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Ramon Novarro: Actor Was First Latin American Hollywood Superstar

Ramon NovarroRamon Novarro: Mexican-born actor was first Latin American Hollywood superstar

Mexican-born actor Ramon Novarro, the original Ben-Hur and one of MGM's biggest stars of the late '20s and early '30s, has his Turner Classic Movies' "Summer Under the Stars" day on Thursday, August 8, 2013. First, The Bad News: TCM will not be presenting any Ramon Novarro movie premieres. And that's quite disappointing. (Image: Ramon Novarro ca. 1925.)

There'll be no The Midshipman (1925), the first time Novarro was billed above the title (back then the official recognition of True Stardom) and featuring one of Joan Crawford's earliest film appearances, or Forbidden Hours (1928), a vapid but great-looking The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg redux, with the always charming Renée Adorée as the commoner loved by His Majesty, Michael IV – that's Novarro. Excellent prints of The Midshipman and Forbidden Hours can be found in the Warner Bros. film library; I watched both while working on my Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise. Neither movie is great – not even close – but I can't help lamenting a truly missed opportunity. (The recently repatriated The Arab is being restored. Hopefully it'll be shown on TCM in the not-too-distant future.)

Also missing from TCM's Ramon Novarro movie lineup are his two post-MGM films made at Republic Pictures in the late '30s: The Sheik Steps Out (1937) and A Desperate Adventure (1938). Both are very, very poor – but again, they're so hard to find it wouldn't hurt to make them available for viewing, even if only as cinematic curiosities.

Novarro's non-English-language efforts are also missing: The 1930 MGM release Call of the Flesh had two foreign-language versions: Spanish and French, both also starring Novarro. He himself directed the former, La Sevillana, featuring Conchita Montenegro and his own mother; the film's negative is extant at Warner Bros., but last I heard there was no print. Le chanteur de Séville can be found at the Cinémathèque Française.

Additionally, Ramon Novarro starred in two non-English-language movies made outside the United States: the Italian-French co-production La comédie du bonheur (1940) and the Mexican-made La virgen que forjó una patria (1942). Directed by veteran Marcel L'Herbier, La comédie du bonheur also stars Michel Simon and Jacqueline Delubac, and features Micheline Presle and Louis Jourdan at the beginning of their movie careers. This troubled production – made right around the time Germany invaded Poland – is by far Novarro's best non-MGM movie. Here's wondering if it (directly or indirectly) inspired John Cassavetes to come up with Faces' movie-within-a-movie framing device.

Julio Bracho's La virgen que forjó una patria is chiefly notable as Ramon Novarro's sole Mexican movie. In this simplistic flag-waver mixing religion, politics, and nativism, Novarro plays the 16th-century Aztec Juan Diego, who, as the story goes, saw a dark-skinned Virgin Mary, thus leading to the conversion of Mexican Indians to Catholicism. Despite its myriad dramatic shortcomings, it would've been great to watch a good print of La virgen que forjó una patria on TCM.

Ramon Novarro movies on TCM

Now, The Good News: a whole day dedicated to Ramon Novarro is something to celebrate. After all, Novarro never kissed Audrey Hepburn, never danced with Fred Astaire, never starred in a movie nominated for an Academy Award (in any category), never sang a duet with Judy Garland, and was never directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, this top star of the late '20s and early '30s is chiefly remembered – if remembered at all – for his brutal death on Halloween eve 1968 and for the vicious, scornful lies about that tragedy found in Hollywood Babylon. (See also: "Ramon Novarro Death.")

Hopefully, Turner Classic Movies' Ramon Novarro Day will help to make viewers become better acquainted with his movie work. Novarro wasn't always a great actor, but he was usually a pleasant one. Having said that, in the right role and with the right guidance, he could be as good as the best of them.

["On TCM: The First Latin American Hollywood Superstar, Mexican-Born Actor Ramon Novarro" continues on the next page. See link below.]

Ramon Novarro photo: Courtesy of the Matias Bombal Collection.

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