Friday, November 30, 2018
Hoy es uno de esos jueves veintinueve de noviembre del 2018. Estos son mis escenarios esta mañana fría en la ciudad de Las Vegas: academia de arte, edificios del downtown, azules marginales y cielo encapotado. Perfectas visiones de un jueves, día sin mucho valor, ¿a quién le pueden interesar los jueves?, ya los lunes trascienden con Ramón, los viernes, sábados y domingos son la esperanza de algo magnifico para el fin de semana, los martes pues son días cabalísticos cuando se unen al 13, los miércoles tienen la importancia de estar en el centro, llaman la atención y siempre se mencionan por estar a medio camino hacia la libertad del “weekend", pero los jueves son inocuos, insípidos y aburridos, excepto aquel jueves parisino que inmortalizó Vallejo. Por eso trato de darle algún valor a este jueves con estas fotos jueverinas.
Who Killed the Mexican Film Industry?
The Decline of the Golden Age, 1946-1960
Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE)
During the Second World War, a convergence of local acting and directing
talent and rising production levels gave birth to the Golden Age of Mexican
Cinema, a phenomenon facilitated by reduced competition from Hollywood,
Argentina, and Europe. However, as of 1946, high output masked a growing
malaise within Mexico’s film industry, manifest in a decline in cinematic
originality and a dependence on cheaply-made genre pictures. Traditionally,
the slow demise of the Golden Age has been blamed on two factors: first,
the influence of William Jenkins, an expatriate U.S. investor who developed
a near-monopoly of theaters that privileged Hollywood fare at upmarket
screens and financed local production in a way that kept budgets low; second,
the creative stagnation of Mexico’s directors, whose union admitted few
new members. This article explores those allegations while also considering
other key factors of the decline: the risk-averse role of producers, the
populist media policies of the Mexican state, and international trends such
as the resurgence of competing film industries. The article therefore offers
a holistic, business-conscious history of the Golden Age fade-out.
Keywords: Golden Age, Mexican cinema, Cine de Oro, William Jenkins,
Hollywood, Miguel Alemán, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, Adolfo López Mateos
Durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, la convergencia de talentosos
actores y directores y crecientes niveles de producción dieron lugar a la
Época de Oro del cine mexicano, un fenómeno facilitado por una competencia
reducida de Hollywood, Argentina y Europa. Sin embargo, a partir
de 1946, la alta producción disfrazó un creciente malestar dentro de la
industria cinematográfica mexicana, visto en el declive en la originalidad
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY?
10 E.I.A.L. 29–1
fílmica y una dependencia en baratas películas de género. Tradicionalmente
se ha culpado el lento cierre de la Época de Oro en dos factores: primero, la
influencia de William Jenkins, un expatriado inversor estadounidense que
cultivó un cuasi monopolio de cines que favorecía el producto hollywoodense
en sus salas de primera y financiaba la producción local de tal manera
que los presupuestos se mantuvieron reducidos; segundo, el estancamiento
creativo de los directores, cuyo sindicato admitió pocos miembros nuevos.
Este artículo explora esos alegatos y también considera otros factores clave
del declive: la conducta de bajo riesgo de los productores, las populistas
políticas de medios del Estado mexicano y las tendencias internacionales,
entre ellas el resurgimiento de industrias cinematográficas rivales. Así, el
artículo ofrece una historia holística y atenta a lo empresarial del fundido a
negro de la Época de Oro.
Palabras Clave: Época de oro, cine mexicano, William Jenkins, Hollywood,
Miguel Alemán, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, Adolfo López Mateos
Recent years have registered a boom in Mexican cinema, but comparisons
to the Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s, when local films accounted for close
to half of all tickets sold, fall significantly short.1 In 2015, Mexico logged an
output of 140 features, breaking a record that had stood since 1958, but as the
majority of productions lacked adequate distribution and exhibition (and were
produced on slim budgets), their share of national box-office revenue totaled a
meager 6.5 percent.2 Further, in another frequently touted yet misleading measure
of Mexico’s filmic health, the critical, commercial, and Oscar-winning success
achieved in recent years by directors Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro G. Iñárritu,
and Guillermo del Toro belies the fact that in the neoliberal era, filmmaking has
largely been a matter not of large-scale, studio-based production but irregular
artisanship, with successful directors quick to relocate to Hollywood.3
To the historian, the encouraging but economically limited revival—along
with often specious comparisons to the Golden Age—prompts two big questions
about the earlier era: What occurred in the 1940s and 50s that enabled Mexico
to boast the world’s third-largest film industry and prizewinners at prestigious
European festivals? And what caused the Golden Age to fade out? This article
concerns the latter question, which has received much less attention than the
former from film historians; it looks into the multiple causes of a qualitative
decline, which was somewhat masked by then-record output, but characterized
by a proliferation of cheap formula pictures that catered to lower-income audiences
(who paid less to see them), a consequent contraction in overseas market
demand, and a general loss of domestic and foreign prestige.
Rather than offering a textual evaluation of films or genres, this approach
takes the death of the Golden Age as a given, as attested to by multiple historians
and critics, and dwells on the marginalized subject of film economics
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 11
and its intersection with state policy. An industrial focus is merited because a
comprehensive business history of Mexican cinema has yet to be written, either
in English or in Spanish, nor does one appear to be in the pipeline.4 The lacuna
owes much to the traditional concern of film scholarship with textual analysis.
Ana M. López has noted that recent work on Mexican and South American
film has paid more attention to historical and social context, long the special
concern of Latin America’s film historians. The business history of production,
distribution, and exhibition remains largely uncharted territory.5
Two explanations for the decline of the Cine de Oro are commonly cited,
both originating in works published in 1960. The year is significant because it
saw the effective nationalization of the film industry, as the state took over the
country’s two leading movie theater operations, which were also key sources of
film finance, in a bold but vain attempt to reverse the sector’s decay. In El libro
negro del cine mexicano, the disaffected producer-director Miguel Contreras Torres
hurled the blame at William O. Jenkins, a US expatriate businessman. Along
with two Mexican partners, Jenkins controlled both of the leading exhibition
chains, and Contreras Torres claimed that the Jenkins Group had attained a de
facto monopoly through all kinds of anti-competitive practices; worse, it granted
greater screen access to Hollywood product and hindered the flow of credit
to Mexican producers, insisting on a high volume of genre pictures produced
on skimpy budgets. That same year, critic Emilio García Riera attributed the
demise in part to government censorship and in part to the conservatism of the
financiers, but more so to another monopoly: an aging generation of complacent
directors whose union refused new entrants.6
For half a century, histories of Mexican cinema have commonly—and for
the most part unquestioningly—attributed the death of the Golden Age to a
combination of Jenkins’s alleged machinations and the industry’s creative
complacency. However, a more holistic and economically sensitive understanding
of the sector’s decline finds cause not only in the rent-seeking activities
of the Jenkins Group and the artistic stagnation of filmmakers but also in the
rightward drift of the Mexican state after 1940 and the impact of global media
trends, notably a ramping up of output by competing film industries upon the
close of World War II.
A caveat regarding sources: as is common in Hollywood historiography,
Mexican film history must be written without access to company archives, which
are almost entirely closed to researchers. Tracing Jenkins’s role is further complicated
by the fact that his own archive was burned by his chief associate after
his death. This article therefore draws chiefly on the trade publication Variety,
which had a Mexico correspondent since at least the 1930s; the Mexican national
press; the oral archive at Mexico City’s Instituto Mora, which includes many
12 E.I.A.L. 29–1
late-in-life interviews with Golden Age players; and the presidential series at
the Archivo General de la Nación, whose files include missives from industry
groups petitioning against Jenkins’s influence.
What and When was the Golden Age?
Popular and scholarly notions of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema vary
greatly, ranging from a celebration of such icons of nationalism as Pedro Infante,
Dolores del Río, María Félix, and Cantinflas, to a questioning as to whether a
Cine de Oro truly existed. Consider the issue of its duration. A glossy history
of the era traces a 30-year span, from 1936 (year of the rural musical-comedy
Allá en el Rancho Grande, a genre-establishing hit) until 1965.7 Most definitions
are less liberal. Film histories often define the Age as starting around 1936 and
ending in the late 1950s,8 or they equate it with the 1940s.9 Film historian Carl
Mora delimited the Age further, to 1946-52, simultaneous with the high-output
era during President Miguel Alemán’s administration. Veteran producer Salvador
Elizondo, morosely reflecting in the hindsight of retirement, reduced it to a mere
four years, those of US engagement in World War II. This judgment was shared
by García Riera: “It’s usual to talk of a Golden Age of Mexican cinema with
greater nostalgia than chronological accuracy. If that age actually existed, it was
that of the years of the Second World War: 1941-1945.”10 To fully account for
the decline, the present article uses a fairly generous periodization: the 1940s
The multiplicity of periodizations owes much to a conceptual vagueness as
to what exactly was Golden about the Age. In terms of output, certainly, Mexico
hosted the world’s third-largest film industry by 1950, after the United States
and India. Yet there is a tendency to conflate the growth of the film sector as a
whole, including theater chains, with the success of Mexican production. “The
national cinema evolved and matured into the nation’s third-largest industry,”
says one historian.11 As well as failing to qualify the measurement, the claim
forgets that roughly half of the gross revenues of this “national” industry was
generated by films from Hollywood and Europe.12 Further, while the term “Golden
Age” is often used to refer to an advanced level of both quantity and quality in
local production, those values did not always coincide. Some of the era’s high
output, which rose from 24 features in 1936 to a staggering 123 in 1950, was of
such a low standard that exhibitors refused to screen it.13 Production companies
lurched along in boom-and-bust fashion, unable to attain a Hollywood-like
mode of efficient, creative, and self-financing output. Economic consistency
was something, by contrast, at which Mexico’s TV industry would prove adept.14
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 13
Years of great activity and creative innovation (1936-1938, 1942-1945, and 1948-
1950) alternated with stretches of financial scarcity and depressed production.
Output would stabilize at an annual 100 or so features in the 1950s and remain
high until the 1980s, but these quantities were sustained by a reliance on tired
formulas and small budgets.
Overall attendance is another matter. The middle third of the century saw an
upsurge in moviegoing per se, making it by far Mexico’s favorite form of paid
entertainment. By 1946, Mexicans were spending eight times as much going to
the movies as going to the bullfights, the second-most popular draw.15 However,
the main beneficiary of the box-office peso was the theater owner, who typically
retained half, while state and municipal governments often took 15 percent in
taxes.16 Of the remaining 35 or 40 centavos, the distribution company (typically
a third party, as most production companies lacked the critical mass to negotiate
with exhibitors) might well keep 20 centavos. That left, at most, a fifth of the
ticket price to the filmmakers. Forced to compete with the Hollywood production
line and its entrenched distribution networks, local producers only occasionally
turned a profit, especially after the war; most relied on state subsidies.17 That
rival production line was indeed impressive. In 1949, when Mexican producers
mustered a new record of 107 releases, they had to compete with 246 from
Hollywood and another 88 from elsewhere, mostly Western Europe.18
As a result, the vast majority of Golden Age wealth either left the country
or entered the pockets of exhibitors, above all those of William Jenkins. (The
American did not repatriate profits but plowed them into theater expansion and
venture-capital projects.19) Since Jenkins’s archive was burned after he died, we
cannot know how much of his fortune flowed from the box offices, but witnesses
attest that exhibition was the most lucrative of his various businesses. Not for
nothing did a 1953 profile of the man’s film interests bear the title “Jenkins,
This division of profit constitutes the “dirty secret” of the Golden Age,
however periodized. Most accounts have fêted (or critiqued) the creative side
of the industry, which was unquestionably rich: the films and their prizes at
Cannes, Venice, and elsewhere; the enduring stars; the directors, writers, and
cinematographers.21 As noted above, these versions have paid much less attention
to film as a business—that is, an enterprise involving the jostling interests of
producers, distributors, exhibitors, financiers, unions, and the state. Apart from
some useful passages in the preamble to each chapter of his eighteen-volume
Historia documental del cine mexicano, such is the case in the vast oeuvre
of García Riera. This absence is also notable in the work of Mexico’s senior
living film historian, Aurelio de los Reyes, and Mexican cinema’s best-known
contemporary critic, Jorge Ayala Blanco.22 The chief exceptions to this trend are
14 E.I.A.L. 29–1
found in the culturally focused but economically aware scholarship of Charles
Ramírez Berg, Seth Fein, and Francisco Peredo.23
The most insightful analysis of Golden Age economics appears in Berg’s
Cinema of Solitude, which includes two astute passages on the shaky underpinnings
of the Cine de Oro.24 For Berg, the seeds of its premature decline were
sewn in the formative years, the mid-1930s to mid-1940s. He describes an “elite
band of private-sector film entrepreneurs,” initially powerful in exhibition and
distribution, who moved into production and favored screen access for their own
films over the product of independent companies. As producers, this elite hogged
financing from the state film bank (taking advantage of a system designed to
nurture producers and sustain the industry), sometimes cut costs by hiring nonunion
workers, and often profiteered by padding their budgets. The problem of
profiteering was exacerbated as studio owners failed to upgrade their equipment,
and in 1945 the directors’ guild instituted a twenty-year policy of shutting out
younger talent. Altogether, these decisions resulted in “an aging, inbred industry
that produced unimaginative, low-quality movies.”25 Berg’s sketch of how
cinema was financed and controlled raises important questions about why the
Mexican state permitted such monopolistic practices.
Jenkins: The Monopolist
There is a great disparity between Jenkins’s dominance within the Golden
Age film industry and the paucity of research into his activities.26 This is not
entirely surprising, given that most film historians focus on cinema as a cultural
artifact; in Mexico, where auteur theory has predominated, this is much the
case.27 Mexican business history, post-1940, is under-researched as a whole,
and Jenkins has not lent himself to scrutiny: few business papers survive and
he never spoke to the press. Further, he operated his theaters through handson
partners, chiefly Manuel Espinosa Yglesias and Gabriel Alarcón, and as a
safeguard against expropriation and the US Internal Revenue Service, he held
his assets under the names of these and other associates.28
The Jenkins Group, a catch-all term for a collection of alliances that dated
from 1938, faced three kinds of criticism, regarding exhibition, distribution,
and finally production. As early as 1944, some rivals began to find themselves
squeezed by its monopolistic practices. Vicente Villasana, who dominated exhibition
in the Tampico area with eight or nine theaters, placed an open letter in
the Mexico City press, attacking Jenkins for bullying distributors into favoring
him with their films in Tampico by threatening to boycott them at all of his 60-
plus theaters.29 As provincial exhibitors lacked geographically broad circuits
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 15
with which to convince distributors to treat them on equal terms, they gradually
succumbed and sold out to the Jenkins Group. Even the Villasana family would
sell their chain, in 1955, to Jenkins’s partner Alarcón.30
According to Contreras Torres (and the circumstantial evidence supports
his claim), it was through such exertion that Jenkins forced Emilio Azcárraga,
Mexico’s leading radio and film mogul, to part with his 20-venue Cadena de Oro
in Mexico City. Jenkins’s partner Espinosa told both Mexican and Hollywood
distributors that if they continued to supply films to Azcárraga’s flagship Teatro
Alameda, he would refuse to screen their product at his theaters in the capital and
other major cities where he dominated; he also pledged them an extra five percent
of box-office revenues if they agreed to the boycott. In consequence, Azcárraga
was reduced to showing second-rate Mexican films and Hollywood reruns. After
a period of losses, Azcárraga sold stakes in six of his largest theaters to Jenkins
and Alarcón in 1949.31 Two years later, shifting his focus for good onto the TV
industry, then in its infancy, Azcárraga would surrender the Cadena de Oro.32
The collateral damage in Jenkins’s war upon rival exhibitors seems to have
been borne chiefly by Mexican cinema, for archival evidence suggests that it
was Mexican distributors (rather than their stronger Hollywood counterparts)
who were most often used as pawns. In February 1949, northern theater owners
lobbied President Alemán, claiming that Jenkins and Alarcón were hurting them
by pressing Películas Nacionales, the leading distributor of Mexican pictures,
to withhold product.33 Lack of access to Mexican films, which afforded close
to half of the national box-office take, threatened their theaters with closure –or
a forced sale. By April, when the northern exhibitors secured an audience with
Alemán, theater owners in Mexico City were voicing similar protests.34 Hence,
between 1944 and 1958, as the Jenkins Group rose from owning about 60 screens
to operating 1,600, Mexican distributors likely found their revenue streams
repeatedly, if temporarily, diminished by such monopolistic power plays.
Furthermore, starting in 1945, Espinosa used his exhibition muscle in Mexico
City to forge supply deals with the Hollywood majors.35 As these gradually tied
up many of the first-run theaters, Mexican producers had to compete among
themselves and with Europe for shrinking screen space. For the Jenkins Group
this was strictly business: Hollywood’s high-output studio system, oiled by a
global distribution-cum-PR machine, offered safer returns.
In an October 1949 broadside in leading newsmagazine Hoy, screenwriter
José Revueltas accused Jenkins and partners not only of conspiring to keep
Mexican product from rivals but also of deliberately “burning” local films, by
giving them the briefest of first-run engagements, regardless of their popularity.
This was neither spite nor a Hollywood-backed plot, just a manipulation of
standard industry economics: when movies opened they earned for their pro16
ducers a relatively high percentage of the box-office peso; when the same films
were re-released in second-run venues, theater owners kept more of the take, as
the risk of showing a picture released a week or more earlier was, supposedly,
greater. Distributors unwilling to play by these rules, who opted to deal with
independent exhibitors, risked a boycott of all of their films in cities (like Puebla
and Torreón) where the Jenkins Group’s control was total. Those who did sign
deals with Espinosa or Alarcón had to abstain from contracts with any other
exhibitor, even in cities (like those of the northwest) where the Group as yet
had no presence. Revueltas feared that these practices might result in Jenkins’s
dominion over the entire production side of the industry.36
There was a direct relationship between exhibition and production because,
since the 1930s (if not earlier), Mexican producers had obtained part of their
financing from theater owners: producers gained an advance on anticipated revenues,
in return for which exhibitors gained first-run or exclusive rights to their
films.37 The Jenkins Group used the promise of funding, together with the threat
of boycotts, as a carrot-and-stick approach to gaining a hold over production. In
the World War II era, however, its interest in production had been inconsistent.
In December 1941, Jenkins co-founded the Film Bank (Banco Cinematográfico),
a public-private partnership; largely backed by the private sector, it was
probably the largest single source of film finance during the 1940s. In the spring
of 1944, Jenkins and Espinosa Yglesias engineered its takeover, but their main
interest was in acquiring the bank’s stake in the exhibition chain COTSA; that
autumn, Jenkins sold not only his shares in the bank but also the stake he had
gained through it in leading production house CLASA Films.38 Presumably still
he considered film production too risky. In 1942 the Film Bank had loaned a
million pesos to newly-formed Grovas S.A., promoting it as “the most powerful
film company in Latin America,” and Espinosa had taken a seat on its board.
Grovas made a relatively prolific eight productions that year but failed to turn
a profit, leaving the Film Bank to absorb the loss.39
The Jenkins Group’s involvement in production became more consistent in
the Alemán era, as film finance evolved. As World War II ended, and with it the
competitively favorable climate that had let the Golden Age blossom, Mexico’s
private banks curtailed their lending. They were alarmed by poor returns and
the tardiness of producers in repaying credit; a tendency among them to inflate
their budgets and pocket the difference surely sowed further distrust.40 In 1947,
Alemán nationalized the Film Bank—rendering it the Banco Nacional Cinematográfico—
and boosted its budget. However, producers were still expected
to find much of their coin elsewhere.41 They therefore approached exhibitors,
securing advances on box-office returns in exchange for exclusive screen rights.
Exhibitors had reason to secure product in advance: by 1948, a decade-long
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 17
construction boom brought about a surplus of theaters.42 Even after public demand
caught up with supply, the rivalry that Jenkins had cultivated between his
two partners remained. Although Espinosa and Alarcón had the same backer,
neither would have wished to let the other scoop the next Dolores del Río drama
or Pedro Infante musical.
In some cases, the Jenkins Group buoyed established producers. They took
a majority stake in Sam Wishñack’s Filmex, which between 1944 and 1960
turned out 120 features, and they reunited with Grovas. Alarcón took the more
personal interest in production, co-founding two companies, Intercontinental and
Reforma Films, which together produced 35 movies from 1950 to 1962. Alarcón
frequently worked with Raúl de Anda, who parlayed his early screen-idol status
into a career as a writer and producer that spanned 130 pictures. He also employed
Salvador Elizondo, former manager and co-owner of CLASA. Espinosa kept a
lower profile but worked with another prolific producer, Gregorio Walerstein,
who managed Wishñack’s Filmex for a decade before setting out on his own.
Espinosa later recalled that he and Jenkins financed about 400 films.43 A 1953
exposé claimed that Jenkins (or his Group) supplied 80 percent of film finance.44
The figure is fanciful, for it minimizes the role of the Film Bank, but it gives a
sense of the American’s dominance in the imagination of industry personnel.
Evidence of Jenkins’s personal involvement is anecdotal. The old man—he
was 60 when he first invested in theaters, around 70 when he gained prominence
in film finance—was an avid moviegoer, with a preference for comedy, and a
friend claimed that after seeing films in which he had a stake he would phone
either Espinosa or Alarcón from the box office to give his opinion.45 In the early
1950s, he recruited Salvador Elizondo to partner in a production company with
a simple question: “Why don’t you make some films for me?” Later he had his
chauffeur deliver Elizondo a check for 4 million pesos (around $450,000). He
had attached a handwritten note: “Salvador, I’m sending you the check for four
million. I put it in your name because I don’t know what your company is called.”46
Jenkins’s language on both occasions is telling: what mattered most was that
producers deliver a regular stream of content to his theaters (the down-market
ones). If the pictures he financed fared poorly, his producers likely ensured that
the Film Bank took most of the hit.47
Moreover, the implicit emphasis on quantity rather than quality matches
industry allegations that Jenkins deliberately kept production budgets small.48
It is reasonable to infer that Jenkins recognized the difficulty facing Mexican
cinema in keeping up with US standards of production, with its post-war move
into color production, widescreen formats, escalating budgets, and so forth.
The surest route to continued profits at his theaters would be to let Hollywood
cater to Mexico’s more upscale audiences, while Mexican producers dashed off
18 E.I.A.L. 29–1
low-budget genre pictures for the masses, featuring “fallen” cabaret girls and
Creative Stagnation and the Role of Unions
To take Contreras Torres’s line and blame the death of the Cine de Oro squarely
upon the Jenkins Group is simplistic. For one thing, to gain his degree of
industry dominance, Jenkins needed willing accomplices beyond the exhibition
sector, including a complicit government. For another, the history of world film
is replete with examples of sustained creative achievement forged with scant
resources; the cinemas of Denmark and Iran in recent decades, for instance.
Another major problem with Golden Age cinema, which originated during
its creative zenith, was the near-complete closing of the directors’ union to new
entrants. Whereas the union welcomed fourteen members in 1944, it admitted
only one a year later. This closed-door policy persisted until the early 1960s, so
the accusations of Contreras Torres and other directors about Jenkins’s monopolistic
practices were hypocritical. In contrast to Hollywood, the Mexican industry
deprived itself of younger talents who could have kept filmmaking fresh, taking
genre pictures in new and exciting directions. Instead, matters worsened: during
1956-60, two-thirds of Mexico’s 570 productions were shot by 20 directors. The
well-connected cineaste churned out three or four films each year, spending a
mere three weeks on the average shoot.49
That directors were not merely subject to the strictures of the Jenkins Group
is evidenced by the continued ability of certain directors to make great films.
Luis Buñuel and Roberto Gavaldón, two of the rare directors who began making
movies after their union shut its doors, achieved some of their greatest artistic
successes in the 1950s. Their films excelled commercially, as well. Gavaldón’s
noirish folktale Macario (1959) ran in Mexico City for sixteen weeks.50
In 1960, García Riera summarized the general problem: “at the moment we
find ourselves with thirty old directors conveniently installed, with no artistic
sense or ambition whatsoever, protected by union rights and happily supported by
their producers, in this way shutting the doors to an eager and newer generation.”
Former Film Bank chief Federico Heuer opined similarly in 1964: “for 20 years
have been hiring the same directors and the same screenwriters
…, with the same artists who generally sing the same compositions and perform
the same roles as leading men and starlets that they did 20 years ago.”51
Producers were indeed at fault. In 1946, as the wartime economic boom ended
(more on which below), they scaled back their budgets. At first glance, it may
appear that they also made fewer pictures, the total falling from 82 in 1945 to
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 19
57 in 1947. But those years were outliers. In fact, the recession-era (1946-48)
average of 69 productions was higher than the wartime (1941-45) average of 62.52
In other words, rather than reducing output to a level conducive to quality amid
straitened circumstances, Mexico’s producers opted to keep output relatively
high. They managed to do so by readily embracing low-budget formula pictures
in urban settings (frequently cabarets and brothels), which would become
the most voluminous genre of Mexican cinema for many years to come, even
after the economy recovered. As astute a voice as Emilio Azcárraga, Mexico’s
pre-eminent entertainment mogul, declared in 1947 that the producers’ policy
of keeping budgets under $100,000 was a mistake; quality pictures required
an investment of $200,000, while the current policy had contributed to a diminution
of screen time for Mexican films, both at home and in South America.53
Producers also declined to reinvest much of their profits, either in technological
upgrades (in the case of those that owned studios) or in improved budgets for
By 1950, Contreras Torres, Revueltas, and others were blaming the Jenkins
Group for keeping budgets too thin to allow for quality, but they also complained
that the Film Bank favored Jenkins’s affiliated producers. So, were the likes
of Walerstein, Elizondo, Grovas, and De Anda cash-poor or cash-rich? Their
prolific filmographies suggest the latter, but one finds within them so few films
of merit, one may surmise that these men shared responsibility for the general
decline. Easy access to finance, with little pressure to repay state lenders, may
well have eroded their zeal for quality (a problem that would arguably plague
Mexican cinema until around 1990). Further, critics ignored how Espinosa and
Alarcón, while both partnered with Jenkins, competed as bitter rivals.55 Although
they divided much of the republic between them, with Alarcón dominant in the
north and Espinosa in the west, they faced off in Mexico City –where the average
film took half of its box-office revenue–, as did they in Puebla and other central
cities. Savvy producers with promising projects might encourage them to bid
against each other, thereby improving their budgets. But their tendency to ally
themselves with one or the other suggests a preference for cozy exchanges of
favor over adventurous filmmaking.
Majority financing from the Film Bank, to quote film historian Gustavo
García, “encouraged mediocrity.”56 This in turn raises the issue of government
responsibility for the Golden Age’s demise—that is, whether the state too was
more interested in quantity rather than quality. Another indication that this was
the case is that it tolerated the closed-door policy of the directors’ union, which
was part of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Producción Cinematográfica
(STPC). Led by actors and directors, and under the protection of President
Manuel Ávila Camacho, the STPC broke away in 1945 from the Sindicato de
20 E.I.A.L. 29–1
Trabajadores de la Industria Cinematográfica (STIC), a large union dominated
by movie theater employees. However, the STIC raised such a stink at being
shut out of the production side of the industry that the President forged a compromise,
allowing its workers to make movies of their own as long as they
were not full-length features.57 The ungainly offspring of this accord—which
typified the corporatist accommodations with labor made by Mexico’s singleparty
state—was the episodic or serial film: a feature-length movie comprised
of four or five 20-minute segments. Shot on a shoe-string and largely devoid of
artistic merit, such episodics constituted 20 percent of all production by 1959.58
State Policy: Laissez-Faire Economics and Symbolic Politics
Complaints about the Jenkins Group’s adverse impact upon the film industry
reached a critical mass in 1949, as illustrated above. Revueltas capped his protest
in Hoy by calling for a united front and for state assistance against “American
capital.”59 By this time Jenkins, Espinosa, and Alarcón together controlled around
300 of Mexico’s 1,200 theaters; this was not a monopoly (nor a monopsony)
per se, but it allowed the Jenkins Group to dominate exhibition in Mexico City,
Monterrey, and Puebla, and by extension to press distributors into granting
favorable terms nationwide and to press smaller exhibitors into selling out.60
President Alemán had little choice but to act. There was the evidence itself—
Revueltas’s critique, like the complaints from northern Mexico, contained specific
examples of theaters facing ruin—and there was the President’s own image to
protect. Since his inauguration, Alemán had projected himself as a patron of
the nation’s arts. He liked to be seen with movie stars, and to trot them out for
PR purposes.61 That autumn, congress wrote Mexico’s first cinema legislation,
which promised the film community a variety of boosts and protections, including
long-sought “screen quotas” that would guarantee Mexican films a minimum
annual number of dates at all theaters.62 But the Film Industry Law of December
1949 was less than half the battle. As was customary in the issuance of Mexican
policy, it needed to be complemented by regulating legislation and departmental
edicts, and then by enforcement. A lack of political will was evident at once:
the Interior Ministry’s Film Directorate declared that all one-theater towns be
subject to a 50-percent screen quota. Since Mexican pictures already outdrew
foreign fare in small towns, the rule was mere tokenism.63
In August 1951, the state finally issued its regulating legislation. It looked
promising: the 50-percent screen quota would apply nationwide. There was even
a clause threatening non-compliant distributors and exhibitors with nationalization.
64 Hollywood was prepared for such a battle. The majors had experience
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 21
resisting quotas elsewhere, in nations such as France and Britain. Allied with the
Jenkins Group, they adopted a twin-pronged strategy. Having consulted with the
State Department, the Hollywood studios let it be known that protectionist limits
would be met with restrictions on Mexican films in the United States; this was
a tough counterpunch, for Mexico’s producers reaped a far higher fraction of
their revenues north of the Rio Grande than did Hollywood south of it.65 At the
same time, 50 Mexican theater owners obtained an injunction against the screen
quota, on grounds that it was unconstitutional. Alemán surely knew Hollywood
well enough to have predicted this outcome. He had made his symbolic, nationalistic
stand. Now, for appearance’s sake, he let the quota remain on the books
without attempting to enforce it. In late 1952, in the final months of his tenure,
congress approved a revised version of the 1949 Law, which retained the quota;
after all, the Supreme Court had yet to rule on the matter. Alemán’s successor,
Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, could decide if he wished to enforce it.66
But Ruiz Cortines would not do so, despite ample pretext. In February 1953,
the third month of the President’s term, Jenkins suffered a daily barrage of industry
criticism in the Mexico City press after he had responded to a 25-percent rise
in advertising rates with a boycott, withdrawing all of his theaters’ display ads.67
Ruiz Cortines himself fed the fire when he told a delegation of producers that
he would destroy Jenkins’s monopoly. Or at least, that is what they claimed he
had said; were his statement unequivocal, surely the news would have merited a
front-page headline.68 The next day Jenkins was assailed by name at the annual
convention of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), in a vehement
and controversial speech by Senator Jacinto B. Treviño, who claimed the Revolution
had lost its way.69 A few days later, Eduardo Garduño, Ruiz Cortines’s
appointee as head of the National Film Bank, announced: “the existence of
monopolies is disastrous for the development of the industry … they convert
producers into mere appendages of their organizations.”70
Together, the declarations seemed to signal governmental resolve to rein
Jenkins in. But soon it was clear that the whole assault had been an exercise
in escape-valve populism. The newspapers (presumably failing to garner state
support) backed down over the advertising dispute, and in April the Supreme
Court ruled against the legality of the screen quota.71
Ruiz Cortines had other opportunities to constrain the Jenkins Group to the
benefit of Mexico’s filmmakers. In August 1954, Jenkins’s partner Alarcón was
fingered as the mastermind behind the assassination of an activist member of the
STIC, Alfonso Mascarúa. Ruiz Cortines’s office received hundreds of complaints
from union locals.72 Alarcón, who managed to elude an arrest warrant, was found
guilty and handed a 20-year sentence in September 1955, but three months
later a higher court overturned the conviction.73 Finally, in 1957, Jenkins’s sole
22 E.I.A.L. 29–1
remaining rival in the exhibition sector, former president Abelardo Rodríguez,
sold his theater circuits to the Jenkins Group. There were no longer grounds
for pretense that the Group was anything other than a monopolistic giant, yet
Ruiz Cortines still did nothing. After Rodríguez surrendered, other independent
exhibitors were evidently inspired to give up too, because a Variety profile of
the Jenkins Group in December 1958 elucidated just how large their empire
had grown. Espinosa’s COTSA and affiliated companies owned or leased 900
theaters and grossed an annual $16 million; Alarcón’s Cadena de Oro and its
affiliates owned or leased around 700. That left 400 to 500 independent theaters,
a mere fifth of the national total.74
On any of the three occasions dating back to 1953, Ruiz Cortines could have
enforced the screen quota or even nationalized Jenkins’s business and enjoyed
vocal support from press and public. The President’s reluctance to move against
the film monopoly, and his willingness to tolerate the qualitative—not quantitative—
demise of the industry, had much in common with the laissez-faire
reasoning of his predecessors. First, the Jenkins Group was providing a public
service and doing so efficiently. Overall, they had contributed to a huge boom in
moviegoing: in Mexico City, theaters doubled from 67 in 1938 to 133 in 1958;
nationwide, those years saw the total grow from 863—, with less than half in
regular operation—, to some 2,100.75 Of those, the Jenkins Group is believed to
have built 200 to 300 (mostly upscale) theaters; it probably refurbished several
hundred others upon acquiring them.76
The Jenkins Group’s hundreds of theaters entertained the burgeoning, restless
urban millions. And in the view of the state, at least, it contained them. An
early example of governmental belief in the socially beneficial effects of cinema
emerged in 1943; when honoring Hollywood studio heads Walt Disney and Louis
B. Mayer for their contributions to bilateral relations, Foreign Minister Ezequiel
Padilla declared that film was able to penetrate “directly into the heart of the
masses.” Three years later, President Ávila Camacho submitted a bill to congress
proposing a commission to promote the film industry, and his preamble noted the
ability of Mexico’s cinema to promote “feelings of unity and cohesion.”77 What
audiences saw once they had paid their few pesos (or as little as 25 centavos for
a provincial balcony seat)—that is, whether the features were Mexican, US, or
European—mattered much less to the state than the fact that they were regularly
attending and that they were being kept informed of government accomplishments
by the state-subsidized newsreels included in each program.78
Second, a major move against such a high-profile US businessman would
have sent the wrong message at a time when the state, under the program of
Import Substitution Industrialization, was encouraging foreign companies to set
up manufacturing plants. Third, whatever Ruiz Cortines might say, he was no
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 23
opponent of monopoly. In 1955 he allowed a merger between the three infant
TV networks, thus godfathering Telesistema Mexicano (TSM), predecessor of
today’s media giant Televisa.79 Fourth, the American’s controversial profile made
for a useful lightning rod for leftist and nationalist discontent; witness Senator
Treviño’s speech at the PRI’s 1953 convention. Finally, while hard evidence is
lacking, it is likely that senior politicians and even the President himself held
covert stakes in Jenkins’s holdings.80
This is not to say that the Ruiz Cortines administration abandoned the film
industry to the fate of market forces. Like his two predecessors, he channeled to
Mexico’s producers a significant quantity of loans (often subsidies, since much
of the credit was never repaid). But his boldest move in support of the industry
proved largely symbolic. The 1953 Plan Garduño, named for the National Film
Bank chief, pumped yet more subsidies into filmmaking and loosened the rules
on what a movie could depict. Hitherto the Film Bank had contributed 50 or
60 percent of an approved budget; that amount could now reach 85 percent. In
some respects, Mexico began to close the “gloss gap” with Hollywood, filming
in color and even wide-screen formats.
But the Plan Garduño failed on two key fronts. Most producers opted to
carry on making the cheap fare that appealed to lower-income audiences; they
continued to receive state support and also to pad their budgets. The favored
genres expanded to include horror, Westerns, and melodramas starring masked
wrestlers, but most such films were just as shoddily produced as the genre pictures
of before. Second, to fund his expanded activities, Garduño issued new
shares in the state-backed distributor Películas Nacionales, only to find that
Jenkins’s representatives had purchased many of them. By late 1953, Jenkins’s
producers were again enjoying Film Bank credit and it was clear that Garduño’s
plan to bolster independent production had been compromised. A cartoon in El
Universal captured the paradox: identifying Jenkins as the “Film Monopoly,” it
showed him receiving both a stern rebuke and a bagful of cash from Garduño.81
Another policy introduced under Ruiz Cortines that had an adverse effect on
quality was the introduction of price caps on tickets, which were set at 4 pesos
for upscale venues. The cap was a populist regulation first instituted in December
1952 by Mexico City mayor Ernesto P. Uruchurtu, who rigidly enforced it.
As such, it sustained a high frequency of moviegoing for two decades. But, as
production costs continued to rise (especially with the peso devaluation of 1954),
it also gave producers a further disincentive to make quality features. Owing to
these controls and continued urbanization, by the mid-1960s Mexico had the
world’s joint-highest attendance rate (along with Israel), according to Variety;
its correspondent added: “cheap film entertainment for the masses is deemed a
24 E.I.A.L. 29–1
must to offset inequities of income. … The analogy to ‘bread and circuses’ has
often been made.”82
Only in November 1960 did the state take decisive action, when the regime
of Adolfo López Mateos decreed the nationalization of the Jenkins Group’s core
movie theaters. It is hard to say how much the President’s action was motivated
by another wave of public criticism of the American; as well as the publication
of Contreras Torres’s vitriolic El libro negro del cine mexicano, the year saw
a series of attacks upon Jenkins in the confrontational magazine Política and
a well-publicized speech against him by former president Lázaro Cárdenas.83
Certainly, this kind of outrage suggested how popular the expropriation would
be, which in turn raises the possibility that López Mateos had encouraged the
flak, first to build public expectation and then to reap greater political capital.
In all, 365 theaters were taken, at a taxpayer’s cost of $26 million. These were
fewer than a quarter of what the Jenkins Group controlled, but they were the
cream of the crop, the big-city COTSA and Cadena de Oro venues. The newspapers
But the expropriation was an anticlimax. The state’s control of the best theaters—
in addition to the Churubusco Studios, the largest sound-stage complex,
which it had bought two years before—did little to alter the trajectory of Mexican
cinema or Hollywood’s dominance. Talk of an industry in crisis continued.
During the 1960s, the same creatively atrophied corps of producers, directors,
and writers dominated the nation’s output, and the contrast between Mexican
and US fare was never so great. Although a new generation of directors started
to earn critical praise and win back middle-class audiences at the end of the
decade, the standard fare of cheap bedroom farces, derivative Westerns, and
masked-wrestler adventures was overshadowed by literate epics, the American
New Wave, and a newly vigorous cinema from Europe.85 The nationalization
of the film industry was ultimately a symbolic act.
Global Pressures and Television
For all the shortcomings of state film policy, the Golden Age fade-out—like
its 1941-45 ascent, in fact—owed something to global trends. It was the cutback
in Hollywood output and the near-disappearance of European competition that
gave Mexican cinema space in which to flourish in the first place. US wartime
policies, including technical support for Mexico’s film industry and a prohibition
on the export of film stock to Nazi-tolerant Argentina, further boosted the quality
and exportability of the Cine de Oro.86
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 25
Similarly, it was no coincidence that Golden Age cinema encountered its
first economic crisis in 1946. Hollywood was ramping up after its wartime
scaledown, and so was regional rival Argentina. That the crisis persisted for
another two years owed to another extraneous factor: the three-year post-war
recession. The rebirth of Europe also played a (sometimes unappreciated) role.
As of 1946, the British, French, and Italians started to revive their war-damaged
industries, heightening the competition for theaters, and all the more so during
their creative boom of the mid-1950s though late 1960s. Indeed, recent research
on exhibition in Monterrey has shown that while European features accounted
for 5.5 percent of films exhibited in 1952, their portion increased to 21.5 percent
in 1962, while Mexican fare shrank from 38.7 percent to 29.8 percent and
Hollywood, too, lost ground.87
Mexican cinema also had to contend with the global rise of television, albeit
with a delayed impact relative to trends in the United States and Europe. While
Mexico was the first Latin American nation to establish a TV industry—which
began regular broadcasts in August 1950—the growth of TV sets per household
proceeded very slowly during the early years. By 1960, there were still fewer than
a million sets in the country, meaning that only 10 percent of homes had them.
(Film industry complaints about the adverse effects of television, which began
to be voiced in the early 1950s, should not necessarily be taken at face value.)88
However, under López Mateos, while the film subsidy mechanism of the
National Film Bank persisted, the state moved more concertedly to support
television, presumably identifying it as an industry more capable of sustaining
itself in the long run than cinema and more efficient and malleable as a propaganda
arm of the PRI.89 In 1959, the state began the construction of a Nationwide
Microwave Network, for the relay of telephone and then TV signals. This
network placed transmitters across the vast tracts of territory where the stations
of Emilio Azcárraga’s TSM could not reach and where smaller cities could not
support viable stations of their own. The network constituted a huge subsidy
to Azcárraga, who was spending large amounts of capital on expansion. In
1961 he sold most of his shares in his market-leading radio business, so as to
further invest in TSM, which was a visionary move because radio still ruled the
airwaves, scooping 36 percent of ad spend against 6 percent for TV. Owing to
Azcárraga’s capital realignment and state’s regional transmitters, by 1968, when
the microwave network was finished and Mexico hosted the Olympics, television
overtook radio as the most popular and lucrative medium in the country.90 With
close to half of Mexican households now owning a TV set, moviegoing indeed
felt an impact, but by then the Golden Age was long over.
26 E.I.A.L. 29–1
So who killed the Golden Age? Was the perpetrator indeed William Jenkins,
as Contreras Torres, Revueltas, and others once alleged, a claim often accepted
to some extent since?
In the arena of film production, the fundamental problem was commonly
held to be inadequate finance. The Jenkins Group preferred lean budgets and
was more interested in quantities of Mexican pictures than the quality of each,
and in these respects it definitely contributed to a downmarket shift in Mexican
cinema, an orientation towards predictable genre fare that appeared to satisfy
the urban masses, along with their migrant cousins in Texas and California, but
held little appeal for middle- and upper-income Mexicans and none in South
America or Europe.91 But the low-budget trend began in 1946, before Jenkins
gained monopoly power and became a dominant source of funding; he exacerbated
the problem, rather than caused it. Between the late 1940s and 1960, the
Jenkins Group indeed profiteered, and the film industry indeed declined, but
there were additional guilty parties.
Equally to blame was the state, and not only for its complicity in the growth
of the Jenkins monopoly. From as early as 1947, when Alemán nationalized the
Film Bank and increased its budget without insisting on sufficient quality controls,
cultural policy privileged the imperative of containing the masses over support
for native artistry. This approach was seen explicitly in the 1952 introduction
of the price cap, which would stay in place until the early 1970s, and implicitly
in the subsidizing of episodic B-movies made by the STIC union; the nationalizing
of the Film Bank, whose increasingly generous credits could be treated
as handouts rather than debts; and the gradual climbdown over screen quotas.
Also at fault was the industry itself, notably Mexico’s producers, most of
whom happily did the same thing year after year, while enriching themselves
with generous shavings of subsidy silver. (One industry insider has claimed that
budget inflation as a means to pocket-lining remains evident among contemporary
Mexican producers.)92 The short-sighted directors’ union, privileging job security
and comradeship over artistry and innovation, was culpable too.
Finally, there is the obvious villain of Hollywood, though here its role may
have been less noxious than in other countries. As was their global custom,
the major studios flexed their muscle via diplomatic lobbying, as seen in their
response to Alemán’s film law, and via their habit of “block booking”: forcing
theaters to take several B-pictures for every blockbuster, thereby reducing screen
time for Mexican fare. However, the Jenkins Group’s near-monolithic stature as
exhibitors surely acted as a brake on block-booking (hence the marginalizing
of local films was more a policy of its own). Further, the post-war squeeze on
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 27
screen time owed increasingly to cutting-edge competition from Europe, whose
distribution mechanisms were more fragmented than Hollywood’s; this trend
again suggests the importance to middle- and upper-income Mexican audiences
of cinematic originality.
There are questions remaining to be answered that would bring the matter
of cause more sharply into focus, which is a worthwhile matter, not least for
its implications for Mexican cultural policy in years to come. Four lines of
questioning come to mind, and there may be others. First, to what extent were
producers’ hands really tied by the Jenkins Group, including with respect to
greenlighting of individual pictures and limits on budgets? Only examination
of the archives of several production companies would satisfactorily answer
that question.93 Second, how much did diminishing creativity have to do with
screenwriters, whether the retreat of talented wordsmiths from the industry, the
complacency of those who stayed, the hiring of cheaper hacks, or other related
factors. Along with producers and directors, screenwriters are the most important
contributors to a film’s artistic merit (and often to its commercial success), yet
we know very little about the scribes of the Golden Age.94
Third, how much evidence is there that the Jenkins Group indeed favored
Hollywood fare and engaged in the “burning” of Mexican films, allowing them
only very brief premieres and then consigning them to inferior theaters. A key
tool to help answer this question is in place, thanks to the series of compendia
Cartelera cinematográfica, but a quantitative analysis is wanting.95 Finally, what
did Italy, France, or India do right that Mexico did wrong? Each of the former
had flourishing film industries by the 1960s, but a comparative analysis has yet
to be attempted. 96
1 Such comparisons are legion but typified by “Mexico’s cinema industry hopes for a new
golden age”, BBC.com, 22 Feb. 2012, www.bbc.com/news/world-radio-and-tv-17112066.
2 “Mexican Film Institute Imcine Reports Record 2015 Film Output”, Variety, 7 Mar. 2016.
In 2016, the record fell again, with 162 productions; “Statistical Yearbook of Mexican
Cinema 2016”, Festival Internacional del Cine de Morelia, 13 Mar. 2017, https://moreliafilmfest.
3 Since 1988, directors who have scored hits in Mexico and promptly tried their hand in
Los Angeles include Luis Mandoki, Alfonso Arau, Roberto Sneider, Alfonso Cuarón,
Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
4 The ProQuest database of North American and European doctoral dissertations includes
some 200 works on Mexican film but only a handful that concentrate on cinema as an
economic enterprise, none of which focuses on the Golden Age.
5 Ana M. López, “The State of Things: New Directions in Latin American Film History”,
The Americas, 63:2 (Oct. 2006), pp. 197-203. A recent exception to the lack of business28
minded history is Laura Isabel Serna, Making Cinelandia: American Films and Mexican
Film Culture Before the Golden Age (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2014).
6 Emilio García Riera, “Medio Siglo de Cine Mexicano”, Artes de México 31, 1960. Over
the next three decades, García Riera would be Mexico’s most influential film critic.
7 Gustavo García and Rafael Aviña, Época de oro del cine mexicano (Mexico City: Clío,
8 See, e.g., Charles Ramírez Berg, Cinema of Solitude: A Critical Study of Mexican Film,
1967-1983 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1992), pp. 12-15; “The Golden Age”, in J.
Hershfield and D. Maciel (eds.), Mexico’s Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers
(Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1999), pp. 33-36.
9 See, e.g., Paulo Antonio Paranaguá (ed.), Mexican Cinema (London: British Film Institute,
1995), p. 1; Seth Fein, “Hollywood and United States-Mexican Relations in the Golden
Age of Mexican Cinema”, Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Texas at Austin, 1996, p. 298; Andrea
Noble, Mexican National Cinema (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 2.
10 Carl J. Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896-1980 (Berkeley: Univ. of
California Press, 1982), p. 75; interview with Salvador Elizondo, June 18, 1975, Instituto
Mora, Mexico City, Archivo de la Palabra (hereafter, Mora-Palabra), PHO2/27, p. 16;
García Riera, Breve historia del cine mexicano (Zapopan, Jalisco: Mapa, 1998), p. 120.
Those agreeing with García Riera include: Eduardo de la Vega, “Origins, Development
and Crisis of the Sound Cinema”, in Paranaguá (ed.), Mexican Cinema, p. 89; John King,
Magical Reels (London: Verso, 2000), p. 47.
11 Berg, Cinema of Solitude, p. 5; the “third-largest” claim is unsourced, as is Aurelio de
los Reyes’s even more dubious assertion that by 1938 the industry was the country’s
second largest, after oil, in Un medio siglo de cine mexicano (1896-1947) (Mexico City:
Trillas, 1987), p. 153. Neither claim specifies its basis for measurement (revenue, workforce,
exports, or other). A 1947 Mexican government report ranked the film industry
third “in economic importance”; again, it failed to specify the basis, but it mentioned a
total workforce of 32,000 and export earnings of 14 million pesos ($3 million); Merwin
Bohan to State Dept., Mexico City, November 6, 1947, Records of the U.S. Department
of State (hereafter, RDS), 812.4061-MP/11-647, pp. 3-5.
12 In the 1940s, Mexican box office revenue (b.o.) appeared in print only erratically. Fragmentary
evidence suggests that local films gained parity with imports by 1943-45 and
lost ground thereafter. For example, in 1941, local producers captured a 30% national
b.o. share (Variety, June 2, 1943, p. 12); for January-May 1943, Mexican films gained
a 40% b.o. share in Mexico City (Variety, July 7, 1943, p. 19); by 1944, domestic films
accounted for over 50% of Mexico City screen time (Fein, “Hollywood”, p. 337); between
1946 and 1948, that share held at 41-42%, and for first half of 1949, Mexican films
took 37.5% of the Mexico City b.o. (ibid., p. 563). Given that Mexican films enjoyed
more screen time in the provinces than the capital (ibid., pp. 338-42), one must assume
a somewhat higher portion of the b.o. for Mexican films on a nationwide basis.
13 García Riera, Breve historia, pp. 102, 150f; Variety, June 19, 1940, p. 12; July 10, 1946,
p. 17. In 1950, Variety reported that of the 885 films produced between 1932 and 1949,
10 percent (85 films) had never been exhibited; June 7, 1950, p. 15. Cf. Alexandra Pineda
and Paulo Antonio Paranaguá, “Mexico and its Cinema”, in Paranaguá (ed.), Mexican
Cinema, pp. 29-38; Eduardo de la Vega, “The Decline of the Golden Age and the Making
of the Crisis”, in J. Hershfield and D. Maciel (eds.), Mexico’s Cinema, pp. 165-91.
14 See Claudia Fernández and Andrew Paxman, El Tigre: Emilio Azcárraga y su imperio
Televisa (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2013), chap. 5.
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 29
15 For Mexico City (population 1.75 million), b.o. for films in 1939 and 1940 totaled $3.6
million per annum, 72% of a total ticketed entertainment expenditure of $5 million;
Variety, January 8, 1941, p. 74. Nationwide, by 1946 expenditure stood at $20 million,
80% of that at movie theaters; Herbert Cerwin, These are the Mexicans (New York:
Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), p. 274.
16 Variety, August 28, 1946, p. 23; January 29, 1947, p. 17.
17 The pages of Variety offer ample evidence of poor b.o. In the first half of 1946, 38 local
releases yielded just three hits; July 10, 1946, p. 16. In 1948, Mexican producers took a
net loss of $1million on 82 films; March 9, 1949, p. 62. Despite renewed industry calls
for quality over quantity, 1949 proved no better: “Of the 110 issued last year, only a few
drew good returns”; June 7, 1950, p. 15.
18 María Luisa Amador and Jorge Ayala Blanco, Cartelera cinematográfica, 1940-1949
(Mexico City: UNAM, 1982), p. 377.
19 Andrew Paxman, Jenkins of Mexico: How a Southern Farm Boy Became a Mexican
Magnate Mexico (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2017), pp. 233-240.
20 Manuel Espinosa Yglesias, “Preface” to Mary Street Jenkins Foundation, ed. B. Trueblood
(Puebla: MSJF, 1988), p. 18; “Jenkins, El Emperador,” Siempre!, August 8, 1953, pp.
14, 74; interview with William A. Jenkins (Jenkins’s grandson), Mexico City, July 15,
21 For a list of festival awards reaped by Mexican films during the Golden Age (a list
padded with minor prizes for 1959-63), see Federico Heuer, La industria cinematográfica
mexicana (Mexico City: n.p., 1964), pp. 419-21.
22 García Riera, Historia documental del cine mexicano (Guadalajara: Univ. de Guadalajara,
1992); see also De los Reyes, Un medio siglo de cine mexicano (1896-1947) (Mexico
City: Trillas, 1987), and Ayala Blanco, La aventura del cine mexicano (Mexico City: Era,
1968). On Riera and Ayala Blanco and their influence, see J. Hershfield and D. Maciel
(eds.), Mexico’s Cinema, p. xiii.
23 Berg, Cinema of Solitude; Fein, “Hollywood,” chaps. 5 and 7; Francisco Peredo Castro,
Cine y propaganda para Latinoamérica: México y Estados Unidos en la encrucijada
de los años cuarenta (Mexico City: UNAM, 2011).
24 Berg, Cinema of Solitude, pp. 12-15, 37-41.
25 Ibid., pp. 5f; see also pp. 39-41.
26 Paranaguá’s Mexican Cinema contains several useful essays, notably Tomás Pérez Turrent’s
profile of production houses. De la Vega’s “Decline of the Golden Age” (op. cit.)
focuses on creative exhaustion.
27 Most Mexican critics and historians, including García Riera and Ayala Blanco, have
followed French auteur theory, which privileges the director as a film’s true author; cf.
Paranaguá, Mexican Cinema, p. 43.
28 Paxman, Jenkins of Mexico, pp. 235f, 238, 289, 344-5.
29 Thomas McEnelly to State Dept., Tampico, July 12, 1943, RDS, 812.4061-MP/297; El
Universal, Sept. 13, 1944, p. 13.
30 Mora, Mexican Cinema, p. 77; Fein, “Hollywood”, p. 352; Registro Público de la Propiedad
y del Comercio, Puebla (hereafter cited as RPP-P), Libro 1 de Comercio, T. 17,
no. 52, and L. 3, T. 55, no. 57.
31 Although it was Espinosa who brought this pressure to bear, Alarcón was indeed its
beneficiary. Evidently, Jenkins wanted to foster greater parity between his two lieutenants,
given that Espinosa already ran the big COTSA chain.
30 E.I.A.L. 29–1
32 Miguel Contreras Torres, El libro negro del cine mexicano (Mexico City: n.p., 1960),
p. 53; La Opinión (Puebla), October 14, 1949, p. 1; Tiempo, February 27, 1953, p. 42.
Azcárraga quit by degrees, first joining Jenkins and Alarcón in a production company,
then combining his operations with Alarcón’s, selling a majority stake in 1951, and exiting
altogether in 1955, although he retained control of the Teatro Alameda; cf. Variety,
December 1, 1948, p. 13; RPP-P, Libro 3 de Comercio, Tomo 54, no. 82.
33 Founded in 1947 by a consortium of producers and the National Film Bank, Películas
Nacionales eased distribution problems by offering bundles of films in negotiations with
exhibitors. Still, producers often preferred to secure screen time in one of two ways: those
that made pictures with exhibitor financing could rely on direct access to that company’s
theaters, while a small minority (like Cantinflas’ Posa Films) obtained output deals with
Hollywood distributors; Mora, Mexican Cinema, p. 78; Fein, “Hollywood”, p. 580.
34 Various correspondence, February 17 to May 21, 1949, Archivo General de la Nación
(hereafter, AGN), Presidential files of Miguel Alemán Valdés, Exp. 523.3/54.
35 Variety, April 11, 1945, p. 16; November 26, 1947, p. 15.
36 Hoy, October 29, 1949, pp. 12f.
37 Indeed, Espinosa later claimed to have chipped in to help finance Allá en el Rancho
Grande; Marcos T. Águila, Martí Soler and Roberto Suárez, Trabajo, Fortuna y Poder.
Manuel Espinosa Yglesias, un empresario mexicano del siglo XX (Mexico City: Centro
de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias, 2007), pp. 53f.
38 Anuario Financiero de México, 1942 (Mexico City: Asociación de Banqueros de México,
1943), pp. 381f; Manuel Espinosa Yglesias, Bancomer: Logro y destrucción de un ideal
(Mexico City: Planeta, 2000), pp. 19-22, 35-7; García Riera, Historia documental, Vol.
2, pp. 236-8; Variety, January 28, 1942, p. 13.
39 Variety, December 2, 1942, p. 12; October 11, 1944, p. 13.
40 Berg, Cinema of Solitude, p. 40; Variety, October 23, 1946, p. 18; January 8, 1947, p. 179;
June 11, 16; interview with Eugenia Meyer (daughter of producer Gregorio Walerstein),
Mexico City, August 8, 2007.
41 One estimate, provided within a critique of protectionist practices, claims the BNC funded
70% of films, with an average 60% of their budgets, implying a total outlay of around
42% of film expenditure; Variety, October 26, 1949, p. 17.
42 Variety, June 30, 1948, p. 16; October 26, 1949, p. 17; June 28, 1950, p. 13; December
20, p. 53.
43 De la Vega, “Decline of the Golden Age”, pp. 175-8; Marcos Águila, et al., Trabajo, Fortuna
y Poder. Manuel Espinosa Yglesias, un empresario mexicano del siglo XX (Mexico
City: Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias, 2007), p. 127; Variety, December 8, 1948, p.
54; Elizondo interview, Mora-Palabra PHO2/27, pp. 10, 48-50; Meyer interview, August
44 Siempre!, August 8, 1953, p. 14.
45 Interviews with Ana María and Carmen Díaz Rubín de la Hidalga, Mexico City, Aug. 1,
2001; Bertha Cobel, Puebla, March 25, 2006.
46 Elizondo interview, Mora-Palabra PHO2/27, pp. 37f, 48f.
47 By around 1950, producers generally assumed that Film Bank credit need not be repaid;
Gustavo García, La década perdida. Imagen 24 x 1 (Mexico City: UAM-Azcapotzalco,
1986), p. 18.
48 Hoy, October 29, 1949, 12f; Gabriel Ramírez, Miguel Contreras Torres, 1899-1981
(Guadalajara: Univ. de Guadalajara, 1994), pp. 91, 93.
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 31
49 García Riera, Historia documental, Vol. 3, pp. 109f, 220; De la Vega, “Origins, Development”,
p. 91; Berg, Cinema of Solitude, pp. 37, 41. On Hollywood’s ability to keep genre
pictures innovative: Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System (New York: Pantheon,
1988). A point in the directors’ defense is the incursion of state censors, especially with
respect to political themes; cf. García Riera, Historia documental, Vol. 5, pp. 15f; David
Maciel, “La Sombra del Caudillo: El cine mexicano y el Estado en la década de los
sesenta,” in C. Carmona Álvarez (ed.), El Estado y la imagen en movimiento (Mexico
City: IMCINE, 2012), pp. 197-215.
50 De la Vega, “Origins, Development”, p. 90; Pineda and Paranaguá, “Mexico and its
Cinema”, p. 42; Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, Buñuel and Mexico: The Crisis Of National
Cinema (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2003).
51 García Riera, “Medio Siglo”, p. 22; Heuer, La industria, p. 210 (for his complete argument,
see pp. 199-213).
52 For production figures, see García Riera, Breve historia, pp. 121, 150.
53 De la Vega, “Decline of the Golden Age”, pp. 166-9; Variety, July 16, 1947, p. 16.
54 Heuer, La industria, pp. 176-81; Berg, Cinema of Solitude, p. 41.
55 Paxman, Jenkins of Mexico, pp. 236f, 255f, 295.
56 García, La década perdida, p. 18.
57 Niblo, Mexico in the 1940s, pp. 340-2; Variety, February 21, 1945, p. 13; March 21, p.
58 Pineda and Paranaguá, “Mexico and its Cinema”, p. 42; conversations with director Tony
Wakefield Murillo, 2013-2015.
59 Hoy, October 29, 1949, p. 13.
60 The 300 figure includes a probable 100 that the Jenkins Group leased from small operators;
Variety, October 4, 1950, p. 15; cf. New York Times, February 8, 1953, p. 76.
61 Niblo, Mexico in the 1940s, pp. 49f, 160.
62 Fein, “Hollywood”, pp. 600-604; cf. Variety, October 23, 1946, p. 18.
63 Fein, “Hollywood”, p. 605.
64 Ibid., pp. 607f.
65 Even in 1944, when the European market was dormant, Hollywood was making only
2% of its revenues in Mexico, while Mexican producers relied on US distribution for
15% to 25% of their budgets, through pre-sale of rights; Guy Ray to State Dept., Mexico
City, October 6, 1944, RDS, 812.4061-MP/10-644, pp. 4f.
66 Fein, “Hollywood”, pp. 608-15. On Hollywood battles with European quotas: Thomas
Guback, The International Film Industry: Western Europe and America since 1945
(Bloomington: Univ. of Indiana Press, 1969), chap. 2.
67 El Universal, February 3 to 9, 1953; Excélsior, February 4 to 9; New York Times, February
8, p. 76.
68 Excélsior, February 7, 1953, p. 1.
69 Excélsior, February 8, 1953, pp. 1, 6, 9; Niblo, Mexico in the 1940s, p. 237.
70 Tiempo, February 13, 1953, p. 45.
71 Harvie Branscomb to Jenkins, Nashville, May 7, 1953, Branscomb Papers (RG300),
Vanderbilt Univ. Box 362, File 1; Fein, “Hollywood”, p. 617.
72 La Opinión, August 12, 1954, p. 1; various documents, May-Aug. 1954, AGN, Presidential
files of Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, Exp. 111/2855. The telegrams to Ruiz Cortines, persisting
until July 1955, fill most of two boxes.
73 La Opinión, October 3, 1954, p. 1; December 7, p. 1; December 15, 1955, p. 1; see also,
Víctor Velásquez, El caso Alarcón (Mexico City: n.p., 1955).
32 E.I.A.L. 29–1
74 Variety, December 3, 1958, p. 11. COTSA’s gross omits concession sales (popcorn,
drinks, etc.); estimating those and extrapolating Cadena de Oro revenues, I estimate that
the Jenkins Group grossed around $40 million per year.
75 Variety, August 17, 1938, p. 25; November 16, 1938, p. 123; December 3, 1958, p. 11.
76 Interview with Raúl de Anda, November 27-28, 1975, Mora-Palabra PHO2/48, pp. 29f.
77 Michael Nelson Miller, Red, White, and Green: The Maturing of Mexicanidad, 1940-
1946 (El Paso: Texas Western, 1998), p. 97; Ávila Camacho to Congress, “Ley que crea
la Comisión para el Fomento de la Cinematografía Nacional”, January 17, 1946, AGN,
Presidential files of Manuel Ávila Camacho, Exp. 201.1/5.
78 On newsreels, see: Ricardo Pérez Montfort, “El discurso moral en los noticieros fílmicos
de 1940 a 1960”, in Alicia Olivera de Bonfil (ed.), Los archivos de la memoria (Mexico
City: INAH, 1999).
79 Fernández and Paxman, El Tigre, pp. 72-82.
80 Allegations of such holdings are rife. Ávila Camacho’s brother Maximino, Minister of
Communications (1941-45), was widely said to be a partner in Jenkins’s Puebla theaters;
Manuel himself is an obvious suspect, for he reportedly died a very rich man, leaving his
widow a billion-peso fortune; Alemán enriched himself notoriously and shared several
business interests with Jenkins; Ruiz Cortines was alleged to have protected the Jenkins
Group in exchange for an interest in the film business. For more on Maximino, see:
Armando Romano Moreno, Anecdotario estudiantil, Vol. 1 (Puebla: Univ. Autónoma de
Puebla, 1985), p. 205; De la Vega, “Origins, Development”, p. 91; cf. Niblo, Mexico in
the 1940s, pp. 283-7. Re. Manuel Ávila Camacho, see: Opinión Pública, September 15,
1962, p. 9; cf. Niblo, Mexico in the 1940s, pp. 289f. Re. Alemán, see: Paxman, Jenkins
of Mexico, pp. 273, 298f; cf. Niblo, Mexico in the 1940s, pp. 290f. Re. Ruiz Cortines,
see: Don Verdades, “Corrido del cine mexicano” (Mexico City: n.p., ), AGN,
Presidential files of Adolfo López Mateos, Exp. 136.3/831.
81 Jorge Ayala Blanco, La condición del cine mexicano, 1973-1985 (Mexico City: Posada,
1986), pp. 516f; García Riera, Historia documental, Vol. 7, pp. 7-10; Berg, Cinema of
Solitude, p. 5f; De la Vega, “Decline of the Golden Age”, pp. 177-9; El Universal, August
29, 1953, p. 1; December 3, p. 4.
82 Excélsior, December 10, 1952, pp. 17, 20; December 11, pp. 1, 12; Variety, June 1, 1966,
p. 21; January 5, 1972, p. 70; María Luisa Amador and Jorge Ayala Blanco, Cartelera
cinematográfica, 1950-1959 (Mexico City: UNAM, 1985), pp. 388-99, and 1960-1969
(Mexico City: UNAM, 1986), pp. 476-89; García Riera, Breve historia, pp. 255, 279;
Niblo, Mexico in the 1940s, p. 299; Seth Fein, “From Collaboration to Containment”,
in Hershfield and Maciel (eds.), Mexico’s Cinema, p. 155. That the cap was a tactic for
the “containment of the masses,” rather than (as stated at the time) an anti-inflation
initiative, is affirmed by the fact that while inflation indeed remained generally low
during the era in which the cap persisted, the real-terms Mexico City minimum wage
more than doubled; Kevin Middlebrook, The Paradox of Revolution: Labor, the State,
and Authoritarianism in Mexico (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995), p. 215. By the late
1960s, Mexico City theaters were charging less than a quarter of the price charged in
Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro; Arturo Garmendia, “Del monopolio de la exhibición a
la estatización (ineficiente) de la industria,” in C. Carmona Álvarez (ed.), El Estado y la
imagen en movimiento, 153f.
83 Política, June 1, 1960, pp. 27-9; June 12, p. 9; July 1, p. 9; August 1, pp. 11f; Excélsior,
June 8, 1960, p. 1; June 9, pp. 1, 6.
WHO KILLED THE MEXICAN FILM INDUSTRY? 33
84 El Universal, December 1, 1960, pp. 11, 29, 35; December 3, p. 3; Time, December 26,
1960, pp. 25f; interview with Oscar Alarcón (Gabriel’s son), Mexico City, August 15,
85 Salvador Elizondo, “El cine mexicano y la crisis”, in Hojas de cine (Mexico City: SEP,
1988), pp. II:37-46; Mora, Mexican Cinema, p. 110; García Riera, Breve historia, p. 211.
On the post-1967 resurgence, see: Berg, Cinema of Solitude.
86 Fein, “Hollywood”, chap. 5.
87 Amador and Ayala Blanco, Cartelera cinematográfica, 1940-1949, pp. 375-7, 1950-1959,
pp. 355-64, and 1960-1969, pp. 425-38; José Carlos Lozano Rendón, et al., “Exhibición
y programación cinematográfica en Monterrey, México de 1922 a 1962”, Global Media
Journal México, 9:18 (otoño 2012), p. 85.
88 Fernández and Paxman, El Tigre, p. 78; “Mexico”, International TV Almanac (New York:
Quigley, 1961); cf. El Nacional, January 14, 1953, p. II-1, in which the STIC claims that
television has caused a 30% drop in b.o. admissions.
89 Paxman, “Cooling to Cinema and Warming to Television: State Mass Media Policy from
1940 to 1964”, in P. Gillingham and B. Smith (eds.), Dictablanda: Politics, Work, and
Culture in Mexico, 1938– 1968 (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2014).
90 Fernández and Paxman, El Tigre, pp. 115-8.
91 On the collapse of export markets, which chiefly occurred between 1955 and 1970, see
Alejandro Flores García, Cinecompendio 1971-1972 (Mexico City: A Posta, 1972),
pp. 38-43; Rogelio Agrasánchez, Mexican Movies in the United States (Jefferson, NC:
McFarland, 2006), pp. 63-8, 105-7, 131-8, 159f.
92 Conversations with Wakefield Murillo, 2013-2015.
93 Golden Age companies that are still in business include Alameda Films and Cinematografía
Calderón; part of the latter’s archive has recently been opened to researchers at
the Permanencia Voluntaria Film Archive in Tepoztlán.
94 An exception is José Revueltas; see Francisco Peredo and Carlos Narro (eds.), José
Revueltas: Obra cinematográfica (1943-1976) (Mexico City: UNAM, 2015).
95 Amador and Ayala Blanco, Cartelera cinematográfica, 1940-1949, 1950-1959, and
96 My thanks to Mauricio Tenorio, Eric Zolov, and the anonymous reviewer for their comments.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Tony Wakefield Murillo (1960-2015).
E.I.A.L., Vol. 29 – No 1 (2018)
Estado, política y vivienda entre
dos peronismos: los grandes conjuntos
habitacionales y las acciones en villas
miseria en Buenos Aires, 1946-1976
Universidad Nacional de Quilmes / Conicet
El trabajo se propone abordar el período de mayor actividad constructiva,
crediticia y de fomento de la vivienda masiva por parte del Estado registrada
en Argentina. Desde la perspectiva de la historia de la arquitectura y la ciudad,
se detiene en los dos polos de las políticas del momento: la planificación y
construcción de grandes conjuntos y las acciones en villas de emergencia,
temas que desarrolla a través del análisis de tres casos, cada uno de los cuales
es representativo de un momento dentro del período elegido. El análisis
pone énfasis en las condiciones que llevaron a la adopción en Argentina de
soluciones arquitectónicas que fueron notablemente menos frecuentadas en
otros países de América Latina.
Palabras clave: Arquitectura moderna argentina, Politicas de vivienda,
Arquitectura y politica, Arquitectura y desarrollo urbano, Villas de emergencia
The article aims to analyze the period in which constructive activity,
credit-granting, and promotion of massive housing by the State were at their
most intensive in the history of Argentina. From the perspective of the history
of architecture and the city, it addresses the two poles of the policies during
that period: high density housing projects and the actions in shantytowns
(villas de emergencia). These topics are developed through the analysis of
three cases that each represent specific moments within the chosen period.
The analysis emphasizes the conditions that led to the adoption in Argentina
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