Spotlight: Gloria Schoemann
Photo: Cineteca Nacional
I would say, look, you’re the ones in charge, the director and producer. In the end I have to do whatever you want, but I feel it is my obligation as editor to give you my point of view and I will refute and refute until you make a decision.
A woman is shunned by her community. We don’t know why. A tragedy has been announced, but the information is revealed drop by drop, creating a mystery. Who is this María Candelaria, the character whose name is in the title of the first Latin American film to ever receive the Grand Prize (now known as the Palm d’Or) at the Cannes Film Festival? Who is this woman that we see suffering for unknown reasons in this masterpiece of the Mexican Golden Age?
In the first minutes of María Candelaria (Emilio Fernández, 1944) the answer is not given straight away; instead, the tension mounts as we watch this character, portrayed by the legendary Dolores del Rio, dare to break her socially-mandated seclusion. She sets off on her boat to sell flowers in the idyllic canals of Xochimilco, paddling through the water, bright and optimistic. She knows she might encounter danger, but she hopes for the best, singing a song that catches the attention of the townspeople.
The reactions are immediate, the urgency to stop her is felt in the quick cuts of men and women springing into action, some even getting tools or weapons to underline the threat, cuts that seem more suitable for a different kind of narrative, perhaps a film about a town under siege, a community getting ready to rush into battle and fight off a common enemy. The images and juxtapositions are in this sense familiar, only in this story the imminent danger is symbolic: an innocent woman they feel will bring them shame, sullied by the sins she carries in her blood.
The black and white images in this sequence are inarguably beautiful, a prime example of the masterful lens of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, but the powerful effect of mystery and tension is not achieved solely through them, but, of course, through editing.
María Candelaria is Gloria Schoemann’s fourth editing credit in a long and fruitful career built within a very male-dominated industry, and the first of many collaborations with director Emilio Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa — both renowned figures whose work has been widely discussed and written about in the canon of world cinema and criticism. Schoemann, the invisible woman spotlighted in this article, is one of the few highly influential women in the Mexican Golden Age of Cinema. An era marked by popular and critical success, both in Mexico and abroad, and which created powerful imagery that to this day is imbedded into our national identity.
Throughout her career, Gloria Schoemann edited 230 films, spanning from 1942 to 1983 —over forty years dedicated to the art of story-telling, an impressive number in and of itself, but even more so considering that some of those films have since become canonical classics. I wanted to write this piece to highlight Schoemann’s contribution in these films, as well as to invite new audiences to consider her role as one of the most prolific editors of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (1936 - 1956). If editing in many ways is rewriting, were the films that we regard as “masterpieces” by the undisputed auteurs of our film history, in any way rewritten by this one woman? When we study this period, are we also watching Schoemann’s imprint?
The Mexican Golden Age is known for its themes, one of which, is the “prostibulary melodrama” a term I learned from film historian and expert on Mexican cinema Susana López Aranda: tragic stories about women who are forced into sex work, abandoned and vexed by abusive partners or tricked into “losing their virtue” by men who they think love them back or mean them no harm. In most of these films, the female protagonist dies, either as a martyr — wrongfully accused of a crime of the flesh she didn’t commit — or as punishment for being too naïve and desirable. María Candelaria is one of these films. And although throughout the story the character remains “pure” — the innocent victim of prejudices and superstitions — her ending is tragic, dying stoned after the townspeople grow convinced that she posed nude for a painting that an artist completes with a different model.
The editing of this climactic sequence reprises the devices of the first — a similar montage of danger and tension, again showing single members of the community, a synecdoche composed of multiple shots that gradually escalate: one torch cuts to two, then three disembodied flames running towards the heroine’s destruction, to then reveal a mob — an army — of villagers on the hunt.
As Schoemann explains herself in an episode of Memorias del Cine Mexicano, a series of interviews with the “protagonists of Mexican cinema between 1940 and 1970 by Alejandro Pelayo” available on FilminLatino, María Candelaria was one of the first films that sparked the era of “quality films” produced by Films Mundiales, the production company in which she started her career. There, she worked with some of the most renowned directors of the time, including Emilio Fernández and Julio Bracho, director of Another Dawn (Distinto Amanecer, 1943), her first editor credit after a three-year apprenticeship and assistant editor position at the company, and Luis Buñuel, among many, many others.
It is hard, of course, to know how much input an editor has in the final film. In the interview, Gloria Schoemann speaks about her process, emphasising how vocal she was, even as an assistant, always aware of the intricacies of editing in shaping the story and emotional journey of the characters: “I would say, look, you’re the ones in charge, the director and producer. In the end I have to do whatever you want, but I feel it is my obligation as editor to give you my point of view and I will refute and refute until you make a decision.”
One brilliant example of this is the climatic hunt sequence in La Perla (The Pearl, 1947), another of the triad’s incredibly successful collaborations. In the interview she describes how the representative of the American co-producers asked if she would mind if he re-cut the scene with her assistant. “I don’t mind if you do another version”, she retorted, “but mine stays the way that it is; then we can watch both and decide which one works best.” In the interview she clarifies that she didn’t know what his approach to the sequence would be, so she was keen to watch it and open to be proven wrong. “There was so much footage”, she says, “that it could have been cut in three or four completely different ways.” And so, they went into the projection room and watched both. “I had the satisfaction that, at least in my opinion, my version was better.” And they all agreed. “It was an immense triumph”, she says.
The hunt-for-the-pearl sequence is indeed a great instance of editing. The characters involved in the scene are all apart from each other, going in different directions, deeper and deeper into a mangrove, a natural labyrinth in which audience and characters are equally lost. Three groups — the protagonists (man, woman and baby) and two sets of antagonists (a doctor and a dog, and a trader and two trackers) follow each other’s steps. It is key that the audience can feel the tension of the chase, so even though the characters should feel lost, the viewers should be able to tell how close or far they are from being caught at every stage.
There are only a few shots in which we can see the characters in the same space, making the distance between them readable, but the cuts emphasise specific elements that build the tension: the baby, whose cries might reveal their hiding place; the trader’s gun; and the dog sniffing and leading the doctor.
Even though Schoemann remembers La Perla fondly as one of the highlights of her career. She also points out that she was snubbed from the local awards because “they thought that because there was too much footage the editing didn’t have much merit”, although she was shortlisted for the Academy Awards that year, which was “a big deal”, she says.
The road was never easy for Schoemann. As one of the few women working at this level in the industry – other exceptions include director Matilde Landeta, with whom she worked as well — she had to face constant discrimination. When she started out, it was suggested that she take the role of script supervisor because it was more suitable for women “but I was not interested in paying attention to clothes and continuity”, she says in the interview. Her dedication made her quickly stand out, and she got promoted without even asking for it. However, even with huge credits under her belt and three awards for editing in a row, she was still shunned by her peers “the editor’s board voted to never allow another woman to join; editing was not the right job for a woman,” she can’t help but smirk at the absurdity. “Everywhere in the world, women are often the best editors,” she says.
It is simply impossible to even begin to do justice to the work of a lifetime of a woman who in her own words barely left the editing room to take a shower and come back, often working all night long to be “left alone to focus”; an editor who always held her ground, always putting the film and story first. Perhaps a whole book wouldn’t be enough to discuss in depth the sleek cuts and fades of Julio Bracho’s noir Distinto Amanecer, the impeccable comedic timing in Enamorada (Emilio Fernández, 1946) the contagious rhythm in the exuberant dance and music sequences of Salón México (Emilio Fernández, 1949), the tragic intimacy of the cuts in Inmaculada (Julio Bracho, 1950), the overwhelming revolutionary passion in La negra Angustias (Matilde Landeta, 1950, unsurprisingly the least well-preserved of them all) among many other instances of Schoemann’s work.
In 1970, Schoemann’s career abruptly ground to a halt. When Luis Echeverría was elected president, she suddenly stopped getting films to cut. They were all given to a new editor that had just been promoted. “One day,” she says “because I had an amicable relationship with Rodolfo [Landa, Echeverría's brother], I went to see him and said: ‘I’ve come to see if you can give me a job as a secretary, typist or anything you’ve got’.” He was shocked to hear that, ever since his brother had been appointed president, the one and only Gloria Schoemann had not been hired to edit a film. He then sent for the new head of the studios and asked if he knew why she had been shut out. When he said he didn’t know her, she was promptly introduced: “She is the editor, the only [woman] editor and the best”, he said. As she tells this anecdote in the interview, she can’t help but laugh: “Well, that’s because I’m the only one, there’s no one else, so I can only be the best”.
These words can be interpreted in two ways, depending on how we edit them. Perhaps what she meant is that being the only woman necessarily implies that she is also the best — no other woman can be better than her, because there literally isn’t one. But there’s another reading, one that I personally like more: because she is a woman, she also has to be the overall best editor out there, in the whole industry. Because, being a woman who is “not right for the job”, there is no other way she could have had the career she had, worked with the best directors, actors and cinematographers, if she hadn’t also been the best. And it is important that we remember her legacy and influence when we talk about the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema
Words by Hipatia Argüero Mendoza
De putas y madres. La mujer y el melodrama prostibulario en México. Susana López Aranda. Cuadrivio.