November 18, 2008

Allá en el Rancho Grande (1949)

In more than one way, 1936's "Allá en el Rancho Grande" was the film that inaugurated the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. It was not only the country's first huge box office hit, but also the first Mexican film to be exported to foreign markets and the first to win an international prize (Best Cinematography at Venice in 1938). Still, it was a bittersweet victory for its director, Fernando De Fuentes, because its tremendous commercial success proved him that audiences preferred music and light comedy over his previous, darker, more complex and more personal films (his three wonderful films about the Mexican Revolution for example). While his great skill and talented vision kept aiming for great artistry (and even achieved it, as 1943's "Doña Bárbara" proves), his work remained mostly in the commercial side of cinema, making a series of musical comedies with popular actor Jorge Negrete. In fact, along Negrete he would revisit Rancho Grande in 1949, in a color remake of that very first hit, "Allá en el Rancho Grande".

"Allá en el Rancho Grande" ("Over at the Big Ranch") is the story of José Francisco (Jorge Negrete) and Felipe (Eduardo Noriega), friends since childhood at the Hacienda of Rancho Grande. Felipe has inherited the ranch, and makes his good friend the farm manager of Rancho Grande. José Franciso is secretly in love with Cruz (Lilia Del Valle), an orphan who has been working as a maid for José Francisco's godmother Ángela (Lupe Inclán) since they arrived to Rancho Grande. Ángela has never liked Cruz and always treats her bad, so now that he is the farm manager, José Francisco is decided to marry her in order to take her somewhere else. All he needs is money, so he goes to another ranch to compete in a horse race. In the meantime, Ángela needs money too so, knowing that Felipe likes Cruz a lot, she conceives a plan to get the money she needs and get rid of Cruz at the same time. This will unleash a series of misunderstandings that will put Felipe and José Francisco's friendship to the test.

This remake of "Allá en el Rancho Grande" uses essentially the very same screenplay the original did, which was written by director Fernando De Fuentes and Antonio Guzmán Aguilera, based on a story by Guzmán Aguilera and his sister Luz. This means that other than a few minor changes, those familiar with the original won't find anything new in this aspect, as even the dialogs are almost exactly the same in both versions. Filled with all the basic elements of the very Mexican sub-genre of "Comedia Ranchera" (literally "Rancher Comedy"), the Guzmáns' original story took the always popular theme of a rural love triangle and gave it a tone of light comedy, playing with music, folklore and classic Mexican stereotypes to make it an idealized, romantic vision of Mexican identity. And despite being clichéd and predictable (like the original), the story works, mainly because of the way the characters (as stereotyped as they are) interact with each other and the gags and emotions that result of those interactions.

Not only De Fuentes' second version of "Allá en el Rancho Grande" used the same script, it was also almost a shot by shot remake of it. However, the major difference between them are that the remake was conceived with the idea of giving major importance to songs and the color technology achieved by Cinecolor. Having directed Mexico's first color film (1942's "Así Se Quiere en Jalisco"), De Fuentes was familiar with the process, so he decided to take advantage of color and make this version a bit more stylish, moving away from the slightly more natural vision of the original and instead using Carlos Toussaint's production design and Jack Draper's cinematography to achieve a lavish, more idealized vision (this is quite notorious in two scenes: the cockfight and the march at dusk after it). Unfortunately, the version I watched was in black and white, but even seen without color De Fuentes' intentions are very obvious as the scenes are planned to showcase this colorful vision of Mexico.

As written above, music also gets a bigger role in this film, and that's definitely because of the presence of Jorge Negrete. A remarkable talent, Negrete once again delivers an effective performance as farm manager José Francisco, proving again with his natural charm and extraordinary singing ability why was he called "El Charro Cantor" ("The Singing Charro"). Sadly, Negrete faces a problem that his great talent alone can't overcome: his age. It's not that he fails to deliver, the problem is simply that Jorge Negrete is just a bit too old for the role, and in this case, it shows. José Francisco's main traits are a mix of bravery and naiveté, and Negrete is just too old for showing them in a natural way. If he was 10 years younger, he would had been the perfect lead actor for "Allá en el Rancho Grande" (if only he had been in the original). Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn't as consummated or effective as Negrete, and at best, are mere inferior copies of the original cast's performances.

While Negrete manages to deliver, Eduardo Noriega is wooden and stiff as Felipe, lacking the class and presence the character required. Even if he (like Negrete) does look like a real Charro, his work is pretty mediocre, easily overshadowed by the rest of the cast. As Cruz, Lilia Del Valle doesn't feel natural in her role, looking forced and at odds with her character. If there's anyone besides Negrete who manages to do a good job, that's comedian Armando Soto "Chicote", whom truly makes his character his own, despite playing the most stereotyped of all. Given the uneven performances by the cast, it seems as if De Fuentes was more focused on the visual look of the film than in his cast, but that's not the film's worst problem. The real problem is that, like Negrete, 1949's "Allá en el Rancho Grande" simply feels old. Being a shot by shot remake of the film that started it all, the movie's gags are tired and the whole thing clichéd, as in only 13 years the "Comedia Ranchera" became the ruling genre of Mexican cinema, and this film was like a step back in time.

Personally, I'm not against the idea of remakes, as I think that they are often good chances to do things differently or improve failures, but I also think that to do this is harder than it seems. De Fuentes' second version of "Allá en el Rancho Grande" had a good basis (to add color to a classic story), but he failed to see that the technological update wouldn't be enough for a genre like comedy, which tends to be in constant change, and that the same jokes and situations would feel old and tired very quickly on a second time. Still, the remake of "Allá en el Rancho Grande" has the merit of having some of Negrete's best interpretations, although it's a shame that like De Fuentes' colorful vision, they get wasted on a remake that's just slightly better than your average "Comedia Ranchera".


Buy "Allá en el Rancho Grande" (1949)

No comments: