Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Reina de las Rumberas

Smack dab in the middle of the Golden age of Mexican Cinema resided the Rumberas film genre. Rumberas films were tropical flavored musical dramas or comedies primarily set in Latin cabarets. These nightclub locations provided an excellent excuse to showcase the singing, dancing and acting of the "Rumberas", the triple-threat talented female stars of the pictures. One of the most successful of the Rumberas was Ninón Sevilla, a Cuban-born beauty whose paradoxical quality of sensual innocence fit right into the good-girl-gone-bad-but-gets-redemption-in-the-end theme that is omnipresent in the genre.  Her onscreen presence is magnetic but never more so than when she's dancing up a storm in one of her oft self-choreogaphed set pieces adorned in some outrageous outfit. I recently watched three of her better known films, YambaóVíctimas del pecado, and Aventurera and quickly fell in love.

My first experience with Sevilla came inside a Psychotronica DVD box set with a film titled Yambaó (aka Cry of the Bewitched) from 1957. Atypical for a Rumberas film, it's set on a mid-19th century Havana cane plantation instead of a modern urban cabaret, and whereas most of the genre was shot in black and white, Yambaó is drenched in glorious Eastmancolor. Sevilla plays the titular, Yambaó, a young woman acting as a vengeance proxy for her grandmother who was run off a cliff and left for dead by the local plantation's slaves believing her to be a witch. Yambaó's grandmother, who makes no bones about actually being a witch, wants her granddaughter to kill everyone involved but the matter is complicated by Yambaó's love for the married plantation owner. Sevilla, wearing dark make-up and sporting dark hair, plays a racially mixed character which is a little daring for the time but makes sense as most of the slaves on the plantation are of African origin. It also adds an element of taboo due to her forbidden love of the master. To further complicate things, the master's wife is pregnant with their first child and there's a deadly plague going around. Of course, as in all Rumbera films, none of this melodrama will deter the singing and dancing.

Outside of Sevilla's amazing physical charisma, there were two big things that surprised me about the film. The first was how smoothly the musical numbers were woven into the story feeling quite organic despite the absence of a club environment to support them. Unlike a lot of musicals where everything stops for the big number, Yambaó's pieces flow along with the story and are character defining. As an added bonus, they are also very brief in duration and get right to the point. The first number, where Yambaó is introduced, is a prime example. She shows up centerpiece-d between trees, naughtily freak dances all the young men, strikes a pose at the plantation owner and then spits at his foreman. Mission accomplished in record time - we immediately get a since of who this character is in the quick, efficient, stylish dance performed by Sevilla.

The second thing that surprised me about the film was its transgressive and steamy qualities. A bi-racial girl stealing a married man from his pregnant wife? And swimming naked in front of him? And dancing before pagan idols while sacrificing animals? Keep in mind this is a film made in the 50's for a sexually conservative, Catholic-based culture. I got cranked up watching it today, I can't imagine the effect it had on Latin males in the 50's. It's no wonder the Mexican league of decency put the kibosh on Rumberas films effectively ending their production by the early 60's. 

At the center of all this steaminess is Sevilla herself whose Santaria-influenced dances, stunning screen presence and melodramatic acting style all bolster the material to well above the average. She's so strong a presence in fact that the other actors tend to get blown off the screen by her and the film tends to stall when she's not in a scene. Happily, that rarely happens and the movie is highlighted by her appearances in all but one of the brief but effective musical interludes. Though the story is relatively simple and straightforward, it's the stylish execution of the musical numbers and Sevilla's participation in them that make the movie worth watching.


After being completely taken in by her charms in Yambaó, I watched another Rumberas film from 1951 starring Ninón Sevilla called Víctimas del pecado or Victims of Sin. Directed by Mexican cinematic icon Emilio Fernández, the film tells the story of a club dancer who rescues a baby whose mother's pimp has just made her literally throw away in the trash. Much more unintentionally campy than Yambaó but just as earnest, Víctimas del pecado features Sevilla as a fallen young women trying to do the right thing but constantly encountering societal obstacles. From a thematic perspective, the film is quite strong dealing with such issues as the inequality of women, the powerlessness of children and the difficulties of the economically disenfranchised. Fernández occasionally even mixes in some strong imagery to drive his points home.

The problem, if there is one, is that the serious overtones of the film are offset by the joyous musical numbers and heavy-handed melodrama which tend to give the film a campy quality that probably was not intended. That certainly doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed on that level, quite the contrary. To give an example of how deliciously over-the-top the melodrama is, early in the film, just after Sevilla's character arrives to pull the baby out of the trash, a garbage truck shows up and empties the can it was just in. It's unintentionally hilarious touches such as this that make the film fun. The introduction of the pimp character, played with gusto by Rodolfo Acosta, is enjoyably campy too as he downright preens after getting out of a barber's chair. His mega-evil character is love-to-hate despicable, and in Acosta, there is an actor who can actually share the screen with Sevilla without getting vaporized by her. My only wish was for more scenes between them.

The musical numbers in the film are Busby Berkeley-esque in style and quite enjoyable, but unlike Yambaó, they don't really fit in with the serious themes or story. Much like many Bollywood films, the upbeat, overproduced dance sequences feel a bit shoehorned. But knowing Sevilla's character is employed as a dancer at the cabarets in the film, it does make story, if not tonal, sense to see her at her workplace.

Given the limitations of era, schedule and budget, Fernández did an admirable, quite professional job directing the film. I particularly like some of his establishing shots which really give a sense of location and feel very noir-inspired. As much as I enjoyed the campy melodrama, I wish there could have been many more of these location shots as Fernández definitely had an eye for them and they give the story some much needed gravitas.


Elena (Ninón Sevilla) comes home from dance class to find her mother in the throws of passion with a family friend. Afterward, the mother leaves a note that she's running away with the friend and her distraught husband shoots himself and is discovered by daughter Elena. Elena then leaves town to look for work in the city where an acquaintance offers to find her a job, gets her drunk, hands her over to a cabaret owner who rufie's her and forces her into prostitution and also makes her the spotlight dancer at her club. 

Thus encapsulates the first half hour of the 1950, Alberto Gout film, Aventurera, and it only gets better from there. Unlike Víctimas del pecado, Aventurera has no thematic pretensions but is just pure, unadulterated melodrama at its most extreme. There must be at least a half dozen "oh no she di'n't" moments scattered throughout the film that caused me to squeal with amazement and delight. The first involves Elena breaking a bottle over her mother's lover's face and putting the boots to him WWE-style in front of a club full of patrons. She also gets into cat fights, drives getaway cars and seduces younger brothers. Every time I thought the movie was going to settle down and become ordinary, Sevilla's character would go into crazy-bitch mode again and unleash. In the latter half of the story, she becomes even more vengeance-minded, though her machinations become less physical, she's no less subtle in reaching soap operatic levels. Sevilla is paired with Mexican film icon Andrea Palma who plays her nemesis as the cabaret owner/white slaver Rosaura. Palma is perfectly cast and her character appears almost up to the task of taming Elena.

But with all the over-the-top melodrama, don't forget that this is a musical where Sevilla sings and dances in fruit costumes. What's surprising is just how good the musical numbers are, particularly the wistful title tune, and I dare anyone not to enjoy the Chiquita banana song or not relish Sevilla's coconut headdress in the Samba number. The opening harem number also impresses with its lavish set up.

Aventurera takes itself seriously and is very earnest in its storytelling but nevertheless moves along at a brisk pace. It's camp appeal is undeniable but Gout and Canadian cinematographer, Alex Phillips, shot a very good-looking film that may entertain for all the wrong reasons but is nevertheless a high quality production. Sevilla once again has the skills to put on a one-woman show but is ably backed in this effort by a strong supporting cast, well-crafted music and professional direction. The fun, overly melodramatic script is just the cherry on top of the coconut.

Final scores:
Yambaó 6.75/10
Víctimas del pecado  7.25/10
Aventurera 8.25/10