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Maria Montez

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer from Cobra Woman.

From Wikipedia: “Maria Montez (June 6, 1912 – September 7, 1951) was a Dominican-born motion picture actress who gained fame and popularity in the 1940s as an exotic beauty starring in a series of filmed-in-Technicolor costume adventure films. Her screen image was that of a hot-blooded Latin seductress, dressed in fanciful costumes and sparkling jewels. She became so identified with these adventure epics that she became known as ‘The Queen of Technicolor.’ Over her career, Montez appeared in 26 films, 21 of which were made in North America and five in Europe.

Her beauty soon made her the centerpiece of Universal’s Technicolor costume adventures, notably the six in which she was teamed with Jon Hall — Arabian Nights (1942), White Savage (1943), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), Cobra Woman (1944), Gypsy Wildcat (1944), and Sudan (1945). [Shockingly, she was paid only $150 per week, or less, for many of her films at Universal.] Montez also appeared in the Technicolor western Pirates of Monterey (1947) with Rod Cameron and the sepia-toned swashbuckler The Exile (1948), directed by Max Ophuls.

While working in Hollywood, she met and married French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, who had to leave a few days after their wedding to serve in the Free French Forces fighting against Nazi Germany in the European Theatre of World War II. At the end of World War II, the couple had a daughter, Maria Christina (also known as Tina Aumont), born in Hollywood in 1946. They then moved to a home in Suresnes, Île-de-France in the western suburb of Paris under the French Fourth Republic. The 39-year-old Montez died in Suresnes, France on September 7, 1951 after apparently suffering a heart attack and drowning in her bath. She was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Shortly after her death, a street in the city of Barahona, Montez’s birthplace, was named in her honor. In 1996, the city of Barahona opened the Aeropuerto Internacional María Montez (María Montez International Airport) in her honor. The American underground filmmaker Jack Smith idolized Montez as an icon of camp style. Among his acts of devotion, he wrote an aesthetic manifesto titled “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez”, referred to her as “The Wonderful One” or “The Marvelous One”, and made elaborate homages to her movies in his own films, including the notorious Flaming Creatures.”

All true, but may I make the heretical claim that while she has been claimed as one of their own by camp aficionados, Maria Montez was nevertheless a star in a period when most minorities were banished from the screen, and effectively forced Universal to shoot her films in Technicolor, at a time when the overwhelming majority of the output was black and white? Maria Montez was a true Latina Hollywood star in an era when such a goal was almost impossible.

As one anonymous observer put it, “the Dominican-born star Universal Studios’ biggest moneymaker during World War II. No other person went so far to delineate the difference between a screen appearance and a stage performance. As a result, she has been called the most interesting image ever captured on film. Nevertheless, when working with auteur directors and called upon to ‘act,’ she proved she could: notably in The Exile (Max Ophuls)  and The Thief of Venice (John Brahm).”

Her much ridiculed performance in Robert Siodmak’s frankly exoticist Cobra Woman is a case in point; while her acolytes have perpetuated the myth that her performance in the film is either inept, or over-the-top, it is credible, serious, and touching. Maria Montez, in short, is much more than a camp icon, and she deserves a re-evaluation from the standpoint of star identities in an otherwise all-white Hollywood studio system.

While Montez was shamelessly self-promotional in getting to the top in 1940s Hollywood — she had a fan club at one point named matter-of-factly “Make Maria Montez a Movie Star” — can you think of any other way she could have done it, in such a racist, exclusionary regime of images?

It’s all too easy to ridicule; let us take Montez, and her work, as she did, seriously.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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