The decade of the ’40s has always been my favorite as far as classic movies are concerned. In my opinion you just can’t beat the quality of films produced en masse to match audience attendance, which reached its peak in that decade. However, when I stop to consider the 1930s and the various adjustments made in film throughout the decade it has to move to the top of the most “interesting” decade list. Among the things that makes the 1930s a standout, as we all know, is the development and subsequent enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, film genres that set standards and the overall experimentation that resulted in all of those. Experimentation was key and despite the long-lasting effects of 1930s films, directors and movie stars not all that was tried during the decade flourished. This post discusses one of those “experiments,” one that didn’t last, Hollywood’s foray into Spanish-language film, which enjoyed its peak from 1930 to 1931.
I was considering topics of discussion as my entry to the Hispanic Heritage Blogathon for which this post is intended, but hadn’t settled on one when I attended a special event presented by the Fort Lee Film Commission a couple of weeks ago. It was then, by way of a Hispanic actor that was featured that night that I settled upon Spanish-language films as my topic of choice. Allow me to explain…
That Fort Lee Film Commission event was a screening of THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1914) in celebration of the film’s centennial. The screening took place at Ross Dock in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a site that sits by the Hudson River right below the cliffs where the action scenes in this and many other early movies were shot. During the presentation clips of other silent films that prominently display the cliffs of the Palisades
were shown, scenes that feature a young, handsome actor that caught my attention. His name is Antonio Moreno. Moreno often played the “latin lover” character in early films and was considered by some to be a rival to Valentino, but Moreno excelled in many other genres of films as well, including “cliff-hangers” appearing in several starring Pearl White, the star of the PERILS OF PAULINE series. He made so many of those, in fact that he was known as the “King of the cliff-hangers” when serials ruled.
That Fort Lee event also included a second feature, Jack Arnold’s Universal classic, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) in which Antonio Moreno also appears. The Moreno connection between the evening’s scheduled screenings didn’t occur to me beforehand, but it helped me decide on my topic, Antonio Moreno. However, as I delved into his career a much bigger topic came to mind, one I feel is largely ignored these days.
Antonio Moreno’s movie career began in 1912 with Stanner E. V. Taylor’s THE VOICE OF THE MILLIONS, which means he was a film veteran by the time talkies came to be. He’d appeared in movies opposite the biggest stars the silent screen had ever seen, the likes of Garbo, Gish and Swanson and, as it turns out, he would become an important player in Spanish version films made in Hollywood. Due to his name recognition and the fact he was bilingual Moreno was chosen by four Hollywood studios to work on their initial Spanish-language productions. Included in those is Paramount’s first venture into Spanish-language film, EL CUERPO DEL DELITO, which was the Spanish version of the Philo Vance series, THE BENSON MURDER CASE (1930). Moreno was the biggest star cast in that film and would subsequently receive top billing in an impressive number of Spanish version Hollywood films. However, he would never play the lead in another mainstream Hollywood production again.
As was the case with many other foreign actors when the movies began to talk, the Spanish-born Moreno, who was billed as “Anthony” Moreno in several early films suddenly saw film roles dry up due to his heavy accent. Although he was given leading roles in Spanish Hollywood productions when the studios ceased making those films Moreno’s career in Hollywood declined dramatically. He continued on as a working actor, but usually in small, stereotypical parts in Westerns and so forth. Also like many others, Moreno chose to go to Mexico and forge a career there, which he did with great success both as an actor and director, helming several films of distinction. Moreno returned to Hollywood on occasion through the years to play (often uncredited) roles, and appeared during the last few years of his big-screen career in two films that would become classics – THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in 1954 and John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS in 1956.
Reviewing Antonio Moreno’s career, particularly the time he spent working on Spanish-language films in Hollywood, is a great way to get a glimpse into the time period and the shifting that occurred both in the industry and in the life of its players. He is an important figure of that time, but only one of the many characters in a compelling story. Thanks to him I took a closer look at the topic at hand, one I present here, albeit the severely abridged version – the story of Spanish-language Hollywood.
Hollywood produced well over 100 feature films in Spanish in the years that followed the advent of sound in motion pictures. That era, from the late 1920s through the early 1930s, was one of experimentation on several fronts that for all too brief a time shined the light on many who have since been forgotten. This story takes into account a relative few, players in the compelling story of what I’m referring to as “Spanish-language Hollywood,” or the motion pictures made in Tinseltown in Spanish language, often copies of original movies in English made to capture an audience that would have otherwise been lost in translation.
Before we proceed with the discussion of Hollywood and Spanish-language versions of films it’s important to keep two things in mind: 1. America, by way of the Hollywood studios was not the only country who produced multilingual movies although it produced more than any other with Germany a distant second. And 2. Hollywood produced films in several languages, not just Spanish although the focus here is on Spanish movies.
We pick up this story just as Al Jolson playing Jakie Rabinowitz says “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” ushering in the talking era in motion pictures in the landmark Warner Bros. production of Alan Crosland’s THE JAZZ SINGER (1927). By that time, 1927 America, movie studios had a virtual monopoly on the international film market and although there were doubts about this “talkie” business, the transition to the new form of motion pictures was a fairly easy one. That is, in comparison to most other countries. Most European and Latin American countries couldn’t compete due to the lack of funds needed to develop required technologies to show talking pictures in their theaters. In other words, there was little to no competition for Hollywood if it should decide to corner the Spanish-speaking market.
Silent American films, distributed by the same studios that produced them, reached all corners of the world, but foreign distribution of talking pictures posed new problems. One was the aforementioned slow development of theaters in Europe and Latin America. Another, a problem more difficult to overcome, was language disparity.
The distribution of silent films to foreign countries had been a relatively simple endeavor from a translation point of view. That process entailed exchanging intertitles from one language to another. For obvious reasons that wouldn’t work with talkies so another method of translation had to be put in place. Luckily, Hollywood had the resources to experiment.
The first method of translation used, the one that seemed most feasible at first was dubbing, but it didn’t last long. Although a few dubbed productions, like RKO’s RIO RITA and Pathé’s HER PRIVATE AFFAIR both in 1929 had some success in Spanish-speaking markets, audiences largely rejected the practice, probably because it was done so haphazardly. These early attempts at translating films were poorly executed often with only parts of films translated leaving audiences confused by the stories. Next, Hollywood turned to subtitles, which were received more positively than dubbing, but still didn’t draw an audience in as did films that were made in their own language.
You’ll note that it was RKO and Pathé two of the smaller studios that released two early dubbed movies that could be considered successes in 1929. As it turns out, while the majors considered which way to go concerning translating features, minor and independent studios began making multilingual movies with the first ever dual-language movie coming from the independent, Sono Art World Wide Films. That movie was Renaud Hoffman’s/Andrew L. Stone’s SOMBRAS DE GLORIA in 1929, which was shot simultaneously with its English counterpart, BLAZE O’ GLORY, but using a Spanish-speaking cast, which included German-Chilean, José Bohr and Mexican Mona Rico. It wasn’t long, however, before Hollywood stepped up and dominated the scene producing foreign versions of their features en masse during 1930 and 1931, but it wasn’t an easy task nor did everyone in Hollywood take these productions seriously. In fact, many in the industry felt these were a waste of time and effort. The resources that the studios set aside for Spanish-language productions were, for the most part, pitiful. The great majority of Spanish-language versions were just that, versions of English movies rather than original productions and most had budgets well below those of “regular” studio films.
As time elapsed the method by which dual versions of films were shot changed, but there were three basic methods used. The first entailed the same Hollywood cast and crew to shoot a film in each of the two languages and if a movie was made in various languages they would shoot it that many times. Another was the Hollywood crew would shoot the film using foreign actors. And the last was to use foreign crews and foreign actors, which proved to be the most effective option. Of the major studios Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was the first to make multiple-language pictures, followed by Paramount Pictures and then Fox Film Corporation who owed most of the success of its Spanish productions to Mexican tenor turned actor, Jose Mojica. Mojica starred in Fox’s first Spanish-language picture, EL PRECIO DE UN BESO (1930), which was so well received that Fox decided to concentrate solely on Spanish films and forego productions in other languages. By the way, also starring in EL PRECIO DE UN BESO is Antonio Moreno.
Paramount made the largest commitment to the production of foreign language movies designating its studio in Joinville, France to making these movies. Not surprisingly, however, MGM product generally outshone that of the other studios. This was due to several reasons, one being that musicals, which MGM excelled at were hugely popular with Hispanic audiences. In fairness, many of MGM’s early Spanish-version movies actually took little effort to “convert” as translations were needed mostly for Master of Ceremony-type parts with musical numbers and performances left as is. Still, when Metro decided to jump into the multi-language arena in earnest, they did so with gusto, generally spending more than the other studios, often concentrating on high-profile projects and taking advantage of their huge slate of stars. One such example is the Spanish version of THE BIG HOUSE, one of the studio’s biggest hits in 1930, which also demonstrates how MGM took the time to find actors that matched the English counterparts, like Spaniard Juan de Landa who played the Wallace Beery parts in three movies – EL PRESIDIO (copy of THE BIG HOUSE), EN CADA PUERTO UN AMOR (copy of WAY FOR A SAILOR, 1930), and LA FRUTA AMARGA (copy of MIN AND BILL, 1930).
In almost all cases and for all studios the same sets, wardrobe and equipment were used in all versions of a particular movie, but little attention was paid to story or production value. In addition, little supervision was given the production of these movies, which meant that screenplays were followed very loosely if at all and that’s after the translation of the original screenplay had been treated poorly. As a result, many of the foreign versions barely resembled the originals and ended up with unrecognizable stories.
Aside from the differing storylines, the quality between the English and Spanish versions was also starkly different, a fact not overlooked by Spanish-speaking journalists at the time who were very vocal about Hollywood being only interested in the bottom line and not quality, which was true. To save money the studios scheduled the Spanish version of movies to be shot at night after the cast and crew shooting the English version were done for the day, which meant they focused primarily on films with stories that took place indoors facilitating the recycling of sets. It was not uncommon that studios inserted exterior shots from the English versions into the Spanish ones or simply eliminated outdoor sequences completely even if continuity was affected. To further emphasize what mattered, which was not quality, Spanish versions were allowed days to shoot in contrast to their English counterparts which could shoot in a span of months.
“Sound had just come in, and Hollywood was afraid of losing foreign markets. So they hired foreign units to make foreign versions of important features…All the sets were still standing and dressed – we used the same costumes and everything. The big difference was that we had just ten days to make each picture.” – Director, William Dieterle
All of this showed. The story goes that in 1930 Universal Studios founder, Carl Laemmle was mistakenly shown the Spanish version of a movie and was shocked by what he saw, a movie wherein the only source of light used was candles, as compared to the English version that had actual electricity. Insulted by the quality of the Spanish production, Laemmle ordered that the same producer oversee both English and Spanish versions of Universal films going forward. That producer turned out to be Paul Kohner who oversaw the production of Universal’s first two attempts at Spanish-language films, LA VOLUNTAD DEL MUERTO (THE CAT CREEPS, 1930) and DRACULA (1931), both starring Lupita Tovar who became a star and Kohner’s wife as a result of these pictures. The already popular Lupe Velez was also used by Universal in this endeavor, starring in both the English and Spanish versions of ORIENTE ES OCCIDENTE (EAST IS WEST, 1930) and RESURECCION (RESURRECTION, 1931). Did I mention that Antonio Moreno stars opposite Lupita Tovar in LA VOLUNTAD DEL MUERTO? Well, I did now.
Another aspect of Spanish-language films that bothered audiences, to put it mildly, was the matter of accents. It was common practice that the studios would cast Spanish-speaking actors from different countries in the same movies, failing to realize (or care) that different countries have very distinct idioms and accents. For instance, casting an actor from Spain to play the brother of another from Mexico is not only confusing, but insulting. In fact, I’ve read several write-ups on the Spanish version of DRACULA and this is always noted as a bone of contention as the actors all sound very different. In this case they are from Spain, Mexico and Argentina something that I’m sure eluded the film’s director, George Melford and its producer, Paul Kohner neither of whom spoke Spanish. To put this in context, think of how effective a characterization it is to have Lugosi’s Hungarian accent so distinctive in comparison to that of the rest of the American cast in Tod Browning’s version of DRACULA (1931). It’s worth mentioning that Lugosi’s depiction of the count, accent included, is arguably the only reason the English version could be deemed superior to the Spanish one.
All of these problems and several others plagued the production of Spanish-language movies from the get-go. Despite that, depending on who opines, they garnered moderate success with a relative few becoming certified hits. However, in the end they lasted a very short period of time, steadily declining after 1931. Fox Film Corporation was the only studio that gave these movies a concerted effort expanding its production of original Spanish films, not copies of English versions, and allowed Hispanic stars and writers more authority. But even that effort proved short-lived because when Fox Film Corporation merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935 the Spanish Department, as it had been called, was closed. All of the other studios had eliminated the majority of foreign-film production during 1934.
“We need movies in our own Spanish language to invade the screens in our own country,” was a sentiment communicated frequently by actors, journalists and audiences throughout the Spanish-speaking world by 1930. Spanish-speaking European countries and those in Latin America hungered to produce their own movies and in no time Hollywood’s competition proved overwhelming.
Despite its dominance in the world-wide motion picture arena, Hollywood was forced to cut costs in the 1930s. Multi-language films simply didn’t reap the rewards worthy of the time and money. Or so the studios felt. But economics wasn’t the only thing that led to the decline of the Spanish-language film production in Tinseltown. Another more volatile one was the dissatisfaction of Spanish-speaking audiences with the negative depiction of Hispanics in American movies, which was already a significant issue by 1930. So much so, in fact, that it led to new legislation, the formation of a committee on foreign-language film by AMPAS and even lawsuits. One of the most notorious examples, as far as causing a major ruckus in the Spanish-speaking press due to its negative depiction of Mexicans was Warner Bros.’ first Spanish-language film, EL HOMBRE MALO (THE BAD MAN, 1930), which…um…you guessed it, stars Antonio Moreno. Singling Warner Bros. is unfair, however, because negative depictions were legion. Then there were the cultural issues and the nagging accents, which made huge impacts on individual Spanish-speaking countries and their efforts to start making their own films in order to depict their culture their way.
The irony in the long run, I suppose, is the role Hollywood itself played in facilitating burgeoning film industries in other countries. Many of the players who were central to the production of Spanish-version films – actors, directors, writers – played key roles in that development by bringing with them years of experience of working in the movie capital of the world. Perhaps the best and earliest example is SANTA (1931), Mexico’s first talking picture. SANTA stars Lupita Tovar who became a national figure in her native Mexico due to this picture, but more importantly the movie was directed by Antonio Moreno who, as mentioned above not only played an impressive role during the Spanish version productions, but also brought with him nearly two decades of Hollywood experience. I told you he was everywhere in Spanish-language Hollywood. Moreno’s direction of SANTA must be considered a highlight in his career, as it was the film that ushered in the sound film industry in Mexico.
Despite the fact that SANTA got a limited release, it was hugely popular both in and out of Mexico, including in Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S. Mexico would become a filmmaking force before long and the competition, aside from all of the other issues mentioned above, was simply too great for the Hollywood studios to overcome. And so the studios ceased production of the Spanish-language film altogether by the end of the 1930s and – for all intents and purposes – those were rarely mentioned again.
It’s my intention to continue the The Story of Spanish-language Hollywood some time in the future with a look at the stars whose careers were affected or who played a central role in these productions. As I look into the careers of the many players worthy of mention, it’s proven a difficult task to determine which to include. For the moment it’s important to at least mention that just as was the case for the classic films we grew up watching, the Spanish-language movies largely depended on a star system, which in this case was forged by Hollywood from a diverse talent pool.
This post is my entry to the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and the fabulous, Movie Star Makeover. Be sure to visit both host sites on October 11 and 12 to read about many of the great Hispanic-themed films and Hispanic stars who’ve shined in Hollywood.