Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Viva Villa! (1934)

With the countless motion pictures being released yearly by the many Hollywood studios, filmmakers are ever on the hunt for new heroes and stories to grace their screens. Pancho Villa was a larger than life legend of the Mexican Revolution and still fresh in the minds of many Americans in 1934, a mere eleven years after his assassination. MGM, Hollywood’s largest and most powerful studio, would take the tale of the infamous Mexican bandit and a romanticize it, cast it with one of the best known character actors, making it vastly more appealing to American audiences, producing the year’s greatest box office draw. Viva Villa! would be a story not about the Mexican Revolution, but rather a story of an uncivilized leader that fights for those that are pushed around by tyrants, therefore a very American spirited idea set to the background of recent events of the earlier twentieth century.

Viva Villa! is an epic biographical picture inspired by the life of the infamous bandit Pancho Villa, one of the most prolific leaders of the Mexican Revolution. Setting the stage for the film we are show a young Pancho Villa as he watches first his village be ravaged by the Mexican government, then the execution his father. Years later Villa (Wallace Beery) fights for the “peon” people of Mexico who simply want freedom from the tyrannical government and right to find their own happiness. Villa is a flawed man, a loud boisterous man, an open womanizer, and a man not adapt to regular civility despite his simple, good intentions. Villa as a stirring leader to a posse of loyal fellow bandits is recruited by the charismatic political leader Francisco Madero (Henry B. Walthall) to be a general in the Mexican Revolution. In the mean time Villa is shadowed by an American newspaper writer, Jonny Skyes, who romanticizes the greatness of the infamous Villa to American readers, something Villa takes great pride in.

Though Villa does not always fight by rules, he is a captivating leader of large armies, aiding to win the war. Villa battles issues with fitting into civilized culture leading to his exile, but when Madero is assassinated by a new tyrant, Villa is called back to save the country he loves, preserving it once again for the people. Rising to political power, Villa ultimately steps down from the strife of leading a nation, but is assassinated by gunmen of a vengeful friend for whose sister he attempted to force himself on earlier in his rise. (The woman played by Fay Wray). In death Villa’s spirit lives on as a symbol for which the song “La Cucaracha” becomes their rallying song.

The picture is much romanticized look at the life of one of Mexico’s most infamous figures. MGM takes a large amount of creative license with Villa’s life story to spin it in a manner that generates a tale that is more at home in the United States than to its neighbors to the south. The film is quite large, but is heavily managed by use of title cards to provided important information while fast forwarding through events in Villa’s life. Director Jack Conway utilizes the deep pockets and film knowledge of MGM’s creative forces to create the images of great battles during the revolution, placing star Wallace Beery in the middle of it all, but far from any danger with special effects of the time (many times using rear projection with Beery on a faux horse rocking in the foreground). Beery plays well the flawed legend in a fight for the freedom of his people, for whom he refers to as “peons.” It is a very American ideal for which he fights for, paralleling the struggles of America’s own battles to free themselves from British tyrany.

Viva Villa! was a grand success at the box office for MGM, the top money maker of 1934, but time has made the picture more laughable. The film falls into the often repeated flaws of Hollywood pictures of the era. In spite of relative familiarity of the Mexican border to greater Los Angeles area, most all the actors were played by white men, including Beery, painted in make-up to darken the skin tone. The accents of the Mexican characters, for those who tried, were of poor quality as well. Katherine DeMille (adopted daughter of the famous director Cecil B. DeMille), who plays Villa’s wife Rosita, carries with herself an accent that sounds more at home in New York, even though she was born in Vancouver and raised in Los Angeles. Authenticity is not of top notch, but that was not necessarily the point for the film when it was released, but time would not be kind to the picture. Though still respected as a great piece of 1934, it is not hailed as a timeless masterpiece.

For a film of its caliber, the picture had a descent sized cast of respectable actors. Leo Carrilo, who plays Villa’s right hand man Sierra, would be the most authentic actor to the role. Though playing a foolish, uncivilized character, Carrilo was a native Angelino with a university education and a respectable history of acting. The name in the cast that perhaps jumps out the most is Fay Wray, best known as the original “scream queen,” first made famous from King Kong. Her role was minor, but her billing would be very high due to her recognizable name.

The production of the picture would cause a minor controversy in Mexican-American relations. This would be based around role of Jonny, the newspaper writer. Originally Lee Tracy, whose credits included The Front Page and Dinner At Eight, would be cast in the role of the man that spins legendary stories of Villa to his American newspaper, openly overplaying the man in his articles. The story goes that one night while on location in Mexico Tracy urinated on a gathering for Mexicans from his balcony during a military parade. Tracy claims the true story is that he too was observing the parade when a Mexican citizen made an obscene gesture to him, and Tracy returned the rude gesture, enraged the native Mexicans so much that the story would grow into something it was not. Due to the uproar MGM would replace Tracy with Stuart Erwin. The legend continues that original director Howard Hawks was replaced because for his refusal to testify against Tracy. What is true and what is not is a something lost in memories of those that were there to witness the event.

As mentioned before, Howard Hawks was originally set as director of the picture. He would direct much of the beautiful shots set on location in Mexico, and Mexico City in particular. Hawks did not particularly enjoy his time directing for MGM for their continual probing into the film production. Eventually he would be replaced by Jack Conway, a MGM go-to man. Hawks would ultimately walk out on his MGM contract, while Conway would continue to do the studios bidding without making a great name for himself. (Conway would be the uncredited director of Tarzan and His Mate, which was released a week later, even though the film was mainly his work.) Some of Hawks shots are still used in the final picture.

In all Viva Villa! was a large production with American values produced in a way that was very similar to a well made spaghetti western. MGM, with its theater and media machine, no doubt helped to make the film the greatest money maker of 1934. The picture is a fine example of western cinema produced by the large studio, but Beery and his Pancho Villa would not stand the tests of time the way the American cowboy of John Wayne pictures in the years to come would. Viva Villa! was well respected gaining four Academy Award nominations that year, for adapted screenplay, sound recording, assistant director (a short lived category), and even best picture. The production quality of its time was top notch, but not good enough to warrant one of the best films of the year.

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