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16 March 2008

Geeze, maybe now that silly “Donkey Show” post won’t be my all time top hit!

Though forced to make compromise with their identity, two Mexican men left an indelible mark on Hollywood during the silent era.

Gilbert Roland (born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso in Cd. Juarez, in 1905) — the guy in the suit — originally intended to be a matador, like his father. Pancho Villa — in a sense, the third silent-era male lead from Mexico — of all people, closed the bullrings in Juarez … because he despised cruelty!

Luis Antonio’s family moved to Los Angeles, where — matadors not being an occupation with much future — had to find other work. Luis Antonio, starting as a boy extra in the films, enjoyed a long career stretching into the 1980s.

Despite changing his name to the more Anglo Gilbert Roland (taken from John Gilbert and Ruth Roland, two friends of his), there was no way not to “look Mexican”. Roland built a career as a “Latin lover” and later as a stereotyped Mexican (some say Roland, not Duncan Renaldo, was the definitive Cisco Kid). He did his best to live up to his reputation, not only writing (and publishing) romantic poetry, but having a series of romantic affairs …. with women. After a tempestuous affair with Norma Talmadge, he married Constance Bennett, divorced her in 1944, and finally settled down with a good Mexican wife. He lived to be 88, dying in 1994.

Ramon Novarro also had to change his name — according to legend, for the simple reason that a secretary had trouble typing his given name, Ramón Gil Samaniego … and because his agent figured that he needed a name that competed with Rudolf Valentino. In the silent era, Novarro enjoyed a wider range of roles than the usual “latin lover”. Besides his good looks, he had a great smile (he later admitted he rubbed his teeth with vasoline, but, then, Mexican are famous for their good teeth), was friendly with everyone (including the press) and comfortable with himself. Unusual for a silent film actor, Novarro was an athlete who took care of his physique. Several photos show Novarro working out at the gym, or competing in field and track events.

The son of a Durango dentist, Ramón Gil Samaniego was born in 1899. Like Roland, his family was displaced by the Revolution and ended up in Los Angeles, where the carefully educated Ramon had to work — or wanted to work — as a singing waiter and dancer. After some bit parts, Novarro’s breakthough was in Prisoner of Zenda, and then he became a mega-star in the 1925 MGM extravaganza, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Maybe because it was a “pious” family-oriented film, director Fred Niblo and producer Louis B. Mayer could get away with a lot more than normal. The most expensive silent film ever made, it featured what some think is a better chariot race than the one in the 1958 version of the story. Meyer offered a 100 dollar prize to the winner of a real chariot race and Niblo kept the cameras rolling, even during a fatal accident. He also kept the cameras rolling during a ship’s battle scene when a real fire broke out, which made the panicked looks on the faces of “sailors” absolutely authentic. It was. The film took two years to make, during which time Novarro was paid $10,000 a week (the average salary in the United States in 1925 was about $1750… a year).

The 1925 Ben-Hur was a break-though in another way. As a galley-slave, Ramon Novarro became the first mainstream Hollywood actor to appear in the nude.

Mexican men are said — with some truth — to be uncomfortable with showing off their bodies, but then Ramon was not one for stereotypes. Well, maybe some stereotypes. Waiter, dancer, gym bunny… of course he was gay. He made no secret of it, though in the 1920s, sexual orientation was only mentioned in connection with scandal or criminality. And Ramon was a likable guy, popular with the press and his peers. However, with the advent of “talkies” which somewhat limited his acting range to parts where his Mexican accent would not be a handicap, a bigger issue was the “Hays Code” which meant Novarro — being “out” — was out. Not that it mattered much. He’d invested his Ben-Hur earnings wisely, and had enough to live comfortably. He continued to do some acting into the early 1930s (typecast as a “Latin lover”, or at least an exotic foreigner), and later a little television work, usually playing “Don so-and-so” in westerns.

Conscious that he was a Mexican, he was one of the first “Hollywood liberals” using his film and business connections to raise defense funds for the pachucos arrested during the 1943 “Zoot Suit Riots.” It was wartime, and when fights broke out between sailors in Los Angeles and Mexican and Mexican-American kids, the sailors were popularly considered innocent, the kids (many of whom were targeted when going out in “Zoot Suits” — the club clothes of the day), branded as “miscreants” by the patriotic press. In the 1960s, Novarro arranged financing for pioneering gay rights organizations and activities.

Unfortunately, like a lot of aging beauties, and well-heeled gay men in general, he was a target for hustlers. Believing Novarro kept cash at home, two punks tortured and beat the 68-year old star to death as they trashed his house on the night of 30 October 1968.

OK… I did say NUDE gay Mexican… relatively safe for work


29 Comments leave one →
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  9. 4 March 2009 11:04 am

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