A long tradition in Spanish cinema of films centers around children. Although there are young stars elsewhere and in some cases Spanish equivalents are reflections of other traditions (the Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney phenomena or the neorealist boy), on looking at Iberian tradition, it is surprising how frequently children are used as protagonists for films with mature content. Historically, there are two distinct traditions. The first one uses the child, normally an orphan, as a spectacular object in comedy, melodrama or, most often, in musicals. It has its golden period in the 1950s and 1960s. The most prominent instance of the second approach is El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, Víctor Erice, 1973), which uses the child as a witness and as an anchor for audience identification. It remains active today.
   The earliest instances of the use of children in Spanish film entertainment were plain imitations of Hollywood models. Alexia Ventura was the first Spanish child star, from 1915, and in the next decade, we find short cycles of films built around personalities like Alfredo Hurtado (known as Pitusín), Antoñito Cabero, Luisita Gargallo, and Avelita Ruiz, among others. Many of the films in which they participated were shamelessly popular and made use of a certain repertoire of gestures.
   From the late 1940s, children begin to appear increasingly in realistic films. Indeed, their new prominence is related to the role of children in canonical neorealist films like Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine. The most popular child star of the mid-1950s was Pablito Calvo, chosen by Ladislao Vajda to be the orphan protagonist of the huge box-office hit Marcelino pan y vino (Marcelino Bread and Wine, Ladislao Vajda, 1955), who engaged in moving conversations with a wooden image of Christ on the cross in the attic of a monastery. Audiences loved his spontaneity, soulful eyes, and his uncanny ability to cry and provoke tears. He continued his collaboration with Vajda in two further films with decreasing success, Mi tío Jacinto (Uncle Jacinto, 1956), a film inspired by Bicycle Thieves, and Un ángel pasó por Brooklyn (An Angel Passed Over Brooklyn, 1957), before moving on to work in the Italian film industry.
   Child protagonists were often orphans who enlightened the lives of adults who were, in turn, parental figures for them. One of the problems with this particular kind of child actor is that, no matter how they may triumph as representations of childhood innocence, their period of glory is bound to be short-lived; this happened with Calvo, who was never really accepted in teenage roles. On the other hand, the tradition almost demands replacements that may become popular for two or three films. Other instances of child actors in the period were Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (Un traje blanco, [ A White Suit ] Rafael Gil, 1956), Miguelito Gil (Recluta con niño, [ Private with Child ], P.L. Ramírez, 1955), and Javier Asín (María, matrícula de Bilbao, [ Maria, Registration Number from Bilbao ], Ladislao Vajda, 1960).
   In the late 1950s, the tradition was pushed to its next logical step: If child actors were spectacular objects, why not have them perform in blatantly spectacular fashion. A series of films from that moment on were structured around the discovery and rise to fame of child singing stars. Joselito was the first child mega-star in Spanish musicals. He debuted on film at 13 (although it was claimed at the time he was only nine) in a film called El pequeño ruiseñor (The Little Nightingale, 1956), and his career lasted about 10 years, with increasingly ridiculous efforts to put him in pre-adolescent roles. Similarly, when Marisol was discovered by Luis Lucia in 1960 in Un rayo de luz (A Ray of Light), she was already 12, and later she commented on how painful it was for her to pretend she was an innocent little girl well into her teens. Other instances of singing children are Maleni Castro, Isabel Rincón and, toward the end of the period, Ana Belén, who starred in Zampo y yo (Zampo and Me, Luis Lucia, 1965). In most of these films, we see the orphan figure who plays it light and comic at the beginning and tearful in the last reel, with the added feature of a triumph in show business as a singer. The last important exponent of this kind of star child was blue-eyed, curly-haired Lolo García, who debuted with great success at four with La guerra de papá (Dad's War, Antonio Mercero, 1977), then vanished after starring in two more films that were box-office flops.
   In 1973, Spanish cinema was in crisis and old formulas seemed to lose strength. The child performer cycle had also become tiresome. Still, a new impulse would keep children at the center of narratives. Víctor Erice's El espíritu de la colmena was to have focused on the Fernando Fernán Gómez and Teresa Gimpera characters. But shooting conflicts and Erice's inability to follow a schedule meant that shooting their scenes had to be accomplished in a very brief period. What was going to be a parallel strand in the film, the story of little Ana, became the central strand, and the narrative formula was soon reiterated in the following decades: a number of important films (starting with Jaime de Armiñán's El amor del capitán Brando [ The Great Love of Captain Brando ], 1974, and Carlos Saura's Cria cuervos [ Raise Ravens ], 1976) were built around a young protagonist who would be used to guide the audiences into the secret and darker areas of Spanish history. The most prominent examples after the mid-1970s were El sur (South, Víctor Erice, 1983), Los motivos de Berta (Berta's Reasons, José Luis Guerín, 1985), and El año de las luces (The Year of Enlightenment, Fernando Trueba, 1986). By the 1980s, the tradition seemed to have lost strength, but in the 1997, Montxo Armendáriz's Secretos del corazón (Secrets of the Heart, 1997) revived this thematic core as fertile ground for narrative, and we find another wave of child-as-witness films including La lengua de las mariposas (Butterfly Tongue, José Luis Cuerda, 1999) and Vida y color (Life and Color, Santiago Tabernero, 2005).

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.

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