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12 September 2016

The Mystery of the Vanished Latin Lovers

Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand
Film fans who are familiar with stars of the 1920’s and 1930’s might notice one big difference between the decades — namely, what happened to all the Latin Lovers? Since Rudolph Valentino’s sensational appearance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921, actors like Valentino, Antonio Moreno, Ramon Novarro, Don Alvarado, Gilbert Roland, and Pedro de Cordoba, who were all actually Latin (Valentino was Italian, and the others were Spanish, Mexican, or Mexican-American) all came under the heading of Latin Lovers — a popular type of romantic hero. It was so popular that some actors were given Latin names even if they were not in fact Latin — a handsom young actor named Jacob Krantz was renamed Ricardo Cortez.
Ricardo Cortez

When sound came in in 1928, some of these actors — particularly Ramon Novarro, who had a fine, classically trained singing voice — were actually more popular. But gradually, and especially after 1933, when the Production Code began to be enforced more strictly, nearly all of these actors faded away as top stars. By 1935, real Latins — and even pseudo-Latins, like Ricardo Cortez — were no longer leading men.
After the wild, sexual happenings of the pre-code era, and the intense violence and social upheaval of the iconic gangster films, all of which were very popular but also caused protests from various leagues of decency, etc., movies of the mid-1930’s had become quite staid. And one of the things that disappeared — along with double beds, the inside of the female thigh, the word “nuts” as an expletive, and suicide — was ethnicity. Jewish, Italian, Chinese, and even German characters disappeared. Everybody was suddenly a middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (even if they clearly weren’t). And anyone who actually Hispanic or Italian became an unacceptable romantic ideal. (This is why the lovely up-and-coming brunette starlet Rita Cansino became redheaded Rita Hayworth.)
Ramon Novarro

This only lasted a couple of years, but it was enough to end the careers of the Latin Lovlovers. Novarro and de Cordoba became character actors eventually, and Cortez became a director. Characters who were supposed to be of Italian origin could be played by actors of a different non-WASP ethnicity, like Edward G. Robinson. Stories that called for romantic Latin types might feature somebody like John Carroll, who was Latin in a way — he was a Creole from New Orleans — but not Hispanic.
Only one real Mexican-American star survived this strange wave of make-believe ethnic cleansing, and that was Gilbert Roland. The only explanation I can think of is that he was married to an important movie star, Constance Bennett, co-starring with her quite charmingly in several films. Whatever the reason, he is the only actor of Mexican origin who remained a star from the 1920s to the 1950s. Before WW2, he frequently played roles of various European nationalities, the studios figuring as always that one foreign accent was as good as another. But after becoming a U.S. citizen and serving in the Army Air Corps during the war, he returned to Hollywood and re-started his film career as the Cisco Kid in an excellent series of six B-movie adventures, and thereafter was generally a Hispanic character of some sort.
Young Gilbert Roland -- the hair needed some work

Anyway, the strong urge to WASP-ness was over by then; by 1938, ethnicity returned, even if in rather strangled form. This might have been in part because however much studio heads might want to hide their heads in the sand, it looked pretty likely that Nazi Germany was going to be a threat, and it would behoove us to be friends with our neighbors in Mexico and South America. And our other friends and neighbors, too; rather than emphasizing our middle-American homogeneity, it became a strategic advantage to view foreigners — good, anti-Nazi foreigners, that is — with tolerance and respect. As the war took hold, this even included non-white allies. Thus the scenes of solidarity with Chinese and Filipino soldiers, and even, eventually, Russian Communists in both fiction and non-fiction films from 1939 to 1946.
Ricardo Montalban

The social engineering that was an integral part of wartime mobilization in World War 2 was a huge benefit to our country. The messages of tolerance and acceptance intended to make it possible for all Americans to work together, whatever their race, religion, or background, which were part of radio programs, film scripts, and promotional talks from stars like Frank Sinatra, could not be taken back after the war. True, disillusionment set in after the end of hostilities, and veterans returning to the U.S., having given their all to defend American values, were startled and disappointed to find that graft, bribery, and profiteering had accompanied this war as all other wars. But as a country, our marker had been laid down, so to speak; we had fought a war saying it was for freedom and equality, and there was no going back.

To give the major film studios credit, there was no going back to that imaginary homogenized paradise (though why they thought it was a paradise in the first place is another mystery). Movies after World War 2 were far more diverse. Latin lovers returned, and nobody minded, especially when they were as attractive and talented as Ricardo Montalban and Fernando Lamas. The whole strange episode has been largely forgotten.

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