From the mid-1930s to the 1950s, Mexico had one of the most productive and important film industries in the world.
In 1944, Disney released what’s perhaps one of their strangest movies of all time: The Three Caballeros, an homage to a friendship between countries. This movie, starring Donald Duck and two stereotypical friends from Brazil and Mexico, Pepe Carioca and Panchito Pistoles, is important not for the really basic “introduction” to the culture of these countries, but actually, for the historical context in which it was released.
The movie tells the story of Pancho Pistoles’ tour in Mexico for a reason that goes beyond a mere “friendship” with the US; it has more to do with a business scheme much needed in the industry at the time and that is related to one of the greatest times in Mexican cinema: its Golden Age.
When the US joined WWII, its entire economy was focused on the war efforts. This included entertainment, and of course, the film industry. The lack of cellulose (now used mainly in the creation of weaponry) significantly reduced film production of the time, but Mexico, as a neutral country in the conflict, had enough to keep making movies, and their industry grew exponentially. Releasing a movie about a Mexican character, a ranchero, a type that was widely known, represented a huge success.
In the forties, Mexico was producing more than 200 movies a year. A large percentage of them weren’t good, of course, but an important number of them were also quite popular around the world. Among a long list of movies produced during the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (1940s-1950s) we have serious masterpieces in technical, artistic, and narrative terms. Below is a list of some of these film treasures every film buff should watch at least once in their lifetime. Grab some popcorn and prepare to be immersed in a entirely different way of making cinema.
20. Los tres alegres compadres (The Three Merry Pals)
Dir. Julián Soler, 1952
Let's start with a solid one. A group of scammers arrive in a town to play their tricks, but fall in love with a woman who has just arrived from the US after robbing a bank.
19. La ilusión viaja en tranvía (Illusion Travels by Streetcar)
Dir. Luis Buñuel, 1953
After a lifetime spent fixing an old tram, two drivers find out the company is thinking about putting it out of service. After a night of drinks mourning their job, these men decide to take it on one last trip, leading to a series of comic situations.
18. Doña Bárbara
Dir. Fernando de Fuentes, 1943
After being raped as a child, Barbara decides to take revenge on men by seducing them and then taking their money and lands, making her one of the wealthiest landowners in the territory.
17. María Candelaria (Portrait of Maria)
Dir. Emilio Fernández, 1944
Starring Dolores del Río, once one of the most successful Hollywood divas, the movie tells the story of a young, beautiful woman who is shunned by her community for being the daughter of a prostitute. Her life becomes a series of tragedies coming from a community that won’t forget her origins.
16. Angelitos negros (Little Black Angels)
Dir. Ismael Rodríguez, 1948
A wealthy singer marries the love of his life, but their relationship turns into hell when their child turns out to be black. He loves his daughter very much, but his racist wife neglects her. This is truly one of the most heartbreaking dramas in Mexican film history.
15. Allá en el Rancho Grande (Out on the Great Ranch)
Dir. Fernando de Fuentes, 1936
Considered to be the first movie from the Golden Age period, it tells the story of two friends: one is the owner of the Ranch, and the other its humble manager. Problems arise when both fall in love with a woman who actually loves the manager. The theme song, by the way, is a Mexican folklore gem.
14. El baisano Jalil
Dir. Joaquín Pardavé, 1942
A Lebanese immigrant family arrives in Mexico in the nineteenth century with a dream of becoming part of high society. When an important family who’s about to lose everything approaches them for help, they think they are close to achieving their dream, but little do they know that Jalil's charming ways won’t be enough to win over the hearts of a close-minded and racist society. One of the greatest comedies of the time.
13. Águila o sol (Heads or Tails)
Dir. Arcady Boytler, 1937
Speaking of comedies, here’s one from one of the most iconic Mexican actors ever: Mario Moreno Cantinflas. In the movie, three babies are left at a nunnery on the same day. As they grow up, they become inseparable. They make a living selling newspapers on the streets until they decide to become performers, while the father of one of them (played by Cantinflas) desperately looks for his son.
12. Los tres García (The Three García)
Dir. Ismael Rodríguez, 1946
Three orphaned cousins are taken care of by their tough and sassy grandma. However, the three of them can’t stand each other, and their feud only gets worse when they all fall for the same woman. Meanwhile, an enemy of the family, responsible for the deaths of their parents, arrives in town, forcing them to join forces as a family.
Dir. Antonio Moreno, 1932
Based on the novel by Federico Gamboa, Santa is the first Mexican (and Latin American) sound feature film. It tells the story of a naive and humble young woman who is tricked by a man and abandoned afterward. Her family and the whole town banish her for being immoral, and she has to leave and make a living by working at a brothel.
Dir. Ismael Rodríguez, 1957
The movie earned Pedro Infante a Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival, and the film won Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. It tells the story of an indigenous trapper and a Creole woman who fall madly in love with each other.
Dir. Roberto Gavaldón, 1959
As the first Mexican film nominated for Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, the film (set in colonial times) tells the story of a poor indigenous woodcutter whose family is on the brink of starvation. One day, he dreams he gets a full turkey to eat for himself and decides not to eat anything until he can achieve that. Desperate, his wife steals a turkey for him, which he takes to the mountain where he works. There, God and the Devil appear before him trying to convince him to give them the turkey, but he refuses. Finally, he meets a peasant man (Death) with whom he decides to share his treasure.
8. Ahí está el detalle (Here's the Point)
Dir. Juan Bustillo Oro, 1940
Considered one of Cantinflas’ best films, Ahi esta el detalle is a comedy of errors, where he plays a beggar who finds himself involved in a terrible misunderstanding between the law and a terrible gangster.
7. Calabacitas tiernas ¡Ay qué bonitas piernas! (Tender Little Pumpkins)
Dir. Gilberto Martínez Solares, 1948
Starring THE best comedian in Mexican film history, Germán Valdez Tin Tan, the movie tells the story of an entertaining businessman who claims to be broke to avoid his creditors, who are breathing down his neck. To make some money, he decides to produce a show with four dancers who fall for his charms. When he falls in love with his maid, the four women start fighting, risking the entire production and Tin Tan’s chance to get the money.
6. Salón México (Mexico Lounge)
Dir. Emilio Fernández, 1948
Mercedes is a dancer and prostitute working secretly at a famous dance hall in Mexico City to pay for her sister’s education. It all gets complicated when her pimp refuses to pay her the money she won at a dancing contest, putting her façade at risk.
5. Nosotros los pobres (We The Poor)
Dir. Ismael Rodríguez, 1948
This is probably one of the most memorable films from this period. The movie tells the story of Pepe, a poor carpenter who works tirelessly to support his family. However, life is determined to test him constantly by bringing him and his loved ones tragedy after tragedy. Its sequel, Ustedes los ricos (You The Rich) is a gem as well.
4. El rey del barrio (The King of the Neighborhood)
Dir. Gilberto Martínez Solares, 1949
This is Tin Tan at his best. The movie tells the story of a humble railroad driver who’s always helping others with their problems before taking care of his. However, he has a double life, as leader of a gang that tricks petty, rich women to steal from them. He ends up giving those earnings to the poor, à la Robin Hood.
3. Dos tipos de cuidado (Two Guys To Be Afraid Of)
Dir. Ismael Rodríguez, 1952
Probably the ranchero epic par excellence, the movie reunites Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, the audience's all-time favorite icons. It tells the story of two best friends who, after a misunderstanding with the sister of one of them, end up in a terrible feud. By the way, it has one of the best musical scenes in the history of Mexican cinema.
2. Aventurera (Adventuress)
Dir. Alberto Gout, 1949
Considered the best of the sub-genre known as “cine de rumberas,” it tells the story of a young woman who is tricked into taking a job as a prostitute in the brothel of an awful woman with a double life. After escaping her, she falls in love with a man only to discover he's the son of Rosaura, her former pimp.
1. Vámonos con Pancho Villa (Let's Go with Pancho Villa)
Dir. Fernando de Fuentes, 1935
The movie is considered by critics as the best of the best from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. It tells the story of a group of friends who, after hearing about the Revolution, decide to join Pancho Villa’s army to fight for the cause. Instead of the glorious revolutionary life they imagined, they discover the horrors of war and the real character of their hero and leader.
After about 25 years of film glory and the sudden death of some of the most important icons of the time, the themes that had worked once started to lose strength. The ranchero craze gave way to luchadores (wrestlers) and exotic dancers (known as ficheras), and the quality of a once great tradition faded into mostly poor narratives and cheesy techniques, thus ending the great Golden Age of Mexican cinema.
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