Latinos and Cinema

CHALLENGES IN SOUND ERA HOLLYWOOD

The intense popularity of the Latin Lover ended in the early 1930s. In this period, the transition to sound film and shifting American ideologies after the onset of the Great Depression resulted in Latino actors and actresses generally losing the chance to be promoted as stars equal to white Americans. "All-American" stars were favored over foreign or ethnic actors, while Latino actors suffered in relation to American scapegoating of Mexican Americans during this period of unemployment crisis. Now that accents could be heard, Latino actors and actresses generally found themselves marginalized in minor roles or exaggerated their accents to comic effect, as was the case for Lupe Velez in such roles as that of the daffy "Mexican Spitfire" in a popular early 1940s film series. In addition, Latinos typically were not cast in "white" roles, regardless of how fair-skinned they might be. This Hollywood standard reinforced an imaginary racial hierarchy that deemed Latinos nonwhite and non-American. Hollywood film roles for Latinos in the sound era often included only violent and shiftless Latino bandits and cantina girls in westerns. The Latino actors who were cast in more challenging roles and maintained the busiest careers in the studio system–dominated decades of the 1930s and 1940s included former silent film stars Dolores Del Rio and Lupe Velez, Cuban actor Cesar Romero (1907–1994), and Mexican-Irish newcomer Anthony Quinn (1915–2001).

The few leading Latino roles in films often were cast with Anglo actors, a Hollywood tradition that has continued (but decreased) in recent years. Cases of Anglo actors in "brownface" over the decades have included Paul Muni as a hotheaded Mexican American lawyer in Bordertown (1935), Marlon Brando's turn as Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata! (1952), Natalie Wood's role as a young Puerto Rican woman in West Side Story (1961), and more recently, the casting of non-Latinos in multiple Latino roles in The House of the Spirits (1993) and The Perez Family (1995).

Some new opportunities arose in "Good Neighbor" films of the 1940s, however. This cycle of films, with story lines set in Latin-American locales, was released just prior to and during the war years of the early 1940s. During this period of the US government's Good Neighbor Policy, the United States sought to encourage ongoing political ties with Latin-American countries. In support of these efforts, Hollywood studios produced and exported films that emphasized the celebration of Latin-American cultures and themes of friendship and cooperation. They also hoped to recoup some of the financial losses they were incurring while European markets were closed to US film exports. The films produced as a part of this cycle included biographical dramas and Latin-themed musicals, such as Disney's animated film The Three Caballeros (1945) and the Twentieth Century Fox musical Weekend in Havana (1941). Actors such as Cesar Romero, Lupe Velez, and Ricardo Montalban (b. 1920) found opportunities in this cycle of films, although generally only in minor Latin Lover roles, playing second fiddle to white American leads. Several stars with musical abilities were imported from Latin America to perform in musical numbers and play supporting roles in Good Neighbor musicals. Among the most successful were Cuban performer Desi Arnaz (1917–1986) and singer-actress Carmen Miranda (1909–1955), who was born in Portugal but had grown up in Brazil. Miranda, known for her exaggerated costumes and performance style, appeared in many musicals of the cycle. In musical numbers such as "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat" Miranda came to symbolize the comic, tropical Latina, a stereotype that is widely known today.

A new genre of films that at times represented US Latinos and their social issues, the social-problem film, also appeared in the late 1940s and 1950s. This postwar cycle of films strove for realism and emphasized exposing real-life social inequities. Some of the social-problem films that addressed discrimination faced by Mexican Americans in their communities included A Medal for Benny (1945) and The Ring (1952). The genre began to wane with the federal government's hunt for communists in Hollywood in this same period. This had a chilling effect, particularly as the film industry blacklisted film professionals whose political beliefs were considered too critical of the United States. The best-known social-problem film with a focus on Mexican Americans, Salt of the Earth (1953), in fact was made by blacklisted filmmakers. It related the true story of Mexican-American miners and their wives who had managed to successfully strike against a zinc mine company for unsafe and exploitive working conditions.

As studios became disinterested in making Latin-themed films and social-problem films, Latino actors and actresses again had fewer opportunities. Some, in attempting to maintain their careers, downplayed their Latino heritage. Actors such as Anthony Quinn and the Puerto Rican actor Jose Ferrer (1909–1992) often did not address their heritage in their publicity during these years. Similarly, in later decades actors such as Raquel Welch (b. Jo Raquel Tejada in 1940) and Martin Sheen (b. Ramon Estevez in 1940) changed their names to avoid Hollywood typecasting. Others, such as the Puerto Rican performer Rita Moreno (b. 1931), who began her Hollywood career in 1950, tried to stay true to their ethnic roots, but they struggled with limited opportunities and roles that continued to play on previous stereotypes. Beginning in the 1960s these roles included juvenile delinquents and gang members in urban dramas such as Blackboard Jungle (1955) and West Side Story (1961), and new versions of the bandit role in Italian and Hollywood westerns, such as Sergio Leone's Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo ( The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly , 1966) and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969).

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