‘The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez’: Author Dan Van Neste remembers the silent era’s ‘Latin Lover’ & the star of the original ‘The Maltese Falcon’
At odds with Famous Players-Lasky after the release of the 1922 critical and box office misfire The Young Rajah, Rudolph Valentino demands a fatter weekly paycheck and more control over his movie projects. The studio – a few years later to be reorganized under the name of its distribution arm, Paramount – balks. Valentino goes on a “one-man strike.” In 42nd Street-style, unknown 22-year-old Valentino look-alike contest winner Jacob Krantz of Manhattan steps in, shortly afterwards to become known worldwide as Latin Lover Ricardo Cortez of Castile.
Although Cortez’s New York City origins would be eventually revealed – he was born on Sept. 19, 1900, to Austrian/Hungarian Jewish parents – the Spanish moniker was to remain in place for the duration of his career, which encompassed characters of various national, social, ethnic, and ethical backgrounds in about 100 movies over the course of nearly four decades.
In the recently published The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez (BearManor, 2017), author Dan Van Neste covers the trajectory of Cortez’s lengthy film career, from his days as the “second-rank Rudolph Valentino” to his Depression Era phase as assorted cheats, pimps, scoundrels, racketeers – and sleuths, most notably Sam Spade in the original film version of Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel The Maltese Falcon.
The Magnificent Heel also delves into Cortez’s at times complicated private life. In 1926, he married actress Alma Rubens, a Hollywood star in her own right following roles in melodramas such as Humoresque, Cytherea, and East Lynne. Rubens also happened to be a hardcore drug addict who would die of pneumonia at age 34 in 1931, leaving Cortez a widower.
‘The Valentino Curse’
As explained in The Magnificent Heel, even though the young Ricardo Cortez’s physical similarity to Rudolph Valentino helped to launch his Hollywood career, it may also have hindered its development.
“Mr. Cortez isn’t Valentino,” opined the Chicago Tribune reviewer about the Latin Lover’s first star vehicle, Raoul Walsh’s 1925 melodrama The Spaniard. “But he’s quite as good an imitation as there is on the market.”
The problem was that “quite as good an imitation” wasn’t good enough for full-fledged stardom, let alone superstardom. Case in point: two movie adaptations, five years apart, of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novels.
Whereas Metro Pictures’ Rex Ingram-directed blockbuster The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) turned its leading man, Valentino, into a major star, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Monta Bell-directed Torrent (1926), a much more modest success toplining Ricardo Cortez, turned its leading lady, Hollywood newcomer Greta Garbo, into a star.
Valentino’s premature death in 1926 – the year Torrent came out – helped to turn his final movie, Son of the Sheik, into a sizable box office hit. Yet it failed to propel the “second-rank Valentino” to first-rank stardom.
Below: Ricardo Cortez romances Swedish import Greta Garbo in her first Hollywood movie, Monta Bell’s Torrent at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Cortez and Garbo were to have been paired up again in another MGM production, Love, based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and to be directed by Russian import Dimitri Buchowetzki (who had previously handled Cortez in another period romantic drama, The Swan). Garbo, however, fell ill during production (there have been claims she actually feigned the illness), forcing shooting to be halted. When production finally resumed, Buchowetzki had been replaced by Edmund Goulding, while Cortez was sidelined in favor of Garbo’s Flesh and the Devil costar and intimate companion John Gilbert. This turned out to be a lose-lose deal for Cortez; in order to work once again with Garbo, he had just turned down Josef von Sternberg’s ultimately acclaimed crime drama Underworld.
Collaborations with important directors: From D.W. Griffith to John Ford
Even if never on the same league as fellow screen lovers Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, and Ramon Novarro, Ricardo Cortez reached an undeniable level of success – and, to some extent, prestige, when one factors in his big-name and/or “arthouse” directors.
Among these, though not necessarily at the top of their form in their collaborations with Cortez, were:
- Allan Dwan (Argentine Love, A Society Scandal).
- Cecil B. DeMille (Feet of Clay).
- D.W. Griffith (The Sorrows of Satan).
- James Cruze (The City That Never Sleeps, The Pony Express, Excess Baggage).
- Raoul Walsh (The Spaniard).
- William K. Howard (Volcano).
- Frank Lloyd (The Eagle of the Sea).
- Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Helen of Troy).
- Benjamin Christensen (Mockery).
- Frank Capra (The Younger Generation).
- Tay Garnett (Bad Company, Her Man).
- William A. Wellman (The Cat’s Pajamas, Midnight Mary).
- Robert Florey (The House on 56th Street, I Am a Thief).
- Roy Del Ruth (The Maltese Falcon).
- Michael Curtiz (Mandalay, The Walking Dead).
- Gregory La Cava (Symphony of Six Million).
- William Dieterle (The Firebird).
- Lloyd Bacon (Wonder Bar, Frisco Kid).
- Robert Wise (Mystery in Mexico).
- John Ford (Flesh, The Last Hurrah).
Pairings with important leading ladies
Besides, during his heyday from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, Ricardo Cortez was featured opposite many of the most important leading ladies of the period – though, once again, not necessarily in their most prestigious efforts.
Sometimes, he made passionate love to them. At other times, whether physically or psychologically, he roughed them up. Not infrequently, he made love to them and roughed them up – lying to them, cheating on them, inducing them to cheat on their husbands or boyfriends, neglecting them so he could focus on his status-oriented goals, or perhaps selling them into the “white slave trade.”
Maybe his dark, bedroom eyes were to blame. Or, during the talkie era, his mellifluous voice. But no matter how untrustworthy his smile or how tired his pick-up lines and declarations of love, movie heroines/victims would (almost) invariably fall for him.
From Gloria Swanson to Greta Garbo
During his silent days at Famous Players-Lasky, Ricardo Cortez was usually cast as, however chauvinistic, sympathetic characters who became some way or other enmeshed with the likes of:
- Gloria Swanson (A Society Scandal).
- Bebe Daniels (Argentine Love, Volcano).
- Betty Compson (The Pony Express).
- Jetta Goudal (The Spaniard).
- Betty Bronson (The Cat’s Pajamas).
- Florence Vidor (The Eagle of the Sea).
- Lois Wilson (New York).
At MGM, there was Greta Garbo. At First National, he was Paris to Hungarian import Maria Corda’s Helen in the humorous The Private Life of Helen of Troy.
From silent hero to talking heel
Despite a relatively successful transition to sound, during the talkie era the plot of Ricardo Cortez’s movies increasingly centered on his leading ladies, with the former Latin Lover largely downgraded to subordinate heels of varying degrees of egotism and ruthlessness. In that regard, he was a more “street” version of fellow early 1930s Warner Bros. leading (con)man Warren William.
Among Cortez’s sound era leading ladies were:
- Once again, Bebe Daniels (The Maltese Falcon).
- Barbara Stanwyck (Illicit, Ten Cents a Dance, A Lost Lady).
- Joan Crawford (Montana Moon).
- Mary Astor (White Shoulders, Behind Office Doors, etc.).
- Kay Francis (Transgression, Mandalay, etc.).
- Claudette Colbert (Torch Singer).
- Carole Lombard (No One Man).
- Irene Dunne (Symphony of Six Million, Thirteen Women).
- Loretta Young (Big Business Girl, Midnight Mary).
- Bette Davis (The Big Shakedown).
- Dolores Del Rio (Wonder Bar).
- Joan Blondell & Ginger Rogers (Broadway Bad).
- Helen Twelvetrees (Her Man, Bad Company, Is Your Face Red?).
Tough break during Pre-Production Code era
According to The Magnificent Heel, illness, bad timing, and poor professional choices prevented Ricardo Cortez from becoming a bigger star during the pre-Production Code era (roughly, 1930–the first half of 1934).
That is especially disheartening when one considers his excellent performance in Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, a characterization far more effective – sly, sensual, enticingly sleazy – than that of Humphrey Bogart in John Huston’s revered 1941 remake.
Equally disheartening is the fact that Cortez’s Hollywood career nosedived after he and Warner Bros. parted ways in the mid-1930s – and that he, unlike Bogart, at the time typecast as minor-league gangsters, would never be lucky enough to make a successful comeback.
Else, Cortez, the very embodiment of jaded cynicism, could have become a first-rate film noir antihero. The closest he ever got to that in an A production was a supporting role in the 1946 Laraine Day vehicle The Locket, directed by John Brahm at RKO.
Director Ricardo Cortez
With film roles becoming scarcer, Ricardo Cortez tried his hand at directing. But his handful of efforts – seven in total at 20th Century Fox – were all B fare.
The one notable exception was Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939), chiefly because it was co-written by future Hollywood Ten member Dalton Trumbo, it features future megastar Glenn Ford, and it deals with – still very much relevant – issues such as social inequality, tribal prejudices, and immigration.
‘The Last Hurrah’
By 1950, when he was seen in a supporting role in the RKO programmer Bunco Squad, Ricardo Cortez’s Hollywood career was virtually over.
Following an eight-year gap, he returned for what turned out to be his final feature film: John Ford’s 1958 political drama The Last Hurrah, starring Spencer Tracy and Jeffrey Hunter, and featuring the old Jacob Krantz of Manhattan – way down the long list of Hollywood veterans – as a character named Sam Weinberg.
Cortez’s final role in front of the camera was in the 1960 episode “El Toro Grande” of the popular television series Bonanza. He was cast as Don Xavier Losaro, an appropriately Spanish-named character that could be seen as the “senior version” of his Latin Lovers of yore.
Deeply involved in the brokerage business in the last couple of decades of his life, Ricardo Cortez died at age 76 on April 28, 1977, in New York City.
Oscar-winning cinematographer Stanley Cortez (Since You Went Away, 1944; shared with Lee Garmes) was Ricardo Cortez’s younger brother (born Stanislaus Krantz on Nov. 4, 1908, in New York City).
Besides the John Cromwell-directed, David O. Selznick-produced Since You Went Away, Stanley Cortez’s film credits also included:
- Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
- Charles Laughton’s cult classic The Night of the Hunter (1955).
- Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).
Stanley Cortez died at age 89 on Dec. 23, 1997, in Los Angeles.
‘The Magnificent Heel’ Q&A
The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez author Dan Van Neste has kindly agreed to do a (lengthy) Q&A about the subject of his book. See below the link to part I of the three-part interview.
“Ricardo Cortez: Remembering the ‘Latin Lover Threat’ to Rudolph Valentino & Star of Original The Maltese Falcon” follow-up post: “’Latin Lover’ Ricardo Cortez – The Second Valentino & First Sam Spade: Q&A with Biographer Dan Van Neste.”
Featuring 160 images, among them what The Magnificent Heel‘s press release describes as “photographs of personal items and scrapbooks” the actor had kept as mementos of his career, Van Neste’s 584-page Ricardo Cortez biography is available in softcover and hardback editions through BearManor Media and online retailers. An e-version is also available from the publisher.
The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez BearManor Media page.
Ricardo Cortez and Gloria Swanson A Society Scandal image: Paramount Pictures, via the website Glorious Gloria Swanson.
Ricardo Cortez and Loretta Young Midnight Mary image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, via the Valentino Vamp website.
Ricardo Cortez and Greta Garbo Torrent clip: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez cover: BearManor Media.
Most Ricardo Cortez images in this four-part article/interview: Courtesy of author Dan Van Neste.