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Films Have Yet to Explore Diversity of Latino Lifestyles

February 07, 1991|GEORGE HADLEY-GARCIA

Margo, the late Mexican dancer-actress, was best known in Hollywood as the wife of Eddie Albert and mother of Edward Albert. Her most famous role was the fast-aging girl--once she leaves Shangri-La--in "Lost Horizon." She also played the ill-fated dancer Clo-Clo in the cult classic "The Leopard Man," possibly the only U.S. horror movie with a Latino setting and characters.

The vivacious Margo, who had trained with Rita Hayworth's dancer father, never became a Hollywood star.

"They didn't know what to do with me," she said in an interview. "Me and my one name!" (That was pre-Cher and Madonna.) "I didn't fit the stereotype of a sexpot or a funny Latina. So they put me in the background as 'local color' and gradually I faded from view. You had to be a stereotype to succeed."

A man had to be either a Latin lover a la Ramon Novarro or a bandido-buffoon as played by Leo Carrillo, who later gained fame/infamy as the Cisco Kid's dim, paunchy sidekick Pancho.

A woman had to play either an icy seductress such as Dolores Del Rio or a hot-blooded one such as Lupe (Mexican Spitfire) Velez. Above all, a Hispanic lead had to look European, and usually got to play anything but a Latino. Especially in silents, where accents didn't tell all.

Today's "Lat Pack" comes in all shapes, colors, sizes and surnames: Andy Garcia, Daphne Zuniga, Jimmy Smits, Elizabeth Pena, Ana Alicia and more established actors such as Edward James Olmos, Raul Julia, Hector Elizondo, Rita Moreno, Ricardo Montalban and others.

It's true that today there are no Latino stars as big as yesteryear's, but there are more of them, and more varied ones.

In the beginning was the Latin villain, who represented virtually all Hispanic males in the silent film era. He was typically a dark-skinned sadist, a ludicrous incompetent and/or a lecher incapable of holding onto his "gorl," who inevitably fell for the visiting Yankee hero. Dozens of these silent "comedies" were made, with many set in Mexico.

When the Mexican government complained, the William Howard Taft Administration did nothing. Taft's successor, Woodrow Wilson, urged moviemakers to soft-pedal the vicious stereotypes that were having an effect: surveys showed moviegoing Americans to be more prejudiced against Latinos than non-moviegoers.

Hollywood's No. 2 male sex symbol in the 1920s (after his pal Rudolph Valentino) was "Ravishing Ramon" Novarro, who starred in "Ben-Hur," the most expensive silent movie. Like most Latinos, Novarro was through when sound came in--accents were out, except for certain actresses. Thus, Del Rio and Velez prospered, while Novarro, Antonio Moreno and Gilbert Roland were dropped in the credits to supporting roles. By contrast, Cesar Romero, who used accent s only when appropriate for the roles, began a long-lasting and prolific career in 1935.

White-skinned beauties such as Del Rio continued to be billed as "Spanish" in keeping with producers' preference for a more European image. Del Rio, the most successful Mexican actress ever, introduced the then-shocking two-piece swimsuit in "Flying Down to Rio" (1933), a musical now celebrated for introducing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Besides sound, the 1930s established the Motion Picture Purity Seal of Approval, a censorship tool until the mid-1950s without which no film could be released. The lusty Latina vamp was neutered into a harmless comic version and screen Hispanas became increasingly frivolous. Velez, for example, starred in eight "Mexican Spitfire" comedies before she committed suicide at age 36.

Bandidos continued to live (and die) down to their reputation, and Hollywood's favorite screen Latino was Pancho Villa, who had led some raids into the United States. Villa was not depicted as a Mexican revolutionary leader of agrarian reform, only as a foe of U.S. territorial integrity.

Mexico protested to Hollywood and Washington. This had little result until Mexico and other Latin nations banned offensive films. Hollywood then took another look at its Southern neighbors, and Warner produced the first Latino social problems films: "Bordertown" (1935), with Paul Muni as a Mexican-American lawyer enduring discrimination and the tantrums of Bette Davis' character, and "Juarez" in 1939.

Rita Hayworth (Margarita Cansino) launched her career in the '30s, but achieved fame only after changing her name--and her brunet hair to red.

World War II cut off Hollywood's European markets, and so Latin Americans were commercially courted for the first time. Its most pleasing dividends were Latin music (rumba, samba, conga and Xavier Cugat) and Carmen Miranda. Though Brazilian and born in Portugal, Miranda was seen as "the quintessential Latin": friendly, colorful and bananas--and always mangling the English language. Yet Carmen represented no one but herself; even the wildest imagination couldn't have dreamed her up!

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