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The early years – the portrayal of minorities in Hollywood film industry

Even now Hollywood continues to weigh in with racial stereotypes on the silver screen that leave sensitive patrons breathless with fury. But in 1926, Ramon Novarro stood tall in the chariot in the title role in MGM’s silent epic, “Ben Hur.”

Novarro’s success was part of what some scholars have called “an early window of opportunity,” when Latinos were portrayed with dignity and commanded leading roles. One scholar, Antonio Rios-Bustamante, professor of Mexican-American studies and history at the University of Arizona, identifies this period as lasting from 1911 — the silent era — until the mid-1930s, when barriers to people of color solidified.

To be able to understand minority portrayals by the film industry, it is necessary to understand the societal role of these groups, says Rios-Bustamante. “The history of Latinos is very important. You cannot understand the 1920s without understanding the `Latin Lover’ craze …. You cannot understand MGM without understanding Ramon Novarro. It’s impossible.”

Kissing Garbo

In the early days of film there was a premium on those who were already trained, says Rios-Bustamante. Many of the Latinos who became part of the early industry had acquired experience in the theater or the musical stage.

For example, Myrtle Gonzalez, the industry’s first Latina star, was a singer and part of a theater company before starring in her first film, “Ghosts,” in 1911. Beatriz Michelena was a star on the musical stage in San Francisco before starring in her first film in 1914, “Salomy Jane.” And, of course, Novarro romanced Greta Garbo in “Mata Hari.”

Independent filmmaker, Eustasio Montoya of San Antonio — who shot more than 40,000 feet of film — was a prolific producer of movies during the silent era. Most of his work has been lost. However, due to restoration efforts, a documentary about some of his work is featured in “Imagenes Perdidas de Eustasio Montoya” (Lost Images of Eustasio Montoya) by Mexico’s Fernando Gonzalez del Moral.

Different Racial Attitude

Rios-Bustamante, who recently completed the video “Latino Hollywood: A History of Latino Participation in the Film Industry, 1911-1940,” says that he and a number of other Latino scholars have been inspired to search out Hollywood’s Latino roots because of the research into the early Black independent filmmakers. For example, he cites the work of one of the early African-American pioneers, Oscar Micheaux, who completed 20 feature films during the early era of film. The early era of Black independent filmmakers ranged from 1910 through the 1920s, he says, stressing that production of Black films never ceased.

There are two different types of research into Latinos in Hollywood. The first and more widely known is the issue of Latinos and images. The research Rios-Bustamante and other scholars are conducting focuses on Latino participation in the early years — both in front of and behind the camera.

Other scholars researching the same subject include: UCLA professor Chon Noriega, who has edited “Chicanos in Film: Essays on Chicano Representation and Resistance”; Gary Keller, professor at Arizona State University, who authored “Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview and Handbook”; and Luis Reyes, a publicist, who with Peter Rubie published “Hispanics in Hollywood: An Encyclopedia of Film and Television.”

What the scholars have found is that because most of the early filmmakers were non-Americans — mostly European immigrants — they did not initially have the racial attitudes of Americans. Thus, people of color were not initially shut out. Latinos were participating in Hollywood, both as actors and directors, right from the beginning. For example, the cameraman for the first Charlie Chaplin movie was Enrique Juan Vallejo of Mexico.

Also, the early silent films were not subject to “English-only prejudice,” says Rios-Bustamante. “There was no language barrier.”

Profiting in Bigotry

European immigrants didn’t necessarily hate African Americans, Mexicans or Native Americans, says Rios-Bustamante. However, when the denigration of people of color became profitable, these same producers developed the same attitudes and participated in either excluding or exploiting the images of people of color, he says. “By the end of the 1920s, the screws came on. They [European filmmakers] adopted U.S. racial values.”

At this point, Latinos were excluded from the industry except in front of the cameras where they generally played stereotypical roles.

The window of opportunity consisted of three distinct parts: the silent era; the rise of the Latin Lover image; and U.S. film production of Spanish-language movies in the 1930s.

Prior to 1911, the film industry did not exist in Hollywood and was centered in New York and the East Coast. When it arrived in California, there were opportunities for many to become part of the industry — from stars to extras to cinematographers to writers and producers.

For the most part, early Latino stars were light-skinned and, during the silent era, did not change their names, but most did not play Latino roles.

One of the reasons the industry was open in the early years is because film was not yet seen as a respectable profession. The actors who first got into the profession were “culturally marginal,” Rios-Bustamante says.

With the rise of the Latin Lover image in the 1920s — which actually was more Mediterranean than Latin American — many Latinos were able to secure leading roles. The flip side of this development is that the image of Latinos as gigolos or Latinas as vamps became embedded into the moviegoers mind, says Rios-Bustamante.

Even before the silent era — due to Western novels — there already existed negative stereotypes of Mexicans. These images were adopted during the silent era, particularly in Western movies. Those roles normally went to dark-skinned Mexicans or other Latinos. The negative stereotypes were primarily that of “greasers,” bandits and cut-throat, knife-wielding criminals and loose senoritas. Dark-skinned Mexicans were limited to those roles.

Lightening Up Delores del Rio

The film studios produced Spanish-language films between 1928 and 1939 and stopped because they found that foreign audiences wanted to see the original stars. This era gave many Latinos opportunities to star and participate in the industry at a time when the image of the Latin Lover had already waned.

After this era, new (light-skinned) Latino actors generally either changed their names, hid their identities and passed for white or they were relegated to stereotypical roles. Dark-skinned Latinos were for the most part confined to playing the negative roles. It was either that or not working.

In “Participation in the Hollywood Industry, 1911-1945” an essay in “Chicanos in Film: Essays on Chicano Representation and Resistance, edited by Chon Noriega, Rios-Bustamante writes: “The reason the early Latino actors did not have to change their names was due in part to the fact that they attained recognition prior to the full development of the star system and the public relations reconstruction of star personas.

“It must be strongly emphasized, however, that opportunities for early Latino participation in filmmaking were never unlimited, and discriminatory barriers existed from the start, but had not yet had time to crystallize, harden and become systematic.”

One exception to dark-skinned Latinos was Dolores Del Rio — one of Mexico’s and Hollywood’s greatest film superstars during the 1920s and 1930s. And, though she was dark, the studios lightened her up, Rios-Bustamante says.

Many of the early stars, such as Dolores Del Rio and Ramon Novarro were fiercely proud of their heritage and refused to accept roles that denigrated their identity. Both also refused to be identified by the studios as “Spanish” and instead insisted in being identified as what they were: Mexicans.

Unfortunately, every time either of the two stars turned down roles, there were others willing to play demeaning roles, says Rios-Bustamante — actresses such as Lupe Velez (the “Mexican Spitfire”) or actor Leo Carrillo (Pancho in the “Cisco Kid” series). Many actors were pressured into accepting these roles, believing that they would soon return to playing meaningful characters.

Unrecovered History

Opportunities for Latinos in Hollywood — at all levels — were greater for Latinos prior to the mid-1930s, he adds. This holds true even today because in the early era, Latinos were able to star, direct, write and produce movies.

After the 1930s, most Latinos who rose to prominence did so using Anglo names and by hiding their identities. Either that or they were relegated to the earlier comedic or sinister roles of the 19th century. “This was true for African Americans, Asians, Native Americans and Mexicans,” says Rios-Bustamante.

Regarding his research into the era, Rios-Bustamante says: “There’s still an unrecovered history.” He is currently researching early Latino and Latina screenwriters between 1914 and the 1920s.

Luis Reyes, author of “Hispanics in Hollywood,” believes that the number of Latinos in Hollywood parallels the number of Latinos in television. A recent study, “Distorted Reality: Hispanic Characters in TV Entertainment,” by the Washington, DC-based Center for Media and Public Affairs, found that there were more Latinos in television in the 1950s than the present: 3 percent vs 1 percent.

The reason there were more Latinos in television or Hollywood in the past, says Reyes, is because the industry is no longer making westerns.

Even though the numbers are down, he says, “We’re in a much different era” than when Latinos had to change their names to make it in Hollywood.

“Now, we are telling our stories from our own point of view.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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