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Great moments in Yucatán’s film history: The early years

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Mérida may be far away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but Yucatán has its own storied history when it comes to film production. 

The story of cinema in Yucatán kicks off with the arrival of Edison’s kinetoscope to Mérida in 1897. The contraption became extremely popular and soon multitudes of curious people began to cram into the old Peón Contreras theater to enjoy the moving pictures. To modern audiences accustomed to elaborate productions full of special effects and hair-raising sound, these short films or vignettes may feel quaint, but at the time they were nothing short of miraculous. 

Peón Contreras theater in the early 20th century. Photo: Courtesy

In 1906, Mexican cinema pioneer Ernique Rosas documented the trip of then President Porfirio Díaz to Mérida, in what many consider to be the first feature-length film in the history of Mexico — and certainly a first for Yucatán. 

Still from footage of the visit by Mexican President Porfirio Diaz to Mérida in 1906. Photo: Courtesy

Eight years later, in 1914, two entrepreneurial young men from Yucatán named Manuel Cirerol Sansores and Carlos Martinez de Arredondo founded CIRMAR Films, the very first film production company on the Peninsula. 

“My interest in photography took me to purchase a small British-made camera that could barely carry 18 meters of film. Working with the device was difficult but I found a way,” recalled Martinez de Arredondo in 1944.  

The first films produced by CIRMAR Films would include “La Voz de su Raza” and “Tiempos Mayas” — on which Cirerol shows up on the screen as a Maya warrior. 

Shortly after these first attempts, the pair of filmmakers produced the film “1810 Los Libertadores,” which dramatized the life and times of Mexican independence hero Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. The film would make its debut on July 27, 1916, to much fanfare and excitement, as it was the first feature-length film to be shot in Mérida. 

Scene from 1810 los Libertadores. Photo: Courtesy

Cirerol and Martínez would continue producing films including “El Amor Que Triunfa” and were held in great esteem as the forefathers of film in Yucatán.

Star of “El Amor Que Triunfa,” María Caballé. Photo: Courtesy

Earlier: Yucatán’s nascent film industry is waiting for its closeup

Because copying and transporting film was so expensive, the number of foreign films shown in Yucatán was less than one may think. One of the first American movies to be shown in Mérida was “Gloria’s Romance,” a 1916 silent film serial starring Billie Burke.

English language advertisement for “Gloria’s Romance.” Photo: Courtesy

Serial films, also called chapter plays, were shorts that were typically run before the main feature film, each of which was part of a longer story, and ended in a cliffhanger, thus encouraging the audience to return every week.

As the film industry became more established in the 1920s, theaters which we would recognize as cinemas began to open up in Mérida. Early movie theaters in the city include the Cine Mérida which would be torn down and replaced with the Cine Rex in Santiago and the Cinema Rívoli, also located in Santiago.

Crowds outside the old Rívoli theater in Santiago in 1920. Photo: Courtesy

Starting in the second half of the 1930s, Mexican cinema entered its famed Epoca de Oro or Golden Age. This period saw the rise of movies with spoken dialogue and stars such as Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, Maria Félix, and Yucatán native Yolanda Noemí Alpuche Morales — better known by her stage name, Yolanda Mérida. 

Golden Age actress Yolanda Noemí Alpuche Morales. Photo: Courtesy

In 1938, the famous Mexican director Miguel Contreras Torres arrived in Yucatán to film “La Golondrina” — a biographical film about the American journalist Alma Reed and her romance with former Yucatán Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto. 

In 1953, filmmaker Benito Alazraki came to Yucatán to shoot his first film, “Raíces.” The drama depicts the story of an indigenous man fighting to find his place in modern Mexico. The film was released during the Cannes film festival, where it won accolades and prestigious awards. 

Still from “Alazraki’s Raíces” (1953). Photo: Courtesy

In 1957, Pedro Infante died in Mérida when his airplane crashed shortly after takeoff. The news was a huge blow to the Mexican film industry. Infante starred in over 60 films, recorded well over 300 Ranchera songs and remains one of Mexico’s most famous Golden Age movie stars.

Monument to Pedro Infante in Mérida. Photo: Courtesy

Infante had always been very fond of Mérida and kept a home in the city. He also spent much of his free time on the coast where he was much loved for his generosity. 

Check back again next Wednesday when we will continue the story of film in Yucatán.

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