Women in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema

Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema spans the years between 1936 and 1959 when films were the most popular form of mass entertainment for Latin America.  The film industry in Mexico began to flourish as filmmakers returned to Mexico after working in Hollywood.  There are four types of film that had become popular by the end of the 1930s: the comedia ranchera, cowboy musicals that incorporated elements of emotions coupled with nationalistic themes; the highly successful comedic farces of Tin Tan and Cantínflas; the historical epic which concentrated on patriotic narratives; and the family melodrama, which focused on traditional themes of home and religion.[1]  The films of this era also showcased a stark contrast between men and women’s idealistic roles.  Men were depicted as macho charro characters, who were the epitome of all that is manly.  Female characters fit into one of two archetypes, the “good mother” or the “whore.”  The concept of the good mother was based on the idea of the Catholic Virgin, who was considered the collectively constructed model of femininity and the models of motherhood that derive from this idea.[2]  With the good mother ideal being center, the farther away from that ideal, the less desirable a woman was. 

The dramatic melodramas of the era addressed existing gender relationships through themes that were familiar to the average person.  In the interest of dignity, Mexican films during this time contained no nudity or bad language, and violence was to be kept at a minimum.  Sex was hinted at or left to the imagination as the goal was for these films to be viewed by the whole family.  Movies were shown everywhere from small towns to large urban cities and it became a favorite Sunday activity for most families to see a movie at the local theater after church that morning.  Films were popular throughout Latin America, affecting popular culture and the image of Mexico throughout the region.[3]  Many actresses graced the silver screen, yet women behind the scenes were few and far between.  They received little recognition for what they contributed to Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema, but that does not mean that their contributions were any less important.  Mexican women in the cinema industry paved the way for changes in gender relationships by advocating for themselves within a male-dominated society.   

In the beginning of Mexican cinema, films were produced independently by small production companies.  The Banco Cinematográfico was created in 1942 with the sole purpose of funding national film production and distribution.  Before the bank was created, production companies would sell plots of land to fund filming.  The creation of the bank allowed production companies to do away with this practice.  By the early-mid 1940s, around four thousand people were employed in the film industry.  All workers affiliated with one union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria Cinematográfica (STIC, Workers Union of the Film Industry) and actors, technicians, and workers on film sets had been grouped together.  In April 1944, Mexican movie stars, led by Jorge Negrete and Mario Moreno (Cantínflas), challenged this organization of union workers as they felt that actors were of superior status and deserved a separate branch of the union.  A strike drove home the actors’ claim and the movie stars received permission to form their own union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Producción Cinematográfica (STPC).[4]  Women participated in both the STPC and the STIC, but they did not have positions within the hierarchy of the unions.  Their roles were mainly that of a union member and makeup of the unions was mostly men. 

During this time, there were two women who brought femininity to the industry as screenwriters, producers, and directors.  While they were not the first female directors in Mexican filmmaking (that honor goes to Mimí Derba who directed La Tigresa in 1917), these women faced with severe pushback by the industry on many levels, due to their gender.  Both women were searching for a new cinematic identity within a patriarchal, male dominated industry.  Their films were symbolic constructions which developed through female characters who were social and active subjects instead of playing passive roles so popular in cinema at the time. 

The first woman, Adela Sequeyro, was an actress, screenwriter, producer, and director.  As a woman, she had been excluded from joining the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Proddución de Cinematográfica (STPC) due to her gender.  However, not being one to simply bow out at the first sign of resistance, she founded two separate production cooperatives to produce her own films, Éxito, which eventually went bankrupt, followed by Producciónes Carola.  Each of her films brought a feminist point that dominated the narrative.  Her debut film, Más Allá de la Muerte, which she wrote, produced, and co-directed, features a woman who is well educated, interested in the arts, and gets involved in an affair to find love and satisfaction.  She is not the rejected lover or prostitute as typical in many Mexican films of the time.[5]  Unfortunately, this film was not successful, which is what caused Éxito to go bankrupt. 

La Mujer de Nadie movie poster, 1937, Source: Poster Art from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.

Not willing to accept defeat, she founded Producciónes Carola with her husband, Mario Tenorio.  She produced two films with this production company – La Mujer de Nadie and Diablillos de Arrabal.  She wrote, produced, and starred in La Mujer de Nadie, playing a woman who again went against the typical Mexican female stereotype.  Her character, Ana María, did not belong to someone as a mother, daughter, wife, or the like.  She used her femininity and powers as a woman to manipulate the men within the film, but not in a malicious or salacious manner.  When it came time to screen the film, Sequeyro was charged double the price to rent out the theater and her film was not received well as it did not conform to the generic nationalist models of the time.  The film was critiqued as “lacking Charros” and “being too European” for the Mexican public.

Her final film, Diablillos de Arrabal, was made using less resources than her previous film, due to lack of funding as La Mujer de Nadie did not perform well in the theaters.  Diablillos did not become a box office success, which in turn left her with no option other than to sell the rights to her film.  This enabled her to pay her crew; however, she was left bankrupt.  She tried many times to continue in the industry as a director, but she turned down what she regarded as condescending offers to work as an assistant director, arguing defiantly, “If I’ve demonstrated that I can manage to direct a film and have it come out well, then I have no reason to place myself at the command of another man so that he can tell me what to do.”[6]  With no other options available, she left the film industry for good in 1943.

Matilde Landeta’s career in film began very differently than most women behind the scenes.  She was not an actress at first – she began her career as a scriptwriter, working in what was typically a man’s world from the start.  Her scripts feminized stories while maintaining the popular conventions of Mexican cinema and the women she created were real, strong, and very authentic Mexican women.  These representations broke the rules in more than once sense: the female figures replace the traditional male heroes while also representing and vocalizing the social reality and subjectivity of the female experience.[7] 

Landeta learned her trade by going up through the ranks of the union: first working on scripts, then as an assistant director, before finally obtaining director status.  Many members of the STPC, especially women, remained in the same grade because in the 1940s, the grade above determined promotion and these positions were almost exclusively held by men.  She had to ask for permission to advance to the grade of assistant director which met with resistance by those above her.  She worked for thirteen years within the STPC as an assistant director before asking for promotion to a director position.  The assistant directors within the union argued against the promotion as they felt that a woman simply could not perform the job of a director.  Landeta had to bring her case to the union general assembly, where her promotion was granted.[8]  In order to assert her belonging in the industry, she adopted masculine dress to carry out her work and adapted to pre-existing models of filmmaking while retaining a strong sense of self and of her identity as a woman.[9]  This carried through to the films that she made. 

Like Sequeyra before her, Landeta had to create her own production company, TACMA S.A. De C.V., to direct her debut film, Lola Casanova in 1948.  She had so much trouble finding financing, that she placed her own home as collateral on the loan.  This film had a nationalistic theme in which she created a portrait of an urban woman who gives up her position to support the rights of indigenous peoples and becomes involved with an Indian man.  This film was boycotted by distribution companies and was not shown until over a year after its completion. 

Her second film, La Negra Angustias, produced in 1949, also has a nationalistic theme.  Adapted from a novel, the main character, Angustias, is forced to join the revolution to escape male oppression.  Angustias is not the typical woman whose life took place in the privacy of the home.  She is out in public, fighting with men.  She does not represent the purity of woman, but rather strength and dignity.  She is a colonel in the army and men served under her or beside her, rather than above her.  This was the opposite of the female archetype and Landeta changed the ending so that it was different from the novel.  The book ends with Angustias living the domesticated life with Manuel.  Landeta found that having Angustias remain independent and continue the Revolutionary struggle was a far better ending to the story.  Like Lola Casanova before, distributors also boycotted this film, yet it received very harsh criticism by those in the film industry as well due to the highly feminist overtones of the film.  From this point on, her reputation as a director began to decline and it became more difficult for her to make films.    

Trotocalles movie poster, 1951,
Source: Poster Art from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.

Landeta’s final film, Trotacalles, was made towards the end of the Golden Age, in 1951. This film is about two working class sisters and their men, but shows the juxtaposition between their two lives.  One sister is a prostitute and the other is in a loveless marriage with a wealthy man.  The film questioned class attitudes and gender norms, and the discourse of alleged feminine compliance with the dictates of modernity, by offering a realistic view of “private” women instead of a spectacle of their “public” lives.[10]  It was also a thinly veiled criticism of the dominant patriarchal society she had to deal with in her career.  Women were treated as the lesser, had to fight for any positions they had within the industry, and were made to prove themselves each step of the way.  Unfortunately, this film did not do well either and Landeta left the film industry after the Banco Cinematográfico purchased a screenplay from her and then gave it to a male director.  When asked in the 1980s of the roles she created during the Golden Age, she said, “I sought to do in the cinema what no man had done: stories of women from my feminine point of view.  I didn’t want the resigned woman, the wife of Jorge Negrete crying in her corner, the roles of Sara García, of Libertad Lamarque.  In the end, all of them so weepy, so suffering, so resigned, so dumb.”[11]

While things were far more difficult for women directors in cinema, actresses influenced Mexican filmmaking as well.  It has been said that “a movie star’s gendered public persona overflows the frames of the narrative to shape popular reception of history through film.”[12]  This was very true for the two most popular actresses during the Golden Age – María Félix and Dolores del Río.  These women both embodied the Mexican feminine ideal and became the cinema’s enduring female stars.  Their star persona was pointedly shaped by and shaped what were presented as quintessentially Mexican cultural traits.[13] It was rumored that these women had a fierce rivalry, although Félix herself countered, “With Dolores I had no rivalry. On the contrary, we were friends and always treat each other with great respect, each with their own personality. We were completely different. She was refined, interesting, gentle on the deal, and I’m energetic, arrogant and bossy.”[14]

María Félix embodied the femme-macho, riding the line between the feminine woman and male machismo stereotypes.  She came from a working-class background with no education, but used her beauty to become a successful actress.  Her powerful on-camera presence allowed her to act in roles that were not of the traditional subservient female.  In her personal life, she was a strong, intelligent, and confident woman, easily the equal of any man and was known to be assertive and flamboyant.  She accepted roles that portrayed this on screen, built around this persona.  Her assertiveness allowed her to gain enough power behind the scenes to influence the set.  She leveraged authority over lighting, camera angles, wardrobe, scenes and other facets of filmmaking that were generally reserved for directors.  Her films portrayed cinematic nationalism, rarely challenged the government’s authority, and helped show union between film and state.  This nationalism carried over into her personal life.  After appearing in Río Escondido, a film about a school teacher (Félix) sent to a rural area by the president to teach, she was rumored have had an affair with President Miguel Alemán at the time he appeared in the film with her.  While she had many husbands, rumors of different romances were common with each new movie she filmed.

María was viewed as a woman who went against the ideas that men had constructed of what a woman should be.  She has said that she felt she had to fight “wars” to keep her freedom and had to hurt men on occasion to keep from being taken advantage of.  This was evident in her public life as she was known to be one not to submit and instead flaunted her freedom, economic independence, and shrewd business sense.[15]  She was very involved in the STPC, taking part in leading the strike with Jorge Negrete and Mario Moreno that created this separate union.  She appeared publicly on the balcony of the Palacio Nacional with President Ávila Camacho and Miguel Alemán as the STPC offered the government a parade of Thanksgiving for its support against the STIC.[16]  She was very proud of her contribution to what she viewed as the liberation of Mexican women during her time on screen.  She wanted women to realize that they had other options other than that of a “domestic slave.”   This view was shared by many women in the film industry during the Golden Age.        

Dolores del Río has the distinction of being the most sought after Mexican actress in Hollywood, then continuing her career as a popular actress in Mexico for years after Hollywood deemed her “too old”.  She traveled to Los Angeles/Hollywood in 1925 with her wealthy husband who was quite a bit older than her.  She had felt that her time in Hollywood was her liberation, as she was tied to her husband and family in Mexico due to their social status and wealth.  Her career began with a bit of a power struggle between her older husband, her manager, and herself over her career and how it should be managed. 

By the 1930s, Dolores began taking an active part in charting her career.  Her persona was her own self creation.  She used make-up and plastic surgery to change her outward appearance and recreated her mannerisms and bodily actions to conform to something closer to that of the Hollywood ideal.  This does raise the question as to whether or not these changes were due to Hollywood pressure, pressure from her mentors and management, or simply due to her own desire to be beautiful.  She realized very early on that her power and celebrity status came from her beauty and felt the plastic surgery made her more powerful as it gave her more beauty in her eyes.  In Hollywood, she was touted as the “ethnic” and “exotic” foreign actress.  Her roles reflected her ethnicity, although some felt as though she was “Europeanized” in appearance.  However, rather than being viewed as the “other” in society, her beauty and class trumped any attempts to view her as non-white.[17] She played many lower to middle-class women in film who dealt with inevitable suffering, seen as the “woman’s lot” in life, like that of María Calendaria, her most popular role in 1943.  Yet, in her public life, the publicity focused on her social status, almost as if to balance her persona between on-screen and off-screen.  

Her social status allowed for her to engage in behaviors that were not normally acceptable in Mexican society for a woman of her social status.  Her first husband was very wealthy and she came from a well-to-do family, so she was expected not to work as she was very well taken care of.  But rather than allowing herself to follow the expectations set forth for her, she chose to have a career and earn her own money.  After two divorces and no children, she worked in the public eye for the duration of her career, yet another atypical path for women of high social standing.  Throughout her life, she made small steps towards independence and eventually maintained all her finances and interests directly, delegated where needed, but decided most major decisions on her own. 

Within the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, there were women who went against the typical gender stereotypes and changed the industry for the women who followed.  While women did not hold official titles within the film unions, they did participate.  Matilde Landeta had to come up through the ranks of the STPC and fight her way to become a director in the heavily male-dominated industry.  Both Landeta and Adela Sequeyra had to create their own production companies in order to be able to follow their dreams of directing.  They were shut out of the industry due to their gender and decided to pave their own way.  Both women used their power as directors to infuse the feminine view into Mexican cinema and helped lead the movement for “otrocine,” which was cinema that told women’s stories.  In front of the camera, María Félix and Dolores del Río both realized that beauty is power and used their femininity and womanhood to become successful.  However, each of these women used this power to take control over their own lives rather than sit back and allow it to be controlled for them.  While María Félix chose to portray strong women on screen which reflected her real-life persona, Dolores del Río’s on-screen persona was the opposite.  Her roles were not that of the assertive woman, but she was far more assertive in her personal life.  All four of these women established their own path in the film industry while simultaneously changing the way women were viewed and in turn setting an example for future women to step outside the boundaries set forth within Mexican society.

[1] Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), 41.

[2] Isabel Arredondo, Motherhood in the Mexican Cinema 1941-1991: The Transformation of Femininity on Screen (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014), 47.

[3] Gilbert Joseph, Anne Rubenstein, and Eric Zolov, Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico Since the 1940s (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 165.

[4] Stephen R. Niblio, Mexico in the 1940s: Modernity, Politics, and Corruption (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 47.

[5] Joanne Hershfield and David R. Maciel, Mexico’s Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1999), 41.

[6] Elissa J. Rashkin, Women Filmmakers in Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 44.

[7] Hershfield and Maciel, Mexico’s Cinema, 45.

[8] Rashkin, Women Filmmakers, 18.

[9] Rashkin, Women Filmmakers, 54.

[10] Susan Dever, Celluloid Nationalism and Other Melodramas: From Post-Revolutionary Mexico to fin de siglo Mexamerica (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 98.

[11] Rashkin, Women Filmmakers, 56.

[12] Seth Fein, “Myths of Cultural Imperialism and Nationalism in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,” in Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico Since the 1940s, ed. Gilbert Joseph, Anne Rubenstein, and Eric Zolov (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 160.

[13] Andrea Noble, Mexican National Cinema (London: Routledge, 2005), 36.

[14] María Félix, Todas mis guerras (Mexico City: Editorial Clio S.A. de C.V., 1994), vol. 3, 84.

[15] Aida Hurtado, The Color of Privilege: Three Blasphemies on Race and Feminism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 51.

[16] Niblio, Mexico in the 1940s, 47.

[17] Linda Hall, Dolores del Río: Beauty in Light and Shade (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 12.