Copla Española – Sara Montiel

María Antonia Abad Fernández, whose stage name is Sara Montiel was born in Campo de Criptana in La Mancha in March 1928. Her parents were subsistence farmers scratching out a living in the land of Don Quijote.

From a very early age Sara stood out for her beauty and talent, both of which impressed Vicente Casanova, an influential producer and the owner of CIFESA film studios who saw her singing a saeta (an a capella religious song) during a Holy Week procession in Orihuela and arranged for her to have singing and elocution classes.

Sara’s first film was Te Quiero Para Mí, where she had a supporting role. But it was with Empezó Con Boda that she would use the stage name Sara Montiel for the first time. Her first important role was in the film Locura de Amor (1948), a successful film directed by Juan de Orduña and starring Aurora Bautista and Fernando Rey. Here is a very young Sara Montiel with Fernando Rey in a scene from the film.

This film was followed by Bambú (with Imperio Argentina and Fernando Fernán Gómez), La Mies Es Mucha, Pequeñeces and El Capitán Veneno (1951).
Her great beauty and talent would lead great success later, but in the Spanish film industry she was being typecast as a pretty face and she decided to broaden her horizons heading first for Mexico and then the United States, where she would wind up working in Hollywood.

She is considered one of the true legends of the Spanish language entertainment industry not only for her success as an actress and singer but also for her spectacular beauty. She is still an icon and cult figure, admired by people from all walks of life and has been an inspiration to generations of artists. She is one of the few surviving legends from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

Under the censorship of Franco’s dictatorship and the economic strictures of the time, Sara was the most daring, sensual performer around both for the costumes she wore and the way she sang. In her heyday in the 50’s and 60’s she starred in around 60 films, many of which were international hits. She was the first Spanish actress to triumph in Hollywood, where she worked with several of the leading stars of the time.

Pedro Almodóvar and Alaska are two, among many modern artists, who are self-confessed fans and have asked her to work with them.

Her time in Mexico

Thanks to the success of Locura de amor, Sara Montiel caught the eye of the most powerful Spanish language film industry in the world, the Mexico cine de Oro, and she would soon become one of the stars of the moment, alongside Dolores del Río, María Félix, Miroslava and Katy Jurado. She made more than a dozen films of which Cárcel de Mujeres (with Katy Jurado), Piel Canela, Furia Salvaje and Se Solicitan Modelos were the stand outs.

Here she is in the film Piel Canela:

Hollywood actress and stardom

She came to the attention of the US film industry, which was short of stars of Hispanic origin in the style of Rita Hayworth. Her performances in films such as Cárcel de Mujeres and Piel Canela opened the doors for her to enter Hollywood in 1954 as a new Gilda.

Sara Montiel – Vida Mía (1951)

Her first performance was in Robert Aldrich’s Veracruz, with the legendary Gary Cooper and other leading actors of the time such as Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Ernest Borgnine and a young Charles Bronson. She was presented to the US public in the opening credits of this, one of the best Westerns of all time, with the phrase: «and introducing Sarita Montiel». Although she didn’t have a leading role, she ended up upstaging the female lead, Denise Darcel, both for her beauty and because she was playing the good girl. In fact it was her and not Denise, that had the closing scene with Gary Cooper. Con Veracruz, Sara Montiel logró índices de popularidad que jamás había tenido una artista española.
Here she is in the opening scene of Veracruz:

According to several sources she was offered a standard seven year contract by Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn, but turned it down fearing that she would be typecast in Hispanic roles. As a result, she worked as a freelance actress for a number of studios and when the time came she would be free to return to Spain.

Her second film in the US was Serenade, a musical production designed as a vehicle for the tenor Mario Lanza, with Joan Fontaine and Vincent Price. In this film she also played the good girl, naive but courageous, opposite Joan Fontaine’s malevolent character. During shooting she met her first husband, the director of the film, Anthony Mann, as well as Elizabeth Taylor who was filming Giant with James Dean on a nearby set.

Her last film in Hollywood, this time for RKO Pictures, was Samuel Fuller’s Yuma with Rod Steiger. In Yuma, Sara played the role of a Sioux squaw who marries the leading man.
Sara, who in those days was known as Sarita Montiel, was well settled in Hollywood and had formed friendships with many leading players such as Marlon Brando and James Dean.
She had plans to shoot more films such as, The American and Burning Hills, one of them with Paul Newman, but fate had other plans for her career and she left Hollywood.

After a taking a holiday, back in Spain she filmed a low-budget film with the director Juan de Orduña, more out of friendship and gratitude for his earlier help than for money: El Último Cuplé (1957). Despite the modest resources, the film was an enormous hit at the box office, in no small part due to Sara’s musical numbers sung in a deep, husky voice, the antithesis of Raquel Meller and other Spanish stars of the day’s soprano singing style. Her interpretation of Fumando Espero and El Relicario would be remembered for generations.

Here is a clip of Fumando Espero from Spanish TV:

And here she sings El Relicario in the closing scene of the film.

El Último Cuplé was a milestone in Spanish cinema for its box office receipts, a record that stood for years, and made the Montiel one of the world’s highest grossing artists. As a result she signed signed a multimillion dollar contract for European productions (Spanish-French-Italian) that made her the best paid Spanish-speaking actress of the decade.
El Último Cuplé was followed by several successful productions with major European heartthrobs like La Violetera (with Raf Vallone)

Sara Montiel sings La Violetera

She also made Carmen La De Ronda (with Maurice Ronet). These films increased her appeal thanks to the musical numbers where she sang in her personal style and wore dresses that were designed to test the limits of the censors of the time.

Here she is in a scene from Carmen la de Ronda (1959)

Here are a few clips from the films that followed- Mi Último Tango (1960)

Pecado de Amor (1961)

La Bella Lola (1962)

La Reina del Chantecler (1962)

Noches de Casablanca (1963)

La Dama de Beirut (1965)

Varietés (1971) directed by Juan Antonio Bardem

She has had innumerable successes throughout her career, above all re-popularising Cuplé with her sensual singing style. She broke with the tradition of high pitched soprano singing imposed by Raquel Meller and other divas of the genre. She sang with a deeper voice and when filming El Último Cuplé had problems hitting the higher notes. She kept asking the pianist to “take it down a couple of tones”. “If I take it down any further, I’ll be ducking under the piano” was his reply.

Her last film, Cinco Almohadas para Una Noche (1973)no wasn’t as successful as its predecessors. Spanish cinema was going through the period of the destape (risqué pseudo erotic comedies). Sara Montiel decided to move away from this type of cinema and worked exclusively in the theatre, as other great stars had also done. Musical shows like Doña Sara de la Mancha demonstrated her unbelievable ability to make the audience fall in love with her, this time from the stage, which meant the public could enjoy seeing her live. Saritísima and Saritízate are two examples of the many shows Sara successfully staged.

Sara has received the Medalla de Oro al Mérito en el Trabajo from the Regional Government of Castilla-La Mancha, and the Medalla de Oro de la Academia de las Artes y las Ciencias Cinematográficas de España.
In 2011 she received a Star on the Paseo de la Fama in Madrid.

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