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  • El Fantasma and Tin Tan:Genre Hybridity and Musical Nostalgia in Fernando Cortés's El Fantasma de la opereta (1959)
  • Jacqueline Avila (bio)

The mid- to late-1950s was a precarious period in Mexican filmmaking. As Mexican cinema moved away from the so-called época de oro (Golden Age), varying constructions of mexicanidad—the cultural identity of the Mexican people—faded in prominence. Meanwhile, the challenges of urbanization and modernization led to a shift in film production. The Golden Age had been defined by films reflecting a multivalent national identity, particularly in genres such as the comedia ranchera (ranch comedy) and the revolutionary melodrama. But by the mid- 1950s, this focus shifted to the cosmopolitan modernization overtaking the country. This included the incorporation of foreign directors, actors, and musicians, and even the reinterpretation of foreign genres. Such cosmopolitanism was concurrent with, and indeed contributed to, the construction of mexicanidad. As the established genres of the Golden Age lost steam, however, Mexican audiences preferred to see new representations that reflected contemporary needs. Film consequently moved away from the strict representations of a national identity and toward a new era characterized, as Ignacio Sánchez Prado has noted, "by increased cosmopolitanism and uneven yet considerable economic development."1 It was in this heated climate that the 1959 film El Fantasma de la opereta (The Phantom of the Operetta), directed by Fernando Cortés with a screenplay by Gilberto Martínez Solares, emerged.

Although El Fantasma de la opereta took as its primary source French author Gaston Leroux's Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, it is also built on the recent 1943 Hollywood adaption of the novel, starring Claude Raines and directed by Arthur Lubin. Lubin's version was a tremendous box office success and proved to have a lasting impact on national audiences.2 Popular Mexico City periodicals including Hoy, El Universal Gráfico, and Jueves de Excélsior featured considerable coverage of the film, publicizing it as "The most lavish spectacle" and "The film of all times, the film that has everything!"3 Advertisements also emphasized the film's hybridity, noting that it "combin[ed] music, mystery, and love!"4 [End Page 187]

Building on a trend of adapting European literary classics to film, and starring Germán Valdés ("Tin Tan"), one of Mexican cinema's leading comedians, El Fantasma de la opereta features many visual and narrative references to the original Phantom narrative: the backdrop of the theater as the primary location of action, a swinging and rather menacing chandelier, the suspenseful crimes of murder and kidnapping, the eventual horrific unmasking to reveal el Fantasma's grotesque face, and el Fantasma's need for an ingénue's affection and his devotion to her success in lyric theater. But although the film incorporates these key elements, it is by no means a "faithful" adaptation. References to Leroux's novel vie with long sequences of comedy and slapstick, a complicated narrative that interweaves elements of suspense and horror, and extended diegetic musical performances that take place on the theater's stage but have little to do with what Leroux imagined. These performances, in turn, consist of originally composed music and music recycled from an array of preexisting sources, including nineteenth- and twentieth-century Spanish zarzuelas, Mexico's highly popular teatro de revistas (theater of revues), Spanish cinema, and other forms of popular entertainment.

My essay focuses on the diverse musical borrowings featured in El Fantasma de la opereta, arguing that they recall Mexico's early tradition of the teatro de revistas: satirical and humorous shows that consisted of recycled melodies from previous theatrical productions. The musical sources for teatro de revistas were typically popular foreign imports, which were then adapted to fit a Mexican vernacular aesthetic, in a process of "Mexicanization." El Fantasma de la opereta continues this tradition, and by considering the film's peculiar hybrid of comedy and suspense, nostalgia and cosmopolitanism, we may gain new insight into a turbulent period in Mexican cinematic history. I begin by briefly discussing the crisis in Mexican cinema during the 1950s and 1960s; then I explore the position of Tin Tan and revista culture within this crisis. A...


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