Thursday, May 02, 2013

Bette Davis Eyes and the First of the Red Hot Latin Loathers: Bordertown

I never really understoond what the term "Bette Davis eyes" meant until after I recently saw this movie. Perhaps it was because, like most people of my generation, my main knowledge of Ms. Davis's work came from her post-Baby Jane days when she seemed to be cast more and more for shock value than for actual talent. Or perhaps it was because like most movie buffs, I took Ms. Davis' status in her younger days for granted. After all, one could argue that anyone could do good with the great dialogue of an All About Eve or The Petrified Forest; however, to stand out well enough to make a silk scarf of the pig's ear of a movie that is the 1935 movie Bordertown takes special talent.

Indeed, the script for Bordertown is bad enough that Ms. Davis's ability to stand out in her role as Marie Roark seems more of an accomplishment than any of her more famous roles. And of course, part of the reason Ms. Davis stands out so much in this movie is the way she uses her oh so noticeable eyes. In fact, she uses her eyes in a mad scene so different from previous movie mad scenes that the studio's first impulse was to make her do it over. It was not until after:

(1.) Ms. Davis agreed to do such a repeat only if the movie's preview audiences failed to realize her character's true mental status.


(2.) said preview audiences proved her right.

that they backed off of such a demand.

Ironically, Ms. Davis was never supposed to be cast in Bordertown. The male lead Paul Muni originally wanted either Carole Lombard or Lupe Vélez to play Ms. Davis' part opposite his Johnny Ramirez character. However, after Ms. Davis got a lot of positive attention as a result of her role in the 1934 RKO film Of Human Bondage, Warner Brothers studio head Jack L. Warner insisted that she be cast in the part -- which is just as well since Ms. Davis's performance is one of the few reasons Bordertown is still worth watching nowadays.

Part of the problem with this movie is that like all too many Hollywood movies about Mexican-Americans -- including some recent releases I could mention -- the movie is never quite as progressive as its creators think it is. On the surface, Johnny Ramirez is a lot more sympathetic than the thuggish title character Muni played in Scarface -- but not by much. Although the script makes much of him being a reformed hood who has turned his back on his former lifestyle and now just wants to play lawyer and please his mother, it also makes him seem incredibly naive. No sooner than he graduates from law school than he turns his back on his law books, and when he has the chance to help an old friend with a big civil case, he does not seem to even try to do much research, preferring instead to just wing it based on what little information he finds. As a result, he not only ends up losing what should have been an open-and-shut case against the rich white debutante who drunkenly ran into and totaled his friend's truck, he also ends up being held in contempt of court by a very biased judge. And as if that is not enough, he punches out the opposing attorney to boot.

Afterwards, Ramirez ends up abandoning his law practice and going to work as a manager for local bordertown casino owner Charlie Roark (played by Eugene Pallette). Ramirez proves more successful as a casino manager than he ever was as a lawyer, and he even manages to attract the attention of not just one but two Anglo women -- Charlie Roark's wife Marie and spoiled debutante Dale Elwell (the same woman who totaled the truck of Ramirez's friend). Ramirez makes it clear early on that he is not interested in returning Marie's affection. Instead he becomes obsessed with Ms. Elwell (played by Margaret Lindsay), a woman whose idea of romantic subtlety involves continuously addressing him as "Savage" and letting her girlfriends know that her interest in him is little more than social slumming. Eventually Marie grows jealous of Ms. Elwell and strives to win Johnny for herself. When Johnny refuses to cooperate, Marie takes it upon herself to free herself from her husband by using her spouse's own love of gadgets against him. And when that plan does not work to change Johnny's mind, she accuses Ramirez of a crime he did not commit...

In any event, it would probably be a bit much to expect 2013 liberalism from a 1935 movie, especially one made at a time when Mexican-Americans were still facing massive discrimination throughout the American Southwest. Then again it seems a bit much to applaud such a movie for essentially implying that all such cases of discrimination were just the result of fiery Latin tempers and all too active Mexican fists.

It says something about the movie's concern for its Latin characters that we in the audience never do find out whether Johnny's friend ever got his truck fixed. Nor does it help that the script's idea of a happy ending means Johnny Ramirez leaving Anglo society in order to go back where he came from. True, it is implied in the movie that Johnny will be using his money and experience to finance a law school for his fellow Mexicans. But after eighty minutes of implying that you can take the boy out of the barrio but not the barrio out of the boy, such an ending does not seem all that cool. Moreover, Ms. Elwell's fate is depicted in such an over-the-top fashion that even the most ardent LULAC member might consider it to be overdone.

Indeed, Bordertown is a lot better when it comes to the unintentional irony. For example, when Ms. Elwell first sees Mr. Ramirez in the courtroom, she immediately draws a sketch of him and labels it "savage" despite knowing little more about Ramirez than his profession, his appearance and his ethnicity. Yet when Ramirez drops by her home later in the movie, Ms. Elwell is in her backyard sunbathing in the nude (said sunbathing, of course, being done in such a fashion that even the most conservative member of the Hays Office would not object). In short, like the stereotypical "savage" she undoubtedly looks down upon, Ms. Elwell is not only wearing no clothes when Mr. Rodriguez arrives but she is also doing her damnest to turn her skin darker. And like a "savage", she does not seem particularly guilty about the damage she caused earlier in the movie until it is almost too late to do anything about it.

Anyway, there are many movies about Mexican-Americans that are much better to watch than Bordertown. However, Bordertown does give modern audiences an interesting insight into what even the most progressive white non-Hispanics thought about Mexican-Americans back in 1935. And come to think of it, that is perhaps the most damnable thing about Bordertown -- not that it is so dated or so backward but that it was considered so progressive by the standards of its day. If nothing else, that makes me wonder how progressive today's best movies will seem in 2091.

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