Carne de fieras (Flesh for Beasts) is a 1936 Spanish film in which French animal tamer Georges Marck and dancer Marlene Grey performed their act with lions. The film, whose shooting started two days before Franco’s coup d’etat, is surrounded by mysterious stories of politics, eroticism, and the intense atmosphere of the 1930s culture.
Madrid, Spain, June 1936: The city lived in an atmosphere of permanent agitation, an intense social and political life. Civil rights until then unknown, such as the vote for women or legal divorce, were being enjoyed. In the cultural aspect, Madrid swarmed with premieres of theater, film, literature, and music. And, of course, circus.
Circo Price, in the heart of the city, reflected this intensity: it hosted political rallies, wrestling combats, and dance marathons such as the ones in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? that provided a prototype Big Brother voyeuristic viewing experience in which the audience could come to the circus anytime to see how their favorite contestant survived on 15-minute pauses every two hours: just enough time to shave in front of everybody or to lie down on a mattress next to the ring. Circus shows featured the erotic freedom that spread in this social euphoria. One of the most successful shows was performed by animal tamer Georges Marck and dancer Marlene Grey, “the blonde Venus.”
Grey danced among Marck’s lions, dressed in a tiny thong. The variety act was presented with one by the “Automatic Man,” artist Jack Sidney, who was married to Marlene. The French artistic trio became quickly popular in town; the combination of wild beasts and nudity worked very well. In Circo Price, tickets cost one peseta, and the 40-minute performances were presented every hour.
Inspired by this success, producer Arturo Carballo invited them to make a film in which their act would be the protagonist. Carne de fieras (Flesh for beasts) was directed by Armand Guerra and featured the star Tina de Jarque, a very popular showgirl in the Madrid nights. Shooting begun on July 16, 1936, and thus that date launched a mysterious legend of Spanish cinema, in which circus, politics, eroticism, and very bad luck merged.
Two days later, Franco carried out his coup d’etat against the Republic. Unattended resistance initiated the Civil War, and Madrid was besieged for three years. The military events didn’t stop the shooting of the film. It is true that the result was not very brilliant, but the movie is still full of worthy details: the most impressive one, of course, is the dance of lions in a cage stage. In the audience on screen, children can be seen paying attention very naturally, confirming that in the 30s this was a show for all audiences, something inconceivable nowadays. The plot is less interesting. Tamer Marck, dancer Grey, showgirl de Jarque (who performs a naughty song), and actor Pablo Álvarez Rubio play two couples in crisis about to divorce. Pablo falls in love when he sees Marlene among the lions. Divorce and adultery are treated with transparency. The value of the film lies on the documentation of the variety acts and their coexistence with daily life in the Madrid at war. In some scenes you can note armed soldiers in the background, but shows go on.
But why is this a cursed film? When the shooting hurriedly ended, the producer kept the negatives, aware of the hard times. Then, a chain of misfortune started. Grey quit Madrid, and rumors circulated that she was devoured by lions in Marseille in 1939. But there was no proof of this tragic end, and others said that she was seen in North Africa in the 40s. De Jarque, was suspected of being a double agent, a sort of Spanish Mata Hari. She performed in the Republican Madrid but had very good friends among the military and the bourgeoisie. She disappeared in 1937. It is believed that she tried to run away with a soldier and a suitcase full of jewels, but the couple was discovered and executed on the coast. Another version says that she managed to leave Spain and came back later with a false identity. The anarchist director Guerra quickly finished Carne de fieras to go to the front to film propaganda. He went to Paris by the end of the war but died of a fulminant aneurysm in the middle of the street, just as the war was coming to an end. The producer Carballo tried to premiere Carne de fieras in the new Madrid under Franco. He started painting clothes on the negatives in which Grey appeared naked, but he realized that the treatment of adultery and divorce wouldn’t succeed under the censorship inspection and gave up.
Through all these mishaps, the film slept in a suitcase until it was discovered and restored in 1992, when it was finally premiered, 56 years after completion.