The theaters had wonderful, even poetic names: the Azteca, the Teatro Electrico, the Mayan, the California, the Roosevelt, the Mason and the Million Dollar.
But though many of them have disappeared, the films they specialized in for decades are, "Brigadoon" style, making a surprising comeback in all their glory to show us, if only briefly, what we've been missing.
Los Angeles has been many things cinematic, but one of the most important is one of the least known: the 30-year period when a multitude of downtown theaters functioned as "the undisputed capital of Latin American cinema culture in the United States."
That description comes courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which in collaboration with the Getty Foundation's wide-ranging Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, is bringing the best of the past back to town in a program called "Recuerdos De Un Cine En Español: Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960."
Starting on Saturday with a screening of the 1946 Mexican classic "Enamorada" (A Woman In Love) through Dec. 10, the Archive will be showing a whopping 37 Spanish-language features, both at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood and at the former Azteca, now known as the Downtown Independent.
Nothing if not eclectic, the series has films from Cuba, the first Puerto Rican sound feature ever (1934's "Romance Tropical"), a group from Argentina and a handful of Spanish-language films made in the U.S. for the South American market.
The best known Argentine film is 1956's rarely-screened "Los Tallos Amargos" (The Bitter Stems). Long thought lost and a legend to both film noir fans and directors of photography (it was included in American Cinematographer magazine's list of "Best Shot Films"), this brooding tale of a scam gone wrong marries stunning camerawork with an unusual, unnerving score by Astor Piazzolla.
The UCLA series enables us, among other things, to experience the work of some of the biggest stars in Latin America, performers who were often not well-known here.
Argentina, for instance, gives us two internationally celebrated singers, Carlos Gardel and Berta Singerman. Gardel's beautiful lyric voice, smooth, sincere and seductive, is featured in 1935's "El Dia Que Me Quieras" (The Day You Love Me), released just before the singer died in a plane crash.
Singerman, a Russian-born Argenine who also performed in Yiddish and toured the world giving dramatic recitals to stadium-sized audiences, stars in "Nada Mas Que Una Mujer" (Nothing More Than a Woman). The plot is not even close to believable, but when Singerman launches into one of her rhythmic, racy, mesmerizing vocal presentations, you won't want to miss a word.
From Mexico comes perhaps the biggest Latin American star of all, Cantinflas, in his breakthrough film, 1940's "Ahi Esta El Detalle" (Here’s the Point). A fast-talking rascal with energy to burn and a way of speaking that defies accurate translation, you can see why he became huge even if you don't speak the language. His freeloader charisma is contagious: "If work was good," he tells his girlfriend, "the rich would have hoarded it and only they would work."
Not surprisingly, given the country's proximity to Los Angeles, films from Mexico dominated downtown theaters and this series. Included are many from the 1930s and ’40s Golden Age of Mexican cinema that showcase major talents both in front of and behind the camera.
While many of these films are unapologetically melodramatic, peopled by scheming men and suffering women, they are also exceptionally well-executed and infused with an unmistakable nationalistic spirit.
In the forefront of that golden age was the potent creative combination of forceful director Emilio Fernandez and the superb cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, a team represented by several splendid films.
Best known of these is "Enamorada," a tale of the Mexican Revolution inspired by, of all things, Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew."
The triumphant populist General Reyes (played by Pedro Armendariz and said to be inspired by Pancho Villa) falls in love with Beatriz, the daughter of the wealthiest man in town, played by Maria Felix, aka "the most beautiful face in the history of Mexican cinema."
Sparks fly, of course, but the ending, though suggested by the Gary Cooper/Marlene Dietrich finale in "Morocco," is nevertheless a visual knockout in Figueroa's hands.
Also visually inspired is 1948's "Salon Mexico," an example of the specifically Mexican genre of peliculas de cabareteras, "dance hall films" about good women coming to immoral ends. The woman here is determined to pay for her younger sister's posh boarding school, but don't expect it to end well.
A third Fernandez/Figueroa collaboration is 1940's "Maria Candelaria," a melodrama that won a prize at Cannes and was a showcase for Dolores del Rio, one of a handful of Mexican-born stars (Ramon Navarro was another) who abandoned Hollywood to flourish at home.
The series' major Del Rio film is 1946's "La Otra" (The Other Woman) where she does a fine job with a dual role, playing identical twin sisters in a steamy drama of jealousy, resentment and murder. "If Garbo is a woman who became a goddess," wrote Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, "Dolores del Rio is a goddess who makes herself a woman."
Rife with similar themes, 1950's highly polished "En La Palma de Tu Mano" (In the Palm of Your Hand) focuses on a fake fortune teller, successful enough to have his own neon sign, who meets his match in a wealthy widow. The film was nominated for 11 Ariels, the Mexican Oscar, and won eight, including best picture and director for Roberto Gavaldon.
If all this melodrama is getting you down, head for 1952's "Dos Tipos De Cuidado" (Two Careful Fellows). An example of comedia ranchera, musical comedies based on rural life, this high-spirited film features two of Mexico's top singing talents, Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. They may give each other grief as they sing about romantic differences, but not to worry. A good time is had by all, the audience very much included.
Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood
All screenings at 7:30 p.m. unless noted.
Sunday at 7 p.m.: “Santa,” “La Mujer Del Pueblo”
Monday: “La Otra,” “En La Palma De Tu Mano”
Sept. 30: “Eclipse De Sol,” “El Cura Lorenzo”
Oct. 1 at 7 p.m.: “Asegur A Su Mujer,” “Nada Mas Que Un
Oct. 23: “La Virgen De Caridad,” “Casta De Roble”
Oct. 28 at 3 p.m.: “El Vampiro Negro,” “Los Tallos Amargos”
Oct. 29 at 7 p.m.: “Ahi Esta El Detalle,” “Calabacitas
Nov. 4: “Romance Tropical”
Nov. 6: “Asi Cantaba Carlos Gardel,” “El Dia Que Me
Nov. 12 at 7 p.m.: “Dos Tipos De Cuidado,” “Una Familia De
Nov. 17: “Salon Mexico,” “Victimas Del Pecado”
Nov. 18 at 3 p.m.: “La Casa De Los Millones,” “La Dama Duende”
Nov. 20: “La Cruz Y La Espada,” “El Rey De Los Gitanos”
Dec. 2 at 3 p.m.: “No Dejes La Puerta Abierta,” “Castillos
En El Aire”
Dec. 2: “La Vida Bohemia,” “Verbena Tragica”
Dec. 3 at 7 p.m.: “Contra La Corriente,” “La Virgen Que
Forjo Una Patria”
Dec. 9 at 3 p.m.: “Maria Candelaria,” “Cita En La Frontera”
Dec. 9: “El Vampiro,” “Sombra Verde”
Dec. 10 at 7 p.m.: “Enamorada, “Alla En El Rancho Grande”
Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main St., Los Angeles
All screenings at 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 29: “Santa,” “La Mujer Del Puerto”
Oct. 6: “Alla En El Rancho Grande,” “Maria Elena”
Oct. 7: “La Otra,” “En La Palma De Tu Mano”
Oct. 13: “La Case De Los Millones,” “La Dama Duende”
Oct. 14: “Ahi Esta El Detalle,” “Calabacitas Tiernas”
Oct. 20: “La Cruz Y La Espada,” “El Rey De Los Gitanos”
Oct. 21: “Asegura A Su Mujer,” “Nada Mas Que Una Mujer”
Oct. 27: “La Virgen De Caridad,” “Casta De Roble”
Nov. 3: “Dos Tipos De Cuidado,” “Una Familia De Tantas”
Nov. 10: “Salon Mexico,” “Victimas Del Pecado”
Nov. 11: “Asi Cantaba Carlos Gardel,” “El Dia Que Me
Nov. 18: “El Vampiro,” “Sombra Verde”
Dec. 1: “Eclipse De Sol,” “El Cura Lorenzo”
Dec. 8: “La Vida Bohemia,” “Verbena Tragica”