I recently watched a documentary called Spanish Hollywood (2010), which takes a look at the history of Spanish involvement in Hollywood. Although the documentary was exclusively concerned with artists from Spain, the introductory chapter about the “early years” of Hollywood contained information that relates to actors from Latin America (mostly Mexico) just as much as it relates to actors from Spain.
Many things I already knew; but some of the information in the documentary filled in some gaps, or illuminated some connections I had not previously thought about. Reading up on the subject, I also took some information from an online essay by Spanish academic Carlos Menéndez-Otero, called “Linguistic pluralism and dubbing in Spain” [link].
You all know the stories about early Hollywood; how the film industry needed a lot of actors for their silent era films and went for good looking people with good body language and “facial acting”. Naturally, it did not matter if they had strong accents, or did not speak English at all. Silent era films, with its emphasis of the visual aspects, also needed a lot of “types”, and that included a number of dark-haired, exotic actors. So there was employment opportunity for Southern European as well as Latino actors, even though they often found themselves in stereotypical roles, often as villains, or in roles with other negative connotations. But already in these early years, the type of the Latin Lover also existed.
The big change came when the age of the “Talkies” began. Those actors with unpleasant voices, bad elocution, heavy accents, or inferior grasp of the English language, suddenly found themselves out of a job; and of course this problem did affect foreign actors much more than their English-speaking colleagues.
But for Hollywood’s studios, the Talkie era also brought a problem: until now, all films could be sold to all corners of the globe; intertitle cards for these silent films could be easily translated and either subtitled (as far as the crude technology allowed back then), or new intertitles in the foreign language might be cut into the film copy instead of the English ones.
Now, with spoken word, large segments of business threatened to break away. Subtitling the Talkies in a foreign language was in many cases seen as less than ideal. Some called it a distraction from the film itself, but the main problem was that in many markets, significant percentages of the audience could not read. For example, according to Menéndez-Otero, in 1930, 32% of people in Spain could not read. And I would assume that in many places in Latin America the situation was even worse. In the silent era, with its intertitle cards (few and far between) consisting often of only a few words, this was not so much of a problem. Menéndez-Otero writes that in many Spanish cinemas, “explainers” were in the threatre, probably reading the intertitles aloud for everyone to hear. For the Talkies with their increasing amounts of dialgoue, that was no longer possible.
Technologically, it was still difficult to “dub” films into a foreign language. “Dubbing”, in this case, of course describes a wide variety of methods, including crude voice-overs and reaching all the way to the sophisticated “lip-synch” standard aimed for today. But back in the 1930s, merging audio and film was in itself still a difficult and costly technical procedure, so the studios were not sure if investing into foreign dubs was worth it. Paramount, apparently, did that as early as 1931/1932, even operating dubbing labs in Europe in order to create foreign-dubbed versions of their films (according to Menéndez-Otero).
But other studios tried a different approach – one that may seem rather strange to us today: films were shot multiple times at once, in different languages. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, for example, had their lines translated into German and other languages, and language coaches stood by to train them in speaking those foreign lines as well as was possible in such a short time. When a scene on a specific set had been shot in English, Laurel and Hardy would do the scene over and over again in other languages, with the supporting actors exchanged each time for native speakers of that language. This particular approach shows the fame and significance of the two on-stage personas Laurel and Hardy, who were apparently deemed irreplaceable. Probably more common was the approach to replace all the actors, the leads included. One famous example is the 1931 version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. While the regular crew shot the Lugosi film during the day, there was an entire second crew that shot a Spanish language version (also called Dracula) at the same set during the night. A Spanish actor by the name of Carlos Villarías played Dracula instead of Lugosi, and the whole cast consisted of Spanish (and some Mexican) actors. The same had been done one year earlier with The Cat Creeps, which was shot in Spanish during the night as La voluntad del muerto. Allegedly, the studio boss at the time, Carl Laemmle, considered this Spanish language version superior to The Cat Creeps. And that is a claim I have heard more than once: the “secondary” crews shooting the foreign language (mostly Spanish) versions witnessed enough of the earlier English shoots (with some people possibly working on both) in order to learn from some of the mistakes made; or to learn from some of the things that worked well and simply tweak them a bit in order to make them work even better.
Be that as it may, the introduction of sound into film had closed the door for actors who did not speak English, yet at the same time it suddenly opened another one for them: this emergence of a new Hollywood production arm churning out foreign language film versions led to a sharp increase in demand for foreign language actors. In the silent era you could have filled the supporting roles with anyone, no matter what language they spoke. Now, you needed specific actors for specific productions. And so, the demand for Spanish speaking actors offered opportunities for Spanish and Latin American actors on a whole new scale.
These foreign language casts and their crews may have been the step-child of the Talkie business, but the whole set-up provided a fruitful training ground for many Spanish-speaking actors (and writers). With the experience and connections these productions afforded them, they very soon were able to get the studios to realise Spanish language “solo” projects, i. e. genuine Spanish language film projects that were not simply copies of English language films but were based on original scripts.
That very brief bloom of a Spanish language Hollywood came to an abrupt end when FOX closed its Spanish language production arm in 1935. I am not sure of the reasons, but the deteriorating political situation in Europe in general, and Spain in particular, may have played a part. Or dubbing films into a foreign language in post-production was becoming easier and cheaper.
As I said, the documentary was focussed solely on actors and artists from Spain, but the situation was the same for all Spanish-language actors. For example, Hollywood’s aforementioned Spanish Dracula version of 1931 starred many Spanish actors, but also Mexicans like Eduardo Arozamena, Carmen Guerrero, and Lupita Tovar (who died late last year, aged 106).
Of course, people from across the globe were working in Hollywood throughout all eras. But I find the thought fascinating that there was a time in the early 1930s when the “large-niche” market of doing parallel foreign language film shoots meant that a lot of people from all over world would come to Hollywood (possibly enriching the industry with their experience and background) and also (in many cases) return to their home country’s film industry taking with them things they had learned in Hollywood. Lupita Tovar, for example, played the lead role in Mexico’s first Talkie, 1932’s Santa.
So I find this particular chapter of Hollywood’s history rather intriguing, and I am sure there are some fascinating stories to be found if you wanted to look into it.