“A life that should have been but never was! A fate that moved on twisting and tortuous paths!”
– Dolores del Río, La Otra (The Other One)

The ‘twin sisters’ melodrama was one of the more intriguing and idiosyncratic sub-genres of the 1940s. A double dose of Maria Montez in the lurid Technicolor camp of Cobra Woman (Robert Siodmak, 1944); the soap opera noir of Bette Davis in A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946) or Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak, 1946). It seemed Hollywood loved nothing more than casting a glamorous actress in a life-or-death struggle with her own dark twin. We might ramble on about Hollywood’s belated discovery of Freud or argue over which diva best embodies the subtler gradations of Ego, Superego and Id. The truth is that stars loved these roles because they promised an acting tour de force. (One uses that term loosely for Montez.) And with many of the leading men away in World War II, casting a woman as her own co-star could save a studio no end of headaches.

The Mexican film industry, as always, lost no time picking up the trend. Its two reigning divas, María Félix and Dolores del Río, both got cast in double roles at the same time as their Hollywood rivals. Félix in Amok (Antonio Momplet, 1944) did not play sisters but lookalike femmes fatales – one blonde, one dark – who torment the hapless hero turn by turn. Del Río, who had herself been a Hollywood star of some renown, did a more classic turn in La Otra. In the first major hit to be directed by Roberto Gavaldón – a man hailed as “the undisputed master of melodrama”1 – she played twin sisters who have nothing in common but a mutual loathing of each other. Yet while Hollywood insisted on splitting its twins into Manichean poles of Good/Evil, Light/Dark, Mexico was more grown-up and cynical in its approach. La Otra shows us two rival sisters. One of them is bad; the other is just plain rotten.

The film starts in a cemetery. A funeral is in progress. A grieving widow, shrouded in black, stands at the grave of her rich dead husband. Magdalena (del Río, whose face we do not yet see) is wealthy, beautiful, and consummately and unapologetically evil. She has in fact murdered her husband – poisoning him with small doses of arsenic – with the help of her rapacious playboy lover (Victor Junco), but all that will come out later. For now, all we see is another woman – thick glasses and frumpy shoes, her hair in an unbecoming bun – pushing her way to the graveside. María is Magdalena’s poor sister. She too is played by del Río, so of course she still looks ravishing. She was engaged to the dead man, until her sister stole him from her. The mourners bow their heads to pray. The widow turns and whispers to her sister: “Couldn’t you find anything better to wear?”

Once the corpse is under ground, we repair to Magdalena’s palatial mansion. She sits at an oval Venetian mirror and pulls off her veil revealing, for the first time, del Río in full-blown glamour mode. Director Ariel Zúñiga writes of how “Gavaldón uses mirrors as symbolic rhetorical devices standing in for the duplicity of the image itself”.2 Everything we see in La Otra is duplicitous and patently false. Magdalena tries to fake concern for her mousey sister. Flouncing out of her chair, she strides across the room and flings open a vast walk-in closet. Its contents make Lauren Bacall’s closet in Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956) look like a fire sale in a thrift shop. Absently, she tosses one or two gowns at her sister. “If you don’t like them,” she says, “I can always give them to the maid.” María sits down in the chair Magdalena has just sat in. She wraps herself, covertly, in a priceless sable stole. Taking off her glasses, she admires herself in the mirror. A servant comes in and, naturally, mistakes one sister for the other.

That is all it takes for María to hatch her plot. She decides to fake her own suicide; murder her sister; steal her money, her clothes and her life. This is a plot so preposterous that Pedro Almodóvar might well play it for laughs – one of the sisters would doubtless be a drag queen. Yet Gavaldón is bold enough to enlist his audience on María’s side. Not, perhaps, in overt complicity with her crime, but rather in a deep-rooted emotional identification with her longing for a better life. La Otra takes a darker and more jaded view of morality than its Hollywood rivals. The mass audience in Mexico (and throughout Latin America) lived in a grinding poverty, inconceivable to most gringos. This audience could not accept melodrama as a primer on how to ‘be a good girl’ and hope for the best. To a Latino public, melodrama was “a critical instrument of a society that has created it to show … its desires, ghosts, taboos, limitations and longings”.3

In this context, the stars of Mexican cinema were more than mere actors. They were remote and impossibly glamorous icons whose job it was to act out these forbidden longings on behalf of their public. Dolores del Río, in her Hollywood roles, had done little more than look lovely. She was cast memorably as a South Seas siren in Bird of Paradise (King Vidor, 1932) and a leopard-skinned temptress in Journey into Fear (Norman Foster, 1942). In these limited roles, most of the gringo public assumed she could not act. Yet La Otra reveals her as an actress to rival Davis or de Havilland, and possibly the greatest and most iconic of Spanish-speaking stars. It was Carlos Fuentes who wrote: “If Garbo was a woman who became a goddess, Dolores del Río was a goddess who became a woman”.4 In La Otra, the Woman and the Goddess have more than a touch of the Devil thrown in. Would life not be dull otherwise?

 

La Otra/The Other One (1946 Mexico 104 mins)

Prod. Co: Producciones Mercurio Prod: Mauricio de la Serna Dir: Roberto Gavaldón Scr: José Revueltas, Roberto Gavaldón from a story by Rian James Phot: Alex Phillips Mus: Raúl Lavista Ed: Charles L. Kimball Art Dir: Gunther Gerszo

Cast: Dolores del Río, Agustín Irusta, Victor Junco, José Baviera, Conchita Carracedo, Manuel Dondé

 

Endnotes

  1. Gustavo García, “Melodrama: The Passion Machine” in Mexican Cinema (edited by Paulo Antonio Paranaguá, translated by Ana M. López), British Film Institute, London, 1995, p. 159.
  2. Ariel Zúñiga, “Roberto Gavaldón” in Mexican Cinema, p. 198.
  3. Rafael Hernández Rodríguez, “Melodrama and Social Comedy in the Cinema of the Golden Age” in Mexico’s Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers (edited by Joanne Hershfield and David R. Maciel), Scholarly Resources Books, Wilmington DE, 1999, p. 109.
  4. Paulo Antonio Paranaguá, Dictionnaire du Cinéma L-Z (edited by Jean-Loup Passek), Larousse, Paris, 1995. Translation from French by author.