One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley did an interview with a studio executive in which he trivialized a legitimate complaint:
“Villains of the screen will have to be men without country,” said Irving G. Thalberg, director-general of Universal City, the other day, in course of an interview discussing the suggestion which has been made that a State Department for the motion-picture industry be appointed, in order to keep us out of trouble with temperamental nations.
The idea was suggested by some well-known picture men, when Mexico banned the entire output of one company until a certain picture in which Mexico’s dignity was rumpled, is withdrawn from the screen.
Mr. Thalberg has just transmitted an order from Carl Laemmle on the subject. “The national dignity of all peoples must be respected,” the order reads. “A villain must be a villain because of his actions, not because of his nationality.”
“Now that Mexico has taken drastic and expensive protest,” said Mr. Thalberg,” “other countries are noticing the tendency of American producers to make the villain almost anything but an American. It will be the work of the motion-picture State Department if appointed, to survey the international temperament and card index those delicate points which lure forth the national goat.”
Laemmle’s order doesn’t seem so outrageous–in fact, it could make for more interesting movie plots–particularly when you learn that the film that provoked Mexico to ban the importation and exhibition of all Paramount films was a fairly mediocre and otherwise forgettable Gloria Swanson vehicle called Her Husband’s Trademark.* The bandits who murder her n’er do well husband, allowing her to marry her True Love, did not need to be from any particular country. Mexico was especially irritated because only one month before the film was released in March, President Alvaro Obregon had notified the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) that Mexico would forbid importation and exhibition of denigrating films, according to film historian Laura I. Serna.
So they were ready to do exactly what they promised and take some action. The Associated Press reported on April 28th:
Juarez customs officials today received orders from Mexico City barring all Paramount motion picture films from that country unless Her Husband’s Trademark, a picture starring Gloria Swanson, is withdrawn from circulation. Several scenes of fights with Mexican “revolutionists” are shown and the customs order says, “Mexico is placed in an untrue and shameful light.”
Paramount did not withdraw the film, so on May 1st Mexico refused to allow 236 Paramount films into their country, according to the L.A. Times. Moving Picture World added the details that that the Mexican postal service had advised the U.S. postal service that their President had ruled against the importation of Paramount films, and they would return all shipments.
Mexico continued to stand firm, and added Famous Players Lasky, Metro, and Educational Films to their embargo. In September, the MPPDA sent a special representative to Mexico City, Bernon T. Woodle, and after a month of negotiations in which he promised that Hollywood would stop making offensive films, they signed an agreement on November 6th lifting the ban and stipulating that some previously released films were exempted.
You’ve probably noticed that Hollywood continued to make offensive films. For a little while film producers moved settings to mythical South American countries, but that wasn’t particularly helpful. At least there was a tiny acknowledgement that some movies included ugly and thoughtless stereotypes.
Mexico really had a point. The conventions were so accepted that United Statsian (we do need a word for that) critics writing about Her Husband’s Trademark were blind to them and barely mentioned the offensive characters, or even worse, said “Mexican types are true to life,” as Exhibitors Trade Review did. Laura I. Serna wrote the Mexican diplomatic staff “complained that American films provided a one-sided view of Mexico as a nation of impoverished peasants completely given over to their baser instincts,” and the diplomats only wanted Hollywood to show that there was both good and bad there, as in every other country.
The rest of the Thalberg interview wasn’t any better. He thought that all nations were being equally insulted:
Mexico, it is clear, does not like to have all villains in all western pictures look like Pancho Villa. England would perhaps be gratified if all Englishmen were not depicted as nit-wits or made to resemble a cross between a gopher and a rabbit. France has long been weary of screen Frenchmen who act like female impersonators, and Ireland is tired of having its men constantly called upon to confirm the Darwin theory.
Of course there were plenty of non-rabbity British actors like Charlie Chaplin in American films, and The Three Musketeers, which is chock-full of macho French characters, had just been a huge hit. It’s useful to know that people in the past were just as offended by stereotypes in movies as they are now, but the men in power could more easily get away with belittling them if they complained.
This month, Grace Kingsley wrote about the arrival of another well-dressed star. Modern divas can line up for a master class in swanning into town from Pola Negri, and Kingsley did a good job of recording it:
The palpitating moment has passed. Pola Negri, rated by many critics as the world’s greatest film actress, has arrived among us. Miss Negri tripped off the train at Pasadena and you know her at once for that brilliantly fascinating, carefully artless heroine of Passion and Gypsy Blood.
Oh, it was quite carefully staged, that appearance. There were any number of maids and secretaries and others, who came out first until the suspense grew perfectly awful.
Then there she was, a vision in grey, her gown a long one of pan velvet trimmed with grey squirrel, while a little tippy-tilty hat shaded her face saucily, so that you barely caught the jade color of her eyes. But there were the red, red lips of that wonderfully mobile mouth, and the ivory skin, and the pearls of teeth flashing in what would have been a sweet grin of welcome in anybody except the screen’s greatest artist.
A small, barefoot newsboy handed her a flower (Kingsley suspected it had been prearranged), then:
Cameras to the right of her, cameras to the left of her! Then we got a chance to speak to the famous lady. We learned already that she loathes short dresses and that Paris dressmakers are trying to make us think they thought of them first!
Miss Negri was very happy to be there except for the heat—she “loves California, aside from the fact that it isn’t Paris.” Furthermore: “She also wears the largest diamond I have ever seen on the middle finger of her left hand. We thought Pauline Frederick owned the largest diamond in the world, but Miss Negri’s is even larger.”
It’s a shame that current celebrities don’t put on such a show when they roll into town!
*Her Husband’s Trademark was so minor that neither the L.A. nor the N.Y. Times bothered to review it, they just mentioned it was playing. Film Daily’s title of their review offered a good summation: “Suitable Vehicle for Gloria Swanson but Otherwise Not Distinctive.” They went on to say that it “does not gain any laurels for itself. The basic idea is not new, for there have been other screen husbands who have used their beautiful screen wives to rope in unsuspecting business men as victims of unscrupulous deals.”
“Back From Mexico,” Film Daily, December 21, 1922, p.1.
“Bars Picture,” Morning Press, April 29, 1922.
“Companies Banned,” Moving Picture World, November 25, 1922, p. 316.
“Foreign Field Better,” Film Daily, July 7, 1922, p. 1, 4.
“Her Husband’s Trademark,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, March 4, 1922, p. 1007.
“Mexico Bans Imports of American Films; Reason Kept Secret,” Moving Picture World, June 3, 1922, p. 462.
“Oppose Film in Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1922.
“Paramount Arranges for its Film Distribution in Mexico,” Moving Picture World, January 21, 1922, p. 299.
Laura I. Serna, “’As a Mexican I Feel It’s My Duty:” Citizenship, Censorship, and the Campaign Against Derogatory Films in Mexico, 1922-1930,” Latin American Film History, October 2006, pp225-244.
“Suitable Vehicle for Gloria Swanson But Otherwise Not Distinctive,” Film Daily, February 26, 1922, p. 18.