281: Carlos Gardel Tango Bar (1935)

Archival Spaces 281

Carlos Gardel’s Tango Bar (1935)

Uploaded 29 October 2021

In a few days I will leave be leaving for Berlin, where I will be giving a keynote at the German Kinemathek’s “Film Restored” film festival, which as the title says, highlights new film restorations, and also introduce a film with Tango star Carlos Gardel, El dia que me quieras (1935), which was first screened here in a new restoration from the Fundacion Cinemateca Argentina for the Pacific Standard Time film program in Autumn 2017. In preparation, I recently viewed on You-Tube another Gardel film, also directed by Austrian émigré John Reinhardt, and shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios for Gardel’s own company, Exito Productions: Tango Bar (1935) is Gardel’s only film he never saw before his tragic plane crash and death on 24 June 1935 in Medellin, Colombia. Ironically, despite his incredible popularity in Europe and Latin America, Gardel remained even in his lifetime a virtual unknown in the United States.

John Reinhardt, Kathryn Crawford in The Climax (1930, Renaud Hoffman)
Lena Malena, John Reinhardt in Monsieur Le Fox (1931, WIllard Mack)

Born in Vienna in 1901, Harry John Reinhardt trained as a bank clerk but decided to reinvent himself, emigrating to Los Angeles in May 1922, after crossing the Atlantic on the Saxonia in November 1922. His first screen credit was as a scriptwriter on William K. Howard’s The River Pirate (1928), the same year he became an American citizen. There followed scripts for Prince of Hearts (1929), where he also acted, and Mamba (1930). His most important roles were as Jean Hersholt’s son in Universal’s The Climax (1930), in William Dieterle’s German-language version of Those Who Dance (1930) at Warner Brothers, Der Tanz geht weiter, and as Louis Le Boy in the German version of Men of the North (1930), Monsieur le Fox (1931). With only uncredited acting roles in the next two years, Reinhardt turned to directing, getting the nod from Fox’s Spanish language unit to direct Yo, tu y ella (1933), starring Mexican American star, Gilbert Roland, Mona Maris, and Rosita Moreno.

Carlos Gardel, Rosita Morena in El dia que me quieras (1935)

He followed up with three more Spanish language originals for Fox, starring Conchita Montenegro, José Mojica, and Rosita Moreno, respectively, before being hired by Paramount in January 1935 to direct Carlos Gardel’s seventh feature and the 3rd shot in New York’s Astoria Studios for Gardel’s Exito Productions: El dia que me quieras (1935). The film tells the story of a wealthy Buenos Aires businessman’s son, who flees his father’s house to become a tango singer. In the theatre, he meets a  dancer (Rosita Moreno) and, despite his father’s opposition, elopes. He steals money from his father when she becomes ill, but she dies soon after, while he flees Argentina and rises to fame as a tango singer, even appearing in Hollywood films (autobiographical elements here). He then returns from exile to help his daughter (Moreno again). Gardel believed it his best film, maybe because he got along well with Reinhardt, unlike his previous experience with Louis Gasnier with whom he had made five films in New York and at Joinville outside Paris. Many critics consider Tango Bar even better, maybe because a decision was made to record Gardel singing live, rather than post-synchronizing the songs, giving them a liveliness not previously visible. 

On the set of Tango Bar (1935), Reinhardt seated [center]

Shot in February 1935, Tango Bar starred Rosita Moreno, Enrique de Rosas, and Tito Lusiardo. The first half of the film takes place on a German ocean liner, where Ricardo meets Laura who is in league with a grifter and thief, the “Comandante.” They steal an expensive necklace from an American woman, and Gardel covers up the crime to protect her.  Arriving in Barcelona, Ricardo opens a Tango Bar which features a reforming Laura, but he must purchase the necklace and return it to the American, in order to clear her name and rid himself of the Comandante.  In an in-joke, a montage of Barcelona’s nightlife shows Gardel’s previous film, El tango en Broadway (1934) playing a local cinema palace. Interestingly, given Gardel’s origins as a French émigré to Argentina and Reinhardt’s bio, the ship becomes a transnational space, a space of exile as the scenes in steerage make clear, where Ricardo parties with a group of Spaniards returning to their homeland; together they remember their Spanish ancestors and sing “Lejana tierra mía” (My Distant Homeland), a tango written by Gardel and Alfredo de Pera, which has enjoyed countless re-recordings. An ocean liner also appears prominently in the final section of El dia que me quieras and becomes a method of conflating geographic and social mobility, as Rielle Navitski argues (Cinema Journal, 51/1/2011).  Another famous tango by the pair,  “Por una cabeza” (By a Head), referring to a horse race and Ricardo’s lack of luck at the track, his debts being the initial reason for him to leave Argentina, is sung twice; Gardel’s recording was later heard in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman (1992), in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (`1993), and in James Cameron’s True Lies (1994).

Carlos Garde singing in steerage in Tango Bar

The film premiered in New York City on 5 July 1935,  in Mexico City on 18 July, in Buenos Aires at the “Cine-Teatro Suipacha” on 22 August, in Montevideo on 5 September at the “Cine Arie” and “Rex Theater,  and in Lima, Peru on 29 October. Possibly because Tango Bar eschewed American stereotypes and was crafted with Latin-American audiences in mind, it became a worldwide hit.

After Gardel’s death, Reinhardt directed three more Spanish-language features for George Hirlman’s independent Metropolitan Studios: De la sartén al fuego (1935) with Moreno and Juan Toreno, El capitán tormenta/Captain Calamity (1936), shot simultaneously in English and Spanish, starring Fortunio Bonanova and Lupita Rovar, and Tengo fe en tí (1940), starring again Rosita Moreno and Frank Puglia. Before America’s entry into the war, Reinhardt directed two films in Argentina, returning to the USA a week after Pearl Harbor, then enlisting in the U.S. Navy in July 1942. Returning to Hollywood after his demobilization in July 1945, Reinhardt was hired by various poverty row studios, directing among others, Open Secret (1948), about anti-Semitism in America, and Sofia (1948), an anti-Communist spy melodrama. His American career concluded with his late masterpiece, Chicago Calling (1951), a film noir starring Dan Duryea as a poor man desperately searching for funds, as his daughter lies in hospital after a car accident. The script for that film was written by German émigré Peter Berneis with whom Reinhardt traveled to Germany to direct two films, the second being Briefträger Müller (1953) with Germany’s favorite comedian, Heinz Rühmann.

Tragically, John Reinhardt died in Berlin at 52 of a heart attack during the production, forcing Rühmann to finish the film. His wife, scriptwriter Elizabeth (Betty) Reinhardt née Neely, who he had met in 1933, while both worked at Fox’s Spanish language unit, died at 44 seven months later. 

Rosita Moreno and Carlos Gardel in Tango Bar (1935, John Reinhardt)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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