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The Gay Desperado

The Gay Desperado(1936)

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Legendary director Rouben Mamoulian wreaked havoc on Hollywood genre formulas and Latino stereotypes with the 1936 musical, The Gay Desperado. So sprightly was his work that it won him a New York Film Critics Award for Best Director. And yet the film didn't score a single Oscar® and was not acknowledged as a classic until it was reissued in a restored version in 2006.

Like many Hollywood films of the Golden Age, The Gay Desperado draws on the stereotype of the Mexican bandit, a supposedly childlike figure with little understanding of the real world (yet, paradoxically, enough to elude being captured). And in true Hollywood fashion, only a handful of true Latinos played the Mexican characters. Other roles went to such all-purpose ethnic types as New Yorker Harold Huber (of Russian-Jewish heritage), Pennsylvanian Stanley Fields, Russian Mischa Auer and Italian Frank Puglia. Only U.S. born Leo Carrillo (descended from one of the first Spanish families to settle California) and Chris-Pin Martin, an Arizona native, came by their Spanish-speaking roles naturally.

Yet The Gay Desperado also plays with ethnic stereotypes with its tale of a Mexican bandit chief (Carrillo) trying to recreate himself as an American-style gangster. When he kidnaps a wealthy heiress (Ida Lupino), he is soon torn between his desire for ransom and his affection for a Mexican singer (Italian-born opera star Nino Martini) who has fallen in love with her. Ultimately, he realizes that the American gangsters he has been emulating are too bloodthirsty and returns to a Mexican code of honor deemed superior to American ethics.

The Gay Desperado was the second and last co-production for former screen star Mary Pickford and film pioneer Jesse L. Lasky. They had first teamed for the romantic comedy One Rainy Afternoon (1936), starring Lupino and Francis Lederer. Eventually, Pickford's growing reclusiveness and descent into alcoholism led her to dissolve the partnership with her former boss.

For The Gay Desperado, they very wisely hired Mamoulian, one of the talkies' first great pioneers and theatrical giant, to helm the picture. He had been one of the first directors to move the camera after the arrival of talking pictures, when most films were shot with stationary cameras housed in soundproof booths to keep microphones from picking up camera noises. His early musicals, Applause (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932) integrated song and dialogue creatively, while he experimented with Expressionistic point of view shots in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Ever the innovator, he had also directed the first three-color Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp (1935), using color effectively to enhance the story's effectiveness.

The Gay Desperado seemed a simpler production, but he hardly sloughed off the assignment. He worked with writer Wallace Smith to flesh out Leo Birinsky's original story, adding comic details and character touches to give the paper-thin tale more depth. He also worked with cinematographer Lucien N. Andriot to create amazing black-and-white exteriors, isolating his characters against the sky to often startling effect.

For romantic leads, Lasky cast his protge -- Italian-born operatic tenor Martini, who combined occasional films with seasons at the Metropolitan Opera and a popular radio show -- and Lupino. He and Pickford had been so impressed with her work in their first film, they had cast her again as soon as they saw the first preview. Made years before Lupino became one of the icons of film noir, The Gay Desperado represents one of the best performances she would give during her period as a blonde ingnue. The film is almost stolen, however, by Carrillo. Although raised in wealth to become a cultured, educated gentleman the actor excelled at playing simple Mexican stereotypes (like the sidekick in the early TV series The Cisco Kid), though rarely as effectively as in The Gay Desperado.

Helping sell The Gay Desperado was a major publicity push from United Artists. The producers held a national poll to name the film, with more than 25,000 fans voting for The Gay Desperado. They also announced that the gold-embroidered sombrero Carrillo wore had once belonged to Pancho Villa, whose widow had presented it to the actor. With several scenes shot on location in Arizona, the local government honored the company. Mamoulian was installed as an honorary police lieutenant by the officer who had arrested him for a traffic violation two years earlier. The Tucson police chief presented assistant director Robert Lee with the bulletproof vest John Dillinger had been wearing when arrested there. And the governor presented Carrillo with a 1,700-year-old cactus plant.

The Gay Desperado did well at the box office, but was viewed as a routine musical feature on its first release. In 2006, however, the UCLA Film and Television Archives restored it under the supervision of the Mary Pickford Foundation. The results won the film a new generation of champions and better reviews than it had received initially. Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thompson hailed it as "light-hearted fun" with special praise for the stars and for Andriot's "stunning black-and-white compositions...restored to their original razor-sharp definition."

Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Producer: Jesse L. Lasky, Mary Pickford
Screenplay: Leo Birinsky, Wallace Smith
Cinematography: Lucien N. Andriot
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Principal Cast: Nino Martini (Chivo), Ida Lupino (Jane), Leo Carrillo (Pablo Braganza), Harold Huber (Juan Campo), Stanley Fields (Butch), Mischa Auer (Diego), Frank Puglia (Lopez), Chris-Pin Martin (Pancho). BW-85m.

by Frank Miller

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