Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after you see the Pixar animated feature, Coco.
Pixar’s Coco pays homage to Mexican culture, including its films, but this week’s homework is rather light on the national cinema of that country. One reason is that Mexico’s Golden Age — aka “Época de Oro del Cine Mexicano” — is a blind spot for me, but also because there’s not much that fits the story or plot elements of the new animated feature, which owes more to the tradition of its American studio than anything I can find originating south of the border. Plus, many of the films I should highlight aren’t readily available in the US. I have made this list longer than usual, however, to highlight a few Mexican staples.
Gran Casino (1947)
Jorge Negrete is one of two Mexican music and movie icons who inspired the Coco character Ernesto de la Cruz. He also has a cameo in the animated feature at de la Cruz’s big party. The easiest introduction to this Golden Age star is with this Luis Buñuel flop that barely kicked off the filmmaker’s stint in Mexico. Negrete, guitar in hand, sings his way out of prison and into the story of a murdered oil man. Libertad Lamarque, Argentine star of song and cinema, plays the oil man’s sister and eventual love interest for Negrete.
Gran Casino is little more than a B-movie Western, representative of the country’s cheapie “churro” variety and is arguably a lesser example of the otherwise popular charro singing cowboy genre. For the start of this kind of ranchera musical, see the 1936 Tito Guízar vehicle Allá en el Rancho Grande, and for Negrete’s breakthrough there’s ¡Ay Jalisco, No Te Rajes!, which isn’t easily seen in its preferred full version. Another easily seen but not beloved Negrete classic is the Hal Roach-produced Fiesta.
Nosotros, los Pobres (1948)
Pedro Infante is the other icon on whom del la Cruz is based. Also a famous singer outside of his movie stardom, he was not as much known for leading in musicals. One of his most famous films is the Golden Globe-winning export Tizoc, a romantic drama for which he was posthumously named best actor at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1957. Another, also by Ismael Rodríguez, is this first entry in his popular “Pepe the Bull” trilogy, which also includes Ustedes los Ricos and Pepe el Toro. Translated as “We the Poor,” Nosotros, los Pobres is a social melodrama about a carpenter (Infante’s own initial trade) trying to get by while raising an adopted daughter in a poor neighborhood in Mexico City.
Both Negrete and Infante died young in the 1950s, which surely helped cement them as cultural legends. Like de la Cruz, though, Infante’s death was in an accident — the aviation fanatic was killed in a plane crash rather than being crushed by a giant bell. Despite being one of the inspirations for the Coco character, he too makes a cameo appearance in the party scene. And if you want to see both real Mexican cinema icons together on screen for real, you should check out Two Careful Fellows, a musical comedy in which they play best friends who become enemies, not unlike de la Cruz and Hector in Coco, though their clash is over a woman rather than their professional collaboration.
I should note that some are also referencing Javier Solís as an inspiration for de la Cruz, because he was the third of the iconic Mexican stars who made up the “Three Mexican Roosters.” He was younger (and died younger) than the other two and didn’t even appear in his first movie until after Negrete and Infante were dead — he may have actually been seen as a replacement for fans. I can’t say I know a good title of his to recommend.
Day of the Dead (1957)
Charles and Ray Eames are much more known for their furniture and architectural design, but they also made a number of films. This one, inspired by Charles Eames’s time in Mexico in the 1930s and produced for the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, is of course about the Day of the Dead. Instead of being a straightforward educational documentary on the subject, the 15-minute film is a cultural tribute, sharing a slightly informative yet emblematic look at the special objects and rituals of the occasion.
A good portion of this short is devoted to the significance of the ofrenda, particularly to all the food placed on the altar and how dead ancestors will come home to feast on their favorite treats. You’ll also see the aztec marigolds, the sugar skulls and skeleton art, and the visiting and maintaining of gravesites that are also part of the story of Coco. While it’s not going to make you much more knowledgable of Mexican culture than Pixar’s movie already provides, there’s no better documentary about the holiday, as far as I’m aware (the Fernando Rey-narrated short Día de Muertos seems decent but I’ve only seen it available in Spanish). Watch Day of the Dead via the Eames Office here.
The Little Priest (1964)
Another Mexican cinema icon seen in Coco, easily caricatured in skeletal form, is Cantinflas. He is often likened to Charlie Chaplin, because every national cinema apparently needed their own Chaplin equivalent. He’s also been called a kind of cross between Chaplin and Groucho Marx. Fans of the Mexican comedy legend would probably rather he be honored on his own without need for comparison. Even Chaplin apparently referred to Cantinflas as the greatest comedian alive. I haven’t seen it mentioned officially, but his trickster characters may have been an influence on the creation of Coco‘s Hector.
While the easiest introduction is with the 1956 version of Around the World in 80 Days, for which he earned accolades including a Golden Globe as the valet sidekick Passepartout, and maybe the best place to start is with his 1940 breakthrough Ahí Está el Detalle, which established his catchphrase (translated literally as “there’s the detail”) and cemented him as a star. But many consider his 1960s features, following his Hollywood debut, to be his best work, and El Padrecito, aka The Little Priest, is arguably his best among those. He stars as a young priest who becomes a bullfighter and politician to the delight of the townspeople.
Land of the Dead (1970)
Another easily spotted figure in Coco, Santo is the most iconic Mexican masked wrestler, or luchador. In addition to his professional career in the ring, he became a movie star specifically in his own genre of lucha libre superhero movies, which actually began without him in the role of his own character back in the early 1950s. They also tended to involve horror premises where Santo fights zombies or vampire women or mummies or Martians. Sometimes, as in this installment, Santo would team-up with fellow Mexican wrestler Blue Demon.
This one is neither his best known (Santo Versus the Vampire Women is most famous for being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000) nor one of his most celebrated. But, in case the title doesn’t make it obvious, Land of the Dead has Santo visiting the afterlife. As imaginative and colorful as the Land of the Dead is in Coco, the one here is pretty lackluster and only comes into play near the end. Tinted in red and accompanied by stock footage and clips from other movies, the Hell that Santo and Blue Demon encounter is sort of a joke. A lovably cheesy joke.