Viva Villa!

VIVA VILLA!, a raw and lusty, heavily fictionalized biopic of Mexican revolutionary hero Francisco “Pancho” Villa, produced by David O. Selznick for MGM in 1934, gave Wallace Beery another plum starring role. Wally’s wild & wooly bandit/general went along with his same-year hit playing another legendary rascal in Treasure Island. But unlike that story’s piratical Long John Silver, Villa’s larger-than-life passage through history was real and of consequence. While controversial, he was a beloved, iconic figure in America’s southern neighbor. An impressive production physically, it’s dated as heck but entertaining if viewed through prisms that ought to take into account how, below the Rio Grande, Hollywood’s two-fisted ‘tribute’ came off as an insulting backhand slap. The sensationalistic script and some of the crude, stereotypical portrayals give the p.c. police enough ammo to restart the Mexican-American War. Y eso no es ni la midad.

Chihuahua, Mexico, the 1880s. After witnessing his peasant father whipped to death by landowners, young Pancho grows up to become first a bandit, then a revolutionary when a general revolt against oppression sweeps the country. Winning battles with daring and ruthlessness, he’s loved and followed by the poor and downtrodden, despised and targeted by the rich and their toady class. He becomes a general, then serves briefly as President.

Just desserts: a rotten officer is about to become lunch & dinner for a colony of ants

Ben Hecht banged up the script in a few weeks, taking bare bones from the record and blithely making up the rest. Most of the extensive location shooting was accomplished in the state of Chihuahua, directed by Howard Hawks, with James Wong Howe on camera duty. A difficult few months climaxed with a much-publicized incident (and not—by a Monterrey kilometer—good publicity) involving co-star Lee Tracy. He was duly replaced by Stuart Irwin, requiring reshoots, this time back in the hills of southern California. Jack Conway took over from Hawks as director (HH either fired or quit, depending on the version told) with the new footage lensed by Charles G. Clarke. Conway got sole screen credit. More bad luck (or possible sabotage) followed the Tracy debacle when a plane carrying 20,000 feet of negative film crashed and burned in El Paso. The pilot made it out okay, but much Hawks & Howe material went up in flames. *

Fay’s about to piss off Pancho: unwise

As written and played, Hecht’s/Beery’s portrait of Villa is of an ignorant, casually cruel buffoon, a leering seriocomic lout whose favorite expression is “Shut-up!” Secondary characters are drawn with equally broad strokes. Pancho’s backed by amigo/ready executioner ‘Sierra’ (Leo Carrillo), based on Rodolfo Fierro. Breezy American newsman ‘Jonny Sykes’ (Erwin) plays up Villa’s reputation to the world. Fay Wray is one of the many senoritas Villa pursues: having survived the more respectful attentions of King Kong, Fay’s less lucky fending off a horny ape-like Pancho, who comes after her with a bullwhip! (the pre-Code S&M content is none too subtle). Henry B. Walthall (12 roles in 1934) plays revered revolution leader Francisco Madero as nearly Christ-like, while Joseph Schildkraut’s hawkish ‘General Pascal’ seems modeled after vicious usurper Victoriano Huerta: in a movie with a considerable casualty count, he gets the grossest/coolest exit—covered in honey and stuck on an anthill.

Big-scale action employs lots of extras (with some wincing horsefalls), and the camerawork, particularly Howe’s, does justice to the picturesque locations and the many striking faces selected as “the people”. Much rousing use is made of “La Cucaracha” in Herbert Stothart’s score. The selective script leaves out Pancho’s cross-border excursion into New Mexico (which, heck, 68 years before had been Old Mexico) and the Wilson Administration’s “Punitive Expedition” in pursuit.

While a justifiably offended Mexico fumed that their hero was made to look like a clod and their revolutionary travails trivialized, Depression-weary American audiences made the final product quite popular. The upswing: an Oscar for Assistant Director (John Waters) and nominations for Best Picture, Script and Sound. Public attendance placed it 29th in ’34 (according to Cogerson, with a gross of $2,700,000) measured against a not-cheap tab on the order of $1,017,400.

With Donald Cook, Katherine DeMille (vixening up a tormenta), George E. Stone, Frank Puglia, Henry Armetta. 115 minutes.

* Legend has it Tracy, taking aim from a balcony, drunkenly wee-wee’d on Mexican cadets marching below in an Independence Day parade. Whether he actually did that or not (he denied it), there was some sort of gauche fracas, and MGMs dictator Louis B. Mayer demanded a pissant peasant to bite the dust. Tracy’s purported hijinks saw him arrested & ejected, then fired, first from the film, then MGM, forever tarred by what may or may not have occurred. This, the clumsy portrayal of Pancho, the simplification of recent, proud and bruising history, the cartoonish supporting performances, and the general gringo attitude of “oh, that’s Mexican’s for ya” caused an uproar that left bad feelings for years.

Supporting actor Leo Carrillo, later famous as ‘The Cisco Kid’ would also play Pancho, in 1951s forgotten Pancho Villa Returns. Others taking on the role include Yul Brynner (Villa Rides!), Telly Savalas (Pancho Villa), Pedro Armendariz (four times, including Pancho Villa Vuelve), his son Pedro Armendariz Jr. (Old Gringo), Anthony Banderas (And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself), Rodolfo Hoyos (Villa!), Alan Reed (Viva Zapata!)—someone crank out more exclamation points!!—okay, we will—and Freddy Fender!! (She Comes To The Valley).

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