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Juan Orol, Phantom of the Mexican Cinema

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International on the prolific Mexican filmmaker Juan Orol.

As I write, in part, “Juan Orol’s “first directorial credit was on the 1927 silent film El sendero gris (1927, co-directed with Jesús Cárdenas), but his first big hit was the 1935 maternal tearjerker Madre querida (Beloved Mother), which he produced, directed, and introduced on screen, with a seemingly heartfelt paean to all the mothers in the audience, in addition to providing the story for the film. This was followed by the equally sudsy Honrarás a tus padres (Honor Thy Mother and Father, 1937), which Orol produced, directed, and starred in – this last function serving as the beginning of a long string of performances in his films, despite his somewhat unprepossessing appeal as a matinee idol.

After exhausting the public’s appetite for melodrama and musicals, Orol turned to gangster films, and soon became the foremost exponent of the ‘Cine Negro Mexicano,’ also known as the ‘Cine de Gangsters.’ It was here that Orol truly found his métier. Orol idolized the Warner Bros. gangster films of the early 1930s, and imagined himself as a worthy competitor of the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. Soon, he invented a recurring character that he would play for most of the rest of his life – Johnny Carmenta, a supposedly suave denizen of the underworld who would eventually become Orol’s almost real-life alter ego.

This gave rise to the best-known film of Orol’s long career, the genre bending Gángsters contra charros (Gangsters Against Cowboys, 1948), in which Orol, as gangster Johnny Carmenta, battles cowboy Pancho Domínguez (José Pulido) in a Mexico City turf war, further complicated by the presence of cabaret dancer Rosa (Rosa Carmina, who was also Orol’s third wife at the time), who deftly plays one man off against the other. As with the majority of Orol’s films, most of the 79 minute running time of Gángsters contra charros is comprised of long dialogue scenes, in which Orol and Pulido threaten each other with a singular lack of conviction, interspersed with equally interminable series of dance numbers, making the film in effect a gangster/cowboy/musical. Despite its shoddy production values, audiences flocked to the film, and Orol seemed utterly unstoppable.

Demonstrating the truth of Jack Warner’s oft repeated mantra, ’successful films aren’t made; they’re remade,’ Orol created an updated version of Madre querida (Beloved Mother) in 1951, and then continued on for the next two decades with such offerings as El sindicato del crimen (The Crime Syndicate, 1954), Zonga, el ángel diabólico (Zonga, the Diabolical Angel, 1958), Antesala de la silla eléctrica (Prelude to the Electric Chair, 1968, which was actually shot in Miami, Florida) and Historia de un gangster (Story of a Gangster, 1969) [. . .]

Dubbed the creator of ‘accidental surrealism,’ the world that Orol’s films depict is at once alluring and evanescent, existing in a twilight zone of cheap sets, shabby nightclub acts, and the seemingly eternal presence of Orol’s gangster alter ego. Like [Roger] Corman in his best films, his early black and white work from the 1950s, Orol presented his viewers with a world of pervasive corruption, yet infused with his own sense of indomitable optimism.

Pop culture reflects the needs and desires of the time in which it is created; at Orol’s retrospective, only a few patrons showed up, while during his heyday, his films packed movie houses throughout the country, earning record grosses, but were never really allowed to find an audience outside Mexico. In short, he knew precisely what his audiences wanted to see.

Hotwiring existing genres into a mind-bending meld all his own, Orol created a cinema that is absolutely unique, and utterly without precedent. [Directors] Emilio Fernández and Luis Buñuel, who both knew him, would agree; whatever his faults, Juan Orol was doing precisely what he wanted to, answering to no one but himself, and yet at the same time creating films that the public clamored to see, cloaking his own vision in the venerable disguise of a genre filmmaker – which he was, and yet he wasn’t.  This, perhaps, is his most significant accomplishment, one any cineaste would envy.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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