I´m a great admirer of Anthony Mann. He´s not only the director of some of the greatest Westerns ever but a kind of celebrity in Spanish pop culture as he married Sara Montiel, the reigning diva of Spanish Cinema of the late fifties to Mid-sixties. The producer Samuel Bronston, is also an important figure, bringing in to Spain big-budget runway productions such as El Cid (1961)and 55 Days at Peking (1963)and, along with them, lots of money and employment. I somehow missed The Fall of the Roman Empire. I enjoyed it very much but would have to see it again to offer more valuable observations.
The one thing that led ,me to write the post is that I was idly watching the film and thought, ‘oh those hills look just like the ones of the area in Spain I was born into’. Then I search in wiki and realise the film was indeed shot there. And it was weird to see *my* landscape figured by all those blond blue-eyed faces: Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, John Ireland, Christopher Plummer, Mel Ferrer. Even Omar Shariff, Sofia Loren and James Mason, though darker and more plausible, didn´t quite fit in.
It was a kind of blondfacing of landscape, a cultural erasure where the world belongs to some types of faces — at home in and ruling all kinds of landscapes — and not to others. Of course I grew up watching this kind of thing in Canada, where Montreal and Toronto stand-in for New York and British Columbia stands in for Colorado or whatever. But this felt different somehow, the landscape of the Sierra de Guadarrama standing in for an ancient Rome peopled by lbondes (at least the red hair of the invading German Barbarians was motivated by the plot). A thought, though one probably not worth very much as millions of Syrians are denied safety in Turkey and in Europe.
‘La vie en rose’, the classic written and made famous by Edith Piaf, is the opening musical number in Noches de Casablanca (Henri Decoin, Spain/France, 1964). Sara Montiel sings it in her leisurely suggestive way (see clip below), so easily imitable by drag queens across the Spanish speaking world, in a camp staging that’s a low-budget hodge-podge of the ‘Stairway to Paradise’ number in An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and every MGM musical that had any staircases, candelabras and semi-clad women, which is to say quite a few, many by Minnelli, and sometimes even surrealistically deployed by him like in The Band Wagon so that the semi-clad women *are* the candelabras.
The number led me to wonder if there is an international repertoire that ‘Gay Divas’ share. And I write this both as a statement and as a question. Do you know of any more? Off the top of my head, aside from Sara Montiel, La vie en rose is sung by Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, the superb version by Grace Jones. Eartha Kitt covered it. Donna Summer, who was one, was bumped off her throne by the time she made her version, which is not particularly good, due to homophobia. Peggy Lee does a lovely duet with Aznavour. Madonna and Bette Midler have performed it in concert. I’m not sure if Celine Dion qualifies as a gay diva but she sang it also..and well. Audrey Hepburn who is everybody’s icon, sang it in Sabrina (Billy Wilder, USA, 1954). It’s a staple of cabaret and theatre divas such as Ute Lemper. And in the forthcoming A Star is Born Bradley Cooper finds Lady Gaga singing ‘La vie en rose’ in a drag bar. See how a case builds?
‘La vie en rose’ was a big hit then and now. Marion Cotillard won the Oscar for playing Piaf in the film of her life called La vie en rose (Olivier Dahan, France, 2007). Ostensibly, according to wiki, there were seven versions of the song that made the 1950 Billboard charts. Now neither Bing Crosby, Tony Martin, Paul Weston, Louis Armstrong etc. are gay divas. So we can’t say everyone who sings this song is one. And likewise, we can’t say that if it’s not in their repertoires they’re not gay divas as lots of other gay divas have, as far as I know, not done a version: Garland, Minnelli, Cher, Diana Ross, Beyoncé, Britney. Niente!
Andy Medhurst told me that ‘Some landmark diva-songs seem welded very strongly to me to one particular diva (‘The Man That Got Away for Garland’, ‘People’ for Streisand etc etc) so much that other versions are overshadowed. Even though your ‘Vie En Rose’ list shows the opposite, for me it will always belong to Piaf.’ To this Kevin Stenson has also added Doris Day and ‘Secret Love’ also seem welded whilst noting that songs like ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Broadway Baby, both by Sondheim, are part of a shared repertoire amongst the ‘more mature divas’.’
All this I agree with, so we’re talking about intersections rather than absolutes. But isn’t it interesting that whilst each diva has songs that are entirely associated with them, and that are part of an appeal/address to a gay audience, so many also tend to add to their own unique repertoire by gravitating to particular songs that help constitute a shared one? Can you think of other covers of this song by gay divas. Are there other songs that seem a particular magnet to gay divas and and whose performance might constitute part of their appeal and address to a gay male audience, in turn helping consolidate the place these performers occupy in gay male cultures?
Is there a shared or intersecting repertoire? Do please let me know your thoughts.
Enquiring minds want to know.
You can look at some of the versions below:
Marlene Dietrich sang it in Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ (and I’ll post a clip from the film in due time):
Eartha Kitt did a growly cover:
Grace Jones classic dance version was the closing song of the first gay bar I went to.
Donna Summer in Tribute to Edith Piaf album:
Chrstos Tsirbas directed me to this lovely version by Bette Midler:
Adrian Garvey directed me to this version by Madonna in concert:
Peggy Lee with Charles Aznavour:
Celine Dion. Is she really a gay diva. Qua importa? She sings it well.
Matthew Motyka has pointed out to me that ‘Iggy Pop’s also covered it, and his sexually subversive persona I would argue, makes him qualify for queer cult if not full fledged icon status’. In my view he’s got a greater claim than Celine. But what do I know.
K.D. Lang duets with Tony Bennett on it here:
It’s a staple for Cabaret and Theatre divas like Ute Lemper:
.and, Kevin Stenson tells me that calling Gracie Fields a ‘Gay icon is pushing it but her records especially the comic ones were used by drag queens and played by DJ in gay pubs in lighter moments’.
Other versions include:
(Thanks, thus far, to Adrian Garvey, Andy Medhurst, Gary Needham, Kevin Stenson, Christos Tsirbas , and Phil Ulyatt for their input)
Watching Spanish musicals of the ’50s and sixties, I’ve noticed how often the protagonists look directly at the camera, and thus at the audience. It’s generally a no-no in Classical Hollywood Cinema, though there’s more of a history of it than is common acknowledged, particularly in musicals and comedy: one need only think of how wittily Lubitsch (and Cukor) deploy it in the opening scenes of One Hour With You (1932) (see clip below); and of course it’s woven into the Crosby/Hope/Lamour ‘Road’ films for comic effect, often as an in-joke the audience is also privy to.
The distancing effect, the alienation effect, the estrangement effect; all of these translations and derivatives of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, and rooted in the Russion Formalist notion of making strange, of de-familarizing, in cinema as on stage, is supposed to distance the spectator emotionally by making the familiar strange, making them aware of the constructedness of the drama and in doing so allowing for a more intellectual understanding that would empower the individual to analyze and perhaps even change the world. A characteristic device in theatre and in film is the look back directly to the audience, in theatre the breaking of ‘the fourth wall’, a direct address that is supposed to disrupt ‘stage illusion’ and generate a distancing effect.
Spanish musicals offer further proof, if proof were needed, that no one meaning or effect can be attributed to any formal device; that indeed it can be used in multiple and contradictory ways. Seeing a lot of Sara Montiel films I’ve noticed how this look back at the audience is something that she does regularly in her films (Pecado de amor, La dama de Beirut, Noches de Casablanca ), it’s almost a trope in her vehicles. What interested me about the use of that device of looking directly at the camera in La Reina del Chantecler (Rafael Gil, Spain, 1962) is that it seems to me that it does the opposite of what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do, i.e. it sutures in rather than alienates or distances.
As you can see in the clip below, the pre-title opening sequence of the film is a musical number where Sara Montiel performs, ‘Colón 34’, the refrain goes as follows:
Colón, Colón 34
tiene usted su habitación
y una chica muy decente
sin ninguna pretención
en la calle de Colón, Colón, Colón
siempre a su disposición.
Colón, Colón 34/ You have your own room/ and a very good unpretentious girl/ always at your disposal/ in the street of Colón, Colón, Colón (trans. my own).
As you can see in the clip below, the sequence begins in medium long shot, covering her face and figure, the camera then cranes back into a proper long shot so you can see that quite extensive and impressive set. It then moves in to medium close-up as Montiel starts another verse. As the refrain recommences, the camera gets closer to medium close-up. Then it cuts to a plan américain again, but now intercuts with the audience, demonstrating how Sara is heating up the men in the audience with her risqué song.
At 2.12, the camera cuts to a close-up of Sara, once more singing the refrain, but this time looking directly at the camera until the last line: ‘always at your disposal’. i.e Sara is at the audience’s disposal in the cinema just as her character is in the theatre. There’s meant to be some link between the men in the theatre listening to her character, and the audience in the cinema. It’s a way for the narrative to present the spectacle of Sara, make some structural homologies whilst allowing for particular variations (Sara had a large female following), but also present the film audience as the ideal audience.
After Sara’s name appears in the credits, and then the name of the film, accompanied by illustrations that are meant to signify period (the twenties, though they look like Toulouse-Lautrec imitations from the French Belle Epoque), the narrative proper begins; and there will be no more looking at the audience then. But this sequence seems to be saying, ‘you can enjoy the spectacle of Sara Montiel even better than the audience in this theatre is enjoying the spectacle of the character she plays. Now sit back and lose yourself in this dream of song, and sparkling Eastman colour, a pre-war Spain of song and romance’. That’s not what any Verfremdungseffekt is supposed to do.
I was surprised to see an even more overt example of this in La vida sigue igual (Eugenio Martin, Spain, 1969), a film inspired by Julio Iglesias’ real life, a wannabe Real Madrid goal-keeper has an accident, is prevented from following his dream, and whilst he’s recovering chances upon a world of music, enters a singing contest, wins it, and becomes a pop star. The title of the song is also the title of the film and was a hit before the film began shooting. It’s the song that won Julio the Benidorm song contest in 1968 and launched him as a pop star.
As you can see above. The opening sequence of La vida sigue igual is more familiar to us, with a form very familiar to us from MTV videos: Julio singing directly to the camera, a title card telling us this film will be based on Julio’s real life, then intercut with couples and all the forms of love Julio is singing about, a series of shots some of which literalise the lyrics others which allegorise the theme, with cuts on the beat, that return us to Julio singing directly to us so we can then metaphorically enter his life through the subsequent narrative.
Again, rather than make strange, this sequence is more like one of the ‘attractions’ Tom Gunning writes of in relation to early cinema. He writes that it’s “a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.” This certainly displays its visibility, it’s Julio Iglesias, pop star, winner of the Benidorm song contest, singing his song for you, in a movie. It solicits the attention of the spectator but it doesn’t so much rupture a self-enclosed fictional world. But create a setting and context for it. Just like Sara does.
Pecado de amor is camp enough at the beginning: Sara Montiel is Sor Bélen, a nun in a woman’s jail. A young female prisoner tries to commit suicide, and by way of comfort, Sor Bélen recounts her own past as Magda Béltran, cabaret singer and baddest woman in Madrid.
Magda’s story is thus told in flashback. We see her trifling with the affections of a young man, Ángel (a very young and handsome Terence Hill acting under the name of Mario Girotti here), so in love with her he forges his father’s name on a check to buy her an expensive bracelet. She has trouble offloading him. The father, Adolfo (Reginald Kernan) gets involved, tries to buy her off, but falls in love with her instead when he discovers she’s really a nice woman from a humble background trying to do her best to raise an illegitimate daughter.
She’s about to achieve happiness with Adolfo when the manager of her nightclub and semi-pimp gets involved and she shoots him in self-defence. She’s taken to jail and at her trial denies knowledge of Adolfo so as not to ruin his career and social position. She expects to be in jail for a long time and gives her daughter up for adoption. Adolfo, however, comes to her defence. But it’s too late. She’s free but has now lost her daughter, her lover and her career and is forced to go outside Spain to seek work, an opportunity to see her garnering applause in the great capitals of Europe.
In Greece, she reunites with Adolfo, they cement their love but then he disappears suddenly. It turns out his wife, who’s been in a sanatorium in Switzerland for all these years, has recovered; and moreover it’s Adolfo who adopted her daughter and raised her to be a lady. This is all too much for Magda. The nuns taught her to pray when she was in jail; and now she decides to find comfort in God.
If the beginning was camp, I nearly fell off my chair at the end (see above) where Sor Bélen is in Church, surrounded by a glorious choir, singing at her daughter’s wedding, as she stifles a sob whilst the camera cuts to her former young lover now married and with his wife, then to his father, the man she loved but can’t have, and then to a stained glass window in Church. The official sinner of the Spanish cinema of those years thus comes face to face with all her sins, in church, even as she gets redeemed and sanctified by a holy spirit voiced by the choir and pictured by the icons in the stained glass window. It’s as great an ending as Barbara Stanwyck’s in Stella Dallas, though this one will make you laugh rather than cry (but in a good way).
Like all Montiel vehicles post-El ultimo cuplé, the film is a musical melodrama. This one has great songs such as Gardel’s ‘El dia que me quieras’. Like other of her films such as El ultimo tango, Montiel does a number in drag, here Pichi (see clip above), which allows the film to show Sara to us as sinner, nun AND pimp; and as her stardom became international, she sang in other languages (here Sous les toits de Parisin French and Tinaini in agape in Greek); and as her stardom became international and the budgets of her films increased, there are little travelogue montages of beautiful and exotic places most of her audience couldn’t then actually visit but possibly dreamed of seeing (here mainly the Greek islands).
One of the IMDB comments notes that, ‘Maybe I saw another version, or the soundtrack is wrong, but I would like to make note that, in this movie, Montiel never sings “Madreselva” (she does in an album appropriately titled “El Tango”) neither (does) she sing(s) “Under the roof of Paris” since she did that in “La Violetera” (in Spanish for the Spanish version, french in the french version). This is not important but accurate.’ But for the sake of accuracy, I’d like to say that my version of Pecado de amor definitely contains both numbers, the first as part of her international tour (see the [suggestive] image on the left), and the second whilst in Greece (image below right).
In an hommage to Montiel from the TV series, ‘El Legado de…’ one of the commentators notes that one of the keys to Montiel’s appeal is that women liked her as much as men. Men may have been drawn to her sex appeal but women loved the clothes (some here by Balenciaga), the jewels, the hair-do’s, and the working out of so many sufferings women were earlier, then and later, condemned to. So many of her films are like a continuation of the ‘fallen women’ cycle of American films of the thirties but in gorgeous Eastmancolour and with highlights of music from the ‘Great Hispanic Songbook’. But unlike in America, in the Spain of the late fifties and through the sixties, sin had to be paid for not only by suffering but by, as we can see in one of the campest endings of all time, Christian redemption.
As I’ve noted before in relation to some of her other films, Montiel breaks the unspoken rule that the actor must never look directly at the camera and often does so in some of her numbers. See example below:
I love musicals and I thought I’d seen every variant. But a musical melodrama about sex trafficking in the Middle East is a new one on me. Thoroughly Modern Millie (George Roy Hill, USA, 1967) was made later, a comedy, and the white slavery is something that happened to Mary Tyler Moore rather than Julie Andrews.
In La dama de Beirut, Sara Montiel is Isabel Llanos, a cabaret singer only recently sprung from jail for a crime she did not commit and on probation. Xandro ‘The Greek’ (Alain Saury) and Gloria (Magaly Noël), see her perform in a cheap dive in Barcelona, like what they see, and offer her a contract. She doesn’t have papers but they arrange to get her a false passport and get her on a boat to Beirut. There she meets and falls in love with Francis (Giancarlo de Luca). But when she arrives in Beirut it’s clear that she’s meant to be performing in a whorehouse and that singing is not the only service she’s expected to render.
Much of the film is about how the women around her are treated (drugged or beaten into performing) and deal, or fail to deal, with the circumstances they find themselves in: one of the younger girls commits suicide. Isabel, however, lets herself be picked up by an elderly gent, Dr. Costello (Fernand Gravey) a distinguished doctor, who will not only help her escape but get her to Paris and arrange a television appearance which will lead to her triumph at the legendary L’Olympia. Even better, he turns out to be the father of Francis, the handsome playboy she fell in love with on the boat. You couldn’t make this up, except, and of course, someone did.
Ladislao Vajda the legendary Polish director who worked mainly in Franco’s Spain and directed one of the great hits of the period, Marcelino pan y vino (1955), about a young boy who talks to Christ, directs this briskly, with attention to the film’s main selling points: Montiel, the sound-track, and the production values.
It’s now clear that all of Montiel’s films of this period, amongst the most successful and international in the history of Spanish cinema, follow a formula: The films are all musical melodramas rather than musical comedies. The story is strung along a series of songs chosen with great care and taste and with a best-selling sound-track in mind (see above): they include some of the great classics of the Spanish-speaking world and beyond; in this film: Perfidia, Frenesï, En Secreto (Cada noche un amor), Perdida (mulher de Ninguem), Les feuilles mortes, etc); that some of those songs will be about Spanishness (La Española, Adios Granada). That each of the songs turns into a very distinct type of number.
As you can see in the example above, where Montiel sings Perdida, most of it is shot in close-up, with Sara in 3/4 shots favouring the left side of her face. Much of the number takes place with Montiel in front of an audience shown through back-projection so that she seems to jump out of the screen, and with so much light on her face she stands out burning bright. During the number there will be cuts to Montiel in full-figure plansAméricains, sometimes placed amongst the orchestra, that serve no other purpose than allow the audience to see her dress, usually cut to favour her legs. Once in a while she’ll do a little shimmy, but she really can’t dance. The focus on the close-up, most unusual in musical numbers, creates the affect of a dream-like self-absorption and narcissisim that invites devotion and worship, and as history demonstrates, has succeeded in obtaining it. Sometimes, and most unusually, Sara will also look directly at the camera (see below), as if she’s not only singing to the audience within the narrative, but directly to the viewer, to you. I’ve not seen this used so consistently, almost a trope in her films, in any other type of musicals.
The film has a whole host of ‘attractions’ for audiences of the period: the Balenciaga dresses Sara wears in the Spanish portions of the film, on location filming in Barcelona, Tangiers (passing for Beirut) and Paris, then the epitomy of all that was liberal, elegant and sophisticated (see below).
The co-stars- — Giancarlo Del Duca, Fernand Gravey, Alain Saury — are of course their own ‘attractions’ but I want to here single out Magaly Noël as the vicious Madam/ White Slaver Magaly Noël, who first rose to fame performing the great ‘Fais-moi mal, Johnny’ with Boris Vian (see clip below). Still no one should kid themselves: Sara’s films are all about Sara: singing, with new hairdos, couture clothing or risqué showbiz costumes, looking as glamorous as a whole team of people can make her and surviving what fortune throws her way in what then passed for glamorous and exotic locations in and out of Spain.
Of the film, Sara Montiel writes in her memoirs, ‘I re-encountered my first director, Ladislao Vajda, in La dama de Beirut. Vajda was one of the best directors in the history of Spanish cinema, and his films are the proof. Unfortunately, he died half-way through the filming and his assistant Luis María Delgado, took over the shooting. It’s not bad but is missing greatness.’
In La Violetera (Luis Cesar Amadori, 1958) Sara Montiel’s rich aristocratic lover (Ralf Vallone) leaves her when after the death of his brother he inherits lands and title, must protect the family name, and can no longer afford to be seen with a lowly seller of violets/ music hall singer. She runs off and of course ends up triumphing in all the great capitals of Europe. The film offers a montage of her singing different songs across different capitals and in Paris the song she offers is ‘Mon homme’, which she begins singing in Spanish and then switches to French to flatter her audience.
Watching her sing the song made me wonder if there is an international repertoire that gay divas have in common. The song was introduced by Mistinguette in 1920. Arletty, the glorious gay diva who, after being tried as a collaborator for having a Nazi lover during the occupation famously retorted, ‘My heart is French but my ass is international,’ also covered it. The song is basically sets to music the indelible character in Marcel Carné’s Hôtél du Nord minus the ‘atmosphere, atmosphere!’: ‘on the ground we argue, she says in the film, but in bed we communicate, and on the pillow we understand each other’ (see excerpt below):
If you understand French, it’s worth listening to the two French versions side by side.
The song was made famous in America by Fanny Brice in 1921 and was such a hit she even starred in a film by that name in 1928. It was famously revived for Funny Girl by Gay Diva extraordinaire Barbra Streisand below. Again it’s worth comparing Brice’s version to Streisand’s (below):
Another such comparison is that of the Billie Holiday and Diana Ross versions. Diana, or Miss Ross to you, had famously played Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. And Holiday’s great version of the song, had been a big hit in the thirties without quite eclipsing Brice’s version in the culture at large. It’s again instructive to look at these two versions together. Ross looks completely glam, interacts with the audience, says how hard the song is for her to sing. She takes the audience through the mechanics of the song. Her voice is unique, instantly recognisable, one of the great glories of American pop. But I don’t believe a word she says; and neither does she. ‘I hate that line’ she says after singing ‘He Beats Me too’. Compare it to Holiday’s version below. It brings up all kinds of feelings, confused and contradictory ones, about a person and a way of life that can’t be contained by camp. The hurt bursts through.
Now let me take you to what started this off in the first place, Sara Montiel’s version. As you can see below, if it was difficult to believe what Ross was singing in the clip from Vegas above. Montiel doesn’t even try to communicate what the song is saying. Her number is so far removed from what Billie Holiday is conveying that it’s as if from a parallel universe. With Montiel, it’s all about the dress, the hairstyle, the gestures; it’s all about her; and about inciting audience adoration. It’s all artifice, exaggeration, style, decorative beauty. Camp. ‘My job is not to be a good singer or a good dancer or a good actress. My job is to be a star’. And as you can see, the clip below puts you in no doubt of that fact. There’s nothing there about a woman who loves a man so she’s willing to share him, or get beaten up by him. He wouldn’t dare. That downtrodden woman in the song is transformed into an object of admiration and worship. She glistens, she beckons, she offers looks. It has nothing to do with the truth of the song. Montiel transcends hurt and oppression with gorgeous gowns and glamour. Glitter eclipses hurt.
There were so many rats in the hovel Marucha (Sara Montiel) grew up in that they chewed off half her face. Being ugly means she’s the victim of men’s callousness. This has made her embittered and turned her into a gangster’s moll. She’s got a lovely figure though and can still shake a living from singing in cabaret by wearing a Veronica Lake peekaboo hairstyle that hides her disfigurement.
This works most of the time. But occasionally blokes in the audience clock the chewed-up face, make nasty catcalls, taunt her, laugh at he until she collapses from the stress of it all. This happens one night when a plastic surgeon’s in the club. Dr. Carlos Alonso (Manolo Fábregas) takes her on as a client hoping that a lovely face will help her develop a lovely soul. But once she sees how the Doctor’s transformed her into …well…Sara Montiel, its nertz to that. She becomes ‘Piel Canela/Cinnamon Skin’, a successful cabaret singer and very expensive prostitute who’s out to get her revenge on men.
The Doctor becomes besotted with her but she couldn’t live in his world she tells him, and he wouldn’t know how to live in hers. All the surgery’s signified is that she’s moved from a world of cheap vices to a world of expensive ones. But soon they fall for each other. And just as quickly, her past catches up with her. Julio (Ramon Gáy), the head of the gang Marucha used to run around with and a bit of an old flame, forces the Doctor to operate on him and change aliases. The Doctor has no choice but is disgusted with Marucha for tricking him into a situation he finds dishonourable and illegal. Months later, he turns himself over to the police. To redeem herself for having sunk the Doctor’s career, Marucha goes in search of her gangnster ex. He’s got a new face but she recognises the origami he’s in the habit of making with bits of paper, tricks him into admitting his previous crimes to the police and as a result the Doctor is shown to be innocent and cleared of his. She gets shot in the crossfire. They put her on the operating table again but this time it’s too late and the distraught Doctor can do nothing. Prayer, and the nurse who’s quietly had the hots for him all along will be his only consolation.
This is hackneyed material, much better executed with more means by Gustaf Molander (1938)and George Cukor (1941) in the two versions of A Woman’s Face. And Bergman and Crawford are certainly better in the part than Montiel is here. Everything about this film is strictly B. That said, Montiel is really the main reasons to see this film. It’s one of the 14 she did in four years in Mexico. It was a huge success in Mexico, partly due to Montiel, partly due to the famous and eponymous bolero. Though it’s not Montiel who gets to sing the famous song, she does get to sing three other songs in the film, and her relative success in doing so would pave the way for extraordinary run of hit musical melodramas in Spain from ’57 onwards as well as her extraordinary recording career.
As a side note, this is also one of three films she made in this period shot in Cuba and with Havana as a location. For those of you, like I, who love Havana and might have reveries about what it was like in the early 50s, the film is a special thrill (see below). Even the Cine Yara appears in back projection.
Writing on Las cosas del querer in the year 2000 (see reference at end) ….I noted how the film re-imagines and re-images Spain through the ‘figure of the homosexual and through homosexual culture, i.e. what in the film’s narrative is exiled from Spain, the film itself re-constructs and re-inserts into the representation of nation. When Mario (Manuel Bandera) is discharged from jail at the beginning of the film, the warden contemptuously hands him what he sees as his faggotty castanets and tells him, ‘in this Spain of peace there is no place for reds or queers’. But in the Spain of Las cosas, queers are in fact everywhere: cafes, toilets, and aristocratic drawing rooms; on-stage, backstage and, most importantly in the audience. When María Barranco sings that she is delighted to be ‘single for life’, the campy boys in the audience respond in the feminine, ‘nosotras tambien (we are a well)’.
A pivotal moment in Las cosas, one which demonstrates how the film draws on gay culture and the folklore film is the scene below, where Mario (Manuel Bandera) sings, ‘Te lo juro yo (I swear to you)’ to Juan (Ángel de Andrés López). Structurally this is the climax of the film where Mario declares his love for Juan, rejects the Marquis and insults the Marquis’ mother, thus setting in play the mechanisms for the dénoument. We are first shown Mario in long shot. The song begins. Mario, looking intently at Juan in medium close-up, abruptly turns away to face the empty theatre as he begins to sing, ‘Yo no me di cuenta de que te tenía hasta el mismo dia en que te perdi (I didn’t realise I had you until the very first day I lost you)’. Mario sings of his suffering and begs for love. When the lyrics gets to the point that the break-up was all his fault because he slept around, we are shown the Marquis spying on the performance, a clear reference to Mario’s own sexual appetite. However the key moment is when, in close-up, Mario, eyes brimming with tears, turns abruptly back to face Juan and sings the lyrics, declares his love, directly to him ‘mira que te llevo dentro de mi corazón…mira que pa mí en el mundo no hay na mas que tú….por tí contaria la arena del mar, por tí seria capaz de matar (Look, I carry you within my heart..Look, for there is only you…for you I would count the sand in the sea, for you I would be capable of killing)’. Juan squirms with embarrassment but Mario will sing the rest of the song directly to him.
Gay male audiences were avid and knowledgeable consumers of the folklore genre and the films, songs and stars of the genre were, and continue to be, an important part of Spanish camp culture. Jo Labanyi in Screen has written that the ‘early Francoist folklórica has in recent years enjoyed a revival with Spanish gay audiences because of its camp exposure and the evident constructedness of its representation of gender roles. Las cosas not only puts the gay audience back in to the picture diegetically but also addresses gay in the audience through a mode of narration that acknowledges and utilises a camp appreciation of the genre at various levels.
The climax of Las cosas del querer is the declaration of love of one man for another through a song that has rich connotations. Lola Flores famously performed ‘Te lo juro yo’ to Fernando Fernan Gomez in Morena Clara (Luis Lucia, 1954, see clip above). She was the happy-go-lucky gypsy, he the stiff lawyer. Lola is leaving hims because his mother has convinced her that she would damage his career. So she sings him this song as a way of saying goodbye and with an intensity of feeling and a sense of self-abnegation that echoes and begs comparison with Bandera’s more restrained and less skilful performance. But what is also carried through is the memory of Lola Flores and what she signifies both in the folklore film and in gay culture. Leonardo Rojic has rated her as one of the greatest camp icons. Roger D. Tinnell calls her the ‘Queen’ of Spanish music. She was also a mythic star of folklore cinema in the Spain of the 40s and 50s. Román Guber compared these folklore stars to monsters: ‘in times of (economic) depression the cinema converts itself not so much to a factory of dreams as into a factory of nightmares. The Americans invented King King, we invented the folklóricas‘.
It’s a cruel remark, Lola, so famous and beloved she was called Lola of Spain was seen to represent what was best about Spanishness: talent, wit, pluck, energy and of course alegría (gaeity). She embodied this in such an exaggerated way that it became camp. SeeingManolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards (Michael Roberts, Netflix, 2017) it was interesting to see Blahnik and John Galliano bonding together through a campy appreciation of Lola Flores (see image above) which demonstrates both their love for her and her continued sub-cultural significance.
What I didn’t know when I wrote the article on Las cosas in the year 2000 is that the song was also performed by Sara Montiel in Varietés (see above). So the use of the song in Las cosas del querer has associations not only with one diva but with two; two stars associated with outsiderness and transgression; two figures central to camp appreciation in Spain from the late forties right through at least the 80s and beyond, two transgressive figures, through which male homosexual audiences in Spain learned particular ways of being gay and a particular gay culture which they could contribute to, participate in, change; and in doing so find an imaginary space through which to construct an identity, a culture and a society in a country in which they were forbidden to; where their very being resulted in censure and punishment.
It’s interesting now to see the same number in Las cosas as a re-presentation of queerness in Spain brought together in a declaration of homosexual love that speaks through a collective memory of a camp appreciation of both Lola Flores and Sara Montiel, processes that Almodóvar dramatises so well in relation to Montiel in La mala educación/ Bad Education.
You can see Almodóvar’s hommage to Flores below:
And here is his hommage to Sara Montiel:
Three versions of the same song across three films from different decades, sung by two gay divas and one homosexual speaks a particular gay culture, its development, change and uses, as is evident in Almodóvar’s appreciation of both.
José Arroyo, ‘Queering the Folklore: Genre and Re-presentation of Homosexual and National Identities in Las cosas del querer‘, Bill Marshall and Robynn Stilwell (eds), London: Intellect Books, 2000, pp. 70-80. All other references can be found in this article.
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.
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.