I’ve already written a full review of Jess Franco’s first film, Tenemos 18 Años (“We Are 18”, 1959). Tenemos 18 Años was a virtually plotless road movie; it followed two girls on a trip across Spain in an absurd yellow car. The girls are hoping for excitement, but all they get are car problems and road fatigue. So they begin to imagine picaresque adventures for each other, and these fantasy sequences — which blend uneasily in with reality as the movie progresses — form the main part of the film. Midway through the movie, the lead male actor (comedian Antonio Ozores, playing the character “Mariano” — an in-joke reference to Ozores’s brother, the director Mariano Ozores) has his own fantasy sequence that turns into a 15-minute horror film parody. This bizarre sequence is filmed in a completely different style from anything else in the movie, and quotes many of the familiar horror tropes that would become Franco’s stock-in-trade for most of the rest of his career.
Unruly, scattershot, chaotic, unconstrained by narrative… Tenemos 18 Años certainly was a far cry from the typical Spanish comedy of the time. Franco hoped the movie would come as a breath of fresh air, and would inspire both audiences and film-makers to start looking for new directions in their light entertainment. But there was a reason most Spanish comedies of that time were so conventional and repetitive: they were still heavily controlled by the government of that other Franco. By the mid-50’s, satirical films and parodies had started to appear, questioning the values presented by the state-approved españoladas and other cozy depictions of an isolated Spain; but a first feature from a brash young unknown was much more likely to attract the scrutiny of the censors than the work of established artists. With his very first film, Jess Franco found himself in trouble with the Authorities.
Tenemos… was kept from release by the state for two years. Ostensibly, this was because of a fantasy sequence involving escaped prisoners: one of the girls imagines falling in love with a convict and helping him evade the law, and this was considered unacceptable. In fact, there’s much more about Tenemos… that ran counter to the tenets of fascist entertainment: Tenemos… did not present a picture of Spanish youth, or of Spanish femininity, that conformed to the image the censors wanted to convey. Here we had two 18-year-old girls on their own — traveling freely, expressing themselves freely, exercising their imaginations, being thoroughly independent… neither madonnas to be worshiped nor whores to be redeemed; neither idealistically-depicted domestic figures, nor victims of that same repressive idealism. They were just a couple of girls, engaged in a free-spirited rite of passage that had only been imaginable, up to this point, as a journey for young Spanish men (Pavlović, Despotic Bodies and Transgressive Bodies, pp. 109-110).
It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened to Franco’s development if Tenemos… had been given a fair chance. As it stands, the trouble Franco ran into with a relatively harmless movie like Tenemos… only deepened his distrust of the Authorities, and paved the way for the truly transgressive films he’d make later on.
Aside from Antonio Ozores’s prophetic turn as the monstrous “Lord Marian”, this first film introduces one of the most important recurring elements in Franco’s career: the decision to place his story, however insubstantial, firmly in the hands of his female characters. Men in Franco’s films tend to think they’re the ones controlling the situation, and indeed Franco often encouraged his actors to believe this was the case. In fact, these men are usually helpless fools who can’t do anything without the women’s help. Franco never told his actors that this was his intent: he was afraid that if he told them they were supposed to be saps, they’d play their parts too broadly. Thus he encouraged them to think of themselves as typical movie leading men. In the context of a Franco film, this made them look like “incorruptible idiots” (Tohill & Tombs: Immoral Tales, p. 107).
Many of Franco’s later films would follow Tenemos… and center on two strong female protagonists. His very next film, Labios Rojos (“Red Lips”, 1960, also starring Tenemos…‘s Isana Medel, who was his girlfriend at the time), featured two young women who ran a private detective agency. At the request of a mysterious man named Kalman, the “Red Lips” detectives try to track down a jewel thief named Radeck. Neither the jewels nor the thieves turn out to be what they seem, and soon the girls are on the run, wrongly accused of murder…
Labios Rojos is, if not a lost film, at least an elusive one. I’ve never been able to track down a copy. Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco (Balbo/Blumenstock/Kessler) says the file “seems to have disappeared totally from circulation” (p. 37), and bases its own review on the photonovel that was derived from the movie. Nevertheless, the Red Lips girls returned many times throughout Franco’s filmography: Sadisterotica (aka Rote Lippen, 1967) is a sort-of remake of Labios Rojos, and that film was followed by a sequel, Bésame, Monstruo (Kiss Me, Monster) the same year. Les Emmerdeuses (“The Pains in the Ass”, 1974) was yet another reboot of the concept, with the lesbian subtext of the girl-girl partnership made explicit; while La Chica de los Labios Rojos (“The Girl with the Red Lips”, 1986) condensed the two girls into one, probably for budgetary reasons. The last appearance of the two female detectives came nearly 40 years after the first, with Seda Roja (Red Silk, 1999).
But the Red Lips girls aren’t the only recurring characters to be introduced in Labios Rojos. “Radeck” — a name taken from a Georges Simenon novel — went on to become one of Franco’s stock names for his villains, just as “Kalman” became shorthand for a character that was uninteresting in himself, but was still important to the plot. Franco recycled the name of the henchman, “Carlos Moroni”, as a generic henchman name several times in his early films, but discarded it before long.
Before Franco could get his directing career started in earnest, he still had some journeyman’s jobs to do. At the same time Franco was making his first two films, he also provided screenplays for a couple of films by León Klimovsky. When Klimovsky backed out of doing a musical, his producer Sergio Newman remembered Franco, and thought the energetic, imaginative young man would make a good replacement. That’s how Franco, the man who thought he was going to revolutionize Spanish comedy with Tenemos 18 Años, ended up making the safest, most conventional movie of his entire career: La Reina del Tabarín (“Queen of the Tabarin Club”, 1960).
La Reina del Tabarín was a Spanish/French co-production, with Newman sharing credit (at least on paper) with the legendary French producer Marius Lesoeur. It was intended as a vehicle for a rising star named Mikaela Wood, aka “Mikaela”. In spite of its Spanish setting, the story of La Reina del Tabarín is puerile Ruritanian comic-opera nonsense, about a poor-but-honest girl of the street who falls in love with a callow nobleman and gradually teaches him to love truly.
Now, in spite of its hackneyed, uninteresting plot, there are several reasons to pay attention to La Reina del Tabarín. First, most obviously, this was Jess Franco’s third feature film — out of nearly 200 — and as his least characteristic film, it’s noteworthy if only as a curiosity. Even in such a conventional film, there were still a couple of opportunities for Franco to express his own emerging style; there are several moments in the film, some only seconds long, that are recognizably Franco’s, and which probably would not have succeeded as well had they been left to Klimovsky.
But the main reason to study La Reina del Tabarín — its chief appeal to the Franco-ologist — is this: it’s La Reina… that introduces us to the Franco Version Problem.
Now, as a devotee of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, I am very familiar with Version Problems. But the catalog of Jess Franco is probably the ultimate example of the phenomenon. As if it wasn’t confusing enough that he frequently re-used his own scripts — sometimes for movies of completely different genres — his films often went through so many changes in post-production that it’s hard to tell if some versions should even be considered the same movie… or even be considered a Jess Franco movie at all. Sometimes Franco himself was responsible for the changes — for example, he shot a version of Erotic Rites of Frankenstein in which the actors were always clothed for distribution in conservative, pre-destape Spain, and an entire second version with much more nudity for distribution in the rest of Europe. But for the most part, the edits were likely to be done without either Franco’s knowledge or permission. For example, his first Marquis de Sade adaptation, Justine (1968), was heavily censored by its Anglo-American producers (AIP!); while A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971) was completely recut by Eurocine, first with extraneous softcore inserts… then with hardcore inserts… then, in the early 1980’s, with terrible zombie attack footage shot by Jean Rollin… before finally being edited out of all recognition and showing up on US home video as “Zombie 5”. So it went throughout Franco’s career.
And the troubles all start here.
I’ll explain by providing a synopsis of the Spanish version, which is the longest. The movie begins with credits displayed over footage of the streets and rooftops of Madrid. The background music is a collage of all the movie’s songs, in the manner of an operetta overture (This opening, too, has a sort of backhanded appeal for the Franco fan: at some point in his brief time at Film School, before he got thrown out, Franco must have heard one of his teachers explain that a good way to create visual interest in the frame is to include one of the many antique street lamps that feature in Spain’s urban architecture. Certainly in some of Franco’s later films, El Conde Dracula (1969) and Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1971), street lamps and hanging signs feature so often they deserve their own credits. Well, in the opening credits of La Reina del Tabarín, there’s a street lamp in nearly every shot).
The movie opens with a neat crane shot that gives us an overhead glimpse of our heroine, Lolita (Mikaela), singing and dancing for coins in the streets with the help of her uncle and brother. Lolita’s performance is blocking traffic; and it just so happens that one of the people stuck watching her is a theater manager, who’s very impressed by her voice and her beauty. He puts a generous contribution in her tambourine, and tells her to come see him about a job. Her uncle and her brother, who are tired of being poor and hungry, are thrilled… but Lolita insists she will never compromise herself by singing as somebody else’s servant.
Once they all get home, though, Lolita finds it difficult to maintain her defiant attitude. In spite of some bad comedy and a pretty good song — “La luna me engañó” — Lolita can no longer ignore her family’s hunger. So she goes to rent some decent clothes and audition for the theater manager. Of course, the show for which she’s auditioning, like the revue-within-the-musical in “Guys and Dolls”, is just awful… an intentionally-overdone example of the worst kind of amateur show. The club concièrge doesn’t want to let Lolita and her family in, thinking she’s a non-paying customer; but Lolita gets the attention of the management by singing such a fiery flamenco number that the producers can’t even hear the rehearsal any longer. Lolita starts her audition — but before she’s even begun, one of the producers gooses her. That’s enough for Lolita.
In the meantime, we’re introduced to Fernando (Yves Massard), who appears to be a harried commercial traveler saying farewell to his belovèd before going away on a long business trip. However, no sooner has he parted from one girl than he’s run into the arms of another — a harried commercial traveller, just returning to his belovèd from a long business trip. In fact, he’s not engaged to either girl, and he’s not a businessman: he’s a wealthy nobleman who serves in the Spanish diplomatic corps. He’s engaged to a young French heiress named Monique, the daughter of a diplomat… but until he’s actually married, he’s determined to play the field as aggressively as possible.
Sneaking away from Girl No. 2, he returns to his mother’s home just in time to join a costume party. He’s had a double planted in costume to give him an alibi for his wanderings, and he quickly exchanges clothing with him. Brushing off yet another young lady who’s recognized him as her sometime-boyfriend, Fernando rejoins Monique as though nothing had happened.
The sounds of the party carry out into the street, where a despondent Lolita and her family are dragging home their cart and barrel-organ. Realizing that these rich people must have more than enough food, and remembering her success fighting her way into the audition, Lolita climbs over the villa walls. Pretending to be part of the scheduled entertainment, she bursts into song. The partygoers are thrilled by her singing and dancing, and since it’s a costume party nobody thinks twice about her shabby clothes. Fernando’s mother rewards her for her performance by promising her a good meal.
On her way to the kitchen, Lolita bumps into Fernando, who’s bringing champagne for Monique. Lolita mistakes Fernando’s military costume for servant’s livery; Fernando, seizing his chance to get to know this pretty young girl, goes along with the misunderstanding. He tells her he’s “Rigoberto” (“Roberto” in the French version), the valet. Fernando/Rigoberto watches as Lolita unselfconsciously polishes off an entire chicken. He helps her carry food out to her cart, and promises to come see her with more groceries the next day.
Fernando tries all his usual pick-up lines with Lolita, but the streetwise girl sees through all of them. Fernando is horrified when he catches himself actually blurting out the truth about who he is and what he does — our first indication that he’s seriously falling for Lolita. As the two grow closer, he comes to see her when she performs at a local restaurant. Unfortunately, others in Fernando’s circle also go to this restaurant, and one of his peers catches sight of him and Lolita in mid-snog. Soon their affair is the subject of gossip all over town, and the news eventually reaches both Monique and Fernando’s mother.
The grande dame summons Lolita at once. The girl thinks she wants to hire her to entertain… but when she finds out Fernando’s true identity, she’s devastated. Fernando’s mother is amused that the girl had no idea who her son really was, but insists that this impropriety cannot be allowed to continue. Why (she chuckles), the very idea of a man in Fernando’s position being seen with a mere street singer! Lolita bristles: which of them is it, really, who has been behaving disgracefully all this time?
When Lolita confronts Fernando with his deception, Fernando assures her that whatever he meant to do at first, he has now genuinely fallen in love with her. He’ll give up his position, he says — he’ll cut the ties with his family, and he’ll break off his engagement with Monique — if only she’ll elope with him. He promises to return to her tomorrow, a free man; and Lolita, not fully believing him, shakes his hand sadly in parting.
In fact, what Fernando does next is look for the guy who betrayed him. Finding him drunk, he knocks him out and throws a glove in his face… challenging him to a duel. In the duel the next morning, Fernando deliberately fires his bullet into the trees. His “friend” does no such thing. Fernando is not killed, but is left grievously wounded. Naturally, he never shows up to run off with Lolita; and Lolita thinks he has abandoned her (which, really, he has). When an impresario from Paris hears her perform and offers to take her back to France with him, Lolita accepts.
In Paris, Lolita gets the full Pygmalion treatment from her impresario and his associate, Professor Picardi, who turn her from a coarse Spanish spitfire into a sophisticated Parisian chanteuse. She makes her début at the Club Tabarin as “Lola Miranda”, and quickly becomes a national sensation. Because of her artistry, she’s celebrated as a social equal by everybody-who’s-anybody. Back in Madrid, the convalescent Federico reads of her success. “Quickly!” he cries to his valet, “We must go to Paris…!”
And you can fill in the rest yourself.
Here’s where the fun begins: when La Reina was released in France, Eurocine’s Marius Lesoeur considered it his movie. To make this clear, he made some drastic changes to the film. First, he took most of the Spanish crew’s names out of the credits, which he also altered by removing the shots of Madrid. The French version opens with a backdrop of the Tabarin Club, advertising the performances of “Mariquita, la Belle du Tabarin”. One one hand, this alteration suggests that the important part of the film is the portion that takes place in Paris. On the other hand, the change suggests the producer never actually watched the film… since “Mariqita” is the name of a song Lolita sings at the club, not the name of the performer.
The next important change Lesoeur made was to cut out the entire first 15 minutes of the film. This meant a couple of songs were cut from the picture, but no matter: the French version even cut the references to those songs out of the music for the opening credits! Thus La Belle du Tabarin begins with Federico rather than Lolita.
This is a very big change, and one that affects the entire tone of the picture. The original Spanish version is Lolita’s story all the way through; in spite of the movie’s conventionality, this emphasis makes it thematically consistent with Franco’s later work, in which the female characters are almost always at the heart of the action. The French version has Lolita intrude unexpectedly into Fernando’s story — and considering Fernando is played by a French actor, we can perhaps see why. Whatever the reason, though, it’s a mistake. Fernando is a despicable cad at the beginning of the movie, and by the end, “happy ending” notwithstanding, he still seems like a despicable cad who doesn’t deserve a second chance (of course, the movie’s finale takes place on New Year’s Eve 1913-14; considering what the next year hold for everybody it’s not really much of a “happy ending”, in either version). His decision to provoke a duel, then deliberately lose the fight, suggests that he would rather die than be honest with the women in his life; and though Lolita’s male friends see his survival of the duel as proof of his masculinity and honor, in hindsight it looks like nothing of the sort.
Most tellingly, the French version changes the very last scene of the movie. In the Spanish original, Fernando and Lolita walk off into the breaking dawn, talking about how nice it will be to get the hell out of Paris and go back to beautiful, sunny Spain. In the background, we hear the energetic Spanish song “La luna me engañó”, from earlier in the film. Fin. But in the French version, the song has been cut out — just as it was cut from the first part of the film, along with the whole opening 15 minutes. It’s been replaced by a continuation of the sedate, romantic theater music from the scene before. The dialogue has also been removed: the lovers take their walk without saying a word to each other. There’s no mention of Spain at all.
So even as early as Jess Franco’s third film, producers were meddling with his work. Lesoeur managed to turn Franco’s movie, slight and uninteresting though it might have been, into something worse… without his knowledge or permission. Perhaps it was destiny.
Here are some other notable facts about La Reina…: To begin with, Franco gives classical music a ribbing. He presents it as stuffy and pretentious, and inferior to the “music of the streets” or even the music of the Club Tabarin. We get to see a few moments of a hilariously awful opera, shot in a broad comic style, which emphasizes all the stereotypes of Grand Opera (French opera, that is; not the Wagnerian type, which has stereotypes all its own)… The heroine cries, “No!” The villain sings back, “Yes! Ha! Ha! Ha!” The heroine cries, “No!” The villain sings back, “Yes! Ha! Ha! Ha!” And so on. It’s no wonder that Fernando and Monique walk out. Then, later on, Professor Picardi gives a soporific recital. In the French version, he introduces Beethoven’s 1808 “In Questa Tomba Oscura” by saying, “Now, my dear friends, I have the honor to present a new song…”
Thinking of music, the song “Amor, amor” — which is featured prominently in Franco’s The Awful Doctor Orlof, makes its first appearance in Franco’s work here… in the scene where Fernando challenges his “friend” to a duel.
Next, there’s the case of the actress Dora Doll, who’s credited with a Special Appearance in the film. She plays another singer at the Tabarin Club, who at one point sings “La Petite Tonkinoise” (made famous by Josephine Baker and later featured in Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1980)). Dora Doll had a fairly busy career in European cinema; but by the mid-eighties, she’d ended up making terrible movies for Lesoeur’s Eurocine studio with director Andrea Bianchi (Burial Ground). One of her movies for Bianchi, by most accounts her worst, was the Franco-scripted Mengele Commando (1986).
More significantly, La Reina… marked the first screen appearance of an actress who became very important to Franco’s development. Her name was Soledad Miranda, an astonishingly beautiful young woman who was one of the small army of actors and artists who hung out around Mikaela. Franco gave her a brief cameo as a French noblewoman in the audience at the club. The brief appearance helped her get her foot in the door of the industry; she continued to appear in a succession of minor roles and minor films until Franco had the opportunity to cast her as Lucy in his version of Dracula. From then on, he cast her in a succession of wild and sexy starring roles. She became his muse, his inspiration… and then she died at the height of her career, after a horrible car crash. Franco was devastated by the loss.
And finally, in spite of the generic nature of the movie, there are a handful of scenes in which Franco manages to create some real visual interest. One of these is the duel scene, for which Franco seems to have unleashed his inner Orson Welles. Part of the duel is filmed from underneath the doctor’s carriage, which at first seems like a pointlessly arty setup… until the final shot is fired; the horse starts, and the carriage shakes. Suddenly the reason for the odd framing becomes clear.
The other places where Franco’s camera seems to come alive are the several club scenes. All through his career, Franco never passed up an opportunity to put a some kind of stage show in his movies. Here, at least, the idea makes sense as part of the plot. He would never again have the chance to mount something so big… so elaborate… so eye-killingly colorful. It’s obvious why Newman wanted Franco to take over from Klimovsky: what works in La Reina del Tabarín works because Franco made it work.