Posted by moirafinnie on May 6, 2009
Elementary school teacher Alma Bartlett was never famous, she never made a movie, or dazzled others with her wit and beauty. Yet, in her first years as a teacher in an El Paso, Texas school, she built a rapport with a gangly boy whose frequent absences from school frustrated her. The friendship they forged would last for over forty years. Her former student returned to El Paso in years to come, as he would many times. Then he would be a world famous man, renowned for his good looks and for squiring great beauties. When encountering a reporter, he would often unfold an ancient, creased report card he carried in his wallet to display with affection the time that Mrs. Bartlett had enough faith in him to pass him from sixth to seventh grade, despite his neglect of his studies. The seventh grade was as far as his formal education would take him.
Born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso, in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico on December 11, 1905, (some sources say 1903), this boy had what most of us would characterize as a glamorous life, but he would never forget this inspiring young teacher. Alma saw something more in the Mexican-born scion of a family of Spanish matadors, and urged him “to do something with his life.” It would not be easy.
Running away from home on a freight train to Hollywood at 14, the mature-looking youngster found work as an uncredited extra in several films, including The Lost World (1925). He found more extra work by hanging around “Gower Gulch” at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, an area where several movie studios were located and where cowboys hung around waiting for day jobs in westerns, (pictured in the early movie days below, today there is a western-themed strip mall located there). Luis was hired as a cowboy extra and, sometimes, on the same day, he was also signed on to portray an Indian. ‘All day I chased myself on horseback for three dollars and lunch. My baptism in silent movies,’ he would later reflect. In between on set movie jobs he took work as a dishwasher, answering fan mail for one of the first “Latin Lovers” of the movies, Antonio Moreno, and as an usher at the Pantages Theater, where he worked alongside another future actor, Ramon Navarro. (The Alonso family had been acquainted with Navarro’s in Mexico before the revolution). In 1922, thanks to his familiarity with bullfighting, Luis was hired as a dresser’s assistant on the Rudolph Valentino picture, Blood and Sand. After helping to quell a violent argument among extras, the awed teenager found himself having a cut tended to by the star, who used his handkerchief, monogrammed with the initials R.V., to bind his wound.
The Matinee Idol
With Kahn‘s help and building on the friendships that the personable young man had formed with movie studio personnel, Gilbert Roland found himself cast in The Plastic Age with Clara Bow nearing her peak of popularity. The film, an amalgam of college hijinks, twenties style, on and off the athletic field, (hardly anyone seems to study) was, according to an early title in this silent, “dedicated to the youth of the world.” As drama it now seems a bit familiar, though far less puritanical than expected, with gamine Clara smoking, drinking and partying like there was no tomorrow. Bow plays a wild thing involved with college boy David Keith, a star athlete, who hails from a strait-laced family. During his involvement with Clara, studies suffer, and Keith learns that the “hotsy-totsy” girl is also attracted to his roommate, Carl (Gilbert Roland). Combining school, sports and sex, the plot was negligible. Roland, who looked convincing as a rival for Bow‘s affections and as a football player, is visibly nervous and somewhat ill at ease in a few of the more ludicrous scenes, (such as the climactic reconciliation of the roommates).
Soon, the likable, emotionally flighty Clara Bow and Roland were conducting an off-screen affair, with eleven year old Budd Schulberg, the son of producer B.P. Schulberg, acting as a go-between, delivering notes to one and the other on the set, even though the boy was too circumspect to read them. “Clarita” as Gilbert called the often lonely Brooklyn-born actress, responded to the young, handsome actor’s gentleness as well as his ardent machismo. While considering themselves engaged, Bow‘s domineering, exploitive father reportedly objected to the actor’s relatively small paycheck, his Roman Catholicism, and particularly, his status as a “greasy Mexican.”
After the dust settled at a later date, Clara once reflected on this period of her hectic love life, saying, “We was real happy, sorta like two youngsters that didn’t know what [life] was all about and was scared t’death of it.” Inevitably, given their youth, (both were a mere twenty), and the distractions and work schedules of their cinematic lives, they parted, after several painfully dramatic moments and histrionic jealous displays on Roland‘s part. As his Spanish-born father Francisco Alonso had once warned his son, “Remember, women gore more often than bulls.” Clara soon moved on to Victor Fleming, Robert Savage, Gary Cooper and others, with her poorly managed career and unstable personal life spinning out of control as the Talkie revolution overtook Hollywood.
Gilbert Roland himself, who was not immune to temptation, reportedly courted Barbara LaMarr, Mae West, Lupe Velez, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Dorothy Dandridge, and Lana Turner, among numerous others over the decades, though after a roller coaster relationship with the mercurial Constance Bennett that eventually led to a marriage from 1941 to 1945, he eventually married a non-actress, Guillermina Cantu, in the early 1950s. Their union lasted until his death forty years later.
However, when he was cast as Armand in a silent version of Dumas’ Camille (1926) by the husband of his co-star, Roland was soon involved with the married Norma Talmadge for several years, making a rather powerful enemy of his employer, which probably did not help his career. The actor was part of the reason why producer Joseph Schenck eventually divorced the actress, (who then chose instead to marry George Jessel after dallying with Gilbert for several years), but Roland doesn’t seem to have allowed his private life to interfere too much with his public one. During this period, the athletic and sociable Gilbert began to form bonds with many on the Hollywood social scene. His film status as a matinee idol began to fade with the coming of sound, but his social life picked up.
Not everyone loved the actor, who was often called “Amigo” by everyone who knew him, even slightly. Schenck is said to have threatened him with castration, a rumor that Roland‘s brother, Chico Day, reported prompted his older sibling to boldly parade around at the Hollywood Athletic Club pool (where nude swimming was commonplace) in the buff for a time. This challenge to Schenck‘s pals (and Roland‘s potential enemies) was, based on Day‘s comments, typical of his brother, whom he described as “a character.” Gilbert Roland‘s stepson with Bennett thought him shallow, despite their shared interest in music and literature, and director Budd Boetticher, who saw Roland give his finest performance for him on film, “absolutely loathed the man but he was great in the picture” they made together, Bullfighter and the Lady (1950).
Despite these occasional reports of his alleged arrogance, a wandering eye, and an understandable desire of an ambitious man to impress those around him over the course of an almost 90 year life, there are also many more accounts of Gilbert Roland‘s deep gift for friendship. For example, with all the distractions of his work and social life, Roland remained among those who were genuinely fond of the increasingly fragile Clara Bow. He appeared opposite the actress as a half-breed named “Moonglow” in one of Bow‘s last films and one of her best–a lively and erotically charged melodramatic pre-code entitled Call Her Savage(1932). While Roland‘s character rather passively endures a whipping from Bow‘s hellion character and shows up to comfort her periodically during the plot’s many travails, which included prostitution, marital rape, gender bending, death and fire, his steadying presence in the cast, at her behest, may have helped Clara to create a more complex character than is usual in her movies. This film, which shows up periodically on cable broadcasts, holds up rather well today, allowing modern viewers reluctant to see silent movies to glimpse the “It” girl’s palpable appeal and vulnerability. Later in both their lives, after Clara Bow‘s career as well as her marriage to western actor and politician Rex Bell had waned and she was living in solitude in the Los Angeles area, struggling with mental illness, Gilbert Roland was one of the few who continued to visit with her. Writing from a film location, the actor wrote to his former love:
“Hello Clarita Girl;
Clara Bow would tell interviewers that Roland was still her favorite actor, long after their relationship cooled. Gilbert Roland would be in Europe and unable to return in time for Clara Bow‘s funeral in 1965, when she passed away at age sixty.
Another person who found Roland‘s company a boon to his self-esteem and mood was Buster Keaton, who became acquainted with Gilbert near the unhappy end of Keaton‘s marriage to Natalie Talmadge (Norma‘s sister). Traveling in Europe, visiting bullfights in the company of the popular Roland in Spain, Buster found him to be a consistent pal despite his troubles. Roland would refuse to comment publicly about the creative comic’s problems, especially his alcoholism. Film historian Kevin Brownlow found Roland difficult to pin down about Keaton when he tried to interview him. “Well, he was brilliant,” Gilbert Roland would say even after Keaton‘s death. “One of the greatest, one of the most wonderful, altruistic men I’ve ever met in my life. Buster,” he insisted, “never depended on anything but himself.”
Still another who could attest to Gilbert Roland‘s gift for friendship was Peter Lorre. When the unlikely pair were both working on separate projects at Warner Brothers during the 1940s, they became quite close, bond by their similarly irreverent senses of humor with other individuals such as Humphrey Bogart, Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Butterworth, and writers John O’Hara and John McClain. Lorre, who struggled for much of his adult life with morphine addiction and attendant health problems, was encouraged by Gilbert to take up tennis, to watch his diet and improve his sartorial style. Friends such as director Vincent Sherman commented on the improvement in his appearance, mentioning that “[Lorre] became like a different person…his hair was neatly combed and he was very well dressed. I think it was in late spring or early summer [of 1941]…I thought, my God, how attractive he looks, very dapper. He was obviously very happy.” Sadly, by 1959, when the pair of friends acted together in The Big Circus (1959), Roland found his friend less able to respond to his encouragement, and Lorre seemed to put his best qualities into his off-screen efforts to make his part as a clown more interesting, despite the somewhat tawdry film’s flea-bitten appeal. Gilbert was said to be saddened to see his friend’s struggling to make a living, despite his artistry. (If you ever have a chance to see this pale imitation of “The Greatest Show on Earth”, don’t miss one of the more entertaining scenes, which I still recall vividly–when Gilbert Roland, tightrope walker, treads the high wire across the top of Niagara Falls!…or at least it looked that way to me when I was a little kid, but I digress!).
In his recent autobiography, Pieces of My Heart by Robert Wagner with Scott Eyman, the actor recounts his admiration for Roland‘s studied professionalism and equable good nature on the set of Beneath the 12 Mile Reef (1953), a technically challenging film with extended underwater sequences recorded on location for a long period of time. Those of us who saw this film once upon a time, may also remember sponge fisherman Gilbert Roland‘s highly dramatic death scene, as well as Bernard Herrmann‘s beautiful score.
A man who could sometimes seem full of swagger on screen, Mr. Roland reportedly had a capacity for great tenderness and sentimental gestures toward family and friends. Two of his brothers would eventually join him working in production in the studios in Hollywood, with his younger sibling, Francisco “Chico” Day (1907-1995), becoming the first Mexican-American to become a member of the Directors Guild of America, for which he was honored by the DGA Latino Committee in 1995.
In one of Gilbert‘s unguarded moments, he once revealed to an interviewer that he wore a gold ring on his little finger engraved with his mother’s dying words: “My son, don’t rush yourself, don’t worry yourself, good-bye, my soul.” Nor did the actor ever forget the kindness extended to him by director John Huston, who cast him in a good, showy role in the 1949 film, We Were Strangers. “I seemed to click all over again,” Mr. Roland said, adding: “If Huston hadn’t had faith to cast me in his picture, no one would have considered me for ‘The Bullfighter and the Lady,’ and I might be back where I started as a kid, selling cushions at the Juarez arena.”
Other, less famous friends recalled times when “Amigo” returned to his old hometown of El Paso to help endow a newspaper carrier scholarship, raise money for veterans organizations, to visit regularly with his aging teacher, Alma Bartlett, and reportedly, to fill his car with toys and drive across the Mexican border, handing them out to all the children he met as he tooled around. In a 1975 interview, Gilbert said that both El Paso and Juarez were “always in my heart. I keep the memory of my people, my land and my town warm in my heart.” When Mrs. Bartlett, (seen at right with her erstwhile student), died at age 83 in 1959, Gilbert cancelled a personal appearance tour to promote The Big Circus (1959), to be a pall bearer at her funeral in Austin, Texas. He understood the meaning of roots.
The Character Actor
As a film actor Gilbert Roland was a striking figure on the screen from his appearance as an uncredited extra in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) until his last role in the under-rated Fred Schepisi western, Barbarosa (1982). With his handsome face and form, erect posture, intense dignity, and his jovial, mocking style, his persistent presence in movies over six decades helped to refute the usual stereotypes of Hispanics in films, as he avoided being categorized as either strictly the Latin lover type, the bandido, the male buffoon, or the patriarch.
As an actor, he was a matinee idol in the silent era, when, his romantic appearance in films with Norma Talmadge, Mary Astor, and Clara Bow almost made him a star in the Valentino mold. By the 1930s, sound and his heavily accented English might have limited his chances of working, though he continued to appear in English and Spanish language pictures, particularly at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he appeared in everything from a Spanish language adaptation of Tolstoy’s Resurrección (1931) opposite Lupe Velez to a scene in which he fought a comic gun duel with his close friend Buster Keaton in one of the latter’s unfortunate pairings with Jimmy Durante in The Passionate Plumber (1932).
Mae West found him worthy to share the screen with her as the “boy toy” of her rival in She Done Him Wrong (1933)–a role that did not tax his acting muscles, though it gave him a higher profile professionally.
Three other notable films that he appeared in during this decade were in the campy George Cukor adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s comedy about the upper classes, Our Betters (1933), (made with his future wife,Constance Bennett, who would become the mother of his two daughters,Lorinda and Gyl ), the solemn biopic Juarez (1939), and, on the brink of WWII, he appeared in fine fettle as a wryly philosophical Spanish naval officer in opposition to an Elizabethan era Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk (1940).
The true high spots in his career, however, would come after he became a United States citizen, his subsequent wartime service in the Army Air Corps, and his return to Hollywood. Among these movies, stand-out characterizations by Roland may be found in his principled revolutionaries in We Were Strangers and Crisis, his torero in Bullfighter and the Lady, the loyal, enigmatic friend and possible enemy of Barbara Stanwyck in the extraordinary The Furies, his funniest performance is given as “Gaucho” the relaxed playboy actor in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and a continental speed demon in The Racers, his fatherly mentors in Beneath the 12 Mile Reef and The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, adventurers in Underwater! and Bandido, as well as numerous television appearances, notably in the pivotal High Chaparral, a television western that truly attempted to tell the story of the American West from the Hispanic viewpoint as well as the Anglo one.
One scholar, Charles Ramírez Berg, writing about his distinctive persona on film, mentioned that Roland “avoided stereotypes in two ways: by his distinctive athletic posture and his flashy apparel”, utilizing his straight but graceful posture, which may have been derived from his bullfighting training as a boy. Another way that he attracted the viewer’s eye consistently was by his “trademark costume tricks”. These were not the same as most Latino types, according to Berg, and usually consisted of noticeably “thick, leather wrist bands”, “a kerchief (preferably red) tied around his neck, his shirt (preferably white) unbuttoned to reveal his bare chest, and a thick chain with a large gold medal dangling from his neck.” This, Prof. Berg contends, is Gilbert Roland‘s scene-stealing uniform, the equivalent of a “flashing neon sign pointing at him”–though it would not be complete, imho, without his signature hat, tilted at just the right angle, and balanced by an attitude that says, “Yes, this is all nonsense, but one must go on.” Playing secondary characters in most movies, Roland does seem to have worn similar enough outfits in several movies quite often, as seen in the accompanying photo, lending creedence to Berg’s suggestion that this outfit might have been something that the actor chose for himself.
Claiming that “My screen image never bothers me”, the actor would say, “but I have never contradicted it either.” Despite this ambiguous comment and his aloofness from formal activism, Roland is reported to have been offended by Hollywood’s frequent attempts to characterize Mexican characters as clowns and successfully demanded script changes when appropriate. I can’t help wondering if one of the series of Cisco Kid movies he made at Monogram Studios after returning to Hollywood after the Second World War might have been one of the films in which he tried to make amends for the many caricatures of Hispanics in the movies. Having enjoyed Duncan Renaldo‘s boyishly endearing Cisco as a kid, seeing Gilbert Roland inject more of the flavor of O.Henry’s original character into the scripts for the six Cisco Kid outings was a revelation. While O. Henry’s original character as written was an Anglo reprobate, Roland, in fare such as The Gay Cavalier (1946), Robin Hood of Monterey (1947) or King of the Bandits (1947) takes the skirt-chasing, tequila drinking caballero aspects introduced by Warner Baxter in the popular In Old Arizona (1929), and gives the Robin Hood character his own sense of roguishness, occasional moments of poetic melancholy, and much more physical dash than previously seen in the franchise. As a matter of fact, in several scenes, Roland even recites poetic lines that he had written. (The actor, a devotee of Ernest Hemingway, would read his work obsessively, and tried his own hand at poetry as well as an as yet unpublished autobiography called The Wine of Yesterday.)
While I can’t possibly touch on all of Gilbert Roland‘s films here, there are two that may provide a template for understanding this actor’s largely unappreciated presence in American movies–Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) and The Furies (1950).
In the former film, which was edited down from the director’s 124 minute original version to a 90 minute length by John Ford just before release in 1951 to ensure that John Wayne, the producer of this Republic film, could recoup his costs and make a profit by running the show more often in theatres. Reportedly, that was also to ensure that all that “chi-chi stuff” in the movie dramatizing the bond between the two central male characters played by Roland and Robert Stack was removed. That editing job had, Boetticher felt, cut the heart out of the movie’s beautifully detailed Mexican sequences documenting the social and cultural atmosphere surrounding the toreo and the matador’s techniques involved in dominating a bull. I’m so glad that these were restored in the restored version of this film, since these scenes, particularly those showing the Mexican children, the atmosphere of a tienta–where young bulls are tested for their “bravery” (in American terms, we’d tend to see it more as their “fierceness”), and the raucous as well as the refined people who are aficionados of this sport, were among the best in the film. This beautifully photographed movie, is being broadcast again in its restored version on TCM on June 25th at 5:30pm EDT. You can see the original trailer for this movie here.
The story could also be seen as a paean to masculinity, and the way that one man can express his love for another through their mutual devotion to an almost religious experience, comparable to that bond formed by those who go into battle together. As a matter of fact, the movie presents this aspect of bullfighting quite well, with only, I suppose, my 21st Century eyes seeing a sequence in a steam room as unnecessarily on the ‘beefcake’ side–though as a straight woman, it’s sort of refreshing. While from Budd Boetticher‘s creative viewpoint, Gilbert Roland‘s approach to the role of the mentor-toreador to Stack was far too arrogant, I suspect that the older actor saw this as his one chance to honor his father and family traditions on film. While Roland clearly builds a credible relationship with the neophyte Robert Stack in this story, the heart of the story for me was not the love affair between Stack‘s character and the Mexican aristocrat played by Joy Page. Instead, it was the unspoken but palpable relationship Gilbert Roland conveyed on screen with his co-star, Katy Jurado, who was making her American film debut in Bullfighter and the Lady that lingers long in one’s memory. As my friend April put it after seeing the pair in this story, “You believed these two were really married, I mean really married—they didn’t need words to communicate. And you understood why Katy felt as she did about him, why she gave her ‘approval’ for that last, costly gesture. She knew a man like that must go with dignity.” This film, which exemplifies much of what is appealing about Mexican culture and Gilbert Roland as an actor, is only available on vhs commercially, but it does air on TCM regularly.
Another film in which one wishes that the filmmaker, the gifted Anthony Mann, might have re-written the Western film to focus more on Gilbert‘s character was The Furies (1950). This movie, based on a Niven Busch novel, featured the great Walter Huston‘s last role as Barbara Stanwyck‘s land baron father, trying to consolidate his power while giving his children short shrift and treating all Mexican-Americans as interlopers, unworthy of his respect. The extraordinarily good cast, which also included Judith Anderson as Stanwyck’s stepmother, and Blanche Yurka as Gilbert Roland‘s demonic horse-thief, squatter mother pivots around Stanwyck‘s Freudian and mythic-tinged electra complex and need for control. As the usually hard-bitten Stanwyck character’s oldest friend and perhaps her former lover, Roland‘s scenes in The Furies are suffused with an intimate tenderness and understanding between the pair that is missing from all other relationships. The heart went out of this film when Gilbert Roland‘s magnetic presence left the scene. His acceptance of his own fate may have irked some, but he underlined his character’s own belief that there was something more in life than just this existence. Roland’s embattled but proud and fatalistic character seems to be the only character who is truly whole, needing few outside confirmations of his worth as a person, and able to live with an inner vision of a world that is ultimately just, if not in this world or this film, somewhere inside himself.
One of the greatest frustrations of this film was the blindness (a motif that is laced throughout this interesting story) of Bab‘s character to what Roland really represents: a life affirming mutual respect and love. This movie, which was released by Criterion on dvd last year, is worthy of inclusion in any examination of Gilbert Roland‘s career and of the Latino presence in American movies.
After his death, Kevin Brownlow wrote an affectionate appreciation for Gilbert Roland, describing an arranged meeting they had at the “Beverly Hills Tennis Club, where he played well into his eighties. And there was no mistaking him when he arrived; he wore a white hat, and open-necked white shirt, showing the old religious medallion hanging at his chest. He had great charisma, and immense charm; he embraced people instead of shaking their hands, and he had no Anglo-Saxon reticence about emotion.
“But reticent he was about being interviewed. He refused point- blank to appear on camera. [Brownlow and his partner David Gill] had the distinct impression that he was shy. He had been a sky- rocketing star in the last years of silent films, and his affection and admiration for silent films was apparent. But he would not repeat his reminiscences on camera.”
According to one newspaper report printed after his death in 1994, “Roland often said he didn’t approve of modern movies with their violence and sex. His heart stayed with the glamorous cinema of Hollywood’s heyday, before television took the sheen off moving pictures.” I think that one of his comments might serve as an elegy for this “Amigo”, a representative Latino actor who defied categorization, playing everything from Spanish Grandees to Arabian princes to sponge fisherman to gigolos with humor and a male grace. He was a man who lived a unique life:
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