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Los Tallos Amargos  /  She-Devil Island

She Devil Island
March 4, 2017 - 7:30 pm
film historian Alan K. Rode.

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by Film Noir Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Charitable Trust

Los Tallos Amargos  (Argentina, 1956)

The Bitter Stems

Los tallos amargos is based on a novel by journalist Adolfo Jasca, winner of the Emecé Literary Prize, Argentina's highest literary honor.  It tells the story of Alfredo Gaspar, a Buenos Aires journalist who is down on his luck.  He meets a Hungarian immigrant and together they create a fake journalism correspondence school as a get-rich-quick scheme.  After a brief period of initial success, Alfredo becomes more and more paranoid, and eventually commits a murder, which he then attempts to cover up.  But he can't run away from his conscience.

While the first half of the film is told in a flashback, the second visualizes Alfredo's fate after the murder, when he meets and falls in love with a young woman.  Considered one of the most beautifully photographed films in film history—the film was shot by Ricardo Younis who was a student of Gregg Toland—Los tallos amargos switches between objective and subjective points of view with abandon, interpolating dream sequences and Alfredo's reveries, as desperation, guilt, and paranoia get the better of him.  Ayala, one of the most prolific and courageous directors working in Argentina, was unafraid of going to the darkest corners of the human psyche, as he does here.  Also worth mentioning is the music by Astor Piazzola, one of the greatest Argentine composers of the 20th century, who revolutionized traditional tango music by adding jazz and classical elements.  In 1957, the film won the Silver Condor Award (Premio Cóndor de Plata), the Argentine equivalent of the Oscars.  The film had been completely forgotten, until resurrected by the Film Noir Foundation after film collector/historian Fernando Peña found the original camera negative rotting in the basement of the family of the film's producer.  —Jan-Christopher Horak

35mm, b/w, in Spanish with English subtitles, 88 min.  Director: Fernando Ayala.  Production/Distribution: Artistas Argentinos Asociado.  From the novel by: Adolfo Jasca.  Screenplay: Sergio Leonardo.  Cinematography: Ricardo Younis.  Production Design: Germán Gelpi, Mario Vanarelli.  Music: Astor Piazzolla.  Cast: Carlos Cores, Aída Luz, Julia Sandoval, Vasilli Lambrinos, Bernardo Perrone.

Restored from the 35mm acetate camera negative and a 16mm composite acetate print.  Laboratory services by Fotokem, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Inc., Simon Daniel Sound, Titra California, Inc.  Special thanks to: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Charitable Trust (The HFPA Trust), Fernando Martin Peña, and The Gonzáles Family for making the materials available.  This restoration of Los tallos amargos is dedicated to Alberto González who acquired and conserved the original film elements.

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive

She-Devil Island  (Mexico, 1936)

In this English-language version of the Spanish-language Mexican production, María Elena, María Elena makes a “bad” choice, allowing sexual desire to trump a sensible marriage, thus sending her faithful fisherman suitor across the sea.  There, Alfredo (Juan José Martínez Casado) learns of a mysterious island inhabited only by women, and the rich pearl beds on its shores.  An adventure film ensues, in which silent “native women” are captured by competing groups of males attempting to find the pearls.  Alfredo leads the original group, but then finds out that María Elena is mortally ill, and returns home to save his beloved.

She-Devil Island presents an interesting case of how Mexican films were circulated in the United States, since the English-language version was distributed as an exploitation picture, although the actual film—unlike the advertising—has little real salacious content.  The film's artistic pretentions are evident in several scenes of folk music and dance, which were commonplace in the 1930s, when the still-budding Mexican film industry was highlighting authentic national culture or Mexicanidad.  Copyrighted as early as November 1935, the Spanish-language María Elena was released by Columbia and opened at the Teatro Campoamor in Harlem on February 17, 1936.  The film went nowhere.  Then in July, states’ rights distributor First Division released the English version under the exploitative title, She-Devil Island, ballyhooed with racy posters by Al Friedlander.  When the film opened in Newark, NJ, it did “sensational” business, earning $7,000 in its first week; a month later the film was still running at the giant Fox theater in Brooklyn.

Reviews in the New York Times for María Elena were tepid: “Despite the Hollywood influence said to have been exercised by Columbia Pictures upon ‘Maria Elena'…the ending of this sad story of an innocent maiden's infatuation is just what patrons of importations from below the Rio Grande are accustomed to.”   Reviewing the English-language She-Devil Island, however, Variety (“novel and exciting) and Film Daily (“a bit of something off the beaten path”) were more enthusiastic.  —Jan-Christopher Horak

35mm, b/w, 66 min.  Director: Raphael J. Sevilla.  Production: Charles L. Kimball Productions.  Distribution: First Division/Grand National.  Original Story: Ernesto M. Cortazar.  Screen Adaptation: Alfonso Liguori, Raphael J. Sevilla.  Songs and Music: Lorenzo Barcelata.  Musical Score and Direction: Juan S. Garrido and Max Urban.  Cinematography: Lauron S. Draper.  Cast: Carmen Guerrero, Juan José Martinez Casado, Adolfo Giron, Beatriz Ramos, Lucy Delgado.

Restored from two 35mm acetate prints and a 35mm nitrate print.  Laboratory services by Fotokem, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Inc., Simon Daniel Sound.