Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Carmen Santos and the Starlight
Ana Maria Pessoa dos Santos

Last modified: 2010-05-12


For many poor women in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the early 20th century, the only work available was in factory sweat shops or big city department stores. A young, Portuguese immigrant, Maria do Carmo, managed to escape this fate when she responded to an advertisement in a magazine and was cast as the lead actress in a film called Urutau  (William Janssen, 1919) and became the motion picture star, Carmen Santos. Following her path, one can trace the trajectory of Brazilian film, headquartered in Rio de Janeiro, from the silent era to the creation of the industrial base of the sound film industry.

Despite receiving praise at special showings in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Urutau did not catch the attention of exhibitors. The producing company, Omega Filmes, folded and the only print of the film disappeared. However, at this time that Santos met Antonio Lartigau Seabra, a young businessman and member of a prominent Portuguese textile family. Nine years her senior, he had  received a modern European education and was devoted to horses, cars, and planes.  “Antonico,” as he was called, became the principle source of encouragement and financial support for the actress’s projects.

In the 1920’s, Santos was often featured in the pages of Brazil’s newspapers and magazines with stories about two controversial projects in which she was involved—motion picture adaptations of Julio Robert’s A Carne  and Benjamin Costallat’s Mlle. Cinema. Both novels were considered excessively lascivious by the era’s standards. Although filming didn’t go forward with either project, Santos remained in the public eye through news items accompanied by provocative photographs that showcased her beauty, a strategy that was unheard of for Brazilian actresses during this era. After a respite following the birth of her first child with Lartigau Seabra, Santos joined a group from Cataguases to star in another film directed by Mauro, Sangue Mineiro (1929). The experience inspired her to develop her own project, Lábios sem beijos, with Ademar Gonzaga. However, filming was inexplicably halted although it was eventually completed, but without her participation, under Mauro’s direction. After the birth of her second child in September 1930, Santos starred in Limite (1931), Mário Peixoto’s first film. They joined forces for another film, Onde a terra acaba, an ambitious project which was to be filmed on Marabaia Island. However, the project was interrupted due to a misunderstanding between the producer and the director. Unwilling to give up, Santos engaged the support of Ademar Gonzaga’s studio, Cinédia, hired Gabus Mendes to direct, and finished the film, which had already recieved significant publicity. It premiered in 1933 but was coolly received by the public.  However, this lack of success did not discourage her.  Planning for sound film’s new requirements,  Humberto Mauro and Santos founded Brasil Vox Filmes, which would later become Brasil Vita Filmes.  While waiting for the studio to be constructed, the company produced a number of silent short films. Unfortunately, there are no extant prints of these films.

Carmen Santos’ refused to conform to the role of the seductive muse, taking charge of her professional life by choosing her own projects, hiring her directors, and producing, starring in, and directing films. Unfortunately, a complete evaluation of her contribution to the development of the Brazilian film industry is prejudiced by the irreparable loss of most of her films: only Sangue Mineiro (1929), Limite (1931), and  Argila (1940) survive.

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