Meeting with Raúl de Anda Sr.
(by Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr. ©)
Don Raúl de Anda (1908-1997) was a pioneer of Mexican sound film. He became a noted producer, director and actor, whose career spanned for more than five decades.
I was privileged to have met Raúl de Anda Sr. in the early 1990s, when he was still very active in the production of films. I remember seeing the eighty-two year old legendary filmmaker in his office, on the fourth floor of the "Condominio de Productores", near the Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. I was first impressed by his more than six feet height and liveliness.
Success had not spoiled Mr. De Anda. He was accessible and kind, willing to talk about his long cinematic career. He spoke with enthusiasm about his first steps in the film industry; he was an extra in Santa (1931), the first "talkie" of Mexican cinema. Quickly, he moved on to more important roles in movies made in the thirties, like Mano a mano, Juan Pistolas and El Rayo de Sinaloa. These were actually the earliest westerns made locally, full of Mexican flavor and depicting life in the haciendas. Raúl de Anda himself was no stranger to this reality; since childhood he learned the art of horsemanship from his father, who was an accomplished charro from the State of Jalisco.
An anecdote he rejoiced in recounting was his participation in the Mexican classic ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (1935), based on the novel of the same title, written by Rafael F. Muñoz, a film that became the first Mexican super-production of the sound era. The movie required an actor able to carry out a difficult action scene: he had to ride fast on a horse and lasso a machinegun from the enemy line, all of this in the middle of an infernal battle. Its director, Fernando de Fuentes, could not think of a better choice for this role than young Raúl de Anda. He incarnated Máximo Perea, a brave soldier who joins Pancho Villa's army during the Revolution. After accomplishing his feat, the wounded Perea delivers the machinegun to General Villa, only to drop dead on the spot. This scene masterfully captured the feeling of tragedy and heroism present in the novel of Rafael F. Muñoz. And Raúl de Anda made it at the first take.
By then, the 27-year-old De Anda had made up his mind: to devote himself to producing movies.
In the mid 1930s, Mexico had already developed a small but efficient film industry. Its structure was not based on an studio system, like it was in Hollywood. Instead, independent producers undertook the manufacture of movies. The only case of a Hollywood-like studio in Mexico was a failure, and no one attempted to repeat the experience. Generally, a person or a small group of people set up a company to do his/their own movies, and studio facilities were chartered to shoot interior scenes (the exteriors were almost always shot on location), and the studio's lab finished the job. In some cases, a producer barely completed his first film, after which he called it quits. However, working on an independent basis had its advantages too -flexibility, to name one- and some people did very well in establishing successful production companies. About 20% of the companies established in that decade were in operation forty years later, and a few are still extant and active today.
Raúl de Anda was one of those visionary men who risked everything to fulfill their dream. Like other pioneers of Mexican cinema, he embraced almost all aspects of filmmaking. Besides producing, he became involved in writing, directing, and acting. This was an exceptional era in which one man was able to run the show. Other producers also succeeded in doing the same in the sound era: Miguel Contreras Torres, Juan Orol, José Bohr, Miguel Zacarías.
Don Raúl told me about his first production: Almas rebeldes (1937), another drama of the Revolution. An underrated film, Almas rebeldes is a splendid microcosmic depiction of a Mexican revolutionary army and its quests, inner conflicts, and tragedies. The movie is about a motley group of revolutionary soldiers on a important mission: to reach the United States, where they must acquire armament to continue fighting for their ideal. A worn-out, bitter colonel; a young academic captain (played by De Anda) and his humble and loyal assistant, another pair of soldiers and a handful of untrained men complete the group. Soon the hardness of the desert, the chase by the federal forces and the unexpected joining of a woman in the party unleash passions and antagonisms. Nevertheless, the young captain achieves his goal, though he looses all of his men in the pursuit.
This film was made with scarce material resources, but with talent and enthusiasm. According to Mr. De Anda, it was his friend Alejandro Galindo who convinced him to invest in this project (written and directed by Galindo himself). The film ended up costing, De Anda said, the money he got from the sale of a cowshed.
Once the film was completed, De Anda's biggest worry was finding a theatre to exhibit it. The hunt became a nightmare and he spent eight months knocking from door to door. "I went to see all the exhibitors in Mexico City and nobody would take my picture for fear of retaliation from the American movie companies", he explained. At last, the novel producer got an interview with one of the U.S. film distributors, to whom he fired immediately: "Do you really think it's a crime to ask for a booking, to request that out of fifty two weeks in the year you take fifty one? I am a Mexican and deserve to play my pictures in my country." Almas rebeldes did play in theatres finally, but only after a long battle against entrenched interests of exhibitors and distributors. Filmmaking in Mexico was really a gamble, in part due to those illegal trade practices; more than money and talent, the task required determination.
The career of Raúl de Anda switched into high gear during the 1940s, following the success of El Charro Negro (1940), a film about a mythical charro that spurred three sequels; all of them produced, directed and starred by De Anda. He created a virtuous and heroic character, a black-clad charro who fights for justice and protects the weak from the abuses of criminals. The dignity that don Raúl bestowed on this character is an example of his deep-rooted nationalism.
Since then, he kept a busy schedule directing 36 films and producing more than 140. Several of them became box-office hits, like Yo maté a Rosita Alvírez (1946), a rural drama inspired by the very popular corrido of the same title. It played for thirteen straight weeks upon its release in 1947 at the Savoy Theatre in Mexico City. The star of this movie was Luis Aguilar, a famous actor and singer who became a regular of De Anda's productions. Aguilar starred, among others, in Caminos de sangre, Sucedió en Jalisco, El último chinaco, El muchacho alegre and El gallo giro.
The goal of Raúl de Anda as a producer was, first of all, to supply adequate movies to a specific segment of Mexican movie audiences. He explained it this way: "I hung around a lot in the countryside, visiting many towns, and thought the peasants, the simple people, did not have an entertainment at their own level, something they could get pleasure from; you should not give them caviar when they craved for tortilla and chile mixed together. That's what motivated me to become a producer: the desire to make films for the indulgence of plain folks." And don Raúl gave them much more than just entertainment. He gave them the opportunity to watch characters they could identify with, and stories plenty of folklore, national traditions and values. Those films were particularly appreciated by the Mexicans living in the United States; for many of them, movies were the only link to their land, language and culture.
From 1937 to the early 1990s, De Anda would stay in tune with the changes of popular tastes. His charro movies and revolutionary dramas eventually gave way to an array of urban comedies, thrillers, adventure films, and Hollywood inspired westerns. In due course, his sons Raúl, Antonio, Rodolfo and Gilberto also embraced filmmaking. His son Agustín was an actor until his untimely death.
During the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, Producciones Raúl de Anda released several movies that received critical acclaim at home and abroad, and are still considered among the best ever made in Mexico, like Campeón sin corona (1945), Río Escondido (1947), and El suavecito (1950), directed by Alejandro Galindo, Emilio Fernández and Fernando Méndez, respectively. All of these are outstanding films, but there are other of De Anda's movies that I find quite interesting too.
One of my favorites is Bajo el cielo de Sonora (1947), directed by Rolando Aguilar and featuring Raúl de Anda, Leonora Amar, Carlos López Moctezuma and Domingo Soler. Its plot has a lot of depth for a fictional film, bringing to scrutiny the plight of the Yaqui Indians, who were probably the fiercest people in northern Mexico -and the most ruthlessly fought by greedy Mexicans and foreigners who wanted their land-. There are some appalling scenes, like the one in which one of the Yaqui leaders, forcefully played by Guillermo Calles, skin the feet of a corrupt political chief and then make him walk over a path of salt. The movie has a strong message of solidarity and patriotism.
In fact, Producciones Raúl de Anda was one of the few companies in releasing films about some taboo subjects during the 1940s and 1950s: besides the above mentioned Yaqui conflict, the company produced Sucedió en Jalisco (1946), a film about the cristero war with an impartial view of that upheaval.
In addition to these films, I enjoyed watching a mystery movie starring the beautiful Miroslava Stern and Luis Aguilar: Una aventura en la noche (1947), which Rolando Aguilar directed. The screenplay was written by filmmaker and writer Chano Urueta. The intricate plot has to do with two young men who are doing research on spiritualism in order to write a screenplay. They attend to a session and mock the medium, who cast a spell on them. After leaving the session, the pals meet two dazzling but enigmatic girls who have been sent to carry out the curse. I could watch this movie time and again, because of its fantastic plot and the gloomy atmosphere created by cinematographer Raúl Martínez Solares. As usual in Mexican movies from the Golden Age, the work of excellent supporting actors lends credibility to this tale of romance that goes beyond the grave.
When I visited don Raúl de Anda in his office, I knew little about his career and much less about all the movies he had made. It did not either occur to me that this first interview would be also my last with the famed actor/producer. I still remember his resonant, low voice, generating an enjoyable conversation that kept my interest alive. After this meeting, I took any opportunity I had to watch his films, especially those of the early years. Each time I see one of them, I find another reason to re-evaluate this noted pioneer's contribution to Mexican cinema. Hopefully, his life and career will be honored in 2008, the 100th. anniversary of his birth.
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