“Santa,” the classic 1931 film that launched the era of sound in the Mexican film industry, will screen Wednesday in downtown Los Angeles with a special guest appearance by its leading actress, 91-year-old Lupita Tovar.
The rare showing of the Spanish-language film (with English subtitles) will take place at the Palace Theatre on Broadway, one of downtown’s ornate old movie houses.
By coincidence, “Santa” will be shown at a theater with the same name as the one where it premiered on March 30, 1932, the Cine Palacio of Mexico City. This one-night revival marks the final event in the 15th annual Last Remaining Seats, a series of classic film screenings in vintage theaters benefiting the Los Angeles Conservancy. It’s co-sponsored by the nonprofit Latin American Cinemateca of Los Angeles.
Tovar plays a humble girl who is spurned by her small village after an ill-fated affair with a military officer. Disgraced, the ironically named Santa becomes a prostitute who “struggles to find love and sanctuary in the back streets of Mexico City,” as the ad says.
The evening will also feature a live musical tribute to the late Agustin Lara, the legendary pop music composer who wrote the title song and other music for the film. The use of Lara’s compositions in the middle of the movie heralded the tendency of Mexican filmmakers to use music to fill lulls in the plot, according to Emilio Garcia Riera’s 1998 “Brief History of Mexican Cinema.”
Although “Santa” is widely credited as the first Mexican “talkie,” other films with sound had already appeared by the late 1920s. But “Santa,” directed by Antonio Moreno, was the first to synchronize image and sound on the same celluloid strip, Garcia Riera states. The story was considered immoral when it was released as a 1918 silent movie, based on the novel by Mexican author Federico Gamboa. But both the original and the subsequent “talkie” proved very popular.
Tovar, who lives in the Los Angeles area, is best known to U.S. film buffs for her role in the Spanish version of Universal’s “Dracula,” also from 1931. It was made simultaneously with the famous English-language version starring Bela Lugosi, part of Hollywood’s early attempt to reach international audiences after the advent of sound. Tovar and the other Mexican actors would work at night on the same sets their English-speaking counterparts used during the day.
The idea of simultaneous bilingual productions was first proposed by Paul Kohner, a Universal executive who later became a powerful agent. The Czech-born Kohner also became Tovar’s husband in 1932. Tovar, who was born in Oaxaca, starred in more than 30 films between 1929 and 1945, and was recently honored with an Ariel Award, Mexico’s equivalent of an Oscar, for lifetime achievement.
* “Santa” screens Wednesday at the Palace Theatre, 630 S. Broadway, L.A. 8 p.m. $15 ($12 for members of the conservancy or Cinemateca). (213) 430-4219.