The Great Madcap

Before Luis Buñuel was the great surrealist master that released some of the most provocative and fiercely intellectual films of the 60s and 70s, he was a struggling director attempting to recover from the fallout of L’age d’or’s controversy. With the exception of a short documentary and two co-directing jobs, Buñuel didn’t get behind the camera at all between L’age d’or in 1930 and Gran Casino in 1947. The Great Madcap followed two years later, and both were films that found Buñuel playing the part of the professional director rather than the artistic provocateur. Much of that is likely due to the fact he didn’t have a hand in writing them. Madcap could also be considered the “proper” comeback considering Gran Casino was a semi-musical.

Even if the Madcap lacks Buñuel’s cynical, surrealistic tinged writing, it does still focus on one of his favorite subjects of the lazy bourgeoisie. It stars Fernando Soler as Ramiro, a wealthy businessman who has taken to ignoring his work in favor of getting drunk after his wife’s death. Rosario Granados and Gustavo Rojo play Ramiro’s daughter, Virginia, and son, Eduardo respectively. Both are selfish, with Virginia mostly concerned with her impending marriage to Alfredo (Luis Alcoriza) and Eduardo requesting his father buy him a luxury car after he crashed his old one. Ramiro’s lazy brother, Ladislao, and hypochondriac sister-in-law, Milagros are no better. Eventually, Ramiro’s brother, Gregorio (Francisco Jambrina) steps in with a plan to convince Ramiro he’s lost everything and is now poor, but when Ramiro learns the truth, he turns the tables on his scheming family.

Ostensibly, The Great Madcap is in the mode of the classic screwball comedies, but without the slapstick elements. The nature of who knows what and who’s planning what against whom is ever twisting and turning, rarely settling into a groove long enough to let an entire plan play out. The film is divided almost too neatly into a 3-act structure where the first 30 minutes is devoted to Ramiro’s (and his family’s) life of indulgent debauchery, the second third is devoted to their descent to the lower, working classes, with the final third involving their convoluted return to “normalcy”. The second barely gets started before Ramiro learns the truth from Pablo, a young but poor worker who saves his life when he attempts to commit suicide after “discovering” his way of life had brought such ruin to his family.

When the tables turn, Ramiro decides that the change is a good one, and decides to force his family to stay and work for their living. Ladislao especially doesn’t take kindly to this as he has no interest in carpentry, even though that’s become his new job. But one gets the feeling that Buñuel couldn’t put his heart and soul into the concept of lower-class nobility. Buñuel was always too egalitarian in his scathing cynicism, ruthlessly portraying all the classes (and religions) as equally noxious in their own ways. No, Buñuel’s energy seems more invested in the first half when he can orchestrate Ramiro’s drunken chaos and the affect it has on those around him. It’s here where Buñuel’s Renoir-like humanism is at its most wickedly funny, vigorous, and insightful. The scene where a drunken Ramiro comes home to his daughter’s pre-wedding party is undoubtedly the most electric in the film.

But whatever explosiveness the first act contains is dissipated in the second or third where Buñuel can’t help but reluctantly disintegrate into a clichéd morality tale where the whole family learns their lesson about being snobby, selfish, and lazy good-for-nothings. About the only thing worth watching from the second act onward is those twists and turns, but even they seem too arbitrarily rendered, and the plot gets too muddied for its own good. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there is a real lack of development from the second act onward. Any sense of progression is replaced by nonsensical change. Especially bad is the fact that we’re never convinced of WHY these people change. Ladislao, for instance, develops a passion for carpentry, but the change comes out of nowhere, and seems badly tacked on.

If the structural problems are a detriment, the cast is a saving grace. Fernando Soler is particularly outstanding in the lead, and he manages to smooth over the awkward transition his character makes from an obnoxious drunk to a man concerned with the moral fiber of his family. Andrés Soler is another highlight as the cantankerous and snide Ladislao. Strangely, the character of Miligros isn’t listed on IMDb, but Maruja Grifell seems a likely candidate, and she provides a worthy partner for Ladislao. Buñuel’s direction certainly hasn’t developed to the dynamic, elegantly sparse style that would dominate his later films, but one can still be bits of the old master seeping through, especially in his use of soft focus, such as when Ramiro first wakes up in the lower-class tenements.

Perhaps more than the wonky structure, the fact that the film seems so rote by Buñuel’s standards is the biggest detriment. There’s so little of the idiosyncratic personality that made him great, and the film, divested of that talent, is too much of a paint-by-the-numbers comedy that shows its age more than it should. There are still many things to enjoy here and, indeed, as one critical blurb said, this may be the most accessible film Buñuel ever made. I suspect that I (and others) would be more accepting of the film if we didn’t know who was behind the camera, because it’s not so much bad as it is ordinary. This is “light” filmmaking by any standards, but it’s a shame that it’s as light on entertainment as it is on substance.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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