322: Batwoman

Archival Spaces 322

La mujer murcielago (1968) restored

Uploaded 26 May 2023

On Friday, 14 April 2023, I attended a midnight screening at the TCM Film Festival of the newly restored La mujer murcielago/Batwoman (1968), directed by Cuban-Mexican director, René Cardona, and produced by Guillermo Calderón (1919-2018). The producer was the son of Rafael Calderón who with his brother Jose was one of the founders of the Mexican film industry. Viviana García-Besné, director of Permancia Voluntaria, has been restoring the films of her Calderón family. Back in 2015, while preparing our UCLA exhibition, “Recuerdos de un cine en espagñol: Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles” (2017), I visited the Calderón Archive and wrote this blog (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2015/08/28/permanencia-voluntaria). 

The first time we see actress Maura Monti as the Batwoman is in a cutaway montage as friend Tony Roca describes her many talents to the Mexican inspector investigating a series of murders of professional wrestlers (luchadors). First, she appears in a full-length white evening gown with mink stole  – she’s wealthy -, then with her blue bat woman luchadora mask shooting bulls eyes with a pistol, followed by her in western costume on horseback, shooting more bulls eyes, then scuba diving with a harpoon, and finally in the ring woman-handling a luchadora. She is a phallic femme, endowed with the visual symbols of male power, but still trapped in the iconography and visual style of the male gaze. Batwoman is the long dark-haired answer to the 1960s icon, Emma Peel in “The Avengers,” smart, sexy, highly athletic, and tough. As a flyer at the screening tells me, Monti did all her own stunts, except in the wrestling sequences which used a body double. Through much of the film she wears the tiniest of bikinis with her luchadora mask and azure blue cape, another prototypical 1960s American comic book image, part Batman, part Mexican wrestler, all male fantisized erotic object. But this is a guilty pleasure because the cultural melange can be read as pure camp.     

Contrasted to the blue sea, and Bat Woman’s blue mask and cape, is the coral red of the Fishman, a Frankenstein-like amphibious creature created by a mad scientist in the laboratory on his yacht, trying to rule the world. The creature, produced by injecting the pineal-gland fluid of murdered wrestlers into a fish which through some atomic force is then turned underwater into a human-sized Fishman who is guided by radio signals from the madman. Given that Guillermo del Toro has named La mujer murcielago one of his favorite films, it is clear Batwoman’s monster was one of his inspirations for The Shape of Water (2017), just as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1957) inspired Bat Woman. This film is proud of its pop-cultural origins, with its tongue in cheek.

Viviana Garcia Besne, Marianne da Silva, Peter Conheim
Charles Horak

The new 4K restoration of Batwoman pops in bright Technicolor colors. It was made possible thanks to a team of restorationists, working far below scale in what is obviously a labor of love. Heading the team is Viviana García-Besné, a niece of the film’s producer, who remembers spending vacations in the Acapulco villa at the center of the narrative, and who for the past decade has gathered together the dispersed films of her family through her Permancia Voluntaria. Past restorations have included El fantasma del convento (1934, Fernando de Fuentes) and Santo contra Cerebro del Mal (1958,
Joselito Rodríguez), the first of numerous Santo films produced by the Calderón family. Working with Viviana was film collector and restorationist Peter Conheim (http://peterconheim.com/ ) and colorist Andrew Drapkin. However, before preservation could begin, there had to be a multi-year fundraising effort.

Working with film producer Charles Horak (no relation), Permanencia Voluntaria set up a fund through the Paseo del Norte Foundation in El Paso, Texas. Horak also organized at least two fundraising screenings at the Plaza Theatre in El Paso in 2018 and 2019 of Santo vs. the Evil Brain (1958), the first Santo film. and a smaller private event that raised money from hundreds of local citizens. El Paso was of course one of the ancestral homes of the Calderón film empire, which operated the Colón Theatre (now gone) in El Paso and numerous cinemas in the Texas-Chihuahua border area, before also moving into distribution. and film production in 1932 with Santa, the first Mexican sound feature film. Various members continued producing films continuously into the 1990s, including Batwoman’s Guillermo Calderon Stell. The screenings raised $ 27,000 and  $37,000, respectively. Charles Horak was particularly proud of his crowd-sourcing without going through internet sites. Further funding for Batwoman was provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/Academy Film Archive and the Cinema Preservation Alliance.    

Happily, the digital restorations had access to the original 35mm Eastmancolor camera negative and optical sound. Unfortunately, the camera negative had been badly damaged through overuse and the effects of a recent earthquake that demolished parts of the Archive, necessitating literally hundreds of hours of digital clean-up by hand. Their only guide was a badly faded to magenta 35mm projection print, also in possession of Permanencia Voluntaria. While the sound was mastered by Audio Mechanics in Burbank, the digital clean-up was handled by Conheim on his home desktop. Viviana and Peter went through four different versions before they were happy with the final result, which was on view at TCM and which will be available on DVD soon.

For those interested in supporting Permanencia Voluntaria’s efforts to restore popular Mexican cinema, you can make a tax-deductible donation to https://pdnfoundation.org.

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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