Tango In The Movies

By 02 April, 2012

The relation between tango and the movie industry in Argentina is much more complex than most people think. If you ask tango dancers about it, they will answer that they have seen Pablo Veron dance in Sally Potter’s movie The Tango Lesson and maybe a few will recall some other tango scenes in other contemporary movies. Or they remember having heard something about Rudolf Valentino and Carlos Gardel acting in tango movies. But there are many more links between tango and the movie industry. Especially in the thirties, forties and fifties, the relation between tango and the Argentine movie industry is omnipresent.

In the beginning

Only a year after launching in Paris in 1896, cinema arrived in Buenos Aires. This is not surprising, because many wealthy Argentines regularly travelled to Paris and brought back almost every kind of novelty they could find. The first import of French cameras took place in 1897 and a Frenchman, who lived in Buenos Aires, was to be the one of the first filmmakers and camera men in Argentina. His name was Eugene Py and together with Max Gluckman and Henry Lepage, they would dominate the early film industry for years to come. In 1900 the first movie theatres opened in Buenos Aires and showed regular news reports on everyday events.

In the period of the silent film (which lasted in Argentina till 1931) more than 200 films were shot. In 1907 the first fictional movie with professional actors was released (La Revolución De Mayo). In 1915 the first box office movie Nobleza Gaucha (see clip below) was produced; it cost 25.000 pesos and grossed half a million pesos in 6 months. The movie Nobleza Gaucha (1915) is loosely based on Jose Hernandez’s book Martin Fierro and the music is provided by Francisco Canaro.

In 1917 the first animated feature-length movie in the world, El Apóstol was released. It was a satire about Hipolito Yrigoyen, the recently elected president. Because the government did not like it, “the Buenos Aires town hall banned its exhibition at the end of June 1917, using the excuse that it was a caricature of the political situation, and threatened to close all the cinemas that disobeyed the order” (Finkielman, 2004). But quite often the subjects were not as political as this one and often Argentina’s history, literature and everyday life (like tango) provided the themes for film-making.

In 1917 Carlos Gardel made his (silent) movie debut in Flor de Durazno. Many films with Gardel were to follow in the thirties, both in Argentina, Paris and Hollywood. Toward the end of the twenties more and more movies started to feature tango dancing. In the silent era movies were often accompanied by small musical groups and orchestras. These groups and orchestras are generally referred to as the cinema orchestras. In Buenos Aires the cinema orchestras were often tango orchestras like Ciriaco Ortiz, Julio de Caro, Roberto Firpo, Pedro Maffia, Pedro Laurenz, Anselmo Aieta, Angel D’Agostino, Juan D’Arienzo, Elvino Vardaro, Osvaldo Pugliese and Francisco Lomuto.

As the new medium developed, the theatres became less interesting to the people of Buenos Aires. Many were remodelled as cinemas. In general this meant that a big projection screen was placed on the stage. The movies were not the main point of interest for the spectators; this role was reserved for the musicians who gave the images a more vivid ‘colour’. Most of the tango musicians earned their living (or at least a part of it) by accompanying silent movies. The stories in this period were often rather poor, but the musicians made it worth going. Fans of tango musicians followed their idols from one cinema to another. And even after the introduction of the sound movie, some tango musicians still accompanied the movies by performing in the breaks (a habit that remained popular well into the fifties, which is more than twenty years after the introduction of sound).

The cinema orchestras

The twenties are the golden years of the cinema orchestras. The term silent movie is misleading, since the silent movies were almost always accompanied by music. Roberto Di Chiari (Finkielman, 2004) wrote about this phenomenon: “The idea of accompanying films with music first appeared in bars and restaurants in Argentina when many of these establishments decided to install a screen in the back, and a projector next to the tables.”

The piano player provided the music, and for each scene he had a different theme: waltz for love scenes, milonga for emotional scenes and tango for dramatic scenes. Some (but certainly not all) movie companies provided scores for movies, but these scores were not always followed in detail. Musicians had quite a lot of freedom to improvise. Movies were first shown to musicians, who made notes on the different scenes and had a say in what kind of music might suit that scene.

This experience with a tango orchestra scoring a silent film would have been something similar to this:

Many musicians started their career accompanying silent movies. In 1917 Sebastian Piana started as a pianist in a cinema at Villa del Parque. He was 14 years old at that time. Piana was lucky that he was introduced by Jose Gonzalez Castillo (a friend of the family) to Carlos Marchal, who was in charge of all the cinema orchestras of Max Gluckmann’s theatres. Via this connection, Piana was promoted to harmonium player at the Cine Park theatre in Palermo. About playing in movie theatres Piana said: “I earned a certain standing as a player of that instrument, especially because of my harmonic intuition; that is to say: as not all the arrangements had parts for the harmonium, I was obliged to replace them with a clarinet, saxophone, trombone, or any other instrument part” (Finkielman, 2004).

Around 1923-24, piano players were replaced by real tango orchestras (orquesta tipicas). Apart from the piano, other, new instruments were included, such as harmonium, violin, bandoneon, saxophone and trombone. For tango musicians the cinema functioned as a school, where they learned to observe the audience, be musically flexible and improvise. Another consequence for the tango cinema orchestras was that many of them gained a recording contract with well known music labels, such as RCA Victor and Disco Nacional Argentina.

The introduction of sound

In 1931 the first Argentine sound movie was released. The incorporation of sound into movies caused a landslide. It completely changed the film industry. For the tango orchestra, which had provided music during the silent movie era, this was a devastating blow. Suddenly they were no longer needed. Luckily after some time, some of the tango bands from the silent era were given a chance to feature in the sound movies. (Sound also meant the end of the career of some movie actors / actresses, whose voices were unpleasant for the ears and hard to reproduce on film. For others it meant the start of a career.)

A history of Argentine cinema in the thirties is not complete without paying attention to Carlos Gardel. Although most of Gardel’s movies have been produced abroad, his influence on Argentine cinema of the thirties and forties is enormous. Apart from Flor de Durazno (1917) Gardel’s movies have been produced produced in France and the USA (New York and Hollywood).

After his first experience with silent movie in 1917, he had drifted away from the movies, since his tango singing career took off like a rocket in 1917. His interest in movies reawakened when the sound movie was introduced in the late twenties and early thirties. Al Jolson’s success with The Jazz Singer (produced by Alan Crosland in 1927) showed him what a movie could do for a singer. From 1930 on Gardel was more and more interested in singing in movies. The great majority of his movies date from the last three years of his life. Gardel’s movies were often vehicles for his singing and had poor story lines. His most influential movies are Luces de Buenos Aires (1931), El Tango en Broadway (1934, see clip below), Tango Bar and El Dia Que Me Quieras (both 1935). The scripts of the movies were provided by Alfredo Le Pera and the music was composed by Gardel himself, sometimes in combination with Geraldo Matos Rodriguez and Terig Tucci.


In Gardel’s movies often great actors / singers of those days co-starred: Sofia Bozán, Imperio Argentina, Rosita Moreno, Tito Lusiardo and (in the posthumously released The Big Broadcast of 1936) Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby. His movie career was suddenly halted with his tragic death in a plane crash in Medellin, Columbia. In the years before his death, Gardel did negotiate with Francisco Canaro about a joint venture in opening an Argentine film studio. This joint venture was never realised, which may have been fortunate for Gardel, since Canaro’s adventure in the movie industry was (in contrast with his other ventures) not very successful.

The Golden Age

At the end of the thirties and the beginning of the forties, the Argentine movie industry experienced a very successful period. In these years there were approximately five thousand people who worked in this industry, which produced about forty movies a year. In the forties a lot of things suddenly happened in Argentina and Argentine cinema: the second World War and a prospering economical situation in a politically unstable country. This was a strange and confusing period for Argentine cinema. On one side the industry was flourishing, but on the other side the shortage of virgin film (a consequence of Argentina’s neutrality during the second World War) and an increasing state intervention (such as censorship, blacklists and the discretionary distribution of virgin film) hindered the industry in a major way. After Perón came to power in 1944, censorship caused a decline in the movie industry. The United States movie industry profited from this decline and gained a foothold in the Argentine market.

In 1957 the government passed the Cinema Act to protect the Argentine movie industry. The Instituto Nacional de Cinematografía was founded to execute this law. In the early fifties television appeared in Argentina, which was also a competitor to the movie industry. Late in the fifties a new generation of film directors appeared on the scene, who succeeded in combining technical ability with aesthetic refinement. This generation, which is called “new cinema”, produced many films which won prizes at international film festivals. In the fifties and sixties tango hardly (if at all) played a role in Argentine movies. It is only after the fall of the junta that tango receives a little bit more attention in Argentine movies. But if you compare it with the thirties and early forties, the attention is negligible.

Comedy and underground

In 1963 comedy films started to feature prominently and a few years later even sex comedies flooded the market. From the mid-seventies movies were censored again and movie makers limited themselves to light-hearted subjects, and in doing so avoiding any risk at all. In the late sixties an interest in underground cinema began to grow. Provocative, anti-militaristic and innovative movies were made, but had to be exhibited clandestinely. In the sixties also a new school in cinematography appeared on the scene: Fernando Biri created the school of documentary cinema. With Tiré Dié and Los Inundados, he successfully mixed realistic social charges with provincial humour.

The junta and the dirty war

The junta had an enormous effect on the film industry. In their attempt to root out any form of subversion, socio-political criticism was not tolerated. The junta censored the movie industry relentlessly. The movies produced during the junta were ‘neutral’; all that could be interpreted as hostile to the junta was avoided. After a few years, the junta decided to loosen the censorship, which led to muckraking cinema, which dealt with subjects such as corruption and the like. When the government, after the junta had been overthrown in 1983, put an end to the censoring of movies, the atmosphere in which films could be produced became healthy. After the fall of the junta movies with a serious undertone became more dominant. The Dirty War, disappearances but also movies about exiles, who experienced nostalgia for Argentina, were popular subjects in the post junta era. Another effect of the Dirty War was that it caused many musicians to flee to Paris and other places, and so causing a tango renaissance in Paris. The tango show Tango Argentino was a worldwide success and caused a global interest in tango. This led to a series of movies (mostly from the nineties up until present times) in which tango dancing or the tango milieu was either used as a background for the story line or used as the main subject of the movie.

Modern times

In 1989 the economic crisis in Argentina hindered the post junta cinema severely. Tango movies from Hollywood gave a stimulus to Argentine movie industry. Movies like Carlos Saura’s Tango (1998), Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1998, see clip below), Adam Boucher’s Tango, the Obsession (1998), Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman (1992), James Cameron’s True Lies (1992), Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango (2003) are some examples of movies in which tango played a role. In 1995 the government again passed another law to stimulate Argentine film industry, as television and videos were forced to contribute financially to Argentine movies. The nineties can be characterized as a period in which independent productions focused on new cinema, with a shifting focus for the contemporary social problems, which haunted Argentina for decennia.


Benedetti, The movies of Canaro, todotango.com.
Collier (1986), The life, music and times of Carlos Gardel, Pittsburg: UPP.
Finkielman (2004), The film industry in Argentina. An illustrated cultural history, London: MacFarland & Company Inc.
Sebastian & Labrana (1990), De geschiedenis van de tango, Breda: De Geus.
Thompson (2005), Tango. The Art history of love, New York: Vintage Books.

Article originally published in Rodos Tango

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