Isbert, José


Isbert, José
(1886-1966)
   Few actors in Spanish cinema have been so beloved by audiences or bore the iconic weight of representing a historical period as José (a.k.a. "Pepe") Isbert. He was born in Madrid and worked extensively on stage for many years before setting up his own company. He specialized in the typically Madrid sainete. Sainetes were popular plays based on a very specific kind of working-class humor. The reverberations from this genre that he brought to each of his film roles accounts for his success as a comedian and as a screen presence, and also for the intensely Spanish connotations of his persona. His small, bulky body, his raspy voice, his convoluted speech rhythms punctuated by effective staccato, brought a whole tradition to life on screen, without help from the scriptwriter.
   Isbert had occasional appearances in silent films and early talkies encompassing several genres, but it was after his role in a sainete, Alma de Dios (Soul of God, Ignacio F. Iquino), in 1941 that his film career started in earnest. From that time, he was a regular presence on film, mostly in very small comic parts as a father or a "best friend" figure. Titles he graced with his presence (often mere cameos) include La princesa de los Ursinos (Princess of the Ursines, Luis Lucia, 1947), Cuentos de la Alhambra (Tales of Alhambra, Florián Rey, 1950), El capitán veneno (Captain Poison, Luis Marquina, 1951), Cielo negro (Black Sky, Manuel Mur Oti, 1951), Lola la piconera (Lola the Coal Girl, Luis Lucia, 1952), and Tarde de toros (Bullfighting Afternoon, Ladislao Vajda, 1956).
   Isbert's roles for Berlanga in ¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! (Welcome, Mr. Marshall! 1953) and El verdugo (The Executioner, 1963), among others, are part of the memory of Francoism, and have acquired legendary status. In the former, he plays an earnest but clueless mayor of a Castilian village; in the latter, he is the scheming executioner who plots to have both his daughter married and a new flat by forcing a young undertaker to follow in his professional footsteps. His presence is also at the center of the fierceness of El cochecito (The Motorized Wheelchair, 1960), which is acknowledged by critics as his best hour on screen. His characteristic demeanor and his voice were effective tools to convey the image of the small grumpy man who might be defeated by the system but never completely crushed. He also gave deep poignancy to small roles like the inventor who dresses as an Eskimo in Historias de la radio (Radio Tales, José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, 1955) and the grandfather in La gran familia (The Big Family, Fernando Palacios, 1962). Isbert's genius was to create a recognizable character that audiences could relate to, and he was always a welcome presence. After his death, he received a long series of tributes, and he remains one of the most enduring presences in the gallery of Spanish comic actors. His daughter María Isbert also had a long career as an actress, with parts for Luis Buñuel (Viridiana, 1961), Berlanga (El verdugo), and Iván Zulueta (Un, dos, tres . . . al escondite inglés, One, two, three . . . gotcha! 1970).

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.

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