A stunning Gabriel Figueroa-composed shot from "La Perla"

Berkeleyside recently received an email from reader Bruce Love: “John Seal’s pieces are, at least for me, pretty consistently great,” he wrote. “The Berkeley Public Library DVD collection is pretty darn decent,” he continued. “And, if you use it in combination with the ability to reserve stuff online, it’s downright terrific. A Seal guide to the BPL collection would be nifty.” Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal didn’t need much prompting. For review this week he has picked “La Perla”, available at the Berkeley Public Library.

The child of an Indian mother and a white father, Mexican director Emilio Fernandez was one of the least likely filmmakers of all time. Born in 1904, the man known as ‘El Indio’ dropped out of college in 1923, joined the revolutionary army of General Adolfo de la Huerta, and was sentenced to a 20-years prison term after the Huertista uprising was crushed by the government of Alvaro Obregon. Fernandez escaped and followed Huerta into exile in Hollywood, where he found work as an extra in the booming movie business.

After the declaration of a general amnesty in 1934, he returned to his homeland and immediately began using his Tinseltown experience in the fledgling Mexican film industry, first as an actor and later as a writer and director. Fernandez’ directorial career peaked in the mid ‘40s with Maria Candelaria (1944), Enamorada (1946), and La Perla (1947), his big screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella “The Pearl”, a story of indigenous Mexican life that was surely close to his heart.

Quino (Pedro Armendariz), Juana (Maria Elena Marques), and baby Juanito live in a village somewhere on the Mexican coast. Quino is a clam-diver by trade, but with diving rendered impossible because of bad weather, times are tough and money and food scarce. When a scorpion bites Juanito in his crib, Quino and Juana rush the child to town for help from the local doctor (Charles Rooner), but he’s disinclined to work pro bono and rejects the religious medallion Quino offers in lieu of payment. Though willing to arrange illegal abortions for the well-to-do, the doctor would rather stay in bed than help penniless Indians, and the door is slammed in their faces.

Next day Juanito is still alive, the seas are calm, and Quino is finally able to dive. Swimming to a particularly deep part of the seabed, he spies a pearl glinting within a clamshell and risks his life to extract it. Returning to the surface, he discovers he has found a pearl of enormous size, and it immediately becomes the talk of the village. The doctor takes a renewed interest in the baby’s welfare and Quino begins to imagine a bright future in which Juana has clothes and shoes and Juanito an education.

Things turn ugly, however, when the local pearl merchant (Alfonso Bedoya)—who also happens to be the doctor’s brother—offers Quino an insultingly low price for the pearl and then dispatches two heavies to steal it. The plot fails, one of the goons ends up dead, and Quino, Juana, and Juanita flee the village in the dead of night. Doggedly pursued by the merchant—as eager to get his hands on the pearl as he is to avenge the death of his henchman—the family head for the hills, where a tragic, final reel date with destiny awaits them.

Mexican-American actor Pedro Armendariz worked with Emilio Fernandez on more than a dozen occasions, but he’s best known for his performances in John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) and Dick Powell’s The Conqueror (1956). Like many Conqueror alumni irradiated during production by atomic fallout from the Nevada Test Site, Armendariz was prematurely stricken with cancer, and committed suicide in 1963 shortly after appearing in Terence Young’s From Russia With Love.

Maria Elena Marques rarely worked in Hollywood, but she did go on to essay the title role in the horror classic Curse of the Crying Woman (La Llorona), and Austrian immigrant Charles Rooner carved out a short but sweet career in Mexican cinema, including roles in significant films such as Dona Barbara and Las Abandonadas.

Strangest of all, gringo Richard Anderson made his film debut in La Perla, after which he embarked on an impressive film and television career, including five seasons as Oscar Goodman in The Six Million Dollar Man. Even after three viewings, I haven’t spotted him in La Perla, but he’s in there somewhere!

Director Fernandez co-wrote the screenplay with Jack Wagner, a Steinbeck chum who shared a best screenplay Oscar nomination with the author for 1945’s A Medal for Benny. Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa was another legendary figure of Mexican cinema, working with everyone from Luis Bunuel (El, Simon of the Desert) to Don Siegel (Two Mules for Sister Sara), whilst editor Gloria Schoemann ultimately cut over 200 films.

Beautifully shot in black and white, this forgotten classic of Mexican cinema is available on DVD from the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...