Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I don't think any Hollywood movie set back the image of Mexicans more than MGM's Viva Villa!, the 1934 opus with Wallace Beery as the famed revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. From here sprang decades' worth of ugly 'Mex' stereotypes, big, greasy louts that rape and kill, have a terrible sense of humor and almost undoubtedly smell bad. An apt analogy might be if the standard image of Americans had been formulated strictly from visits to Skid Row.
Wallace Beery was extremely popular. His screen persona in talkies was established in his comedies with Marie Dressler, and in several dramas and adventure movies playing opposite little Jackie Cooper. Beery milked the sentiment and Cooper made with the teary-eyed waterworks, and the public was hoodwinked. I'll admit that I've never liked Beery in any of his MGM talkies -- he's crass and obvious, and his broad acting always leaves me wishing I were watching someone else.
If anything Viva Villa! shows Beery being consistent. The characterization is so reprehensible that a negative effect was felt on Hollywood-Mexico film relations twenty years later. Like most of Hollywood, David O. Selznick probably had contact with Mexican culture only through his gardeners. The much-revised screenplay for this epic simplifies events from the Mexican Revolution, then barely concluded, to the point that historians would faint. Real bandit warlords of Northern Mexico conducted themselves as one might expect in treacherous times in a violent land. Mexico's own pictures about Pancho Villa are both more honest and more savage than Selznick's. 1 Already accustomed to being patronized and insulted by American politicians, and treated as a brothel by our outlaws and soldiers, Mexico didn't react well to seeing one of their national heroes portrayed as a gross clown.
American cartoons made in the wake of Viva Villa! depict Mexicans as 'Pancho Beery' slobs so gross that they can no longer be screened without disclaimer apologies. A Beery-esque bandit in one cartoon is even portrayed with flies buzzing around his head.
The screenplay reduces an epoch of brutal class warfare and repression to a simple story of decadent landowners and equally treacherous revolutionaries. The stupid barbarian Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery) comes off as a lusty, gross giant -- who's also a softie at heart. Pancho Villa's future is foretold as a child, when his father is executed by the haughty hacendado who appropriates his land. As an adult bandit, Villa and his trusted confederate Sierra (Leo Carillo) are recruited by the noble Francisco Madero (Henry B. Walthal) to head one of the revolutionary armies. Villa's various exploits fall into simple categories. He takes any woman he wants by happily marrying her first, presumably making him a mass bigamist. One particularly possessive bride named Rosita (Katherine de Mille) is used as a running gag about nagging wives. Pancho must work with rich Mexicans, landowners that happen to be allied with the revolution. Don Felipe de Castillo (Donald Cook) despises Villa, a problem that becomes worse when Pancho ravishes the man's beautiful patrician wife, Teresa (Fay Wray). Even Madero realizes that Pancho is too 'simple' to be involved in the serious governing that's needed when the revolution succeeds.
Another essentially comic aspect shows American journalist Johnny Sykes (Stuart Erwin of International House) caught up in Villa's barbaric inner circle. Johnny tries to temper Pancho's sexual appetites and unpredictable violence, as when the amoral Sierra decides to save ammunition by executing multiple Federales with a single bullet. Finally, the revolution is repeatedly betrayed by generals and turncoats. The slimy General Pascal (Joseph Schildkraut) murders Madero and tries to do the same to Pancho. Even after the revolution is 'won', Pancho must come out of retirement, raise another army, and clean out the scum that have taken power in Mexico City.
Back home with Rosita, now a domesticated campesino once more, Pancho is finally ambushed by an old enemy holding a personal grudge.
Actually filmed in Mexico, Viva Villa! is an impressive production. They found a stout horse to support the star, who leads charges at the head of some excellent Mexican riders -- not all of the riding scenes are done on hobby horses with obvious rear projection. The camerawork is very attractive. The impressive names James Wong Howe and Gabriel
Figueroa on the credits lead us to guess that the dense interiors are Howe's, and that the noble portraits of lowly campesinos are Figueroa's. The only technical problems come from continuity mismatches between shots. In the last scene with Pancho, it looks as if Beery was too impatient to keep his props straight, as they keep changing between medium and long shots.
Long lines of soldiers march on horseback, to various choral renditions of La Cucaracha and Adelita,. Rosita performs a suitably lusty dance that raises the goonish Beery's blood pressure. With the exception of Fay Wray's haughty, liberal-minded Teresa, the women are either Madonnas or potential tramps. It's not very flattering to the Catholic background, when Rosita seems willing to go with anybody as long as there's a wedding ceremony. You can't insult these people, the movie loudly suggests -- they're too uncivilized.
That attitude apparently filtered down to the film company on location. Although the main outrage may have been apocryphal, 2 relations between the Hollywood visitors and their Mexican hosts were not good. Viva Villa! had a succession of uncredited directors -- Howard Hawks, William Wellman -- but not necessarily because people were fired. Both MGM and Selznick tag-teamed direction on their bigger movies as a regular habit. In Thalberg's studio, the producer was often considered to be the auteur.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Viva Villa! is a good encoding of this once- legendary movie; it's the kind of show that gathers legends around it to the degree that we always expect to see deleted scenes show up. Official records do call out a slightly longer original length, but that could just have been an overture, or exit music. Film stocks were upgraded a couple of years after this, so Viva Villa! has an early- '30s look with some extra grain and gaps in the grayscale. But the version retained in MGM's vaults is in fine shape.
The original trailer has special scenes of newspapermen receiving Johnny Sykes' telegraph dispatches from the battle front, which is how American learned about Pancho Villa back in 1915 or so. In the film, Sykes wrongly reports that Villa has overrun a particular town, so to help him out, the General changes his plans, doubles back and takes it.
I admit I've used this review to unload a lot of negative bias about actor Wallace Beery. For all I really know, he may have been a prince of a fellow. Maybe it's not Beery's fault that his destiny was to toss off such an ethnically insulting, culturally persistent racial slur. We all know that plenty of Latins share the same prejudices, and might enjoy Beery's impersonation. C'mon, talk me out of it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Viva Villa! DVD-R rates:
Movie: Very Good for a cultural insult that could have started a war
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 6, 2015
1. The downbeat 1936 Mexican classic ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (Let's Go with Pancho Villa!) shows six hearty Mexicans happily going off to war, finding little glory. Their heroic deeds mean nothing, as military expediency shows no mercy for the wounded and sick; most are rewarded with miserable death, often from causes not even related to fighting. General Villa fights with a savage code from another era, BUT he's still afforded the respect of a great leader making difficult decisions.
2. Actor Lee Tracy was originally cast as Johnny Sykes. According to Hollywood lore, but contradicted in some quarters, Tracy got so drunk on location in Mexico that he urinated on some Mexicans from a balcony. Whatever the cause, he was quickly replaced in the role and sent home. The Mexican protests were mostly ignored. Twenty years later Burt Lancaster's filming company for Vera Cruz was given the benefit of the doubt, only to put up with more depredations, insults to Mexican actresses, etc.
The consistently insulting depiction of Mexico caused the local industry to enforce draconian, sometimes self-defeating measures. This is why later American movies filmed in Mexico often present an overly sanitized view of Mexican peasants that seems just as patronizing. Mexicans can work with vulgarians -- their filmmakers got along well with the culturally respectful Sam Peckinpah, for example -- but they're no fools.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
T'was Ever Thus.
Return to Top of Page