Latina in Arabian Nights (1942)
Before Rita Moreno or Jennifer Lopez, Universal Studios had a box-office Dominican Latina star sensation by the name of Maria Montez. To my shock she does not have a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star but does have an airport named after her in Barahona, Dominican Republic. Some stars have hand prints, others museums. Montez has Aeropuerto Internacional María Montez. You win some you lose some.
She was beautiful and content being glamorous in mindless escapist films from the World War 2 era. During that time audiences sought fantasy and entertainment. I’m a fan due to growing up with her movies as a child, so far as to even visit her grave at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris for her, not Man Ray or Guy de Maupassant, all buried in the same graveyard. Below are the photos I took.
Arabian Nights provided a release from reality. Aside from characters named Scheherazade and Sinbad, the film is a far cry from the Arabian Nights tale. Montez is the star framed in gorgeous costumes and jewels against beautiful technicolor along with beautiful starlets, an attractive male lead, a torture scene, some duels, and comic relief from Shemp Howard.
Fantasy films like Arabian Nights afforded other exotics or racial minorities work. While it’s unfortunate their roles were limited, a film like Arabian Nights is a showcase of the minority talent in Hollywood at the time. Sabu (Ali Ben Ali) who co-starred in a few escapist films with Montez was probably the only popular Indian actor in Hollywood’s golden age. Thomas Gomez (Hakim), of Spanish background, portrayed Latin characters with sympathy or humanity. Mixed Turkish-Czech Turhan Bey (Captain of the Guard) was popular in the 40s starring in other films with Montez or Sabu. Lastly the attractive black actress and dancer, Jeni Le Gon (Dancer’s Maid) had a steady career playing servants in mainstream films but leads or secondary leads in black-cast productions.
Arabian Nights is a juvenile film but it’s beautiful, fun, and great for those interested in “ethnic” actors from Hollywood’s golden age. It was even Oscar-nominated for Cinematography, Sound, and Music if that helps attract cinephiles with more “refined” taste.