Arts + Culture

Landmark Puerto Rican film thought lost, now restored

“Romance Tropical” to premiere Nov. 4 as part of a UCLA Film and Television Archive exhibition

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Romance Tropical
UCLA Film and Television Archive

“Romance Tropical” will be screened for the first time in more than 80 years on Nov. 4 at the Billy Wilder Theater.

In 1934, Puerto Rican film pioneer and Hollywood veteran Juan E. Viguié released “Romance Tropical,” the first sound feature produced on the island. The film was a huge success and in addition to screening at theaters throughout Puerto Rico, the film was also shown in New York City.

“Romance Tropical” immediately became a cultural touchstone for the island, not only because it was produced and directed by Viguié, but because many other notable Puerto Rican citizens worked on the project. The movie was based on the only film script ever written by Luis Palés Matos — one of the founders of Afro-Antillano poetry, which blends words from Afro-Caribbean culture with the Spanish verse of Puerto Rico — and also showcased the work of composer Rafael Muñoz, the island’s most famous big band leader.

But after its 1934 release, “Romance Tropical” disappeared. Although many people sought to locate the film, it seemed as if it had met the fate of so many movies from that era, relegated to a few photos, a poster and newspaper articles from its initial release.

Thankfully, “Romance Tropical” avoided that undignified end and will be screened for the first time in more than 80 years on Nov. 4 at the Billy Wilder Theater as part of UCLA Film and Television Archive’s ongoing exhibition, Recuerdos de un cine en español: Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960.

“The serendipitous rediscovery of ‘Romance Tropical’ is one of the major accomplishments of our present efforts to find and preserve classic Latin American cinema,” said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The story of the film’s resurrection begins in September 2016, when Horak was searching for material germane to the archive’s research project, Recuerdos de un cine en español: Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960, which celebrates the Spanish-language film culture of downtown Los Angeles.

While perusing an internal database, Horak noticed a promising film title, “Romance Tropical,” that seemed a perfect fit for the series, which is part of the Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

Horak followed up with colleagues in Puerto Rico in an effort to determine if the title in question was the same “Romance Tropical” from 1934, for which archivists in their country had been searching for more than 80 years. In February 2017, a representative of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, José Alfredo Hernández-Mayoral, traveled to Los Angeles to inspect the print and was overcome with emotion when he realized that it was indeed the long-lost film.

“Finally finding ‘Romance Tropical’ is a wonderful motivator as we make efforts to recover after the devastating passage of Hurricane Maria on our beautiful island,” said Carlos Ruiz Cortés, executive director, Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. “As we watch the film, we have the opportunity to see the Puerto Rico of the 1930s, and to be reminded that, as before and as always, Puerto Rico will rise.”

A single 35 mm nitrate print of “Romance Tropical” had screened in New York City in 1934 and then been placed in a vault belonging to the Krypton Corporation, the contents of which the Packard Humanities Institute acquired in 2008. Shortly thereafter, the institute added the material to its collection at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

“The original camera negative for ‘Romance Tropical’ remains missing. Due to the production’s inexperience with new sound technology, the surviving 35 mm print had significant inconsistencies in portions of the audio track,” Horak said.

The Packard Humanities Institute re-recorded the soundtrack and produced a new preservation negative and two new 35 mm prints. The institute will repatriate a print to the island when the Archivo de Imágenes en Movimiento has recovered from Hurricane Maria.

The newly restored Romance Tropical will premiere on Saturday, Nov. 4 as part of UCLA Film and Television Archive’s ongoing exhibition, Recuerdos de un cine en español: Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960. For decades beginning in the 1930s, a vibrant Spanish-speaking cinema culture thrived in downtown Los Angeles where venues such as the Teatro Eléctrico, the Azteca, the Mayan and the Million Dollar Theatre were home to popular movies from the golden age cinemas of Mexico, Argentina, Cuba and other Latin American countries. The archive’s 38-film retrospective runs through Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 at its theatrical home, the Billy Wilder Theater, and at the Downtown Independent, the former site of the Azteca.

Recuerdos de un cine en español is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, which began in September and runs through January 2018 at more than 70 cultural institutions across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty. The presenting sponsor is Bank of America.

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