Special reports
Special reports
Special reports

When Spanish-language cinema flourished in Los Angeles

A project looks at how Latin America and the US were intertwined through film

by Pac Pobric  |  21 August 2017
When Spanish-language cinema flourished in Los Angeles
A shot from the Argentine film noir Los tallos amargos (1956). It is included in the UCLA Film and Television Archive's PST project. (Courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive)
It is impossible to tell from the outside, but the Downtown Independent movie theatre on Main Street in Los Angeles was once called the Azteca—a nod to the Spanish-language films it used to play in the 1940s.

It was not the only such venue. Across the city, a network of more than 60 playhouses—including the Million Dollar Theatre, today a national landmark—regularly screened movies for Latin American audiences, many of whom emigrated from Mexico or fled from the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). In 1939, more than 200 films were shown in Los Angeles for Spanish speakers. “From the 1930s through the 1950s, there was a vibrant Spanish-language film culture in the city that’s largely forgotten,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which is exploring this history in its Pacific Standard Time (PST) contribution, Recuerdos de un cine en español: Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-60, which is organised by Horak, Colin Gunckel, María Elena de las Carreras and Alejandra Espasande-Bouza.

The programme includes screenings of around 40 movies that once drew major crowds—and not only in Los Angeles. At their peak, Spanish-language production companies were distributing films to 500 theatres across the US. Some were even shot in Los Angeles, including La Cruz y La Espada (1934), which was produced by the Fox Film Corporation.

“If you want to study Latin American cinema, you can’t leave the US out of the equation,” says Gunckel, who wrote the 2015 book Mexico on Main Street, which looks at the film culture of Los Angeles’s Mexican immigrant community in the years before the Second World War.

“There is overwhelming evidence that Los Angeles was a node of Mexican cinema,” Gunckel says. “And there is also evidence that Mexican producers used Los Angeles as a way to gauge the tastes of their audiences.” One Los Angeles record store belonged to Mauricio Calderón, whose brothers, José and Rafael, ran a major studio called Calderón Productions. Mauricio would provide his brothers with sales figures from the shop to help them decide how to market and produce their films.

“The terms of Mexican identity were hotly contested in this period,” Gunckel says. “In the US, the question was whether Mexicans living here could remain Mexican.” In the years following the Mexican Revolution, the country’s government “undertook a project to create a national image for a nation that had been fragmented. It wanted to convince Mexicans that the country belonged to them,” he says, adding: “From its inception, Mexican cinema has been transnational.”

A still from Enamorada (1946). (Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo)

The UCLA programme also looks beyond Mexico, to movies from Cuba and Argentina, reflecting the diversity of the period. In part because producers wanted their films to appeal to wide audiences, actors from all over Latin America were employed.

“The films were spoken in an odd uniform Spanish—’Hispaño,’” Horak says. In the movie La Vida Bohemia (1938), which takes place in a Puerto Rican community in New York but was shot in Los Angeles, actors from at least four countries were involved.

Why has it taken until now to look at this story? “There’s been a shift in cinema studies in the past ten or 15 years where people have stopped emphasising analyses of filmic texts and are looking at the context in which those films were shown,” Gunckel says. “That includes the production history and the press culture—and when you look at these, things open up.”

Another reason is more sinister. In the years after the end of the Second World War, the city of Los Angeles took up a project of “urban renewal”—a “code word for removal of non-white populations” to make the city “‘safe’ for new Caucasian migrants from the East”, as Horak writes in an essay. When Latin American migrants were pushed out of downtown, their film culture left, too.

Film Preservation

To preserve this history, the UCLA project is funded in part by a $280,000 grant from the Getty, which helps pay for a catalogue with new scholarship. It also allowed organisers to conduct oral histories with archivists and those who were on the scene. “We talked to people who remember going to these theatres downtown because we wanted a real notion about the atmosphere,” Horak says.

Film preservation is another major initiative. The process can be expensive: up to $50,000 for a feature-length film. Further grants to the UCLA project, including one from The Film Foundation, have been used to restore movies such as Enamorada (1946), set in the Mexican Revolution. In a rare opportunity, conservators have been able to restore the original camera negatives of the film.

Horak is especially excited to present Romance Tropical (1934), the first feature-length Puerto Rican film, which was long believed to have been lost. A copy was found in the holdings of the Packard Humanities Institute, which is at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Although the programme looks back, it also reflects current events. Shortly after the then US president Barack Obama announced a softer position on Cuba in 2014, the director of the country’s film archive came to Los Angeles to discuss the project and the restoration of the film Casta de Roble (1954). Such conversations may prove more difficult in the future: in June, President Donald Trump announced plans to make travel between the US and Cuba more difficult.

But for now, the curators are focusing on their work, which shines a light on a rich chapter in US and Latin American cultural history. For Horak, it’s part of a larger mission to expand the narrative of cinema. “As soon as you start scratching the surface of film history,” he says, “you realise there are more white spots than there are ones that are coloured in.”

• For more information on screenings and events, visit pacificstandardtime.org

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