Friday, June 20, 2008

Guest-blogger Clara Rodriguez on 5 Latino Stars of Early Hollywood

One of the many writers I was fortunate to meet at last January's AWP bookfair in New York City was Fordham University Sociology professor Clara Rodriguez, whose new book is Heroes, Lovers & Others: The History of Latinos in Hollywood (Smithsonian Institution Press). It's one of those rare books that is both armchair-reading fun and serious scholarship. Once upon a time, long before Salma.... long before even Ricardo Montalban... who were the Latino stars of the "silents" and early "talkies" era? Over to you, Professor Rodriguez!
#1 Myrtle Gonzalez (1891-1918) was the industry's first Latina star. A native Mexican Californian, she was the daughter of a Los Angeles grocer. Her first film was "Ghosts" in 1911. Between 1911-1917, she starred in more than forty films, many of them westerns and often portraying "vigorous outdoor heroines." She was one of the screen’s best-known leading ladies and was given the title at Universal of “The Virgin Lily of the Screen.”

#2 Antonio Moreno (1888-1967) was a huge star during the silent era. Born in Spain, he starred in a number of major silent films and had made at least 29 such films by 1929. He played the role of Cyrus T. Waltham, the son of a wealthy department store mogul and the handsome hero and love target of his co-star, Clara Bow, in the film It (1927). This is the film which is credited with introducing the term “the ‘it’ girl” into Hollywood.

#3 Ramon Novarro (1899-1968) was another one of the silent screen's handsome leading men and marquis idols. Born José Ramon Samaniegos in Durango, Mexico, he changed his name and went on to become a "guaranteed money-maker for MGM" and to star in many major motion pictures, e.g., "Ben Hur" (1926) and "Mata Hari" (1932) with Greta Garbo.

#4 Dolores Del Rio (1905-1983) is considered "the first Latina superstar." She was one of the top ten moneymakers during the silent era and after leaving Hollywood, she returned to Mexico and went on to become the "First Lady of Mexican Theater." The daughter of a banker in Mexico, she was "discovered" by a film director and brought to Hollywood as the female "Valentino." During her career, she played a wide variety of leading roles.

#5 Lupe Velez (1908-1944) was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico and educated in a convent school in San Antonio, Texas. Her first major role was opposite Douglas Fairbanks in the silent movie "The Gaucho" (1928), where she played what was to be the first of a long line of "fire-spitting vamps." Already a star in the late 20s, she was able to successfully make the transition to sound movies in the thirties because her voice was "husky and cartoon-like" -- a clear asset in the comedic characters she played. Her career skyrocketed in 1939 when she began her "Mexican Spitfire" series. She was to make eight films in this series before committing suicide in 1944.

---Clara Rodríguez

--->For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.(and check out the recent guest blog post by Daniel Olivas on 5 influential writers in Latinos in Lotusland)