ESTHER FERNÁNDEZ: A DOWN TO EARTH BEAUTY.
© Rogelio Agrasábchez Jr., 2008
Esther Fernández (1920-1999) was a famous Mexican actress during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. Afterwards, she became an amateur painter.
I met Miss Esther Fernández the night of a tribute to pioneer filmmaker Miguel Zacarías, in 1990. Her unassuming manners impressed me, all the more since she had been a celebrated beauty and one of the most famous actresses of Mexican cinema. After talking to her briefly, Miss Fernández kindly agreed to an interview the following week.
For one reason or another, it was until May 1991 that our first interview took place. I arrived at her home with much expectation. When she opened the door to me, her slender and tall figure struck me anew. The seventy-year-old lady politely shook my hand and led me to her living room. I wondered at the walls of a mid-size room decorated with many paintings, some of them done by Miss Fernández herself. Before starting our conversation, she offered me a cup of decaf and then sat down near one of her portraits on the wall.
She looked strong and healthy; her beauty still intact. A long lasting smoking habit had taken its toll on her voice, which sounded much lower than in her younger days. Enthusiastically, she announced she had decided to quit smoking. I then asked her to tell me the story and anecdotes of her rise to stardom. The once acclaimed ”Crucita“ of Allá en el Rancho Grande, whose charming beauty attracted scores of admirers, began her narration.
Esther Fernández González was born in 1920 in Mascota, a small town in the Mexican State of Jalisco. When the Cristero rebellion broke out, her mother decided to sell their house, including the furniture. The family immediately left town, afraid of the increasing violence. Young Esther went north to the city of Saltillo, Coahuila, where she attended school. A year later she joined her mother in Mexico City. One of her aunts, Aurora Bermúdez, worked as an extra at the films studios and sometimes landed important roles. She convinced Esther to participate as an extra in La mujer del puerto, in 1933. Because of her stunning looks, Esther was very soon offered bit roles, the camera closing up her lovely face. But she rejected them on account of her shyness. Esther’s friends mockingly called her an obtuse. Finally, one day she resolved to put an end to the ridicule and took a chance.
In 1936, director Fernando de Fuentes was looking for a fresh actress for the leading female role in his next film, Allá en el Rancho Grande. He had appointed Tito Guízar, already famous in the United States as a singer, to be the leading actor in the movie. When De Fuentes saw Esther Fernández, he knew he had found the perfect ”Crucita“. But Miss Fernández had not developed any acting skills yet. To the rescue came director Miguel Zacarías, who volunteered to coach her. In fact, he did more: young Miss Fernández was cast as the leading lady in Zacarías’s current movie, a thriller entitled El baúl macabro.
For this film, the sixteen-year-old actress worked hard to overcome her shyness, coming out victorious after the challenge. Miss Fernández remembered that, in order to have her scream in a horror sequence, director Miguel Zacarías put ice on her stripped back. Yet, Zacarías could not persuade her to kiss actor René Cardona on the lips. Instead, the love scene was symbolized by showing only the couple’s interlocked feet at the side of a grand piano. All in all, her performance was satisfactory and Esther Fernández began to prepare to play ”Crucita“.
The innocence that Esther Fernández imparted to her roles sprung up naturally and with no effort on her part. This freshness is quite evident in all her films, beginning with the above mentioned Allá en el Rancho Grande. In this rural comedy, she played a naïve peasant girl, ”Crucita“, to whom the owner of the ranch (René Cardona) and his foreman (Tito Guízar) are attracted. Cardona does not know that Crucita is the foreman’s fiancée and, influenced by a wretched old hag (Emma Roldán), he tries to seduce the young girl. A quarrel arises between the two ranchers but in the end the truth is revealed and Crucita is reconciled with the foreman. The movie has enjoyable songs and plenty of humor provided by Carlos López Chaflán, an excellent comedian playing the no-good, drunkard fiancé of Emma Roldán’s. Because it was a big success, Allá en el Rancho Grande gave a tremendous impulse to the careers of those involved in the project.
It goes without saying that Esther Fernández’s delicate looks drew the attention of many men, including the young actor Pedro Armendáriz, who proposed to her during the shooting of Mi candidato (1937). Since they were only friends, Esther took Armendáriz’s suggestion as a joke and answered playfully with a yes. Overjoyed, he asked her to dress up straight away and be ready for their wedding. Armendáriz quickly called in a Justice of the Peace and invited some witnesses to the set. When the inexperienced Esther returned and saw what was going on, she was terrified and ran away instantly.
Young Esther Fernández was more than a pretty girl and a good actress. She had a shrewd business sense and, knowing that many Mexican movies were doing very well at the box office, decided to become a film producer in 1939. In alliance with some comrades she formed a cooperative to make Los de abajo. Director Chano Urueta, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, art director Jorge Fernández, and producer Luis Manrique were her business partners. Based on a prestigious novel of the same title, written by Mariano Azuela, this tale of the Revolution included accomplished actors in its cast: Miguel Ángel Ferriz, Domingo Soler, Isabela Corona, and Alfredo del Diestro. Author Mariano Azuela was very pleased with the interpretation of Esther Fernández in the role of ”Camila“. He later told the actress that her candor on screen added something fresh and imaginative to the original character he created for his novel.
At a time when a standard Mexican film was made with $100,000 pesos, Los de abajo ended up costing $300,000. In order to finish the movie, the producers requested a loan from the Banco Agrícola. Although the film had many production values and was done artistically, it failed at the box office. Three years later, the lending institution sued the producers for not paying back the loan. Obviously worried, Esther Fernández asked some of her partners what to do. Luckily they found producer Jesús Grovas, who agreed to take the film and handle the debt.
In 1940, the actress went to Hollywood and accepted a contract at Paramount Pictures. She immediately enrolled in an English class, and took drama, speech, singing and dancing lessons. Her coach at Paramount was William Russell. During her stay in the United States, more than one gentleman chased pretty Esther. Every suitor was turned down upon learning that she was only nineteen. In fact, this cute Mexican’s only shield against seduction was her tender age.
Even though Esther Fernández was under contract for three years, the studios never used her talent. She performed a film test, though, for the selection of the female lead in Whom the Bell Tolls, which Ingrid Bergman finally obtained. Before returning to Mexico, Esther met Francis Alstock, an agent of the Motion Picture division of the Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs (CIAA). He fell in love with the actress and begged her to marry him. Everybody knew that Alstock was nuts about Miss Fernández, but she just could not reciprocate. On one occasion the President of Mexico, Miguel Alemán, acted as a mediator. He was in a public ceremony with the actress and privately said to her: ”Come on, Esthercita, why don’t you give poor Francis a chance?“
Reflecting on this situation many years later, a mature Esther Fernández realized her complete lack of diplomacy with respect to Francis Alstock. To do him justice, she put on the record the positive qualities of the man: ”He fought hard so that the Mexican film industry could be supplied with raw film stock from Hollywood, at a time when this resource was scarce. Also thanks to him, new studios and companies like Churubusco and Tepeyac opened.“ Certainly, Francis Alstock’s efforts in Mexico exceeded what was expected of him as a representative of the CIAA; he helped build a strong relationship between Mexico and the United States based on favorable business deals and mutual cooperation.
In 1943, Esther Fernández became the heroine of Santa, a story already filmed twice; first during the silent era and then as the first Mexican movie with optical sound. Norman Foster came from Hollywood to direct the third version, which included Ricardo Montalbán in the male leading role. Miss Fernández had a chance to demonstrate her maturity as an actress; she recalled enjoying very much her participation in this movie. Producer Francisco de P. Cabrera took the film seriously and made it with great professionalism. Critics praised Santa’s production values as well as the work of director Foster and Esther Fernández. Competing against such favorites as Dolores del Río and María Félix, a Best Actress award was given to Miss Fernández by UPECM (Cinema Journalists Guild). The same team made another movie, La fuga, loosely based on Guy de Maupasant’s ”Boule de suif“. Now recognized internationally, the star of Santa was given the role opposite to Alan Ladd in Two Years Before the Mast, a Paramount production made in 1945. After taking part in this movie, she returned to Mexico.
Some time later Antonio Badú, actor and singer, was the fortunate man in winning the heart of Esther Fernández. The romantic couple shared the spotlight in various films: La mujer que quiere a dos, Cantaclaro, Ramona, Ahí vienen los Mendoza, Las mañanitas, Sólo Veracruz es bello, etc. However, they spent very little time together after their marriage in 1949. Badú and Fernández divorced a year and a half later, but remained good friends until the actor’s death in 1993.
Esther Fernández continued doing roles that fitted her sweet and delicate personality. She was at her best in Flor de durazno (1945), a film based in a novel by Hugo Wast and directed by Miguel Zacarías. In this drama, she played ”Rina“, an innocent girl that is seduced by the son of a rich landowner. The unfortunate Rina is beaten by her father and runs away taking refuge in the big city, where she confronts all sorts of maladies. Flor de durazno showed the notable aptitudes of Miss Fernández as a performer. The camera work of cinematographer Ignacio Torres emphasized her natural beauty like never before.
Also worth mentioning is Su última aventura (1946), an amusing comedy directed by Gilberto Martínez Solares. The plot has a band of harmless gangsters running away from the police; The band’s leader (Arturo de Córdova) hires a naïve girl (Esther Fernández) as a secretary and wins her confidence for a special assignment: to pose herself as the lottery winner and bring the money to him. De Córdova, who is also attracted to the trustworthy secretary, slowly falls for her. The movie has a happy ending and is thoroughly enjoyable. Miss Fernández was able to create a gorgeous character that is full of candor and very attractive at the same time.
In one of the most celebrated Mexican movies of the Golden Age, Esther Fernández shared credits with a big star, Dolores del Río. The film was Doña Perfecta (1950), an adaptation of Benito Pérez Galdós’s novel of the same title. Miss Fernández executed a flawless impersonation of ”Rosario“, the young daughter of Doña Perfecta. Her role as a docile yet independent woman stands in sharp contrast to Del Río’s fanatical and authoritarian portrayal. The movie’s tragic end, when Doña Perfecta orders a servant to kill Rosario’s sweetheart, reflects this clash of temperaments. Such a crucial scene is a confirmation of the performing abilities of both actresses, Del Río and Fernández.
In 1957, after a two-year long battle with hepatitis, Esther Fernández retired from the films studios. She said that this ”retirement“ was actually compulsory; the producers were so busy introducing younger actresses. At thirty-seven, the actress felt that her age was the main factor in this decline. Esther began to paint and do ceramics, a hobby that developed into business. Occasionally, she appeared on television doing small roles for ”telenovelas“ (soap operas). Most of the time she avoided the spotlight and lived a quiet life dedicated to her art. Miss Fernández was also good at investing money; she bought a good piece of land near the city limits and built a country house there. A few years after she died, I had the opportunity to visit that intimate house overlooking a landscape of trees. I was taken there by one of her nieces, who offered me a collection of photographs and memorabilia of the deceased actress. Studio portraits, movie stills, newspaper clips and other objects have inspired me to know more about Esther Fernández, a woman who conquered her shyness and rose to the category of a film star. Her spontaneous character stole the hearts of people hat saw her in film or met her in person. I count myself as one of her most devoted movie fans.
All contents © Agrasánchez Film Archive