The mounting extremism of right-wing politics in Europe and the beginning of the Spanish Civil War of 1936 forced Luis Buñuel into artistic exile. Working for Paramount’s foreign branch in Paris and Warner Bros. in Spain, a disenchanted Buñuel would eventually land a minor stint as a documentary director for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. After Land Without Bread, the director would not make another film until 1947’s Gran Casino (adapted from Michael Weber’s novel El Rugido del Paraíso), his first of nine collaborations with producer Oscar Dancigers. Sympathetic to Buñuel’s political difficulties, Dancigers invited the director to come work with him in Mexico. Gran Casino was a song n’ dance gangster flick ripe with the kind of B-movie sensibility then popular in Mexican cinema. Though deemed a financial disappointment, Gran Casino is a fitting introduction to Buñuel’s more cynical Mexican films. Indeed, it’s telling that the film takes place in Tampico before the nationalization of the town’s oil industry: the film’s alternate Mexican title En el Viejo Tampico (In the Old Tampico) evokes the glory of a fairy-tale kingdom just as The Great Madcap (El Gran Calvavera) heralds Buñuel’s role as Mexico’s big bad wolf (the anti-Cantinflas).
Ever the foot fetishist, Buñuel opens The Great Madcap with a fragmented shot of intertwined legs and feet. Huddled in the corner of a jail cell with a group of fellow prisoners, Ramiro (Fernando Soler) claims that he was trying to scratch an itch when he mistakenly reached for another man’s leg. Having taken to the bottle after his wife’s death, the once sensible Ramiro is now headed for ruination: his servants and employees are lazy and his family constantly pesters him for money. More or less oblivious to this parasitic behavior, Ramiro is led to believe that he’s lost all his money when he awakens somewhere in the slums of Mexico City. His brother Gregorio aims to teach Ramiro a lesson though The Great Madcap becomes less a reaction to emotional naïveté than it is an affront to economic complacency. The family willingly infiltrates peasant culture fearing that Ramiro will no longer be able to cater to their luxuriant needs. Soon after Ramiro awakens in his new home (Buñuel, again, stays on Soler’s feet, perhaps because it is the “lowest” point on the human body), his hypochondriac sister-in-law bemoans her inability to buy a pair of stockings. She’d rather die than live what she explicitly calls a “terrible reality.” Though it’s arguably Buñuel’s most accessible film, The Great Madcap confronts a moral dilemma ever-present in Buñuel’s work: that money paves the road for callousness and misguided complacency.
Ramiro is Buñuel’s most sympathetic rich man in that he’s humble despite the size of his wallet. His initial reaction to his faux impoverishment (“How silly, I thought I had awakened.”) is less an indication of his smugness than a straightforward response to a seemingly illogical rhetorical shift. Shamed by the poverty he believes his drunkard ways have brought to his family, Ramiro attempts to throw himself from his apartment’s rooftop only to be saved by his neighbor Pablo (Ruebén Rojo). “No, you’ll only break your legs,” says the young stocking salesman, successfully convincing Ramiro that the only thing worse than death is seeing a man in a wheelchair. Ramiro soon learns of his brother Gregorio’s plan and decides to teach his family a lesson by convincing them that he has indeed lost his fortune. Ramiro’s brother Ladislao sees only dust and shadow (“Pulvis et umbra sumas”) though it’s not long before the whole family must choke on humility. Ramiro’s daughter Virginia is loved by ex-beau Alfredo because of her father’s money but is hated by Pablo because of it. It’s a deceptively simple story built on multiple layers of deceit. Ever the humanist, Buñuel complicates matters when Pablo sees insult in rich men using his impoverishment as a moral litmus test. In the end, though, he too must swallow his humility and an unusually optimistic Buñuel suggests that love conquers all.