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10 June 2018

Gilbert Roland as The Cisco Kid: Muy Caballero!

(This is my entry in Silver Screenings

Reel Infatuation Blogathon! 

Read 'Em All!)



When I was a little kid there were a lot of interesting and creative people on kids' tv, from endless reruns of beloved series like Hopalong Cassidy and Superman to classic cartoons stretching back to the almost prehistoric era (in cartoon terms) like Farmer Gray to terrific live programs featuring real geniuses like Chuck McCann, Sandy Becker, and Soupy Sales. Certain movie reruns were also aimed at kids, like classic Universal monster movies and various western series. Parents and other grown-ups didn't seem to pay much attention, which was all to the good -- I think seeing the surrrealistic mayhem of the very early animation was more educational than homogenized stuff kids get now, not to mention the weird operetta-style productions of Mighty Mouse. Of course we didn't know Mighty Mouse was parodying old fashioned drama; that's what being a kid is about -- you don't understand things and try to figure them out for yourself. Though sometimes I wonder if my generation's weirdness might stem from early exposure to Zacherly -- but that's another story.

Among my personal favorites were Yancy Derringer, Zorro, and the Cisco Kid. Now, it did not confuse me that there were two versions of the Cisco Kid. First was the television series starring Duncan Renaldo, which was really very good -- it had excellent stories and Renaldo took his role as a children's hero very seriously -- he would not allow Cisco to do anything unethical. Sometimes he pretended to, to catch the bad guy, but we knew he didn't mean it. However, there was also the movie Cisco Kid, as series of B-Westerns made in 1946 and 1947 by Monogram Pictures, starring Gilbert Roland. This was a very different Cisco. Notice that both of these heroes were in fact played by Latino actors; at least, everyone thought Duncan Renaldo was Latino, including him. In fact, he was an orphan and had no idea who his real parents were. He spent his childhood in Spain, and teen years in Brazil. But there was certainly no doubt about Gilbert Roland's Mexican  origin; he was the son of a famous Mexican bullfighter.

I loved them both, but Duncan Renaldo's program was definitely aimed at children. He was honest, wily, thoughtful, good-humored, and generous, and the show was really very well-written, and had a lot of interesting stories. What it did not have, however, was romance.



Gilbert Roland's Cisco Kid is a different breed of cat. I can't remember the TV Cisco ever kissing a girl, though of course he would always help a lady in distress. The first thing you notice about Gilbert Roland's Cisco is how fabulous his tall, elegant figure looks in serape and silver-trimmed jacket and sombrero; the second is how much his version of the character loves women.
Rather weirdly, neither one bears much resemblance to the original story. The Cisco Kid was created by O. Henry, of all people, in a story called "The Caballero's Way," published in 1907. He is very different indeed from familiar versions of the character; for one thing, he is not even Mexican, but a 22-year-old renegade named Goodall. He is also a thoughtless, casual killer, whose skill with a gun makes him all but invincible. These features fell away when Hollywood's never ending search for story material lit on this story, and its catchy title.


But one thing did remain; as O. Henry puts it: "Besides his marksmanship the Kid had another attribute for which he admired himself greatly. He was 'muy caballero,' as the Mexicans express it, where the ladies were concerned. For them he had always gentle words and consideration. He could not have spoken a harsh word to a woman. He might ruthlessly slay their husbands and brothers, but he could not have laid the weight of a finger in anger upon a woman." In the story, this leads to his downfall in a typically ironic O. Henry manner.

Every one of Gilbert Roland's six Cisco Kid programmers involves at least one complex relationship with a female character -- sometimes several, and once with what turns out to be a seriously bad girl. The plots generally involve Cisco wandering into town (with a side-kick called Baby -- Pancho hadn't come along yet) and discovering venal landowners or other big-business types oppressing innocent villagers in one way or another, and of course having to do something about it. Often, the wrongdoer's are Anglos, and sometimes they are corrupt officials. Throughout each film, he is flirtatious, kind, and chivalrous towards every female he comes across, from seven to seventy. None of them ever turns out to be the woman of his dreams, but he keeps on hoping.

Now, I was a huge Cisco fan as a kid; Duncan Renaldo was my hero when I was six (and he deserved it; but that's another story!) But Gilbert Roland's Cisco is a Cisco for grown-up ladies. Like Renaldo, Roland took his character seriously, and contributed to Cisco's lore and co-wrote some of the scripts. I wouldn't be surprised if he contributed to the traditional costume, as well, because he looks fabulous. He had just returned from wartime service in the Marines, and I'm sure the colorful serape and silver trimmed jacket were a welcome change after several years in uniform. In the first film, an effort is made to establish him as the son of the original O. Henry Cisco, but nobody really cared so they just dropped it in later entries. In one picture, one of the authentic traditions Roland genially explains is how to drink tequila with salt and fresh lemon; not for kiddies!


These six movies are available as a nice box set.



And here's a scene from Beauty and the Bandit.
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