JESÚS GROVAS, A MAN OF VISION AND METHOD.
by Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr. © 2008
Jesús Grovas Segura was a Mexican film entrepreneur, who started on film business as an exhibitor. Later on, he became one of the most prestigious and successful Mexican producers and distributors. His entire career spanned five decades; three of them, as a producer.
It was 1969 when I first heard the name of Jesús Grovas. As I came home from school one day, I found my father boasting about an important business deal. He had just bought the debt-laden company of former producer Grovas, who passed away a couple of years before. His son was unable to manage the business and put in on the market at liquidation value.
My father's enthusiasm was well founded. He knew that Cinematográfica Grovas was a well-known and respected company, with a very attractive film catalogue. But the deal meant much more for him: the opportunity to make his own movies. At that time, no new film production businesses were allowed to open in Mexico. The established corporations abhorred new competitors. In buying Grovas's business, my father had automatic access to filmmaking.
The acquired assets consisted of the company's headquarters and sixty-four Mexican movies, some of which were not finished yet. When I visited the recently vacated office of señor Grovas, it struck me that the deal also included a large collection of books, advertising materials and documents. On the shelves I could see a number of novels, history volumes, movie scripts, film catalogues, etc. I later asked my father, the new owner of Cinematográfica Grovas, if I could have the collection. Though I was only a teenager then, somehow I realized that those books and other objects should be preserved in honor of the founder of a film producing company that made the headlines in its time.
Jesús Grovas Segura (1900-1967) was one of the pillars of the Mexican film industry. Although his name might not be too familiar, today's film lovers easily recognize the movies he made. In the 1940s he released several box-office hits, like Ahí está el detalle, La devoradora, Me he de comer esa tuna, and the color version of Allá en el Rancho Grande, starring Jorge Negrete and Lilia del Valle. He catapulted to stardom such figures as Mario Moreno Cantinflas, María Félix, Joaquín Pardavé, Sara García and many others. Grovas's impressive career as a film producer spanned thirty years and included more than one hundred films, yet very little is known about this dynamic entrepreneur.
The story of Jesús Grovas is emblematic in many ways. He had an unshakable faith in Mexican cinema, even when this industry was still in its infancy. From being a modest theatre manager, he rose to become the president of the Association of Mexican Movie Producers and Distributors. Since early age, Grovas helped his father run a theatre in Mexico City. The fifteen-year-old Jesús quickly learned the trade and later opened his own movie house. While residing in the port of Veracruz, he contracted yellow fever and had to go back to the capital of Mexico, where his health was restored. Shortly after, he took the lease of the Esperanza Theatre and furnished it with sound equipment. This small movie house, located in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán, became the first in the capital to show films with sound. After these activities, señor Grovas worked for several distribution companies, like M.G.M., Columbia Pictures and Paramount.
Beginning in 1937, Jesús Grovas entered the production of films with the assistance of his brother Adolfo. After collecting their savings, which amounted to $25,000 pesos, they laid out a plan to attract more capital. Grovas wanted to show off that he could do a splendid film, hiring the best people on hand. Their first film was called Amapola del camino. They started with a good script, written by the well-known vaudeville author Guz Águila. Next, the new producers took advantage of the popularity of Tito Guízar, star of Allá en el Rancho Grande (1936), and signed him up for the movie. Just a week before shooting started, don Jesús appointed director Juan Bustillo Oro, who also was a lawyer and talented screenplay writer.
In an effort to draw attention to his first film, Grovas spread aye-catching posters with the image of a young Tito Guízar and a message of anticipation: "Tito Guízar is coming to film the great movie Amapola del camino." The strategy served to lure other important actors to join the project: Andrea Palma, Leopoldo Chato Ortín, and the beautiful Margarita Mora. The release of the film attracted a lot of people and harvested more cash than expected. From that day, director Bustillo Oro became an asset to producer Grovas, who commissioned him to write and direct a series of films. Immediately he came up with an excellent screenplay: En tiempos de don Porfirio, a story full of nostalgia and romantic songs that broke all box-office records for a local production. In 1940, Grovas-Oro Films released the hilarious comedy Ahí está el detalle, which combined the genius of Mario Moreno Cantinflas and Joaquín Pardavé. This movie also became a blockbuster, and is revered today as one of the masterpieces of Mexican cinema.
Many people conceded that Grovas had a "clinical eye" and a superior instinct for the show business. This could be illustrated by the following incident. Just before making Ahí está el detalle, Grovas and Bustillo Oro went to see Cantinflas's vaudeville performance. At the end of the show, they quarreled over the worth of this young but popular comedian, opposing their views on the suitability of Cantinflas for their film. Although the actor had already been in the movies, Bustillo Oro considered that he lacked the necessary refinement for conventional acting. Grovas, on the other hand, saw Cantinflas's rambling speech and improvisation as precisely the kind of qualities that audiences loved.
The tremendous success of Ahí está el detalle proved that Jesús Grovas was right; his keen commercial intuition stunned everyone. Most of the movies he produced next were joyous comedies performed by accomplished theatre actors: Leopoldo Chato Ortín, Enrique Herrera, Fernando Soler and Joaquín Pardavé. But laughter was only part of the show; Grovas-Oro Films also launched one of the most effective tearjerkers, Cuando los hijos se van (1941). This story about the ups and downs of a middle-class family featured a number of seasoned actors, like Sara García, Fernando Soler and Joaquín Pardavé. Because of its engaging plot and real-life characters, contemporary critics consider this as the quintessential Mexican family melodrama.
The association of Grovas and Bustillo Oro lasted fifteen years, being a very fruitful one, both artistically and economically. One of the slogans that the producer used under the company's seal boasted "Los amos de la taquilla" (The Leaders of the Box Office). In 1943, they formed a new company, adding to it two more talents, directors Fernando de Fuentes and Miguel Zacarías. The skilled team was responsible for the making of several classics that gave rise to the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. Some of the best known features released by Grovas and partners were Doña Bárbara, Una carta de amor, La mujer sin alma, and Cuando quiere un mexicano. Bustillo Oro directed this last one and also wrote its screenplay, drawing inspiration from Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." This amusing comedy was originally entitled La gauchita y el charro. But Grovas searched for a more commercial phrase and found it in one of the movie's songs, composed by Manuel Esperón and Ernesto Cortázar. The selling point, however, was the virile presence of Jorge Negrete and the beauty and charm of his co-star, the Argentinian Amanda Ledesma, both of who were accomplished singers and enjoyed enormous popularity.
In 1948 Grovas broke up with his partners, Fernando de Fuentes, Miguel Zacarías and Juan Bustillo Oro. He then formed and independent company, Cinematográfica Grovas, S.A. From this point, he would deal with a director on a film-by-film basis. Bustillo Oro later joined him in several projects, receiving his paycheck once the production was completed. Other directors that also worked for Grovas at this point were Julio Bracho, Joaquín Pardavé, Roberto Gavaldón and Humberto Gómez Landero.
Even if producing films took much of Grovas's resources and time, he never abandoned movie distribution. Don Jesús continued to be the representative of some foreign prestigious companies, such as the Spanish CIFESA, which put out Locura de amor and Currito de la Cruz, among many other successful films.
There is no question that producer Grovas had an insight for subjects that attracted the moviegoing public. His long experience as an exhibitor and distributor of films paid off when selecting the themes and titles for his own productions. When Bustillo Oro wrote the script for Los hijos de los ricos, the producer changed its title for the more charming ¡Acá las tortas!, a popular saying. The reviews of this 1951 melodrama praised the film's realistic depiction of middle-class life and the fine performances of Sara García and Carlos Orellana. As expected by its producer, ¡Acá las tortas! did very well among working-class audiences, who flocked to the barrio theatres to watch it. The instinct of Grovas for catchy titles is also exemplified in a 1949 film written and directed by Joaquín Pardavé, who originally named it El padre desconocido (The Unknown Father). The movie dealt with the issues of single motherhood, but señor Grovas wanted to focus the attention on the film's leading male character, a mischievous taxi driver. He then chose for a title a local expression used for the fare of a taxi cab: Dos pesos dejada (Two Pesos For the Ride).
Other productions with imaginative titles are: Ahí vienen los gorrones (1952), referring to a group of scroungers; Ésos de Pénjamo (152), pun-intended title; Por ellas aunque mal paguen (1952), another popular saying; and El chismoso de la ventana (1955), about a neighborhood snooper. Such phrases, no doubt, seduced moviegoers because they conveyed diverse feelings and ideas that were all too familiar. In this context, Grovas liked to speak of himself as someone intimately linked to popular tastes. He once declared: "Since I started in this business, I have tried to do stories that are closer to the ethos of the Latin [American] people, selecting those that totally satisfy their tastes; that is why I have always favored a cinema that is simple and at the same time very human." (Quote from the publicity of Gendarme de punto).
Invariably, Grovas's films targeted a specific segment of the public, that of the working classes. Yet he also tried to do more ambitious productions geared towards an educated audience. Some of his most elaborate productions were La posesión (based on the novel "La parcela", by José López Portillo y Rojas), Inmaculada (drawn for a novel by Catalina D'Erzell), and Historia de un corazón (a replication of King Vidor's Stella Dallas). Moreover, in 1953 Jesús Grovas appointed Dolores del Río to star in El niño y la niebla, a drama that brought together the most talented people. The story was written by Rodolfo Usigli and adapted by Edmundo Báez. Gabriel Figueroa and Roberto Gavaldón were in charge of the movie's cinematography and direction, respectively. It was shot at the Churubusco Studios, with locations in the State of Veracruz, including an actual oil extracting camp. El niño y la niebla premiered at the end of 1953 and won eight Ariel awards, given by the Mexican Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences. For its promotion at the Cannes Film Festival, producer Grovas had special pressbooks printed in French and German. All in all, it was a very costly enterprise that left Grovas temporarily bankrupt. His old partner, Juan Bustillo Oro, came to the rescue; he designed and directed a series of inexpensive films that could make a quick profit. Under the seal of Tele Talía Films, Grovas produced and Bustillo Oro directed La sobrina del señor cura, La mujer ajena, Las engañadas, Padre contra hijo, El asesino X, El medallón del crimen and Del brazo y por la calle.
Señor Grovas's success, however, should not be attributed solely to his strokes of genius. He was an extremely methodical man, as his business documents prove. Film budgets, payrolls and other office papers were kept in perfect order. Most importantly, Grovas was well known for his tightfistedness; it is told that he was willing to invest only the indispensable resources to make a good film. In his case, cleverness, creativity and sobriety were the ingredients for a long and overall successful career. Señor Grovas shrewdness showed clearly when he cast actor/singer Ángel Infante for the leading role in Por ellas aunque mal paguen. To add more pull to the film, he convinced Pedro Infante (Ángel's brother) to make a special and very brief appearance in it. Pedro accepted right away. In the end, Grovas obtained from Pedro much more time on screen than originally agreed without paying him any extra money. He knew only to well that Pedro was a good brother and should do everything to support Ángel's stellar debut. The movie is a superb comedy, and was very successful at the box office.
Jesús Grovas continued making all sorts of movies until 1967, the year he passed away. In fact, the sixties saw him carry out one project after another with so much energy. To commemorate the making of his 100th film, Grovas traveled to South America to shoot Rumbo a Brasilia (1960), a color production starring Antonio Aguilar. The movie showed views of the new capital of Brazil and also included many songs performed by Aguilar. Subsequently, Grovas shifted his attention to juvenile comedies with famous pop singers like César Costa, Enrique Guzmán and Julissa. In La juventud se impone (1964), for example, César Costa and Enrique Guzmán compete against each other with their songs and antics. César Costa later partnered with Grovas under the seal Costa Films.
Grovas's son, Jesús Grovas Ludewig, also became a producer and established his own company, Tauro Films. This firm made one of the classics of Mexican horror cinema, Hasta el viento tiene miedo, which Carlos Enrique Taboada wrote and directed. After Jesús Grovas Sr. died, his son was left with the dilemma of staying afloat while pursuing a number of other projects. Very quickly, though, the economic solvency of Cinematográfica Grovas deteriorated, forcing its shareholders to sell it.
Through the years, I have watched most of the films produced by señor Grovas. Besides enjoying them very much, I began to collect the posters that were used for their theatrical release. Consistently, Grovas hired the services of renowned Spanish artist Josep Renau to design the posters. Those evocative images are a testimony of Renau's craftsmanship. They also demonstrate a commitment of señor Grovas to offer the best graphics for the publicity of his films. Another accomplished artist that created posters for this company was the caricaturist Ernesto "Chango" García Cabral.
A reflection on Jesús Grovas personality is gradually emerging as I proceed with the cataloguing of the movies, posters, stills, books and documents pertaining to his film company. Hopefully, such an undertaking will reveal to other historians the extent of the work of this dynamic producer whose passion was Mexican cinema.
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