LOS OLVIDADOS (1950)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Charles Ramírez Berg
The directing career of Spanish-born Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) can be divided into three discreet stages: the early avant-garde experiments, 1929-1933; the Mexican studio films, 1946-1965; and his mature European phase, 1965-1977. For decades many film historians and critics overlooked Luis Buñuel’s Mexican period, focusing instead on the better-known European films that bookended his cinematic career.
They concentrated on his two pioneering Surrealist masterpieces, Un Chien Andalou (The Andalousian Dog, 1929) and L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age, 1930), that introduced him to the world as cinema’s leading avant-garde provocateur, and perhaps the short documentary he made shortly afterwards, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Las Hurdes: Land without Bread, 1933). Or they skipped ahead to the seven celebrated Surrealist films of his late European period, which began with Le journal d’une femme de chamber (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964) and included Belle de Jour (1967), Le Voie Lactée (The Milky Way, 1969), Tristana (1970), Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972), Le fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and Cet obscure objet de désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977).
When his Mexican films were mentioned at all, it was usually to acknowledge Los Olvidados (1950), which won Buñuel a Best Director prize at Cannes and returned him to the first rank of international directors, and possibly Viridiana (1962), a Mexico-Spain co-production that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is popularly understood as the springboard to his late European masterpieces.
This selective focus on his European pictures disregards the fact that the majority of the films that Buñuel directed, 23 out of 32, were made from 1946 to 1965, a time when he lived and worked in Mexico and became a Mexican citizen. It ignores two decades of work that was crucial to Buñuel’s development as a director and formed the link between his early Surrealist experiments and his later critically acclaimed films. It discounts the fact that he learned how to make feature films by working within the bustling Mexican studio system. As Buñuel himself said of his time in Mexico to an interviewer in 1963, “Until I came here, I made a film the way a writer makes a book, and on my friends’ money at that. Here in Mexico I have become a professional in the film world.”
And, finally, it overlooks the many splendid films he made in Mexico, which, except for two of the films that were made outside of Mexico (Le journal d’une femme de chamber and Cela s’appelle l’aurore [That Is the Dawn, 1956]), were products of the Mexican studio system. Though made on a shoestring budget, some of them are considered among the best Mexican films ever produced. Indeed, in a survey of Mexican critics and film historians conducted by the popular magazine Somos, seven of Buñuel’s films appeared on the list of Mexico’s 100 greatest films, three of them placing in the top 10:
#2 — Los Olvidados (1950)
#6 — Nazarín (1959)
#7 — El (This Strange Passion, 1953)
#16 — El Ángel Exterminador (Exterminating Angel, 1962)
#46 — Susana (1951)
#47 — Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, 1955)
#95 — La Ilusión viaja in tranvía (Illusions Travels by Streetcar, 1954)
Buñuel spent the 14 years between making Las Hurdes in 1932 and his first Mexican feature film assignment in 1946 taking a series of cinematic odd jobs as he tried to get in a position to direct. (Although he claimed in his memoir that in the mid-1930s “somehow I never really thought about making another movie,” his activities during his cinematic exile belie that statement.) He accepted a six-month position at MGM in 1930 to study filmmaking in Hollywood, but was disappointed by how little creative control directors had in the system.
Upon returning to Europe, he worked in the Paris office of Paramount Pictures in the dubbing division, and then took a similar job for Warner Brothers in Madrid. He was then approached to executive produce feature-length sound films for Filmófono, which he did from 1935 to 1936. There is some evidence that he had a hand in directing the films he produced, but it is unclear if he did and if so to what degree, and he rarely mentioned this filmmaking chapter of his life in any detail later on. Whatever the case, the experience of making genre films within a commercial system—by his account he was executive producer of 18 of them—served him well ten years later when he got his chance to direct his first feature film, Gran Casino (1946) in Mexico.
When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Buñuel’s loyalties were with the Republic and against Francisco Franco’s fascists. As things worsened for the Republicans, he left for the U.S. in 1938 and returned to Hollywood, hopeful of finding work and ultimately making films there. When no film work materialized in California, he found work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York editing propaganda films until 1943. Back in Hollywood, he took a short-lived dubbing job at Warner Brothers, and by 1946 he was unemployed.
Buñuel accompanied an old friend, Denise Tual, to Mexico City that same year. She was producing films and hoped to interest a Mexican producer in making a film of Federico García Lorca’s play, The House of Bernarda Alba, with Buñuel attached as director. They met with producer Óscar Dancigers, who passed on the García Lorca project, but offered Buñuel a job directing a musical-melodrama, Gran Casino. By this time he had a wife and two sons to support, was desperate to direct, and accepted the offer.
Though the film was only moderately successful, it performed well enough at the box office that Buñuel and Dancigers made a second film together, El Gran calavera (The Great Carouser, 1949), a family comedy, which did very well commercially. Now the two worked out an informal deal, whereby for every two or three genre films Buñuel made for Dancigers, he would be allowed to make a more personal one. For the first of these, Buñuel wanted to make a film about the poor children of Mexico City, and he researched it by taking to the streets, meeting and talking to people in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. His main screenwriting collaborator was Luis Alcoriza, one of the screenwriters of El Gran calavera and a frequent creative partner who would work with Buñuel on some of the director’s best-known and most-honored Mexican films, including El, La Ilusión viaja in tranvía, and El Ángel Exterminador. The film was shot in 18 days and released in Mexico City in November, 1950.
Attendance was so bad in fact that producer Dancigers withdrew the film after only three days. Critics and audiences were hostile to what they perceived as the film’s negative depiction of Mexico and Mexicans and its tough, uncompromising portrayal of Mexico City’s underclass. There were even calls to have Buñuel’s Mexican citizenship revoked.
By a stroke of good fortune, however, Los Olvidados was invited to the Cannes Film Festival, where Buñuel won the Palme d’Or for Best Director. Having garnered international acclaim, the film opened again in Mexico City, and this time it was a big success commercially and critically. It played six weeks in its theatrical run and won 11 of that year’s 18 Arieles (the Mexican film industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards), including those for Best Film, Director, Script, Sound, Production Design, Cinematography, and three acting awards (for Roberto Cobo, who played Jaibo; Alfonso Mejía, who played Pedro; and Stella Inda, who played Pedro’s mother).
Ultimately, Los Olvidados was so commercially and critically successful at home and abroad that it brought Buñuel back to the forefront of the world’s directors. Twenty years after Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, he demonstrated that he could still shock audiences, and did it in a most unusual way—by combining neorealism with his signature surrealistic style to present a stark, unsentimental view of Mexico’s urban poor.
 Quoted in John Baxter, Buñuel (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1998), p. 207.
 Somos, Edición Especial, Las 100 mejores películas del cine (Special Edition, The 100 Best Films), July 16, 1994 (Vol. 5, No. 100), pp. 12-13, 18-19, 20,34-35, 58, 62, 63, 101. The 100 Best Mexican Films can also be found at the Más de Cien Años de Cine Mexicano website: http://cinemexicano.mty.itesm.mx/pelicula1.html
 Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 143.
 Buñuel, My Last Sigh, pp. ; Buache, pp. 40-42; Acevedo-Muñoz, pp. 35-43; Baxter, pp. 149-157, 167-201; Barry Jordan and Mark Allinson, Spanish Cinema: A Student’s Guide (London: Hodder Arnold, 2005), pp. 83-86.
 Buñuel, My Last Sigh, p. 145.
 Mark Polizzotti, Los Olvidados (London: British Film Institute, 2006), p. 21.