#359) La Perla [The Pearl] (1947)

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#359) La Perla [The Pearl] (1947)

OR “South of Eden”

Directed by Emilio Fernández

Written by John Steinbeck & Emilio Fernández and Jack Wagner. Based on the novella by Steinbeck.

Class of 2002

NOTE: “La Perla” was filmed simultaneously in both English and Spanish. For this post I watched the Spanish version (mainly because I didn’t realize there was an English version).

The Plot: Quino (Pedro Armendáriz) lives in poverty in the La Paz, Mexico of the 1940s with his wife Juana (Maria Elena Marqués) and their infant son Juanito. Their luck changes when Quino finds an oyster on the ocean floor that contains a large pearl. The town celebrates Quino’s newfound fortune, and Quino dreams of a better life for his son. But when an influential dealer (Fernando Wagner) attempts to buy the pearl from Quino, the greed that comes from fast money appears, and Quino puts his family and himself in danger in this modern day parable.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a landmark among English-language films released for Hispanic audiences in the United States.”

But Does It Really?: I knew nothing about “La Perla” prior to this viewing, and given its obvious Mexican pedigree I was skeptical about its inclusion in a registry of American films. Further research shows this film to be a joint production between American studio RKO and Mexico’s Águila Films, so “La Perla” is, in fact, eligible. As for the film itself, “La Perla” is a well-made, straightforward adaptation of the novella. Not a classic, but not a relic of its time either. Thanks to its American financing, “La Perla” gets a pass for its then uncommon practice of international studios co-producing a movie, which helps “La Perla” stand out from so many of the other movies on this list.

Everybody Gets One: Practically everyone involved in this film is from Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema, in which Mexico focused on producing commercial films while the rest of the world was making WWII propaganda. Director Emilio Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa were both primarily responsible for some of the era’s most iconic films. Much of the same team that made “La Perla” had worked together on Fernández’s previous films “Wild Flower” and “María Candelaria”, both considered landmarks of early Mexican cinema.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “La Perla” (RKO’s big contender that year was “I Remember Mama”), but Gabriel Figueroa did win the Golden Globe for Cinematography. In addition, “La Perla” swept the Mexican Academy’s Ariel Awards, winning five, including Best Picture.

Other notes

  • Was mine the only high school where “The Pearl” wasn’t required reading? Everything I’ve read about “The Pearl” mentions its status as a high school English mainstay. My Steinbeck required reading was “Of Mice and Men”, which I may or may not have read…
  • The story of how the novella “The Pearl” came to be is connected to the film. Steinbeck originally started writing the story as a screenplay, but converted it into a short story for “Woman’s Home Companion” in 1945. RKO optioned the film rights, and Steinbeck wrote the screenplay, while simultaneously expanding the story into a novella. The novella and film came out within months of each other.
  • The most amazing thing about the two versions of “La Perla” is that it’s the same cast for both the Spanish and English versions. These actors performed all of their scenes twice! It’s hard enough to carry a movie, but Pedro Armendáriz and Maria Elena Marqués successfully do so in two different languages!
  • While we’re on the subject, both versions of “La Perla” are nearly identical, but the English version is about eight minutes shorter than the Spanish version. This is due to the removal of certain sequences that were too risqué for the American censors. Stick with the Spanish version.
  • I believe the film’s opening sequence is just south of the “Mildred Pierce” credits.
  • So healthcare in 1940s Mexico is not too different from healthcare in modern day America. Got it.
  • The underwater sequence has some lovely tension to it, and Quino has the most impressive breath support in film history.
  • Shoutout to Gabriel Figueroa; he deserves every award he got for this movie’s cinematography. There’s not a lot of story to film, but Figueroa manages to convey a lot of character in his compositions.
  • The film’s extended dance number, which has little if anything to do with the plot, was my first clue that the source material may have been a short story.
  • In addition to the aforementioned storytelling in camera, there’s also a lovely restraint on dialogue in this movie. Characters speak when they have to, but a lot is conveyed non-verbally. I’m sure that saved the studios a fortune in retakes for the alternate language version.
  • The Dealer’s offer of 900 pesos for the pearl would have been the equivalent to 50 cents in 1947 US money. I know The Dealer is trying to downplay the pearl’s value, but it really takes the sting out of this whole thing.
  • If the actor playing Godfather looks familiar, he’s Alfonso Bedoya, best known for uttering the immortal line: “I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!
  • Well that ending is a real downer. But then again, I should have seen that coming from Steinbeck. Surely there are other ways Quino could have learned that lesson.
  • Because of this film’s co-production status, does that mean “Roma” will be eligible for NFR consideration in 2028? I don’t mind waiting to find out; I’m still scarred from the childbirth scene.

Legacy

  • Emilio Fernández directed a handful of Mexican-American collaborations throughout the next decade, including 1950’s “The Torch”. His directing career waned in the ‘50s, but he continued acting for the next decade, including in fellow NFR entry “The Wild Bunch”.
  • Like Hollywood, Mexican cinema faced stiff competition from television, and started to decline in popularity. Coupled with ongoing union disputes and the death of legendary actor Pedro Infante, the late ‘50s marked the end of Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age.
  • John Steinbeck has had two other films based on his work make the NFR: “East of Eden” and, of course, “The Grapes of Wrath”.

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