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Snow White’s Wicked Queen, the Border and the Mex Files

17 August 2007

(11 July 2013… having mentioned this post elsewhere, don’t worry, the temporary crisis passes.  Still, if people WANT to donate to this site, by all means do… I’m not going to stop you.  I also found Salt of the Earth on youtube:  much too large for me to embed  here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7ZoomADDOI)

Being at least temporarily flat-ass broke as a result of disseminating what one person called “Pravda’s Mexico Bureau,” I’ve developed a real appreciation of Gayle Sondergaard.

Who?

Sondergaard was a big-time Hollywood star of the 1930s and 40s, mostly forgotten now, though she’s instantantly recognizable.Her “exotic” looks (though, in reality, she was a Minnesota farm girl) were the basis for the wicked queen in Walt Disney’s Snow White – and no wonder.As the one biographer put it, “Swift, manipulative, dangerously cunning and sinister, these were the key words that best described the roles that Gale Sondergaard played in motion pictures.”

Sondergaard figures into my own interest in Mexico, in an extremely round-about way.I’d had a slight interest in Latin America, both because I had a neighbor who wrote a biography on the esoteric subject of 19th century U.S.-Brazilian relations and because in graduate school, I’d done extensive research on Elizabeth Bishop, the Canadian-born U.S. poet who also wrote extensively about Brazil, where she spent most of her adult life.

And, when I was 14, I played tennis for a local city league.It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but there was a girl on our team who was chronologically a few years older, but had some developmental challenges that matched her with us early adolescents.She mentioned that she lived in a local residential school and that her mother was a movie actress.It only dawned on me a few years later that the movie actress was Bette Davis.

I’d already developed a guilty pleasure in Davis movies, and hung out with the kind of people where a REAL connection to a STAR– if nothing else – at least opened up some… uhhhh…. conversational possiblities.Bette Davis and Gayle Sondergaard were in two movies together.In The Letter, Sondergaard never says a word on-screen, but still manages the nearly impossible feat of dominating Davis in their scenes together (she pays the Chinese widow who blackmails – and later murders – Davis in revenge for killing her English husband).In the 1939 MGM costume drame Juarez, she plays Emperess Eugenia of France to Davis’ Carlotta.

Bette Davis… Juarez… a vague interest in Latin America.That’s where it all started.

So, how does Gayle Sondergaard fit into that?Other than costaring in a Zorro movie, once doing a turn as the reactionary and sinister Empress who propelled Maximiliano and Carlota on their destructive couse in Mexico isn’t a likely background for fostering U.S.-Mexican understanding. Sondergaard’s career came to a crashing halt in 1948 because she was a loyal wife.Her husband, director Herbert Biberman had been a Communist, and – in the late 1940s –we went through a particuarly nasty reactionary period, where even the wives of suspected disloyal Americans were smeared.Sondergaard stood by her man, and was blacklisted, along with several others.Actors, directors, cameramen, technicians – anyone who’d had any ties to left-wing movements in the 1930s (when it was perfectly respectable to do so) was unemployable.Many, incdentally, went to Mexico, where they could work during the golden age of Mexican cinema and where they helped launch Churubosco Studios, and later Televisa.

Up until 1948, Sondergaard had been a big star, and had earned a hefty paycheck.I guess it was the old Marxist saw, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” that led Sondergaard to put up the funds for one of the strangest – and best – films every made about Mexicans in the U.S. and about the border.Salt of the Earth, based on a real 1951 miners’ strike in Arizona.Will Geer (who in his 80s found new respectability as Grandpa Walton), with two stikes against him – he’d been blacklisted as a Communist, and thrown out of the Communist Party because he was gay – at least got a paycheck, and Biberman had a movie to direct.

Salt of the Earth is shameless propaganda, but very good propaganda.The story centers on the growing class consciousness of Esperanza Quintero, a humble Mexican immigrant housewife who has to take a lead role in the strike when the workers are legally enjoined from picketing.What made the film the classic it later became was that it dealt with the border realistically.Anglos and Latinos misunderstand each other, and have different cultural needs.Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans have their own subtily differing perspectives and wants.And – very unusual in any American film – people speak their own language.As far as I know, this is the first film to use English, Spanish and Spanglish.

I’ve had my phone cut off. Salt of the Earth had their star deported.While the major Anglo roles were played by blacklisted Hollywood actors, and the supporting cast was made up of United Mine Workers’ members (several acting out their own words and actions taken during the actual 1951 strike), taking on the part of the housewife turned leader requried hiring a real pro.

Originally Sondergaard herself was going to play Esparanza, but even her loyal husband realized the glamourous dragon lady wasn’t right for the role.Neither were any of the few Mexican actresses working in Hollywood – not that Katy Jurado (who might have carried it off) or Delores del Rio (definitely wrong for the part) would have taken the risk of working for known “subversives.”RosarioRevueltas, who had performed in a number of earthy roles, had her only U.S. performance in Salt of the Earth.

The vaguaries of Microsoft Millenium (and a duct-taped old Dell system), and utility bills aside, the worst the Mex Files has to endure is the occasional spam attack, and a few snotty “comments” (by the way, I’m more bemused than bothered by the guy who signed himself “grumpy” and complained that asking for money indicated there was no market for something he obviously reads regularly… meaning, he’s unwilling to contribute, not unable to do so).

During filming, Salt of the Earth was attacked by the film industry publications, denounced on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and shots were fired at the set.A little harder to take was Revultas’ arrest and deportation (she had a legitimate work permit) allegedly for being a “Communist sympathizer” (in those days, the Taft-Hartley Act – not rescinded until the Clinton presidency – allowed the State Department to deport “dangerous”– which including left-wing political sympathies).Revultas, who later did work in Communist East Germany and later in Cuba, but was never a Communist, later wrote:

[Since the U.S. authorities] had no evidence to present of my “subversive” character, I can only conclude that I was “dangerous” because I had been playing a role that gave status and dignity to the character of a Mexican-American woman.

Somehow, the film was finished (and processed secretly), opening in New York in 1954 – and then disappearing from American theaters.Despite showings in union halls across the southwest, and winning awards in Europe, the U.S. government actually banned the film after it had opened in all of twelve theaters.Sondergaard – and this is why I appreciate her – went bankrupt attempting what seems impossible:bringing Mexico and Mexicanismo to an Anglo audience.

The Mex Files tries in its own small way to work in the spirt of Salt of the Earth.Sondergaard and Bieberman did it was grace and style.The film is now recognized as the classic it is (and shown regularly on Mexican television, as well as to American labor, feminist and student groups).Money ain’t everything,but it sure makes work easier.

Ignore the grumps and give if you can.The phone (and internet service) can’t go back on until the nearly $400 in back charges are caught up.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. David O. permalink
    18 August 2007 9:07 am

    Rich,

    Thanks for covering this. I’ve never heard of it until now, and plan on seeing as soon as I get a copy. If only more folks would ante up to keep this blog going.

    Hang in there,

    David

  2. 13 June 2014 4:56 am

    I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but
    your blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and
    bookmark your website to come back down the road.

    Many thanks

  3. 12 May 2015 6:35 am

    It’s awesome designed for me to have a site, which is valuable in support of my knowledge.
    thanks admin

Trackbacks

  1. Court etiquette « The Mex Files
  2. “Salt of the Earth” at 60 | The Mex Files

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