Tango and the Argentine movie industry
Arnoud de Graaff
The relation between tango and the movie industry in
Argentina is much more complex than most people think. If you ask
tango dancers about it, they will answer that they have seen Pablo
Veron dance in Sally Potter’s movie The Tango Lesson and
maybe a few will recall some other tango scenes in other
Or they remember having heard something about Rudolf
Valentino and Carlos Gardel acting in tango movies. But there are
many more links between tango and the movie industry. Especially in
the thirties, forties and fifties, the relation between tango and
the Argentine movie industry is omnipresent. In this article I will
sketch a short history of the Argentine movie industry and focus on
the role tango played in it.
In the beginning
Only a year after its launching in Paris in 1896, the
cinema arrived in Buenos Aires. This is not surprising, because many
wealthy Argentines regularly travelled to Paris and brought back
almost every kind of novelty they could find. The first import of
French cameras took place in 1897 and a Frenchman, who lived in
Buenos Aires, was to be the one of the first filmmakers and camera
men in Argentina. His name was Eugene Py and together with Max
Gluckman and Henry Lepage, they would dominate the early film
industry for years to come. In 1900 the first movie theatres opened
in Buenos Aires and showed regular news reports on everyday events.
In the period of the silent film
(which lasted in Argentina till 1931) more than 200 films were shot.
In 1907 the first fictional movie with professional actors was
released (La revolución de mayo). In 1915 the first box
office movie Nobleza Gaucha was produced; it cost 25.000
pesos and grossed half a million pesos in 6 months. The movie Nobleza
Gaucha (1915) is loosely based on Jose Hernandez’s book Martin
Fierro and the music is provided by Francisco Canaro.
1917 the first animation feature-length movie in the world, El apóstol
was released. It was a satire about Hipolito Yrigoyen, the recently
elected president. Because the government did not like it, "the
Buenos Aires town hall banned its exhibition at the end of June
1917, using the excuse that it was a caricature of the political
situation, and threatened to close all the cinemas that disobeyed
the order” (Finkielman, 2004:20). But
quite often the subjects were not as political as this one and often
Argentina's history, literature and everyday life (like tango)
provided the themes for film-making.
In 1917 Carlos Gardel made his (silent) movie debut in Flor
de Durazno. Many films with Gardel were to follow in the thirties,
both in Argentina, Paris and Hollywood. Toward the end of the twenties
more and more movies started to feature tango dancing. In the silent
era movies were often accompanied by small musical groups and
orchestras. These groups and orchestras are generally referred to as
the cinema orchestras. In Buenos Aires the cinema orchestras were
often tango orchestras like Ciriaco Ortiz, Julio de Caro, Roberto
Firpo, Pedro Maffia, Pedro Laurenz, Anselmo Aieta, Angel D’Agostino,
Juan D’Arienzo, Elvino Vardaro, Osvaldo Pugliese, Francisco Lomuto.
As the new medium developed, the theatres became less
interesting to the people of Buenos Aires. Many were remodeled as
cinemas. In general this meant that a big projection screen was placed
on the stage. The movies were not the main point of interest for the
spectators; this role was reserved for the musicians who gave the
images a more vivid ‘colour’. Most of the tango musicians earned
their living (or at least a part of it) by accompanying silent movies.
The stories in this period were often rather poor, but the musicians
made it worth going. Fans of tango musicians followed their idols from
one cinema to another. And even after the introduction of the sound
movie, some tango musicians still accompanied the movies by performing
in the breaks (a habit that remained popular well into the fifties,
which is more than twenty years after the introduction of sound).
The cinema orchestras
The twenties are the golden years of the cinema
orchestras. The term silent movie is misleading, since the silent
movies were almost always accompanied by music. Roberto Di Chiari (Finkielman,
2004:86) wrote about this phenomenon: “The idea of accompanying
films with music first appeared in bars and restaurants in Argentina
when many of these establishments decided to install a screen in the
back, and a projector next to the tables.”
The piano player provided the music, and for each scene
he had a different theme: waltz for love scenes, milonga for emotional
scenes and tango for dramatic scenes. Some (but certainly not all)
movie companies provided scores for movies, but these scores were not
always followed in detail. Musicians had quite a lot of freedom to
improvise. Movies were first shown to musicians, who made notes on the
different scenes and had a say in what kind of music might suit that
Many musicians started their career accompanying silent
movies. In 1917 Sebastian Piana started as a pianist in a cinema at
Villa del Parque. He was 14 years old at that time. Piana was lucky
that he was introduced by Jose Gonzalez Castillo (a friend of the
family) to Carlos Marchal, who was in charge of all the cinema
orchestras of Max Gluckmann’s theatres. Via this connection, Piana
was promoted to harmonium player at the Cine Park theatre in Palermo.
About playing in movie theatres Piana said: “I earned a certain
standing as a player of that instrument, especially because of my
harmonic intuition; that is to say: as not all the arrangements had
parts for the harmonium, I was obliged to replace them with a clarinet,
saxophone, trombone, or any other instrument part” (Finkielman,
Around 1923-24, piano players were replaced by real
tango orchestras (orquesta tipicas). Apart from the piano, other, new
instruments were included, such as harmonium, violin, bandoneon,
saxophone and trombone. For tango musicians the cinema functioned as a
school, where they learned to observe the audience, be musically
flexible and improvise. Another consequence for the tango cinema
orchestras was that many of them gained a recording contract with well
known music labels, such as RCA Victor and Disco Nacional Argentina.
The introduction of sound
In 1931 the first Argentine sound movie was released.
The incorporation of sound into movies caused a landslide. It
completely changed the film industry. For the tango orchestra, which
had provided music during the silent movie era, this was a devastating
blow. Suddenly they were no longer needed. Luckily after some time,
some of the tango bands from the silent era were given a chance to
feature in the sound movies. (Sound also meant the end of
the career of some movie actors / actresses, whose voices were
unpleasant for the ears and hard to reproduce on film. For others it
meant the start of a career.)
A history of Argentine cinema in the thirties is not
complete without paying attention to Carlos Gardel. Although most of
Gardel’s movies have been produced abroad, his influence on
Argentine cinema of the thirties and forties is enormous. Apart from Flor
de Durazno (1917) Gardel’s movies are produced in France and the
USA (New York and Hollywood).
After his first experience with silent movie in 1917,
he had drifted away from the movie, since his tango singing career
took off like a rocket in 1917. His interest in movies reawakened when
the sound movie was introduced in the late twenties and early thirties.
Al Jolson’s success with The Jazz Singer (produced by Alan
Crosland in 1927) showed him what a movie could do for a singer. From
1930 on Gardel is more and more interested in singing in movies. The
great majority of his movies date from the last three years of his
life. Gardel’s movies were often vehicles for his singing and had
poor story lines. His most influential movies are Luces de Buenos
Aires (1931), El Tango en Broadway (1934), Tango Bar
and El Dia Que Me Quieras (both 1935). The scripts of the
movies were provided by Alfredo Le Pera and the music was composed by
Gardel himself, sometimes in combination with Geraldo Matos Rodriguez
and Terig Tucci.
In Gardel's movies often great actors / singers of
those days co-starred: Sofia Bozán, Imperio Argentina, Rosita Moreno,
Tito Lusiardo and (in the posthumously released The Big Broadcast
of 1936) Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby. His movie career was
suddenly halted with his tragic death in a plane crash in Medelin,
Columbia. In the years before his death, Gardel did negotiate with
Francisco Canaro about a joint venture in opening an Argentine film
studio. This joint venture was never realized, which may have been
fortunate for Gardel, since Canaro’s adventure in the movie industry
was (in contrast with his other ventures) not very successful.
|The Golden Age
At the end of the thirties and the beginning of the
forties, the Argentine movie industry experienced a very successful
period. In these years there were approximately five thousand people
who worked in this industry, which produced about forty movies a year.
In the forties a lot of things suddenly happened in Argentina and
Argentine cinema: the second World War and a prospering economical
situation in a politically unstable country. This was a strange and
confusing period for Argentine cinema. On one side the industry was
flourishing, but on the other side the shortage of virgin film (a
consequence of Argentina’s neutrality during the second World War)
and an increasing state intervention (such as censorship, blacklists
and the discretionary distribution of virgin film) hindered the
industry in a major way. After Perón came to power in 1944,
censorship caused a decline in the movie industry. The United States
movie industry profited from this decline and gained a foothold in the
In 1957 the government passed the
Cinema Act to protect the Argentine
movie industry. The Instituto Nacional de Cinematografía was
founded to execute this law. In the early fifties television appeared
in Argentina, which was also a competitor to the movie industry. Late
in the fifties a new generation of film directors appeared on the
scene, who succeeded in combining technical ability with aesthetic
refinement. This generation, which is called “new cinema”,
produced many films which won prizes at international film festivals.
In the fifties and sixties tango hardly (if at all) played a role in
Argentine movies. It is only after the fall of the junta that tango
receives a little bit more attention in Argentine movies. But if you
compare it with the thirties and early forties, the attention is
In 1963 comedy films started to
feature prominently and a few years later even sex comedies flooded
the market. From the mid-seventies movies were censored again and
movie makers limited themselves to light-hearted subjects, and in
doing so avoiding any risk at all.
In the late sixties an interest
in underground cinema began to grow. Provocative, anti-militaristic
and innovative movies were made, but had to be exhibited clandestinely.
In the sixties also a new school in cinematography appeared on the
scene: Fernando Biri created the school of documentary cinema. With Tiré
Dié and Los Inundados, he successfully mixed realistic
social charges with provincial humor.
The junta and the dirty war
The junta had an enormous effect on the film industry.
In their attempt to root out any form of subversion, socio-political
criticism was not tolerated. The junta censored the movie industry
relentlessly. The movies produced during the junta were ‘neutral’;
all that could be interpreted as hostile to the junta was avoided.
After a few years, the junta decided to loosen the
censorship, which led to muckraking cinema, which dealt with subjects
such as corruption and the like. When the government, after the junta
had been overthrown in 1983, put an end to the censoring of movies,
the atmosphere in which films could be produced became healthy.
After the fall of the junta movies with a serious
undertone became more dominant. The Dirty War, disappearances but also
movies about exiles, who experienced nostalgia for Argentina, were
popular subjects in the post junta era. Another effect of the Dirty
War was that it caused many musicians to flee to Paris and other
places, and so causing a tango renaissance in Paris. The tango show Tango
Argentino was a worldwide success and caused a global interest in
tango. This led to a series of movies (mostly from the nineties up
until present times) in which tango dancing or the tango milieu was
either used as a background for the story line or used as the main
subject of the movie.
In 1989 the economic crisis in Argentina hindered the
post junta cinema severely. Tango movies from Hollywood gave a
stimulus to Argentine movie industry. Movies like Carlos Saura’s Tango
(1998), Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1998), Adam
Boucher’s Tango, the Obsession (1998), Martin Brest’s Scent
of a Woman (1992), James Cameron’s True Lies (1992),
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Robert
Duvall’s Assassination Tango (2003) are some examples of
movies in which tango played a role.
In 1995 the government again passed another law to
stimulate Argentine film industry, as television and videos were
forced to contribute financially to Argentine movies. The nineties can
be characterized as a period in which independent productions focused
on new cinema, with a shifting focus for the contemporary social
problems, which haunted Argentina for decennia.
The movies of Canaro, www.todotango.com.
Collier (1986), The life, music and times of Carlos Gardel, Pittsburg: UPP.
Finkielman (2004), The film industry in Argentina. An illustrated
cultural history, London: MacFarland & Company Inc.
Sebastian & Labrana
(1990), De geschiedenis van de tango, Breda: De Geus.
Thompson (2005), Tango. The Art history of love, New York:
text editing : Stephen McCay
Correction : Wendy Martin