Agustina López: a Mexican Yaqui in Hollywood.

 

 “Another thing I would like to do is to make a movie…”

Rosalío Moisés in A Yaqui Life.



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© Xóchitl Fernández, 2013.



Agustina (or Augustina) López was born in Mexico. Her accurate birth’s place and date are unknown, although she maintained to be born about 1840[1]. How Ms. López ended living in California one can only guess; possibly, she fled the violence against Yoremes[2] in Mexico.


Ms. López was believed to be cast in bit and extra parts since “the beginning of pictures”, but there is not proof about it. Certainly she was not the young woman that went to Hollywood to pursue stardom, since the inception of movies occurred when she was already way in her middle age. By the time she was given her first credit in a movie, Agustina was indeed a weather-beaten, elderly woman.



That first credit was given to her in The Crow’s Nest (Paul Hurst, 1922), produced by Sunset Productions. The movie starred Jack Hoxie and Evelyn Nelson. Ms. López played the role of a squaw. ‘The Hutchinson News’ of Hutchinson, Kansas, in a note published on September 16, 1922, mentioned her in the film’s review as a “real Indian”, one of the “assisting players carefully chosen for their individual ability to portray the kind of part assigned to them.”


It was until 1926 that Agustina was heard of again, when she got her first important role in an independent Mexican movie produced in California and shot in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico: Guillermo Calles cast her as “Dorotea”, the mother of “Ramón Tollos” -the main character in El indio yaqui. The film was produced, directed and starred by Calles.


The film is considered lost, but the original script, some stills, and several reviews by film reporters show the relevance of Ms. López’s role. Her performance was praised by film journalists in Spanish language newspapers. It was said she had never been in front of a camera before El indio yaqui, possibly to stress the fact that she was only an extra and bit-player in earlier films.


Gabriel Navarro, translated and cited by Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr.[3], wrote about the film:


Calles silently rented a studio, hired a cameraman and two or three American players of prestige that could perform secondary        roles. Roy Stewart, a well-known adventure actor, and Neal Hart, that is one of his best friends, both appear in scenes of ‘El indio        yaqui’, briefly conveying their stature to the picture and giving support to the new producer. The rest of the cast, with the                exception of the heroine played by the beautiful Betty Brown, was split among Mexican artists that are struggling in Hollywood to        succeed in spite of all the prejudices and obstacles. Juan V. Calles, José Duarte, Pepe Domínguez, Enrique Acosta, and Manuel F.        Rodríguez play their parts with authentic feeling, cheerfully, free from the restrictions imposed by directors who present Mexicans as they imagine them and not as they really are. A sweet old lady, señora Agustina López, takes the prize for interpretation. She is a mother that remembers past tragedies and recreates them on the screen. Her effort, given that she has never posed for the camera before, is without a doubt the most significant in the film.



Film critic Homero Lizama Escoffie, in a review of El indio yaqui, translated and cited by Rogelio Agrasánchez, wrote about Agustina’s role in the film:


Mrs. Agustina López wants to sell her screenplay about a typical Mexican tragedy, which begins in Hollywood and continues in the        Hacienda Cubanita, in the State of Sonora. After so many hardships, she encounters the Mexican artist Guillermo Calles in the                studios of Hollywood. Mrs. López proposes this real-life story to the not-so-fortunate actor in the cinema but who has a stubborn        will. He becomes interested in it. She begins to tell her story, taking the role of “Dorotea” and giving Guillermo Calles the role of                “Ramón Tollos”, el indio yaqui.[4]


Having that part in Calles’s film seems to have got her some recognition. In 1927, ‘Photoplay’ published a picture of her with Richard Dix, which caption reads:


Here is a picture of a girl of undaunted spirit. Her name is Augustina López, and she is 87 years old. Since the beginning of pictures, she has done a bit here and there and for the first time is receiving screen credit in Dix’s latest, ‘The Gay Defender’. How is that for persistence?[5]


The Gay Defender was produced by Paramount in 1927, and is now considered lost. The film was a romanticized version of Joaquín Murrieta’s story, starring Richard Dix as Murrieta and Thelma Todd as his love interest. The role played by Agustina López is not clear; yet, it was a somewhat relevant one, as the movie stills reveal[6]; the Yaqui actress is seen in a portrait and in several scene stills.

In the same year, Ms. López played the uncredited role of a gypsy in The Night of Love, starring Ronald Colmand and Vilma Bánky; the film was directed by George Fitzmaurice under the Samuel Goldwyn Company. The screenplay was based on a play written by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, noted Spanish author that lived in the 1600s. Crispín Martín, another Yaqui actor, also had an uncredited part in the film.



Agustina was cast for another Richard Dix’s vehicle in 1929, and this time she got the eighth credit in the film: she played Yina, Wing Foot’s (Richard Dix) grandmother in Redskin, also produced by Paramount and directed by Victor Schertzinger. If one might had any doubt about why an elderly Mexican Yaqui actress got attention and praise from film journalists in her time, this film has the answer.


Redskin is available as part of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s ‘Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934’ in superb digital quality. Agustina López appears in the first reel deftly rug-weaving. The actress shows her histrionic skills passing from a joyful state to worry and anguish when an officer comes to take his grandson to an Indian Boarding School, against the will of the boy’s father –and hers.


In this part of the movie, Yina is supposed to be around 50 years old, and is successful at making that impression. Though she was toothless at least since El indio yaqui time, she usually wore a denture that made her look much younger. The denture, plus a lively manner, conveyed the impression of a middle-aged woman.


Yina appears again in the movie when his grandson, Wing Foot, returns to his town after graduating at school. About fifteen years have elapsed, and Yina is now a very old woman, blind and weak. Ms. López acts the part in an outstanding manner. Here she is toothless, and seemingly hard of hearing; her general air is that of sadness and despair. She conveys her character’s emotions at recognizing his beloved grandson by tact.


       


All in all, the Yaqui actress reveals herself as an accomplished player in Redskin. She also shows her natural refinement and ease of manner.

Agustina was cast for another eighth-credit role in The Wolf Song in 1928. This movie was directed by Victor Fleming, while the leading roles were assigned to Lupe Vélez and Gary Cooper. ‘The San Diego News’ reported: “Michael Vavitch and Augustina López have been engaged for character roles in Paramount’s The Wolf Song”.[7] She played “Louisa”. Four reels of the film are extant.


Agustina López played another credited role in 1929, in Tide of Empire, film produced by Cosmopolitan Pictures and directed by Allan Dwan. Renée Adorée and George Duryea cast in the leading roles. A mention of the Mexican actress was made in a review of the film: “Gino Corrado, Augustina López and others of note make up the huge cast.”[8] An update about her role in this movie will be added soon to this article.


In 1932, Ms. López was cast for a role in Thunder Below, film produced by Paramount and directed by Richard Wallace. ‘Photoplay’ published a picture of her with the following caption:


Augustina López, ninety years old, is thrilled to be given the chance to learn her lines. Nothing is too hard for her if it means a few        days’ work. She is happy only when she is in a picture. This Mexican actress has just been assigned a small part in Tallulah                Bankhead’s new fim, ‘Thunder Below’. Watch for her.[9]


As the reader may notice, four of the movies which Agustina got credited in were produced by Paramount. Back in those years, several Mexican actors were under contract at major film studios; it is possible she was working for Paramount for years, mainly as an extra and bit-player.


After Thunder Below, nothing more has been found about Ms. López.



In spite of the dearth of information about her[10], it is evident she was one of the first Yaquis in Hollywood, like Crispín Martín[11] and Esteban Clemente[12]; all of them honoring Stanislavski’s phrase: "There are no small parts, only small actors".


Sources:


Archives and Collections.

Ernest Domínguez Photographic Collection, Whittier, California.

Richard J. Domínguez Photographic Collection, Whittier, California.

Rudy Calles Photographic Collection. Agrasánchez Film Archive. Harlingen, Texas.

Original screenplay of El indio yaqui, written and annotated by Guillermo Calles. Agrasánchez Film Archive. Harlingen, Texas.

NARA. Border Crossings from Mexico 1903-1957, available at www.ancestry.com


Genealogy Records.

Mexican Civil Registry Records, State of Sonora, 1840 -1880.

Mexican Church Records, State of Sonora, 1840-1880.


Trade Publications.

Photoplay, 1920-1935

Motion Picture Magazine, 1920-1935


Secondary Sources.

Agrasánchez, Rogelio Jr., Guillermo Calles: A Biography of the Actor and Mexican Cinema Pioneer. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2010

The Richard Dix Website, at www.richarddix.org

The International Movie Database, at www.imdb.org


Films.

Redskin (1929, Victor Fleming; produced by Paramount Pictures), in the ‘Treasures III’ dvd set released by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

           



[1] In fact, she looked about two decades younger in films and still pictures. A search for her birth certificate or any other official document proving her age has been unfruitful as yet.

[2] Name the Yaqui Indians give to themselves.

[3] Gabriel Navarro, La Prensa, 11 July 1926, 12. Translated and cited by Rogelio Agrasánchez, Guillermo Calles: A Biography of the Actor and Mexican Cinema Pioneer” (Jefferson, NC: McFarland , 2010), 48.

[4] Homero Lizama Escoffie, “El Indio Yaqui”, Púrpura y Oro: Revista mensual ilustrada de Literatura y Ciencias (August 1927), translated and cited in Agrasánchez, 49.

[5] “As We Go to Press”, Photoplay, May 1938, 38.

[6] One can see a detailed synopsis and an excellent display of film publicity material for The Gay Defender at: http://www.richarddix.org/gaydefenderpageone.htm and http://www.richarddix.org/gaydefenderpagetwo.htm

[7] “Film Flickers”, San Diego News, 25 November 1928, 25.

[8] “Romance of Gold Rush to Be Presented at The Sheboygan”, Sheboygan Press, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 17 July, 1929, 19.

[9] Photoplay, May 1932, 38.

[10] She is not mentioned in directories of Hispanic players in Hollywood.

[11] Usually credited as Chris-Pin Martin.

[12] Usually credited as Steve Clemente or Steve Clemento.