In the post-war period there were a hand-full of European stars who enjoyed international stardom without recourse to Hollywood: Bardot, Mastroianni, Dirk Bogarde, María Félix, a few others. Sara Montiel was one of those stars. Her films were popular all over Latin America, most of Europe and even in the Middle East. They were so successful, and there was such a demand for them, that the release of Mi último tango had to be delayed so that her previous film, Carmen la de Ronda/ A Girl Aginst Napoleon (Tulio Demichelli, 1959), could enjoy its full run.
Aside from her work in Spain, Montiel had starred in popular films in Mexico, such as Necesito dinero (1952) and Piel Canela (1953). She’d also been in popular Hollywood films such as Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper (1954). But after the extraordinary international success of El ultimo cuplé she is reported to have said, ‘why should I return to Hollywood to play Indians’. Her accent and perhaps also her skin colour limited the roles she was offered. Thus even though she was married to Anthony Mann, one of the best and most successful Hollywood directors of the period, she never made a film in Hollywood again.
Instead, she chose to make films like Mi último tango, light musical comedies, with a loose structure in which to hang some musical numbers, with Sara modelling an endless array of glamorous ‘looks’ (see below,) and co-starring a European or Latin American star, really only there to fall in love with her, watch her triumph marry her at the end, and help with the distribution in at least his country of origin. Here it’s Maurice Ronet (see above), fresh from his triumph in Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold/ Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and René Clément’s Plein Soleil/ Purple Noon
I’ve chosen to put examples of each of Montiel’s many ‘looks’ in the film, and by this I mean not only dresses (by Humberto Cornejo and Rafael Ballester) but also hair-dos (Carmen Sánchez), make-up (Carmen Marin), jewels, accoutrements such as boas and hats, etc, because they not only help tell the story — very evident when, as above, one shows them in chronological order — but also because appreciating and discussing these looks was one of the great pleasures of watching these films for filmgoers of the era.
The plot is a ludicrous one, Montiel is Marta Andreu, the daughter of an impresario that unsuccessfully tours opera across the provinces, where no one wants to see it. They go broke and Marta gets a job as a maid to a temperamental star, Luisa Marivel (Laura Granados). One day the star is so nervous –her impresario doesn’t want to buy her a house — that she loses her voice on stage, and Marta has to sing her song offstage whilst the star mimes, just like Debbie Reynolds in Singin in the Rain. Miravel decides to take Marta and her aunt (Isabel Garcés) to Buenos Aires, where she’s got an engagement. But the impresario buys her the house and she decides to stay but informs her maid that no one must know she’s not on the ship as that will affect the outcome of the lawsuits to come. Thus Marta impersonates Marivel, enjoys enormous success, and renews her acquaintance with Dario Ledesma (Ronet), who falls for her but can’t marry her because he feels obliged to a young woman who’s in a wheel chair. Just as he’s resolved that problem and is about to propose to Marta, she goes blind in a fire after her last triumphant performance in Buenos Aires. She refuses his proposal, fearing its due to pity, and not wanting to limit his future happiness. But he will get her cured and all will be well. It’s all nonsense really, merely an excuse to hang the songs, in this case some of the most famous tangos in the history of popular song; even Gardel makes an appearance, with Milo Quesada miming to Gardel’s records.
I here want to highlight only three things from the movie. One is simply the ‘maniquí’ number which you can see below.
I post this for its reference to Singin in the Rain and for its subsequent deployment in Almodóvar’s La mala educación (1999), which you can see below:
I also want to highlight Montiel’s singing of Gardel’s great ‘Yira, yira’ because the number is done in drag with Montiel’s wearing a man’s suit. At the end she takes her hat off to reveal her flowing hair, thus ‘normalising’ her gender, she’s now a woman again. This might not seem like very much but it was considered very transgressive at the time, when, as Montiel writes in her autobiography, Vivir es un placer, ‘the censors prevented me from even showing leg above the knee’ (p.357) and wearing men’s suits in public was considered scandalous. Its worth noting that all the great stars of these years who became gay icons dragged up in men’s clothes in some of their most famous films (Dietrich in Morocco, Garbo in Queen Christina, Davis in The Great Lie, Garland in various numbers including one of her most famous, Get Happy, etc.
Lastly, I want to point to possible borrowings and influences. I’ve already mentioned Singin’ in the Rain (and you can see it in the ‘maniqui’ number above) but there’s also the scene at the train station, very reminiscent of Crawford’s great moment of longing in Possessed (see images below)
And lastly, a bit of a joke but who knows? Sara Montiel wore it earlier and wore it better:
Mi último is very light fare, occasionally campy and ludicrous but also very glamorous and with a great score that offers Sara Montiel the opportunity to sing classic tangos in her own very imitable way and showcases all that audiences then and now love and admire about her to advantage.
Isabel Garcés, a beloved comic actress of the Spanish cinema of this period, with a very distinctive high-pitched yet raspy voice, is delightful as Montiel’s aunt.