Thursday, March 7, 2013

Myrtle Gonzalez, La Primera Estrella

(Motion Picture Story, August 1913, courtesy the MHDL)

Miss Myrtle Gonzalez (Mrs Allen Watt), one of the famous outdoor girls of motion pictures, daughter of an old Spanish family and native of Los Angeles, died yesterday of heart disease at the home of her parents.  [Los Angeles Times, “Myrtle Gonzalez Dead”, Oct 23 1918]

Only…she didn't.   Miss Gonzalez was one of many felled by the Spanish Flu epidemic.  So why would the obituary say otherwise?  We’ll get to that in a minute.  But first:

Myrtle Gonzalez was California born and raised, athletic, the epitome of what we’d call today the “all-American girl”.  Her entry in the Motion Picture Studio Directory for 1918 makes a point of mentioning she “swims and rides”, and the January 1916 Photoplay lists she is "a star at basketball and tennis".

(Photoplay, May 1917, courtesy the MHDL)

The daughter of Manuel Gonzalez, a grocer, and Lillian Cook, an Irish former opera singer (whose lovely soprano she inherited), much was made of Myrtle’s upper-class Spanish ancestry.  “Please remember to spell my last name with a ‘z’ twice…because that is aristocratic Spanish,” she (supposedly) told Motion Picture Story in their March 1914 issue.  The same article attributes her acting success to her “temperamental, fiery” background.  That success was unusual; in the teens, Hispanics/Latinos were often represented as villains, imposing and dangerous:

Most Latino characters in the 1910s weren't afforded the occasional sympathy shown toward other minorities, with most Latinos depicted as dastardly "greasers"…[g]enerally, Mexicans were depicted as lazy and deceitful…when [Mexican filmgoers] responded by boycotting Hollywood, American filmmakers responded by carefully applying the negative stereotype to all Latinos, not just Mexicans. [Eric Brightwell, ­¡Silencio! – The Hispanic & Latino experience in the silent era – Amoeblog]

This is where Gonzalez’s Irish heritage made the difference; with her pale skin, light brown hair, and hazel eyes, she didn’t look the way the average 1910s American audience expected. She was even referred to as the “Virgin White Lily of the Screen”.  This led to her being featured in over 75 pictures for Western Vitagraph and Bluebird (the more artistic division of Universal).  She was best known for the six-reel drama “The Chalice of Courage”, before her untimely death in 1918.

(Moving Picture Weekly, January 13 1917, courtesy the MHDL)

Which brings us back to her obituary. Why did the LA Times list her cause of death as heart disease?  The same reason a lot of trade papers/fan magazines, while mentioning influenza, tempered it with additions of a heart ailment or stunt injury: fear.  Or more correctly, an attempt to comfort readers from thinking it could happen to them by giving other reasons for her demise.  Photoplay openly addressed the state of Hollywood and the rest of the US:

You know what it did to your family and to every family in the neighborhood.   You all had it.  And the big movie family wasn’t immune.  […] Few companies, east or west, escaped the scourge.  [“Plays and Players”, Photoplay, January 1919]

(Yet they, too, list her death as “complication[s] of heart trouble and influenza…said to be indirectly due to a fall received a year ago while riding for a ‘stunt’ picture”.)

Yes, Myrtle Gonzalez was a victim, but this young lady wouldn't want that to be her legacy.  Instead, remember her as a wife, mother, singer, actress, and trailblazer:  the first Hispanic/Latino movie star.

(Motion Picture Story, May 1915, courtesy MHDL)



FlickChick said...

Very interesting. I have been following your posts, as always, and lately they have been just wonderful. I love learning about these not-quite-forgotten pioneers.

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

Thanks FC! There's something about the actors of the teens that just grabs me; they were right on the cusp, movie stars but not quite...