Causes: Arts and Culture, Education, Migration
Permanencia Voluntaria has rescued hundreds of films and is seeking to challenge attitudes of neglect and classism towards their legacy, while bringing awareness to the impact of cross-border collaborations.
American director Antonio Moreno’s 1931 dramatic feature film, Santa, is most often associated with the Mexican film industry—usually, apocraphyly, as the country’s “first” sound motion picture. The plot of the 81-minute black and white drama is based on a popular 1903 novel by writer Federico Gamboa, one of Mexico’s most acclaimed great men of culture and diplomacy, and follows the titular heroine ‘Santa’ as she seeks refuge in a metropolitan urban center after moral excommunication from her rural hometown. The film’s musical score was composed by none other than Agustín Lara, one of Mexico’s most renowned composers. However, Santa is far more than an iconic motion picture tied to the national cinematic identity of Mexico. Santa’s production and distribution histories position it as a revealing metaphor of the entwined cross-cultural exchanges between Mexico and the United States through much of the 20th century. The central character’s forced exile, itself, mirrored the trans-national lived-experiences that the film’s American and Mexican audiences were more than familiar with, first-hand. The film production’s international cast and crew literally reinforce this diegetic migratory theme, with Spanish-speaking cinema talent hailing from Spain, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere. Santa found immediate audience favor, as well as critical and box office success in the U.S., and became a pivotal work in the history of the Hollywood film industry’s unsuccessful attempts to court Spanish-language audiences with dubbed and re-made versions of its domestic pictures. For the applicant Paso del Norte Community Foundation (PDNCF), the role and importance of El Paso-based distributor Azteca Films in this history has added local significance in Moreno’s Santa, and the need for its preservation. Given Santa’s cross-border contexts, we see a poetic resonance in the prospect of an international partnership to restore the film and respectfully request the NFPF’s continued assistance to that end.
PRODUCTION HISTORY Cinema historian Colin Gunckel elucidates Santa’s imbrication within Hollywood spheres, noting that its production, “relied heavily on Hollywood-trained talent including silent-star turned-director Antonio Moreno, actress Lupita Tovar, and sound technicians José and Roberto Rodríguez.” By the time of Santa’s production in 1931, Oaxaca-born lead Tovar (the titular ‘Santa’) already had a significant screen career with Universal on several Californian productions, as had the film’s Canadian-born cinematographer Alex Phillips. Spanish-born director Moreno was well-traveled as an actor in silents produced by Biograph and Famous Players, serving as a leading man opposite Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Dorothy Gish, and others. (Santa’s director Moreno would later contribute thespian services for 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon and John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers, and Moreno’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was dedicated on February 8, 1960, at 6651 Hollywood Blvd.) While the range of Santa core cast and crew was internationally diverse in origin, their resumes all shared A-list Hollywood credentials in common. This is just one case study that highlights Hollywood’s vast international talent pool in this decade, an endemic characteristic of its broader entire history. Santa is often referred to as the “first” sound feature produced in Mexico, alternatively the “first Mexican film with sound,” though the claim is contested according to multiple sources. (N.B. We are also reminded of Rick Altman’s observations that exhibition of “silent” films near-always involved some auditory accompaniment.) What is sonically definitive about Santa is that it was among the very first feature films produced in Mexico with recorded dialogue, and it was definitely the first feature production to employ the “Rodríguez Sound Recording System” (later, the “Sistema Sonoro Rodríguez”). The Rodríguez brothers José and Roberto were the third North American team to devise a method of optical sound filmic recording, inventing the technology they employed to make Santa while working in the Hollywood film industry and tinkering in their parents’ Los Angeles home on Brookling Street. Concocting the physically-lightest (12 lbs.) portable sound recording system, the Rodríguez Brothers work as sound engineers shaped the Mexican film industry and exhibition circuit for the following 15 years. A decree by then-Mexican president Pascual Ortiz Rubio saw every movie theatre in Mexico outfitted with the Sistema Sonoro Rodríguez. As noted collector Rogelio Agrasánchez details in his expansive 2006 book, Mexican Movies in the United States: A History of the Films, Theaters and Audiences, the period from 1920-1960 proved one of intense demographic change in the U.S. with a major influx of immigrants from Latin America. Consequently, cinema-going Latinx publics demanded Spanish-speaking entertainment. Several Hollywood studios like Universal attempted creation of Spanish language versions of feature film productions—notably, 1931’s Drácula, starring Lupita Tovar and employing the same sets as the Bela Lugosi English-language classic—however, the films were met with lacklustre audiences, readily aware of the films’s pandering gringo origins.
DISTRIBUTION HISTORY At the center of this resultant high-demand for Spanish-language cinema attractions emerged Azteca Films, the U.S.-based distributor and production company for many of the most acclaimed Mexican films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Beginning with Santa in 1932, Azteca Films was built on the concept of trans-border cross-cultural cinematic exchange, having been originally formed as “International Amusement Co.” by brothers Rafael and José Calderón and business partner Juan Salas Porras in both El Paso, Texas and in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. With the enormous success of Santa, Azteca Films embarked on nothing short of a 22-year industry-dominating journey that saw it become the most important distributor of Mexican films the U.S., with additional offices in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and New York. In Mexico City, Azteca Films established one of the city’s major photochemical laboratories, which was purchased and nationalized by the federal government in 1950, becoming Churubusco Studios. Santa premiered in Mexico City on March 30, 1932 and in the United States on May 14, 1932 at San Antonio’s Aztec Theater. On May 20, 1932, Santa had its Los Angeles premiere at the newly-refurbished Teatro California. A host of Latin American talent attended the Los Angeles premiere, as did comedians Laurel and Hardy. The film was enormously successful with audiences in the U.S., with theatrical runs held over in many cities and several commentators speculating it enjoyed greater popularity than in Mexico.