Mexican Actors Ramon Novarro & Pedro Infante: Hispanic Heritage Month Movies

by Andre Soares
Mexican actor Ramon Novarro Norma Shearer Jean Hersholt The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
Mexican actors: Durango-born Ramon Novarro, Canadian Norma Shearer, and Dane Jean Hersholt in the German Ernst Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.

Turner Classic Movies' Hispanic Heritage Month celebration continues with the showing of one silent film starring Mexican heartthrob Ramon Novarro, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), and the Mexican period drama Mexicanos al grito de guerra (1943), starring Mexican cinema's superstar Pedro Infante.

Deftly directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and co-starring Norma Shearer at her prettiest and most unaffected, The Student Prince is at turns funny, charming, moving, and ultimately heartbreaking. It's just too bad that Sigmund Romberg's music isn't used in the new score.

Ramon Novarro managed to be as good in a few of his other MGM vehicles (e.g., The Pagan, which was shown last week on TCM, The Barbarian), but he was never better than in The Student Prince, even though a very Mediterranean-looking Mexican actor playing a very Teutonic prince doesn't exactly sound like effective casting.

The text below is from my Novarro biography, Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro:

Following the enormous success of Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow, Irving Thalberg was said to have offered the director another operetta to be translated to the silent screen, Sigmund Romberg's The Student Prince in Heidelberg (officially, the MGM picture – named Old Heidelberg – was to be an adaptation of Wilhelm Meyer-Förster's novel Karl Heinrich, the original source of the tale). The iconoclastic von Stroheim, however, declined this project about a prince torn between his love for a commoner and his duty to his country, opting instead to direct the similarly themed The Wedding March for independent producer Pat Powers – and thus away from Thalberg's close supervision.

After failing to secure recent German import E. A. Dupont and MGM contract director John S. Robertson (who preferred directing Lillian Gish in Annie Laurie), Thalberg settled on the thirty-four-year-old, Berlin-born Ernst Lubitsch – an odd choice for the assignment despite his German background. Although in 1919 Lubitsch had directed the successful Die Austernprinzessin, inspired by Leo Fall's operetta Die Dollarprinzessin, the reputation of Lubitsch's German period rested on his historical pageants, whereas in Hollywood he was known for his sophisticated boudoir comedies. That may well have been Thalberg's intention: to bring in a sophisticated “alien” talent to refine and revitalize an old genre. As the assigned star, Novarro must have been pleased. While shooting Ben-Hur in Rome, he had expressed his “earnest ambition to work under the direction of Mr. Lubitsch, who is unquestionably a genius of the new art, the supreme master in the reincarnating of history.”

Novarro's and Shearer's previous credits notwithstanding, Lubitsch was dissatisfied with their choices. Editor Andrew Marton later noted that Lubitsch “never thought that Ramon Novarro or Norma Shearer was the right casting for the film, but the studio insisted and he was stuck with them.” It remains a mystery why the director thought the capable and charming Shearer lacked the necessary qualities to play the enamored barmaid Kathi, but to his mind, Novarro lacked the Teutonic looks the role demanded. MGM disagreed.

If Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo could play Spanish señoritas in Rosita and The Torrent respectively, and Austrian-born Ricardo Cortez could become known as a Latin Lover, then Novarro certainly could play a Germanic character. He had already convincingly portrayed the Central European Rupert of Hentzau [in Rex Ingram's 1922 The Prisoner of Zenda], and though his hair and eyes were dark, his skin was quite fair. Especially after [womanizing British] Lord Brinsley of A Certain Young Man [released in 1928], the boyish and earnest Prince Karl Heinrich must have seemed ideal casting.

I'm not sure exactly how one would translate Mexicanos al grito de guerra – “Mexicans at the Cry of War,” or perhaps “Mexicans' War Cry”? Either way, this flagwaving tale of a music student (Pedro Infante) who falls for the French ambassador's niece (Lina Montes) at the time of France's occupation of Mexico is a must-see if only because this is hardly the sort of movie you'll find (with subtitles) on American television.

In Mexicanos al grito de guerra, Miguel Inclán plays Benito Juarez. I have no doubt that Inclán was much more convincing than Paul Muni in Warner Bros.' 1939 Juarez. Anyone would have been.

Mexicanos al grito de guerra – which apparently climaxes with a Cinco de Mayo battle – was directed by author Álvaro Gálvez y Fuentes (who also co-wrote the screenplay) and Ismael Rodríguez.

Ramon Novarro Enid Bennett The Red Lily
Ramon Novarro and Enid Bennett in The Red Lily.

Sept. 19: Early Mexican-born screen heartthrob Ramon Novarro is back on Turner Classic Movies this evening with a presentation of Fred Niblo's silent melodrama The Red Lily (1924).

That will be followed by another Ismael Rodríguez effort, Las mujeres de mi general (“The Women of My General”), a 1951 starring Mexican icon Pedro Infante as a rebel general torn between two women, as TCM continues its celebration of 100 years of the start of the Mexican Revolution (which coincides with Hispanic Heritage Month).

The Red Lily isn't one of Novarro's best silent films. Both in terms of style and plot, it's quite dated. In fact, it probably felt dated even back in 1924.

Historically, The Red Lily is important merely as the second time Novarro worked with director Fred Niblo, who would guide him the following year in the monumental Ben-Hur, and as Novarro's first effort at the newly founded Metro-Goldwyn, an amalgamation of Metro Pictures (where Novarro was a contract player), Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Productions. (The name Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would be coined a little later.)

The information below is from my Novarro biography Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro:

Following his contract renewal [from $500 to $1,000 a week], Novarro started work on The Red Lily, his first picture to be produced by the new studio. This project reunited him with Thy Name Is Woman director Fred Niblo, whose wife, the blonde and round-faced Enid Bennett (a type similar to Alice Terry [Novarro's leading lady in most of his previous films]), was cast as the female lead—her fifteenth role under her husband's guidance. The story, created by Niblo and adapted by Bess Meredyth for the screen, concerns two young lovers who leave their French village for Paris to begin a new life away from small-town intolerance. In spite of the young couple's high hopes, a series of mishaps turn life in the big city into an urban nightmare—the boy becomes a thief, and the girl a prostitute known as the Red Lily—but all ends (absurdly) well at the final fade-out.

When Niblo was unable to find a boy to play Novarro's character as a child, the actor suggested his thirteen-year-old brother Eduardo, who was reportedly hired for the part (if so, his scenes were cut from the final continuity).

Four months after wrapping up, The Red Lily opened at the Capitol Theater on September 28 to mostly negative reviews. Critics described the picture as “sordid” and “hackneyed,” and its characters as “revolting” and “prime specimens of degraded humanity.” Only Enid Bennett's small-town girl turned prostitute was singled out for praise, with the New York Times declaring that the actress “gives one of the most remarkable performances ever seen on the screen.” Novarro was generally panned for his immature and contrived performance, which is especially unsettling when compared to Bennett's subtler and more complex portrayal. Without [mentor Rex] Ingram to tone him down, Novarro's pantomime in this heavy-handed melodrama seems exaggerated even by silent film standards. Nonetheless, the actor was pleased with the results, later referring to The Red Lily as “quite a good picture.”

Variety predicted that The Red Lily would wither once word spread of its downbeat tone, but even though final numbers are unavailable, according to trade magazine reports The Red Lily performed quite well in the fall of 1924. Scaramouche was Novarro's biggest blockbuster of the year, followed by three medium-range successes: The Arab, Thy Name Is Woman, and The Red Lily. Yet, his four pictures notwithstanding, Novarro failed to be included among the top ten box office stars in the 1924 Film Daily poll of exhibitors—an especially puzzling omission, since Rex Ingram, with only Scaramouche and The Arab to his credit, was ranked in third place in the directors' list.

Turner Classic Movies website.

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darlarosa -

Part of me wonders if the immature and contrived nature of his performance was partially initial. The character of Jean is incredibly childish. He tosses Marise away because she no longer has the “face of an angel”, and expects his choice to leave his father to simply leave him alone. He's such a man child. At times its SO over the top, but at other moments it seems to be almost intentional.

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