Before popular films like Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2018) and Pan’s Labyrinth (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006) took the stage at awards shows and populated Netflix queues, Mexican cinema first became popular in the 1930s. Between the 1930s and 1950s, Mexican films began to take over box offices.
This period of Mexican cinema history is known as the “Golden Age” or “Cine de Oro” and followed the silent era of film. As Mexican cinema grew in popularity, film in the United States held a strong influence—especially towards films that were most successful in box offices in Mexico. However, before this would happen, the country witnessed war, the influence of Hollywood cinema, and a breakout film, El automóvil gris (dir. Enrique Rosa, 1919).
In the second decade of the twentieth century, the Mexican Revolution was host to an era of violence and political upheaval. The Mexican Revolution also, however, oversaw a revolution of the arts—including literature, music, and art to name a few. However, before the art of film took the national stage, Hollywood productions in general were much more popular than those made in Mexico until the emergence of the Golden Age.
Tensions were high not only in the war but also on the movie screen—and sometimes these overlapped. However, one film was able to capture the violence of the time while also pushing back against the cultural violence inflicted by Hollywood at the time. Prior to both the revolutionary Golden Age came the transformative film El automóvil gris, which is still popular and influential today.
A book titled The Classical Mexican Cinema: The Poetics of the Exceptional Golden Age Films by Charles Ramírez Berg includes a summary of El automóvil gris: “it was based on a notorious series of robberies that occurred in Mexico City in 1915. These crimes were unusual because of the robbers’ distinctive modus operandi. Taking advantage of the chaos brought on by the Mexican Revolution, the thieves disguised themselves as soldiers and displayed signed search warrants to gain entry to the houses of some of the wealthiest families in Mexico City. They terrorized the inhabitants, robbed them, and made their escape in a gray Fiat.”
El automóvil gris is a silent film made in Mexico and is about The Grey Automobile Gang, a real group at the time, and the robberies they committed in Mexico City while military officials remained complicit. Rielle Navitski’s article “Spectacles of Violence and Politics: El automóvil gris (1919) and Revolutionary Mexico’s Sensational Visual Culture” states that the film “exemplifies the visual culture of violence that flourished in early twentieth-century Mexico.”
Violence was pervasive throughout film in the 1920s leading up to the Golden Age, both in forms of racism and war. But it contributed to setting the stage for Mexico’s highly successful Golden Age that would last through the 1950s.
Berg sates in his book that “[o]f the 244 films exhibited in Mexico City in 1930, for example, 196 (80.4 percent) were Hollywood films, and only four (1.6 percent) were Mexican.”
Though cinema in the United States influenced the narrative style of Mexican cinema, many of these films from Hollywood depicted racist stereotypes. An article by Erin Blakemore from JSTOR Daily states, “In the 1920’s, nearly 80 percent of movies seen in Mexico were made in the U.S., and the films that did show Mexicans often clung to stereotypes of lazy or barbaric ‘greasers’ who were morally degenerate or buffoonish.”
For example, Blakemore’s article cites North of the Rio Grande (dir. Rollin Sturgeon, 1922) which depicted a white woman presenting soap to Mexican children, and The Bad Man (dir. Clarence G. Badger, 1930) which featured actor Walter Huston in dark makeup as the main character, Pancho Lopez. These films and the stereotypes represented in them harmed both Mexican and Mexican American communities.
According to Laura I. Serna’s article “As a Mexican I Feel It’s My Duty:” Citizenship, Censorship, and the Campaign against Derogatory Films in Mexico, 1922-1930,” after many racist films from Hollywood a campaign in Mexico was launched throughout the 1920s and 1930s advocating for film censorship, particularly those that have racist depictions of individuals from Mexico. In the article, Serna discusses how racism towards Mexican people was prevalent in other sources from the United States, including news and documentary films, and those about the Mexican Revolution “portrayed the revolution as verging on barbarism and Mexico as being dangerous to American lives and financial interests.”
Serna also discusses Hollywood’s rationale behind the creation of these films, stating “The ‘greaser’ films of the late teens and early twenties served a number of ideological functions. They assured U.S. audiences of their racial superiority at a moment of massive Mexican immigration to the United States, justified discriminatory practices, and fueled American economic imperialist impulses toward their neighbor to the South.”
As we can see, violence was pervasive throughout the period, from war to racism—all of which demonstrated on the big screen at the time.