The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Maria Montez

Fitting it is that the natal day of Maria Montez (María África Gracia Vidal, 1912-1951) falls during Pride Month, for it is the right time to celebrate this gay icon. But there are others. She was born in the Dominican Republic, and she was to be that country’s greatest contribution to the Hollywood firmament, She ranks with Lupe Velez, Dolores Del Rio, and Carmen Miranda as one of the great Latin starlets of Hollywood’s classic era, carving out her own very particular niche as a kind of revivalist of silent era exoticism and glamor in the tradition of Theda Bara, but with the new twist that many of her pictures were shot in gorgeous Technicolor. But to deepen the complexity of her legacy, her studio was Universal, and it was the 1940s — the time and the place of Abbott and Costello and The Wolfman. While the films she starred in often announced ambitious visions, the movies themselves were often fairly trivial and garish entertainments, making them landmark examples of kitsch.

Montez was only 18 in her first film, the Johnny Mack Brown western Boss of Bullion City (1940), though she was already fourth-billed. Her part was much smaller in her next, The Invisible Woman (1940). Then came supporting parts in a series of films in which she gradually gained more and more notice: Lucky Devils, That Night in Rio, Raiders of the Desert, Moonlight in Hawaii, and South of Tahiti (all 1941), and Bombay Clipper (1942). The titles of these films and the ones to come tell the story of how she was cast. Much like Dorothy Lamour (who was a New Orleans mix of Spanish, French and English) Montez was invariably cast as women from far-flung ports, the South Seas, Arabia, South Asia, the Sahara, and so forth. The title role in the 1942 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget was her first starring role, though an atypical one. Her classic period begins with role of Sherazade in Arabian Nights (1942), followed by White Savage (1943), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), Cobra Woman (1944), Gypsy Wildcat (1944), Bowery to Broadway (1944), Sudan (1945),Tangier (1946), and Pirates of Monterey (1947). Her co-stars in many of her early pictures included Jon Hall and Sabu.

In 1943 Montez married French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, who was to play a crucial role in her career during the post war period. She co-starred with him in Siren of Atlantis (1948) and Wicked City (1949) and the pair moved to France. Meantime she had also co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks Jr in The Exile (1947), directed by Max Ophuls. Montez and Aumont split in 1949 but she remained in Europe, starring in the French film Portrait of an Assassin (1949) and the Italian pictures The Thief of Venice (1950), Love and Blood (1951), and Revenge of the Pirates (1951).

And then…suddenly it was over. Montez was not yet 40 years old when the news broke that she had died suddenly while taking a scalding hot reducing bath, apparently suffering a heart attack first, then drowning. With her went ambitions to play some of the great historical roles: Cleopatra, The Queen of Sheba, et al. Gone, but not forgotten…

By the 1960s those old films from the 1940s had come to be regarded as camp classics, particularly by the gay community. Boricuan drag performer René Rivera (1935-2013) was so obssessed with Maria Montez that he basically became his own version of her under the drag name of Mario Montez. As such he became one of the top stars of New York’s underground film and experimental theatre scene, starting with Flaming Creatures (1962) and several other Jack Smith films, as well as films of Andy Warhol, Ron Rice, Bill Vehr and others, and several of the early plays of Charles Ludlam, John Vaccaro, et al. He retired from performing in 1976.

Ironically though Maria was the bigger star, it was through Mario that many of us first learned of her. Hers was far from the only life story resurrected and reinterpreted by the twisted, loving prism of drag. The dizzying thing about this case however is that Maria was ALREADY reviving a camp version of an earlier mode, which gives this whole chain of events a kind of kaleidoscopic multidimensionality. You could have the best Pride film festival ever by showing just Maria and Mario Montez films and the silent movies that inspired them. If somebody hasn’t done that yet, they should!

For more on entertainment history, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.