt with the topic of deodorizers for the theaters. (The Alcazar Theater actually had the honorable nickname of “the sock”) José Calderón would title this letter “big oaks from little acorns grow.” Other acorns helped the theaters grow. The Calderón’s were able to secure distribution deals with Universal and Mutual Pictures (who produced many of Charlie Chaplin’s early pictures). They were able to get assistance of local photography studios to create subtitles in Spanish for the early silent films.
With the advent of talking pictures, Hispanic audience demanded talking pictures in Spanish. Santa (Saint, 1931) is considered the first “proper” Mexican film with synchronized sound. Santa featured Lupita Tovar as Santa Tovar, a woman who has been cheated by her husband and rejected by her family and friends. The film was a huge success, and demonstrated that the Mexican film industry was ready to transition to talking pictures. Viviana’s grandmother had often spoke of Calderón’s involvement with the first sound film produced in Mexico. The finding of the photo of Rafael Calderón signing contracts with the director of Santa provides evidence of their involvement with the project. Within the Mexican film industry there has always been a direct relationship between exhibitors (theater owners) and film producers. Exhibitors would give producers a distribution advance on future revenue. These advances would give exhibitors exclusive rights to show the film.
With the theaters, the Calderón’s were able to build relationships with Hollywood. Films from Hollywood still dominated the Spanish theaters. Many studios would shoot double versions of their films. For example, Dracula (1931) starring Béla Lugosi would be filmed during the day in English and at night the film would be shot in Spanish using Spanish-speaking actors using the same sets and props. (Lupita Tovar, an established Hollywood actress who starred in Santa, also starred in the Spanish version of Draculá) The Calderón brothers realized that the key to the theaters was the films, in order to assure a continuous stream of Spanish language films they needed to begin producing films themselves. Rafael Calderón remained along the border to manage the theaters and José went to Mexico City to encourage production of Mexican films. Along with other theater owners the Calderón’s founded the Union de Exhibidores del Norte which worked to improve the film industry and Mexico and created a credit union to finance films. The Calderón’s established Estudios Azteca in Mexico City, and José Calderón began to bring his sons into the business as producers. One of the first films produced by his son Pedro A. Calderón was La zandunga (1938) with Hollywood star Lupe Vélez. While reviewing old films reels that belonged to her great-grandfather (José Calderón), Viviana came across a reel that was filmed in Tehuantepec showing the dress and customs of the people. As it would turn out, this reel was pre-production research footage for the film La zandunga which was shot several years before the film was made. José and Rafael used all of their connections to ensure the success of the film, which included hiring Lupe Vélez from Hollywood. They also hired director Fernando de Fuentes who had just had success with the film Allá en el rancho grande (Out on the Great Ranch, 1936) and poet Salvador Novo to write the script.
During World War II the U.S. State Department sent Walt Disney on a goodwill tour of Latin America. At the time the most recognizable Hollywood movie character to Latin Americans was Mickey Mouse. It was during this trip that Walt Disney met with José Calderón, also at that meeting was Viviana’s grandmother, Mate Calderón. The United States had begun to ration film stock for use for the war department, and Hollywood was producing less movies than in the past. At this time the leaders in the Latin American film industry were Mexico and Argentina. To promote the film industry in Mexico all additional film stock was sent to Mexico along with updated filming and production equipment. The assistance from Hollywood, set-up the Mexican film industry for a boom and Estudios Azteca would reap its portion of the benefits. Walt Disney also benefited from this trip; his adventures in Latin America became the inspiration for two Disney films Saludos Amigos (Hello Friends, 1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944).
Luis and Guillermo “Memo” Calderón joined their brother Pedro as film producers. During this time Francisco Franco and his established fascist regime in Spain created an open-door policy to entice Mexican film producers to film in Spain and promote the new government. Pedro and Memo went to Spain and began producing films. One of their films from Spain was El capitán de Loyola (Loyola, the Soldier Saint, 1949). Pedro returned to Mexico with the completed film, to begin working on publicity and marketing for its release. Memo remained in Spain to begin on their next film. Still in Spain Memo was summoned by the Civil Guard for questioning. The very Catholic Franco government had found a press release for El capitán de Loyola that included a statement written by the Pope praising the film and urging all Catholics to go and see the film. The statement also included the Pope’s signature and the Papal Seal. Memo had forged these items for theater owners to use to entice Catholics to see the film. Memo was forced to flee Spain, abandoning other projects. From that point on Memo and Pedro spoke little, Pedro showed little remorse for what he did in the name of publicity.
From 1944 to 1958 many of the theater owners were being coerced and frightened into selling their theaters to William O. Jenkins and his partners, Gabriel Alarcón and Manuel Espinosa Iglesias. The Calderón brothers held out as long as they could, but they would eventually sell their theaters as well. It was evident to Viviana in reading correspondence between the brothers that they did not want to part with the theaters. It had remained a mystery to the family as to why the Calderón’s ultimately gave into Jenkins. In his daily agenda José made notes concerning the business and expenses, the agenda also discussed distressing and dangerous times of continuing to own the theaters. After the sale of the theaters José made no more notes in his book, the joy in his life was gone. In José Calderón file cabinet papers were found that suggest that Pedro after parting with Cinmatográfica Calderón had borrowed money from Alarcón. During this time Pedro had been causing problems for the family by borrowing money and forging checks. While alive, his father José would try his best to keep the family scandals quiet. After his father’s death Pedro would continue to search for money in efforts to have another hit on the silver screen.
In researching the sale of the theaters and the Calderón’s place in the industry after that point, Viviana looked to El libro negro del cine mexicano (The Black Book of Mexican Cinema) written by Miguel Contreras Torres. Miguel Contreras Torres, a Mexican filmmaker, became very critical of the Mexican film industry. He compiled all of his criticism in his 1960 publication, El libro negro del cine mexicano. Contreras Torres believed that the monopoly created by the Jenkins group was the catalyst that toppled the Golden Age in Mexican Cinema. After the Jenkins group took over majority of Mexican owned theaters, the government intervened and took over the theater monopoly. The government created the Garduño Plan; theaters would now be run by the Operadora de Teatros (a government agency). The Garduño Plan not only included taking over the theaters, but taking over the entire Mexican film industry. It was now the government that would decide what material would be financed, produced, and shown to the Mexican people.
It was Viviana’s grandfather Jorge García-Besné who found success in producing films featuring the Mexican masked wrestler El Santo. Jorge García-Besné had begun working for Estudios Azteca and worked his way to being a successful producer in his own right. García-Besné would marry Mate Calderón. Their marriage would not be a happy one, García-Besné was a womanizer, and his infidelities were widely known. As punishment, José Calderón refused financing for any of his projects including a film that would have been the first English 3-D film produced in Mexico entitled Morning Star. García-Besné had an idea about making films starring the masked Mexican wrestler El Santo (The Saint). He traveled to Havana, Cuba to meet with El Santo. To make the most of his limited funds, García-Besné produced two films simultaneously. García-Besné used every last cent he had to make these movies. When production was complete he did not have any money to finish paying his debts in Cuba. However, he was saved when Fidel Castro entered Havana. In the chaos, García-Besné was able to escape Cuba with the films, Santo contra el cerebro del mal (Santo vs. The Evil Brain, 1958) and Santo contra hombres infernales (Santo vs. The Infernal Men, 1958).
Knowing that wrestling movies were a big box office draw, Memo Calderón approached El Santo about producing movies with him. These films became a huge hit, however recently there has been controversy surrounding the films. There had been rumors about alternate versions of the films, versions that were racier and contained nudity. Memo Calderón had refused to speak on the subject, and no one had been able to find these film versions in his vaults. Viviana was able to get access to her great-uncles film vault which was kept locked. In the vault, were the alternate versions of the popular films. She began sneaking out reel by reel a film titled El vampiro y el sexo (The Vampire and The Sex, 1968) starring El Santo, it was the alternate version of the film Santo en El tesoro de Drácula (Santo in The Treasure of Dracula, 1969). As each reel was restored and viewed she realized that the stories of the alternate films were true. Alternate versions of films were shot to be distributed in places that were not as restricted by the censors such as European countries, and to protect El Santo’s image these versions where never shown in Mexico until recently.
Perdida is much a story about family as it is about the film industry. The film tells the story of love and love lost. José Calderón while trying to maintain a business he loved, he went about things with the best of intentions for his family. This included bringing his sons into the production side of business, and a refusal for his daughter Mate to marry Ricardo Montalbán (before his move to Hollywood). In a letter José Calderón wrote that he was grateful for everything the film industry had given his family, however it had poisoned his family as well. Despite this the Calderón’s have left their imprint in cinema history, history that stretches beyond Mexico and into the United States.
Tagged: Alcazar Theater, Alla en el rancho grande, Charlie Chaplin, Chihuahua, Colon Theater, Cuba, Dracula, El capitan de Loyola, El libro negro del cine mexicano, El Paso, El Santo, El vampiro y el sexo, Estudios Azteca, Fernando de Fuentes, Ficheras, Francisco Franco, Gabriel Alarcon, Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Guillermo Calderon, Jorge Garcia-Besne, Jose U. Calderon, Juan Salas Porras, Juarez, La zandunga, Luis Calderon, Lupe Velez, Lupita Tovar, Manuel Espinosa Iglesias, Mexican Cinema, Mexico City, Miguel Contreras Torres, Pedro A. Calderon, Perdida, Rafael Calderon, Ricardo Montalban, Saludos Amigos, Salvador Novo, Santa, Santo contra el cerebro del mal, Santo contra hombres infernales, Santo en El tesoro de Dracula, Spain, The Three Caballeros, Union de Exhibidores del Norte, Viviana Garcia-Besne, Walt Disney, William O. Jenkins