Shakespeare, Hollywood, and Mexico: The Cantinflas Romeo Y Julieta

Article excerpt

A version of Romeo and Juliet which has so far received little attention is the wonderful parody made in Mexico in 1943, with Miguel M. Delgado directing the country's most popular comic Mario Moreno, known everywhere simply as Cantinflas.1 Outside of Mexico, discussions of Romeo y Julieta have appeared only in the context of Cantinflas's career, most notably Jeffrey M. Pitcher's book Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity. Luke McKernana and Olwen Terris do not have Romeo y Julieta in their book Walking Shadows, which lists Shakespeare films in the British National Film and Television archives, and the film was unavailable to Kenneth S. Rothwell and Annabelle Henkin Melzer, whose comprehensive Shakespeare on Screen depends on reviews for a summary of the film (250). Beside being an entertaining film with clever parodic elements, Romeo y Julieta demonstrates the intertextual nature of film at a time when Mexican filmmakers could depend on an audience familiar with American films, and the Mexican and American film industries shared a complicated relationship bounded by America's Good Neighbor Policy and the effect of World War II on film production and distribution.2

From the beginning, American films had a significant impact in Mexico, and, according to some estimates, "by the mid- 1920s over 95 percent of the offerings in Mexico's theatres were American films" (Delpar 187), and in the 1930s, 76 percent of the feature films premiering in Mexico City were from America (Vega Alfaro 84).3 The coming of World War II complicated the situation in ways that helped Mexico develop its film industry throughout the 1940s, ushering in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy, introduced in 1936 to strengthen hemispheric relationships, became more important after Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland and the threat of Axis influence in Latin America. In October of 1940, he appointed Nelson Rockefeller, head of the newlycreated Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), with John Hay Whitney, a financier of Gone With the Wind and director of the Museum of Modern Art's film library, in charge of the agency's Motion Picture Division (Usabel 157). Recognizing the value of feature films as propaganda, Rockefeller's CIAA, according to Seth Fein, was "responsible for U.S. cultural and economic relations with Latin America during World War II>" and became the most important "of U.S.-Mexican interactions at a variety of transnational and intergovernmental levels between the 1930s and 1950s" ("Myths" 164).4

Beside improving the Latin image in American films and encouraging American films with Latin American topics, such as Disney's Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1943), as well as Orson Welles's unfinished It's All True (1942), the CIAA encouraged the exchange of talent between Mexico and America and cut the delivery of raw film stock to Axis-leaning Argentina while increasing the supply to Mexico.5 As a result, Argentinian film production declined in 1942; the next year Mexico became the top producer of films in Latin America (Usabel 170-73) and "Mexican features invaded the Latin American market" (Usabel 185). In fact, 1943, the year of the Cantinflas Romeo y Julieta, produced many classics of the Mexican cinema and has been called the industry's "great year" (Mora 59-60). Significantly, in terms of the connection between Mexico and the United States, that same year. Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho awarded Wait Disney its highest prize for furthering Pan-American relations (Usabel 166), and RKO Vice-President Phil Reisman, who was also a member of the CIAA, "tried to buy 51 percent of Posa Films's shares and proposed that Cantinflas, their exclusive artist, make several films in Hollywood" (Mora 68).

Mexico absorbed American films and filmmaking in a variety of ways. For example, a Mexican version of Dracula was filmed at the same time and on the same set as Tod Browning's famous 1931 film starting Bela Lugosi. …