Over the last two weeks, I have been whisked away into a fantasy world; an indistinguishable utopia of jungles, exotica, and Vera West costumery, dripping with beads, sequins and eleganza. Following up on my research with Jack Smith, I dove head-first into the work of his muse, Maria Montez. Captivating, the magic of Montez is in her elusiveness; she slips in her accents, she slips between cultures, and she slips through the frame in dangerous seduction.
In Helio Oiticica’s “Mario Montez, Tropicamp,” from which the title and concept of this essay is born, he defines Tropicamp through filmmaker Jack Smith: “Jack, in his oeuvre as in his general influence on underground cinema and theatre, is some sort of pop-tropicália: more than simple nostalgia for fox-trot and latin american [sic] music, his work is, contrary to the pure american [sic] pop of WARHOL, the search for the latin american cliché, and its incidence within the super-american context…”1
Maria Montez is a symbol of Hollywood’s complete fabrication of a Latin American cliché, which led to its camp appropriation by Jack Smith and drag star Mario Montez. I’d like to unpick the fabric of this cliché, to see the seams of its cultural operation, what the resonance of 1940s tropicália has done for the Latin American starlet in Hollywood today.
maria africa antonia gracia vidal de santos silas.
Known as the ‘technicolor queen’ of escapist cinema during the ravages of World War 2, Maria Africa Antonia Gracia Vidal de Santos Silas was born in June of 1912 in the Dominican Republic. She signed with Universal pictures at the age of 21 and changed her name to the far less fabulous, pan-Latin American and religiously white-washed, “Maria Montez.”
Her films cast her in all sorts of ethnically ambiguous roles, from the fabled dancer Scheherezade in Arabian Nights (Rawlins, 1942, US) to a King Cobra-taming island queen in Cobra Woman (Siodmak, 1944, US). Along with her co-star Sabu, (a stereotypical sidekick, smart for all his outward stupidity, who appeared in both Cobra Woman and Arabian Nights to save unwieldy [and clearly Western] men that beckon at the starlet’s feet) Montez created a non-threatening pan-ethnic characterization for starlets of color in the age of Technicolor.
During the 1930s, Hollywood’s newly developed studio system pumped out assembly-line style films free of complicated plots. Basic structures and compartmentalization prevailed and films began to rely heavily on genre specificities, making for easy production and severe type-casting. Stars and starlets of color were either negatively type-cast, reduced to roles which exploited their culture, or resorted to denying their cultural specificities in order to present a universal, yet distinctly foreign, identity. During this period, Latin America began to protest the promulgation of Hollywood films which left Latin American stars in a few rather undesirable stereotypic roles (seductress, comedic relief, villain etc.)
Jungle and exotic scenes particular to these exploitative stereotypic roles were particularly well-suited to Hollywood’s adaptation of Technicolor in the 1940s. Color film processing was invented as early as 1916; wherein color processes were added after the film was developed. Technicolor, a three-strip film process, was perfected much later on, and was not adopted by Hollywood until the mid-1930s, because of the bulky Technicolor camera, the three-strips of film necessary and high-lighting demands. The high saturation of color allowed for dreamy compositions of color and light- wherein the colors were so suffused they seemed imaginary.
Without the veiling shades of gray which reduced all that was captured by the screen to a series of textures, patterns and scaling values of gray-tone, the rise of “Technicolor” resulted in people of color being represented on the screen differently. Although this could have been a large advancement for representations of Latin Americans on the screen, the assembly-line structure of the Hollywood studio system used exotic tropicália narratives to create indistinct “ethnic” complexions to stand in for multiple ethnicities, cultures and races. This universal “ethnic” complexion depicted on screen is utilized by (aptly named) Universal Studios in the form of Maria Montez, a Dominican Republic beauty, made to play Arabian seductresses and exotic island queens.
In each film, whether set in the exotic jungle of Cobra Island or among the golden dunes of the desert, the rose hues of Montez’s skin are paired against swaths of brilliant green tones, her costumes sticking to a palette of emeralds and sea-tones. Her association with tropí-pop, a tropicali American association with exoticism, luxury and life of leisure, strips Montez of her Latin roots, leaving her as a rosy embellishment upon a sea of green. Her exotic foreignness becomes a fetishistic obsession, forcing her to become different, othered, while simultaneously disallowing her to be anything specific. The Hollywood studio system stripped space of its particularity of localized culture, its specificity, forcing everyone that wasn’t clearly trapped within the narrow boundaries of an American standard to become “other”, or “exotic”: an ever-enticing and desirous term, implicating seduction and imploring caution.
But its not all evil Hollywood studio plots. I came to this because I was captivated by Montez’s screen presence, and I still am. What is particular to Maria Montez is her fluidity, her ability to slip between Scheherezade and the Cobra Queen, all the while captivating the glare of the camera, commanding the attention of the narrative and the viewer, and dominating the film until the bolstering WWII plots of command and conquer are lost beneath her strong gaze.
The coldness with which Montez strikes against the screen veils her ambiguity. Refusing the clean-cut flattened role of Tropi-Hollywood, Montez, whether playing Scheherezade or the Cobra Queen utilizes her sharp, clear accent to bark out phrases with calculated acidity. This seems to me the key to her inclusion in Oiticica’s tropícamp designation. That she can drag as a Hollywood starlet, drag in the stereotypes given to her, but transform them into a clear refusal of cultural homogeneity, allows her to stand as an object of obsession for camp enthusiasts. Says Susan Sontag, “the camp eye has the power to transform” and, watching Montez on the screen, you can watch the flat faltering plot lines of films like Down Argentine Way.. falter under her resilient eyes. In these moments, you can see the martyrdom of the string of Catholic Saints which she struck from her name.
The specific strength that is gleaned from her cold attitude separates her from other starlets of the period, whose warmth and amiability would garner them the objects of their affection. Montez, however, is generally cast in roles wherein power is the ultimate goal, above the ever-present power of love. Although this may align her with the foreign seductress stereotype, typically her roles insist on the usage of love as a tool to obtain a restricted form of power. Like hemlock or blood flower, Maria Montez is that combination of beautiful and deadly: tropical, inviting, poisonous, infectious.
1 Hélio Oiticica, “Mario Montez, Tropicamp”, Afterall, 1971.
2 Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp, 1964.