Larger than life, the images flicker on the screen. A suburban bedroom, a silver cross tacked above the double bed, on the headboard an inlay of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Lying in the bed is an attractive woman, a brunette in an appealing but proper nightgown. A man--her husband?--a successful mariachi singer, has shed his silver- and sequin-festooned cowboy suit for monogrammed satin pajamas. He walks slowly to the bed, draws the covers back and reaches . . . not for the woman but for a large pillow. He tries to settle down to sleep, on the floor, wrestling with his pillow and finally blurting out, "I can't stand it anymore!"
Segue to a quick and clumsy exposition: Pablo and Maria are in love with each other, they have lived together for years, but-- they aren't really married.
So begins "Sinverguenza . . . pero Honrado" ("A Schmuck . . . but Honest"), the latest in a series of musical comedies starring Vicente Fernandez, Mexico's favorite singing cowboy. But the moviegoers laughing and crying along with Pablo and Maria weren't snacking on churros and elotes at the Cine Insurgentes in Mexico City. They were spending their Thanksgiving weekend munching butter corn and Milk Duds at the Roxie, at 5th and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, one of 21 local screens to premiere the film--nearly half of the Spanish-language movie houses in Southern California.
Like "Sinverguenza," some 30 Mexican films a year, or half the national production, will be shown in Los Angeles. With the rare exception of art films and documentaries, most of them are hopelessly romantic dime novels or shoot-'em-up comic strips translated into quick-and-dirty celluloid, at a budget of $100,000, tops. From conception to completion they take no more than two months to produce. With bankable stars, they rarely flop.
Indeed, as Mexico's economic crisis sharpens, more and more films are being made expressly for the Southern California market, which has become the most lucrative showcase for the Mexican cinema. As many as 5 million Spanish-speaking residents here are paying $4 apiece rather than 200 greatly devalued pesos (about 40 cents), to account for roughly 50% of the Mexican film industry's gross receipts.
"If it weren't for Los Angeles, Mexican cinema would disappear," says 51-year-old Rogelio Agrasanchez L. A prolific producer whose six films this year all were made specifically to exploit the Los Angeles audience, he admits that he's after sure-fire instant hits, formula--not art--films. "Wetbacks, frontera ('folklore'), violencia , mucha violencia ," Agrasanchez emphasizes.
Throughout greater Los Angeles, more than 40 screens and nine drive-ins, all owned by the Metropolitan and Pacific chains, now book only Mexican films. On Broadway, the majestic film houses--the Orpheum, the Broadway, the Olympic, the Globe--have been brought back to life after two decades of decline. On one typical weekend, entire families spent their Sunday outing watching the Almada brothers, Mario and Fernando, in "Al Filo de la Ley" ("On the Edge of the Law"), playing at the Arcade. Two blocks north, the Million Dollar Theater was filled with fans of Mexico's favorite servant, "La India Maria," played by Maria Elena Velasco, who stepped from behind the screen for a live appearance. At the Roxie, the audience hooted with approval when Vicente Fernandez lectured his teen-age son: "Why do you want to go to California? Don't you know Mexicans pay for their stay in the United States with more than dollars? They pay with their dignity."
The point is not "what movie did you see?"--although that is part of the experience--but "did you see this week's movie?" This is reflected in the quick turnover of films on the circuit and the steady stream of new installments that speed across the border . "There is little other family entertainment for Mexicans in L.A.," says Jose Luis Macias, president of Azteca Films, one of seven Mexican film distributors based in Los Angeles. "They like to go on Sundays with the whole family, listen to their own language and expose their Americanized kids to real Mexican idols. And we Mexicans don't like to see the same movie twice."