The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema in Relation to Pedro Infante
The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema has been identified as lasting from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1950s, originating at its core in the heart of Mexico City. Many important artists and genres have circulated through this period, all making an everlasting impression on not only the culture surrounding the country, but also on the reputation surrounding the cinema itself as a global entity. Though many idols have come and gone, one in particular has cemented his legendary status as Mexico’s favorite and most cherished actor to ever be filmed and projected for millions to see. No individual actor has ever made as much an impact on Mexican society and Mexican cinema as much as Pedro Infante has in such an illustrious career spanning from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. A concentration on why, specifically, Pedro Infante enamored the hearts of every Mexican spectator of the time is worth exploring. The circumstances of which Infante came into fame and how he remained in favor for so many years is worth studying seeing as though Mexican cinema was never the same after his departure when considering several notions of Mexican culture and themes. Pedro Infante propelled the notions of masculinity, classic traditions of devotion to the mother, musical numbers as means to express one’s emotions, and most importantly, the representation of the poor as a class with human dignity rather than a class of subhuman filth. As to make this research narrower, only three of Infante’s works will be put into examination: The Three Garcías (Ismael Rodriguez, 1946), We the Poor (Ismael Rodriguez, 1948) and Tizoc (Ismael Rodriguez, 1957). These three films of Pedro Infante have been chosen carefully from his filmography as to display an appropriate context within his body of work in correlation with the concepts listed above, but which also lend proper analysis to the career-long collaboration between director Ismael Rodriguez and our subject. These two artists, creating several masterpieces together, found a common ground between the concepts they were both devoted in exploring and the issues they both were obsessed in exposing of contemporary Mexican society of the time. Therefore, a proper investigation is due for analysis in terms of these three films of Pedro Infante in relation to the Mexican society of the time.
Like many Golden Ages, Mexico’s cinematic one was due to the end of war and an economic period of prosperity throughout the land. Carl J. Mora’s Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-2004 cleverly explains how the beginning of this period was marked by producers’ reliance on audience opinion and an uncountable amount of test-screenings per film release. With that being said, a star system was inevitably produced in means of production companies satisfying audience’s cravings for both drama and entertainment (Carl J. Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-2004, 82). This is one of the many reasons why Pedro Infante was fortunate enough to have been found during this golden age, seeing as though Mexico was in search of a treasure not yet introduced to the world. Yet, its conception must still be further explored.
Mexico’s cinematic Golden Age may be attributed to several factors of which all may be reasonable elements to be credited as crucial to its success. Firstly, Chon A. Noriega and Steven Ricci’s The Mexican Cinema Project makes a valid point in mentioning how the Hollywood system of the time dominated almost all aspects of every national cinema. Its influence has been undeniable (Chon A. Noriega and Steven Ricci, The Mexican Cinema Project, 13). Thus, with Mexican audiences preferring Hollywood films as opposed to Mexican films, it was clear that an adjustment had to be made. Consequently, not only was the aesthetic adopted but also concepts such as an “industrial mode of production (including studio and star systems, powerful producers, and well-developed distribution networks and exhibition chains)” (Noriega and Ricci, 13) were all notions of an American cinema brought forth into Mexican land. However, as much as it stole from Hollywood, the Mexican Cinema of this period attempted at creating its own unique roots of which to identify itself. Distinctively, Pedro Infante’s work serves as the perfect example in demonstrating how “the history of Mexican cinema is the history of the tension between the adherence to the Hollywood paradigm and the rejection of it, and between the assimilation of transmitted American values and the insistence of Mexican ones” (Noriega and Ricci, 13).
To prove this point further, Carl J. Mora clearly states how most of Infante’s films “employed authentic street dialogue from the slums of Mexico City” (Mora, 82) in means of contextualizing his films to an urban setting. Most of Infante’s films attempted doing this. They personified Mexico through the characters, especially Pedro Infante’s own roles. He usually played the common man, a poor Mexican worker like the rest of the society viewing his films. This is what gained him the wide-spread acclaim he eventually received. Mexican audiences were tired of worshipping idols on the silver screen, but rather found solace in finding someone who was exactly like them: someone who struggles each and every day to make a decent living within the poverty of Mexico City. A fan from Sergio de la Mora’s Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film shares her true feelings about Infante as she compares how “[Jorge] Negrete ate bread, while Pedro ate tortillas like all of us” (Pacheco 1992: 220). It was actually much easier to believe his personalities on screen because Infante lived his roles on and off the camera. He was a womanizer, a macho-man, a flamboyant singer, a caring lover, a father and all the other roles he played, in actuality. With all these characteristics in mind, Pedro Infante embodied Mexican identity single handedly as he blended tradition with personality. For instance, Andrea Noble’s Mexican National Cinema distinguishes between the two as she confronts the paradox of “power and value [in Mexican society]… in which the male is dominant, [yet] the highest value is nevertheless placed on the feminine as incarnated by the other dominant feminine archetype, the Virgin of Guadalupe” (Andrea Noble, Mexican National Cinema, 108). This brief glimpse of a cinema which contextualizes Mexican cultural tradition along with its heavy emphasis on religion is demonstrated perfectly through Pedro Infante’s roles varying from a poor father, rich cousin and outlawed Indian in these three films.
An excellent point is raised by David William Foster in Mexico City in Contemporary Mexican Cinema by comparing the films of Mexico City to the actual city itself. Despite the content of the films, it can never be denied that any film based on Mexico City would be inherently different without that crucial source. He elaborates by objecting to how “the city is not a setting, but [rather] part of the overall effect of meaning for the film, and as such it is brought into being as much as the characters and plots” (David Williams Foster, Mexico City in Contemporary Mexican Cinema, Preface). This is the vital element at work for the success of this Golden Age of Mexican Cinema in relation to both Pedro Infante and Mexico City. The audience must feel connected to both elements in order to achieve the intended effect. For this reason alone, Pedro Infante and Ismael Rodriguez portrayed the slums of Mexico City as realistic as possible in means of connecting the audience with the story of the characters in the plot, specifically Infante’s characters. Yet, his characters were almost always more easily convincible because of what his persona lent itself to be.
Pedro Infante was notorious for being a legendary womanizer. He was, to put it simply, a self-denying polygamist at heart. A sex addict, Infante “had sexual intercourse with more than forty women in one day—all fans who patiently waited outside his hotel room [waiting] for their turn” (Sergio de la Mora, Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film, 74). However, it was situations like this that ironically made his fans, males as well, adore him even more. Mexican audiences were sick of observing the perfect celebrity. It was something about witnessing a sinner like themselves that truly made them enjoy his performances on and off the screen even more. With Mexico City’s booming population overwhelmingly consisting of lower-class rural families, most felt they could “identify with Infante because they themselves were struggling to adapt to modernity and the social problems caused by the urban explosion” (de la Mora, 79). This connection between Infante and lower-class Mexicans would prove even more evident when discussing his first masterpiece, We the Poor.
We the Poor explores several interesting concepts, most appealing of which is the idea that poverty is not something to be ashamed of, but rather proud of. De la Mora suggests how Rodriguez’s 1948 classic “naturalizes social inequalities and asks the audiences to see poverty as more desirable than wealth” (de la Mora, 79). In the film, poverty-stricken society is made sympathetic as the small-knitted neighborhood led by Pedro Infante’s character “Pepe el Toro” functions together as a large family. Every member has their flaws, yet everyone loves and cares for each other as if they were all brothers and sisters. However, a “bridge between the abandoned traditions of the rural past and the adaptations required by the modern, industrialized, urban environment” (de la Mora, 79) brings upon direct conflict as Infante’s family is faced with lawyers, police and government officials trying to take away every last cent they’ve ever earned after being betrayed by one of the villains in the film. In this way, upper-class society is shown as being a threat to the family life they’ve created as a means to survive in lower-class life. Yet, notions of masculinity prove to be a predominant theme, as always, with Infante’s character Pepe as he refuses to let the law dominate his home-life, and fights it both physically and mentally as he brutally tortures the man who frames him to confess to a crime that led Pepe into jail. With We the Poor, a perfect example can thus be made in portraying Pedro Infante’s authoritative yet stereotypically Mexican-driven masculinity as a driving force for how the modernization period experienced in Mexico was not only rejected by the rural class, but also exemplified through cinema as testimony to their blatant distrust and distaste of the wealthy. As stated above, Mexico’s lower-class absolutely adored Pedro Infante for how easily they were induced into believing in his characters, while placing him in the highest esteem any celebrity has ever witnessed, prior or present to his emergence in Mexican cinema. Ironically enough, with all this admiration, Pedro Infante was one of the richest, if not the richest, celebrity in all of Mexico. We the Poor, for quite some time “remained for many years Mexico’s all-time leader in box-office receipts and is often shown on television” (Mora, 81), paradoxically making Pedro Infante both a contributor and an opponent to the very same cause he represented in all of his films. However, besides representing lower-class society, a look at the cultural influences and Mexican customs explored in Infante’s films also deserves investigation as The Three Garcias fits perfectly into discussion.
In traditional Mexican society, the Virgin of Guadalupe has always been placed in the highest esteem of worship almost equivalent to God himself. This emphasis on love for Mother Mary has led Mexican culture to be driven towards unconditional respect and adoration for the mother figure. Ismael Rodriguez’s The Three Garcias fits into this example flawlessly as yet another Infante film expresses the representation of classical tradition on Mexican society while blending in his own influential personality to the equation. Pedro Infante’s character in the film, Luis Antonio, finds himself in an almost “Mexican Oedipal narrative of the strong bond between mother and son, another distinctive component of the archetypal Mexican male” (de la Mora, 81) of which is traditionally accepted into a Catholic-dominated society. A perfect example can be shown in how The Three Garcias exemplifies the traditions of the past and the concept of emotional expressionism through music in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema through how “the grandmother gets so excited by Infante’s musical performance and by his affirmation of his unbridled devotion to her that she returns the praises with the distinctive Mexican grito” (de la Mora, 83). This grito is a unique Mexican yell proclaimed with firing passion when singing a song. Specifically in this scene in the film, the grandmother’s birthday party is in full swing as Luis Antonio shows his affection for her through his vocals. This is a very common act in Mexican films of the time. Though they were not considered to be musicals, most Mexican films used dance numbers and songs to express “new and old Mexican vernacular traditions including ranchera music, the charro, tequila, sentinementalism, virility, and an Oedipus complex” (de la Mora, 83). However, The Three Garcias is distinctive because it blends traditions of the past with conflicts of modernity as an American cousin of the three Garcias visits the boys for some time, initiating a family rivalry between who can win over the heart of the desired American. Be that as it may, this issue of race and discrimination is much more covered upon in Pedro Infante’s last film before dying a tragic death, Tizoc.
In their last collaboration, Ismael Rodriguez and Pedro Infante created what was perhaps their most confrontational work as a whole, being a critique of contemporarily held beliefs of the time. With this performance, Pedro Infante won the best actor award at the 7th Berlin International Film Festival, winning for his most acclaimed performance. Ironically, Infante’s pale complexion was most likely one of the main reasons he attracted such a large fan base (de la Mora, 86). Most Mexican stars of the time, and even up until present time, are not of dark skin tones. This is a dominantly held belief in Mexican society of which Ismael Rodriguez and Pedro Infante felt necessary to confront in Tizoc as they disagree with how “white continues to be imaged as more beautiful and desirable than brown in the dominant cultural imaginary” (de la Mora, 86). They confronted this issue by portraying Pedro Infante in his first Indian role, playing a victimized outcast in love with a paled-skinned Mexican of upper-class status. Inevitably, both end up killed by the end of the film, demonstrating to audiences how society’s oppression of such tolerance can only lead to violence and destruction of a culture that’s only desire is to be accepted into a land they also call their own. Another irony found in this being Infante’s final film is how his death led millions and millions to mourn over the death of an actor whose last and greatest performance was of a culturally-rejected Indian who had also died along with the artist. Therefore, Pedro Infante’s career may be summed up in accordance to not only the culture he represented, but also the people whom he gave voice to.
By many, the legendary status Pedro Infante had created for himself may be thought of as over-hype, a sham, an obsession by teenage girls of the time, etc… However, Pedro Infante was much more than someone’s fantasy; he was a voice for the poverty of Mexico. He represented a class which had no representation, a class falsely ignored by the majority. His upper-class status did not deter him from fighting a war against his own people. Infante stood up for the poverty-stricken, for the discriminated and for the ignored. Besides the minority, he also represented Mexico as a whole. His fixation with delving into notions of masculinity, Oedipus-related complexes in Mexican-Catholic society, expressing emotional undertones through music, and a defense for the poor made him a hero to not only his people, but to the world as a whole. It shall never be a secret that films such as The Three Garcías, We the Poor and Tizoc were not only the highlights of Pedro Infante’s career, but also the highlights of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema for what they said, and how they went about expressing those issues. Thus, Pedro Infante will always be Mexico’s most cherished artist because at a time where urbanization and modernization had threatened a Mexico rich of cultural tradition, he fought for those without influence.
Chon A. Noriega, Steven Ricci. The Mexican Cinema Project. UCLA Film and Television Archive Research and Study Center, 1994.
Foster, David William. Mexico City in Contemporary Mexican Cinema. University of Texas Press; 1 edition, 2002.
Mora, Carl J. Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-2004. McFarland & Company, 2005.
Mora, Sergio de la. Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2006.
Noble, Andrea. Mexican National Cinema. Routledge; New edition, 2005.
Pacheco, Cristina. “”¡Pedro Infante no ha muerto!”.” Los Dueños de la Noche. Mexico City: Planeta, 1984. 220.
The Three Garcias. Dir. Ismael Rodriguez. Perf. Pedro Infante. 1946.
Tizoc. Dir. Ismael Rodriguez. Perf. Pedro Infante. 1957.
We the Poor. Dir. Ismael Rodriguez. Perf. Pedro Infante. 1948.