de la O
Americans frequently turn to film in our efforts to feed our
interest in, and knowledge of, flamenco music. And it makes
good sense, especially now with expanded video resources.
Films and videos are windows onto the world of Andalusian
music and dance, showcases for flamenco forms, shrines to
the great artists, and classrooms for developing an awareness
of the tortuous history of the flamenco style.
while films are promising, they are also challenging. They
tax every viewer's ability to read images and to exercise
filmic literacy. María de la O (1936) is a
case in point. It is a remarkable film in many ways. First
and most obviously, it offers us an opportunity to see Carmen
Amaya, Pastora Imperio, La Niña de Linares, and to
hear a young Antonio Mairena. But at the same time, it should
also leave viewers wondering about the plot with its curious
treatment of feisty gitano women and wealthy non-Gitano men?
Similarly, viewers might question the invisible cultural influences
that encouraged the "flamenquismo" of this film. And what
is one to make of the showy "esplañoladas", the glitzy
performance style that seems shallow in our day, but that
back then, in the 1930s, was a box-office mainstay. These
are the issues be explored in this essay.
however, let me take some time to sketch in the basics and
outline the plot. María de la O was shot in
black and white and runs about ninety minutes. It was directed
by the Andalusian pioneer of sound films, Francisco Elías,
a cast that included Carmen Amaya as María de la O,
Pastora Imperio as Itálica, Julio Peña as Juan
Miguel, and Antonio Moreno as Pedro Lucas, a.k.a. Pedro Morris.
Carmen Amaya dances a zambra in Sacramonte and a fandango
in Sevilla. In addition Antonio Mairena sings the title song,
his voice put into the mouth of Juan Miguel. The voices of
other flamenco greats have also been dubbed in, including
Manuel Vallejo singing bulerías along with La Niña
de los Peines, Mojama y Bernardo el de los Lobitos. La Niña
de Linares repeats the title song, or at least part of it
before she is threatened with bodily harm by Pedro Lucas,
a.k.a Pedro Morris.
hostilities, and murder play a large part in this smouldering
film. The story begins in Granada in a well-appointed apartment
where the young Pedro Lucas is just completing a portrait
of his Gitana lover. While he is out on an errand, a gitano
zealot, Manuel Molina, climbs in from the outside and slashes
the portrait before doing away with the woman herself. Pedro
returns, stumbles with horror as he encounters the scene of
the murder. He commends his daughter to his caretaker, and
then chases down the culprit who dies in the struggle, after
which Pedro himself hurries into hiding, helped along the
way by the father of Juan de Miguel. He leaves the country
and spends about fifteen years in California where he makes
his fortune, then to return to Andalucía as Pedro Morris.
Upon his return, he encounters María de la O at festivities
in Sacramonte. At this point, he has no inkling that she is
his daughter because, unbeknownst to him, María had
been adopted by Itálica, a gitana from Granada, and
had grown into a beautiful but a brooding, fiery, and fickle
woman. She has worked her way from one lover to another, rarely
faithful to any she indulges her avarice. Her implied watchword
is "show me the money."
Morris's wealth bulks larger than all her lovers' combined,
so, of course, María heads off to Seville with Morris.
Incestuous though it seems, Morris sets her up in lavish surroundings
and begins the project of painting, now, her picture.
He is warned by a mystery player in the tragic events of the
past that she is in fact his daughter. Meanwhile, her jilted
lover, Juan Miguel, having fallen into an abyss of despair,
is led by a second and far more vindictive "jiltee", Pepe
Mairena, into the vicious epicenter of the film's plot. Mairena
urges Miguel to sing out his misery in an angry copla. At
the bar where Miguel sings, Pepe makes sure that journalists
are present to record the coplas, thereafter to be spread
far and wide. That evening at the festivities hosted by the
Marquis in Seville, who is both friend to Morris and himself
enamored of María's sister, Mary Cruz, the invidious
song is sung before the whole assemblage by Niña de
evening breaks down. Morris and María go into seclusion
while the whole countryside begins singing "María de
la O". This catchy but mortifying song by S. Valverde and
R. de León served well as the hook for hoisting this
films to popularity, after which it remained popular among
the hummed tunes of everyday life for decades to come:
Para mis manos tumbaga,
pa mis capricho monea
y pa mi cuerpo lusirlo
mantone bordao, vestío de sea.
La luna que yo pía
la luna que me da.
Que pa eso mi payo habiya más parné
que tiene un surtán.
¡Envidio tu suerte!
- me disen arguna al verme lusí -,
y no saben, probes,
la envidia que ellas me causan a mí.
¡María de la O!
Que desgrasiaíta, gitana tú ere
Te quiere reí,
y hasta los ojitos los tienes morao
de tanto sufrí.
que por su curpita dejaste ar gitano
que fue tu queré.
Castigo de Dió
Castigo de Dió
é la crusesita que lleva a cuesta
María de la O
Para su sé fui el agua
para su frío candela
y pa sus cliso gitano un sielo d'amore con luna y estreya.
Queré como aquer nuestro
no hay en el mundo dó;
¡mardito dinero que así de su vera
ya a mí m'apartó!
¡Será más que reina!
- me dijo a mí er payo y yo lo creí;
mi vía y mi oro
daría yo ahora por sé lo que fui.
¡María de la O!
Que desgrasiaíta, gitana tú eres
Te quiere reí,
y hasta los ojitos los tiene morao
de tanto sufrí.
que por su curpita dejaste ar gitano
que fue tu queré.*
by the song, María's already morbid mood turns darker
still. Pacing about Morris's apartment in pain, she breaks
into his private room and finds the slashed portrait (of her
mother) that he had hidden away. She assumes that it must
represent his former lover whom he cannot forget. She leaves
him and returns to the house of her adopted mother, Itálica.
Juan Miguel finds her there, and, now with her "sugar daddy"
out of the picture, she responds more favorably to his protest
events develop, Morris receives word from a mysterious informant
that she is in Alcalá and is about to wed Juan Miguel.
He rushes to her side, explains his paternal position, and
the marriage between María and Juan proceeds to a happy
and very festive ending.
Gubern, in his Historia del Cine Espanol, describes
the plot in bare-knuckled prose: "María's destiny is
determined as if by an auction run acording to the principle
that the big fish eats the little fish and enjoys the benefits
of the big money. She is caught in an unusual oedipal situation
of frustrated love for her father. When she breaks away from
this asexual painter in order to rejoin her humble silversmith,
she is finally able to realize both her romantic love and
the gift of her father's fortune."
Hidalgo Gómez, in his biography of Carmen Amaya, contends
that María de la O was one of the costliest
films produced during the republican era, due on the one hand
to its complicated storyline and, on the other, to the appearance
of Antonio Moreno, whose Castilian diction carried the mark
of an English accent, and whose was well known and widely
sought by North American studios after his film debut in 1912.
(...Additionally,) Francisco Elías, director of the
film, demonstrated his firm grasp of the technique of North
America filmmaking, an inexhaustible source of melodramatic
formulas, and he exploited North American ganster film technique
for presenting the murder of Pedro's wife at the beginning
of the film...La Niña de Linares sings the title song
accompanied by guitar in the flamenco style. Additionally,
the film involves numerous members of the Amaya family, from
both the Barcelona and the Granada lines, including Manolo
Amaya on the guitar and María Amaya."
outlined the action of film, let me now consider its place
amidst films of the era, and its significance as a landmark
in the modern history of flamenco music and dance. The essays
in La Caña (No. 7, 1994) -- a special issue
devoted entirely to flamenco and film -- make it clear that
a film such as María de la O provokes questions
of a broad and general sort, especially about the Spanish
film industry and its ability to represent flamenco music
fairly and artistically. Romualdo Molina takes a heavily critical
position when he writes that the Spanish film industry has
generally served flamenco artistry poorly. "Spanish film,
hogtied by years of censorship, and limited by the scant willingness
of filmmakers to offer realistic images, presents the phenomenon
of flamenco as an art that is put off to the side of popular
interest but nevertheless traditional within Spanish society."
with a more upbeat tone, José Blas Vega suggests that,
from the beginning, Spanish film has leaned on the popularity
of "folkore". Filmic treatments of flamenco music and dance,
throughout the first half of the twentieth century, were therefore
inevitably subjected to folkloric romanticizations, resulting
in an "inevitable dialogue that was profitable on all fronts."
He points out that Spanish films from the very beginning,
in 1896, focused their attention on music and dance, an observation
that applies beyond Spain -- the Jazz Singer (1926)
was the first sound-synchronized film in North America. The
showy performances of flamenco in María de la O
were largely, therefore, the results of the evolutionary trends
in Spanish film.
decade of the 1930s, Eugenio Cobo says, virtually exploded
with films that featured flamenco music and dance: Madre
Alegría by José Buchs(1935), Rosario
la Cortijera by León Artola (1935), Paloma
de mis amores by Fernando Roldán (1935), La
Hija de Juan Simón by José Luis Sáenz
de Heredia (1935). Part of the reason for this explosion,
according to Román Gubern in his Historia del Cine
Español, is that sound film came of age in the
1930s at the very same moment that the Republic was installed
"in a climate of convulsions that led to a modernized regime
and to an era of civil liberties inspired in large part by
the Constitution of the Weimar Republic, and impelled by an
improvement in the social condition of the popular classes,
all of which encouraged a great expansion in the leisure industries,
despite the impact of the severe worldwide economic depression.
Additionally, the sound film opened up the tempting possibility
of consolidating a Spanish-speaking market in some twenty
American countries." In other words, the 1930s witnessed a
coincidence of longstanding folkloric interests with new technologies,
new markets, and favorable politics, all of which helped to
establish this period as the golden age of Spanish film in
general, and as a startlingly productive era for flamenco
might be expected given the political and economic volatility
of the early 1930s, film production companies underwent drastic
changes during this period. Bankruptcies, buyouts, and mergers
were the order of the day. By mid-decade, two companies emerged
as the strong leaders of the industry, Cifresa and Filmófono,
each in its own way responsive to the political forces that
were soon to tear the country apart. Cifresa generally produced
films with an ideological conservative spin. Filmófono,
by contrast, encouraged the exploration of liberal themes:
"women presented as victims who are seduced and abandoned,
young natural innocent men portrayed as abandoned and helpless,
and of middle class señoritos represented as sexual
predators" Such Filmófono themes helped to direct attention
to "the troubles of the popular classes aggravated by the
middle classes in a universe that rarely lacked the tinsel
of spectacles in cabarets, theatres, and popular songs."
María de la O was produced by the independent
producer Saturnino Ulargui, then known for having produced
sound films in English, French and German studios, it was
shot in the Orphea facility in Barcelona, a studio that had
been pioneered by the Francisco Elías, himself the
director of María de la O. Given these associations
with liberal Barcelona, with Carmen Amaya whose previous La
Hija de Juan Simon was a Filmófono production,
and with the Andalusian Francisco Elías, Ularqui's
production of María de la O can be suspected
of leaning toward the liberal rather than toward the conservative
pole of filmic orientations in the mid-1930s.
this context, viewers should come away from María
de la O with a healthy respect for its complexity. Its
showy rendition of music and dance follows from a style of
filmmaking that dates back to the 19th century. Its themes
of predatory señoritos and marginalized poor people
were characteristic of many films of the mid-thirties.
in particular, were portrayed as shrewd, scandalous, and emotionally
overwrought, in contrast to the easy dignity of the privileged
class. The energy created by such representations of startling
contrasts in the wealth, language, and music guaranteed a
solid market for this, and kindred films, in the Americas
as well as in Spain. But at the same time, this representation
of social polarity was disturbing -- even in its
day -- and must have helped to unsettle the status quo in
a manner consistent with the liberal orientations of the era.
for Carmen Amaya herself, she is simply scintillating as a
dancer, if not as an actress. Hidalgo Gomez tells us that
prior to this film, her career slipped into a valley of sorts.
The hard-hitting critic, Sebastià Gasch, had reviewed
her performances in 1933, writing comments that amounted to
an artistic obituary: "With a thirst for money, she dances
three times a week: in the Bar del Manuet, in the Edén
and in Villa Rosa. These excesses are fatally exhausting to
even a robust constitution." Subsequently, however, Gasch
changed his tune: "Ritual, sexuality, and symbol, primitive
negation of every system, this little Gitana is a slice of
natural life, who fought to organize her impulses -- her spasms
of lamentation, her animal ferocity -- without domesticating
them." Her film won rave reviews: "Authentic Gitano performance,
elegant, passionate, dramatically vigorous, joyful, and all
founded on a single vibrant temperament without par among
our artists" (Cinegramas). "All the passion and all
the force of a race in the figure and dances of this prodigious
gitana" (Films Selectos). Amaya, herself, however,
was less eager about this and other films of the period. Alvarez
Caballero provides us with her self-critical comments: "I
saw that there I was, but it was some other me, and not the
real me, as if it was my shell. You understand? I felt myself
to be a grizzly joke. It had a very disagreeable impact on
I thank Noelia Oliva for correcting my original erroneous
version with the translation provided here.