Who is Pedro Infante and why should we care? Why should we brave cold November nights and wander through the city streets to an old theater and watch these Mexican melodramas? For the same old reason we see movies in theaters: to be touched, mesmerized, to laugh and perhaps cry, and to share these complex experiences with other strangers in the dark. And, in this case, to see something entirely new to American audiences. In this case, a series of strange and wonderful musical dramas starring Mexican crooner Pedro Infante.
You won’t get better than this. This is melodrama, sir, chest-thumping and tear-jerking stories originally meant to give you a pause from a life of endless toil. In the 1940s and 1950s, great waves of rural Mexicans emigrated into Mexico City to find work. The story’s the same everywhere: these lovely bumpkins found only crushing poverty and a society that was indifferent to their needs. Once living in the wide-open spaces, they were suddenly crushed on top of one another by the thousands. And so, director Ismael Rodríguez and singer Infante found inspiration there, and made a series of films about the poor and oppressed that have the scope and detail of Balzac mixed with the grace and affection of Rouben Mamoulian. In the process they made some movies that could make people look at the slums around them and think "Maybe I can sing, too."
Look at Nosotros Los Pobres, the first of a trilogy of movies featuring Infante as the carpenter Pepe the Bull. Here, the widower Pepe, a carpenter, is trying to raise his single daughter and fall in love again–something the daughter doesn’t want in the least. Poor Pepe! In the course of this film he’ll lose his girl, essentially lose his daughter, nearly ruin his hand (essential for his work), be accused of robbery and murder, lose his mother and sister, and still manage to sing a song or two. Pedro Almodovar couldn’t make this story any hotter.
There is no room for happiness in Nostros Los Pobres. Pepe tries to be affable, tries to maintain some pride in the squalor, raising his daughter to be a good and kind and hard-working. At first, it’s not even the wealthy who get to Pepe–the poor in Nostros are a strange bunch, an admixture of hard working, diligent people and drunken, disorderly louses eager to gossip and sell you down the river for a peso or a slug of cheap booze. Nostros, made in 1948, is free from the American restraints of the Hays’ Code–here are drunks and drug addicts, whores and consumptives, love in the streets, widows clinging to tombstones. Toothless biddies speak of drinking, gossip viciously, and hunger to fuck Pepe. The film is bizarre and beautiful: the girl washing clothes, praying to St. Dimas for the thieves. A shot of Pepe’s mom, confined to a wheelchair and mute, tormented by the gossipy drunks, is as bizarre and funny as anything David Lynch has conjured up.
Infante was called the Mexican Sinatra, no doubt by clueless gringos who barely paid attention to life south of the border. He was a master singer, and a very good actor, who brought his dashing good looks to these rough stories and yet never shone too brightly, never distracted us from his supporting actors, or from the pain and pleasure witnessed on screen. He sang, told jokes, made comedies and dramas, and could entertain a billionaire or a bum.
He did not live long, though he left a wealth of movies and music. A fan of aviation, Pedro Infante flew his Consolidated X B-24-D plane from Mérida, Yucatán and crashed it five minutes later. He died instantly at age 39.