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Eva Perón’s Last Film
Before she met Juan Domingo Perón in 1944, Eva Duarte was a small-time actress. In 1935, when she was only 15 years old, Eva arrived in Buenos Aires and started acting in a well-known theatre company, but her roles remained secondary for a long time. Towards the late 1930s, while gaining credibility as a radio actress, Eva made it through into the cinema world.
In 1944, Eva obtained her first and only role as a protagonist in Mario Soffici’s La pródiga (The Prodigal Woman), which was due to be released towards the end of 1945. This was to be Eva’s first leading role, and, in effect, her last one too, for this was also to be her last film. By the time the film was ready to be shown in the cinemas of Buenos Aires, Eva Duarte was already married to the then presidential candidate, Perón. This, added to the political events of that year, and Eva’s crucial influence in Perón’s political success in the elections of October 1945, meant that the film’s release was not to happen, not while Evita was in such a prominent political role. Indeed, the film would not be shown until 1984, almost four decades later. This article explores the contents of Evita’s last film and analyses the political reasons behind the film’s “censorship”. It also draws attention to Eva Duarte’s career as an actress and to the social and political issues dealt with in this, her last film.
Who was Eva Duarte?
María Eva Duarte was born in the small town of Los Toldos, in the province of Buenos Aires, in 1919 (although, according to her official birth certificate, she was born in the town of Junín, three years later). Her mother, a widow with four children, moved to Junín in 1930, where Eva finished her primary school education and began to toy with the idea of being an actress. In 1935, aged only 15, Eva went to try her luck as an actress in the capital city, Buenos Aires. She was soon given a small role within a play staged by Eva Franco’s theatre company. In the difficult years to come, she played small roles in comedies and sainetes (one-act farcical dramatic vignettes). In 1938, she moved to a different theatre, after Pierina Dealessi invited her to be part of her company. She then tried unsuccessfully to enter the world of cinema, and in failing, instead became quite well known on the radio, as an actress for radio-soaps, a genre which was quickly becoming established as a popular format with audiences. In 1939, she had a breakthrough, when she became the main actress—together with Pascual Pelliciotta—in a radio-theatre company. As a result, her photo appeared for the first time in Antena, a magazine dedicated to the world of cinema and radio. In 1941, she had another stroke of luck when she signed a five year contract to advertise bathroom soaps on the radio. Her name began to be mentioned as a promising “estrellita de radioteatro” (“radio drama starlet”). She was still Eva Duarte.
In 1943, the then military government imposed strict control over radio broadcasts. Each radio soap-opera had to be scrutinised and authorised by the government before it could be aired. By now, Eva Duarte had signed a contract with Radio Belgrano, the most important radio station at the time. This contract would allow her to be the protagonist in a programme that centred round the biography of famous women; a programme which had been authorised and which would continue until October 1945. During this time, many queens and famous actresses came to life in people’s homes through Eva’s voice. This job, and the improvements it brought in her fortunes, allowed her to buy her first flat in Buenos Aires.
In January 1944 Eva would be touched by luck yet again. In a festival organised to raise funds for the victims of the earthquake which had struck Argentina’s San Juan province, she met Juan Domingo Perón, then Secretary of Labour for the incumbent military government. They soon moved in together. Not surprisingly, with the help of Perón’s powerful influence, Eva’s career began to improve rapidly. Radio Belgrano issued her with a new contract, and the prominent San Miguel cinema studios suddenly called on her to play a secondary role in the film La cabalgata del circo (Circus Cavalcade), directed by Mario Soffici.
This was an important film to be involved with, even as a secondary actress, for she would be acting alongside Libertad Lamarque and Hugo del Carril, two of the most important stars of the time. With her hair already dyed blonde, Eva appeared on the cover of several magazines and was interviewed by journals specialising in film and radio. In June 1944 Eva Duarte also began to work on a new radio programme: Hacia un futuro mejor (Towards a Better Future). Hacia un futuro mejor was broadcast on the state-run radio, with the sole purpose of promoting the work of the military government, and of Perón in particular. In this programme Eva played the role of a provincial woman who would call on her compatriots to support the good deeds of the “revolutionaries” in the government. Such was the context when, at the beginning of 1945, Mario Soffici called on her, this time for her to be the protagonist of his new film, La pródiga (The Prodigal Woman). In fact, Mecha Ortiz (considered then to be the Argentinian Greta Garbo) had been called on first to play this role, but was swiftly replaced after Eva Duarte approached the studios and offered to get hold of the much needed and sought-after raw film stock, which was scarce and difficult to find at the time due to the complex political relations between Argentina and United States during World War II (1). Filming was completed in September 1945, with the aim of releasing the film in December of that same year. However, due to the political events of October 1945, which led to the imprisonment and the later election of Perón as president, and Eva’s marriage to Perón, the film studio decided, under strong official pressure not to release the film. That would be the last time Eva Duarte ever acted. She would die of cancer, seven years later, not as Eva Duarte the actress, but as Evita Perón, a nation’s leader. La pródiga was to be Eva’s last film.
La pródiga was shot during the first half of 1945 on location in the province of Córdoba and in the now defunct San Miguel studios, in Buenos Aires. The screenplay is an adaptation by Alejandro Casona of the classic novel by the Spanish author Pedro Antonio de Alarcón. The plot of the film centres around “Sra Julia Montes, alias la pródiga” played by Eva Duarte. She is a young, attractive lady, who has travelled the world and is rumoured to have been the muse of many of the most famous artists in Europe. When her husband died, she was left with unimaginable wealth. In effect, she came to own the entire Valle de Piedras Albas, where the story takes place. All the inhabitants of the small village in the valley look up to her as if she were their master. As one of the characters puts it: “Para ellos, la Señora es algo sagrado” (“For them, the Señora is sacred”). Her nickname, which gives the film its title, is crucially ambiguous. On the one hand, the term alludes to someone who is productive, even generous with their wealth; on the other hand, however, someone prodigal is also someone who is unashamedly wasteful, someone who “desperdicia y consume su hacienda en gastos inútiles, sin medida ni razón” (“squanders and uses up his estate in useless spending, without economy or reason”) (2)
It is not until we are eight and a half minutes in to the film that Eva appears on screen as Julia. Prior to this, however, the spectator receives from the otherwise all-male cast an effective picture of this woman’s identity: “lo que se dice, una verdadera mujer de mundo” (“from what is said about her, she’s a real woman of the world”). From the dialogues prompted by anticipation of her arrival, we know what her past was like, and how it is that the men should end up turning to her for help after they lose one of their horses: “estaría de Dios que teníamos que pedirle auxilio a esa señora” (“it must be God’s will that we had to ask for help from that woman”). In this prelude it is further established that Julia is a widow and she is extremely rich: “Viuda […] Heredera desde niña, casada muy joven y sola otra vez a los 20 años con una gran fortuna” (“Widowed […] heiress since she was a child, married at a very young age and alone again at the age of 20 with a vast fortune”). The men also allude to the reasons behind her alias, when they say that “Ha tirado el dinero en Viena, en Madrid, en París y en todo el mundo” (“She’s spent money in Vienna, Madrid, Paris and all over the world”). What is more, she appears to be a man-eater (or at least to have been one in the past), as one of the characters claims: “De amores y escándalos, para escribir un libro. Dicen que varios hombres se han matado por ella, y que incluso hay un cuadro de ella, desnuda, en algún museo de Europa” (“There are enough stories of love and scandal attached to her to write a book. They say several men took their lives because of her, and that there’s even a portrait of her, naked, hanging in a museum somewhere in Europe”). It is apparent that even before Eva Duarte makes an entrance, there are lines in the script that would certainly have been seen as disquieting (to say the least) when it came to protecting the image of the First Lady to be.
The appearance of Eva on screen is altogether magisterial and in that sense, uncannily foreboding. Just after she appears on screen we see her walking gingerly down the grandiose marble staircase of her mansion, wearing a beautiful long dress. Her hair, restored to its natural light-brown colour, is tied up, not yet in what would become Evita Peron’s classic hairstyle, but in a rather less severe arrangement. Eva’s first lines are significant in terms of her characterization: “Disculpen que los haya hecho esperar. Antes he tenido que atender a una paloma herida” (“Forgive me for making you wait. I had to see to a wounded pigeon first”). The pigeon Julia has been attending to had been shot in the previous scene by one of the visitors, who—somewhat predictably—happens to be the gentleman who will win over her heart. After he comes forward and apologises to her, she says “Es mío el valle entero, por eso es muy difícil hacer daño a una sola de esas vidas, sin que me duela a mí” (“This whole valley is mine and for that reason it’s difficult to do damage to a single one of these creatures without it casuing me pain”). The fact that she has been busy tending to a pigeon shows that Eva’s character is extraordinarily caring, and this certainly would fit in with the image of “protectora de los pobres” (or protector of the poor) that Perón’s wife would come to embody in real life (3). However, in the film the protagonist’s generosity is limited and, to a certain extent, duplicitous. Although in her valley most people seem to be poor (they are certainly depicted as people with scarce means), and she is shown as someone willing to help the inhabitants of her valley, she is all too willing to remain aloof, or, as her lover tells her as they walk through the village: “Pareces una reina visitando a sus súbditos” (“You seem like a queen visiting her subjects”), to which she replies nonchalantly: “Quizás ninguno los haya tenido más fieles. Mire a mi pequeño ejército” (“Perhaps they were never so loyal to anyone as they are to me. Look at my little army”).
The plot of the film combines the tragedy of a story of a semi-forbidden love, with a very Chekhovian struggle to protect the land from merciless, giddy developers: “Lo que para usted es una hectárea, para mí es un recuerdo” (“what for you is just a hectare of land is for me a memory”, says La Pródiga to the engineer. He, in turn, cannot help but fall in love with her, leaving aside his project altogether. The film then concentrates on their love affair, and on how her faithful “subjects” turn against her on the grounds that she is not respecting her mourning, and that, when the engineer comes to live with her, they are a man and a woman living in sin. The village feels ashamed of the woman who was once “hermana de los tristes, madre de los pobres” (“a sister of the unfortunate, and a mother to the poor”); such is their shame that “Hasta los más pobres prefieren el hambre a pisar esta casa” (“Even the most poor prefer hunger to setting foot in that house”). This collective rejection reaches its dramatic climax when the village celebrates the marriage of a local couple. Previous tradition has dictated that every bride and groom should celebrate in La pródiga’s palace after their church service. However, because of the perceived indignity that the personal choices made by the character Eva plays have brought upon herself and upon her valley, we see the bride refusing to enter the woman’s home. The engineer, Guillermo, comes out in a fury and shouts at the whole village “Cobardes, desagradecidos, cobardes” (“Cowards, ungrateful cowards”). Significantly, Guillermo maintains a discourse of contempt towards the inhabitants during the entire film, which La pródiga rarely criticises; at one point, for instance, Guillermo claims: “Son unos pobres brutos, pero sanos” (“They’re poor but ruddy brutes”). La pródiga’s resignation in the face of this kind of opinion perhaps stresses what would have been a politically unacceptable two-faced aspect of Eva’s character towards “her” poor; especially when the character she plays and the political figure she would become bear certain crucially striking similarities.
Had the film been distributed at the time, Eva Duarte perhaps would not have become the endearing “Evita”, as the pueblo nicknamed her in a kind of semantic appropriation of this woman, who was as influential and powerful as her elected husband. Evita Perón, the charitable First Lady, defender of the poor, mother of the “descamisados”, had to be irreconcilable with Eva’s character Julia Montes, who throughout the film remains indifferent to the poor of her village; indeed, she appears to rejoice in their unquestioned submission and idolisation of her.
An interesting parallel is one brought to the fore by Julia Montes’s costumes. In every single scene Eva appears wearing magnificent outfits, which could easily have been part of the wealthiest European aristocratic families’ wardrobes. She looks pompous and extraordinary in all her frocks, and shows no shame or awkwardness in walking among peasants and laundrywomen and their donkeys and goats all the while dressed like a queen. This dissonance would not be dissimilar from what—for some observers—was an irreconcilable tendency towards opulence on the part of the First Lady. Eva Perón would not only wear the most ostentatious precious stones, she would also show no qualms about going out in luxurious fur coats and dresses. In June 1947, when she was received by Franco during her European tour, she was famously captured wearing a fur coat that only the extremely wealthy could have dreamt of buying in Argentina (incidentally, it would be the same fur coat she would wear a few days before her death at the inauguration ceremony of Perón’s second mandate in 1952). During this same tour, Evita wore dresses especially designed and made for her by Christian Dior himself, who claimed that Eva Perón was the only real queen he had ever dressed (4).
Faced by the rejection of her people, and by a lover who is increasingly frustrated by isolation and small-village life, La pródiga decides to abandon her mansion, her people, and her man. This extreme decision, which further ratchets up the film’s melodrama, is brought about by the words that Guillermo inadvertently lets out: “No puedo cometer la infamia de abandonarte” (“I can’t commit the infamy of abandoning you”). Julia Montes cannot tolerate that her lover would decide to stay with her, only to avoid infamy. She decides to leave, not without first taming her pride and asking her faithful life-long butler Antonio for some money to keep her while she finds a new path to follow. Upon his master’s request, the butler has to confess that nothing, absolutely nothing belongs to her anymore; even “las cosechas que no han sido recogidas” (“the crops which have yet to be harvested”) have been sold. La pródiga is penniless, and is forced humbly to admit that “yo, la pródiga, he estado viviendo de limosna […] yo no tengo nada, nada que sea mío” (“I, la pródiga, have been living on charity […] I have nothing, nothing that is mine”). She then breaks down in tears and begs the butler not to tell the truth to anyone, and ominously she whispers: “No será por mucho tiempo” (“It won’t be for very long”).
While Guillermo sleeps, we see Eva/Julia take off her pearl earrings, in a symbolic act of abandonment of all comfort, and leave on a horse to go up the valley. Yet again, she is immaculately dressed. In a somewhat confusing sequence of events, the film then cuts to La pródiga galloping in the background, while in the foreground we see a shepherd spotting her and blowing his horn to call attention. The next scene transports us back to the palace, with Antonio shouting for Guillermo, and Guillermo in turn immediately assuming that something has happened to Julia. We then see her being carried in the arms of one of the villagers, and understand that somehow, she has died. For the first time in the film, her hair is loose and looks wild, free. Significantly, this is an image that Eva Perón, the political figure, would never allow herself to show while in the public eye. In the scene, while she is being carried and placed under a tree which she talks about at the beginning of the film, we see one of the villagers, an old woman, holding her by the hair and then bending to kiss it. Such devotion and loyalty is uncannily similar to what Eva Perón would experience in real life. Despite differences and contradictions (her opulence, her need to be more bourgeois than the oligarchs that detested her), her “descamisados”, her proletariats, would in the end be there for her. Indeed, when Evita died in August 1952, her state funeral, witnessed by more than two million people, would be one of the best-attended public events in Argentinian history to date. The wake lasted 14 days.
The final lines of this 67 minute film are delivered by Julia, as she speaks from the beyond through a voice-over, while the camera pans over her grave: “Yo, la pródiga, juro que nunca seré para ti una cadena. Que no te pesaré ni un solo día, que no tendrás que aborrecerme ni una sola hora, que no estorbaré tu felicidad ni un solo instante” (“I, La pródiga swear that I will never be a chain for you. That I will never weigh upon you even for a day, that you will not have to spend even an hour hating me, that I will not spoil your happiness even for an instant”). It is assumed that she died, as it were, a victim of her own prodigality. No one seems to question how she dies, perhaps as a way subtly to hide that she has actually taken her own life (as she seems to hint in the earlier scene when she says to Antonio “It won’t be for very long”). As we watch Guillermo ride off screen on horseback, the film leaves the spectator with no real sense of catharsis. It is as if María Eva Duarte had to disappear suddenly, in just over an hour, in order to become someone and something else. Eva would never act again, and since the film was not released until 1984, she would be free of any controversy attached to her dramatic role as a prodigal woman, at least during her lifetime.
Eva Duarte versus Evita Perón
Eva Perón is one of the most powerful sources of symbolic production to come out of Peronism, and, even today, the weight of her symbolism defines the ideological positions within this political movement. This is particularly relevant in the Argentina of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is constantly keen to allude to Eva Perón in her speeches. In turn, it is not rare to see the faces of Eva and Cristina depicted side by side in the political banners of those who support the current government. Evita’s symbolic representations also feed into works dealing with historical, political and cultural interpretation, and they even determine parameters of debate about literary and visual representations of her figure. There is a wide corpus of critical texts that look into the array of feelings produced by the body of Evita Perón, in its different modes of representation. As María Sofía Vasallo observes:
[O]bjeto privilegiado de preocupación en las ciencias sociales y humanas de estas últimas décadas, el cuerpo en tanto categoría de análisis, encuentra en Eva, en su biografía y en sus figuraciones estéticas, un referente teórico de evidente e intensa productividad (2009: 18).
[A privileged object of concern in human and social sciences over the last decades, the body as a category of anlysis finds in Eva, in her biography and in the lines of her aesthetic choices a theoretical referent with a clear and intense productivity.]
In addition, and as Félix Luna elucidates, Evita Perón, embodied a dream come true for the popular imagination:
Su romance con Perón era un cuento de hadas cuyo casamiento culminaba una bella historia de amor […] bastaba su presencia, su sonrisa, el toque rubio de su cabello entre los rostros ocres y los pelos negros de la provincianía, para poner un toque de maravilla en la pareja que viajaba por el país. (1971: 420).
And it is of course not coincidental that La pródiga would remain censored for four decades. The suppression of the film helped shift to the background the fact that this adored First Lady was, in fact, an actress, that is, someone capable of emotional simulation, and of playing a role. This could have certainly corroded the verisimilitude of Eva’s political and social role.
It is interesting to note, however, that despite the prolific critical production on and about Evita Perón as a biographical and political figure, Eva Duarte, the actress, and La pródiga as a film, have not attracted a comparable amount of critical attention. The film, as such, is not one of Soffici’s best and it could be argued that if Eva Duarte had not become Evita Perón, and if the film had not been “censored” for 40 years, it could have been easily forgotten. Its predecessor, La cabalgata del circo, with its self-referentiality and quasi-postmodern, filmic mise-en-abîme is altogether a more complete production. Nevertheless, for the mere curiosity of seeing Evita Perón act simply as Eva Duarte, her last film, La pródiga, could be said to be a historical, political, and cinematic gem.
(1) “Problems reached a peak in 1944, when Argentina began to censor Hollywood films as a means of pressuring the U.S. government to provide more raw film stock. The United States responded in August by banning all film and raw stock shipments to Argentina, effectively breaking diplomatic relations with that nation. That same month, strikes and film shortages closed down all production in Argentina. Trade resumed a few months later, although relations remained strained at best.” See Unsigned 2010.
(2) According to the entry in the online dictionary provided by the Real Academia Española [www.rae.es].
(3) Eva enters the political world, traditionally dominated by men, not masculinising herself, bur rather reaffirming her femininity, framed by the image of the wife and the symbolic mother. During the years of Perón’s mandate, and through his social policies, the protective structure of the home, especially of the very low-income homes, sees itself projected onto the State. And this shift reaffirms the construction of Evita and Perón as parents of the nation. According to Valeria Grinberg Pla: “El discurso de Eva Perón como madre de los trabajadores y los humildes, y por extensión madre de la nación, recorre explícita o implícitamente los textos oficiales del peronismo desde los años 50 y, particularmente, el texto de La razón de mi vida, la autobiografía de Eva Perón publicada en 1951. Este discurso se articula en torno al matrimonio de los Perón como padres de una nación que nace con la llegada de Perón al poder” (“The discourse of Eva Perón as mother of the workers and the poor, and by extension as the mother of the nation, runs implicitly or explicitly through the official texts of Peronsim from the 50s onwards and is espeically evident in La razón de mi vida, la autobiografía de Eva Perón published in 1951. This discourse is articulated around the Perón couple as parents of a nation which is born with Perón’s accession to power”) (2005: 10).
(4) Christian Dior designed several outfits for Eva Perón and it is said that he had a mannequin made to Evita’s measurements in his atelier: he was once asked if he had a favourite among the many royals he had designed for, to which he replied, "A la única reina que vestí es a Eva Perón" (“The only queen I ever dressed was Eva Perón”) (Guagnini 2002).
Castiñeiras, Noemí, 2003. El ajedrez de la gloria. Evita Duarte actriz, Buenos Aires: Catálogos.
Cortés Rocca, Paola, and Martín Kohan, 1998. Imágenes de vida, relatos de muerte. Eva Perón: cuerpo y política, Buenos Aires: Beatriz Viterbo.
Guagnini, Lucas. 2002. ‘Un look para competir con la clase alta.’ Clarín.com. <http://old.clarin.com/suplementos/especiales2/2002/07/26/l-420665.htm>, 26 July.
Grinberg Pla, Valeria, 2005. “De las relaciones non sanctas entre el discurso político y el discurso religioso: El caso de Eva Perón.” Istmo 10 (Jan-June).
Luna, Félix, 1971. El 45. Crónica de un año decisivo. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana.
Luna, Félix, 1985. La comunidad organizada. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana.
Soffici, Mario, (director), 1945. La cabalgata del circo [91 minutes].
Soffici, Mario, (director), 1945. La pródiga [67 minutes].
Unsigned, 2010. ‘The Motion Picture Industry During World War II—Hollywood and Washington, Entertaining the Troops, Foreign Markets, The Antitrust Campaign, Labor.’ http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/2921/The-Motion-Picture-Industry-During-World-War-II.html (Accessed 10 August 2010).
Vasallo, María Sofía, 2009. ‘Figuraciones de Evita en las tapas de revistas.’ Figuraciones 5 (August).
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La pródiga, Mario Soffici, 1945