For the past few weeks, and looking forward to the next few months, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA has brought a celebration of Latin American and Latino art to museums and institutions all throughout Los Angeles. The program represents a collaboration between iconic arts centers in the city, including the Getty, LACMA, and the Academy.
Treasures from the Academy Film Archive
Last night, the Academy Film Archive presented a special show of their long-running Hollywood Home Movies series, this time focused on the Latin stars in Hollywood. The evening was hosted by Randy Haberkamp, Managing Director of Preservation and Foundation Programs, and Lynne Kirste, Special Collections Curator at the Academy Film Archive.
Kirste, who introduced the clips as well as providing the majority of the running commentary throughout, started with a disclaimer on what would not be included in the evening’s programming. She noted that, as with all archives, they are dependent on the materials that have been donated to them; as such, stars like Ricardo Montalban were not represented, because those home movies (if they even exist) are not in the Academy’s possession.
Similarly, Kirste pointed out that while other Home Movie presentations often include footage from above- and below-the-line crew members, few Latinos had been able to make it in the industry—save for the few, mostly male, stars seen here. Kirste did say that she wished this footage had existed, if only because that would have meant that Hollywood was different back then. But, clearly it wasn’t, so we made due with what did exist.
The presentation included a mixture of personal home movies from the actors/directors themselves, behind-the-scenes footage from people on or observing the sets, and even hair/makeup/wardrobe tests. This was actually my first time at a Home Movies programming, but I got the sense that it isn’t usually organized around a specific grouping of people in this way. I’d be interested in seeing how the clips are normally tied together.
Still, the clips seemed mostly cohesive, presenting a view of classic Hollywood in which these stars seemed to mostly be accepted among their peers (at least on camera), if still struggling against the forces of an oppressive industry. Kirste made note of the stars that had to leave Hollywood in order to continue their careers away from heavy stereotyping. It was also difficult to ignore the amount of exoticization occurring for these actors at the time, often playing roles either outside their own ethnicity (Fernando Lamas as a “sultan”) or even from fictionalized nations (Carmen Miranda as Princess Querida from…? in Greenwich Village). Kirste’s point that male actors had more success also rang true, in several instances showing actresses like Esther Williams and Gail Russell playing Latina characters alongside the Latino actors, rather than extending that opportunity to Latina actresses as well.
My favorite clips came from the Gilbert Roland collection, as he, in addition to being a great actor, was also a prolific home movie enthusiast. Though he was behind the camera in most of his footage, he captured horse races in Agua Caliente, tennis matches in Beverly Hills, and sailing at Catalina—as well as his famous friends, like Dolores del Rio, David O. Selznick, and Bing Crosby. I would imagine this type of footage typically makes up most of the Home Movie programming; there’s something so charming about seeing these usually heavily produced, refined, and glamorous stars in a more casual setting. (Though still impossibly fun and gorgeous—as Haberkamp sarcastically noted at several points in the evening: “What a bunch of sad, lonely people!”)
Other highlights included footage of Carmen Miranda performing on stage with the Nicholas Brothers, courtesy of the family of Fayard Nicholas, who were in attendance; a 25-year-old Desi Arnaz on a USO tour with Billy Gilbert; and Cesar Romero mugging and dancing at a Fred MacMurray picnic.
Director Gregory Nava (El Norte, Mi Familia, Selena) also attended the event, and shared some of his childhood home movies to conclude the evening. While these clips didn’t feature glamorous stars, they were a fascinating insight into the lives of a Mexican/Mexican-American family that spanned both sides of the border. Nava reflected on how these relationships influenced his films, including a particularly heartbreaking story about his aunt’s death. He also reminded the audience of the still-immediate relevancy of deportation, as his father’s father was deported to Mexico in the 1930s, leaving the rest of the family behind.
I highly recommend seizing any opportunity to view the Hollywood Home Movies series, either at individual programs or as part of a larger festival. They’re a uniquely compelling reminder of the humanity of these larger-than-life figures, and for these Latino stars in particular, a reminder of all the external forces often working against their success. That they did succeed then, if only for a brief shining moment, becomes even more precious and impressive.
This entry is part of Once Upon a Screen’s Hollywood Hispanic Heritage Blogathon. Keep an eye out for the full list of entries on October 15!