Juan Orol, Phantom of the Mexican Cinema
By Wheeler Winston Dixon.
It’s a commonplace thing to discuss the individual vision of filmmakers, on both a national and international level, and the names of Howard Hawks, John Ford, Quentin Tarantino, Jean-Luc Godard, Roberto Rossellini, Kenji Mizoguchi, John Frankenheimer, Fritz Lang, Dorothy Arzner, Agnes Varda and numerous other cinematic luminaries immediately conjure up a specific world view, with certain themes, stylistic tendencies, and narrative tropes being constantly reiterated.
Indeed, it could be argued – and I will do so here – that every director, no matter how intellectually or technically impoverished, all the way down to William Beaudine, Jerry Warren, Victor Adamson, Sam Newfield, and other denizens of the bottom rung of Poverty Row, also have an individual style, and favor certain themes and approaches to the narratives of their works. In short, whether the director intends to or not, in most cases, she or he winds up signing their own name figuratively as well as literally to every film they make.
In Mexico, the commercial cinema has always been a little crazy, mashing up genres with frenzied abandon; Luchador films, centering on professional wrestling, soon crossed over into the horror genre; Rumberas films, with nonstop musical numbers, soon became intertwined with Rancheras, or “western” films; and gangster films, which, while adhering to the traditional conventions of the genre, also took often unexpected turns.
Melodramas like Alberto Gout’s deliriously over the top Aventurera (1950) were also a hit with audiences, and the simplistic comedy of Cantinflas was equally popular. On the directorial front, standout figures from the “Golden Age” of the Mexican cinema like Emilio Fernández and Luis Buñuel are well known, while such auteurs as Miguel Zacarias, Julio Bracho, Miguel Delgado, Ismael Rodriguez and Matilde Landeta are perhaps less widely appreciated.
But in the mid twentieth century Mexican cinema, one filmmaker stands out from all the rest as being almost erased from cinema history. His work is virtually unknown outside Mexico, even to this day. Juan Orol is one of the most peculiar of all Mexican cineastes, often compared unjustly to Ed Wood for the poverty-stricken nature of his films, but unlike Wood, Orol’s influence was much more pervasive in Mexico during his lifetime, and he was both far more prolific and more disciplined. His accomplishments as a director are real, and lasting. It’s easy to see that Orol was a driven man, and a driven filmmaker; indeed, as he got older, the pace of his film production only increased.
Indeed, Orol’s indefatigable industry stands out as one of his most defining characteristics – that, and his seeming ability to create something out of almost nothing, despite the most tenuous production circumstances. Much like the films of African-American cineastes Spencer Williams or Oscar Micheaux, which are also often misinterpreted, it’s a miracle that Orol got any backing at all for his films, and for the minimal amount spent, he got the most out of every production dollar. For working in the Mexican cinema during this period was a difficult proposition from the word go. As an anonymous but surprisingly erudite commentator in Wikipedia notes,
“Decades of labor disputes between studios and talent played a role in bringing about the end of the golden age, but the primary cause was concentration of studio ownership. During the land reforms of President Lázaro Cárdenas, American sugar plantation owner and bootlegger William O. Jenkins sold his land holdings and made a comparatively safer investment in Mexican movie theaters. By the mid-1940s, Jenkins owned two theater chains and controlled all film showings in 12 states. His chains began limiting the exhibition of Mexican films to allow more Hollywood films to be shown. He also used his influence in the industry to dictate regulations that limited film production to a few genres. These low-budget, low quality films became known as ‘churros’.
In 1944, Jenkins invested in Churubusco studios. The company soon came to dominate the Mexican industry, and by the late 1950s, CLASA, Azteca Films, and Tepeyac Studios had all either closed or been bought out, leaving only Jorge Stahl’s San Angel Inn as competition. In 1957, Jenkins bought the theater chain of Abelardo Rodríguez, his last remaining competitor, effectively taking control of every aspect of the Mexican cinema industry, from production to exhibition. The only survivor of the golden days was Luis Buñuel with films like El ángel exterminador in 1961.”
And it is in the land of the churros, so to speak, that we find Juan Orol. His early life was remarkable in itself, and offered a foretaste of the itinerant lifestyle to come that would inform the creation of his 57 feature films. He was born Juan Orol García on August 4, 1897 in La Coruña, Galicia, Spain, but spent his early years shuffling between Mexico and Cuba.
When he was eight years old, his mother shipped him off to Cuba to find his absent father. As he grew up, Orol went through a motley series of jobs including bullfighting (during one bout with a bull he was nearly fatally gored); professional baseball, at which he was equally inept; as well as trying his hand at being an auto mechanic, a car salesman, and even a boxer – all with little success.
Drifting back to Mexico, Orol fell in with the secret police, and soon found a job working as a would-be “strong arm” man. One day he was asked to film an execution. Orol had never used a camera before, but after a three-minute crash course he hand-cranked his way through this official “snuff” film, and was immediately smitten with the possibility of creating a fantasy world made possible by the cinema. From this macabre beginning, Orol segued into a job in radio, and then worked as an art director for an advertising agency. This led him to film advertising, and then acting, writing, production and direction on a fulltime basis.
His 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).
Ever conscious of changing trends, Orol even ventured into psychedelia with El fantástico mundo de los hippies (The Fantastic World of Hippies, 1972), which featured “50 authentic hippies,” according to the film’s poster. He directed his last film in 1979, but continued to work as an actor until 1981. So that’s 54 years in the cinema – quite a long career. In the early 1980s, Orol suddenly became “respectable,” in the same fashion that the equally prolific Roger Corman, once dimissed as a hack, was later embraced as an authentic cultural icon.
There was a retrospective of Orol’s work in 1981, but in 1982, tragedy struck. As Adan Griego writes, “in early 1982 a fire destroyed Mexico’s National Film Archives (Cineteca Nacional). The flames consumed the history of a vibrant film industry that had once rivaled that of the United States in production output. Gone were more than six thousand films, scripts and photographs.” Orol had desposited all the negatives and prints of his films in the archive, certain that they would be saved for posterity. And now, in a single stroke, everything was gone.
The last six years of Orol’s life were very dark. When he died, on May 26, 1988 at the age of 91, he was sure that he would not be remembered, and that all of his work had perished in the flames of the Cineteca Nacional fire. But, as fate or luck would have it, after his death, his celebrity grew to ever higher levels, and archivists and fans scoured attics, obscure archives, old collections of 16mm and 35mm prints, and in time, nearly all of his work was recovered.
Now we have a film biography of Orol, shot in 2012, and it’s a funny and fascinating film, which captures both the essence of the man, and his indomitable persistence in making one film after another, no matter what. Titled El fantástico mundo de Juan Orol (The Fantastic World of Juan Orol), a clear reference to El fantástico mundo de los hippies, it’s the debut feature film of Sebastien de Amo, and was well received in Mexico, winning three Ariels (the Mexican equivalent of the Academy Award) for Best Actor – Roberto Sosa as Orol; Best Cinematohgraphy – Carlos Hidalgo; and Best Costume Design – Deborah Medina. Sebastien de Amo received an Ariel nomination for Best First Work for the film, but didn’t win, yet the film is clearly an accomplished piece of work.
As Devon Pack writes,
“What really gives the film both magic and a comedy is that the film takes place largely within the delusional perspective of Juan Orol. He is coaxed through the setbacks of his life by [his] Tyler Durden-esque alter ego, Johnny Carmenta. This zoot-suited eidolon is always there to offer advice, and to take over when more ruthlessness is required. Much of the humor of the film lays in how Orol’s confidence renders him impervious to criticism – every film he is making is a masterpiece of noir, even when the machine guns don’t break glass (because smashing glass windows would be expensive). While it resembles the campy noir style of Burton’s Ed Wood, El Fantástico Mundo de Juan Orol spends little time on the process of film-making, and much more time on how Orol’s enthusiasm draws people into working for him.”
Shot in richly saturated black and white, and introduced with actual footage of Orol introducing the 1935 version of Madre querida with seemingly earnest sincerity, followed by scenes from several of Orol’s gangster films, El fantastico mundo de Juan Orol is clearly a love letter to the late director, who is recognized for his accomplishments rather than being chastised for his shortcomings. As detailed above, when William O. Jenkins took control of the Mexican film industry, it became almost impossible to work within the country, as Jenkins would pay minimal fees to director/producers for their works, and then insist that they pay for all the advertising as well, thus reducing their takings to nearly nothing.
When the time came for the next film, Jenkins would blandly tell filmmakers that he would advance them a loan for their upcoming project, provided that they mortgage all of their previous films with him, and even their houses and other personal property, simply to obtain financing, at a ruinous rate of 20% per year. Indeed, conditions in Mexico during this period were so dire that the Academia Mexicana de Artes y Ciencias Cinematográficas – the equivalent of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – didn’t even bother to award Ariels from 1959 to 1971, on the grounds that the films were so poor in quality that there was no reason to do so.
As Juan Orol, Roberto Sosa is both a dead ringer for the late director, as well as maintaining an air of bland assurance throughout the film. Certain incidents are fictionalized, as in nearly every biopic, but as Orol, Sosa is completely unflappable, and no matter how badly he does as a matador or professional baseball player, and even when the critics tear him to shreds in their daily reviews, he seems absolutely indifferent. For Orol, it’s the public that counts, and he’s making films for the masses, not the critics.
In doing so, even on the cheap, Orol ties in to many of the nascent dreams of his audience members, who would love to settle their problems with a gun, or have a gorgeous rhumba dancer swoon in their arms, and live in the seedy yet glamorous world of Mexico City nightlife of the era. Orol’s key period as a filmmaker is obviously the 1930s to the early 1960s, but that’s an awfully long run, wouldn’t you think? To maintain boxoffice popularity for three decades is no mean feat; in the end, it was advancing years, more than anything else, that put an end to his career.
Towards the end of El fantástico mundo de Juan Orol, as the film moves smoothly into the mid-1960s, Orol is visited by a representative from Eastman Kodak, who assures him that if he continues to make films in black and white, he will soon become obsolete. Technicolor is out; single strip color film is the new technology. In a charmingly innocent sequence, the sales rep touches various objects in the room, which immediately spring to life in full color, until the entire room is bursting with light, as Orol beams in delight.
From there, the film shifts entirely to color, as did Orol’s films, but one gets the real sense that something substantial has been lost. The gritty black and white world of Orol’s low budget universe has been replaced by something far less substantial; the shadows become less pronounced, and the lighting becomes more garish. By the time the film gets to the re-created scenes from El fantástico mundo de los hippies, it seems that an entire world has been lost. Juan Orol was never meant for a color universe; his films, and his vision, was something phantasmal, meant for the shadows.
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 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. 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.
The author wishes to thank Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing him to the films of Juan Orol; you always come up with the treasures!
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes regularly for Film International.