'Latino Images' on Film: From Mary Pickford to Wallace Beery

Turner Classic Movies' series “Race in Hollywood: Latino Images in Film” kicks off this evening.

So what if “Latino” isn't a race? So what if it isn't even an ethnic or a cultural group, but merely a US-made sociopolitical construct? I'd say that what matters here are the films themselves – all Hollywood productions. And hopefully some of the introductions, provided by Robert Osborne and UCLA professor of film and media studies Chon A. Noriega, will be illuminating.

Tonight, TCM watchers will be able to catch Hollywood's foremost couple of the 1920s, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, playing Spanish-speaking characters (by way of English-language intertitles) in, respectively, the D.W. Griffith-directed early short Ramona – and we're talking 1910 here, before Pickford became a superstar – and the 1920 feature The Mark of Zorro. The latter is much inferior to Rouben Mamoulian's classy 1940 production starring Tyrone Power, but it's worth a look for historical reasons. The Mark of Zorro, after all, was the film that turned happy-go-lucky, modern-day, all-American Douglas Fairbanks into the happy-go-lucky king of costume adventure epics of the '20s.

Old San Francisco is great to look at, and so is its leading lady, Dolores Costello (right, that's Drew Barrymore's grandmother). Dramatically the film leaves something to be desired, but in addition to Costello there's Warner Oland playing Chinese for a change, Anna May Wong also playing Chinese, and an earthquake playing havoc in the Bay Area. Don't miss it.

Now, I'm assuming that someone somewhere will complain that Dolores Costello was an Anglo-Saxon blonde playing “Latina.” How dare she? Well, never mind that dark-haired Mexican Ramon Novarro was playing Northern European heroes at that same time. Not to mention the fact that there were – and are – lots of blond Spaniards. Just a minor detail.

I haven't seen Big Stakes – in fact, I hadn't even heard of it. But H.B. Warner (Jesus Christ in Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings) was always a reliable performer. Check it out. The same goes for Rouben Mamoulian's musical Western The Gay Desperado, featuring Nino Martini and Ida Lupino. The film earned Mamoulian the New York Film Critics best director award in 1935.

Billed as the first outdoor talking picture, In Old Arizona, starring Academy Award winner Warner Baxter (above) is a must-see. The film itself is weak, the performances range from awful to atrocious – Baxter and leading lady Dorothy Burgess' Spanish “dialect” coach should have been guillotined – but In Old Arizona boasts a surprisingly raunchy pre-Production Code sensibility. Baxter and Edmund Lowe's my-gun-is-bigger-than-yours chat is a hoot (it's much more suggestive than the similar gun-size chat found in Howard Hawks' Red River), and the finale is hardly the sort of moralistic wrap-up one has come to expect from most Hollywood productions then or now.

The film's credited co-director, Raoul Walsh, had been set to play the role of the Mexican-Portuguese (?!) bandido, but a road accident during filming left him blind in one eye, thus effectively ending his resurgent acting career. Irving Cummings, who'd later direct several Fox vehicles for the likes of Betty Grable and Alice Faye, finished up the film. (I'm not sure how much of Walsh's footage remained in the final print.)

As a result of Raoul Walsh's accident, Warner Baxter – he who pushes Ruby Keeler to stardom after diva Bebe Daniels breaks her leg in 42nd Street – stepped in as a second-rank leading man and came out a major star following the success of In Old Arizona.

TCM Schedule, Pacific Time:

5:00pm [Silent] Ramona (1910)
In this silent short, a rancher's daughter runs off with a Native.
Cast: Mary Pickford, H. B. Walthall, Francis J. Grandon, Kate Bruce Dir: D.W. Griffith C-17 mins

5:30pm [Silent] Mark of Zorro, The (1920)
In this silent film, a Mexican Robin Hood harasses corrupt Spanish invaders.
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite de la Motte, Noah Beery, Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell Dir: Fred Niblo BW-107 mins

7:30pm [Silent] Old San Francisco (1927)
In this silent film, an Asian villain menaces a family of aristocratic Spanish settlers.
Cast: Dolores Costello, Warner Oland, Charles Emmett Mack, Josef Swickard Dir: Alan Crosland BW-89 mins

9:15pm [Silent] Big Stakes (1922)
An American cowboy and a Mexican lawman clash over a beautiful woman.
Cast: H.B. Warner, Elinor Fair, Les Bates, Willie May Carson Dir: Clifford S. Elfelt BW-67 mins

10:30pm [Western] In Old Arizona (1929)
The Cisco Kid's faithless lover plots to turn the bandit in for the reward.
Cast: Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess, Warner Baxter, Farrell MacDonald Dir: Irving Cummings BW-99 mins

12:15am [Musical] Gay Desperado, The (1936)
A Mexican bandit kidnaps a singing cowboy star to learn American ways.
Cast: Nino Martini, Ida Lupino, Leo Carrillo, Harold Huber Dir: Rouben Mamoulian BW-87 mins

1:45am [Western] Viva Villa! (1934)
Rousing biography of the bandit chief who led the battle for Mexican independence.
Cast: Wallace Beery, Leo Carrillo, Fay Wray, Donald Cook Dir: Howard Hawks BW-110 mins

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