From the UFA to the Mexican Studios: Alfredo B. Crevenna.
Alfredo B. Crevenna (1914-1996) was an outstanding German-born filmmaker whose successful career in Mexico spanned almost four decades.
By Rogelio Agrasánchez, Jr.
For some time, I had waited to have a formal conversation with Alfredo B. Crevenna. He directed a few films for my father’s company in the 1980s. Working on the set, he always kept a tight schedule and was difficult to get a hold of. But an opportunity arose in 1991, when he seemed to pause in directing films. This time I packed my tape recorder and quickly went to his home. He lived in Coyoacán, a quiet Mexico City neighborhood. Still in my memory is the name of the street: Cerro del Hombre. I found this tall, educated man an extremely polite person. He never lost that charming German accent and, to my surprise, really enjoyed giving interviews. His excellent sense of humor popped up whenever he mentioned something unusual or comic. A big laugh every so often was a sign of his enormous confidence in life. Punctually, he sat down in the midle of a cozy living room and offered me a cup of coffee. Our conversation flowed with ease and he began to tell his story.
When he was twenty-four, Alfred Bolongaro-Crevenna decided to leave his post at the UFA film studios in Berlin. This happened in 1938, during the rise of Hitler’s nationalist movement. The young Crevenna arrived in New York City and tried unsuccessfully to obtain a work visa. The quota for German immigrants was jam-packed. After three months of inactivity, he took an invitation from an old school companion to go to Mexico City. There he met the film producer Francisco de P. Cabrera, who was preparing to shoot La noche de los mayas. Cabrera wanted to improve the movie’s script and gave it to Crevenna for a reading. Not speaking a word in Spanish, he went to the bookstore where they only had a standard English-Spanish dictionary available. He translated the script overnight, upgrading its dramatic structure and making valuable suggestions. The talent and intelligence of the recently arrived Crevenna positively impressed producer Cabrera.
With his collaboration in La noche de los mayas, Crevenna started a successful career in the Mexican movie industry. He subsequently gained Mexican citizenship. During the next 58 years he directed more than 140 features, a record that is hard to beat. His filmography comprises a variety of genres: drama, comedy, adventure, science fiction and horror. Many of his movies were highly praised by critics, but more importantly Crevenna’s skills were evident in the commercial appeal of his films.
When asked about his early pictures, he called to mind an interesting anecdote concerning the movie Santa, the 1943 version starring Esther Fernández and Ricardo Montalbán. Producer Francisco de P. Cabrera wanted this to be Crevenna’s debut as a director in Mexico. With great dedication, they prepared the script and ordered the construction of sets at the Estudios Azteca. Two gifted artists, Gunther Gerszo and Carlos Toussaint, were in charge of set designing. Crevenna knew that this was the golden opportunity he was waiting for. He even readied all the actors, working their scenes over and over in advance of filming.
However, just a week before shooting started the producer received a call from the United States. The Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs objected to his plans to use the services of Crevenna, a filmmaker of German origin. Since the U. S. was the only supplier of film stock during wartime, it had the power to dictate who would direct a film. In fact, the Coordinator already made a decision and Norman Foster arrived from Hollywood to take care of the direction of Santa. Crevenna had to accept the new situation; he remained in the studios as an aide and translator to Foster, who did not speak Spanish.
A year later, in 1944, the producer of Santa signed on Alfredo B. Crevenna for the direction of a film which story was still up in the air. Crevenna proposed making a comedy and pointed to a famous play by Heinrich Von Kleist, The Broken Jug (Der zerbrochene Krug). Immediately, they worked on the story’s adaptation and concieved a catchier title for the film: Adán, Eva y el Diablo. Crevenna and the set designer, Gunther Gerszo, toured the state of Michoacán taking photographs of picturesque towns. Back in the studio, they created their own version of a Mexican village in a sound stage. Gerszo drew the backgrounds and provided miniatures for the completion of the project, which was finally the work of Ramón Rodríguez Granada. In one humorous scene, we see a plummeting sun on the village’s horizon. Crevenna took the Mexican expression ”A la caída del sol“ literally and turned it into an effective pun. Lively music and popular songs adorned this comedy about an old, crooked judge who struggles in vain to keep secrete his affair with a cute peasant girl. Two memorable vaudeville actors, Roberto Soto and Amelia Whilhelmy, added brisk dialogue to the tale.
But Crevenna did not insist in making more comedies. Actually during the forties and fifties he shot only a couple of them, focusing instead on urban melodramas. He quickly found his niche in this category. Two actresses who were famous for their weeping abilities, Libertad Lamarque and Marga López, starred frequently in Crevenna’s genre films: La dama del velo, Otra primavera, Huellas del pasado, La mujer sin lágrimas, Casa de muñecas and others. As a matter of fact, they were brought together in La mujer sin lágrimas (1951), a period tearjerker scripted by Edmundo Báez with the collaboration of Egon Eis, another German immirant. It recounts the story of two sisters, Consuelo (Libertad Lamarque) and Beatriz (Marga López). Beatriz is a married woman but has a secret affair with her sister’s fiancé. To save Beatriz’s marriage and reputation Consuelo adopts Rita, the illegitimate child of Beatriz. When the girl grows up and wishes to marry a man of society, the truth about her actual parents is revealed. Beatriz then tries to get back her daughter’s affection, but Rita remains loyal to Consuelo, whom she looks upon as her genuine mother. Eventhough La mujer sin lágrimas was filmed in less than four weeks; it ended up having excellent production values. This was apparent in its superb cinematography, set designs, costumes, music and editing work.
One of Crevenna’s favorite movies was Muchachas de uniforme (1950), an adaptation of a German play that had been filmed before as Mädchen in Uniform. The producer brought a young actress of Polish origin, Irasema Dilián, to star in the movie. She characterized a timid orphan girl in a convent school who finds affection and support in a benevolent teacher (played by Marga López). The girl’s intense feelings for her tutor are misinterpreted by others and regarded as sinful. The theme of lesbianism is apparent in this melodrama that inflamed public opinion. Tongue in cheek, director Crevenna stated: ”Because of this film, I had the privilege of getting a condemnation from all the pulpits in Mexico City during a Sunday Mass.“ Roaring with laughter, he then mentioned that Muchachas de uniforme is one of those films that are hardly ever transmitted on television. In her autobiography, Marga López wrote about Crevenna: ”He was in total command of film technique; I adored him because he directed some of my best movies.“
After completing eight melodramas in a row, Crevenna embarked on his second comedy: Mi esposa y la otra (1951). The film was based on a popular play (Los hijos crecen) in which Marga López had a part. The mature and always interesting actor Arturo de Córdova was chosen for the male lead. According to its director, Mi esposa y la otra became a tremendous box office hit. Other films like Orquideas para mi esposa, El gran autor, La rebelión de los colgados and Talpa were crtically acclaimed. Beautifully photographed by Rosalío Solano in Cinemascope and Eastmancolor, Talpa received several ”Ariel“ awards and was nominated for Best Picture in 1957.
During the 1960s, Crevenna was appointed to direct a variety of subjects. Most of them were Westerns, comedies and horror films. To save time during shooting, he developed a system that allowed him to make four movies in only eight weeks. At the Estudios America, he filmed back to back: La casa de los espantos, Échenme al vampiro, El rostro infernal and La huella macabra. Producers were extremely pleased with Crevenna’s rapid way of shooting. That is one of the reasons he consistently found work at the studios. At this time, though, he enjoyed doing imaginative movies like Santo vs. la invasión de los marcianos (1966). Crevenna endowed the extraterrestrials in this story with a wacky instrument glued onto their belts; at the push of a button, the Martians could disintegrate their bodies. Today this sci-fi movie has been turned into a cult favorite. Once again, Crevenna directed the famous silver-masked wrestler in Santo vs. la magia negra (1972). To give it an air of authenticity, the crew travelled to Haiti to shoot some spectacular scenes. The director was even allowed to photograph a vudu-zombi ceremony that left him speechless.
For almost two hours, the German-born director recounted a series of refreshing anecdotes about his movies. At last, he took out a book of family genealogy and explained the story behind his last name, which is really Bolongaro-Crevenna. He said that a stubborn ancestor wanted his name (Bolongaro) to carry on in the family for many centuries. Since this gentleman only had two daughters, he astutely convinced his future sons-in-law to add Bolongaro to their respective offspring’s last name. The resulting two breeds were Bolongaro-Crevenna and Bolongaro-Simonetta. Director Alfredo B. Crevenna closed the family book and with a smile concluded: ”Ende. That’s the end of the story.“
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