Monday, June 1, 2009

Guest Blogger Mercurie ~ Ricardo Montalban

The first entry in the June Guest Blogger series hails from Mercurie over at the excellent blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Mercurie is a pop culture expert and his posts are always well-constructed, well-thought out and highly informative. It's with pleasure that I present to you this post from Mercurie on the late great Ricardo Montalban.
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I first encountered Ricardo Montalban on television. I am not sure it if it was his famous appearance as superman Khan Noonian Singh on Star Trek (a role in which he was so impressive that he reprised in The Wrath of the Khan), his guest apperance on Bonanza, or one of his many other guest appearances, but I remember him well from television in the Seventies.

It was only as a I grew older that I learned Ricardo Montalban was a bona fide movie star. He even had a contract with MGM. At a time when Hollywood was content to cast Hispanics in stereotypical roles, Montalban fought to improve the roles available to Latinos. Montalban's activism may well have hurt his movie career, but it helped improve the image of Hispanics in Hollywood.

Ricardo Montalban was born in Mexico City on 25 November, 1920, to parents who had immigrated from Castille in 1906. His older brother Carlos was already an actor in Hollywood when Montalban went to live with him as a teenager. It was not in Los Angeles, however, that Montalban would first be drawn into acting. It was on a trip with his brother in 1940 to New York City that Ricardo Montalban received a small part in the play Her Cardboard Lover and appeared in a Soundie, a short film that was essentially the predecessor of music videos (they played on specially made jukeboxes with small screens). Afterwards he appeared in the plays Our Betters and Private Affair.

Montalban returned to Mexico in 1941 when his mother fell ill. This was not the end of his acting career, as he made twelve movies in Mexico and became a star there. Because of his success MGM took notice of him and offered him a contract. He returned to Los Angeles to appear in the musical Fiesta with Esther Williams in 1947. For much of his early career Montalan was typecast as a "Latin Lover." With rugged good looks and a natural charm, Montalban excelled in such roles. In fact, he even became the first Hispanic actor to ever appear on the cover of Life in 1949.

While Ricardo Montalban had carved out a fairly lucrative niche for himself in Hollywood playing Latin Lovers, he also sought out better and more interesting roles. Among these was his first starring role, in the movie Border Incident (1949). There Montalban played Pablo Rodriguez, an agent of the Policia Judicial Federal working undercover to capture a band of smugglers. Rodriguez was a far cry from the sterotypical Mexican banditos which often appeared in Westerns, an intelligent, hard working officer of the law. It was very much a groundbreaking part, not only for Ricardo Montalban, but in terms of the way Hispanics were portrayed on the big screen.


Arguably, Montalban's movie career was at its peak in the years 1949 and 1950. He followed up his role in Border Incident with a role as Roderigues in the war movie Battleground (1950). Roderigues was a Latino from Los Angeles who was both respected and treated as an equal by his fellow soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division. Montalban followed this role with what might be his most impressive part aside from his role in Border Incident and his role as Khan in Star Trek. In John Sturges' Mystery Street (1950). Montalban's character, Lieutenant Peter Morales, is techincally Portugese American rather than Hispanic, but it still demonstrated his range and was one of those roles that helped open new doors for Latino actors. Lieutenant Morales was a police detective who had spent much of his career handling minor crimes when he is finally handed a major case. Morales is intelligent and street smart, and dedicated to his job. In many respects it was another groundbreaking role for Montalban.

For much of the Fifties Montalban continued to appear in films playing parts that were atypical for Hispanic actors at that time. He played a prizefighter who is worried his career might be coming to an end in Right Cross (1950). In My Man and I he played a Mexican farm laborer (1953). In Life in the Balance he played a man wrongfully accused of a series of murders. He would still appear as a Latin Lover, most notably in the film Latin Lovers (1953). Unfortunately, like so many actors who were not of Northern European descent, Montalban was often cast as other ethnicities. He played a Japanese man in Sayonara (1957), an Italian in The Saracen Blade (1954), and an Arab in Los amantes del desierto (1957). Montalban played Native Americans several times, starting with the role of Iron Shirt in Across the Wide Missouri (1951). Today it would be considered exceedingly politically incorrect for someone of purely Spanish descent, as Ricardo Montalban was, to play a Native American or an Arab. The reality of the time, however, was that Hollywood believed that anyone with a tan could play any ethnicity that was not Northern European. And it must be noted that Montalban always treated such roles with dignity and respect, never turning them into mere sterotypes.

Unfortunately MGM dropped Montalban in 1953 and film roles started to dry up for him by the late Fifties. It was in the late Fifties that he made his first appearances on Broadway, in Seventh Heaven (1955) and Jamaica (1957). It was also at this time that Ricardo Montalban first appeared on television. Throughout the years Montalban guest starred on such series as Climax, The Loretta Young Show (Loretta Young was Montalban's sister in law), Bonanza, The Untouchables, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, and Police Story. He would be a regular on the night time soap operas Executive Suite and The Colbys. From 1977 to 1984 he played Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island.

That is not to say Ricardo Montalban ceased acting in movies. He played memorable roles in Cheyenee Autumn and The Train Robbers. And, of course, he reprised his role as Khan in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. More recently, he played the grandfather in the Spy Kids films.

Throughout his career, Ricardo Montalban worked to improve the image of Latinos in Hollywood and put an end to stereotyping. In 1970 he founded Nostros to improve the image of Hispanics on film. In 1999 the Ricardo Montalban Foundation was founded to stage Hispanic productions.

Ricardo Montalban was very much a pioneer in the film industry. His insistence on playing Hispanic characters with dignity and respect and speaking out against stereotyping may well have cost him roles. Although handsome, debonaire, and charming, he never became a Hollywood leading man. Regardless, in his fight to improve the image of Latinos in Hollywood, Ricardo Montalban was very much a trailblazer. His hard work paved the way for such Hispanic stars today as Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, and Andy Garcia.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks again Mercurie for a wonderful guest post. This is magnificent. I think it's interesting that it's easy to say that he was typecast but he was always searching for good parts. A "pioneer" is a perfect word for him for sure.

    And why would anyone cast him as Japanese?!

    I keep forgetting that Montalban and I share a birthday!

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  2. This a great post, Mercurie!

    I didn't know very much about Ricardo, before this post. Thanks for informing me more about him.

    Raquelle: I agree about the Japanese thing! I saw him just the other day in an episode of Hawaii Five-O, playing a Japanese...fake slanted eyes and all!

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  3. You're welcome, Raquelle! Personally I don't know why anyone would cast Montalban as an Asian, but this was a standard practice many years ago (it is now known as "yellowface"). Consider that almost every man who played Charlie Chan was Northern European in descent (the exception was George Kuwa in the silent The House Without a Key, who was Japanese rather than being Chinese as Chan was).

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  4. Yes, it's very glaring that all these various ethnicities were all lumped together back then. Hard to imagine that that was the attitude as recently as 40 years ago.

    Great piece on Ricardo Montalban! It makes me want to re-watch Border Incident and Mystery Street.

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