María de la O

by William Washabaugh

We 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.

However, 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.

First 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,

with 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.

Threats, 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."

Pedro 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 Linares.

The 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
teniéndolo tó.
Te quiere reí,
y hasta los ojitos los tienes morao
de tanto sufrí.
Mardito parné
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
teniéndolo tó.
Te quiere reí,
y hasta los ojitos los tiene morao
de tanto sufrí.
Mardito parné
que por su curpita dejaste ar gitano
que fue tu queré.*

Shamed 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 of love.

As 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.

Román 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."

Francisco 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."

Having 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."

However 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.

The 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 films.

As 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."

While 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.

Given 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.

Gitanos, 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.

As 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 me!"


* I thank Noelia Oliva for correcting my original erroneous version with the translation provided here.


revised 4/04