The golden age

Maria Blanchard stars as an independent, chess-playing vixen who falls in love in one of three short movies, Canasta de Cuentos Mexicanos, that screened at the Guadalupe Theater. (Photos by Lisa Sorg)

Cine Oro brings classic Mexican cinema back to the West Side

It feels very 1951 today.

At 9 o'clock on this Friday morning, about 60 senior citizens arrive at the Guadalupe Theater, where the lights are dim and in the background plays a sad song, "Cuando Los Años Pasen" ("When the Years Pass"). After several minutes, the crowd, hovered over plates of pan dulce and cups of coffee, falls silent, and actress Maria Felix, brash, beautiful, and buxom, appears larger-than-life on the screen.

This is the last day of Cine Oro, a Guadalupe Arts Center event celebrating the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. The Center acquired original prints of the movies on loan, and for the past three days, senior citizens from around the city traveled by bus to the Guadalupe to see the films of their youth. Many of them had not stepped inside the theater since it closed as a movie house in 1970.

"It was the best theater around," says Mary García, who is attending Cine Oro with Salvador, her husband of 52 years. He also frequented the Guadalupe in the '40s with his mother. "It was nicer and cleaner."

The '40s and '50s marked the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, when Mexico thrived as the Spanish-language Hollywood, churning out more than 1,000 films and making stars of Maria Felix and Pedro Infante. For San Antonio's West Side neighborhood, where most of San Antonio's Mexican Americans lived in the mid-20th century, the movies served as a bridge to their heritage and their home.

"I like this because not everyone knows English," says Rosa Rodriguez, a fan of Mexican films who speaks only Spanish. "These movies are good; there were many great actors and actresses."

As the Mexican film industry grew, so did the number of local theaters that catered to the city's Mexican-American community. At the height of the Golden Age there were at least four Spanish-language theaters: El Progreso, located across the street from the Guadalupe, built in 1941, and the Nacional and the Alameda downtown.

By the '60s, Mexican cinema was dethroned by the better-financed Hollywood movie machine, and downtown theaters were replaced by multi-plexes in suburban malls. Although Instituto de México occasionally shows Spanish-language films, there are no theaters devoted to Mexican cinema in San Antonio, a fact that emphasizes the uniqueness of Cine Oro.

Whereas contemporary Mexican films such as Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama También, and La Mala Educación are coarser than the comparatively tame fare of yesteryear, most Mexican films of the Golden Age deal with themes of convoluted, scandalous love affairs, class awareness, or cultural identity. Today's feature is a series of three shorts, Canasta de Cuentos Mexicanos (A Basket of Mexican Stories). The first is set in Taxco, a silver-mining town in Guerrero. It stars Maria Felix and Pedro Armendáriz, who wed, only to separate for a month. After reconciling, they have a son, who, as an adult, announces his plans to marry a local woman, Laura Ochoa, much to the chagrin of Felix and Armendáriz, who condemn the union.

Children make baskets for a wealthy couple in the second short film at the Guadalupe Theater.
We later learn that during their separation Armendáriz had an affair with Ochoa's mother, which resulted in the birth of Laura, making the two young lovebirds half-siblings. "Es mi hija," he admits.

"Tengo una confesión," says Felix, after Armendáriz' tearful revelation. During their split, she too, had an affair - with Ochoa's father - who apparently sired a boy thought to be Felix's son.

"Son hermanos (they're brother and sister)," she says.

Some audience members groan; others gasp.

Yesterday, the crowd was sniffling over Aca Las Tortas, a 1950 film whose plot García describes as "hardworking people sending their children to college. The children want something bigger and marry off with a wealthy family. When the children come back, they snub their parents; they're ashamed of them."

Seeing Aca Las Tortas transported García to another era when an afternoon's worth of entertainment could be bought for a dime. "There were so many down-to-earth, realistic movies that made us laugh and cry. We didn't have waterproof mascara then, so we had black tears," she says. "Almost everyone was crying yesterday. It's like old times."

Cine Oro is part of the Guadalupe Arts Center's Epoca de Oro Arts Festival, which includes a Book Festival from February 27-March 4, and an exhibit of Mexican poster art from February 27-April 15. During the first two weeks of March, the Center will feature the play ¡Ay Pedro! adapted from Loving Pedro Infante.

By Lisa Sorg

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