Allá En El Rancho Grande: Mexico’s Golden Age Begins

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Allá En El Rancho Grande (1936) tells the story of an owner and a general manager of a ranch (Rancho Grande), two good friends, who fall in love with the same girl at the same time. The owner tries to ‘buy’ the girl without knowing she is in love with the manager. 

The beginning of the 1930s saw many Latin American filmmakers go abroad to make movies like El Dia Que Me Quieras as films on the continent were few and far between. This was until the already prolific director of the Mexican Revolution trilogy, Fernando de Fuentes, directed Allá En El Rancho Grande. The film broke attendance records in Mexico and Latin America. It spawned more than thirty imitations in just one year, and continued to inspire imitations and remakes into the 1940s, including a Colombian version titled Allá en el Trapiche (Over at the Trapiche; Roberto Saa Silva, 1943) and a color remake by De Fuentes in 1949 with Jorge Negrete. It made Mexico a center of Latin American filmmaking and would become the prototype comedia ranchers.

Allá En El Rancho Grande

The genre could be easily described as a Mexican cowboy musical incorporating elements of comedy, tragedy, and traditional Mexican music and customs. Though it may sound very simple, the genre holds an important space in Mexican film and history as it said a lot about Mexico’s anguish and disappointment in the revolution and the power of the reactionary PRI government. The setting of the comedia ranchera was the pre-revolutionary hacienda, a vast tract of rural ranch and farming land that had been expropriated from peasant communities by the government and given to wealthy criollo families. The hacienda system was a paternalistic feudalism where the workers were theoretically free, but in reality, tenant farmers were bound by indebtedness to the hacendado.

They were an extremely conservative genre of films that brought nostalgia for pre-revolutionary life and politics while upholding the idea of a mythical agrarian paradise found on Mexican haciendas. This is established in De Fuentes’ film by the character of Felipe’s father, the owner of the ranch. He is a paternal and loving figure on the ranch. He teaches his son that if he wants to lead a happy life, he must treat all the workers as though they are his sons and daughters. Because of that, he creates a harmonious environment, revolving around his goodwill and everyone else is happy to assume their roles as loyal servants.

Allá En El Rancho Grande

When young Felipe and Francisco are introduced to each other, they immediately go off to Felipe’s father’s office and play owner and manager. Even in the wildest parts of their imagination, they can’t imagine changing roles or even playing an entirely different game. A quick cut to the future shows that their play was just preparation for the approaching reality. Throughout the film, the two are close but they get even closer after Francisco takes a bullet for Felipe, and Felipe in turn gives him a blood transfusion. Following the transfusion, Felipe says they are now “brothers,” but it is clearly not a brotherhood between equals. Rather, they are brothers in their shared commitment to the common good of the hacienda, with each doing his distinct part for the hacienda’s smooth functioning as a whole. They can’t really be brothers if, as Felipe’s father said, the people of the ranch should be looked on as children. Francisco is a brother-son. They may be equal in their desire but absolutely not in their role.

Where does this kind of storytelling come from and why did it become so popular in a post-revolutionary society? This movie was a product of the times. The leaders of the country were no longer divisive men each representing a radical departure for the country. Cárdenas, the president of Mexico, was a corporatist overall. He toed the line between capitalism and socialism and tried to show that capitalism and social justice could go hand in hand. In 1936, for example, Lázaro Cárdenas famously expropriated the very profitable haciendas in La Laguna, a fertile cotton-producing valley that straddles southern Coahuila and Durango, because their model of production, with absentee owners, was efficient but socially unjust. Yet Cárdenas was not interested in converting all private haciendas into ejidos, or parcels of land farmed communally under a system supported by the state. 

Lázaro Cárdenas

He stated that “peasants always opt for organizations of productive activity that increase production and reduce costs, not because they are imposed on them, but because they see their profit in it. This does not mean that we wish to exclude all forms of organization that are not collective; far from it, wherever individual ownership and management is economically efficient, we will implement it and stimulate it.” Cárdenas’s corporatist stance, which simultaneously supported ejidos and private haciendas so long as they were efficient and socially responsible, would thus justify keeping Rancho Grande private because Don Felipe looks after the welfare of his workers while clearly making a profit. Cardénas’ policies were thoroughly intertwined in the Mexican film industry.

He nationalized the industry, established a protectionist policy that included tax exemptions for domestic production, created the Financiadora de Películas, a state institution whose mandate it was to find private financing for films, and instituted a system of loans for the establishment of major film studios. Film production grew from six films in 1932 to 57 films by 1938 and by 1934, there were five motion picture studios in Mexico City. Films at that time were generally conservative in terms of their cinematic strategies and the social and political narratives, especially the comedia ranchera. The genre ignored Cárdenas’ more radical reforms and, instead, celebrated the pre-revolutionary hacienda system. It represented an ambivalence to Cárdenas himself. These films could not be made without his benevolence but it ignores the need for it at the same time.

​​The film also ignores the fact that any evil can come from the top. The source of the conflict in this film is a peasant woman. She is portrayed as a shrill and cruel woman who tries to trick the owner into buying her goddaughter Cruz. Her motives are unknown and we have to assume it is just greed. The possibility that the owner does not provide enough money for his workers and that her extortion of a rich man is therefore not so immoral is not considered. In the end, though, all is forgiven. The last scene shows a group wedding: Felipe and his fiance, Francisco and Cruz, and the madrina and her drunken boyfriend. The corporatist ending ties up all the loose ends in a neat little bow and any hint at unhappiness on the ranch is left out.

Allá En El Rancho Grande

Still, the movie should be remembered as one of the most important on the continent. There were many conservative films in that era that upheld the glory of pre-revolutionary Mexico but none as artfully as this one. It took the popular Hollywood musical and made it inherently Mexican. Songs were diegetic and traditional in rural parts of the country with lyrics that upheld culturally Mexican ideals of masculinity and honor. The story, though formulaic, is thrilling and compelling. It’s a work that could rival Hollywood without imitating it. This is a Mexican story, albeit a very cautious one.

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