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Was Hollywood’s first “talkie” in Spanish?

Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, from 1927, has always been credited as being the first motion picture “talkie”. But a little-known reel released four years earlier starring Spanish singer Concha Piquer may well rewrite film history.


Concha Piquer: copla star and possibly a 20th century movie pioneer.

Twenty years ago this month, Spain’s “first cinematographic actress” died in Madrid. Concha Piquer was 84, and her funeral brought Gran Vía to a standstill as thousands of admirers and curious madrileños converged on Madrid’s famous boulevard to pay their respects while her body was carried to its final resting place. Now, this copla singer, much loved in her native country and in parts of Latin America but little known outside the Spanish-speaking world, may be heading for her biggest role yet in Hollywood culture.

María de la Concepción Piquer López was born in 1906 (although some sources list 1908) in Valencia. She was discovered by the Spanish composer Manuel Penella Moreno, who was preparing to stage an opera in New York, El gato montés. It was the early 1920s, when dozens of young European actresses, already famous in their own countries’ budding movie industries, migrated to Hollywood with the hope of making it big.  And many succeeded: Sweden’s Greta Garbo, Poland’s Pola Negri, Hungary’s Vilma Banky and France’s Renée Adorée, to name just a few.

Arriving in 1922, Concha Piquer performed with many popular American vaudeville stars of that day including Eddie Cantor, Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, and also with Al Jolson. During this time, the inventor Lee De Forest was filming vaudeville acts with sound by using a new process he had developed called Phonofilm. Some of his early film clips include an early speech by President Calvin Coolidge and scenes from the 1924 Democratic Party convention. It took many years, a lot of money and many failures to marry sound and image. But because of its weak audio quality, Phonofilm eventually lost out in Hollywood to rival and more successful sound film formats such as Vitaphone and Movietone.

In 1923, De Forest filmed a young Piquer for a short called Far from Seville. The movie had been lost for many years until Spanish broadcaster RTVE announced that it had found a copy at a special collection housed at the  Library of Congress in Washington DC.

“Not only is this the first Spanish sound film, but it was made four years before what many considered to be the first official one (in any language),” Agustín Tena, who wrote the RTVE documentary Conchita Piquer and discovered the reel, told Efe News Agency. Valencia’s Film Institute (La Filmoteca Valenciana) has already begun research into the short, in which a teenage Piquer sings, for 11 minutes, an Aragonese jota, an Andalusian copla and a Portuguese fado, Ainda mais.

One of the key tests to determine whether this clip will actually qualify for earliest “talkie” status will be to see whether the sound is synchronised throughout the film and can be played together on a sound-on-disc system, as was the case with The Jazz Singer, and not just a separate recording played on an ordinary phonograph.

Concha Piquer remained in the United States for five years before returning to Spain, where she would make about a dozen films and perform at some of Madrid’s legendary venues. She officially retired in 1958 but continued making occasional television guest appearances. Married to bullfighter Antonio Márquez, she had one daughter, Concha Márquez Piquer, and lived on Gran Vía for 30 years until her death on December 12, 1990.

Later biographies of Piquer have mentioned Far from Seville, and give the production date as 1927, but Tena said he found the original copyright for the film, which was in fact registered four years earlier. Some cinema historians remain sceptical because there had been no prior reference to it. But many do agree with Tena that if the Piquer short is indeed a genuine sound film, it would no doubt be considered the “first Spanish-language talkie” in movie history and quite possibly the first such film in any language.


Published: Dec 20 2010
Category: Culture, Films
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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