Monday, 16 October 2017

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

In many respects Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is a very singular film. It could be considered film noir, but it also has elements of Westerns. At the same time it was one of the earliest Hollywood motion pictures to feature Asian martial arts. As unique as Bad Day at Black Rock must seem today, it was even more unusual when it was first released in 1955.

Bad Day at Black Rock was based on the short story "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin, which has appeared in the January 1947 issue of The American Magazine. It was writer and actor Don McGuire who came across the story and thought that it could provide the basis for an interesting motion picture. He optioned the story for $15,000 and then adapted it as a screenplay. Director Don Siegel, who was then working at Allied Artists, took an interest in Mr. McGuire's screenplay and wanted to cast Joel McCrea in the lead. Unfortunately for Don Siegel, Allied Artists passed on the screenplay. Don McGuire then took his screenplay to Dore Schary, then head of production at MGM. Don Schary had spoken out against the interment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, so the fact that the screenplay dealt with bigotry against Japanese Americans appealed to him. At the same time he needed a project for legendary star Spencer Tracy. Don McGuire's original screenplay was then rewritten by Millard Kaufman with Spencer Tracy in mind for the lead role.

Unfortunately Spencer Tracy was not particularly interested in Bad Day at Black Rock and did not want to do the movie. To even get Mr. Tracy to read the screenplay, Dore Schary told him that Alan Ladd had expressed an interest in it. Here it must be noted that there is no evidence that Alan Ladd ever saw the screenplay. It is unclear precisely how it was decided that the lead character played by Spencer Tracy, John J. Macreedy, would have only one arm, but it was ultimately the idea of playing a one-armed veteran of World War II that interested Spencer Tracy in the movie. To give John J. Macreedy some fighting prowess, he was made an expert in karate, something rarely seen in American films of the time.

Initially Richard Brooks was hired to direct Bad Day at Black Rock. Unfortunately, he would prove problematic as a director. Among other things, he referred to the screenplay as "a piece of s***" to Spencer Tracy himself. Mr. Brooks was fired and Dore Schary brought on John Sturges as the film's director. In contrast to Richard Brooks, John Sturges was very happy with the screenplay and even called it "the best screenplay he ever had." He spent hours discussing the project with screenwriter Millard Kaufman.

Ultimately, Bad Day at Black Rock would prove to be historic for several reasons. It was the first film at MGM to ever be shot in Cinemascope. It would also be the last film that Spencer Tracy would make for MGM, the studio at which he spent most of his career. As mentioned earlier, Bad Day at Black Rock  would also be among the very first American films to feature Eastern martial arts. In fact, the Legion of Decency and various state censorship boards were not particularly happy with one scene in which John J. Macreedy uses karate. Ultimately, the Legion of Decency would class the film as suitable for adults and adolescents.

Bad Day at Black Rock was released in January 1955 to largely positive reviews. Variety wrote of the film, "Considerable excitement is whipped up in this suspense drama, and fans who go for tight action will find it entirely satisfactory." Bosley Crowther in The New York Times found a few flaws with the film, but liked it over all. If anything, Bad Day at Black Rock may be even more highly regarded today. At Rotten Tomatoes 96% of its reviews are positive.

Bad Day at Black Rock is at the same time a very simple film and a sophisticated film. John J. MacReedy gets off the train in Black Rock in order to give a Japanese American a medal for his service during World War II. Unfortunately he finds himself in a town that is highly distrustful and suspicious of him. While the film never deals directly with the interment of Japanese Americans in relocation camps during World War II, bigotry against Japanese Americans is at the centre of the film's plot. Indeed, in many ways Bad Day in Black Rock is as relevant as ever, dealing as it does with racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

At the same time Bad Day at Black Rock addressed another issue of the era, one that had also provided the inspiration for the classic Western High Noon (1952). The Fifties was the era of the Hollywood blacklist, which essentially denied employment to those even suspected of having Communist ties. Sadly, many of those affected by the blacklist had no real ties to the Communist Party whatsoever. Regardless, in Bad Day at Black Rock John J. MacReedy faces a similar problem as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon--a town that is largely uncooperative with him and even at times hostile towards him.

Bad Day at Black Rock was nominated for three Oscars: Best Actor in a Leading Role for Spencer Tracy, Best Director for John Sturges, and Best Writing, Screeplay for Millard Kaufman. Spencer Tracy won the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in a tie with the cast of A Big Family (1954).

Today Bad Day at Black Rock remains highly regarded and is considered a classic. It is also one of Spencer Tracy's best remembered and most highly regarded films. Indeed, today it is difficult to see anyone else in the role of John J. MacReedy than Spencer Tracy.


Saturday, 14 October 2017

Trevor Martin Passes On

British actor Trevor Martin died on October 5 2017 at the age of 87.

Trevor Martin was born on November 17 1929 in Enfield. Growing up he acted in several school plays. Following his national service, Trevor Martin enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In 1953 he won the Carleton Hobbs Radio Award, which led to three 18 month contracts with the BBC Radio Drama Company.

After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he helped set up the Guildhall Players. He played three summer seasons at Peter Bull’s Perranporth theatre in Cornwall. He made his television debut in the TV production Tomorrow Mr. Tompion! And About Time Too! in 1958. In the late Fifties he guest starred on Trouble for Two. The Splendid Spur, Scotland Yard, and Sheep's Clothing. He starred in the series Three Golden Nobles.

In 1962 Mr. Martin first worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, an association that would last for forty years. In 1963 he became a member of Lord Laurence Olivier's company with the beginning of The Royal National Theatre. He appeared in the feature film Othello (1965). He had a recurring role on the TV series Orlando and was a storyteller on the classic show Jackanory. He guest starred on such shows as The Men from Room 13, Sherlock Holmes, No Hiding Place, ITV Play of the Week, Mogul, ITV Playhouse, Doctor Who, and Z Cars. He appeared in the 1970 television production Edward II.

In 1974 Trevor Martin became the first man ever to appear as The Doctor from Doctor Who on stage. The play was Doctor Who and the Daleks in the Seven Keys to Doomsday and it debuted at the Adelphi Theatre in London. It ran for four weeks. A tour had been planned, but never took place. In the Seventies Mr. Martin guest starred on such shows as Van der Valk, Special Branch, Within These Walls, Victorian Scandals, and Armchair Theatre. He appeared in the film Absolution (1978).

In the Eighties Trevor Martin had a recurring role on Coronation Street. He appeared in the mini-series A Brother's Tale. He guest starred on Angels, Mitch, and Inspector Morse. He provided a voice for the movie Krull (1983) and appeared in the movie Three Kinds of Heat (1987). In the Nineties he guest starred on Taggart, Dangerfield, Harry Enfield and Chums, Ain't Misbehavin', A Certain Justice, A Wing and a Prayer, and The Ambassador. He appeared in a TV production of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. He appeared in the film House of Mirth.

In the Naughts Mr. Martin guest starred on such shows as The Bill, The Romantics, Doctors, and Whitechapel. He appeared in the film Babel (2006). In the Teens he guest starred on Dead Boss and Call the Midwife.

He also appeared in the 1993 Doctor Who radio drama The Paradise of Death and the 2003 Doctor Who audio drama Flip-Flop.

There can be no doubt that Trevor Martin was a very talented actor. He also had an incredible voice. There should be little wonder that not only was he the first actor to play The Doctor on stage, but one of the first Time Lords (aside from The Doctor himself, as well as his granddaughter Susan) to appear on Doctor Who (it was in the serial "The War Games"). Over the years he played a wide array of roles, including Earl of Lancaster in a TV production of Edward II and Parson Tringham in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. He had a long career in stage, playing in everything from Becket to Troilus and Cressida to The Crucible.

Gilbert Roland: Latin Legend

Gilbert Roland as The Cisco Kid
The Golden Age of Hollywood was not particularly golden for Hispanic actors. If one was not particularly handsome, he might find himself playing a number of Mexican bandidos and buffoons. If one was particularly handsome, he might find himself playing a succession of stereotypical Latin lovers. It took actors of considerable talent to break free of the stereotypical roles in which the Hollywood studios insisted on casting Hispanic actors. Among the actors who was able to break free of the stereotypes was the extremely talented Gilbert Roland.

Gilbert Roland was born Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico on December 11 1905. His father, Francisco, was a bullfighter who had immigrated from Spain. In fact, young Luis had intended to follow in his father's footsteps as a bullfighter, but his destiny would take him in another direction entirely. When the Mexican Revolution began it was only a matter of time before Ciudad Juárez would become caught up in it. Francisco then moved his family to safety across the border to El Paso, Texas. Sadly, El Paso would not be a particularly pleasant experience for young Luis. There he faced anti-Hispanic bigotry. To cope young Luis escaped into the movies, spending any money he had to attend the cinema. Of course, being Hispanic he had to watch from the balcony, which was reserved "For Coloured People Only."

Having to sit in the balcony at movie theatres was the least of young Luis's worries, as he faced racism on a daily basis. He was once beaten for not knowing every single word of "The Star Spangled Banner". Regardless, he persevered. He became a newspaper boy and still later a messenger boy.  It was while he was a messenger boy that he was in an accident that would change his life. A car hit and almost killed him, and it took him a long time to recover. When his father went to perform bullfights in Tijuana, he took Luis with him. Luis stayed at a ranch outside San Diego, California, where he met actor Chris-Pin Martin. Chris-Pin Martin told Luis he could get work as an extra in Hollywood. Luis wound up hired to play a cowboy and then an American Indian. He later joked, "All day I chased myself on horseback for three dollars and lunch. My baptism in silent movies."

Luis found it difficult to make a living as an extra, and to make ends meet he eventually took a job answering fan mail for actor Antonio Moreno. In 1922 his knowledge of bullfighting got him a job as a dresser's assistant in order to get Rudolph Valentino ready for the bullfighting scenes in Blood and Sand (1922). Both as an extra and in bit parts, young Luis would appear in some memorable films. He was an extra in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). He was a matador in The Spaniard (1925).

It was an agent named Ivan Kahn who would get Luis his big break in films. He got him a bit part in The Midshipman (1925), which starred Ramon Novarro. By coincidence, Ramon Novarro's family had known Gilbert Roland's family before they had moved from Mexico. It was Ivan Kahn who suggested that Luis adopt a stage name Mr. Kahn's suggestion was George Adams. Instead Luis created a stage name by combining the last names of two of his favourite actors, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland. Luis Alonso then became Gilbert Roland.

Gilbert Roland received his first big break in a supporting role in the film The Plastic Age (1925) starring Clara Bow.  Curiously, Mr. Roland's first major role would not be a Hispanic character, but instead the very Northern European Carl Peters. It would be his role as Annibale in The Blonde Saint (1926) that would draw him his first overwhelmingly positive reviews. He was signed to Untied Artists and cast right away as Armand Duval in the studio's adaptation of Camille (1926). Unfortunately Gilbert Roland's first male lead role would prove to be a bit of a double-edged sword. While it guaranteed larger roles in movies (often the lead role), it also meant that he would spend a good deal of time playing stereotypical Latin lovers. Indeed, when Rudolph Valentino died, some in the Hollywood press declared Gilbert Roland as Valentino's successor.

While Gilbert Roland would play more than his fair share of Latin lovers, he would play other sorts of roles as well. In fact, not only were many of the characters he played over the years not lovers, but often they were not Latin either. In Men of the North (1930) he played Louis Le Bay, a French Canadian falsely accused of a gold theft. In Universal's Spanish language version of their adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection (1931), he played Prince Dmitri Nekhludov. In The Woman in Room 13 (1932) he played Victor Legrand. Like many Hispanic actors of the era, Gilbert Roland was often cast in roles of ethnicities that did not originate in Northern Europe. In addition to the various Frenchmen he played, he played the Arabic roles of Kasim and his evil twin Hassan in the serial The Desert Hawk (1944). He played another Arabic character, Achmed Abdullah, in Around the World in 80 Days (1956).

Perhaps because his father had been a bullfighter and Gilbert Roland had aspired to be one, he may well have been his best in adventure movies.  Indeed, his most famous role may well have been that of The Cisco Kid. Gilbert Roland was only the second Hispanic actor to ever play The Kid, after Cesar Romero. He took over the role of Cisco from Duncan Renaldo in 1946's The Gay Cavalier. He would go onto appear in five more Cisco Kid movies. In addition to the Cisco Kid movies, Gilbert Roland was also a popular choice for casting directors when it came to swashbucklers. He played Captain López, the sea captain of archvillain Don José Álvarez de Córdoba in The Sea Hawk (1940). In Captain Kidd (1945), he played Kidd's navigator, Jose Lorenzo. He was one of the stars of the obscure swashbuckler The Diamond Queen (1953).  He appeared in two episodes of Zorro as the villain El Cuchillo. He appeared as Don Alejandro Vega, Zorro's father, in the 1974 TV movie Zorro.

As might be expected, Gilbert Roland appeared in several Westerns over the years, beyond the Cisco Kid franchise. He was the lead in Thunder Trail (1937), based on Zane Gray's novel of the same name. He had a significant role in Anthony Mann's Western The Furies (1950) as Juan Herrera, close friend of rancher's daughter Vance Jeffords (played by Barbara Stanwyck) and her ally against her father. He would also have roles in such Westerns as Bandido! (1956) and The Last of the Fast Guns (1958). Not surprisingly, he would appear frequently on television Westerns, including Wagon Train, Bonanza, Frontier Circus, Gunsmoke, The High Chaparral, and Kung Fu. Later in his career he appeared in several Spaghetti Westerns, including Any Gun Can Play (1967), Johnny Hamlet (1968), God Was in the West, Too, at One Time (1968), and Sartana Does Not Forgive (1968). Unlike many Latin actors of the Studio Era, Gilbert Roland was fortunate in that he was almost never cast as stereotypical bandidos. That having been said, he played many military officers and aristocrats over the years.

Gilbert Roland's last role was in the Western Barbarosa in 1982. He died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 88.

Sadly, Gilbert Roland would spend much of his career acting in B movies. When he did appear in an A picture, it was generally in a supporting role. This is not to say that he did not give many great performances over the years, and it was not unusual for Mr. Roland to outshine a movie's leads. In The Last Train from Madrid (1937) he gave an admirable performance as the fugitive Eduardo de Soto. In Juarez (1939) he played Colonel Miguel Lopez, who would eventually betray Maximilian and his forces. The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) gave him one of his very best roles, that of agnostic Hugo da Silva who nonetheless is friends to children who wholeheartedly believe in the miracle of the lady of Fatima. In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) he played womanising actor Victor "Gaucho" Ribera. Even on television Gilbert Roland was capable of great performances. One of the best episodes of the Western anthology series Death Valley Days was "A Kingdom for a Horse", in which Gilbert Roland's played Brazil's Emperor Dom Pedro II. It was one of his finest television roles.

During a period when Hollywood was content to cast Hispanic actors as bandidos, Latin lovers, and buffoons, Gilbert Roland was able to overcome stereotypes and play a wide variety of roles in his career. Over the years he played everything from military officers to matadors to pirates to murder suspects. He could play heroes and villains equally with ease. Even though Hollywood never utilised him to his full extent, Gilbert Roland left behind a long list of great performances.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Late Great Bob Schiller

Television writer Bob Schiller, who with his creative partner Bob Weiskopf, worked on some of the greatest sitcoms of all time, died on October 10 2017 at the age of 98.

Bob Schiller was born on November 8 1918 in San Francisco, California. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he wrote a humour column for the university's paper, the Daily Bruin . He enlisted in the United States Army in 1940, where he was a humour columnist for Stars and Stripes. He also produced comedy variety shows for the troops. In 1945 he went to work on the radio show Duffy's Tavern. He remained there for four seasons. He also worked on such radio shows as  The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Abbott and Costello, The Mel Blanc Show, The Jimmy Durante Show, and December Bride. It was in 1950 that he made the transition to television, writing for The Garry Moore Show.

The Fifties saw Mr. Schiller complete his transition from radio to television. He wrote for such shows as The Red Buttons Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and All Star Revue. It was in 1953 that he formed his professional partnership with Bob Weiskopf. Together in the Fifties they worked on such shows as That's My Boy, The Jimmy Durante Show, December Bride, Professional Father, The Bob Cummings Show, I Love Lucy, and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. The two of them served as story consultants on The Ann Southern Show.

In the Sixties Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf developed the classic sitcom The Lucy Show and also wrote several of its episodes. They served as producers on the sitcom The Good Guys. They wrote for such shows as Pete and Gladys; The Red Skelton Hour; The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show; Love, American Style; The Carol Burnett Show; and The Flip Wilson Show.

In the Seventies Messrs. Schiller and Weiskopf served as producers on the sitcoms Maude and All's Fair. They wrote episodes of the shows Maude, All in the Family, and Archie Bunker's Place. In the Eighties they wrote episode of the shows Checking In, Sanford, Comedy Factory, He's the Mayor, and The Boys, as well as the pilot W*A*L*T*E*R.

Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf were two of the greatest television comedy writers of all time. They were equally at ease writing for sitcoms and for variety shows. They were responsible for some of the best television episodes ever made, including "Lucy's Italian Movie" on I Love Lucy (in which Lucy stomps grapes), "Uncle Paul's Insurance" on Pete and Gladys (in which Pete is afraid to ask Uncle Paul to get him insurance), and "Edith's 50th Birthday" on All in the Family (for which they won an Emmy). What made Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf so great as comedy writers is that they could write both slapstick and both verbal humour. Indeed, in their prestigious career they worked on shows that emphasised physical humour (I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show) and shows that relied more on verbal humour (All in the Family). Few writers produced as much quality television as they did.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Suzan Farmer R.I.P.

Suzan Farmer, an actress who appeared frequently on British television and in several Hammer Films, died on September 17 2017 at the age of 75. The cause was cancer.

Suzan Farmer was born in Kent on June 16 1942. She made her film debut in The Supreme Secret in 1958. She studied acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama and was still studying there when she appeared in The Dawn Killer (1959). The next year she appeared in Design for Living (1960).

She appeared frequently on British television in the Sixties. Miss Farmer played Aglaria in the mini-series adaptation of The Idiot. She guest starred on such shows as Call Oxbridge 2000, No Hiding Place, Love Story, Danger Man, Gideon C.I.D., Sherlock Holmes, The Flying Swan, Armchair Theatre, The Saint, Out of the Unknown, and Omnibus. She appeared in the films Young and Willing (1962), 80,000 Suspects (1963), The Scarlet Blade (1963), The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), 633 Squadron (1964), Die, Monster, Die! (1965), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Doctor in Clover (1966), Where the Bullets Fly (1966), and Talk of the Devil (1968).

In the Seventies Suzan Farmer played Sally Robson on Coronation Street. She appeared on such shows as UFO, The Persuaders!, ITV Play of the Week, Thriller, Dixon of Dock Green, Blake's 7, and Breakaway. She appeared in the film Persecution (1974).

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Late Great Len Wein

Comic book writer Len Wein, who co-created Swamp Thing with artist Bernie Wrightson and revitalised The X-Men, died on September 2017 at the age of 69. He had experienced problems with his heart for some time.

Len Wein was born on June 12 1948 in New York City. He was a comic book fan from childhood, although initially he wanted to be an artist. He and his friend Marv Wolfman (who also attained fame as a comic book writer) regularly attended National Periodical Publications' (now DC Comics) tour of their offices as teenagers. Mr. Wein received a degree in art from Farmingdale State College on Long Island.

It was in 1968 that DC Comics editor Joe Orlando hired Len Wein. His first published work was the story "Eye of the Beholder" in Teen Titans #18 (Dec. 1968).  Later in the year he wrote for DC Comics' horror anthology House of Secrets and Marvel Comics' horror anthology Chamber of Darkness. He also wrote for DC Comics' romance anthology Secret Hearts and the Mattel toy tie-in Hot Wheels. He did a good deal of work for Skywald Publications' black-and-white magazines, including the horror titles Nightmare  and Psycho, as well as their The Bravados and The Sundance Kid. He also did a good deal of work at Gold Key, writing on such titles as Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery, Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone.

Len Wein's first work on a superhero title for Marvel was a one-shot story co-written with Roy Thomas in  Daredevil #71 (Dec. 1970). He worked on various DC superhero titles, including Adventure Comics (featuring Supergirl ), The Flash, and Superman. It was in  The House of Secrets #92 (July 1971) that Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson introduced the character of Swamp Thing. Set in the Victorian Era, the story centred around a scientist who is transformed into a monster made of muck and vegetable matter. The story proved so successful that Swamp Thing was given his own title, although it was updated to modern times. Len Wein was the writer on Swamp Thing for its first 13 issues. He also wrote several issues of The Phantom Stranger.

Len Wein wrote issues 100 to 114 of Justice League of America, including issues 100-102, which re-introduced The Seven Solders of Victory and issues 107-108 which reintroduced various Quality Comics characters. With artist Carmine Infantino he co-created Christopher Chance, the Human Target, who first appeared in Action Comics #419 (December 1972).

Len Wein also wrote a good deal for Marvel Comics in the Seventies. In 1974 he succeeded Roy Thomas as editor-in-chief of Marvel's colour line. He remained as editor-in-chief at Marvel for only about a year, being succeeded in the position by his friend Marv Wolfman. He did stay at Marvel as a writer, and wrote on such titles as Marvel Team-Up, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor Fantastic Four, and The Defenders. It was while he was writing The Incredible Hulk that he co-created the character of Wolverine with artists John Romita Sr. and Herb Trimpe. Wolverine first appeared in The Incredible Hulk vol. 2, no. 182 (Dec. 1974).

It was in 1975 that Mr. Wein and artist Dave Cokrum revived the Marvel superhero team The X-Men, originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. A new team was introduced in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975) that included the characters Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Storm. Len Wein plotted the early stories of the revived X-Men, with the scripts themselves being written by Chris Claremont. Afterwards Mr. Claremont took over the title entirely.

It was a the end of the Seventies that Len Wein returned to DC Comics. With Batman no. 307 (January 1979) he began scripting Batman. It was with that issue that he introduced Wayne Foundation executive Lucius Fox. He also scripted Green Lantern, taking the character of John Stewart, previously a rarely used substitute Lantern when Hal Jordan was not available, and turned him into a major character. As an editor he worked on such diverse titles as The New Teen Titans, All-Star Squadron, and Batman and the Outsiders, as well as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's legendary mini-series Watchmen.

In the early Nineties Len Wein worked as editor in chief for Disney Comics for three years. Afterwards he worked on various animated series, including Phantom 2040, Iron Man, Hypernauts, Street Fighter: The Animated Series, and others. In 2006 he collaborated with writer Kurt Busiek on Dark Horse Comics' mini-series Conan: Book of Thoth. Since then he has written various one-shots and mini-series for DC Comics.

Len Wein was one of the most influential comic book writers to emerge from the Seventies. He would have been influential if Swamp Thing had been the only character he had ever created. As it was he created several important characters, including Wolverine, many of the New X-Men, and Lucius Fox. While John Stewart was created by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, it was Len Wein who turned him into a major character. As to why Len Wein proved to be so influential, it was perhaps because he rooted his writing in tradition, while at the same time bringing in something new. He was responsible for reviving The Seven Soldiers of Victory at DC Comics and reviving The X-Men at Marvel. He wrote for such classic characters as Batman and Green Lantern. At the same time, however, he was able to introduce new elements into classic comic books, whether it was the character of Lucius Fox in the Batman titles or adding new characters to The X-Men. Len Wein was truly one of the great comic book writers, and his influence will be felt for years to come.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Cisco Kid Was a Friend of Mine

Gilbert Roland as The Cisco Kid
The sad fact is that Hollywood has not always been kind to characters of Latin descent. In particular, during the Golden Age of Hollywood there was a succession of Mexican bandidos, Latin lovers, lazy Mexicans, fiery Latinas, and other similar, negative stereotypes in American films. Positive images of Hispanics were rare in American films from the Silent Era well into the Sixties. One exception to this rule was a character that was popular for much of the 20th Century, The Cisco Kid. While certain aspects of The Cisco Kid's character might be considered stereotypical, he had more in common with The Lone Ranger or Hopalong Cassidy than he did the many Mexican bandidos that appeared in American Westerns of the era. In most of his appearances in film and all of his appearances on television, The Cisco Kid was honest, upright, honourable, and clean living. What is more, he was one of the few Latin characters to actually be played by Latin actors from time to time.

The Cisco Kid originated in the short story "The Caballero's Way" by O. Henry. The Cisco Kid in the short story is very different from The Cisco Kid with whom viewers are familiar from movies and television. Indeed, he murders men for the sheer enjoyment of it. What is more, it would appear that The Cisco Kid in "The Caballero's Way" isn't even Mexican or Hispanic at all. When Texas Ranger Sandridge questions the shopkeeper Fink as to the location of the Kid, Fink remarks, "Goodall is his name, ain't it?" The only thing that The Cisco Kid of "The Caballero Way" has in common with The Cisco Kid of later films and movies is a a degree of gallantry towards women. O. Henry wrote of the Kid with regards to women, "For them he had always gentle words and consideration. He could not have spoken a harsh word to a woman. He might ruthlessly slay their husbands and brothers, but he could not have laid the weight of a finger in anger upon a woman." "The Cabellero's Way" was published in Everybody's Magazine, v17 (July 1907)  and the collection of O. Henry's Western short stories Heart of the West (also published in 1907).

It would only be seven years before The Cisco Kid would make his first appearance on film. The Caballero's Way (1914) was a three-reeler based on O. Henry's short story. Just as in the short story, The Cisco Kid is a brutal killer. That having been said, it departed from the story in one respect--for the first time The Cisco Kid is portrayed as Mexican. The very first man to play The Cisco Kid was Herbert Stanley Dunn, who appeared in a few silent films in the 1910s (here it must be noted that IMDB incorrectly credits William R. Dunn for the role).

It would only be a few years before The Cisco Kid would appear on screen again. The Border Terror (1919) was the second film based on "The Caballero's Way" by O. Henry. Vester Pegg became the second man to play The Cisco Kid. Just as in the first film, The Cisco Kid was portrayed as a ruthless killer rather than the noble Robin Hood of the Old West of later films and television.

It would be with the first sound film featuring The Cisco Kid that the character began to take shape as something other than a ruthless outlaw. Seen today In Old Arizona (1929) can sometimes be difficult to watch. It includes more than its share of ethnic stereotypes. That having been said, In Old Arizona was a revolutionary motion picture. Not only was it the first sound Western released by a major studio, but it also broke new ground in being the first talkie to be filmed outdoors. Much of the film was shot on location. In Old Arizona may have also pioneered the idea of the singing cowboy. In a few scenes Warner Baxter, as The Cisco Kid, sings (in O. Henry's "The Caballero's Way" The Kid sings, but does so unmelodiously).

In Old Arizona was very loosely based on "The Caballero's Way". While the original short story would appear to take place in Texas, the film is set in Arizona in the 1890s. In Old Arizona has a wholly different protagonist, replacing stalwart ranger  Lieutenant Sandridge with cavalry officer Sergeant Mickey Dunn. Perhaps the biggest change from the short story was in the character of The Cisco Kid. The Cisco Kid is not the brutal killer of "The Caballero's Way". Instead he is a bandit with his own code of honour In In Old Arizona The Cisco Kid does not steal from individuals. He is also not overly fond of killing and, in fact, the only time he kills anyone by his own hand it is in self defence. He even likes children. Strangely enough, in the film The Cisco Kid is not Mexican, but claims to have been born in Portugal. Ultimately, the only thing The Cisco Kid of In Old Arizona would seem to have in common with The Cisco Kid of "The Caballero's Way" is his chivalrous attitude towards women. If The Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona was not quite yet the heroic figure of later movies and television, he was a far cry from the brutal outlaw created by O. Henry.

Warner Baxter would win the first ever Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as The Cisco Kid. In Old Arizona was also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Writing, Best Cinematography, and Best Picture.

Warner Baxter as The Cisco Kid would prove to be a sensation, so much so that inevitably there would be sequels to In Old Arizona. That having been said, the first "sequel" was not quite a sequel. In The Arizona Kid (1930) Warner Baxter played the Robin Hood-type bandit of the same name, essentially a very thinly veiled Cisco Kid. Aside from Warner Baxter playing a role all too suspiciously similar to The Cisco Kid, The Arizona Kid is notable primarily for an early starring role for Carole Lombard.

While it is debatable if The Arizona Kid was a sequel to In Old Arizona, The Cisco Kid (1931) was most certainly a sequel. Warner Baxter returned as The Cisco Kid, while Edmund Lowe returned as Sergeant Mickey Dunn. The Cisco Kid would further establish The Kid as a Robin Hood-type figure. It would also give him something he did not have before--sidekicks. From O. Henry's original short story to In Old Arizona, The Cisco Kid had always ridden alone. In The Cisco Kid he was accompanied by Lopez (played by Charles Stevens), a somewhat competent outlaw, and Gordito (played by Chris Martin), who was essentially comedy relief, not to mention a racist stereotype ("Gordito" would translate to "Fatso" or "Fatty" in English).

For the next many years, The Cisco Kid would be absent from the big screen. Warner Baxter would return to the role in the fittingly titled The Return of The Cisco Kid in 1939. Chris Martin once more returned as Gordito, but Lopez would be played by a new actor, Cesar Romero. The Return of The Cisco Kid would see Cisco firmly established as a hero as he seeks to help a colonel and his daughter. It also marked the official beginning of a series of Cisco Kid movies released by 20th Century Fox.

Marjorie Weaver, Cesar Romero, and Virginia Field
in a promotional photo for The Cisco Kid and the Lady
Warner Baxter would not remain in the role of The Cisco Kid for long. Cesar Romero took over the role with The Cisco Kid and the Lady (1939), making Mr. Romero the first Latin actor to ever play The Cisco Kid. It is also with Cesar Romero that The Cisco Kid began to move even further from the bandit that he originally was. While The Cisco Kid and his compatriots often plan to rob banks in the Cisco Kid movies starring Cesar Romero, it seems as if they never do. Instead they find themselves helping someone in need. Cesar Romero appeared in five more Cisco Kid movies before 20th Century Fox suspended the series in the wake of World War II.

That is not to say that The Cisco Kid would be gone from the public eye. On October 2 1942 the radio show The Cisco Kid debuted with Jackson Beck in the title role. The radio show would be historic for introducing Cisco's best known sidekick, Pancho (initially played by Louis Sorin). The Cisco Kid aired on Mutual until  February 14 1945. In 1946 The Cisco Kid returned as a thrice weekly show to the airwaves on a a Mutual-Don Lee regional network  After its brief run in 1946, The Cisco Kid returned in 1947 as a syndicated radio show that continued until 1956. In winter 1944 Baily Publishing published a one-shot comic book, Cisco Kid Comics.

Of course, The Cisco Kid would return to film soon enough. In 1945 The Cisco Kid Returns was released. It was not only the first movie in a new Cisco Kid series released by Monogram Pictures, but it was also the first time that Duncan Renaldo played the role. He would later star in the TV series The Cisco Kid and as a result become the actor most identified with the role. The Cisco Kid was also historic as the first film to feature Pancho (played by Martin Garralaga in the film) as Cisco's sidekick. Pancho had originated on the radio show and would later be the Kid's sidekick on the TV series.

Duncan Renaldo would only star in three Cisco Kid movies before he was called up for military service. Gilbert Roland then took over the role of Cisco. Gilbert Roland would be the second actor of Latin descent to ever play the role (despite his name, Duncan Renaldo was actually Romanian). Gilbert Roland played Cisco in the remainder of Cisco Kid films produced by Monogram.

Monogram ended their series of Cisco Kid movies with King of the Bandits in 1947. The Cisco Kid would not remain off the screen for long. Producer and attorney Phillip Krasne acquired the rights to The Cisco Kid and produced a new series of films through Inter-American Productions. These new movies were distributed by United Artists. The first film in the Inter-American Productions series of Cisco Kid movies was The Valiant Hombre in 1948. Duncan Renaldo returned to the role of The Cisco Kid. The film was also the first to feature Leo Carrillo as Pancho. Mr. Carrillo would later play Pancho on the TV series. This new series of Cisco Kid movies would end in 1950, although it was not exactly because of a lack of success. Quite simply, Cisco had found a new medium to conquer.

Duncan Renaldo as The Cisco Kid
Among Phillip Krasne's friends was Frederick Ziv, Mr Ziv produced radio shows for syndication, including The Cisco Kid. Mr. Ziv wanted to break into television, but was looking for a property that he thought would be successful. Quite naturally, Mr. Krasne suggested The Cisco Kid to him. Frederick Ziv proved to be a man of considerable foresight. Not only did he realise that there was money to be had in television syndication before television syndication was really an ongoing concern, but he also realised that television would eventually make the switch from black-and-white to colour. For that reason, then, The Cisco Kid was shot in colour from the beginning, even though colour television was still very much in the experimental stages in 1950.

The Cisco Kid would then be historic for multiple reasons. It would be one of the first successful syndicated television series. It would also be the first series filmed entirely in colour. Debuting a little over a year before I Love Lucy, it would also be the first American TV show to feature a Hispanic lead character. The Cisco Kid featured only two regular characters, Duncan Renaldo as Cisco and Leo Carrillo as Pancho. The two were wanted for some unspecified crime and The Kid behaved as Robin Hood in the old West. Every episode saw them coming to the aid of some hapless individuals. It proved to be extremely successful. It ran for six seasons and 156 episodes. It also proved to be very successful as a syndicated rerun. Shot in colour, it ran well into the Eighties. It is still being aired on various cable channels to this day and is even available on Hulu.

Perhaps because of the television series, The Cisco Kid would appear in other media during the Fifties. Dell Comics published the comic book The Cisco Kid. The first issue was cover dated January 1951. It ran for 40 issues, ending with the October 1958 issue. In January 1951 the newspaper comic strip The Cisco Kid began. It was written by Rod Reed and illustrated by  José-Luis Salinas. The newspaper comic strip would prove somewhat successful, lasting until August 1968.

Since then The Cisco Kid has never been out of the public eye for long. Mark Lindsay's 1970 song "Arizona" references Cisco and Pancho. War's 1972 song "The Cisco Kid"  was about the character and mentions Pancho as well. In 1994 Sublime released a song titled "Cisco Kid" on their album Robbin' the Hood, although it would seem to have very little to do with the character. Country singer Don Williams's 1998 song "Pancho" is sung from the point of view of The Cisco Kid, lamenting that his friendship with Pancho has ended.

Jimmy Smits as The Cisco Kid
Not only was The Cisco Kid referenced in songs in the Nineties, he appeared once more on the small screen. The Cisco Kid was a TV movie produced by Turner Pictures and aired on the cable channel TNT. It starred Jimmy Smits as The Cisco Kid and Cheech Marin as Pancho (Jimmy Smits would be the third Latino to play Cisco, after Cesar Romero and Gilbert Roland). The movie was set during the French occupation of Mexico, with The Cisco Kid and Pancho battling the forces of the Second French Empire. The TV movie received positive reviews for the most part, including ones from Variety and The Los Angeles Times.

Beginning in 2004 Moonstone Books began publishing graphic novels starring The Cisco Kid. Moonstone's take on The Kid is somewhat darker than many of the movies or the TV series, but still far from the hardened killer of O. Henry's original short story.

Arguably The Cisco Kid was one of the first Hispanic characters (alongside Zorro) to achieve widespread success in the United States. He is also a character with a very complicated history. In his first appearance in the short story "The Caballero's Way" by O. Henry not only was he was ruthless killer, but he was not even Hispanic. In the movie In Old Arizona as played by Warner Baxter, The Cisco Kid was somewhat of a stereotype, sometimes speaking in broken English and with an exaggerated Mexican accent (even though according to the film he was from Portugal...). Fortunately, The Cisco Kid would not only move away from being purely an outlaw, but he would also move away from being purely a stereotype. In most of the films and the television series, "the Robin Hood of the Old West" spoke perfect English and was more likely to fight outlaws than join them. At worst, The Cisco Kid could be considered a manifestation of the Latin Lover stereotype. Of course, here it must be pointed out that The Cisco Kid's gallantry towards women was already present in O. Henry's short story, when The Kid was an Anglo named Goodall. Regardless, The Cisco Kid of the TV series would seem less a stereotype than Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy.

Sadly, while The Cisco Kid would move away from being purely a stereotype, his sidekicks would not. Gordito was not only a manifestation of the Mexican Buffoon stereotype, but also fit the stereotype of the fat, lazy Mexican so often seen in films during the Studio Era. While Cisco's best known sidekick, Pancho, was certainly not lazy, he also conformed to the Mexican Buffoon stereotype to a large degree. Pancho was clumsy, spoke with an exaggerated accent, and often mangled the English language (the most frequent example being "Let's went, Cisco!").  About the only defence that could possibly be made for Pancho was that the sidekicks of most cowboy heroes, from Andy Devine to Smiley Burnette, were not terribly bright and often clumsy. Beyond his sidekicks, various media featuring The Cisco Kid would include other stereotypes from time to time. At times The Cisco Kid would find himself facing stereotypical Mexican bandidos.

While various stereotypes appeared in the Cisco Kid movies and television series, an argument can be made that The Cisco Kid was over all an exception to the sort of Hispanic characters that appeared in films during the Studio Era. He was not a buffoon. He was not fiery and temperamental. He was not a Mexican bandido. In many respects The Cisco Kid was much closer to such cowboy heroes as Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry than he was various other Latin characters appearing at the time. What is more, unlike many Hispanic characters over the years, The Cisco Kid was sometimes played by Hispanic actors. Cesar Romero, Gilbert Roland, and Jimmy Smits all played The Cisco Kid.

As to the lasting appeal of The Cisco Kid, it can perhaps be summed up by the tagline most associated with the character, "the Robin Hood of the Old West." The Cisco Kid always came down on the side of the underdog, whether it was fighting corrupt officials, evil military officers, unscrupulous millionaires, and others in power who insisted on abusing it. In a Cisco Kid movie, no matter how downtrodden or oppressed people may be, they were guaranteed to receive help from Cisco and his sidekicks of the moment. In many respects, the tagline "the Robin Hood of the Old West" was more than fitting for The Cisco Kid. The Cisco Kid began life as an Anglo outlaw in an O. Henry short story. In the end he would become one of the earliest, fictional Hispanic heroes.