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?Silencio! - The Hispanic & Latino experience in the silent era

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 19, 2009 02:26pm | Post a Comment
Like other minorities in Hollywood (e.g. Asians, blacks, gays, Natives and women, to name a few), Hispanics and Latinos in the silent film era were almost exclusively produced by people who had little or no first hand experience of their subjects. But whilst Latinos may've been almost entirely excluded from the filmmaking process, a handful of actors found work in front of the camera and in the process opened doors for the generations that followed.

In film's first decade, a few Latinos in fact were involved in American filmmaking. Before the Hollywood era, the filmmaking process wasn't centralized and films were shot around the country by wealthy entrepreneurs, a few of which were Hispanic. However, most American films in the 1890s were under ten minutes long and tended to focus on single actions like sneezing, laughing or opening a door.

Though film roles in the 1890s tended to avoid any minority issues, there were a few minorities in film. In 1903, the first version of Uncle Tom's Cabin hit the screen and went on to be the most frequently adapted story in the silent era, suggesting that there was at least concern about black issues, if not other minorities. In the teens, with films like A Woman Scorned, The Squaw Man, Intolerance and The Italian, depictions of minorities broadened considerably.


  Vera Michelena                   Beatriz Michelena

Two Latina actresses, Vera and Beatriz Michelena, were among the first to appear in film. The Michelenas were the New York-born daughters of Caracas-born opera singer Fernando Gonzalez. Like generations that followed, their "exotic looks" resulted in their sometimes being used as all-purpose ethnic types, although, in the title role of Heart of Juanita, Beatriz actually played a presumably Latina character (I haven't seen it).
Most Latino characters in the 1910s weren't afforded the occasional sympathy shown toward other minorities, with most Latinos depicted as dastardly "greasers," as in the films Tony the Greaser (1911), The Greaser's Revenge (1914) and the remake of Tony the Greaser, Tony the Greaser (1914). The latter, ironically, featured Myrtle Gonzalez as "Mary Blake." Generally, Mexicans were depicted as lazy and deceitful, which, not surprisingly, didn't go over especially well with Mexicans and when they responded by boycotting Hollywood, American filmmakers responded by carefully applying the negative stereotype to all Latinos, not just Mexicans.

Myrtle Gonzalez           Antonio Moreno

For non-Latino, white, European Hispanics, race wasn't necessarily an issue. Los Angeles native Myrtle Gonzalez was billed as "The Virgin White Lily of the Screen" during her short career -- she died at 27 in the 1918 flu pandemic. Antonio Moreno was a Spanish-born actor/director. In his early films, he often played the Latin Lover, a stereotypical protrayal of supposedly exotic Mediterranean types popular at the time. Fetishizing Europeans was all well and good in the silent era, but with the coming of sound, Moreno's accent was viewed as a detriment and his career came to a halt.

Ramon Novarro             Gilbert Roland
 
In the 1920s, the vogue for Latins (as opposed to Latinos) like Moreno and Italian Rudolph Valentino proved so popular that actors actually concocted phony identities to pass, such as Jewish actor Jacob Krantz who was reborn "Ricardo Cortez." When people found out he wasn't actually Spanish, he tried to claim that he was at least French... which also proved untrue.

  Dolores del Rio            Lupe Velez

Actual flesh and blood Latinos, as a result of the craze, soon found work in Hollywood, including Ramon Novarro, Dolores Del Rio, Gilbert Roland and Lupe Velez. By the late '20s, they were internationally known stars, beloved for their inevitably sexually-charged portrayals, a stereotype that, some 80 years later, continues to be almost comically perpetuated on the rare occasions when Hollywood portrays Hispanic and Latino characters.

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