CARLOS GARDEL AND THE CINEMA
Carlos Gardel, by any standard the supreme figure in the entire history of the Argentine tango, was already a superstar by the time he began his cinema career. The magic of his superb baritone voice had won him an immense following in Argentina and Uruguay. A man of great personal charm, he was also regarded by the porteños, the citizens of Buenos Aires, as an almost symbolic personality, somehow epitomising their local culture. El zorzal, the thrush, they called him. His origins had been modest. Born Charles Gardes in Toulouse, France, in 1890, and taken to Argentina by his unmarried mother when two, he had grown up in cramped tenement rooms and in the streets of Buenos Aires. In his early twenties, his surname changed to the more Spanish-sounding Gardel, and in partnership with his Uruguayan friend Josh Razzano (1887-1960), he formed one of the most successful singing duos of its time, and was thus well-established in the theatre when, after 1917, he turned to tango singing. Gardel himself did much to create and foster the tango as a new form of popular song. His reward, especially after the dissolution of the Gardel Razzano Duo (1925), was fame and fortune (although much of the fortune vanished at the race-track). Gardel's name also became well known in Spain and France, to which he made notable visits in 1925-26, 1927-28, and 1928-29.
In 1917, just before starting to sing tangos, Gardel acted in two silent films, Flor de durazno (Peach Blossom) and La loba (She-Wolf), both directed by Francisco Defilippis Novoa, and neither exactly a classic. Quite why he was asked to appear in these films is not clear. He himself had strong doubts about his acting ability. Yet his circle of friends contained many well-known actors (including Elías Alippi and Roberto Casaux, among the best of the period), and Gardel's inquisitiveness about their craft was constant. With the advent of the talkies in the late 1920s, his interest in the cinema was reawakened. Al Jolson's success was a lesson not to be ignored. Here was a medium that could clearly enhance a singer's career. While on his triumphant visit to Paris in 1928-29, Gardel may have had some tentative discussions with the Paramount organisation; if so, nothing came of these immediately.
In October-November 1930, however, back in Argentina, he was persuaded to put ten of his song performances on film. These ten shorts, directed by Eduardo Morera, were among the first sound pictures made in the country. A larger role in the cinema now seemed indicated for Gardel. The best prospects at the time seemed to be abroad. When el zorzal returned to France in December 1930, to fulfill engagements on the Riviera and in Paris (where he starred in the most successful revue of 1931), the idea of filming, somewhere, somehow, was uppermost in his mind.
Also visiting Europe at that point were two Argentine playwrights (of the lighter sort), Manuel Romero and Luis Bayón Herrera. They were leading a revue company from the Teatro Sarmiento, Buenos Aires, on a short tour. Gardel saw this as an opportunity to make a full-length feature film, drawing on the resources of the revue company and with himself as the star. A Chilean director working in France, Adelqui Millar, helped to arrange contacts with Paramount. The moment was good. Paramount's international operations were very extensive. At a cost of around $10,000,000, the corporation had lately built a production complex of six studios at Joinville-le-Pont (a fairly ordinary suburb just South-East of Paris), for low-budget film production and the adaptation of sound-tracks in upwards of a dozen languages. On 1 May 1931, Gardel signed his first contract with Paramount. His first feature film, Luces de Buenos Aires (Lights of Buenos Aires), was shot soon afterwards. Like all the Joinville films it was a rush job. Adelqui Millar directed; Romero and Bayón Herrera wrote the script; the cast was mainly drawn from the Teatro Sarmiento company; the music was composed by Gardel himself and by Gerardo Hernán Matos Rodríguez (author of 'La cumparsita', the most famous of all tangos). Also enlisted in the effort at Joinville was Julio de Caro's tango band, perhaps the finest ever such band, which by a stroke of luck was passing through Paris at the time.
The plot of Luces de Buenos Aires is fairly insubstantial: a girl from an estancia is enticed to Buenos Aires, from where she is rescued and restored to her true love, the estate boss, by his loyal gauchey. But the chief point of the film was less its story than its displays of singing and dancing. Reactions to the film throughout Spanish America were wildly enthusiastic. There are well-documented cases of cinema audiences forcing projectionists to rewind the reel so that they could have an encore of the film's great hit, the tango 'Tomo y obligo' ('I Drink and Make You Drink'). This pattern was to be repeated with all of el zorzal's movies.
Gardel was naturally eager to build on the success of his first film. With the industry suffering from the Depression - Paramount was particularly badly affected - this did not happen overnight. Back in France again in 1932, Gardel had to wait several months before he was offered a new contract. This was for three films, the features Espérame (Wait for Me) and Melodía de arrabal (Arrabal Melody), and a short sketch, La casa es seria (The House is Serious). In both Melodia de arrabal (the best of the 1932 bunch) and the sketch, Gardel co-starred with the Spanish-Argentine actress Imperio Argentina (the stage-name of Magdalena Nile del Rio), a notable figure in the Spanish-language cinema from 1927 to her last screen appearance in 1960. The two features were both directed by Louis J. Gasnier, an experienced French cineast who had worked in Hollywood; he had helped make The Perils of Pauline for Pathé in 1914. Once again, the casts were drawn from Spanish American artists who were on hand in Paris, the music being supplied by a variety of people, including Don Aspiazú, the Cuban bandleader. Gardel's most urgent need in 1932 was for good scenarios. Here he struck very lucky indeed, choosing the young Argentine journalist Alfredo Le Pera (1900-35), then working in Paris as a translator of subtitles. Le Pera was fascinated by the cinema. He proved a competent scriptwriter, and also wrote the lyrics for most of Gardel's film songs from this point onwards. The Gardel-Le Pera collaboration, indeed, produced some of the most popular Spanish American songs of the 1930s.
Despite the success of the Joinville movies and an impressive build-up for him in its Spanish American publicity, Paramount once again delayed before making further films with Gardel. El zorzal himself spent most of 1933 in Argentina. At the end of that year he went to New York, to fulfil a broadcasting contract with the NBC radio network. Here he secured his best deal yet with Paramount. It involved him setting up his own production company, Exito's Spanish Pictures, partly financed by Western Electric, with Paramount agreeing to take and distribute up to six films. Gardel summoned Gasnier from France and the first two New York movies were shot between May and July 1934 at the Astoria studios (still in use today), just across the East River from Manhattan. The two films were, first, Cuesta abajo (Downward Slope), a somewhat melodramatic tale, containing, among many other delights, Gardel's famous tango 'Mi Buenos Aires querido' ('My Beloved Buenos Aires') and, second, the comic El tango en Broadway (The Tango on Broadway). Gardel was now striking his best form as a composer of songs, and the films were once again received with ecstatic enthusiasm in Latin America. One Buenos Aires cinema cabled Paramount: CUESTA ABAJO HUGE SUCCESS. DELIRIOUS PUBLIC APPLAUSE OBLIGED INTERRUPT SHOWING THREE TIMES TO RERUN SCENES WHERE GARDEL SINGS. SUCH ENTHUSIASM HAS ONLY RARELY BEEN SEEN HERE.
Gardel, who made no theatre appearances while in New York, was now working full-time on his films. The third and fourth New York movies were shot at Astoria in January and February 1935 - first, El día que me quieras (The Day You Love Me), a powerful drama spanning two generations and thus allowing double roles for Gardel and his leading lady, Rosita Moreno, and, second, Tango bar, a light musical comedy. (The tango bar of its title is in Barcelona.) Gasnier, who had quarreled with Le Pera, was now replaced as director by a youngish (and Spanish-speaking) American, John Reinhardt. El dla que me quieras is often considered Gardel's best film. It certainly contains some of his most glorious songs, not least the sentimental title-song and the altogether magnificent tango 'Volver' ('Return'), undoubtedly one of the four or five most popular Spanish American songs of the 20th century. Gardel's supporting casts were somewhat stronger than previously. The veteran Argentine actor Enrique de Rosas took a part in Tango bar. (In El día que me quieras, the young Astor Piazzolla, the future pioneer of avant-garde tango music, was given the role of an urchin; he was paid $25.) Paramount was very pleased with the films, and highlighted Gardel as 'the star of stars' in its Latin American propaganda. There is no real doubt that by 1935 Carlos Gardel was the best-known and best-loved star of the Spanish-language screen.
For its part, Paramount, finally convinced of Gardel's value, now wanted to take him to Hollywood and turn him into an English language star. The stumbling-block here was Gardel's poor progress in mastering English. During his NBC broadcasts (January-May 1934) he had tried to sing in English, but soon gave up. (The one record he made in English was not released commercially until the mid-80s.) Despite this, Paramount decided to introduce Gardel to Anglophone audiences by including him in its lavish (though fairly unmemorable) film-revue The Big Broadcast of 1936, to be released in September 1935. This consisted of a very fanciful (in fact rather absurd) plot mostly carried along by George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Jack Oakie, interspersed with variety acts from, among others, Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Ray Noble and his orchestra, Amos 'n Andy, and the Vienna Boys' Choir. Most of the film was shot in Hollywood in 1935. Gardel's sketch was filmed at Astoria in mid December 1934.
Nobody pretends that the movies made by Gardel at Joinville and Astoria are classics of world cinema. They were low-budget productions which, as Jorge Miguel Couselo has written, 'do not stand up to rigorous analysis'. Their chief (perhaps only) merit is that they provided a vehicle for Gardel's genius as a popular singer. His acting performances, while steadily improving with each film, tend to be somewhat wooden. Gardel often seems to be playing himself, or at least his own idea of the popular image - smart, high-living, fun loving - that he projected. The films themselves have a definitely Argentine character, while eliminating excessively local features that might have bewildered the international audiences at which the films were aimed. This also goes for the songs Gardel and Le Pera contributed. The lyrics retain specimens of Buenos Aires slang (including lunfardo), but nothing too difficult. Gardel's singing style, too, is smoother, more romantic, than it had been earlier. Reflecting on this some years later, the novelist Julio Cortázar concluded that Gardel was somehow betraying his earlier, more distinctively porteño self. This is to ignore the determined effort el zorzal was making to become a genuinely international singer. The international thrust of the films seems very clear, with their settings in Spain, France, and New York as well as Argentina. The musical range, too, is catholic, the inevitable tangos being supplemented by other forms of popular song. (Gardel's wonderful adaptability as a singer is one of the joys of these films.)
Strictly speaking, of course, Gardel's films do not belong to the history of Argentine cinema. Yet, despite the fact that they were made abroad, they had an important effect on the development of Argentine film-making in the 1930s. For both Manuel Romero and Luis Bayón Herrera, Luces de Buenos Aires marked the start of notable directing careers back home. Romero, indeed, was a key figure of the 1930s. The basic form of the Gardel films - comedies and melodramas lavishly endowed with musical numbers, with no aims other than entertainment - was to inspire a host of Argentine imitations. Finally, these films contributed ('decisively', says the film historian Domingo di Núbila) to the growing popularity of the sound cinema in the Argentina of the 1930s. In due course, needless to say, Gardel's own life was to become the subject of upwards of half a dozen Argentine films, the first of which dates from 1939.
In March 1935, having ended his latest stint of filming in New York, Gardel set off on a tour of the Caribbean and northern South America - a strenuous series of theatre appearances, in part designed to promote new films. Towards the scheduled end of this journey he met with sudden, tragic death: his airliner collided with another on the airfield at Medellin in Colombia on 24 June 1935. Latin America was devastated by the news. Gardel's charred remains were eventually taken back to Argentina. The funeral procession to the Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires brought out one of the largest crowds in living memory. Ever since, the memory of el zorzal has been very assiduously kept alive, in Argentina and elsewhere. The 50th anniversary of the Medellin tragedy (June 1985) provoked a great variety of commemorations throughout Latin America.
At the time of his death, Gardel's cinema career seems to have been opening out in several new (and potentially contradictory) directions. He had hoped to devote most of the rest of his professional life to filming - this was made explicit in one of the last interviews he ever gave. But he and Le Pera (who also died at Medellin were no longer very happy with the prospect of making further Spanish-language films abroad. 'One thing I wish for Carlos,' wrote Le Pera in April 1935 in Puerto Rico, 'is that he should never again film in Spanish outside Argentina.' And inside? Le Pera and Gardel were well aware of the growth of the domestic Argentine film industry. The Lumitón studios in Buenos Aires had tried to persuade Gardel to star in Manuel Romero's film El caballo del pueblo (The People's Horse, 1935). Gardel himself certainly toyed with the idea of founding an Argentine studio of his own, with Le Pera as his main helper. He had also (back in 1933) discussed the possibility of a joint venture with the enterprising bandleader Francisco Canaro. (Ironically, Canaro's own incursions into the cinema were never very happy.)
At the same time, however, Gardel was equally (in the end, perhaps, rather more) fascinated by the allure of Hollywood - the option now opened up to him by Paramount and which he would certainly have followed up had he lived. (Paramount cut its losses very quickly when Gardel died: his sketch was removed from The Big Broadcast of 1936, though not from the version distributed in Spanish America.) How would Gardel have fared in Hollywood? It is worth recalling that Maurice Chevalier, at the time of his first American picture (1929), was only a few years younger than Gardel would have been had he actually reached Hollywood in 1935 or 1936. Although death cheated him of this chance, it is entirely conceivable that Gardel could have followed Chevalier (whom he seems to have regarded at times as something of a model) to world-wide renown as a film star. But that belongs to the sad realm of might-have-beens. As things are, Carlos Gardel's immortality is amply assured in the vast enough world of Latin America. The great bandleader Julio de Caro was surely speaking for all Latin Americans when he wrote: 'In him we had a singer for all time, and nobody can ever take that away from us.'
La loba (She-Wolf)
note: There is no proof that Gardel ever made this film. There
is no copy of this film neither are there any newspaper accounts of
its production or of Gardel's participation in it, and this is
impossible. We have arrived at the conclusion that "La Loba" is an
invention of some Argentine magazine from the 1940's. From those
years on, everyone copied the information including Gardel's
business manager, Armando Defino in his book on Gardel "La verdad de
Luces de Buenos Aires (Lights of Buenos Aires)
Espérame (Wait for Me)
La casa es seria (The House is Serious)
Cuesta abajo (Downward Slope)
El tango en Broadway (The Tango on Broadway)
Cazadores de estrellas
* Like this one many other cases have occurred and still take place, half hazardly, from time to time... The last extraordinary finding was made by Horacio Ismael Atadía. He found in 2000, among the country elements and other utensils that his father had bought in auctions, a movie reel in which Gardel is starred singing "El quinielero" and an excerpt of "Amargura". These tango pieces are added to the ten numbers known of the film Encuadre de Canciones, directed by Eduardo Morera. The latter said on several occasions that the titles sung by Gardel in his movie had been fifteen. Nobody had evidence of their existence. We think that the immense oeuvre of the one also known as "El Mago" still has surprises waiting for us. (Source: Todotango.com).
From the book: "Gardel y el tango. Repertorio de recuerdos", by Rafael Flores, Ediciones de la Tierra, Madrid: 2001.
Did you know that Cecilia Villa who starred with Gardel in two movies: "Cazadores de Estrellas" and "El dia que me quieras" was the daughter of the famous mexican revolucionary PANCHO VILLA.