Jorge Miguel Couselo

Tango in silent movies

pproaching this subject is to regard tango just as a triggering incitement for the pioneers that made films and, sometimes, the possibility of visualizing the live performances of singers and musicians, guitarists and pianists.

It was followed by a transitional and tentative period for their synchronization with discs —Vitaphone stage— and continued, until the time when sound was recorded in the film itself —Movietone stage— that started in 1931 with the short movies in which Carlos Gardel sings.

Between 1900 and 1906 the Lepage house (Casa Lepage), directed by Eugenio Py, shot the first incursion of tango in the movies, “Tango Argentino”. In it the almost anonymous dancer El Negro Agapito appears in some short scenes. He makes an exhibition of dancing figures: cortes and quebradas. In 1907 the above house was bought by the one who had been its manager, Max Glücksmann, also a pioneer of the recording industry. Until 1911 they made a series of short films trying to add sound with discs, a rudimentary “playback” or overdubbing. They were short footages that were enough for a song with or without vocals or a danceable piece. The old theater San Martín or the terrace of the Casa Lepage were used as film set. The latter was located on 375 Bolívar Street.

According to catalogues of the period there might have been 32 films with insurmountable deficiencies as for sound. The following were connected with them: Los Gobbi, Ángel Villoldo, Rosa Bozán, mother of Olinda, an actress that, on occasions, recorded accompanied by Francisco Canaro. Here a tango appears: “No me vengan con paradas”, by García Lalanne, in the play “Gabino el mayoral”.

“Nobleza gaucha”, directed by Ernesto Gunche and Eduardo Martínez de la Pera, is regarded as the first feature film. It was a boom and much of its success was due to the fact that city scenes and indoor areas of the Armenonville with couples dancing tango were shot. In the only copy kept at the Cinemateca Argentina these scenes do not exist. As homage to this hit, Canaro composed a tango with the same name of the movie and, which in its first edition, it is dedicated to Mr. Humberto Cairo, one of the authors of the screenplay.

In 1916 another film to mention is “Resaca”, by Alberto Weisbach, a sainete (one-act farce) very successful after 1911. It stayed 34 days on the billboard, an achievement for that time, and here tango is represented by the presence of several dancing couples. For the first time many people came to know El Cachafaz who, until he died, appeared in 14 movies.

In 1917 we highlight “Federación o muerte”, by Gustavo Caraballo. Even though the story takes place at the time of Juan Manuel de Rosas, we have to emphasize the appearance of Ignacio Corsini as actor and the payador and composer Arturo De Nava.

In Flor de Durazno, directed by Deffilippis Novoa, we have to highlight the presence of Gardel as actor, dressed, firstly, with gaucho costume and as a sailor, later. It turned out a shame due to his fatness and for its ridicule scenes. In a letter sent to the then great actor Roberto Casaux he commented: «We’ve just shot here in Córdoba, it’s a tape to which they added two of my songs. I don’t want to be again an actor in my life. I am a very bad actor. It’s no use if I’m not with a guitar, I’m no artist». Letter dated on March 4, 1919. As for the two songs mentioned we never knew about them.

“Violeta” (or “La reina del tango”), directed by Juan Glize and Vicente Marracino. It was not successful. It was the first approach to a fatalistic view of life through a woman with a dissipated life who is promoted to female tango singer.

“Buenos Aires tenebroso”, by the same directors of the previous movie. Its main theme is the underworld and the different forms of vice in the city and it includes environments inclined to tango. It may have inspired a tango with the same title written soon afterwards.

El tango de la muerte”, directed by El Negro José Ferreyra. It is totally inspired in the tango milieu with its early prototypes: the good neighborhood girl that goes away from home to lead an immoral life, the seducer and the tough guy. The action takes place in a shady cheap café near the waterfront which is waited on by permissive waitresses. We cannot discard its relationship with the tango of the same name by Horacio Mackintosh and Alberto Novión. (Director’s note: The author of this chronicle makes the mistake which was cleared out in “Idas y vueltas con El tango de la muerte”).

In 1918 “El festín de los caranchos” was shot and was directed by Luis A. Ramasotto. Because of technical deficiencies of photography it was not premiered. It was focused on the appearance of two girls, precocious singers, a thirteen-year-old Ada Falcón and her sister Adhelma who was then eleven.

In 1922 “Milonguita”, directed and written by José Bustamante y Ballivián. In it is dramatized somehow, but not exactly, the lyrics by Samuel Linnig in his tango with the same name of 1919, soon recorded by Gardel. But the intention was not copying its lyrics but the supposed true story of those who said that had found, years later, on Chiclana Street, the girl that had inspired Linnig, María Esther Dalto, who died at age fifteen. But this was always doubtful. The leading man of the movie was Ignacio Corsini.

“La muchacha del arrabal”. It was another effort that failed. Directed by José Ferreyra, it tells about the love affair of a painter with a female singer of the outskirts. For the rehearsal in the process of adding sound at the Cine Esmeralda movie theater, the Roberto Firpo orchestra played from the pit. It played the title tango, composed by Leopoldo Torres Ríos and José Ferreyra. Later there was an attempt with a recording but the efforts were unsuccessful.

Of 1923 are three movies by José Ferreyra: “Melenita de oro”, “Corazón de criolla” and “La maleva”. A high percentage of the plots, in some way, were inspired in tango lyrics. In the first, a cruel drunk father sells his daughter to a ruffian. It is another description of the Buenos Aires life from the neighborhood’s view. The second one mentioned is a drama of the underworld, with tango patterns and the almost unavoidable setting of a cheap cafe. And in “La maleva”, the underground again, reminiscing in its title and its female character of the tango with the same name which is characterized by its thick lunfardo (jargon).

Of 1924 is “Mientras Buenos Aires duerme” by José Ferreyra. The night life of the city is shown on standards set by the words of the tango with the same name. The bandoneon player Anselmo Aieta appears as an extra.

Of 1925 is “Galleguita” by Julio Irigoyen. The script vaguely uses the tango lyrics written by Alfredo Navarrine. The actor Rodolfo Vismara and the actress/singer Emilia Vidali dance some tango numbers and she sings, among other pieces, the title tango. By the same director: “Tu cuna fue un conventillo”, based on the Alberto Vaccarezza’s sainete, with María Esther Podestá and Ada Falcón in her second appearance.

“El poncho del olvido” by Ricardo Villarán. For the movie, Adolfo Avilés and Enrique Maroni wrote the title tango. Another film of that year was “Organito de la tarde”, by José A. Ferreyra, based on the tango with the same name, featuring the female singer María Turguenova. Time later its story inspired another tango: “El alma de la calle” (or “Callecita del suburbio”) with lyrics by the director. It was premiered by La Turguenova and, later, was recorded by Gardel. Both pieces were played when the motion picture was screened.

Of 1926 is “La costurerita que dio el mal paso”, by José Ferreyra and script by Torres Ríos on a sonnet by Carriego. María Turguenova is featured. There is a tango with the same name by Antonio Scatasso with words by Federico Mertens and Rafael de Rosa. The same year, after the movie was premiered, the poet Nicolás Olivari published the counterpart of the poem with the same title.

“Muchachita de Chiclana”, by José Ferreyra, with María Turguenova who sings the title song tango, by Anselmo Aieta and words by the director.

Of 1927 is “En la patria de los gauchos”, directed by the payador Arturo Mathón and in which Alfredo Eusebio Gobbi has an appearance. “Perdón viejita”, by José Ferreyra, with María Turguenova. This was the movie entirely silent of the director, probably influenced by the tango with the same name by Osvaldo Fresedo and José Saldías which was recorded two years before by Gardel. The director went out on tour of several countries with the movie. He was accompanied by Turguenova who sang live at the performances. The bandoneonist Luis Moresco plays the role of a villain.

“La borrachera del tango”, version of the sainete by Elías Alippi and Carlos Schaeffer Gallo, premiered in 1921. His subject was the influence of tango in properly established families. On the movie poster we read: «A home, temple and sanctuary, threatened by the relentless virus of tango». Its title brought a tango by Adolfo Avilés and Maroni. “Alma en pena”, by Julio Irigoyen, takes advantage of the lyrics of the tango with the same title.

Of 1929 is “La casa del placer”, by Julio Irigoyen, which presents Azucena Maizani only as actress. That is reprised in “La Modelo de la Calle Florida”, also by Irigoyen.

In 1930 El Negro Ferreyra shot “La canción del gaucho” with María Turguenova. Shot as a silent film, a musical accompaniment was added later with the Vitaphone system. There is the tango piece “Alma de indio” sung by the actress.

A new film by Ferreyra and Turguenova is El cantar de mi ciudad. The soundtrack was limited to some musical effects as background, a short dialogue by Turguenova with the actor Felipe Farah and two songs: the tango “La muchacha del tango” sung by the actress and the waltz “La canción del amor”, in a duet with the latter with Farah. Of the same year is “Adiós Argentina”, by Mario Parpagnoli. The actors are the director himself, Libertad Lamarque, Pierina Dealessi and others. With a partial soundtrack. Because of that we know that Libertad did not make her debut in “¡Tango!” of 1933. The director said in a magazine that he was the one who discovered her in the Dealessi’s company. It is in contradiction even to the subsequent words of the female singer. Towards the end of the movie, Libertad sings the tango “Adiós Argentina”. Soon thereafter, Matos said «I composed the tango under the inspiration of the plot in its latter portion when the protagonist leaves the country».

Finally, in this review of the most outstanding films with taste of tango in the silent period, it is worthwhile mentioning: “Muñequitas porteñas” (1931), again with Ferreyra and Turguenova, plus Floren Delbene. Although through the Vitaphone system, it is the first feature film that is entirely a sound film. The setting is in the city. Turguenova sings the title song tango by Luis Moresco with words by Delbene himself.

Soon “¡Tango!” arrived and sound films were then in fashion in Argentine movies.

This text by Jorge Miguel Couselo (14/04/1925 - 13/05/2001) was published in 1970 in the Buenos Aires tango magazine.