Silent Images of Latinos in Early Hollywood

taken from Latino Point of View:

Silent Images of Latinos in Early Hollywood

An interview with Stephen Sariñana-Lampson, a Los Angeles-based photographer and documentary filmmaker.

Why were these negative images of Latinos so prevalent during this period?
To provide a bit of historical perspective, Los Angeles – as well as the rest of the country – was strictly segregated at the time.   Racial restrictions and stereotypes were a dominant feature in American social and cultural life and this of course found its way into the early films created by Hollywood.

What was the role of Latinos in the film industry during the Silent Film era?
During the Silent Film era in Hollywood – from about 1912 to the late 1920′s – Latinos were involved in film making as actors, directors, cinematographers and behind the scenes artists and workers.

Latino film actors in early Hollywood were seen in front of the camera in a variety of movie genres and were notable contributors to the birth of this industry and art form.  Many of these actors who became major stars of their time would typically be cast in what can be considered “non-Latino” roles – a testament to their acting mastery within this new medium.  The box office appeal of these pioneering Latino film actors and the fan base they generated allowed them to appear on the cover of many contemporary movie magazines alongside names like Chaplin, Arbuckle, Fairbanks, Pickford and Bow.  Some later transitioned into the “talkies” when synchronized sound became common in film, while others saw their careers abruptly end because of heavy accents and what was considered awkward vocal expressions.

Besides well-known Latino actors and extras of the era, there were also Latinos who made their mark in a variety of production roles.  Anthony Quinn’s father Francisco began his career in Hollywood in lighting, then became a cinematographer – which probably influenced Quinn’s later entry into acting.  Eustasio Montoya was a major film producer during the Silent Era after early work behind the camera for years.  Frank Padilla and Harry Vallejo were two of the earliest cinematographers working regularly in Hollywood.  Allan Garcia served as a casting director for Charlie Chaplin’s production company and later appeared with him in three silent films.  Julian Rivero directed comedies and westerns and often found himself in front of the camera as well.

Who were some of the significant Latino stars during the Silent Era?
The film careers of Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland, Antonio Moreno, Beatriz and Vera Michelena, and the earliest Latino star Myrtle Gonzalez were quite distinguished during the Silent Era.  Their collective economic importance to the industry was unquestionable.  In one noted instance at a time when MGM teetered on bankruptcy in the mid-20′s, the financial success of Ramon Novarro’s performance as the lead in the original silent version of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) saved the company from going under.  Towards the end of the Silent Era, Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez both became profitable superstars for Hollywood with established careers that took them successfully into the era of the talkies.

And there were also other lesser known Latino actors who contributed to the rise of early Hollywood like character actors George Hernandez, Joe Dominguez & Pedro de Cordoba, who collectively appeared in over 150 silent films.  Julian Rivero began his 50+ year career in Hollywood during the Silent Era – a career that included everything from bit parts to key roles in major motion pictures.

What were some examples of stereotypes of Latinos seen during the era?
Generally, the most common stereotypical portrayals of Latinos during the American silent film era tended to fall into 3 main character types… The “Greaser”, the “Latin Lover” and for women, the “Dark Lady” or “Seductress”.

The Greaser character rose from early Hollywood’s westerns genre and the development of simplistic good guy vs. bad guy story formulas.  From 1908 to about 1918, the profitability of westerns and their relative ease of production lead to a slew of films produced quickly and efficiently – some filmed in one day.  These films included titles such as: The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908 & directed by D.W. Griffith), Ah Sing and the Greasers (1910), Tony the Greaser (1911 & 1914!), The Greaser and the Weakling (1912), The Girl and the Greaser (1913), The Greaser’s Revenge (1914), The Greaser (1915), Licking the Greasers (1915), Broncho Billy’s Greaser Deputy (1915), and Guns and Greasers (1918).  The Greaser role was typically portrayed as a dirty and grubby gunslinger with low morals, a conniving and shiftless soul with a tendency towards violence and of course, a taste for white women.  This racially-tinged character proved to be the perfect evil foil for the virtuous and clean-cut cowboy heroes seen in these films.  Always, the white cowboy saved the day and in the end the Greaser always got his.

Another profitable and recurrent genre for early Hollywood was the Latin Lover themed movie that began with Italian-American Rudolph Valentino’s performance in the The Sheik (1921).  The persona of the Latin Lover was that of a dark, mysterious, passionate and highly charged sexual protagonist.  The Latin Lover character became a virtual gold mine for early Hollywood and efforts to produce films that centered on the mythology of this suave, sensual icon flourished.  While Valentino established the character archetype, subsequent performances by Latino stars Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland and Antonio Moreno contributed greatly to developing the mystique of the role in later films.  As was consistent with Hollywood’s use of mainstream white actors in ethnic roles, the Latin Lover was also played by other Hollywood leading men of the time like Douglas Fairbanks in the Mark of Zorro (1920).

Finally, the characterization of Latinas varied tremendously during the Silent Era where early important stars like the Michelena sisters (Beatriz and Vera) and Myrtle Gonzalez were featured in prominent headlining non-Latina roles, while in the typical Greaser film, Latinas were depicted as the heathen seductress with little morals, physically aggressive and with an insatiable sexual appetite.  The image of loose senoritas and easy cantina girls became forbidden objects of desire for the male movie going public.  From the Broncho Billy western film series are two prototypical examples of the bad girl Latina:  Broncho Billy’s Mexican Wife (1912) and Broncho Billy and the Greaser (1914), a movie where Billy’s insatiable wife Lolita tries to run off with her Mexican lover.

Was there any public reaction or backlash to these negative images of Latinos being created by Hollywood?
Actually there was.  Opinion pieces were written in the Mexican press protesting these clearly racist and offensive images on screen and there were instances where audiences actually walked out of theaters in disgust.  This backlash reached a crescendo in 1922 when the Mexican government banned the showing of any offensive movie created by any film company.  A similar ban was put into effect that same year in Panama.  With this threat of a ban on the moneymaking Latin American export market and its potential negative economic impact, the film industry slowly began to distance itself from some of its more offensive character models.  One method of deflecting a country’s charges of promoting negative stereotypes in westerns by Hollywood was to provide the greaser-like villain with an origin from a fictionalized unknown country.

During the Silent Era were most Latino roles in American films played by Mexicanos, Chicanos or whites?
It is probably safe to say that generally most “Latino” roles were played by non-Latino actors during the era.

Latino stars like the Michelena sisters, Myrtle Gonzales, Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland, Antonio Moreno and later Dolores del Rio created the majority of their extensive body of work in film by typically portraying non-Latino characters.  Second tier Latino actors of the era could be found playing everything from passive tropical island natives to blood-thirsty Indians of the Old West.  It was a rare occasion when Latinos had the opportunity to play Latinos on film.

A routine example of the casting absurdities of early Hollywood was with the lead “Greaser” role in westerns featuring an actor in “brown face” with Latinos typically as supporting extras in the background.  One case in point was an early silent film actor named Lee Willard from Peoria, Illinois who appeared as the antagonist in an untold number of early westerns with credits listing him as “Mexican Pete”, “The Half-Breed”, “The Greaser”, “The Red Man”, and sometimes simply as “The Mexican”.  This practice by Hollywood of using white actors in “Latino” roles has continued throughout the history of American films.

Later in the era, with the public’s fascination with the “Latin Lover” craze in silent films of the late 20′s, came a frenzy on the part of Hollywood to find the next “hot-blooded” leading man primarily because of the immense profitability in the genre.  Which leads to the peculiar case of Ricardo Cortez who was a leading actor in Latin Lover themed films in the late 1920′s.  Cortez was a contemporary and competitor of other Latin Lovers actors of the era like Novarro, Moreno and Valentino.  But in fact, Cortez was actually Jacob Krantz, an Austrian Jew raised in New York’s Lower East Side.  After his concocted background was apparently unveiled by his estranged wife during their divorce proceedings (she thought she was marrying a “gallant Spanish caballero”), Hollywood publicists tried to promote the notion that Krantz was “almost” Latin through various anecdotes and schemes strategically leaked to the public.

Were there some in the industry who tried to minimize or hide their Latino heritage?
Dating back to earliest Hollywood are examples of Latino actors who chose to anglicize their stage name for a variety of reasons.  Actor Barry Norton was born Alfredo Biraben in Argentina.  Actress Anita Page was born Anita Palomares in New York with her paternal roots going back to El Salvador.  Lita Grey – a popular actress and one-time wife to Charlie Chaplin – was born Lillita Louise MacMurray to a Mexican mother (who called her Lolita) and an Irish-American father.  Donald Reed was in fact Ernesto Avila Guillen, a native of Mexico City, Mexico.  And the popular Gilbert Roland was born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.

Conversely others also chose to make changes to create more Latino-sounding names.  Raquel Torres was half-German and half-Mexican and born in Hermosillo, Mexico with the name Wilhelmina Osterman and Joe Page was born into a multi-generational Latino family from New Mexico and once in Hollywood became Don Alvarado.

Why the fascination with Silent Film and the role of Latinos in Early Hollywood?
It’s clear that Latinos – both in front of and behind the camera – contributed significantly to the growth and development of the Hollywood film industry in it’s earliest days.  It was during this amazing period of discovery, invention, and innovation, that movies became an aperture of the American experience for the movie going public.

Yet for all of the epic images of Ramon Novarro commandeering a chariot, the swashbuckling charm of Gilbert Roland and the elegant beauty of Dolores Del Rio, unfortunately there were countless more less-than-flattering images of Latinos produced and seen in nickelodeons and theaters every week.

With the exponential growth of movie audiences during the Silent Era, these stereotypical characterizations of Latinos by Hollywood were an inaccurate and unflattering introductory portrait of Latinos for many.  To that end it is fascinating to ponder what immediate and long-lasting effects these projected grainy images had on the general public’s perception and understanding of our culture almost 100 years ago.

(This is the first in a series on the role and portrayal of Latinos in Hollywood film.)

Stephen Sariñana-Lampson is Los Angeles-based designer, photographer, documentary filmmaker and recovering architect.  His love of film began with Saturday afternoon matinees at the Starland Theater in the Lincoln Heights district of L.A.  At every opportunity, he continues to add to his extensive personal collection of silent films.  (He’s also the designer of LatinoPOVs masthead graphic.)

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