Silencio is golden: Just in time for Oscar, a brief history of Latinos in silent film
Past to present: At left, silent film star Rudolph Valentino. At right, The Artist’s Jean Dujardin as silent film star George Valentin. (Photos: IMDB, The Weinstein Co.)
With its 10 Oscar nominations, The Artist allows us to contemplate the rich history of silent film with a wistful nostalgia. But almost unwittingly, the film reminds us of the role Latinos played in that era, and the way the motion picture industry both highlighted and obscured that role.
The Artist’s lead character, silent film actor George Valentin (Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin), is actually a play on real-life Italian actor Rudolph Valentino, the epitome of the Latin Lover stereotype that would provide employment for several emerging Latino — and sometimes non-Latino — actors in decades to come.
Peppy Miller, George Valentin’s infatuation and muse, is a classic “It girl” in the tradition of Clara Bow and the 1927 silent hit titled — quite appropriately — It. (That same year, Bow starred in the World War I-set Wings, which won an Oscar for Best Picture. If The Artist wins Best Picture this year — and it almost certainly will — it would only be the second silent film to do so, after Wings).
The woman behind Peppy Miller, French actress Bérénice Bejo, who is married to The Artist’s writer/director, Michel Hazanavicius, has a connection to Latin America: her parents fled from Argentina to France to escape the 1970s’ Dirty War.
The Artist’s allusion to It is equally fascinating because Bow’s on-screen love interest was one of the first major Latino stars in Hollywood, Latin lover Antonio Moreno. Ironically, Moreno, who was born in Madrid and came to New York at the age of 14, played an Anglo, Cyrus T. Waltham, in the film.
According to Clara E. Rodríguez, author of Heroes, Lovers, and Others: The Story of Latinos in Hollywood, film literature seldom makes reference to Moreno, despite his status as “a leading marquee idol” and “the one Hollywood starlets dreamed of.”
In honor of Moreno’s forgotten legacy, as well as all those pioneers of Latino involvement in Hollywood and beyond, here’s a crash course on Latinos of the silent film era:
From mixed Mexican-Californio (note: Californio is the term used to identify Mexicans whose family line was always in California) and Irish roots, Myrtle Gonzalez is widely recognized as Hollywood’s first Latina star. She appeared in silent films like The Ghosts (1914), and The Chalice of Courage (1915), and made a number of shorts — at one point trading on her “virginal” image. As her career progressed, she made several films that, according to film historian Antonio Rios-Bustamente, allowed her to portray “vigorous outdoor heroines.” She died in 1918 at 27 because of heart failure after just six years in the business.
Also hailing from California was opera singer Beatriz Michelena, who starred in the silent film Salomy Jane (1914), based on a novel by Hart Crane. She appeared in a total of 16 films and her career benefitted from her marriage to wealthy producer George Middleton. Her acting talent ranged from an ability to play “an uncouth mountain girl from the West” to Egyptian maidens.
At left, actress Clara Bow in 1927’s Wings, the only silent film to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture. At right, French-Argentine actress Bérénice Bejo in this year’s awards-season favorite, The Artist. (Photos: IMDB, TWC)
The counterparts to “acceptable” Latina leading ladies of the era were, of course, the Latin lovers. The latter were often non-Latinos, as in the case of Valentino and Ricardo Cortez, an Eastern European who changed his name from Jacob Kranz. But the success of Antonio Moreno, who also starred with Greta Garbo in the 1926 silent film The Temptress and Gloria Swanson in My American Wife (1922), paved the way for one of the most famous Latin lovers of the silent era: Ramón Novarro.
Born in Durango, Mexico, Novarro moved to Los Angeles as a teenager and landed his first film in 1922, credited as his given name, Ramón Samaniegos. Later that year he starred in The Prisoner of Zenda and by 1923 his career took off with Ben-Hur and Scaramouche. The leading actresses of Hollywood ranked him in 1924 as the “greatest lover of the screen.” Interestingly, according to author Clara E. Rodriguez, both Romero and Novarro were gay, which says something about how exaggerated Latino masculinity can have homoerotic undertones.
The silent era in Hollywood had another stereotype for Latinos, embodied by the infamous greaser films of the 1910s. These films used darker-skinned, often Mexican-American actors to portray undesirable villains. At the same time, another, perhaps less offensive, category arose for women: the harlot or spitfire.
Mexican-born Lupe Vélez began her career at 17 opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho (1927). Her role in D.W. Griffith’s The Lady of the Pavements (1929) established her as the “hot lady of Hollywood.” While she occasionally got the chance to display other talents, she was ultimately boxed into highly sexualized roles as the talking era began.
The silent era climaxed with the birth of the first true Latina superstar of Hollywood, Dolores Del Rio. The chameleon-like actress was one of the few allowed to play a wide range of roles and avoid being typecast as a spitfire. A second cousin of Novarro’s, she made an early association with the famed director Raoul Walsh and starred in his Carmen in 1927. The silent era was advantageous for her, since she was slowly learning English, and that deficiency wasn’t noticeable.
Del Rio went on to have a career that allowed her to rub elbows with much of Hollywood’s elite, including a high-profile relationship with Orson Welles. But she was remarkably politically aware, and eventually decided to return to her native Mexico, where she made several films, including the classic María Candelaria (1944).
In some ways, Latinos have been struggling to gain prominence in Hollywood ever since the end of the silent era, when producers seemed uninhibited in presenting Latin lover and spitfire characters as central to the plot. Once Latino voices were heard in films, their central presence seemed less desirable. Latin lovers lost their mojo, and while spitfires had a brief reign, the most famous Latina actor of the post-silent era, Rita Hayworth, felt compelled to change her name from Margarita Carmen Cansino.
Still, the legacy of the silent era can be felt in Hollywood today, not only in the obvious Oscar frontrunner The Artist, but also in one of the backstories to A Better Life, a film about the contemporary immigrant experience that stars Best Actor nominee Demian Bichir. The director of the film is Chris Weitz, whose lineage is notable. His grandmother, Lupita Tovar, began as a silent screen actress, and starred in Santa (1932), the first talking film ever made in Mexico. The film, about a famous prostitute, was so successful that the Mexican government issued a postage stamp to honor it.