Guillermo Calles: the first Mexican in Hollywood

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Being a Mexican filmmaker in Los Angeles, California, in the 1920s was something out of the ordinary. More unusual though was Guillermo Calles’s makeup: he came from a family with Indian roots. His mother descended from Tarahumara Indians in Chihuahua. Guillermo was born in 1893 and spent his childhood in mining camps in Arizona. His mother and brothers lived for a while in Clifton, Morenci and Silverbell. By 1913 the twenty-year old Calles was working at the Lubin film studios in Los Angeles. That year Guillermo appeared in the movie A Mexican Tragedy. He also got extra parts in several films produced by Jesse Lasky and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, like: Joan of Arc, The Squaw Man, and The Virginian.

Calles later joined the Vitagraph Company, where William Duncan offered him a five-year contract to be part of his team. At the Vitagraph, Calles played mainly Indian roles, most of them without screen credit; in some occasiones, he was credited as William or Willie Calles. He appeared in The Fighting Trail, Smashing Barriers, A Fight for Millions, and Man of Might, to name a few serials. During his stay at Vitagraph he became an expert not only as an actor but in other tasks of filmmaking as well. His ambition was to become a director. Vitagraph executives were reportedly willing to give Calles the opportunity to reach his goal, if he agreed to adopt the United States citizenship. Guillermo utterly refused to give up his Mexican nationality, and his chance at the Vitagraph was gone.  For the first time in several years, he found himself out of contract.

Calles’s adventurous spirit prompted him to go to Mexico City, where he joined efforts with film aficionado Miguel Contreras Torres. Infused with a nationalist zeal, the two men worked out a story called De raza azteca. Contreras Torres envisioned himself in the role of an intrepid rancher, who is befriended by a descendant of the Aztecs (Guillermo Calles). The Indian and the hacendado happen to wear similar rings, which proves they share Aztec ancestry. A curious mix, De raza azteca also included a group of bandits that resembled Texas cowboys. After committing several crimes and wounding the Indian by mistake, the bandits are finally caught. When the movie played at theaters, film critics said it confirmed the worst stereotypes made popular by Hollywood. The disgruntled journalists also pointed out the story’s absurd comings and goings, “in the style of the serials of William Duncan.”  The movie might have had some shortcomings, but audiences enjoyed it thoroughly in Mexico and in theaters that catered to Spanish-speaking public in the United States.

After this collaboration, Calles went back to Hollywood to resume work as an actor. His career continued thriving until the mid-1920s. His presence was more noticeable when he made Behind Two Guns, a 1924 western directed by Robert N. Bradbury and produced by Anthony J. Xydias. In this one-hour action picture Calles played an Indian called “Eagle Slow Foot”, the aide-de-camp to Elijah Cutter, the hero interpreted by J. B. Warner. The duo is set to uncover a stagecoach thief, who has the power to hypnotize people to do the robberies for him. Behind Two Guns is one of the few surviving silent films where Calles appeared.

Calles took part in other movies made by the Xydias-Bradbury team, some of them starring Roy Stewart.  At least, one of them has survived:  With Daniel Boone through the Wilderness (1926).  Neal Hart also cast him in a handful of his films, like The Fighting Strain (still extant), The Purple Brand, and The Verdict of the Desert.

Yet Calles was obsessed with the idea of making his own films. The decline of the western serials and films after 1925 made him move forward and look for new opportunities.

In 1926, finally, he set out to produce, direct and star in El indio yaqui. The movie was shot in California (Universal Studios) and in Sonora, Mexico. A number of Calles’s acquaintances who were seasoned actors became involved in this project: Neal Hart, Roy Stewart, Betty Brown, Joe Ryan, and Walter Shumway. The rest of the interpreters were José Duarte, Agustina López, Juan V. Calles, and José Domínguez[1]. The plot concerned a Yaqui Indian, Ramón Tollos, who seeks refuge in an Arizona village after his father is murdered by a mean Mexican hacendado. Soon afterwards, a Platonic love ensues between Ramón and the beautiful Betty Anderson. However, she ends up being raped by a rich landowner and subsequently takes her own life. In retribution, Ramón kills the landowner but in the fight is mortally wounded by the evil man’s henchmen. The Indian is buried next to Betty, while the film ends with the superimposed images of Ramón and his beloved “ascending the stairs to the Highest Throne.”

Although made with limited resources, El indio yaqui had great impact on Spanish speaking audiences. One of its virtues was that it restored the pride of many Mexicans living in the United States, as a number of Hollywood movies tended to vilify their image. For this reason, moviegoers saw with enthusiasm the exploits of a courageous and self-sacrificing Indian in El indio yaqui. Following its release in California, Arizona, and Texas, it played in México City in March of 1927. The film also made the round to several theaters in Veracruz, Mérida, and other cities.

In El indio yaqui, the first dog actor in Mexican cinema made her debut:  it was Águila, Calles’s American bulldog, reportedly given him by Rudolph Valentino.

Guillermo Calles followed with Raza de bronce, a patriotic film that sought to reestablish a positive view of the border town of Mexicali. Produced by local theater impresario Rafael Corella, the movie highlighted “the magnificient building structures and the palpable advancement of the city.” The story is about a renegate Indian (Guillermo Calles) who, after aiding in the defense of Mexicali from filibuster attacks, recovers his racial pride.  Actual Mexican military personnel took part in the battle scenes.

The next year, Calles directed and starred in Sol de gloria, a movie premiered at the Teatro México of Los Angeles in 1928. During its release, the newspaper La Opinión hailed it as the “Non Plus Ultra”, also announcing for the opening night the appearance of various luminaries: Charles Chaplin, Lita Grey, Roy D’Arcy, and William Duncan among others. The Spanish-language newspaper displayed attractive ads for Sol de gloria, proclaiming: “The best Mexican film that has as its central themes love, intrigue, mystery, ferocious animals, execution by firing squad, thrilling scenes of great impact.”

After its release, Sol de gloria made the round at several locations in California and other states. Willie Calles and the film’s leading actress, Carmen La Roux, traveled to Texas to promote their movie. Following a Houston premiere, the picture played at the Teatro Nacional of San Antonio in January of 1929. As customary, Calles went on stage to greet the audience, “explaining his work and intent in favor of the creation of the Mexican cinematographic industry.” He frequently brought with him his dog “Águila”, who performed in front of the audience. Also, when theaters exhibited his nationalistic films, Calles would appear on stage wearing an elaborate Aztec costume.

The success of Sol de gloria paved the way for Calles’s fourth film as director. By mid-1929 he was filming Dios y ley, a drama that included scenes shot at Malibu Beach. Guillermo Calles, Carmen Guerrero, and José Domínguez expertly performing as the villian, played the leading parts of this story. The nine-reel movie boasted optical effects during its climatic scene: a destructive earthquake and a volcano eruption in the tropical setting of Tehuantepec. Although Dios y ley was originally shot as a silent feature, its director later added a synchronized soundtrack to various reels. When this new version was released, critics in Los Angeles expressed dissatisfaction saying that it “lacked in fluid dialogue and dramatic intention.” However, the people continued pouring into theaters to see the latest exploits of Guillermo Calles, who had become by now a sort of controversial filmmaker. In Phoenix, Arizona, Dios y ley incensed the sentiments of some Mexicans. They complained that the film “exposed a life of savagery and crime” and that it was “bad propaganda for our country and for our compatriots.”  Perhaps this type of spirited reactions obscured the real significance of the movie; almost fifty years later, when Calles was no longer alive, Dios y ley acquired the status of a pioneer work, being one of the first Mexican films experimenting with sound.

In all his projects, Calles counted on the unconditional collaboration of his numerous family: his mother and sister, as well as several nephews and nieces appeared in his movies and helped him in all ways possible.  His nephew José -only three years younger than Guillermo- is better known as Joe Domínguez, supporting film and television actor in Hollywood for several decades.

Calles produced and directed El charro in 1930.  This is an obscure production. The only documents that prove its existence are newspaper ads, some stills and lobby cards.

Following this movie, Calles had a chance to direct Regeneración, a Spanish-language “talkie” made in Hollywood and produced by J.H. Hoffberg Co. This five-reeler told the story of an alcoholic stage actor confronting the end of his career. Among the cast were the popular singer Dorita Ceprano and the Areu brothers. Regeneración opened in Los Angeles at the California Theater in December of 1930, just as the country plunged into an economic crisis.  Regeneración had a long life, as it was part of Ceprano’s show for more than ten years.

The inception of sound and the Depression made things quite difficult for Calles.

In spite of those hindrances, Guillermo planned to shoot a travelogue at the beginning of 1932. He wanted to show the world the real Mexico. Making an automobile trip from Los Angeles to México City would provide an excellent opportunity to discover places and people that had never been filmed before. The journey would follow the path of the new highway the Mexican government was then constructing from Nogales, Sonora, to Mexico City.

With only two thousand dollars in hand and a dogged will, Calles started his adventure. He convinced his wife Angelita Salcedo and his friend from Vitagraph, photographer Ernie Smith, to join him. He brought along his beloved dog Águila and drove off in his Cadillac. The newspaper La Opinión reported in January of 1932 the beginning of shooting. Los Angeles’s Mayor, John C. Porter, spoke to the camera while giving Calles a letter addressed to the President of México.

The trip followed the route of the Pacific Coast, touching upon the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán, and finally México. Wanting to make filming a smooth business, Guillermo Calles carried with him letters of recommendation from the Mexican consul in Los Angeles, which introduced him formally to local authorities. On the road, his photographer diligently captured striking views of nature; while in the villages and cities the camera focused on views of important streets, as well as civil and religious architecture. Carnivals, weddings and other local ceremonies were recorded for the documentary. At other times, Calles met with representatives of several Indian communities, like Coras, Huicholes and Yaquis; these tribes presented him with original gifts and crafts. One of the highlights of the trip was the imposing sight of the Plan de Barrancas, a natural formation that compares in magnificence to the Grand Canyon.

At Plan de Barrancas, Calles met Col. Filiberto Gómez, official in charge of the highway construction.  Awesome scenes of hundreds of people working were taken.

The filming continued incessantly until Calles reached the capital, where he met with the President of México, Ing. Pascual Ortiz Rubio, at the Chapultepec Castle. In one scene, taken outside of the building, he hands the President a sealed letter from the Mayor of Los Angeles.

It took three months for Guillermo Calles to accomplish his mission. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he went to the Eastman labs and proceeded to edit his documentary, which he called Pro-Patria. With a length of nine reels and a narration by journalist Gabriel Navarro, the film premiered at the Teatro México of Los Angeles in July 1932. Many special guests attended the opening night, including famous singer and actor José Mojica. The following month, director Calles packed his film and headed towards México City where he exhibited it.

Just as the previous films made by Calles, Pro-Patria was forgotten and never again shown publicly. The whereabouts of his silent features remains uncertain. Happily, the documentary Pro-patria seems to be the only work that survived the passing of time. Learn more about Pro Patria here.

Later in 1932, Guillermo made a decision that influenced the rest of his life: he left California and moved to Mexico City, where soon he found himself directing films. He also continued his acting career. Unfortunately, his self-effacing character and the fact of being part Indian made him subject to discrimination.  By the end of the 1930s, he quit directing and temporarily retired.

In 1943, he reappeared as an actor and continued playing small parts for the rest of his life in Mexican movies and in a number of Hollywood productions shot in Mexico, like Seven Cities of Gold and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

An attempt of the Rosas Priego producers to have him directing a series of films in 1954 encountered the opposition of the Film Directors’ Guild; the same guild Calles had been a founder of. Appalled by the unfairness of such decision, Calles staged a three-day hunger strike to make himself heard.  In the end, the Guild’s resolution was reversed, but as a matter of fact, Calles would never direct a film again.

Calles was all but embittered.  He continued playing small roles in movies and as an itinerant showman until his death, in 1958.

If you are interested in learning more about Guillermo Calles, his life and career, see Guillermo Calles:  A biography of the actor and Mexican film pioneer, by Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr.  More information here.

[1] José Joe Domínguez was Calles’s nephew, and his loyal and unconditional supporter.