- Culture of Class: Radio and Cinema in the Making of a Divided Argentina, 1920–1946 by Matthew B. Karush
In this engaging cultural history, Matthew B. Karush examines the development of two important media during the two-and-a-half decades prior to the advent of Peronism. The development of radio and cinema in other Latin American countries has attracted the interest of many historians and investigators of popular culture. While it has become a truism to assert that media exerts a great influence on national politics, rarely has there been a study such as this one, which elaborates on the interrelation so thoroughly and utilizes such a varied selection of resources, not simply national archives and standard primary sources but also the lyrics of popular tango and folk songs, film comedies and melodramas, radio programs, and even articles, advertisements, and interviews from the fan magazines of the era.
Culture of Class argues that Argentine musicians, radio owners, film producers, and directors of the 1920s and 1930s were faced with the impossible task of producing motion pictures superior to those coming from Hollywood, as well as competing with the North American jazz music that made its way into radio stations and dance halls. Such products of transnational capitalism presented both difficulties and opportunities to the Argentine artists of the period. Rather than rejecting foreign motion pictures and music—which would have been impossible—Argentine radio and the burgeoning film industry managed to create national versions of the imported cultural products, distinctly Argentine but with many of the most [End Page 215] desirable qualities of the North American songs and films (177). One recurring strategy for giving a popular cast to Argentine songs and films was to feature protagonists from the working class, portray them as humble and caring, and then contrast them with upper-class characters who were shallow, selfish, and materialistic. Popular music of the 1920s and 1930s often utilized lunfardo, the Buenos Aires working-class dialect, in its lyrics. To a great extent, Perón’s consolidation of power in 1946 was possible not only through legitimizing the demands of labor but by creating a nationalistic society in which “Argentinidad” was exemplified by the urban working class, which was in turn threatened by old money (estancieros) and foreign business interests. Karush posits that the populism of Juan and Eva Perón provided “an identity and worldview that resonated with [the workers’] experiences and attitudes” (14). The films and popular music examined in this book prepared the way for Peronism by disseminating those experiences and attitudes nationally.
Karush begins his book with perhaps the best example imaginable: the film Los tres berretines (1933). In it a small-business owner named Manuel, who can only envision success through hard work and education, attempts to instill his traditional values in his three sons, each of whom is obsessed with a different modern pastime (berretín): cinema, soccer, or tango. Although Manuel calls his sons “bums” at one point, all three find success in their new and exciting fields (the cineaste becomes the architect of a soccer stadium). The message is that the popular passions sweeping Argentina in the 1920s and 1930s are validated by the success of the young men. Later, Karush describes various melodramas, comedies, and “white telephone films set in the luxurious homes of the bourgeoisie” (131) as further attempts to show the poor triumphing once again, this time over the rich and entitled. These films also presented enough of the glitz and glitter of mansions and tango clubs to captivate the working-class cinemagoers. The goal was to make humble Argentines noble and heroic, yet at the same time titillate them with the lavish interiors and expensive clothing that they could never afford. As Karush observes, “Argentine films appealed to their audience’s dreams of attaining wealth and living a good life, yet they delivered these consumerist fantasies alongside explicit denunciations of the selfishness and greediness of the rich...