Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Bad Man (1923)

The image of Mexicans portrayed in The Bad Man (1923) contrasted heavily with that in The Mark of Zorro. Directed by Edwin Carewe (who later directed the 1928 version of Ramona starring Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio), the film starred Holbrook Blinn as the “notorious Mexican bandit Pancho Lopez,” in a revival of his stage performance as the Bad Man in the play by Porter Emerson Browne. The film is not, however, a return to the directly derogatory representation of Mexicans as dangerous villains or bandits that marked prior Hollywood films. Instead, as the New York Times wrote, this “clever and restrained . . . production” lost none of the whimsical humor of the play and Blinn, as the comic anti-hero Pancho Lopez, is “never at a loss for a smirk, a smile, a look of surprise, threatening gestures, or interest in what is going on around him. Blinn’s hands and feet appear to suit the very expression of his darkened countenance.” The film is a comedy that features the loyal Lopez, the mal hombre of yesteryear, defending the patriarch Gilbert Jones, who has once saved his life. By killing Morgan Pell, the rival of his friend Jones (and setting Jones up with Pell’s wife), Lopez is an allegorical stand-in for the mysterious and appealing side of Mexico and represents the complex tension of attraction and repulsion that marked relations between the United States and Mexico. It is not an irony that his very repulsive nature—the ability to kill—is also the source of his nobleness, albeit a naturalistic and primitive form of nobility. The Bad Man repeatedly undermines even this primitive nobility awarded Lopez by making the sound of his thick accent a featured part of the “silent” movie. As Melinda Szaloky has examined in an essay about F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), visual acoustics as “a dimension of silent cinema that . . . does not originate from extrafilmic sound effects but, instead, issues from the images [of the films] themselves” is an underappreciated aspect of the silent film. When Lopez informs Morgan Pell that he is going to kill him, the inter-titles exaggerated the sound of his voice for the audience. Turning to his chief assistant, Lopez declares, “Pedro, I do not hunt rabbits—you keel heem.” According to the Times, the comedic effect was not lost on the audience, as the film was surely a “picture which sends one away joking about the lingo of the Bad Man.” When the film was remade in 1930 by First National Pictures, Walter Huston supplied in sound the exaggerated Mexican accent of the comedic anti-hero Pancho Lopez. The portrayal of Pancho Lopez in the film as a noble yet comic, murderous yet and unthreatening hero-villain came amidst increased pressures by the Mexican government to influence the representation of Mexicans in Hollywood films. Pressure came in the form of diplomatic protest and economic boycott, including the “ban on motion pictures which contain Mexican villains or incidents that may portray Mexican life unfavorably” that was delivered to Hollywood studios via Mexican General G.S. Seguin in 1922. The letter sent to the Hollywood studios by Seguin was not the first form of protest by the Mexican government, who had “long made efforts to control the image of Mexicans produced in the United States.” The Bad Man attempted to navigate official protests by the Mexican government by attempting to ennoble its comic villain-hero; it is Lopez’ actions, after all, that guarantees the happiness and love interest of the film’s American protagonist. But as Wilbur Morse, Jr. pointed out in a 1931 article in Motion Picture Classic, audiences inside and outside of the Mexican government were not fooled. Commenting on the remake of the Bad Man, Morse wrote that Walter Huston had given “an added sting to the lines which, as silent picture titles, had enraged the good citizens of our Sister Republic” in 1923. Mexican efforts at banning American films (and controlling the image of Mexicans) throughout the 1920s were undercut by a combination of external factors. These included the popularity of non-derogatory Hollywood films in Mexico, the sheer size and dominance of Hollywood productions, and by the conflicted needs of Mexican President Alvaro Obregon, who was president of Mexico from 1920-1924. Obregon was attempting to reconstruct the Mexican economy and political system and was forced to balance differing goals: the quest to avoid United States domination and the need for diplomatic recognition from the United States.

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