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  • ¡Viva la comedia musical!:Dramatizing Genre Porosity and Argentine Cosmopolitanism in El fantasma de la opereta (Carreras, 1955)
  • Charlotte Gleghorn (bio)

By the early 1950s, the Golden Age of Argentine cinema (1933–55) was exhausting tried and tested methods for commercial success with mixed results.1 This industrial, studio-led period of film production, which coincided with the rise of fascism, Perón, and World War II, brought into stark relief contrasting projections of the national in Argentine film. On the one hand, film adaptations of canonical literary texts exalting rural landscapes and the spirit of their gaucho protagonists would present elite audiences with comforting fictions of cohesion and Argentine particularity. On the other, popular comedies and melodramas riffed on working-class experiences of the metropolis, triumphantly celebrating the Argentinization of immigrant forms as emblematized in the music of the tango. This description of Golden Age Argentine cinema is, of course, overly schematic; in reality there were many more shades of nationalism and class (dis)harmony during this turbulent period. What is certain, though, is that film critics and industry journalists, at home and abroad, were actively engaged in disputing the idea of Argentineness, or argenti-nidad, in film, in elevating the idea of national cinema, and in debating the gains and limitations offered by state-sanctioned investment in the sector.2

It is precisely at the end of the Golden Age that the fledgling production company Cinematográfica General Belgrano, founded by the three Carreras brothers, released El fantasma de la opereta (Enrique Carreras, 1955). As its title would suggest, this comedy-horror film draws on Gaston Leroux's Le fantôme de l'Opéra (1909–10), though in this case the Phantom is not haunting a physical space but a musical genre in decline: the operetta. The film, framed as a dream flashback, charts the extreme lengths to which a young musical theater company goes in order to displace the operetta company under contract at the theater. In the protagonist Arnaldo's (Alfredo Barbieri) dream, the performance of La viuda triste (The Sorry Widow)—destined to be a flop—is instead reinvigorated by the serendipitous intrusion of gothic characters, including the Phantom of the Opera, on stage. Arnaldo wakes [End Page 168] from his dream and convinces his fellow performers and the theater impresarios that the troupe's comedia musical, complete with its own gothic characters, would be a more fitting and popular show for the venue. In its knowingly absurd refashioning of imported figures from the Phantom and associated horror characters, El fantasma de la opereta, the gothic-infused musical theater show that wins out at the close of the film, makes a compelling case for aesthetic renewal, all the while reaffirming an Argentine film rhetoric that is at once national and unabashedly cosmopolitan. The routes of cultural transfer that determine this version of Leroux's Fantôme evidence a complex web of layered influences—literary, theatrical, musical, and cinematic—which draw from both sides of the Atlantic. This article will demonstrate how El fantasma's mass-mediated foreign influences, rather than undermining the film's Argentine character, are in fact a constitutive part of it.

Nationalism and Argentine Cinema

By the 1950s, this claim to cosmopolitanism had already been at the heart of fierce debates regarding sovereignty, assimilation, modernization, and cultural production for decades in Argentina. Designs of Argentine identity, or argentinidad, had undergone several rebirths since the nation's independence efforts began in the Revolución de Mayo in 1810. In the embryonic nation-state, political governance increasingly concentrated on producing a sense of nationhood that would satisfy demands to develop the agrarian economy and produce social cohesion across a vast territory and heterogeneous population. If, in the mid-nineteenth century, the gaucho outlaw and Indian were the enemies of the civilizing, Europeanizing state—barbaric protagonists of the cultural "desert" of the interior—in the early twentieth century, xenophobic nationalistic tendencies would blame immigrants for putting the Gaucho-criollo nexus of argentinidad in jeopardy. Between 1880 and 1914, Argentina would see approximately four million Europeans migrate to the country, a large percentage of whom would settle in Buenos Aires.3 As...


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