November 15, 2008

Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936)

During the post-production of "Vámonos Con Pancho Villa!", Mexican director Fernando De Fuentes found himself in serious problems that threatened not only the release of his most recent and ambitious film, but also his career as a filmmaker. While his epic about the Mexican Revolution had support from the government, it had gone over-budget and to make things worse, the government wasn't exactly happy with De Fuentes' critic view on the revolutionary movement. The fact that his previous films (amongst them the superbly done "El Compadre Mendoza") weren't exactly hits complicated everything even more. This situation forced De Fuentes to take one last chance to save his career while his masterpiece awaited for a release date: he decided to make a film with the sole intention of winning back some money. And he made it with a success beyond what anybody could have expected. 1936's "Allá en el Rancho Grande" would become Mexico's biggest box office hit and the film that started the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.

At the Hacienda of Rancho Grande, José Francisco (Tito Guízar) and Felipe (René Cardona) have been friends since childhood, when José Francisco and his sister Eulalia (Margarita Cortéz) moved with their godmother Ángela (Emma Roldán) when they became orphans. With them came Cruz (Esther Fernández), another orphan who had been living with them, being the godchild of José Francisco's late mother. Felipe is now the owner of Rancho Grande, making José Francisco the farm manager as his old friend is by far his most trustworthy employee. José Francisco is secretly in love with Cruz, who has always been considered to be nothing more than a servant by Ángela, although Ángela's permanently drunk "husband" Florentino (Carlos López "Chaflán") cares for her and treats her like a daughter. Things get complicated for Felipe and José Francisco when a series of misunderstandings put their friendship to the test after Ángela notices that Felipe likes Cruz as well. And all this happens "Allá en el Rancho Grande" ("Over at the Big Ranch").

While hardly an original plot (rural love triangles have been popular themes in Latin American cinema since the silent era), the story by Antonio Guzmán Aguilera and Luz Guzmán De Arellano had a strong dose of light comedy that made the film a lot lighter and more accessible, element that along the omnipresent use of folk music and whole rural theme resulted in the creation of one of the "most Mexican" genres: the "Comedia Ranchera" (literally, "Rancher Comedy"). Essentially a romantic comedy, "Allá en el Rancho Grande" has a set of characters that, while definitely idealized stereotypes, work together perfectly in conjunction in the romanticized world of the "Comedia Ranchera", that world where honor, love and friendship were far more important than money or social classes. Maybe "Allá en el Rancho Grande" wasn't really the first attempt of making a romantic comedy set in an Hacienda, but Antonio and Luz Guzmán's story was definitely the first to fully use the genre to give flesh to that idyllic idea of Mexican identity that was the "Comedia Ranchera".

However, the creation of this extremely folkloric view of the Mexican identity wasn't only credit of the writers, and it could be said that the real mastermind behind it was director De Fuentes himself. This is kind of a sad irony, as after making three movies where he demythologized the story of the Mexican Revolution, De Fuentes' "Allá en el Rancho Grande" built a brand new mythical Mexican identity almost singlehandedly. With great care for style, De Fuentes brings the Guzmáns' story to life in a quite honest, natural and realistic way, which is notable since the whole story is ultimately artificial in its romanticized view. It could be said that De Fuentes made the story timeless, recreating reality by making real the whole new myths of the Mexican identity. A lot of this comes thanks to the work of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who begins to develop the lavish, dreamlike style that would represent the Mexican identity in the celebrated films of Emilio "El Indio" Fernández (whom by the way, appears as an extra, specifically a dancer, in this film).

One of the best things about "Allá en el Rancho Grande" is how effective the cast's performances are. It's not that they are great displays of talent, but the fact that everyone is just perfect for their respective role. while not exactly the traditional image of the Mexican Charro, Guízar and Cardona fit nicely in De Fuentes' romantic vision of life at the hacienda. Already famous for his singing roles in American Westerns, Guízar became the first singing Charro of Mexican cinema, paving the way for posterior idols such as Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante. Besides his singing ability, Guízar shows a very natural naiveté that works nicely in the role of the young and honorable Charro. At the same time, Cardona (who would later become a director) gives his character a certain degree of elegance and class very much in tone with his position as the owner of Rancho Grande. The beautiful Esther Fernández is also excellent in her role, although is is comedian Carlos López "Chaflán" who steals many of the film's scenes.

Given its openly commercial intentions (and the huge extent it fulfilled them), "Allá en el Rancho Grande" is often overshadowed by De Fuentes' Revolution Trilogy and considered a minor gem, only worthy due to its big historical importance. However, I personally think that such downgrading is a bit unfair, as while it's definitely nowhere near the quality of De Fuentes' more recognized films, "Allá en el Rancho Grande" is a remarkable film that successfully achieves what it intends to do. One could say that such justification is not valid, as what "Allá en el Rancho Grande" attempted was just to deliver good jokes and good songs in order to deliver enjoyable entertainment, but I think that what De Fuentes, the Guzmáns and Figueroa did in this light comedy goes beyond. Just like the American Western had began to rewrite the American myths, the "Comedia Ranchera" genre that De Fuentes' movie inaugurated began to create a new mythology of the Mexican rural world, a mythology that despite being unrealistic, was at its core still sincerely Mexican.

Along the Revolution Trilogy (1933's "El Prisionero Trece", 1934's "El Comparde Mendoza" and 1936's "Vámonos con Pancho Villa!"), "Allá en el Rancho Grande" is essential viewing in order to understand not only the career of this influential director, but also the way the Mexican film industry developed after its release. Seeing how "Vámonos con Pancho Villa!" failed at box office while at the same time this movie was breaking all records was very symptomatic; however, De Fuentes (and posterior directors) would learn later that commercial success wasn't in conflict with artistic merit, and over that lesson the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema was built.


Buy "Alla en el Rancho Grande" (1936)

No comments: