The actual world is a sexist place. The film industry is sexist as well. We need Patricia Arquette to advocate for equal pay for men and women in her Oscar speech, we need film stars to speak out against corporate sexism, and we need research to indicate that women make up the minority of screenwriters, directors, and producers. But it was sometimes different. Initially, the film business was regarded with scorn and as a passing novelty. As a result, many women were involved in producing moving films. There were many excellent female screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors throughout the silent film period.
If we have to battle against the objectification of women now, especially non-American women (hello, Sofia Vergara), this subject was far more problematic in the past. During the 1910s, the only Latin characters in movies were the greasers: Mexican men with long mustaches and black sombreros who were invariably the villains. Latin women were femme fatales: attractive yet untrustworthy. But, among the most famous and respected actresses of the time, such as Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Mabel Normand, two Latinas defied stereotypes: Myrtle Gonzalez and Beatriz Michelena.
In 1891, Myrtle Gonzalez was born in Los Angeles. The girl’s initial name was entirely English, but her last name made it clear where she came from: her father was from a Mexican family, and her mother was from an Irish one. She inherited her mother’s urge to perform on stage. Therefore, she began singing and acting as a youngster. Myrtle obtained her first part in 1913 when film companies relocated from New York to Los Angeles. She was divorced and had a small kid at the time.
Between 1913 and 1914, Myrtle appeared in five Vitagraph short films with William Desmond Taylor. “The Kiss,” from 1914, is one of the few surviving photographs of Taylor in front of the camera. Margaret Gibson plays the protagonist in this film, who revealed on her deathbed in 1964 that she was involved in Taylor’s unexplained murder in 1922. Nothing has ever been proven.
Myrtle got little notice at the beginning of her career, but as time passed, she landed increasingly prominent parts. Her principal women, as in “The End of the Rainbow” (1916), were strong heroines who lived in nature and did not let adversity stand in their way of success.
Myrtle had a short career. She left the movies in December 1917 to marry for the second time. Myrtle Gonzalez died of Spanish flu less than a year later, in October 1918. She was only 27 years old and suffered from a cardiac problem. Allen Watt, her widower, directed and appeared in several Universal movies in the 1920s.
Beatriz Michelena was born in 1890 in New York. Her father, a Venezuelan tenor, introduced his two daughters, Vera and Beatriz, to the world of show business. From 1914 until 1921, Vera was a member of the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. Beatriz married her childhood love in 1907 and went on to work in the theater for the next several years.
Beatriz’s husband, George E. Middleton, founded the California Motion Picture Corporation in 1912 to produce commercial films for the vehicles he was selling. Michelena made her movie debut in 1914 with “Salomy Jane,” an ambitious and stunning western with a complicated narrative and an outstanding performance by the leading heroine. Was a Calif ornia Motion Picture Corporation star born?
George Middleton had an epiphany after seeing the exquisite 1914 production: his wife might be a greater celebrity than Mary Pickford! Beatriz never reached this level, although she did have some success alternating between Westerns (in which she played stuntwomen) and opera adaptations.
Problems with creating the epic “Faust” caused Beatriz to depart the California Motion Picture Corporation between 1916 and 1917. She also had a weekly column on movies and advised young actresses. Stills from “Faust” were shown in the 1919 film “The Price Woman Pays,” although Beatriz was already working on something else.
Beatriz founded her production firm, Beatriz Michelena Features, the same year Mary Pickford became a partner at United Artists. Only two films were made there, but it was enough to secure Beatriz’s place in film history.
Beatriz returned to opera after retiring from the film in 1920. In 1927, she toured Latin America singing opera, and in 1931, a fire destroyed all of Beatriz Michelena Features’ film copies (some copies remained in archives across the globe). Beatriz Michelena died in 1942 at the age of 52.
Myrtle and Beatriz, American-born women, had the power and elegance found only in Latin blood. They didn’t give up when hurdles arose; instead, they found their place in the sun, played daring strong women, and left a legacy to be loved by everybody, men and women, Latino or not.