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TCM Imports - July 2013
Remind Me

La Cucaracha (1961)

Director Ismael Rodriguez's melodrama of love, passion, and revolution offers an example of the changes in the Mexican film industry just after its Golden Age. During the late 1950s, competition from television and Hollywood imports created a trend toward more spectacular films using big-name casts, color, and widescreen, in addition to frank dialogue and nudity. Shot in Eastman Color by legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, La Cucaracha (aka The Soldiers of Pancho Villa) features Mexico's four biggest stars, Maria Felix, Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendariz , and Emilio Fernandez. The story takes place during the most crucial era of the country's history--the Revolution--an event that has been mythologized in the country's popular culture. Yet, it is La Cucaracha's lusty scenes of passion and romance that are explosive, not its revolutionary ideology or its battle sequences.

Maria Felix, Mexico's biggest female star of the post-classical period, plays Refugio, a soldier in the Revolution who can shoot, ride, drink, and fight as hard as any man. The men in her loosely formed band of warriors call her La Cucaracha, because, like a cockroach, she is not satisfied with one mate. Refugio delights in taking the "mates" of others, but she bristles at any permanent relationship. She prefers the company of her female sidekick, Trompeta, who faithfully follows her orders and watches over her. The group of rebels that Refugio rides with is part of Pancho Villa's army, but they are undisciplined. The soldiers drink hard and are unable to resist chasing after the women of the Revolution who follow them from village to village. And, among Refugio's many conquests is Valentin Razo, a gunrunner played by Pedro Armendariz, who steals weapons to sell to the highest bidder.

Mexico's other major female star, Dolores del Rio, portrays Isabel Puente, the wife of the local teacher. Modest Isabel is the opposite of Refugio in every way: She's cultured, refined, and devoted to only one man. Given their different social circles, Isabel and Refugio do not cross paths until the day that Colonel Antonia Zeta rides into their village to take charge of the rebel forces. With his dark features and imposing physique, actor-director Emilio Fernandez plays Colonel Zeta as a revolutionary so dedicated to the cause that he sacrifices passion for duty. Though at each other's throats at first, Colonel Zeta and Refugio soon succumb to their mutual attraction and engage in a lusty romance fueled by their zest for life and their love of the Revolution. But, the Colonel realizes that their hot-blooded affair is a distraction that is destructive when he kills Valentin Razo out of jealousy. He breaks off the relationship and turns his attentions to the quietly beautiful Isabel, now a widow, fueling Refugio's anger and resentment.

Despite the participation of popular stars Fernandez and Armendariz, La Cucaracha belongs to the female leads, Del Rio and Felix. The film marked the first time the two costarred opposite each other as major movie stars, though they had both appeared in small roles in Reportaje, a comedy directed by Fernandez in 1953. Del Rio enjoyed a long career in both the Mexican and Hollywood film industries. Discovered by director Edwin Carewe, she was brought to Hollywood in 1925 to star in his film Joanna. She played a variety of roles in the silent era, but, with the coming of sound, her accent limited her in Hollywood to playing Latins. Dissatisfied with her Hollywood career, she returned to Mexico just in time to star in Fernandez's Maria Candelaria (1944), which launched the country's Golden Age of cinema. The film put Del Rio and the emerging Mexican film industry into an international spotlight. During this era, Del Rio became one of Mexico's leading box office attractions. By the early 1960s, the Mexican film industry was in severe decline due to competition from an international market, conservative officials and their influence on the industry, and directors who were no longer interested in important topics and social issues. Del Rio returned to Hollywood to appear as a character actress, working both sides of the border in the American and Mexican film industries. During her career, she managed to work with the best directors, including John Ford, Orson Welles, and Emilio Fernandez, but most importantly, she never let either film industry typecast her as the sexy Latin spitfire, a character type too often reduced to stereotype. She used her regal beauty to construct a star image that exuded poise, self-esteem, and dignity no matter the social class of her character.

Del Rio's star image contrasted greatly with that of Maria Felix, whose smoldering beauty was the subject of poetry, paintings, and songs by well-known writers and artists of the day. This gave her career a legendary connotation, like that of Garbo's or Monroe's, which Del Rio never really achieved. A decade younger than Del Rio, Felix began her career during the Golden Age, garnering popularity and acclaim as the title character in Dona Barbara (1943) but securing her star image in Woman Without a Soul (1944). For her entire career, which lasted into the 1970s, Felix played the strong, independent woman driven by her sexual appetite and her desire for real love. Until she found that love, her characters consumed men and then cruelly cast them aside.

The contrast between the actresses and their star images was exploited in La Cucaracha through everything from their characters' personalities to their costuming. At first, Felix's Refugio looks like a revolutionary, dressed in slacks, a hat, and an ammunition belt criss-crossing her chest. More importantly, she exhibits scorn for traditional female roles. In a scene in which a woman is giving birth behind the lines during a battle, Refugio coldly tells her that there is no point in having a son, who will either die fighting in the Revolution or live in misery without it. She also has little respect for the church and its moralizing, inappropriately getting into a physical altercation with Del Rio's Isabel inside the village cathedral. As the opposite female archetype, Isabel wears a plain black dress with a shawl over her hair, looking as severe as a nun. She lives only for her husband, a middle-class teacher who knows nothing of weapons and warfare. When Zeta drafts him into his rebel army, Isabel begs the Colonel to allow her husband to serve a non-combatant role. Zeta refuses, and her husband is killed. Isabel seeks comfort in church rituals and prayer.

Colonel Zeta turns out to be a catalyst of change for both women, who, by the end of the film, have become more alike. Refugio and Zeta embark on a love affair that can be chronicled by her change in appearance. Their attraction for each other is acknowledged when he purchases a beautiful serape for her; when their love is in bloom, she wears bold, colorful dresses, with her long hair down. When Zeta breaks it off, Refugio returns to her slacks and hats, but an unexpected pregnancy finds her wearing a plain-looking dress and shawl in a church, seeking the help of a priest to baptize her child. Isabel's sexuality is revealed to Zeta when he sees her bathing in a river, half-dressed with her hair down. He pursues her, until she, too, falls under his spell and joins the revolution. By the end of the film, Isabel is marching with the rebels across the Mexican landscape dressed in a masculine shirt, simple skirt, and an ammunition belt criss-crossing her chest. In the beginning, Refugio had been in the Revolution for the excitement--the danger, the men, and the lifestyle, but by the end, she joins the cause in a different way, following the band of rebels across the countryside with her baby in tow, just like Isabel.

The exploits of Refugio could have been drawn from any number of real-life women who joined the Revolution, often fighting alongside the men, including Coronela Maria de la Luz Espinosa Barrera. Barrera smoked, drank, and gambled, but she feared nothing and served the rebel army with distinction. Margarita Neri, another hardened fighter, led an army of men that regularly burned and looted villages held by the Federales. Called guerreras, these women of the Mexican Revolution came from all social strata--the peasant class, the working poor, the middle class, and the intellectuals. Using two stars who represent contrasting female archetypes suggests the diversity of women who put aside their differences to come together in the Revolution. Underscoring this theme are the additional secondary characters who are depicted fighting or contributing to the Revolution. Refugio's sidekick, Trompeta, also dresses in military garb with an ammunition belt across her chest. Most of the time, she watches out for Refugio, but she also cares for the other soldiers during battle, eventually sacrificing her life for the cause. Wives follow their husbands from battle to battle, doing their laundry, having their babies, and maintaining their marriages. The fact that the two main characters shed their original identities and become more alike reflects how women were influenced and shaped by their years in the Revolution, which in the film is symbolized by the disciplined, self-sacrificing Colonel Zeta.

The title "La Cucaracha" also has ties to the history of the Revolution. Though Refugio is nicknamed La Cucaracha because of her sexual appetite, the song of the same name often plays in the background. The tune was a traditional folk song that became popular during the Revolution because both rebels and federal supporters invented new political lyrics for propaganda purposes.

The politics and ideology of the Revolution ultimately hold little importance to La Cucaracha. The larger-than-life performances from major stars, the lusty scenes of passion and sex, the romantic songs, and the rich, saturated Eastman Color identify the film as a popular romantic melodrama, which was the film's main appeal to Mexican audiences. Yet, within the framework of the genre, La Cucaracha pays homage to the women who served throughout the Revolution, mythologizing their contributions to this chapter of history.

Producer: Ismael Rodriguez for Peliculas Rodriguez
Director: Ismael Rodriguez
Screenplay: Jose Bolanos, Jose Luis de Celis, Ricardo Garibay, and Ismael Rodriguez
Cinematography: Gabriel Figueroa
Art Director: Edward Fitzgerald
Music: Raul Lavista
Cast: Refugio, aka La Cucaracha (Maria Felix), Isabel Puente (Dolores del Rio), Colonel Antonio Zeta (Emilio Fernandez), Valentin Razo (Pedro Armendariz), Captain Ventura (Antonio Aguilar), Trompeta (Lupe Carriles), Lola (Flor Silvestre), Trinidad (Ignacio Lopez Tarso).

by Susan Doll