Learning Pedro Infante

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Pedro Infante in Nosotros Los Pobres, or "We, the Poor"

"What can I tell you about Pedro Infante? If you're a Mejicana or Mejicano and don't know who he is, you should be tied to a hot stove with yucca rope and beaten with sharp dry corn husks as you stand in a vat of soggy fideos. If your racial and cultural ethnicity is Other, then it's about time you learned about the most famous of Mexican singers and actors."
Denise Chavéz, from her 2002 novel Loving Pedro Infante

He was the Crosby, the Sinatra, the Elvis of Mexico. The top-of-the-charts love ballads he sang in films sent 10 million senoritas into ecstasy; he crooned, they swooned. The movies he starred in were among the most popular in Latin America; and one, the 1948 Nosotros los pobres...! (We the Poor) is the biggest hit in Mexican film history. He anchored cowboy comedies, historical-political epics and dozens of vein-popping romantic melodramas. He played virginal student-priests (in El Seminarista —The Seminarian) and rogues who at the crack of dawn rose from a lady's bed and jumped out the window (in Dicen que soy mujeriego —They Call Me a Ladies' Man). The good-hearted heroes he played fought, they cried and, always, they sang.

Infante, who looked like a cross between William Holden with a mustache and the young Eli Wallace in Baby Doll, was a man's man: a carpenter by trade and an amateur boxer for pleasure. (A grueling fight, as bloody and intense as anything in Raging Bull, serves as the climax to his 1953 Pepe el Toro.) He was a fanatic about his workout regimen. In a time when Hollywood movies rarely revealed much of their male stars below the collar, Pedro went topless in nearly every film, displaying the bulky muscularity he was so proud of. You could count on a scene where he had to change clothes, or wash up. He'd ripple his biceps on a prison work gang, get his top ripped off in a fight. In Angelitos Negros, an amazing document I'll get back to later, he performs a nightclub number stripped to the waist — in blackface (and blackchest, and blackback). Eva Perón had her descamisados, but up in Mexico, Pedro was the all-time shirtless one.

Presumably this flaunting of his body beautiful was for the women in the audience. Off-screen Infante was a dedicated ladies' man, with countless mistresses and one very patient spouse. Let Chavéz do the enumerating: "There was his first girlfriend, Lupita Marqués, who bore him a little girl. And then there was his long-suffering wife, María Luisa. Then came Lupe Torrentera, the young dancer he met when she was 14 and who bore him a daughter, Graciela Margarita, at age fifteen. Lupe was the mother of two of his other children. And, of course, there was Irma Dorantes, the young actress who starred in many of his movies and became the mother of his daughter, Irmita. The marriage to her was annulled the week before his death."

Infante's other passion was flying; he loved piloting his own plane. When he survived a crash in 1949, he got a metal plate in his head and a perverse sense of invincibility. "You see that I was right?" he boasted to friends. "Of course I felt something. But death can do nothing against me." He had two more crashes, and that was one too many. He died, at 39, on April 15, 1957. Hearing the news, Mexicans by the hundreds of thousands clogged the streets and reeled in grief. A newspaper headline blared: "His Death Was Like a Bomb in Everyone's Heart." The government declared a day of national mourning.

PEDRO INFANTE AND MEXICAN CINEMA

Until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about Pedro Infante. But that's one of the cool things about seeing movies for a living: it's a school of continuing education, where school's never out. I got a fast graduate course watching the 10 old films and the tribute documentary ¡Así era Pedro Infante! (This Is Pedro Infante!), all from Rodriguez Brothers Productions, and most of them directed by Ismail Rodriguez, who guided Infante in 17 of his 62 movies. The "Colecció n Pedro Infante —Edició n de Homenaje" (Warner Home Video, all titles sold separately) not only clued me in to one of the major stars of Mexico's midcentury; it opened a window on the most vital, teeming movie industry south of Hollywood.

For Infante was an ornament of Mexico's Golden Age (La é poca de Oro del Cine Mejicano), a two-decade stretch of potent moviemaking. While the U.S. industry was importing Latin Americans like Ricardo Montalban, Carmen Miranda, José Iturbi and Fernando Lamas, Mexican beauty Dolores del Rio left Hollywood and returned home to join such new stars as Cantinflas, Pedro Armendáriz, María Félix and Infante's friendly rival in the singing hunk sweepstakes, Jorge Negrete. Emilio "El Indio" Fernández was directing movies that won international prizes, like the Cannes Palme d'Or. A renegade from Franco's Spain, the surrealist master Luis Buñuel, came to Mexico and made a string of startling social melodramas: Los Olvidados, Nazarin, The Exterminating Angel, Simon of the Desert. Among these giants, Infante stood proud.

On the new Infante releases, a cover sticker reads: "Por PRIMERA VEZ EN DVD EN EE. UU.!" (For the first time ever on DVD in the U.S.!) That's the first hint that this collection is aimed primarily at those Mexican-Americans who already know Infante as a legend or a loving memory —though it's available at amazon.com and, I'm assured, at Blockbuster and other large stores. Those of us who are linguistically impaired can get English subtitles for the movies; but the extras are in Spanish only. Also, the movies' visual quality ranges from mediocre to muddy. I've seen TV prints of Mexican films from the same period, like Fernández; La Perla and Maria Candelaria, and they gleam. But Las Islas Marias, the Infante-Fernández collaboration in the new collection (and shot, like the other two, by the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa), looks like a faded dupe.

But the vigor of these films is easy to spot; they move with such speed and confidence. They often begin in an efficient fury. Nosotros los pobres...! is a folk opera, a neorealist musical, opens with an elaborate production number, "Ni hablar, mujer," composed by Manuel Esperón, who wrote songs for 34 Infante films (and who, apparently, is still alive at 95). In a few mins., the film introduces us to two dozen characters with singing, strumming, speaking or whistling parts, as the camera glides, pans or swoops to keep up with them.

Or consider this scene at the start of the 1949 La Mujer que yo perdí (The Woman I Lost). A pretty young woman (Silvia Pinal, Buñuel's Viridiana), on an evening's stroll with her mother, is accosted by a young man she has rebuffed before. As he persists in his advances, her fiance (Infante) comes by and insists the man apologize. The man, identifying himself as the son of the attorney general, draws a gun. Infante knocks him down, the man's head hits the curb and blood gushes out. A newspaper headline screams: "Pedro Montaño Kills Attorney General's Son." Violent conflicts of class and devotion, duty and death are established and brought to a boil in this scene —which consumes exactly 38 secs. of screen time. It makes that YouTube synopsis of The Sopranos seem logy by comparison.

THE MAGIC OF MELODRAMA

In the '40s, Mexico was like Hollywood, or like India today: a national industry heavily invested in the romantic and domestic weepie, with fearless emoting, hairpin turns of fate, mega-doses of religious and family piety, all set to the popular songs of the day. (Melodrama literally means music drama.) Noble mothers are forever sacrificing themselves —silently, stoically, suicidally —for their kids. Fully three of the 10 Infante features end with some spiteful young person driving some dear old person to death, only to be flattened with a shocking revelation: "She's / he's your mother / father!" Cue tears that would flood the Rio Grande.

Politically, all sympathies are with the underclass. The gentry, the police, the law conspire against the working class. In The Woman I Lost, the Federales are rapacious: knocking down an old lady, stripping the blouse off a young woman, dragging a woman by the hair as she clutches her baby. Nosotros los pobres...! has the bad men stealing a child's dolly, and viciously kicking her grandmother —who just died! "Why has God forsaken us?" the child apostrophizes. "Is God only for rich people?"

Pedro, the proletarian man of honor, usually bears injustice bravely. Sometimes he volunteers for public censure, taking the rap for a crime of passion his sister committed in Las Islas Marias. Sometimes he's railroaded into jail by a scheming rival, as in Nosotros los pobres...! Only rarely, as in The Woman I Lost, does he take up arms against the corrupting power. On the run for an accidental killing the police think is murder, he becomes a Robin Hood of the countryside, reappropriating the money the landowners have stolen from the people.

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