Gringos take their criminal activities south of the border in Mystery in Mexico.
When a vintage movie is set in Mexico, it's a bonus when it's actually filmed there. Most movies with a Mexican backdrop—even good ones—didn't bother, but Mystery in Mexico goes the extra mile. And not for just a scene or two. There are numerous exteriors in city and countryside. Among the sights sharp-eyed viewers will see are the Monumento a la Revolución, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the nightclub Ciro's, which had a Mexico City branch famous for a Diego Rivera mural in its Champagne Room. The Mexican authenticity extends to the cast, which features local superstar Ricardo Cortez and numerous bit players. Even some of the dialogue is in Spanish, including bits spoken by lead actor William Lundigan—quite a departure for a star in an old-time thriller.
So we've established that Mystery in Mexico aims for authenticity. But is it any good? Well, what you have here is a story about insurance investigator Lundigan following Jacqueline White around Mexico City hoping she'll lead him to a stash of stolen jewelry. White doesn't know where the loot is, but her brother might. Except he's missing. Also looking for the jewels is a gang of local thieves. For the most part the film plays as a romantic adventure, with love-hate turning into love-love thanks to Lundigan's dubious charm. The mystery aspect is pretty slight by comparison, but with Robert Wise in the director's chair everything looks good and runs smoothly. Mystery in Mexico won't make anyone's top 100 list, but for its novelty factor alone it's worth a look. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1948.
Two wheels, a road, and a full tank of gas.
Singer and dancer Lina Salomé poses on a monster motorcycle in Havana, Cuba, sometime in 1956. Born Luz de Peña Matos Estévez, she appeared onscreen seven times between 1952 and 1957. She had only one leading role, in the Mexican made Alma de acero, aka Soul of Steel. Another film, Los tres bohemios, appeared a month later, but the work dried up completely after that. However, we've seen her described as an iconic musical figure in Cuba, and this photo fits for someone remembered that way. It's probably just a publicity shot, but we like to think of her actually taking this machine to Matanzas on the Via Blanca, because a beast like this needs to eat a lot of road. If you want to see Miss Lina do a little song and dance, check this link while it lasts.
Brother can you spare a diamond?
Ambitious show-biz hopefuls from all over the world have always flocked to Los Angeles. Actress Jacqueline White is a rare breed—she was born there, in Beverly Hills, in fact, which may be why despite having a nice dress and a fur coat, she has her hand out for more. White was drawn into film when a casting agent saw her in a play at UCLA, and she went on to appear in the classic noirs The Narrow Margin and Crossfire. This particular shot was made for the thriller Mystery in Mexico, in which she and others chase a fortune in missing jewels. It's from 1948.
Woman heads south of the border but her career options stay north.
Quella viziosa di Susan is a U.S.-made porn flick that was originally titled The Last Tango in Acapulco. It starred Becky Sharpe and Bill Cable, supplemented by various unidentified stunt genitals. The plot of this is fascinating. Sharpe is routinely forced by her dad to submit sexually,, a fate she escapes by fleeing to Mexico, but once there she descends into a life of prostitution. Many victims of sexual abuse do become prostitutes, obviously, which makes it quite weird that in an escapist genre like porn the filmmakers actually get anywhere near such subject matter, but clearly they served a higher cause than mere sexual titillation. Sadly, reality intruded on their lofty goals in the form of budget, thus despite high ambition, great Mexican beach locations, and an appealing lead actress, the movie comes across as below average sexploitation. But it still earned an Italian release, for which someone with talent painted this nice promo poster of a woman going south of the border in a different way. Sadly, like owners of the stunt genitals, the artist goes unidentified. The Last Tango in Acapulco opened in the U.S. today in 1973 and made it to Italy in 1976.
Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time?
Above is another Mexican promo poster, this time for the drama La loca, which starred Libertad Lamarque in an Ariel nominated performance as a woman who believes she's living in 1936. We feel that way sometimes ourselves. But in her case, her delusion is preventing her family from collecting an inheritance, which pits them against her, prompting a psychiatrist to take up her cause in order to defend her against being exploited. Speak Spanish? You can watch the movie online here while the link lasts. The poster was painted by Juan Antonio Vargas, and as we discussed earlier this beautiful style of illustration was popular among Mexican poster artists of the time. La loca premiered today in 1952.
I didn't know that a girl like you could make me feel so sad...
A couple of weeks ago we shared a Mexican movie poster we weren't 100% sure was actually from Mexico. This time we're sure—this beautiful promo Antonio Caballero painted for the melodrama La red says right in the lower left corner “impreso en México.” In that previous write-up we also talked about how popular locally produced films were in Mexico before the industry was suffocated by U.S. business and political interests, and this effort is an example. It was made by Reforma Films S.A., based in Mexico City, and starred Libyan born Italian actress Rossana Podesta, Costa Rican actor Crox Alvarado, and U.S. born actor Armando Silvestre. Enticing a burgeoning international star like Podesta over from Europe indicates how established the Mexican film industry was in 1953, when La red was made.
Interestingly, when the movie played in the U.S. it was titled simply Rosanna, which makes sense, because it would be nothing without Podesta. It struck us that even though Toto didn't write their song of obsession “Rosanna” about Podesta, they might as well have. The film begins when a group of men botch a robbery, a shootout commences, and one of the bandits, Antonio, played by Alvarado, tries to help his wounded comrade. But the dying man gasps to Antonio, “Save yourself—for Rossana.” So we know she's a special woman even before seeing her. Antonio does save himself and goes to live on the seaside with Podesta, where the two harvest sea sponges. It's idyllic, but as a wanted thief he has to lay low, which means sending her alone to town to sell their catch. And the men in the town are... well... see below:
I am intrigued by this spicy redhead.
I too find myself somewhat taken with this mysterious chile pepper of a woman.
Perhaps I'll invite her to coffee and a cronut. That's a cross between a croissant and a donut, my friend, and living out there on the idyllic seashore as she does, I bet she's never had one.
I wonder if she's a fan of our great romantic poet Salvador Díaz Mirón?
I'm certain she has no idea how quickly European skin can burn in this tropical climate.
I'm admittedly less high minded than other men, and mainly wonder what she looks like naked, and whether the carpet is red too.
What the hell are all these guys staring— Oh. I think it's me.
Clearly, these trips into town are menacing affairs for Podesta. If you were to screen the sequences at an anti-sexual harassment seminar, every guy in the joint would bow his head in shame. Important to note, though, that within the narrative these aggressively pervy guys are depicted in a negative light, with even the soundtrack music growing ominous. When one of Antonio's robbery compatriots shows up in town, he gets into a shootout that leaves two men dead, and therein are sown the seeds of future troubles. We won't say more, save that the film is stagy, stylized, operatic, almost devoid of dialogue, and largely remembered because of Podesta's role. It all worked well enough to earn the Prix International du film le mieux raconté par l'image, aka the Award for Visual Narration, at the Cannes Film Festival.
Moving on to the poster, have a look at a previous Mexican promo we shared last year. It's here. We'll wait. Back? You'd think it was the same person who painted both, but the reason we wanted you to glance at the other one is because it exemplifies the strange phenomenon of artists within the same film industry biting each other's styles. It happened in Italy and Sweden too. Either through direct influence from the studios, or through osmosis due to mutual association, several Mexican artists delved into this art deco tinged style. Check out Leopoldo Mendoza Andrade here. Interesting, right? You'll see what we mean even more clearly when we share posters from other Mexican artists, for example Juan Antonio Vargas. That'll be soon. La Red premiered in Mexico today in 1953.
Spanish art for Casa número 322 may have traveled far from home.
We already showed you a beautiful yellow French promo poster for 1954's Pushover, starring Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak. Above is a cool blue Spanish language promo. This piece is signed MCP, which is the imprimatur used by the Spanish artists Ramon Marti, Josep Clave, and Hernan Pico. So is this a Spanish poster? Well, most online sites say so. But the distributor for Mexico is listed as Columbia Films S.A., and you can see that graphic right on top of the poster. The S.A., by the way, stands for “sociedad anónima,” and is a corporate designation, kind of like Inc., or LLC. The movie's distribution company for Spain is on record as plain old Columbia Films, with no S.A., so we think this poster was used in Mexico, where the movie played as La casa número 322, “house number 322.” There's no exact Mexican release date known for it, but late 1955 is a safe bet. All that said, there's no way we can claim to be correct with 100% surety that this is a Mexican poster. We're extrapolating.
Columbia had distribution branches in various Latin American countries. Its Mexican hub was the most important because Mexico had the most developed Spanish film market in the world. Yes, more than Spain, which was still recovering from civil war. Though dubbed or subtitled versions of foreign movies were routinely shown in Mexico, locally produced flicks were about 20% more popular at the box office on average, according to a 1947 report circulated by the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey. In fact, Mexican films were the most popular in all Latin America, particularly Cuba. Even in Mexico City, where U.S. and European films were more popular than anywhere else in the country, Mexican films took up more than 40% of exhibition time—again as reported by the U.S. Consulate. Why was the consulate studying this? Just wait.
The Mexican movie market isn't as competitive today. The decline was due to three main factors: political pressure that forced Mexico to submit to so-called free trade in mass media, suspicious difficulties obtaining raw film stock from the U.S. for movie productions, and, of course, dirty business tactics by Stateside studios. So that's where the consulate came in—gathering intelligence for both the U.S. government and U.S. business interests. Armed with alarming data about local preferences for local product, U.S. studios forced Mexican exhibitors into “block booking” agreements, which meant that if cinemas wanted to exhibit the best Hollywood films they were also contractually obligated to take on the worst. This was repeated all over Latin America, and those bad films, which were more numerous than the good ones, ate up exhibition hours and kept Mexican films off screens. Pushover, at least, was one of Hollywood's better films.
She always said his biggest problem was that he was pig-headed. Turns out she was right.
When you achieve something rare you want others to know. Usually these are minor things, like breaking 200 on bowling night or perfectly poaching an egg, and the subsequent boasts are basically harmless. But even people who do terrible things—and really should keep their mouths shut for the sake of self-preservation—will still at the very least hint at their accomplishments. Such was the case with 67-year-old Virginia Hayden, above, who regaled her grandson with tales of how useful pigs can be. Just like in those mafia movies, she explained how pigs will eat every part of a human body, except the cranium.
Visits to gran's house must have been heartwarming affairs. Picture her possibly baking chocolate chip cookies and making pleasant smalltalk, dispensing ageless wisdom like, “Did you know that if a woman were to kill her husband and feed his body to pigs, they would eat every part of that fat, hairy body, apart from the exceptionally hard cranium, which never seemed capable of letting through the things his wife told him, for example to pick up his damn socks and wash a fuckin' dish once in a while? Did you know that, my sweet?”
“Oh, good. The cookies are done.”
Rewind a bit from that cozy scene. In 2011 Hayden's third husband Thomas flew to Mexico for medical treatment and never came back. In early 2012 an unidentified cranium, with scalp and hair attached, was found near a rural Pennsylvania road. Nobody put cranium and hubby together until 2017, when Thomas Hayden's daughter, who had been estranged from her dad for more than a decade, contacted police with suspicions that his supposed one-way trip to Mexico was something other than it seemed.
Long story short, Virginia Hayden was arrested last week on suspicion of murder.
The lesson here may be that talking about heinous crimes will sometimes indicate how informed one is in esoteric areas of knowledge, but other times will indicate that one has, in fact, committed heinous crimes. Now some of Hayden's other wise utterances take on a darker tone. For example, she used to mention how stabbing a corpse before sinking it in water would keep it from floating, and how giving a person a heavy snootful of nitroglycerine spray could trigger a heart attack. Hayden's second husband died of a heart attack. And her first? He was a suicide. At the moment there's no indication foul play was involved in either death, but we'll bet you a batch of chocolate chip cookies the police are looking into it.
In the Aztec version of the show being sacrificed on a cross is actually first prize.
This poster for The Living Idol gives a bit of a false impression. The movie isn't the lost world epic implied by the art. Most of it is set in and around the University of Mexico, and deals with an archaeologist who believes he can unlock the secrets of ancient Aztec rituals by using a colleague's daughter as a sort of medium. James Robertson Justice is the obsessed archaeologist, and French actress Liliane Montevecchi stars as Juanita, who may have some mystical connection to the ancient world.
The movie is better than you'd expect. It's serious and intelligent, with a bit of cuteness mixed in, and what's particularly striking is the respect it shows—for a U.S. made movie—toward Mexico and Mexican culture. The default attitude for Mexico in north-of-the-border movies from the period is one of mild patronization, but not here. Give some credit to screenwriter Albert Lewin, but more credit to director René Cardona, who's Cuban, not Mexican, but was certainly versed in the culture and history of the country.
Though no Mexicans appear in major roles, Cardona manages to leave viewers with a sense of wonder about Mexico, and not just its mythic past, but its contemporary aspects too. He treats viewers to a nice tour of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, built in Mexico City in 1910, and one of the most majestic and beautiful centers of learning in the Americas today. Its central campus, built from 1949 to 1952, is even UNESCO protected, which thousands of older universities can't say.
This comes in addition to amazing panoramas of the Aztec ruins at Uxmal, probably the best represented they've ever been in a motion picture. Is the movie good? Not quite. It has many rough patches, and Montevecchi has only two expressions in her acting arsenal—innocent eyed, and bug-eyed. But it all works a bit better than it should, somehow. We cautiously recommend it for Mexicophiles, but keep your expectations in check. The Living Idol opened in the U.S. today in 1957.
Enough wattage to light all of Hollywood.
This promo image features U.S. actress Jane Powell, née Suzanne Burce, who started in show business as a child, as an adult appeared in films such as Holiday in Mexico, Rich Young and Pretty, and The Girl Most Likely, and eventually was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Powell played mostly wholesome good girls, which is why this striking shot of her in a skirt way too short for the period is such an interesting rarity. It was made in 1954.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1919—Pollard Breaks the Color Barrier
Fritz Pollard becomes the first African-American to play professional football for a major team, the Akron Pros. Though Pollard is forgotten today, famed sportswriter Walter Camp ranked him as "one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen." In another barrier-breaking historical achievement, Pollard later became the co-head coach of the Pros, while still maintaining his roster position as running back.
1932—Entwistle Leaps from Hollywood Sign
Actress Peg Entwistle
commits suicide by jumping from the letter "H" in the Hollywood sign. Her body lay in the ravine below for two days, until it was found by a detective and two radio car officers. She remained unidentified until her uncle connected the description and the initials "P.E." on the suicide note in the newspapers with his niece's two-day absence.
1908—First Airplane Fatality Occurs
The plane built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, The Wright Flyer, crashes with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge aboard as a passenger. The accident kills Selfridge, and he becomes the first airplane fatality in history.
1983—First Black Miss America Crowned
Vanessa Williams becomes the first African American Miss America. She later loses her crown when lesbian-themed nude photographs of her are published by Penthouse magazine.
1920—Terrorists Bomb Wall Street
At 12:01 p.m. a bomb loaded into a horse-drawn wagon explodes in front of the J.P.Morgan building in New York City. 38 people are killed and 400 injured. Italian anarchists are thought to be the perpetrators, but after years of investigation no one is ever brought to justice.
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