Friday, March 28

MGMs Latin Lovers

Érase una vez habia dos ídolos latinos que tomaron Hollywood por asalto. Había algunos antes de ellos.... ooops, sorry, I got carried away. Once upon a time there were two Latin heartthrobs who took Hollywood by storm. There were some before them and there have been a slew since. But during the 50s primarily we had two of them at Hollywood's glamour studio.  Let's see who they are.

Ricardo Montalban arrived at the studio first, in 1947, with much attention being lavished on him.  They were looking for a Latin leading man and the fact that he was also Mexican particularly pleased that large Southern California contingent.  He was elegant on and off the screen and a genuinely nice guy.  The brass liked him, his leading ladies had a good enough relationship with him to ask to work with him again and the public took to him immediately, particularly the distaff side.  He was also talented... polished in drama, smooth in comedy, he could sing, he danced and as luck would have it, he could swim.

He was born in 1920 in Mexico City.  As a teen he moved to Los Angeles and lived with his older brother Carlos, an actor.  He was singled out in a school play as having looks and talent.  After graduation the brothers took off for New York where Ricardo soon nabbed small parts in several plays.  When his mother became seriously ill, he returned to Mexico City and it was there that he got into films.  Soon MGM called and in his first, second and fourth films, Fiesta, On an Island with You and Neptune's Daughter, he splashed and smooched with Esther Williams. 

He was fun in a fluffy, little Jane Powell-Debbie Reynolds musical romance called Two Weeks with Love, macho in a decent war film, Battleground, packed a wallop in a boxing movie, Right Cross, and outstanding in a good B film noir, Mystery Street, all 1950.  A year earlier he appeared in another good noir, Border Incident.

Though a gentleman through and through, Montalban could get testy on the ethnic roles he played.  Though that very ethnicity (and talent) is what got him hired, he disliked being pigeon-holed and he made some noise around the studio.  The brass probably interpreted his complaints as not wanting to play Mexicans, so then they had him play Babylonians, Japanese and of course American Indians.  They didn't get it.  Studio chieftains usually thought the actor should be very grateful for the opportunity and there was nothing more to say.

One of his turns as an Indian came in 1951 in one of my favorite westerns of that time, Across the Wide Missouri.  It likely wasn't one of Montalban's favorite movies.  Trapper Clark Gable's Indian wife has just been killed at a watering hole while their baby is in a cradleboard attached to the horse's saddle.  The riderless horse bolts and begins a run across the plains with Montalban in first pursuit and Gable following him.  It was during this scene that Montalban fell off his horse, injuring his spine and resulting in a limp for the rest of his life.  He was carefully filmed for the remainder of his long career.

After leaving MGM, he would continue to work in movies and also did a lot of television, most famously in the latter medium as Mr. Roarke in Fantasy Island.  He had notable roles in two movie franchises, Star Trek and Planet of the Apes

Despite the Latin lover persona, he was never a playboy.  He was by all accounts happily married to Loretta Young's sister Georgianna for 63 years.  He would die of congestive heart failure in 2009 but had been wheelchair-bound for two years because of that spinal injury.

Fernando Lamas was a whole other story.  He was not as good an actor as Montalban nor as well-liked.  The studio may have brought him on board as a threat to or replacement for Montalban who was not only grumbling about his ethnic roles but was suffering with his injury.  Lamas never had the slightest intention of playing down his ethnicity.  In fact, he revelled in it.  He kept his accent strong and was loud and noisy about his Argentinian roots.  Most of all, he was a playboy.  He didn't just act like one... he was one.  I thought he was good-looking, great smile, lotsa teeth.  I'm not so sure he liked acting as much as he liked what acting brought him... the glamour, people fussing over him and certainly the babes.  While some of his antics made me smile, I did so while observing one of the most conceited actors there ever was.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1915, he became a film star there as a young man.  He was also an accomplished athlete and was an excellent equestrian.  His athletic prowess, it's said, is what initially caught MGMs eye and he left behind two children and two ex-wives to accept their offer. And what do they put him in but a silly Jane Powell movie, Rich, Young and Pretty, where he appropriately plays a horny suitor of French actress Danielle Darrieux.

He celebrated making the papers and appearing in movie magazines and the stories usually involved a woman.  Sometimes the items involved sordidness such as his slapping around Lana Turner, his first big Hollywood romance.  They appeared together in the over-produced Merry Widow (1952), both gorgeous and hammy.  In 1953 he was loaned out to star opposite Arlene Dahl in Sangaree, a B adventure yarn, and the next year he married her.  She was divorced from movie Tarzan Lex Barker who would go on to marry Lana Turner.  Are you writing all this down?

Another romp with Dahl followed in The Diamond Queen.  He sang to Ann Blyth in Rose Marie, went gaga over a young Liz Taylor in The Girl Who Had Everything, feuded with Rosalind Russell while making The Girl Rush and did the backstroke with future wife Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet.  Check out those titles.  No wonder his MGM days were over quickly.  My guess is that whatever MGM had in mind when they hired Lamas, it either didn't last or never materialized.  He tried Broadway and had an out-and-out war with Ethel Merman, his leading lady in Happy Hunting.

Of course he would wind up in television but a great deal of that was behind the cameras after he smartly took up directing.  He was probably a better director than an actor although one wonders how he managed the loss of public adulation.  And then there's that fiery temperament, not the finest trait for a movie director.

His longest marriage was to Williams and while she professed in her autobiography that it was a happy one, she also said that he was a control freak and that she had to do exactly as he demanded.  (Have I lost you, ladies?)  He would direct her in her final film, some Spanish low-budget thing called The Magic Fountain.

I thought he was a wonderful villain and it's a shame he didn't connect with that earlier in his career rather than his Latin lover romances.  One of his better later character roles was as a sadistic Mexican general in the Jim Brown-Raquel Welch western, 100 Rifles

Lamas died in Los Angeles in 2008 at age 67 of pancreatic cancer.

Who's Dewey Martin?

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