The first major collaboration between Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga was this unusual social comedy, made in 1951 but not released until 1953 after the success of the same pairing’s Bienvenido Mister Marshall. The script by Bardem focuses on a young working-class couple, Juan (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and Carmen (Elvira Quintillá). He’s an odd-job man in a film studio and she’s a seamstress and they live in rented rooms. Bardem applies a fractured narrative structure to the story which is at first a little confusing. Eventually, we see how they met and got married and then how Juan’s various schemes to get rich run up against Carmen’s dreaming at the pictures and her love of the lottery and competitions. The scenes in the cinema make direct references to censorship when a woman in the audience cries out “they’ve cut the kiss again”.
Juan works for a ramshackle film production company and the ‘exposure’ of filmmaking techniques in the studio is matched by Juan’s explanations of how films work during the cinema screening with Carmen and other sequences when Juan visits a stage show and tries to engage in conversations with an actor and a crew member operating sets on stage. As well as this kind of ‘deconstruction’, the script satirises Carmen’s small stakes gambling and Juan’s correspondence course which promises ‘Happiness through electronics!’. All of this is light-hearted fun which gently punctures the inflated sense of a glowing future promised by the fascist regime. But the last third of the film ups the stakes when Carmen wins the big prize offered by Florit soap. She and Juan become ‘The Happy Couple’ who are given a chauffeur-driven day touring the top shops and hot-spots of Madrid. The sequence corresponds to some extent to those Hollywood comedies in which the ‘hick from the sticks’ comes to the city and becomes the butt of jokes about etiquette and social conventions. Juan and Carmen aren’t ‘rubes’, but they aren’t familiar with fancy dining and nightclub trickery. Laden down with gifts they finally rebel and give away everything to the vagrants sleeping on park benches. Berlanga’s comedic treatment is much broader in its attacks on the myths of prosperity under Franco than Bardem’s approach in Death of a Cyclist.
Gómez, the actor playing Juan (often the name of the male protagonist in Bardem’s scripts) was a very well-known actor in Spain and he also appears as the bee-keeper in Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), one of the later allegorical films taking aim at the final days of Franco’s regime. As an established actor in 1951 he was one of the supporters of Bardem and Berlanga’s attempts to inject some realism and some criticism into the films. In one sense, Berlanga’s comedy approach with its ‘softening’ of the pain of low wages and unemployment fitted in with what has been termed a ‘gentle and agreeable version’ of realism which became popular in the early 1950s. But this was a form of realism which directly supported the Catholic Church and was largely devoid of political comment. That Happy Couple went much too far in depicting social reality as the basis for comedy and this was why the censors made it more difficult for the film to gain wide distribution. Making sense of this now in the UK is difficult because we don’t have much of a chance of seeing the ‘acceptable’ face of Spanish Cinema in the early 1950s (though the spoof of the historical drama production on which Juan is assigned to catch the Queen who leaps to her death from a balcony is at least one indication). Perhaps it is just as well!
The film is very entertaining. The last third of the film, as Roy points out, is fairly subversive. I think it is satirising consumerism as well as the Spanish standard of living. The final shop set in a park is powerful. I also noticed that it is background by a skyscraper under construction – I was not sure if that was in the actual location or an effect – but it is so prominent that it struck me as deliberate.