Lola Flores, designated ‘The Pharaoness’, or ‘Lola of Spain,’ was the leading star of Spanish folklore musicals of the Franco years, a period where, as a popular saying had it, ‘everything that wasn’t obligatory was forbidden’. She introduced many hits that marked an era — ‘Ay pena, penita, pena‘, La zarzamora’ , ‘Limosna de amores‘, ‘Lerele’, ‘Al verde limón‘ — and that would be associated with her throughout her life. Her back catalogue was the soundtrack to an era and continues to evoke it.
Legend has it that when she appeared in New York, The New York Times headlined her review with ‘She can’t dance, she can’t sing but she is unmissable/ No canta, no baila, no se la pierdan’. I think her a marvellous dancer. One only needs to look at the care she takes with her hands and fingers — every part of her body is expressively deployed. Though a perfectly adequate singer, particularly in her younger years, when her voice was higher, she was the first to admit that there were better ones than she. Her acting on film is bit stiff and awkward in the dialogue scenes and a bit overblown in the musical numbers. On stage no one could touch her; she was arguably the defining figure of show business in Spain for several generations. She became a star on stage barely out of her teens and remained one until her death.
As her career progressed, her stardom expanded to radio, records, film and she finally entered everyone’s home with television, where she became even more beloved, a towering myth made as knowable as one’s neighbours, part of the psychic furniture of homes across the nation. Her stardom extended throughout the Spanish-speaking world, often signifying a Spain of flamenco, bullfighters, and the gypsies she was almost always relegated to play on film. To my Mom, she was a ‘whirlwind of joy/ un torbellino de alegría’.
It’s interesting to read Camilo José Cela’s La colmena/The Hive, with Lola Flores in mind. That bleak wintry Spain of hunger, secrecy, and surveillance was the other sign of the coin represented by Lola’s radiance, sexyness, and the freedom of spirit she embodied and evoked. The characters of La Colmena might have looked askance on Lola but she signified the liberty, plenitude and joy they lacked but wished for themselves. She still does.
La danza de los deseos, whilst far from a good film, might be one of her best in spite of the excessive melodrama and moralism of its plot. She plays Candela, the daughter of a gangster who is killed whilst trying to escape the authorities on a boat. She gets marooned on an island and is raised by a blind recluse and his assistant.
Candela grows up a child of nature taking pleasure in the people around her, the sun and the sea, innocent and loving, wild and free. On her birthday, as she dances on a cliff for the man who raised her and now calls grandfather, she’s spotted by rich people on a boat. Juan Antonio (José Suárez), a young millionaire, goes to the island to seek her out. She becomes instantly besotted and swims after him to his yacht after he leaves. The rich people bring her with them to Marseilles but she overhears a conversation between Juan Antonio and his betrothed in which she’s spoken of a threat to their relationship and runs away.
She’s so innocent that she’s instantly picked up by a pimp in a dive and exploited into the lower depths of a Marseilles of cabarets and whorehouses. The image above showing the wild innocent she used to be, associated with nature, on the right; and the fallen woman she’s become, on the left with her drink, cigarettes and the leg as advertising of the goods for sale, vividly communicates this transformation.
I initially wanted to show you the clip above to make a point about the social construction of race. There’s a moment in the clip were a black Cuban approaches the pimp and he says that it’s a white girl he wants today, referring to Candela. Now part of the reason Lola is often associated with gypsies is because in Spain, she’s as dark as one can be without Spanishness coming into question. But in England, for example, she’d easily pass as a South Asian, and in India she might be mistaken for a native. However, next to a black woman from Cuba in a Spanish film with a Marseilles setting, she’s ‘white’. People often think of markers of race as absolutes dictated by skin colour whereas as we can see so clearly in the film, how we reads the colours and features of skin, faces and bodies are a construct.
The other reason I wanted to show the clip above was to praise the narrative economy. In five minutes a young girl gets corrupted, moving from a millionaire setting to a low-down dive and ultimately, through a bottle of rum, we’re told she’s been taken advantage of by a man who wants to first use her then sell her. It’s very fast and very skilful, like the plots of early Warners films.
But one can also see in the clip above the extraordinary display of skills in the mechanics of direction. Florian Rey, does the whole thing in very impressive long takes, with the last one that begins with a close-up of the bottle of rum, moves back to show us the pimp with Candela in bed, his disdain and her shame, all in one long take would be impressive on its own. But just as you think the film is going to cut, the maid enters the room and the patterned movement of the take is repeated once more but this time with the maid.
I extracted the clip above as an example of the type of song, the copla, of the period and also as an example of the musical number so typical of Spanish musicals of this period, though this one constructed with greater skill. Note how Rey films the whole thing in medium long shot so that we can see Lola perform, but then at the end moves to close-up for the song’s refrain: ‘I no longer believe even in death/ Let it come free me/ Why can’t I be lucky enough to die and rest/ I no longer seek in consolation/ I don’t even believe in myself/ But when I look up at the heavens/ when I look up at the heavens I believe in God and you’. Note also the camaraderie amongst the women, with no discrimination as to colour.
As you can see above, the millionaire who in spite of himself led Candela from nature and innocence to the corruption of the big city, rescues her from prostitution and jail. But by the time he brings her back to the island it’s too late. She’s dying. She arrives on the island only to say hello to her blind grandfather. Whilst he thinks she’s off to marry her millionaire, she is in fact buried practically in front of his face, without his knowing, and next to her father.
The messages in this film are mixed. There’s no place in this Spain for gangsters and prostitutes. But millionaires who cavort outside the borders are destructive even in spite of themselves. On the other hand, there’s the image of Lola Flores, dancing her joys and her pain, even though they’re joys that are not meant to exist outside of marriage and pains that are not allowed to exist at all.
I’m often moved by Spanish films of this period. They’re so rickety. So low budget. So poor in terms of means, ideas, skills, aspirations. But contra all of this, one of Florian Rey’s camera moves, or a Lola Flores, will leap out of all that poverty and oppression and assert something powerful and fundamental about what it is to be human that all the censorship by Church and State simply can’t dampen. They’re moments. But they’re moments that assert a huge gap between the way things are and the way things should be. They’re moments to cherish. They’re moments to seek out in a cinema too easily dismissed for its obvious faults.