Saturday, October 7, 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.


Caftan Woman said...

Indeed, the Robin Hood take on Cisco added greatly to his appeal, along with those marvelous actors cast throughout the years.

Silver Screenings said...

I had NO idea the Cisco Kid had so many incarnations. And a radio show, too!

He's one character/series I've never paid attention to, but your post has shown me I've been missing out. :)

Citizen Screen said...

I love this retrospective, Terry. I definitely need to kick my watching of The Cisco Kid into high gear. As Ruth mentioned, I had no clue the character appeared in so many screen stories although I am familiar with the radio show. Terrific, informative read. Thank you taking part in the blogathon.