Imperio Argentina

Glamorous star of Spanish cinema

Friday 29 August 2003 00:00 BST

Magdalena Nile del Rio (Imperio Argentina), actress and singer: born Buenos Aires 26 December 1910; married 1936 Florián Rey (one daughter, and one son and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1939), 1946 The Count of Cabezuelas (marriage dissolved 1948); died Benalmadena, Spain 22 August 2003.

Imperio Argentina made her screen début in the 1920s, in the era of silent movies, and became Spain's best known star in the transition first to talkies then to colour films, enjoying thereafter decades of success in radio, theatre and television. Her private life was as dramatic as her stage presence, and she piqued the interest of personalities as diverse as Marlene Dietrich, Carlos Gardel and Adolf Hitler.

Under the name Petit Imperio, she first appeared on stage at the Comedia theatre in Buenos Aires, aged six or seven (she claimed she was four). Her family, who were Spanish, returned to Spain in 1920, where under the name Imperio Argentina she made her Spanish stage début at the Romea Theatre in Madrid in 1926. She auditioned that year for the film La hermana San Sulpicio (Sister Saint Sulpicio), and the director Florián Rey insisted - even though the role was a silent one - that she sing. Her success was immediate, and Rey became her mentor and husband. Together they produced Spain's most successful films in the years before the civil war.

In a genre of light "folkloric" song-and-dance movies often drenched in treacly mannerisms, Imperio Argentina radiated a freshness and natural elegance that marked her out from later imitators. She brought to traditional Spanish song or copla "glamour and swing", in the words of one admirer.

"Malena", as her friends called her, was born Magdalena Nile del Rio in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires while her parents, distinguished stage artists, were on tour. Her mother Rosario del Rio was an actress, her father, Antonio Nile, of Gibraltarian origin, a guitarist.

Paramount signed her up in the 1930s for several Spanish language movies filmed in Joinville near Paris, notably Melodia de arrabal (Suburban Melody) in 1933, that co-starred the legendary Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel, and made her an international star. "I am the only woman who sang with Gardel, because he didn't like to sing with women, although they fascinated him," she said. In her memoirs, published in 2001, she insisted that Gardel, widely regarded as having been homosexual, was no mariquita.

Accompanied by Rey, whom she married in 1936, Imperio Argentina moved to Paris, then toured North and South America. Following an appearance at the Carnegie Hall in New York, a star-struck young Fidel Castro presented her with a sketched portrait.

While Spain's civil war raged, she filmed in Berlin Carmen la de Triana, a version of Prosper Mérimée's classic tale, and it was during this visit, in 1938, that Hitler asked to meet her. During the interview, the Führer offered her every facility to remain and work in Germany, but Imperio Argentina - aware that she would be expected to make Nazi propaganda - turned him down. "Hitler wanted to be my lover," she later confessed. His feelings were not reciprocated, she said, but "I have often said, although no one believed me, that Adolf Hitler was a very attractive man." She was also courted by Marlene Dietrich, but denied rumours that they had an affair.

In 1939 Imperio Argentina separated from Rey and went to Italy where she starred in a film version of Tosca (1941), directed by Jean Renoir, assisted by Luchino Visconti. After the Spanish war ended she moved to Estoril in Portugal, and starred in several hit films directed by Benito Perojo. She briefly settled in Argentina in the 1940s, where she married the Count of Cabezuelas, but separated from him on her return to Spain in 1948, when she resumed her professional association with Rey.

There followed years of semi- retirement with her daughter and grandchildren, and she was all but forgotten. But Imperio Argentina returned to the stage in 1992 after 24 years for a festival of Spanish song for the World Exhibition in Seville.

During Spain's dictatorship she was among the privileged group of artists known as "Franco's Untouchables", treasured for their talent for cheering up a dispirited nation.

Her life inspired the character "Macarena Granada" played by Penélope Cruz in the 1998 film La niña de tus ojos (Child of your eyes) by Fernando Trueba. She hated the film, and threatened to sue the director for portraying without permission episodes of her time in Germany. Then she reflected that "a lady like myself, whose portrait hangs in Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum, shouldn't worry about such things".

She died at home, with her granddaughter Teresa, who said "She asked for castanets and died singing."

Elizabeth Nash

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