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The little-known Bullfighter and the Lady is the best American film about bullfighting and an uncommonly respectful depiction of the differences between traditional Mexican and American cultures. Director Budd Boetticher is most often cited for his superb westerns with Randolph Scott but his heart was always committed to Mexico and bullfighting, and this picture is his masterpiece. As a young athlete Boetticher took off to Mexico to learn bullfighting, an experience that won him a job as a technical advisor on Rouben Mamoulian's 1941 Blood and Sand with Tyrone Power. Bitten by the moviemaking bug, Boetticher was soon directing low-budget comedies and thrillers, but his big break came in 1950 when John Wayne produced this bullfighting epic. His close relationship with the elitist, insular bullfighting society got the project past many of the Mexican film industry's built-in obstacles. His bullfighting friends must have been happy to cooperate, because the completed movie shows the kind of dedication seen only in top productions.
This semi-autobiographical tale was clearly made by someone in love with Mexico. Visiting Broadway producer Johnny Regan (Robert Stack) forces an invite to the table of Manolo Estrada, Mexico's most beloved matador (Gilbert Roland). He wangles a bullfighting lesson for himself and soon becomes Manolo's protégé. Johnny also falls in love with Estrada family friend Anita de la Vega (Joy Page of Casablanca). Manolo's loving wife Chelo (Katy Jurado) tries to guide Johnny and his friends Lisbeth and Barney Flood (Virginia Grey & John Hubbard) through the peculiar formalities of Mexican society, but the impulsive Johnny keeps making errors. Johnny takes Manolo's training well but can't restrain his egotism. His pig-headedness leads to a faux pas that almost destroys his budding relationship with Anita. And despite being warned that showing off in the arena could get others hurt as well as himself, Johnny continues to take foolish chances.
The highly romantic Bullfighter and the Lady offers breathtaking bullfighting scenes superior to anything in Hollywood productions. Even more important is the sense of cultural authenticity: it transports us to an insider's view of Mexico as it really was in 1950. The movie gets things right from the start. Manolo Estrada is more than a celebrity, he's respected and loved almost as a God. One would have to be as notable as a big Broadway producer (Regan) or a stage star (Lisbeth) to be accepted in his queue. Unlike most Gringo films, there's absolutely no condescension here -- Regan is the outsider who must adapt to new customs. At this level of Mexican society, among Toreros and their families, the polite rules are observed. Note that Anita does not reveal her feelings to Johnny right away. When Johnny asks her out she carefully steers him away from private meetings. What Johnny thinks will be a romantic dinner ends up a visit with an American aficionado of the arena (Paul Fix). Johnny asks for a date, and Anita invites him to a clan gathering. Anita is careful with her emotions. Johnny needs to be taught to properly respect a lady. If he doesn't like it, that's his problem.
Johnny Regan is tolerated mainly because Manolo takes a liking to him. The movie depicts a Mexican culture based on set notions of faith, ritual and gender roles. It's not progressive but it has its own logic, and when Johnny gives offense no excuses will suffice. This makes Bullfighter and the Lady a needed antidote for a hundred years of American movies that treat any woman from South of the border as more or less an easy conquest. Misreading a conversation between Anita and another bullfighter, Johnny throws a macho, John Wayne-style punch. He learns later that he was not only dead wrong about what he saw, but that he's lucky to be alive. You don't sucker-punch a man whose very existence puts honor before anything else.
Johnny makes the grade as a Torero, but the film's satisfaction is seeing him grow as a man with real connections to other people. When his Mexican friends come to respect him, Johnny becomes something bigger than he was.
Critics uninterested in the film's dramatics and cultural context often ridicule Robert Stack's blonde hair, which reportedly was a fallback choice after a botched dye job. (Note: That's an apocryphal story. Jeffrey Arnold informs me that Stack's hair was dyed to match Boetticher's, who subbed for Stack in the bullring.) In real life Stack was a champion skeet shooter and served as a firearms specialist in WW2; Boetticher smartly uses the actor's skill as a way for Johnny Regan to win his entree into Manolo's inner circle. 1 Stack doesn't overdo Regan's enthusiasm and is remarkably sensitive in the romantic scenes with the soulful Joy Page. As icing on the cake, Robert Stack does some of his own bullfighting. Even a bit seems too dangerous, frankly.
Gilbert Roland played romantic Latin lovers for at least five decades, and this may be his most impressive performance. Manolo Estrada oozes integrity and authority; he's dedicated to his wife Chelo as well as his profession. Even those of us that would like to see bullfighting become extinct can appreciate the sport's romantic-philosophical aspect. It's a fully defined way of life & death.
Joy Page has the kind of eyes one falls in love with instantly. The stepdaughter of Jack Warner, she made few movies. This may be the alluring Katy Jurado's first American picture. She became an international star with the follow-up High Noon. Jurado's Chelo represents an ideal of Mexican womanhood, for whom patience and passivity have definite limits. A drunken onlooker (Rudolfo Acosta) challenges Manolo's bravery, forcing him to perform in the arena with an injury to his hand. Afterwards Chelo holds the drunk at sword's point while she tells him off in a flood of fiery Spanish. The outstanding scene establishes that a Matador is not a common daredevil, and that Mexicans don't hold life cheaply. Ms. Jurado is incredible.
Bullfighter and the Lady is a rare Hollywood picture that takes a sensible attitude toward the problem of foreign language. The movie doesn't try to teach us Spanish and it doesn't make us read subtitles. Plenty of speeches are in Spanish, and some are not repeated in English for our benefit. Everything essential is translated, of course. This style affords more respect to the foreign culture - there are no jokes with Gringos speaking Pig Latin and expecting to be understood. We instead are transported to a different cultural situation. More often than not context tells us what is being said, as when Chelo lays into that drunk. We also see what happens when Johnny foolishly jumps to conclusions and makes an ass of himself. We are the outsiders that must pay attention.
Put plainly, Bullfighter and the Lady is a powerful emotional experience. The completely authentic bullfighting scenes use at least ten pro Matadors, all credited. Boetticher shows one fight all the way to its brutal end, so the movie cannot be accused of whitewashing what is essentially a barbaric sport. But it would be a shame if viewers shied away from such a rewarding picture on a narrow definition of political correctness. 2
Bullfighter and the Lady turned out to be too lengthy for Republic Pictures, and producer John Wayne was probably trying too hard to get the studio head Herbert J. Yates to bankroll his ambitious "Alamo" project to defend Boetticher's cut. The unhappy solution was for John Ford to come in and edit 37 minutes from the picture, a full third of its length. With that much footage gone Boetticher's achievement must have been totally ruined; I'm happy that I've never seen it. As much as one respects Ford, one can imagine him more interested in lobbying Yates on behalf of his own expensive film projects. The Fox mogul Zanuck messed around with Ford's pictures for twenty years, so who cared what happens to a movie by some guy named Budd? Luckily for director Boetticher, his long version impressed studio insiders. Back then, superior directing skill might actually attract career-advancing attention, and Boetticher was soon working at Universal.
The U.C.L.A. Film Archive restored Bullfighter and the Lady in 2001. It's one of their most appreciated achievements.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Bullfighter and the Lady is a beauty. The quality of the transfer changes as the image shifts from prime negative elements to the uncut sections that expand the film to the full 124-minute Boetticher version. U.C.L.A. must have located more original materials beyond the 87-minute version, as I'd estimate the "less perfect" footage to be fewer than twenty minutes in length.
The prime footage is perfect, while the restored sections have less contrast and look lighter -- but are by no means unattractive. Some of the film shot in the bullring during fights is scratched, and probably was always scratched. But some of it is truly thrilling. At least two Toreros are knocked off their feet. In one shot a bull is seen lifting an entire horse with its head and horns, pushing it up the side of the arena.
The audio is as clear as a bell at all times, leading me to guess that a master recording for the entire film was retained even after Republic's drastic cuts.
This is a great picture, and will go directly to my "keep available for repeat screenings" shelf. Thanks, Olive Films.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. On 1941 producer-writer John Milius brought in the ancient Winchester trench pump shotgun used by Candice Bergen in The Wind and the Lion, and I took it out to be cleaned and to make its action work. Sorry, pumping one of those things and then shooting straight would take someone with stronger biceps than I. Anyway, Milius often came in Monday mornings praising Robert Stack's shooting abilities -- Milius and various celebrity pals would meet at a gun club on the weekends. I believe that Vince Edwards might have been part of this clique as well, but I could be wrong. One more than one occasion, Milius' small talk centered on Robert Stack's virtuosity as a sure-shot trap shooter. The veteran actor emeritus of 1941, Stack was a great fellow - an old-school star, but never one to lord it over anyone. At the wrap party it was like talking to one of my father's friends.
2. A perhaps more cynical but brutally honest picture about the exploitation and slaughter in bullfighting in Spain is Rosi's The Moment of Truth. So don't think that I'm a lover of bullfighting based on this review.
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