July 2, 1999
Mexican Influence on North American Filmography Predates the "Talkies".
Ramon Novarro in his finest and best-remembered
role as Judah Ben-Hur in "Ben-Hur" (1926, MGM)
By: Dan Muñoz
"My childhood was happy," Ramon (Samaniego) Novarro was to recall in later life. Born in February 6, 1899, in Durango, Mexico. He was the second son of a wealthy dentist, Dr. Mariano N. Samaniego, who was born in Juárez, Mexico and attended school in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Dr Samaniego was to earn his degree in Dentistry from the University of Pennsylvania after which he moved to Durango, Mexico where he was successful in his Practice.
Ramon Novarro's mother, the beautiful Leonor Gavilan was a mixture of Spanish and Aztec blood. Family leyendas claim that her Aztec lineage could be traced to Guerrero, a prince of Moctezuma (Guerrero - Meaning: he was strong in war).
Ramon's life in Mexico was shorten when the `revolution' to overthrow the dictatorship of General Porfirio Díaz in 1910, begin to impact on their lives. In 1913, the revolution began in earnest to overthrow of the Dictator General Victoriano Huerta, an unscrupulous, immoral person who took possession of the presidency. The end of the Samaniego life in Mexico was coming to an end. As members of the privileged class, their days were numbered. Eventually Ramon (Samaniego) would arrive in Los Angeles, November 25 (Thanksgiving Day), 1915.
The Silent Movie Industry
"I found myself in Hollywood going from one studio to another looking for a job... I interviewed with every casting director in town, only to receive the same reply, No!," said Novarro in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1965.
As a child, Ramon received a privileged education in Mexico that included the arts, piano, voice. At age 8, he received a marionette theater and from there on spent his time producing plays for the neighborhood children. From that day on, he had the acting and singing bug. He had determined that this would be his life's work.
His arrival in Hollywood did not go exactly as he thought it should. In Hollywood he was just another person with the acting but there wasn't many openings in the silent movie days. Ramon was only 16 years old and the only work he could find were jobs as a grocery clerk, busboy, a cafe singer, model, an usher and playing bit parts at the Majestic Theater Stock Company at $10 a week. His first break in the silent-movies came as an extra in the movie "Joan the Woman" (1917). This opened the door to other bit parts until he came to the attention of Director Rex Ingram and he had a lead part in "The Prisoner of Zanda" in 1922. Rudolph Valentino's replacement had arrived!
Ramon changed his name to Novarro and his movie life as a romantic lover was launched.
A flurry of movies followed which propelled Novarro to stardom. He was featured in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Where the Pavement Ends, and Scaramouche (1923) which cost over one million to make. Scaramouche was a major success and in the process confirming Ramon Novarro as a major star, all without sound except the pianola that played in each theater and the written script that appeared at the bottom of the screen.
Probably the best silent picture Novarro made was Ben-Hur. The movie was praised by Variety as "The greatest achievement that had been accomplished on the screen." It proclaimed that "Ramon Novarro had been made for all time by his performance." Novarro was "Ben Hur" to moviegoers long before Charlton Heston came on the scene!
1927 - Birth of Talking Pictures
With the advent of sound many of the stars of the silent era failed to make the transition. Many did not have suitable voices for sound. Anyone with a speech impediment or heavy accents was out. When it came to Ramon Novarro, some of the executives questioned whether he could make the switch. "He can sing , play the guitar but what about his accent, they asked?" Others reasoned: "He has always played roles as a foreign i.e. Ben Hur, The Prince of Judah. We will cast him in films where he will speak in an accent". They were unwilling to cut their top star loose!
Ramon Novarro was one of the few stars of the silent films that managed to cross over and become a star of the first magnitude in sound films. Unlike the other stars of the silent movie epoch, Novarro was also an acclaimed singer. He had been honored for his singing at Hollywood and had performed in some of the top opera houses in Europe, Mexico and the United States. He was thrilled at the thought of performing in talking movies. "Only in talking pictures," he said," "can opera be made possible to the masses."
The Pagan (29) produced by Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, a musical costume drama Ramon Novarro had the lead singing and speaking parts! From that beginning there was to be no stopping Novar-ro. There followed films such as: In Gay Madrid (1930), Call of The Flesh (1930), The Outriders (1950), Heller in Pink Tights (1960), to name a few. There was no stopping Novarro except himself.
Before Novarro's tragic ending, he had one more hurdle to clear: Television. As he aged, alcoholism took more and more control of his body and little by little he was dropped by the side. The studios were hesitant to commit millions of dollars on an aging movie star who was spending more and more of his time drinking. Nevertheless he was still marquee material and in 1952 he was invited to appear in the Ed Sullivan's Toast of The Town variety program. There followed Ken Murray's Blackout, 1952, another variety program. Walt Disney Presents in 1958, Hedda Hopper's Hollywood, 1960. Then followed appearances in television dramas in which he had small parts such as Combat (1964), Rawhide (1964), Dr. Killdare, (1964), Bonanza (1965), The Wild Wild West (1967) and finally High Chaparral (1968).
Novarro in one of his last guest-starring
roles on the television show "The
Wild Wild West" (1967)
The Tragic End
Unbeknown to the legion of fans, and admirers, that adored Ramon Novarro, he had lived with a deep, dark secret. It was known by the studio bosses, his family, and a very few of his closed friends, but it had never been made public until his brutal murder in 1968.
We live his tragic ending to rest between the covers of his book. It must be shared along with his glories and his accomplishments and understood in the context of this Biography by Allan R. Ellenberger.
To the modern day Latinos and Mexican Americans, this book can perhaps be helpful to you in understanding our history. As in other aspects of our existence, on this earth, Roman Novarro is but one more example of our `Gente' who have survived and triumphed against adversity.