Sara Montiel, with the most intricate eye-shadow I’ve ever seen a film star wear in a movie, is the main reason to see Varietés. The film was her idea. In her memoir, Sara Montiel, Memorias, Vivir es un placer (Barcelona, Random House 2000), she writes of how she convinced producer Eduardo Manzanos that ‘we could make a film to our taste, a musical, luxurious, if that’s what he was interested in making. And Juan Antonio said yes; even though he’d never made a musical, that was no problem, because I could take care of that aspect’. She writes of how she loved his script so that she didn’t change a thing. How she believed he’d been a marvellous director and how she needed a film of a director of that calibre. ‘For me’, she adds like the diva she is, ‘Juan Antonio’s best film is Varietés; (pp. 367-368).
For fans of Sara Montiel, and they were legion at that time — she was not only the superstar of Spanish cinema but also box office throughout Latin America and in countries like Italy and Roumania — the film is full of pleasures, many of them campy. She sings some beautiful standards (Te lo juro yo, Lagrimas negras, La bien pagá, Toda una vida), is carefully photographed through more gauze than Doris Day in her later years, is always at the centre of everything — this is a true vehicle for her — and brings that slightly ironic naughtiness around issues of sex, interwoven with and superseded by the full-blown romanticism that is a trademark of her films.
For fans of Juan Antonio Bardem, Varietés is a sadness. Here he is cannibalising one of his great 50s films, Cómicos (1954), which in turn had been derived from All About Eve (Joe Manckiewicz, USA, 1950). As you can see in the two clips below, Varietés borrows not just plot and structure but situation, lines of dialogue, even, later on in the film, tropes like the use of mirrors.
Varietés is a musical remake of Cómicos: instead of telling us about the life of actors in provincial theatre troupes, he tells us the life of performers in provincial music-hall troupes. But the older film is more concrete, more complex, with more inventive compositions. It’s not quite up to his collaborations with Berlanga like Bienvenido Mr. Marshall or his own Muerte de un ciclista (1955) or Calle Mayor, but it’s very good indeed and has become a classic. Varietés is a great vehicle for Sara Montiel, which is why she thinks its his best film, but those are quite different things.
As a musical, Varietés if full of pleasures: Sara herself, the great songs, the clear attempt at making glossily produced musical numbers à la MGM. Sara and her producer had set out to make a luxurious musical, by which I think they meant expensively produced, and by the standards of Spanish cinema they succeeded. The songs, the costumes, the back-up dancers, the choreography. It’s all there. But Spanish cinema’s idea of luxury in that period was often not much more than a musical number in the Sonny & Cher Show: the back-up dancers are relatively meagre in number and not always in step, the costumes are embedded with shiny rhinestones but nonetheless look a bit cheap, the choreography lacks inventiveness and rarely done for the camera as in the great Arthur Freed musicals. The film aims for an international standard but succeeds only on a national one.
There are two further things about Varietés that caught my eye. In the original Cómicos, shot at the height of Franquist repression, the young ingenue Ana Ruiz (Elisa Galvé), tired of waiting by the wings, is offered the opportunity of headlining her own show but the price is that she’d have to sleep with the producer Carlos Márquez (Carlos Casaravilla). She considers it, struggles with it, but ultimately turns him down. In this film, Sara being Sara considers it all too briefly, wishes that that weren’t the bargain, but succumbs. The change in representation marks a difference between what was permissible in the dictadura (the hard dictatorship) and the later dictablanda (the soft dictatorship).
The last thing that I’d like to comment on here is a question. Did Bardem invent the musical montage of the kind so typical of the 80s, where a series of shots are rendered coherent by a song so as to evoke a feeling? See the montage below, where Sara succumbs to her producer’s demands but instead of feeling shame she feels joy (very Sara: It’s why so many gay men loved her). It’s from 1971.