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Arts and Entertainment

Golden Age Latin American Films Return To Downtown L.A. For Screening Series

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You would hardly realize it—between the imposing presence of government buildings, parking lots, and the scar of the 101 freeway—but North Main Street was once the epicenter of Los Angeles' Mexican immigrant community during the first few decades of the 20th century. Residing in Sonoratown (what is now Chinatown) and the immediate area around the Plaza, Main Street served as the social and entertainment destination. Few traces of this vibrant past exist today aside from Olvera Street and the Plaza, which themselves harken further back to Spanish colonialism.

Although they were not given the privilege of preservation like the dozen historic movie palaces just to the south on Broadway, the theaters of North Main Street were significant as the hub of Latin American film culture in the United States between 1930 and 1960. Not only were the films of Mexico, Argentina and Cuba exhibited to an expatriate Latino population in theaters like the California, the Azteca, the Roosevelt, the Mason, Broadway's Million Dollar, and the Eléctrico, but their respective national cinemas and even Hollywood were influenced by their success in Los Angeles. Starting this weekend, the UCLA Film & Television Archive showcases over three dozen of these films in the series "Recuerdos de un cine en español: Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960," happening as a part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA.

Aside from films made in Mexico, Argentina, Cuba and Puerto Rico, "Recuerdos" also includes several Spanish-language American productions that were made for domestic and international Spanish-speaking audiences. As Colin Gunckel, one of the curators of the program, explains, these Latin American films that showed on Main Street were "also a part of Hollywood history... [Los Angeles] was a place where talent from Mexico and Latin America came to tour at the theaters and that same talent would record albums in Los Angeles and work in Hollywood." Gunckel's book, Mexico on Main Street, explores the interconnected relationship between Latin American cinemas, Hollywood, and the city of Los Angeles, and was used as the starting point for "Recuerdos."

"The Main Street theaters are part of this forgotten element of Hollywood's relationship with Latin America and Latin American audiences, and its representation of Latin America," says Gunckel. While screenings take place at the UCLA Archive's usual home in at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood's Hammer Museum, "Recuerdos" is a sort of homecoming for these films, as screenings are also being held at the Downtown Independent, which is at the site of the former Teatro Azteca.

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In 1930, the California Theater at Eighth and Main streets proclaimed itself to have "the first all Spanish program in America," ushering in a decade that brought profound change to Latin American cinema. Frank Fouce would eventually take over the California, adding it to his roster of downtown theaters including the Mason, Roosevelt and the Million Dollar. Fouce's theaters would attract large crowds by pairing films with live entertainment, such as music and appearances by the stars themselves. In 1935, the distributor Azteca Films would open an office on Vermont Street and eventually become the largest distributor of Mexican films in the United States.

While planning "Recuerdos," the UCLA Film & Television Archive curators scoured contemporary listings in La Opinión and determined that virtually every film made in Mexico between 1930 and 1960 had played in Los Angeles.

Spanish-language cinema, both international and Hollywood productions, however, would struggle commercially and critically, usually hindered by a lack of national or cultural specificity—many of the productions used Spanish dialects unfamiliar to most audiences and were usually set in fictional, pan-Latin American locales. It wasn't until the 1936 film Allá en el Rancha Grande that Mexican film finally had a hit. Through an alchemy of romance, comedy, music, and nostalgia for a pre-Revolution Mexico, the film was a hit with audiences on both sides of the border and would eventually win an award at the Venice Film Festival, kickstarting what is known as the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Rancha Grande would also set the archetype for the popular comedia ranchera genre, and in the wake of its success over half of the films made in Mexico over the next two years were comedia rancheras.

Finally establishing a secure foothold, film production in Mexico increased and was assisted by Hollywood's participation in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy. The majority of the films in "Recuerdos" are from Mexico's Golden Age, and exhibit the breadth of style and talent their studios produced. Appropriately, the series kicks off Saturday night at the Billy Wilder Theater with Enamorada (1946), which many consider to be the apex of the Golden Age. A loose adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, the romantic drama between a defiant woman and a revolutionary general is a showcase of four major talents: director Emilio Fernández, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (best known to Anglo audiences for his superb work with Luis Buñuel and John Huston), and screen icons María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz. Another important Fernández collaboration with Armendáriz (also lensed by Figueroa) being screened is María Candelaria (1943), which features crossover star Dolores del Río in a lead role and won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Of course no retrospective of Mexican cinema would be complete without national icon Cantinflas, and "Recuerdos" screens Ahí está el detalle (1940), the film that would launch "the Charlie Chaplin of Mexico" into stardom. Going further back, Santa (1932), considered the first sound production out of Mexico, plays on the opening weekend. Not every film, however, in a repertory series has to be a landmark production or a canonized classic. At the Downtown Independent, the high-seas adventure cum musical melodrama María Elena (1936) is paired with the film whose success it tried to ride, Allá en el Rancha Grande. While not a particularly outstanding film, it can lay claim as the first cinematic appearance of the song "La Bamba," and it curiously enjoyed a second life as the English-dubbed exploitation film She-Devil Island. In English, the film gained a far more salacious plot, taking advantage of the film's setting on an island populated by scantily-clad women. (Unfortunately, only the original Spanish version of María Elena will be screening.)

During the time period covered by "Recuerdos," Main Street's theaters were mostly showing Mexican films, but not exclusively. Argentina would emerge as the second-largest film producer out of Latin America, and several of their films would screen in Los Angeles (albeit usually as the second film of a double bill).

El día que me quieras (1935), a Paramount production starring Argentine musical star Carlos Gardel, would be one of the last films for the actor, as he tragically died in a plane crash just weeks before its release. A double-bill of beautifully shot Argentine noir takes place next month, with an Argentine adaptation of Fritz Lang's M, El vampiro negro (1953) and Los tallos amargos (1956), regarded by American Cinematographer as one of the "Best Shot Films." Los tallos amargos was long thought to be lost until the original negative was found in 2014 and restored by UCLA.

Even rarer opportunities in the series are the Latin films from the Carribean, whose appearances in "Recuerdos" come through a combination of sheer determination and luck. While searching for pre-Revolution films made in Cuba (a total of 78 were known to have been produced), an initial inquiry to the Cinemateca de Cuba was met with a terse reponse, proclaiming no films from that era had survived. However, after President Barack Obama warmed relations with Cuba in 2014 and a new head of the Cuban archive was appointed, the UCLA Archive was able to acquire and restore several films from the island (however, relations have not yet entirely thawed and the film canisters couldn't be shipped by freight—they were brought to the United States as luggage on a passenger flight). Two of these Cuban films, La Virgen de la Caridad (1930) and Casta de roble (1954) are paired together, perhaps the first time they will screen in the United States since the Cuban Revolution.

The Puerto Rican feature Romance tropical (1934) is the lone film in the program that was not known to have played in Los Angeles, though it did receive a run in New York. Thought to be lost for over eight decades, it was rediscovered by the UCLA Archive while canvassing their own collection for the series. It was the first Puerto Rican sound feature ever made, and included the work of two iconic talents from the island—poet Luis Palés Matos is credited for the screenplay and big band leader Rafael Muñoz composed the score.

Although "Recuerdos de un cine en español" will be a series of discovery for most audience members and includes several films thought to have been lost or locked away in obscurity for decades, many of them continued to live on through broadcasts on Spanish-language television or home media. What's irreversibly lost are the movie palaces that first showcased these films, razed by an ever-changing downtown Los Angeles.

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Recuerdos de un cine en español: Latin American cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960 opens Saturday night and runs through to December 10. Screenings take place at both the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood, with additional screenings at the Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main St. in downtown Los Angeles. A series pass is available for $50 here. Check both theater websites for schedules.

Special thanks to program curators Jan-Christopher Horak and Maria Elena de la Carreras for their assistance on this story.

Carman Tse is a diehard Giants fan living in Los Angeles as well as a freelance arts and culture writer and former editor-in-chief at LAist. Follow him on Twitter at @CarmanTse.