Gilbert Roland: “Amigo”

Gilbert Roland, photographed by George Hurrell 1939.

Elementary school teacher Alma Bartlett was never famous, she never made a movie, or dazzled others with her wit and beauty. Yet, in her first years as a teacher in an El Paso, Texas school, she built a rapport with a gangly boy whose frequent absences from school frustrated her. The friendship they forged would last for over forty years. Her former student returned to El Paso in years to come, as he would many times. Then he would be a world famous man, renowned for his good looks and for squiring great beauties. When encountering a reporter, he would often unfold an ancient, creased report card he carried in his wallet to display with affection the time that Mrs. Bartlett had enough faith in him to pass him from sixth to seventh grade, despite his neglect of his studies. The seventh grade was as far as his formal education would take him.

Born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso, in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico on December 11, 1905, (some sources say 1903), this boy had what most of us would characterize as a glamorous life, but he would never forget this inspiring young teacher. Alma saw something more in the Mexican-born scion of a family of Spanish matadors, and urged him “to do something with his life.” It would not be easy.


By the time he was thirteen the boy and his family had left the country of his birth when revolution broke out, and Pancho Villa had threatened all descendents of Spanish ancestry with death in Juarez. Leaving behind everything familiar, the sons in the family of six children would be unable to pursue the career paths of their father, paternal grandfather and a great-grandfather, all of whom had been toreros.

The Wigwam Movie House (El Paso Public Library)

The family had been transplanted to the Texas border town of El Paso where they struggled to maintain a foothold economically and socially. Sometimes the youth was called a “greaser” on the streets of his new home. Luis was reportedly beaten for not knowing the words of “The Star Spangled Banner”. While struggling to earn some money as a newsboy, he was threatened with jail for calling out news headlines too loudly in a residential area. Hit by a car and badly injured while working as a messenger, he was often absent and quite hesitant about his English when he sat in Mrs. Bartlett‘s classroom. His fondest escape from the hostile world around him, he confided to his sympathetic teacher, was playing hooky and sneaking into a place that offered him a solace from the world outside–the Wigwam Theater, (seen in photo at the right) or sometimes the Grecian Theater, two of the movie houses in El Paso. There, watching the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Dustin Farnum, Norma Talmadge, Charlie Chaplin and others, he could savor the moving tableaux of early movies as they unfolded, leaving the dusty, grimmer reality far behind for a time, even though he had to sit in the balcony marked ‘For Colored People Only’. Eventually, Luis, who became Gilbert Roland, would escort his former teacher Mrs. Bartlett to the same Wigwam Theater, to see him on the screen, being dashing, romantic and funny in his latest Cisco Kid film.

The Hollywood Extra

 

Running away from home on a freight train to Hollywood at 14, the mature-looking youngster found work as an uncredited extra in several films, including The Lost World (1925). He found more extra work by hanging around “Gower Gulch” at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, an area where several movie studios were located and where cowboys hung around waiting for day jobs in westerns, (pictured in the early movie days below, today there is a western-themed strip mall located there). When he was lucky, he began to get work as an extra at $3 a day and a boxed lunch as payment. 

Gower Gulch near the Christie-Nestor Studio, at 6100 Sunset Blvd., on the corner of Sunset Blvd and Gower St.

Luis was hired as a cowboy extra and, sometimes, on the same day, he was also signed on to portray an Indian. ‘All day I chased myself on horseback for three dollars and lunch. My baptism in silent movies,’ he would later reflect. In between on set movie jobs he took work as a dishwasher, answering fan mail for one of the first “Latin Lovers” of the movies, Antonio Moreno, and as an usher at the Pantages Theater, where he worked alongside another future actor, Ramon Navarro. (The Alonso family had been acquainted with Navarro’s in Mexico before the revolution). In 1922, thanks to his familiarity with bullfighting, Luis was hired as a dresser’s assistant on the Rudolph Valentino picture, Blood and Sand. After helping to quell a violent argument among extras, the awed teenager found himself having a cut tended to by the star, who used his handkerchief, monogrammed with the initials R.V., to bind his wound.

Gilbert Roland (left) and Ramon Novarro in the '20s
As he matured, the boy’s exceptionally handsome face, highlighted by his athletic carriage, black curls and green-blue eyes caught the eye of actor’s agent Ivan Kahn. Aware that a surfeit of Latin Lover types might diminish his neophyte’s chances of securing a foothold in show business, Kahn encouraged Luis to change his name to a less ethnic appellation, which resulted in the Gilbert for John Gilbert, and Roland, for Ruth Roland, a great favorite of the newly christened movie actor, and an almost totally forgotten figure today.*

The Matinee Idol

With Kahn‘s help and building on the friendships that the personable young man had formed with movie studio personnel, Gilbert Roland found himself cast in The Plastic Age with Clara Bow nearing her peak of popularity. The film, an amalgam of college hijinks, twenties style, on and off the athletic field, (hardly anyone seems to study) was, according to an early title in this silent, “dedicated to the youth of the world.” As drama it now seems a bit familiar, though far less puritanical than expected, with gamine Clara smoking, drinking and partying like there was no tomorrow. Bow plays a wild thing involved with college boy David Keith, a star athlete, who hails from a strait-laced family. During his involvement with Clara, studies suffer, and Keith learns that the “hotsy-totsy” girl is also attracted to his roommate, Carl (Gilbert Roland). Combining school, sports and sex, the plot was negligible. Roland, who looked convincing as a rival for Bow‘s affections and as a football player, is visibly nervous and somewhat ill at ease in a few of the more ludicrous scenes, (such as the climactic reconciliation of the roommates).

Gilbert Roland with Donald Keith and Clara Bow in The Plastic Age (1925)

Soon, the likable, emotionally flighty Clara Bow and Roland were conducting an off-screen affair, with eleven year old Budd Schulberg, the son of producer B.P. Schulberg, acting as a go-between, delivering notes to one and the other on the set, even though the boy was too circumspect to read them. “Clarita” as Gilbert called the often lonely Brooklyn-born actress, responded to the young, handsome actor’s gentleness as well as his ardent machismo. While considering themselves engaged, Bow‘s domineering, exploitive father reportedly objected to the actor’s relatively small paycheck, his Roman Catholicism, and particularly, his status as a “greasy Mexican.”

After the dust settled at a later date, Clara once reflected on this period of her hectic love life, saying, “We was real happy, sorta like two youngsters that didn’t know what [life] was all about and was scared t’death of it.” Inevitably, given their youth, (both were a mere twenty), and the distractions and work schedules of their cinematic lives, they parted, after several painfully dramatic moments and histrionic jealous displays on Roland‘s part. As his Spanish-born father Francisco Alonso had once warned his son, “Remember, women gore more often than bulls.” Clara soon moved on to Victor Fleming, Robert Savage, Gary Cooper and others, with her poorly managed career and unstable personal life spinning out of control as the Talkie revolution overtook Hollywood.

Gilbert Roland & Clara Bow remained friends

Gilbert Roland himself, who was not immune to temptation, reportedly courted Barbara LaMarr, Mae West, Lupe Velez, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Dorothy Dandridge, and Lana Turner, among numerous others over the decades, though after a roller coaster relationship with the mercurial Constance Bennett that eventually led to a marriage from 1941 to 1945, he eventually married a non-actress, Guillermina Cantu, in the early 1950s. Their union lasted until his death forty years later.

However, when he was cast as Armand in a silent version of Dumas’ Camille (1926) by the husband of his co-star, Roland was soon involved with the married Norma Talmadge for several years, making a rather powerful enemy of his employer, which probably did not help his career. The actor was part of the reason why producer Joseph Schenck eventually divorced the actress, (who then chose instead to marry George Jessel after dallying with Gilbert for several years), but Roland doesn’t seem to have allowed his private life to interfere too much with his public one. During this period, the athletic and sociable Gilbert began to form bonds with many on the Hollywood social scene. His film status as a matinee idol began to fade with the coming of sound, but his social life picked up.

Camille (1926) made Gilbert Roland a star for a time, as well as Norma Talmadge's co-star on and off the set.

 

Not everyone loved the actor, who was often called “Amigo” by everyone who knew him, even slightly. Schenck is said to have threatened him with castration, a rumor that Roland‘s brother, Chico Day, reported prompted his older sibling to boldly parade around at the Hollywood Athletic Club pool (where nude swimming was commonplace) in the buff for a time. This challenge to Schenck‘s pals (and Roland‘s potential enemies) was, based on Day‘s comments, typical of his brother, whom he described as “a character.” Gilbert Roland‘s stepson with Bennett thought him shallow, despite their shared interest in music and literature, and director Budd Boetticher, who saw Roland give his finest performance for him on film, “absolutely loathed the man but he was great in the picture” they made together, Bullfighter and the Lady (1950).


The Friend

Despite these occasional reports of his alleged arrogance, a wandering eye, and an understandable desire of an ambitious man to impress those around him over the course of an almost 90 year life, there are also many more accounts of Gilbert Roland‘s deep gift for friendship. For example, with all the distractions of his work and social life, Roland remained among those who were genuinely fond of the increasingly fragile Clara Bow. He appeared opposite the actress as a half-breed named “Moonglow” in one of Bow‘s last films and one of her best–a lively and erotically charged melodramatic pre-code entitled Call Her Savage(1932). While Roland‘s character rather passively endures a whipping from Bow‘s hellion character and shows up to comfort her periodically during the plot’s many travails, which included prostitution, marital rape, gender bending, death and fire, his steadying presence in the cast, at her behest, may have helped Clara to create a more complex character than is usual in her movies.

Gilbert Roland with Clara Bow in Call Her Savage (1932).

This film, which shows up periodically on cable broadcasts, holds up rather well today, allowing modern viewers reluctant to see silent movies to glimpse the “It” girl’s palpable appeal and vulnerability. Later in both their lives, after Clara Bow‘s career as well as her marriage to western actor and politician Rex Bell had waned and she was living in solitude in the Los Angeles area, struggling with mental illness, Gilbert Roland was one of the few who continued to visit with her. Writing from a film location, the actor wrote to his former love:

“Hello Clarita Girl;
I am truly sad that you don’t feel well. Sometimes when I go to church and I think of you, I say a prayer. It will be heard. God hears everything.
You tell me you long for your boys. I share your feelings. My daughters are with their mother in Wiesbaden, Germany. And there is noting I can do, except cry a little once in a while.
I hope someday they show The Plastic Age. It would be wonderful to see that dancing scene, you and I. It would be pleasant seeing how I looked when I was your beau, and you were my dream girl. It would be pleasant seeing that. And then it might be very beautiful, and suddenly it might be very sad.
It seems you are in my thoughts.
It’s good to feel that way.
It’s good I have never forgotten you.
God bless you.
Gilbert”

Clara Bow would tell interviewers that Roland was still her favorite actor, long after their relationship cooled. Gilbert Roland would be in Europe and unable to return in time for Clara Bow‘s funeral in 1965, when she passed away at age sixty.

Another person who found Roland‘s company a boon to his self-esteem and mood was Buster Keaton, who became acquainted with Gilbert near the unhappy end of Keaton‘s marriage to Natalie Talmadge (Norma‘s sister). Traveling in Europe, visiting bullfights in the company of the popular Roland in Spain, Buster found him to be a consistent pal despite his troubles. Roland would refuse to comment publicly about the creative comic’s problems, especially his alcoholism. Film historian Kevin Brownlow found Roland difficult to pin down about Keaton when he tried to interview him. “Well, he was brilliant,” Gilbert Roland would say even after Keaton‘s death. “One of the greatest, one of the most wonderful, altruistic men I’ve ever met in my life. Buster,” he insisted, “never depended on anything but himself.”

Gilbert Roland with Buster Keaton in Spain

Still another who could attest to Gilbert Roland‘s gift for friendship was Peter Lorre. When the unlikely pair were both working on separate projects at Warner Brothers during the 1940s, they became quite close, bond by their similarly irreverent senses of humor with other individuals such as Humphrey Bogart, Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Butterworth, and writers John O’Hara and John McClain. Lorre, who struggled for much of his adult life with morphine addiction and attendant health problems, was encouraged by Gilbert to take up tennis, to watch his diet and improve his sartorial style. Friends such as director Vincent Sherman commented on the improvement in his appearance, mentioning that “[Lorre] became like a different person…his hair was neatly combed and he was very well dressed. I think it was in late spring or early summer [of 1941]…I thought, my God, how attractive he looks, very dapper. He was obviously very happy.”

Gilbert Roland with a lifelong companion--his tennis racket

Sadly, by 1959, when the pair of friends acted together in The Big Circus (1959), Roland found his friend less able to respond to his encouragement, and Lorre seemed to put his best qualities into his off-screen efforts to make his part as a clown more interesting, despite the somewhat tawdry film’s flea-bitten appeal. Gilbert was said to be saddened to see his friend’s struggling to make a living, despite his artistry. (If you ever have a chance to see this pale imitation of “The Greatest Show on Earth”, don’t miss one of the more entertaining scenes, which I still recall vividly–when Gilbert Roland, tightrope walker, treads the high wire across the top of Niagara Falls!…or at least it looked that way to me when I was a little kid, but I digress!).

In his recent autobiography, Pieces of My Heart by Robert Wagner with Scott Eyman, the actor recounts his admiration for Roland‘s studied professionalism and equable good nature on the set of Beneath the 12 Mile Reef (1953), a technically challenging film with extended underwater sequences recorded on location for a long period of time. Those of us who saw this film once upon a time, may also remember sponge fisherman Gilbert Roland‘s highly dramatic death scene, as well as Bernard Herrmann‘s beautiful score.

J. Carrol Naish, Robert Wagner & Gilbert Roland in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953)

A man who could sometimes seem full of swagger on screen, Mr. Roland reportedly had a capacity for great tenderness and sentimental gestures toward family and friends. Two of his brothers would eventually join him working in production in the studios in Hollywood, with his younger sibling, Francisco “Chico” Day (1907-1995), becoming the first Mexican-American to become a member of the Directors Guild of America, for which he was honored by the DGA Latino Committee in 1995.

In one of Gilbert‘s unguarded moments, he once revealed to an interviewer that he wore a gold ring on his little finger engraved with his mother’s dying words: “My son, don’t rush yourself, don’t worry yourself, good-bye, my soul.” Nor did the actor ever forget the kindness extended to him by director John Huston, who cast him in a good, showy role in the 1949 film, We Were Strangers. “I seemed to click all over again,” Mr. Roland said, adding: “If Huston hadn’t had faith to cast me in his picture, no one would have considered me for ‘The Bullfighter and the Lady,’ and I might be back where I started as a kid, selling cushions at the Juarez arena.”

Gilbert Roland and Katy Jurado in Bullfighter and the Lady (1950).

Other, less famous friends recalled times when “Amigo” returned to his old hometown of El Paso to help endow a newspaper carrier scholarship, raise money for veterans organizations, to visit regularly with his aging teacher, Alma Bartlett, and reportedly, to fill his car with toys and drive across the Mexican border, handing them out to all the children he met as he tooled around. In a 1975 interview, Gilbert said that both El Paso and Juarez were “always in my heart. I keep the memory of my people, my land and my town warm in my heart.” When Mrs. Bartlett, (seen at right with her erstwhile student), died at age 83 in 1959, Gilbert cancelled a personal appearance tour to promote The Big Circus (1959), to be a pall bearer at her funeral in Austin, Texas. He understood the meaning of roots.

Gilbert Roland with his teacher Alma Bartlett in El Paso.

 

 

The Character Actor

As a film actor Gilbert Roland was a striking figure on the screen from his appearance as an uncredited extra in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) until his last role in the under-rated Fred Schepisi western, Barbarosa (1982). With his handsome face and form, erect posture, intense dignity, and his jovial, mocking style, his persistent presence in movies over six decades helped to refute the usual stereotypes of Hispanics in films, as he avoided being categorized as either strictly the Latin lover type, the bandido, the male buffoon, or the patriarch.

Gilbert Roland in We Were Strangers (1950), his breakthrough part as a character actor

As an actor, he was a matinee idol in the silent era, when, his romantic appearance in films with Norma Talmadge, Mary Astor, and Clara Bow almost made him a star in the Valentino mold. By the 1930s, sound and his heavily accented English might have limited his chances of working, though he continued to appear in English and Spanish language pictures, particularly at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he appeared in everything from a Spanish language adaptation of Tolstoy’s Resurrección (1931) opposite Lupe Velez to a scene in which he fought a comic gun duel with his close friend Buster Keaton in one of the latter’s unfortunate pairings with Jimmy Durante in The Passionate Plumber (1932).

Mae West found him worthy to share the screen with her as the “boy toy” of her rival in She Done Him Wrong (1933)–a role that did not tax his acting muscles, though it gave him a higher profile professionally.

Three other notable films that he appeared in during this decade were in the campy George Cukor adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s comedy about the upper classes, Our Betters (1933), (made with his future wife,Constance Bennett, who would become the mother of his two daughters,Lorinda and Gyl ), the solemn biopic Juarez (1939), and, on the brink of WWII, he appeared in fine fettle as a wryly philosophical Spanish naval officer in opposition to an Elizabethan era Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk (1940).

The true high spots in his career, however, would come after he became a United States citizen, his subsequent wartime service in the Army Air Corps, and his return to Hollywood. Among these movies, stand-out characterizations by Roland may be found in his principled revolutionaries in We Were Strangers and Crisis, his torero in Bullfighter and the Lady, the loyal, enigmatic friend and possible enemy of Barbara Stanwyck in the extraordinary The Furies, his funniest performance is given as “Gaucho” the relaxed playboy actor in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and a continental speed demon in The Racers, his fatherly mentors in Beneath the 12 Mile Reef and The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, adventurers in Underwater! and Bandido, as well as numerous television appearances, notably in the pivotal High Chaparral, a television western that truly attempted to tell the story of the American West from the Hispanic viewpoint as well as the Anglo one.

One scholar, Charles Ramírez Berg, writing about his distinctive persona on film, mentioned that Roland “avoided stereotypes in two ways: by his distinctive athletic posture and his flashy apparel”, utilizing his straight but graceful posture, which may have been derived from his bullfighting training as a boy. Another way that he attracted the viewer’s eye consistently was by his “trademark costume tricks”. These were not the same as most Latino types, according to Berg, and usually consisted of noticeably “thick, leather wrist bands”, “a kerchief (preferably red) tied around his neck, his shirt (preferably white) unbuttoned to reveal his bare chest, and a thick chain with a large gold medal dangling from his neck.” This, Prof. Berg contends, is Gilbert Roland‘s scene-stealing uniform, the equivalent of a “flashing neon sign pointing at him”–though it would not be complete, imho, without his signature hat, tilted at just the right angle, and balanced by an attitude that says, “Yes, this is all nonsense, but one must go on.” Playing secondary characters in most movies, Roland does seem to have worn similar enough outfits in several movies quite often, as seen in the accompanying photo, lending creedence to Berg’s suggestion that this outfit might have been something that the actor chose for himself.

Claiming that “My screen image never bothers me”, the actor would say, “but I have never contradicted it either.” Despite this ambiguous comment and his aloofness from formal activism, Roland is reported to have been offended by Hollywood’s frequent attempts to characterize Mexican characters as clowns and successfully demanded script changes when appropriate. I can’t help wondering if one of the series of Cisco Kid movies he made at Monogram Studios after returning to Hollywood after the Second World War might have been one of the films in which he tried to make amends for the many caricatures of Hispanics in the movies. Having enjoyed Duncan Renaldo‘s boyishly endearing Cisco as a kid, seeing Gilbert Roland inject more of the flavor of O.Henry’s original character into the scripts for the six Cisco Kid outings was a revelation.

Gilbert Roland as a playful, romantic Cisco Kid in the postwar period.

While O. Henry’s original character as written was an Anglo reprobate, Roland, in fare such as The Gay Cavalier (1946), Robin Hood of Monterey (1947) or King of the Bandits (1947) takes the skirt-chasing, tequila drinking caballero aspects introduced by Warner Baxter in the popular In Old Arizona (1929), and gives the Robin Hood character his own sense of roguishness, occasional moments of poetic melancholy, and much more physical dash than previously seen in the franchise. As a matter of fact, in several scenes, Roland even recites poetic lines that he had written. (The actor, a devotee of Ernest Hemingway, would read his work obsessively, and tried his own hand at poetry as well as an as yet unpublished autobiography called The Wine of Yesterday.)

While I can’t possibly touch on all of Gilbert Roland‘s films here, there are two that may provide a template for understanding this actor’s largely unappreciated presence in American movies–Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) and The Furies (1950).

Gilbert Roland with Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies (1950)

In the former film, which was edited down from the director’s 124 minute original version to a 90 minute length by John Ford just before release in 1951 to ensure that John Wayne, the producer of this Republic film, could recoup his costs and make a profit by running the show more often in theatres. Reportedly, that was also to ensure that all that “chi-chi stuff” in the movie dramatizing the bond between the two central male characters played by Roland and Robert Stack was removed. That editing job had, Boetticher felt, cut the heart out of the movie’s beautifully detailed Mexican sequences documenting the social and cultural atmosphere surrounding the toreo and the matador’s techniques involved in dominating a bull. I’m so glad that these were restored in the restored version of this film, since these scenes, particularly those showing the Mexican children, the atmosphere of a tienta–where young bulls are tested for their “bravery” (in American terms, we’d tend to see it more as their “fierceness”), and the raucous as well as the refined people who are aficionados of this sport, were among the best in the film. This beautifully photographed movie, is occasionally broadcast on TCM and has been released on DVD. You can see the original trailer for this movie here.

Gilbert Roland in Bullfighter and the Lady (1950)

The story could also be seen as a paean to masculinity, and the way that one man can express his love for another through their mutual devotion to an almost religious experience, comparable to that bond formed by those who go into battle together. As a matter of fact, the movie presents this aspect of bullfighting quite well, with only, I suppose, my 21st Century eyes seeing a sequence in a steam room as unnecessarily on the ‘beefcake’ side–though as a straight woman, it’s sort of refreshing. While from Budd Boetticher‘s creative viewpoint, Gilbert Roland‘s approach to the role of the mentor-toreador to Stack was far too arrogant, I suspect that the older actor saw this as his one chance to honor his father and family traditions on film. While Roland clearly builds a credible relationship with the neophyte Robert Stack in this story, the heart of the story for me was not the love affair between Stack‘s character and the Mexican aristocrat played by Joy Page. Instead, it was the unspoken but palpable relationship Gilbert Roland conveyed on screen with his co-star, Katy Jurado, who was making her American film debut in Bullfighter and the Lady that lingers long in one’s memory. As my friend April put it after seeing the pair in this story, “You believed these two were really married, I mean really married—they didn’t need words to communicate. And you understood why Katy felt as she did about him, why she gave her ‘approval’ for that last, costly gesture. She knew a man like that must go with dignity.” This filmexemplifies much of what is appealing about Mexican culture and Gilbert Roland as an actor.

Another film in which one wishes that the filmmaker, the gifted Anthony Mann, might have re-written the Western film to focus more on Gilbert‘s character was The Furies (1950). This movie, based on a Niven Busch novel, featured the great Walter Huston‘s last role as Barbara Stanwyck‘s land baron father, trying to consolidate his power while giving his children short shrift and treating all Mexican-Americans as interlopers, unworthy of his respect. The extraordinarily good cast, which also included Judith Anderson as Stanwyck’s stepmother, and Blanche Yurka as Gilbert Roland‘s demonic horse-thief, squatter mother pivots around Stanwyck‘s Freudian and mythic-tinged electra complex and need for control. As the usually hard-bitten Stanwyck character’s oldest friend and perhaps her former lover, Roland‘s scenes in The Furies are suffused with an intimate tenderness and understanding between the pair that is missing from all other relationships. The heart went out of this film when Gilbert Roland‘s magnetic presence left the scene. His acceptance of his own fate may have irked some, but he underlined his character’s own belief that there was something more in life than just this existence. Roland’s embattled but proud and fatalistic character seems to be the only character who is truly whole, needing few outside confirmations of his worth as a person, and able to live with an inner vision of a world that is ultimately just, if not in this world or this film, somewhere inside himself.

Gilbert Roland says goodbye, "until our eyes meet again" in The Furies (1950).

One of the greatest frustrations of this film was the blindness (a motif that is laced throughout this interesting story) of Bab‘s character to what Roland really represents: a life affirming mutual respect and love. This movie, which was released by Criterion on dvd last year, is worthy of inclusion in any examination of Gilbert Roland‘s career and of the Latino presence in American movies.

After his death, Kevin Brownlow wrote an affectionate appreciation for Gilbert Roland, describing an arranged meeting they had at the “Beverly Hills Tennis Club, where he played well into his eighties. And there was no mistaking him when he arrived; he wore a white hat, and open-necked white shirt, showing the old religious medallion hanging at his chest. He had great charisma, and immense charm; he embraced people instead of shaking their hands, and he had no Anglo-Saxon reticence about emotion.

Gilbert Roland in 1930. Near the end of his life, Gilbert Roland commented that "I don't have any delusions about myself as an actor. I'm grateful for being able to find enough work all these years."

“But reticent he was about being interviewed. He refused point- blank to appear on camera. [Brownlow and his partner David Gill] had the distinct impression that he was shy. He had been a sky- rocketing star in the last years of silent films, and his affection and admiration for silent films was apparent. But he would not repeat his reminiscences on camera.”

According to one newspaper report printed after his death in 1994, “Roland often said he didn’t approve of modern movies with their violence and sex. His heart stayed with the glamorous cinema of Hollywood’s heyday, before television took the sheen off moving pictures.” I think that one of his comments might serve as an elegy for this “Amigo”, a representative Latino actor who defied categorization, playing everything from Spanish Grandees to Arabian princes to sponge fisherman to gigolos with humor and a male grace. He was a man who lived a unique life:
“You go everywhere, do everything, still there are some places you can’t forget. The people and the land. If you forget the beauty of your youth, you are no more than an animal.” ~ Gilbert Roland

Gilbert Roland in the '30s
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Upcoming Gilbert Roland Films on the TCM Schedule

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*
Ruth Roland, who is today largely forgotten despite the fact that she appeared in many films from 1908 until 1935, was a “queen of the serials” in some exciting sounding early movies, largely at the Kalem and Balboa studios. Many of her movies incorporated her first name into that of her characters, including one called “The Adventures of Ruth” in 1919.

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Sources:
Berg, Charles Ramírez, Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance, University of Texas Press, 2002
Davis, Ronald L., Just Making Movies: Company Directors on the Studio System, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2005
Kellow, Brian, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, University Press of Kentucky, 2004
Meade, Marion, Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, Da Capo Press, 1997.
Stenn, David, Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, Doubleday, 1988.
Youngkin, Stephen D., The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre, University Press of Kentucky, 2005.

39 Responses Gilbert Roland: “Amigo”
Posted By Rick : May 7, 2009 12:32 am

Thanks for your wonderful bio of Gilbert Roland. As a teenager in the 1950′s, I must have seen every film with Mr. Roland. I always thought he was “cool”. For a while, I wore a leather wrist brace, black of course. He always stood out in any film he made.

Posted By Rick : May 7, 2009 12:32 am

Thanks for your wonderful bio of Gilbert Roland. As a teenager in the 1950′s, I must have seen every film with Mr. Roland. I always thought he was “cool”. For a while, I wore a leather wrist brace, black of course. He always stood out in any film he made.

Posted By Jorge Finkielman : May 7, 2009 1:41 am

Very nice article. I will always eager to see the films that Roland made in Spanish in Hollywood, with LA VIDA BOHEMIA been the last.

They are extremely hard to locate and it is really a shame that TCM didn’t include any one of them in the Latino festival (that’s one of the reasons I refused to watch the series).

Fortunately, several of those films exist and deserve to be shown. José Mojica’s LA CRUZ Y LA ESPADA (1934) is a terrific film that I managed to capture from a live television broadcast on the web.

Posted By Jorge Finkielman : May 7, 2009 1:41 am

Very nice article. I will always eager to see the films that Roland made in Spanish in Hollywood, with LA VIDA BOHEMIA been the last.

They are extremely hard to locate and it is really a shame that TCM didn’t include any one of them in the Latino festival (that’s one of the reasons I refused to watch the series).

Fortunately, several of those films exist and deserve to be shown. José Mojica’s LA CRUZ Y LA ESPADA (1934) is a terrific film that I managed to capture from a live television broadcast on the web.

Posted By Birdy : May 7, 2009 3:12 pm

Very nice bio, Moira.
I adore him as ‘Pepe’ in Our Betters.
Ridiculous, yes, but since he seemed to prefer the glamorous cinema, I don’t think he would mind.

Posted By Birdy : May 7, 2009 3:12 pm

Very nice bio, Moira.
I adore him as ‘Pepe’ in Our Betters.
Ridiculous, yes, but since he seemed to prefer the glamorous cinema, I don’t think he would mind.

Posted By Suzi Doll : May 8, 2009 12:46 pm

Wonderful post Moirafinnie. Whenever I see Gilbert Roland, I am always reminded of my Dad, because he was on the same army base as Gilbert Roland during WWII. He often saw Roland walking across the base. When my Dad and I watched a movie together, and Roland popped up, my Dad would always remind me about his passing acquaitance with the actor. I once pressed him for more details about what this handsome movie star was really like and my Dad came up with this gem, “His beard was so heavy, he had to shave twice a day.”

Roland died the year after my Dad, and I think the connection made me doubly sad at his passing.

Posted By Suzi Doll : May 8, 2009 12:46 pm

Wonderful post Moirafinnie. Whenever I see Gilbert Roland, I am always reminded of my Dad, because he was on the same army base as Gilbert Roland during WWII. He often saw Roland walking across the base. When my Dad and I watched a movie together, and Roland popped up, my Dad would always remind me about his passing acquaitance with the actor. I once pressed him for more details about what this handsome movie star was really like and my Dad came up with this gem, “His beard was so heavy, he had to shave twice a day.”

Roland died the year after my Dad, and I think the connection made me doubly sad at his passing.

Posted By moirafinnie : May 9, 2009 8:24 am

Hi Rick,
Your use of the term “cool” does seem to fit Gilbert Roland awfully well. Even in cliched parts he was able to suggest a person who knew something that the other mortals in the movie did not! While I’ve hunted for some reason that he wore that leather wrist band, other than to catch the viewer’s eye, none has been uncovered that I know of yet. I wonder if it might have masked a broken wrist–possibly from that boyhood car accident mentioned?

Hi Jorge,
I agree–I’d love to see the Spanish language films that Gilbert Roland and other Latino actors made in Hollywood. The rarity of the films, as you mentioned, the expense of adding readable subtitles, and perhaps the quality of the existing prints of these films may have contributed to their absence from this month’s interesting examination of how Latino images were reflected through the Hollywood lens over the decades. I do recall that TCM ran the Spanish language Drácula (1931) some time ago, as well as the German version of Camille’s Anna Christie (1930) with author/actress Salka Viertel taking on the role made so memorable by Marie Dressler in the English version. The tone of both those films was markedly different when performed by fluent Spanish and German speakers. (It would also be fun to see Charles Boyer‘s Hollywood-made French language films, especially Révolte Dans La Prison (1931)–better known to us as The Big House made originally with Wallace Beery and Robert Montgomery in 1930).

Personally, I would love to see Gilbert Roland‘s early Spanish language films to gauge his ease with the role when playing a character in the first language he learned as a child. I find his acting to have vastly improved in English after WWII, though he was always a striking presence in movies of any decade.

Gee, Birdy,
Our Betters (1933) just creeps me out whenever I’ve seen it. I’d probably leave that English Country House bunch and light out for the tea house with Mr. Roland too if I were Constance Bennett! I tend to think that the Cukor film may have looked a bit creaky to Depression era audiences, even though it was one of those movies that let’s us tut-tut over those social parasites, even while it gives us a peek behind the high hedge surrounding their wealthy worlds. Maybe it gave people a break from reality?

Wow, Suzi,
I can’t believe that your father knew Gilbert Roland. That story about shaving twice a day certainly sounds credible. Interestingly, based on my reading of Brian Kellow‘s excellent bio of the Bennett family (see sources for this article), Roland‘s decision to serve in the military during WWII (Roland was overage for the draft and the father of two by Dec., 1941) may have precipitated the collapse of his always tumultuous marriage to Constance Bennett.

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment on this piece.

Posted By moirafinnie : May 9, 2009 8:24 am

Hi Rick,
Your use of the term “cool” does seem to fit Gilbert Roland awfully well. Even in cliched parts he was able to suggest a person who knew something that the other mortals in the movie did not! While I’ve hunted for some reason that he wore that leather wrist band, other than to catch the viewer’s eye, none has been uncovered that I know of yet. I wonder if it might have masked a broken wrist–possibly from that boyhood car accident mentioned?

Hi Jorge,
I agree–I’d love to see the Spanish language films that Gilbert Roland and other Latino actors made in Hollywood. The rarity of the films, as you mentioned, the expense of adding readable subtitles, and perhaps the quality of the existing prints of these films may have contributed to their absence from this month’s interesting examination of how Latino images were reflected through the Hollywood lens over the decades. I do recall that TCM ran the Spanish language Drácula (1931) some time ago, as well as the German version of Camille’s Anna Christie (1930) with author/actress Salka Viertel taking on the role made so memorable by Marie Dressler in the English version. The tone of both those films was markedly different when performed by fluent Spanish and German speakers. (It would also be fun to see Charles Boyer‘s Hollywood-made French language films, especially Révolte Dans La Prison (1931)–better known to us as The Big House made originally with Wallace Beery and Robert Montgomery in 1930).

Personally, I would love to see Gilbert Roland‘s early Spanish language films to gauge his ease with the role when playing a character in the first language he learned as a child. I find his acting to have vastly improved in English after WWII, though he was always a striking presence in movies of any decade.

Gee, Birdy,
Our Betters (1933) just creeps me out whenever I’ve seen it. I’d probably leave that English Country House bunch and light out for the tea house with Mr. Roland too if I were Constance Bennett! I tend to think that the Cukor film may have looked a bit creaky to Depression era audiences, even though it was one of those movies that let’s us tut-tut over those social parasites, even while it gives us a peek behind the high hedge surrounding their wealthy worlds. Maybe it gave people a break from reality?

Wow, Suzi,
I can’t believe that your father knew Gilbert Roland. That story about shaving twice a day certainly sounds credible. Interestingly, based on my reading of Brian Kellow‘s excellent bio of the Bennett family (see sources for this article), Roland‘s decision to serve in the military during WWII (Roland was overage for the draft and the father of two by Dec., 1941) may have precipitated the collapse of his always tumultuous marriage to Constance Bennett.

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment on this piece.

Posted By Andrew : May 9, 2009 9:51 am

I wondered why Gilbert Roland’s presence was missing from the Latino Images in Film Festival on TCM this month, Moira. I think your tribute to his enduring career makes up for his absence from the schedule, and look forward to seeing “Bullfighter and the Lady” next month. It would be terrific to see a day of his films from the silents to the 1980s on the network soon. I’ve always loved his character of “Gaucho” in “The Bad and the Beautiful” best, which makes me think that he should have had more chance to do comedy.

I think that I may have to rent “The Furies” now, just to see Huston and Roland on screen. A good piece about an “essential” actor.

Posted By Andrew : May 9, 2009 9:51 am

I wondered why Gilbert Roland’s presence was missing from the Latino Images in Film Festival on TCM this month, Moira. I think your tribute to his enduring career makes up for his absence from the schedule, and look forward to seeing “Bullfighter and the Lady” next month. It would be terrific to see a day of his films from the silents to the 1980s on the network soon. I’ve always loved his character of “Gaucho” in “The Bad and the Beautiful” best, which makes me think that he should have had more chance to do comedy.

I think that I may have to rent “The Furies” now, just to see Huston and Roland on screen. A good piece about an “essential” actor.

Posted By MissGoddess : May 9, 2009 3:21 pm

Oh my goodness Moira, you’ve really made my day—my week! This is absolutely the BEST piece of writing yet by you and that is saying a lot, amiga. My WORD, lady, get thee to writing a BOOK, please???? And if you consider a biography—please, please, please consider our Luis…our Gilbertito? If I wasn’t in love with him before, your article sealed the deal. I just KNEW he was, how do you say, some man! I think were he to walk in the same room I as I’d light up like a packet of firecrackers.

In the midst of all my hyperbole, is a most sincere belief that if anyone is to write a biography of this fine man, this credit to Mexico’s beautiful culture, it should be you. Think about it at least.

Your fellow Rolandette,

April

Posted By MissGoddess : May 9, 2009 3:21 pm

Oh my goodness Moira, you’ve really made my day—my week! This is absolutely the BEST piece of writing yet by you and that is saying a lot, amiga. My WORD, lady, get thee to writing a BOOK, please???? And if you consider a biography—please, please, please consider our Luis…our Gilbertito? If I wasn’t in love with him before, your article sealed the deal. I just KNEW he was, how do you say, some man! I think were he to walk in the same room I as I’d light up like a packet of firecrackers.

In the midst of all my hyperbole, is a most sincere belief that if anyone is to write a biography of this fine man, this credit to Mexico’s beautiful culture, it should be you. Think about it at least.

Your fellow Rolandette,

April

Posted By Feaito : May 9, 2009 4:13 pm

Great Article on an unjustly forgotten actor Moira. I enjoyed every bit of it!

Posted By Feaito : May 9, 2009 4:13 pm

Great Article on an unjustly forgotten actor Moira. I enjoyed every bit of it!

Posted By Jacqueline T Lynch : May 13, 2009 8:09 am

This was great. I’ve always enjoyed Gilbert Roland’s work, but never knew a great deal about his life. I really enjoyed this, thanks.

Posted By Jacqueline T Lynch : May 13, 2009 8:09 am

This was great. I’ve always enjoyed Gilbert Roland’s work, but never knew a great deal about his life. I really enjoyed this, thanks.

Posted By D. Masters : July 7, 2009 8:39 am

Thank you for this in-depth article on Gilbert Roland, one of my favorite stars. I think it is one of the most informative on the man, and the actor.

Posted By D. Masters : July 7, 2009 8:39 am

Thank you for this in-depth article on Gilbert Roland, one of my favorite stars. I think it is one of the most informative on the man, and the actor.

Posted By Rich : October 26, 2009 9:56 pm

Gilbert Roland has always been one of my favorites. I always just stop whatever I’m doing to watch him in any film in which he appears. The first time I saw him on screen was in “Beneath the 12 mile Reef”. He was one of my childhood idols long with Steve McQueen and John Wayne, in that he always seemed so “cool” and confident. I didn’t know the word “macho” then, but he was certainly the epitomy of it, in the best sense. But there was always something more. The fact that his family was involved in bullfighting no doubt explains a lot of his athleticism, his posture, bearing and confidence. He wasn’t just a hansome hunk, either – he was a GOOD actor. That he enlisted in the service when he was in fact exempted from the draft (a father with two children) is a testiment to the man’s character. There was an obvious dignity in the man, regardless of the character he was portraying onscreen.

Posted By Rich : October 26, 2009 9:56 pm

Gilbert Roland has always been one of my favorites. I always just stop whatever I’m doing to watch him in any film in which he appears. The first time I saw him on screen was in “Beneath the 12 mile Reef”. He was one of my childhood idols long with Steve McQueen and John Wayne, in that he always seemed so “cool” and confident. I didn’t know the word “macho” then, but he was certainly the epitomy of it, in the best sense. But there was always something more. The fact that his family was involved in bullfighting no doubt explains a lot of his athleticism, his posture, bearing and confidence. He wasn’t just a hansome hunk, either – he was a GOOD actor. That he enlisted in the service when he was in fact exempted from the draft (a father with two children) is a testiment to the man’s character. There was an obvious dignity in the man, regardless of the character he was portraying onscreen.

Posted By Dan MacLeod : May 5, 2010 8:33 pm

I wish to thank you for this fine bio of an actor I have long admired….I enjoyed his movies from the 1040′s until his death.
I oftn wondered where he was remembered seeing him in Bararosa and found him still a very great actor…Mexico and the rest of the world have lost a talant that will not be soon replaced.

Posted By Dan MacLeod : May 5, 2010 8:33 pm

I wish to thank you for this fine bio of an actor I have long admired….I enjoyed his movies from the 1040′s until his death.
I oftn wondered where he was remembered seeing him in Bararosa and found him still a very great actor…Mexico and the rest of the world have lost a talant that will not be soon replaced.

Posted By Corinne Inez : November 13, 2010 10:00 pm

It wasn’t until the 1970′s that I learned that my Grandmother, Angela Parra Alonso Bueno (born 5/31/1898,died on 11/27/1977)was Gilbert Roland’s Aunt. She was the sister of his father, Franciso. All we ever knew was that my Grandmother’s brother was a famous and the greatest bullfighter ever and that his son was a very famous actor. I always admired Gilbert Roland and it’s ashamed that we never had the opportunity to meet. We lost so much family history by not knowing that side of the family. My mother would be so happy to know of all the articles I found on her cousin. I will give her these copies to read. It is also ironic to find out later when I married in 1979, that Gilbert Roland used to follow my sister-in-law, Jean Inez when she traveled and played tennis in the 1950′s. This is truly a small world. I am so delighted to have found such beautiful writings of a cousin I never had the opportuity to meet.

Posted By Corinne Inez : November 13, 2010 10:00 pm

It wasn’t until the 1970′s that I learned that my Grandmother, Angela Parra Alonso Bueno (born 5/31/1898,died on 11/27/1977)was Gilbert Roland’s Aunt. She was the sister of his father, Franciso. All we ever knew was that my Grandmother’s brother was a famous and the greatest bullfighter ever and that his son was a very famous actor. I always admired Gilbert Roland and it’s ashamed that we never had the opportunity to meet. We lost so much family history by not knowing that side of the family. My mother would be so happy to know of all the articles I found on her cousin. I will give her these copies to read. It is also ironic to find out later when I married in 1979, that Gilbert Roland used to follow my sister-in-law, Jean Inez when she traveled and played tennis in the 1950′s. This is truly a small world. I am so delighted to have found such beautiful writings of a cousin I never had the opportuity to meet.

Posted By Malcolm L. : November 28, 2010 4:16 pm

I very much enjoyed reading this article on Gilbert Roland. As the Barber at MGM, I had the privilege of being introduced to him by his brother Chico, who was a frequent client of mine. At later times I ran into Gilbert at the Tennis Club, and of course he was wearing his wristbands (for strength, I assume) and a sweater over his shoulders with the sleeves tied across his chest, and a neckerchief. His brother Chico dressed the same way. Now I do, too. It’s a good macho style. They both always had a warm handshake and strong embrace upon meeting me, or anyone else.

Posted By Malcolm L. : November 28, 2010 4:16 pm

I very much enjoyed reading this article on Gilbert Roland. As the Barber at MGM, I had the privilege of being introduced to him by his brother Chico, who was a frequent client of mine. At later times I ran into Gilbert at the Tennis Club, and of course he was wearing his wristbands (for strength, I assume) and a sweater over his shoulders with the sleeves tied across his chest, and a neckerchief. His brother Chico dressed the same way. Now I do, too. It’s a good macho style. They both always had a warm handshake and strong embrace upon meeting me, or anyone else.

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Posted By Kirk : May 10, 2012 2:05 pm

Didn’t the leather band stem from emulating his idol Valentino who wore a silver slave bracelet?

Posted By Kirk : May 10, 2012 2:05 pm

Didn’t the leather band stem from emulating his idol Valentino who wore a silver slave bracelet?

Posted By moirafinnie : May 14, 2012 12:48 pm

I’m not sure about that Kirk, though it is certainly possible that the wrist bands he donned in many roles might have been an homage to Valentino.

I suspect that one reason Gilbert Roland may have worn the wrist bands (and over time they appeared on one or the other wrists, as well as both), may have been because he was a devoted, life long tennis player. The wrist band gave this distinctive featured player a flair and a visual shorthand that said volumes about the characters he played in his many, often under-written roles, but they may also have protected his wrists. As you probably know, Mr. Roland was a fixture for decades at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club where he was a good player of the game well into his seventies.

At the link below, you can read about Bob Brown, a leather maker who crafted some of Roland‘s wrist bands, as well as very fine leather goods for such legends as Errol Flynn and John Wayne in his heyday. The link will take you to Mr. Brown’s 2005 obituary found on the BigBearGrizzly net:

http://tinyurl.com/c6xtfj5

Thank you for your interest in this blog about this perennial stand-out figure from the studio era.
Cheers,

Moira

Posted By moirafinnie : May 14, 2012 12:48 pm

I’m not sure about that Kirk, though it is certainly possible that the wrist bands he donned in many roles might have been an homage to Valentino.

I suspect that one reason Gilbert Roland may have worn the wrist bands (and over time they appeared on one or the other wrists, as well as both), may have been because he was a devoted, life long tennis player. The wrist band gave this distinctive featured player a flair and a visual shorthand that said volumes about the characters he played in his many, often under-written roles, but they may also have protected his wrists. As you probably know, Mr. Roland was a fixture for decades at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club where he was a good player of the game well into his seventies.

At the link below, you can read about Bob Brown, a leather maker who crafted some of Roland‘s wrist bands, as well as very fine leather goods for such legends as Errol Flynn and John Wayne in his heyday. The link will take you to Mr. Brown’s 2005 obituary found on the BigBearGrizzly net:

http://tinyurl.com/c6xtfj5

Thank you for your interest in this blog about this perennial stand-out figure from the studio era.
Cheers,

Moira

Posted By Phil Bartells : July 22, 2014 2:15 am

Really enjoyed this wonderful writeup, thanks so much. This trophy was just listed on eBay, thought you might be interested as it relates to his tennis interest and references this article.

http://tinyurl.com/plcvmgb

Posted By Moira Finnie : July 22, 2014 11:58 am

Thank you for sharing that 1940 silver trophy won by Gilbert Roland for his tennis game, Phil.

I believe that the sport of tennis was a lifelong pursuit for the actor, who some sources say wore his distinctive wrist bands in several films to protect him following an injury. Interestingly, one of the few films that incorporated his love of the game was among the last of his long career, “The Christian Licorice Store” (1971), featured Roland as a veteran of the game mentoring Beau Bridges who played a young tennis hot-shot searching for life’s meaning. According to the few who have seen this rare cult film, directed by veteran James Frawley (“The Muppet Movie,” “Kid Blue,” and many television credits), Gilbert Roland demonstrates his athleticism and dignity in a cast that includes, among others, director Jean Renoir in a small role as well.

Never released on video, this movie sounds like a good candidate for TCM Underground, doesn’t it? Thank you for taking the time to post your comment here.

Posted By Phil Bartells : July 22, 2014 4:28 pm
Posted By Moira Finnie : July 22, 2014 6:35 pm

Thanks for unearthing that DVD, Phil. Ordering it is going to be quite tempting (especially for Gilbert Roland completists).

Posted By chuck : October 4, 2016 4:33 am

Have always been a big fan of Gilbert Roland. Had the chance to meet him one evening at the Coronado Country Club in El Paso in 1963. I was twenty five and really impressed by this handsome
virile man. He was impressed that I was able to rattle off so many of the flicks he had appeared.

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