Today we reminisce about
Cesar Romero in Captain from Castile (1947)
Directed by Henry King
Starring: Tyrone Power, Jean Peters, Cesar Romero, Lee J. Cobb
* Published specifically for the The 6th Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen *
I dedicate this article to the memory of film historian Rudy Behlmer who passed away on 27 September 2019, three weeks shy of his 93rd birthday.
When it came to choosing a subject for this blogathon, it did not take me long to focus in on Cesar Romero. He was a prominent actor of Hispanic origin whose film career alone spanned over 55 years; not to mention his successful television appearances that lasted more than 40 years. In Old Hollywood, he was best known for his roles as Latin lovers and for portraying other ethnic/exotic characters, most of which utilised his dark, handsome looks. Decades later during the Sixties, he made a name for himself with modern audiences when he rose to prominence in his role as The Joker on TV’s Batman series, a programme which is today considered a cult classic. I know him best from his time at Twentieth Century Fox and specifically from the two films – Carnival in Costa Rica and Happy Go Lovely – in which he starred with one of my favourites of the silver screen, Vera-Ellen. Cesar was often great fun to watch on-screen as he performed slapstick comedy and danced ever so brilliantly with his gorgeous leading ladies. Privately, he was kind and family-oriented, never letting stardom get to his head.
As Cesar mainly starred in supporting roles throughout his varied professional existence, I was intrigued to discover his more noteworthy, leading roles which were sadly few and far between. However, his coveted and highly praised role in Captain from Castile caught my eye and piqued my interest.
The Story of Captain from Castile
There is a wave of change going through Europe. Its people are starting to settle in the New World, often conquering native civilisations to show their dominance and enforce order. Circumstances were often ruthless and bloody with both sides determined to prevail. Ironically enough, many Europeans who crossed the ocean did so to seek better conditions of living and to build new lives for themselves by exploiting these unchartered lands. It would not take them long to learn that while they were physically distancing themselves from the old continent, they still remained under its jurisdiction.
In 16th century Spain, the Inquisition was in full bloom and the Santa Hermandad, a sort of Holy Police, was working on their behalf to denounce heresy and other punishable crimes. The Inquisition had been around for several centuries in other European countries but was quite recent in Spain, having only formed in 1478. The system was merciless and cruel, regularly utilising methods of torture and executions to anyone suspected of being a heretic. The de Vargas family of Jaen is a noble family that is righteous and God-loving. Patriarch Don Francisco is much admired in the community as is his son, Pedro (Tyrone Power), a caballero. They both serve their country and peacefully work alongside members of the Santa Hermandad without any sort of issue arising. All of this changes one afternoon in the spring of 1518.
Pedro is gallivanting around the countryside when his friend Diego de Silva (John Sutton) comes hastily riding along with a team of men trying to help him track down one of his escaped slaves. In order to help the search effort, Pedro volunteers to go on his own and to report back if he has found anything. It does not take long for Pedro to locate the man – an Aztec slave named Coatl – but decides to let him go so to spare his life. Along the way, Pedro also crosses paths with a timid barmaid Catana Pérez (Jean Peters) who he takes on horseback to her place of work after being assaulted by two of Diego’s men. There he shares a drink with a man named Juan García (Lee J. Cobb) who has recently come back to the country from the New World (what was at that time called “The Indies”), sharing with Pedro some exciting stories about his adventures. Later that evening, Diego visits the de Vargas household unexpectedly. He hints at Pedro possibly having helped Coatl escape to safety and talks to Don Francisco about joining the Santa Hermandad, to which the patriarch declines due to his disapproval of the Santa’s harsh enforcement methods. Diego says nothing that evening but the very next day, Don Francisco, his wife and young daughter are all arrested while Pedro, who attempted to evade capture and unsuccessfully seek the help of his father’s high-ranking friends, is eventually caught.
Although Diego knows in his heart that the de Vargas family is innocent of any wrongdoing, he is so corrupted by power that he will stop at nothing to get his way. He decides to torture the daughter to get answers and in doing so, causes her death. Unapologetic, Diego continues to hold Pedro and his parents until they sign a confession of guilt. One night, Pedro is visited by Juan who had bought his way into becoming a Turnkey so that he could secretly care for his imprisoned mother who is scheduled to be burned at the stake. Juan helps arrange an escape for his mother and the de Vargas’, a plan which comes to fruition albeit with a few changes: Juan’s mother dies in captivity and Pedro manages to kill Diego. With Catana’s help, they are able to reach safety. Thereafter, Pedro’s parents board a boat for Italy while Pedro decides to join Juan and Catana in the New World. They arrive in Havana Harbor, Cuba, where they decide to join Hernán Cortés (Cesar Romero), a famous explorer who is planning an important expedition to Mexico.
Cortés is pleased to have Pedro’s participation especially since he holds very high regard for Don Francisco, who he personally knew. He knows about Pedro’s criminal record but decides to keep him on board, passing no judgement upon him. The two have a good working relationship and Pedro is given an important position that requires a great deal of trust. Although Pedro does disappoint Cortés on occasion, he proves his worth in such a grand fashion that he is promoted to Captain, news that comes as a relief since it will greatly please his parents. As the film goes on, Cortés and his men come ever closer to reaching their final position, the ancient city of Tenochtitlan.
A small introduction
Cesar Romero Jr. was born in New York City in 1907 and profited from an upbringing that was rich in culture, both from his parents and from the education they could afford him. His father, Cesar Romero Sr., was of Spanish origin and his mother, Maria de Mantilla, was American born who had Cuban parents. (Maria was largely known to be the daughter of Cuban national hero José Martí, the product of an extramarital relationship. Though he never publicly acknowledged her as his offspring, Martí was named as her godfather, raising and educating her until the end of his life.*) It is unclear to me whether or not Cesar and his family spoke Spanish in his household or the extent of his knowledge in the language.
The Romeros had a sugar import business that was very successful and they became one of the wealthiest Cuban families in the United States, allowing them to provide well for their children and for them to attend prestigious schools. They were also able to put money to the side which would help them immensely after the Cuban sugar market went belly up, leaving their business in ruins. After the Stock Market Crash of 1929 left the family financially fragile, Cesar felt that it was his obligation to help support his family; an outlook that he would continue to carry throughout his life. He managed to get employment at a NYC bank and although he had little interest for his position or a “regular” job he always put forth his best effort. In reality, Cesar displayed interest in the theatre from a very young age and as a teenager became a talented dancer. Before long, Cesar decided to leave his job at the bank and to pursue a job in the entertainment industry. He started appearing in stage productions and his talent got him noticed by a scout for MGM who offered Cesar a one year contract.
In April 1934, Cesar arrived in Hollywood and immediately started work on his first film, The Thin Man. The film was a major success but Cesar did not receive much notice for his film debut, prompting MGM to neglect his contract. Disappointed but not deterred, he was then signed by Universal Pictures who often him out to other studios. Cesar starred in several films for Twentieth Century Pictures headed by Joseph Schenck and Darryl Zanuck, become well respected by Zanuck who enjoyed Cesar’s unique and varied style. A couple of years after Twentieth Century Fox Pictures was established, Zanuck signed Cesar to a 7 year contract. He would remain with Fox for over 15 years until 1951 when it was decided that his long-standing contract would not be renewed.
Cesar as Hernán Cortés
Captain from Castile would be Cesar’s second film after returning from World War II service in which he had enlisted with the U.S. Coast Guard and fought in the Pacific. Afraid that he might have limited opportunities after having been away from Hollywood for so long, Cesar was undoubtedly reassured when he was handpicked for the role by Darryl Zanuck who always had a very good opinion of him.
Cesar & Tyrone as enlisted men during World War II.
Executives at Fox were enthusiastic about producing a direct adaptation of author Samuel Shellabarger’s bestselling book despite the fact that it was uncensored and could cause issue with the Hays Office Production Code. The biggest problem at hand was how the Church would be portrayed especially since it plays such a prominent role in the story. They initially wanted to limit any references to religion – good or bad – by use of dialogue or visual display of relics. (In any case, getting around the word “God” was unavoidable.) Zanuck wrote in a 20 January 1945 memo that, for example, “the rape of Mexico should not be under the name of the Cross, but instead under the name of the greedy conquerors”.1 Although the Inquisition was a part of the Catholic Church’s history, it was out of the question to blame the fate of the Aztecs on the establishment although they were as responsible as Cortés and the other conquistadors. Some months later, Joseph Mankiewicz met with the Hays board who reassured him that rewriting history would not be in the interest of either the Church or the studio as it risked offending a great many people. Mankiewicz then noted in a memo date 16 July 1945 that “censorship problems should not be too difficult, once a satisfactory substitute for the Inquisition is established.”* If only it were that simple!
The real Hernán Cortés was an intelligent man who was a natural leader. Publicly, he was ambitious and determined in his capacity as a Conquistador. It is hard to say for sure what he was like in private life though Cortés’ secretary Francisco López de Gómara “describe(d) him as ruthless, haughty, mischievous, and quarrelsome.”* In Captain from Castile, Cortés does display some of these qualities but overall seems to be altogether a different kind of person. Judging from Zanuck’s viewpoint, it would seem that these less flattering qualities would be magnified but with Cesar Romero in the role, this could not be maintained. Cesar was notorious for his comedic flair which was sometimes physical; quite unlike Mickey Rooney or Jerry Lewis but more subtle and well-timed such as co-star Myrna Loy demonstrates in The Thin Man. It is not to say that Cesar was not suited for serious and dramatic roles. He simply exuded a natural energy that always shone through and this was certainly something that Zanuck himself liked about Cesar.
As Cortés, Cesar commands the attention of the camera with his mighty stature and regal presentation. You can tell that this is a man of importance. Amongst his higher ranking peers and other soldiers, he blends into the crowd quite easily and seems quite at ease. For instance, when Pedro and Juan sign-up for the expedition, Cortés happens to be only a few feet away from them yet he goes undetected. It is a good thing that they were not speaking ill of him! When Cortés is in uniform, however, this gentleness fades. He becomes domineering and sometimes outrageous, laughing in the face of his enemies at the same time as he threatens them. Perhaps I am mistaken but I feel as if the writers did this to counterbalance the fact that the real extent of Cortés’ damage could not be shown. When Montezuma and Cortés meet face-to-face, Cortés orders a part of their temple to be destroyed so to show his army’s strength. In reality, Cortés demonstration was the violent murder of thousands of Aztecs, simply to prove a point to Montezuma. The writers showed a Cortés that was human yet a bit unstable because honestly it makes no sense that a man who had such an apparent disdain for human life would be able to joke around. Had this film been able to show the true extent of the Church’s influence and Cortés’ destruction, the Cortés character would have had to be written differently. It was indeed a challenge that I believe Cesar could have handled well and the opportunity to play such a different type of character would have opened up more doors for him down the line.
This is a beautiful film of epic proportions and despite its flaws is a well-made picture that deserves to be given recognition. The most regrettable thing that I encountered was that Cesar did not have the showy, starring role that I expected. His presence in the film is largely overshadowed by the story and events around Pedro. Tyrone Power is clearly the star of the show as he is in practically every scene and his life or death situations denote the continuation of the film. Pedro is a very sympathetic, interesting character on his own but it would have been nice to see a more detailed portrayal of Cortés, who is only spoken of 50 minutes into the film and seen at the 55 minute mark. A four episode mini-series on Hernán Cortés’ life is in pre-production with Javier Bardem cast in the lead role so this is a great opportunity to give a more accurate look at the past. It is also my hope that Captain from Castile will profit from renewed interest after the series is released.
Fox Promotional Tour
Before filming had even commenced, Twentieth Century Fox arranged for Cesar and Tyrone to complete a 10-week* promotional tour of Central and South America. A twin engine Beechcraft was used for the excursion. After arriving in each country, they would meet with the local U.S. Ambassador and then, when possible, with the Heads of each State. Having been trained as a flyer for the U.S. Marine Corps during the War, Tyrone did all of the flying himself.
(It was originally scheduled for 8 weeks according to Tyrone in the interview above. In a talk show appearance years many years later, Cesar reminisced about the trip, recalling that it was 10 weeks long. Cesar also mentioned that after going to the Bahamian area, they went to Miami, then New York, and back home to Los Angeles. Originally, it seems that the two men were supposed to head west after visiting the Bahamas but obviously decided otherwise.)
- Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox by Rudy Behlmer, 1993.