Gilda de Abreu’s O Ébrio (The Drunkard) marked the first time a woman directed a talking feature film in Brazil. Released in 1946 and inspired by the hit song of the same name, the film was a national sensation. It was both a critical and commercial success for the multi-talented de Abreu. The story taps into a variety of themes common to melodramas including morality, greed, charity and self-sacrifice. O Ébrio stars de Abreu’s husband, singer Vicente Celestino, as Gilberto Silva, a doctor who upon learning that his wife has left him for another man, fakes his death to live a new life as a hobo. The sentimentality of the film struck a chord with Brazilian audiences who craved this level of romanticism. Celestino and de Abreu were major stars in Brazil and the film proved to be the peak of de Abreu’s artistic career.
Born in France in 1904, de Abreu moved to Rio de Janeiro with her parents at the age of four. A talented singer, actress, writer and composer, she quickly climbed the ranks of Brazil’s entertainment industry. De Abreu studied at the National Institute of Music in Rio de Janeiro and became known for her light operatic performances. She met fellow singer Celestino and they married in 1933. Brazilian film critic and historian Letícia Magalhães refers to the duo as the “Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy from Brazil.” Celestino released his ballad “O Ébrio” in 1936. It quickly became ingrained in Brazilian culture and soon after Celestino adapted his song into a theatrical play that had a successful run at the Carlos Gomes Theatre. De Abreu, who made her film debut starring in the Cinédia studios production Bonequinha de Seda (Silk Doll), caught the eye of producer Adhemar Gonzaga. De Abreu was eager to write, direct and produce a film in which she could further elevate the star status of Celestino. Gonzaga and de Abreu went back and forth on several ideas before landing on an adaptation of Celestino’s “O Ébrio.”
Production took place between August 1945 and March 1946 on the Cinédia studio lot. De Abreu faced challenges being a woman in the director’s chair. Her authority was questioned by male crew members and she often wore pants on set to present herself in a more masculine way in order to garner more respect. Even directing her husband Celestino, who proved to be emotionally volatile, was difficult at times. Ultimately, she had enough emotional support to forge ahead despite setbacks. De Abreu was one of only a few women directors working in the country at the time, including her counterpart Carmen Santos. O Ébrio was truly de Abreu’s vision. She incorporated many elements from her personal life into the script, used her association with Rádio Nacional as well as her talents for writing and composition to bring the musical to life as a captivating melodrama.
The decade in which Celestino released his song and play and de Abreu directed her film was a critical point in the history of Brazilian cinema. After the Revolution of 1930, Brazil had begun to invest heavily in their entertainment industry. President Getúlio Vargas even enacted a decree that guaranteed an exhibition quota for Brazilian made films.
O Ébrio premiered on August 28th, 1946 in Rio de Janeiro. It was a huge box-office success and over 530 copies of the original negative were made and distributed throughout the country, even in the most rural regions. Celestino’s song was well-known among Brazilians and the name recognition of both the song and the lead actor would inevitably boost the film.
De Abreu’s subsequent films did not achieve the critical or commercial greatness of O Ébrio, and she soon transitioned to writing full time. O Ébrio was later produced as a telenovela (TV soap opera) in 1966. The film version has been heavily edited over the years to shorten it. For the 50th anniversary of the film, Cinédia studios in conjunction with Rio Filme, restored the movie to as close to its original 2+ hours as they could. The restoration premiered at the Gramado Film Festival in Brazil to great acclaim. The success of O Ébrio was truly unprecedented yet unfortunately its director has been mostly forgotten.
By Raquel Stecher