by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie was The Gay Desperado, a marvelous 1936 comedy-drama directed by Rouben Mamoulian and essentially thrown together by him and writer Wallace Smith after Mamoulian got the assignment to make a film starring Nino Martini, an Italian-born singer who had made one previous Hollywood film, Here’s to Romance, for producer (and former Paramount co-founder) Jesse Lasky at Fox. Lasky got let go by Fox but still had Martini under contract, so with a new contract to work with Mary Pickford’s company to make films for United Artists release, Lasky decided to make another Martini vehicle under his new auspices. Meanwhile, as Mamoulian recalled it in his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the book The Celluloid Muse, after the exhausting process of making Becky Sharp (the first feature-length film shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor), “I went to Mexico for a two-week vacation. I fell in love with Mexico, its beautifully stylized landscapes, its skies always filled with cumulus clouds. I decided I would never rest until I made a film there.”
When he returned Lasky contacted him with a job offer: to do a film based on Gounod’s opera Faust with Martini as star. “It intrigued me, but the script was all wrong,” Mamoulian recalled. “Jesse was desperate; Martini’s first film had flopped, and he couldn’t think of another vehicle. Then while we were talking, a man named [Leo] Birinski arrived with the idea for a Mexican film: Mexican bandits see American gangster films and realize how outmoded their methods are, and go to the movies as a night school and try to follow the gangster methods of America.” Birinski’s idea was that a Mexican bandit gang so inspired would kidnap a radio singer, who Martini would play; but Mamoulian decided that Birinski’s story had a great potential premise for a satire but “the rest of the story was the dreariest you ever heard.” Mamoulian told Lasky he would make the film if he could throw out everything Birinski wrote except the central premise, and he brought in Smith to write what turned out to be a loony comedy (from a director who hadn’t shown that much of a sense of humor before — Love Me Tonight was a sophisticated romantic comedy with music, but it hardly indicated Mamoulian as a suitable director for something this zany) in which Martini plays, not a radio singer, but an entertainer in a dinky movie theatre that, in between showings of the American gangster film bandido Pablo Braganza (Leo Carrillo) uses as inspiration, puts on a silent travelogue during which Martini’s character, Chivo, is called upon to sing.
Chivo gets upset at the way Braganza and his gang members are talking through the gangster movie, and Braganza first threatens to kill him and then drafts him into his gang, essentially as his personal minstrel. (The movie itself looks like stock footage from the 1932 Scarface, sped up to make it look funnier, interspersed with new close-ups of actors supposedly starring in the film-within-the-film.) Their first American-style caper is the kidnapping of American heir Bill Shay (James Blakeley), who’s driving through Mexico in a Rolls-Royce with his girlfriend Jane (Ida Lupino, still speaking with her native British accent) — actually their original intent is just to steal the car because a fast vehicle is one of the ingredients for American gangsterdom they’ve learned from the movies, but when Shay tries to talk his way out of his predicament by telling the bandits who his father is, they decide to hold him for $10,000 ransom and also decide they’ll be willing to throw in the girl for another $1,000. Chivo is immediately smitten with Jane but thinks that she and Bill are already married (they were going into Mexico with the intent of getting married there but they hadn’t yet done so when they were taken), and he’s sympathetic enough that Jane can tell he isn’t really a bandit and, not surprisingly, falls for him over the nerd she’d been traveling with — only Chivo lets them both go and Braganza summons a real American gangster, Butch (Stanley Fields), to tell him what to do now.
Butch recaptures Bill and Jane and decides to go through with the ransom demand, upping it to $100,000. Chivo gets arrested by the Mexican police but talks his way out of it by agreeing to set up the bandits; Butch and the American gang are arrested, but the police captain (Allan Garcia) decides that without Braganza still at large his life would have no meaning, so he gives Braganza and his bandidos the 15-minute head start he asked for, and they get away, while Chivo and Jane pair up for a new life north of the border. Though Mamoulian didn’t actually get to shoot the film in Mexico — Arizona “played” it — he and his cinematographer, Lucien Andriot, made the film look like a Mexican movie, with great red-filtered shots of sky with clouds looming over it and the omnipresent cacti (though at least Mamoulian and Smith didn’t have the bandit gang take target practice on the cacti the way Mexican writer-director Fernando de Fuentes did in his equally marvelous Vámonos con Pancho Villa), that gives an oddly sinister backdrop to the zany antics on screen.
Martini also gets to do a lot of singing, and though Mamoulian and Smith weren’t really going for an “integrated musical” the way Mamoulian and Samuel Hoffenstein had done on Love Me Tonight (to my mind still the best film musical ever made, bar none), they manage not only to work in a potential hit, “The World Is Mine,” but do some gag riffs off the music. In one scene, Braganza crashes a radio station and he and his gang hold guns on the station personnel to force them to let Chivo sing on the air — and he picks “Celeste Aïda,” complete with the opening recitative. When the trumpet parts come blasting in just after the first vocal phrase, the station manager is startled and Chivo has to reassure him that that’s part of the music as Verdi wrote it. Both Charles and I were amused to see this shortly after we’d watched The Great Caruso, in which another “pop” tenor with operatic ambitions, Mario Lanza, had sung this aria in a much more respectful and “serious” context.
The Gay Desperado is a truly great film, a wonderfully funny character comedy whose elements — romance, music, crime — actually blend instead of clashing, and even Martini’s ineptitude as an actor comes off as a kind of gawkish sincerity (a pity Mamoulian never made a film with Nelson Eddy!). This was a surprising rediscovery that we were almost denied; the film contained a UCLA preservation credit, and whatever restoration work they did on it, the film had a marvelous visual “look” — the man who’d just made what’s generally (though wrongly) considered the first color feature returned to the glories of red-filtered black-and-white and left one wondering why anyone ever thought the movies needed color.
Incidentally, the American Film Institute Catalog entry on The Gay Desperado claims that the title was the winning entry in a public opinion poll asking people what the film should be called (it got between 21,000 and 25,000 votes, though the catalog doesn’t say how many total votes were cast) and lists a couple of the crazier releases UA’s publicity department came up with to promote the film. They claimed that the sombrero Leo Carrillo wears in the film had been the property of Pancho Villa and had been personally presented to the filmmakers by Villa’s widow, and that Allan Garcia and another actor in the film, Mariano Valenzuela, had previously encountered each other in 1911, when Garcia was a Maderista revolutionary and Valenzuela an army corporal — a reverse of their casting in the film, with Garcia as a police captain and Valenzuela as a bandit. Yeah, right …