Hollywood for much of it’s classic period of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties has often — and justifiably — been criticized for using general purpose actors slathered in dark makeup to impersonate American Indians onscreen.
One egregious example was the casting of Jeff Chandler (above) — born Ira Grossel in Brooklyn — as Cochise, a warlike Apache Indian chief who led a decade-long uprising in 1861. The saga was captured in 1950’s Broken Arrow, which jumpstarted Chandler’s movie career. Chandler was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal. No one, obviously, stopped to ask: what is a nice actor of Jewish descent doing impersonating an American Indian?
Today we’d like to present two pioneering figures of historical interest. Luther Standing Bear (above) and James Young Deer (below) are names forgotten today but they were the first Native American film stars.
They not only acted in silents, but directed as well.
James Young Deer is believed to be the first Native American filmmaker in Hollywood history. Born in 1876, he acted in countless silent movies beginning in 1909 and 1910. His roles expanded through the years, and Young Deer became a prolific director, writer and producer as well.
Notably, he and his wife influenced the creation of many one-reel westerns of the early silent era. His work often presented Native Americans in a positive light — as symbols of integrity, stoicism and reliability. Curiously, he found himself in Hollywood creating films for the American arm of France’s Pathe, which felt that westerns filmed in the East were not “realistic.”
Chief Luther Standing Bear was older (born in 1868) and got around a bit more. In the early part of the last century, he toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows.
His movie career — he became something of an industry guru — was a long one, staring in 1916 and winding down in the 1930’s. He played Indian and non-Indians in silents and early talkies, working at various times with such period luminaries as Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart.
Oops: We inadvertently forgot to include in yesterday’s blog the answers to our Rudolph Valentino Quiz published a day earlier. So, here we go:
Question 1: In 1921’s The Sheik, Valentino plays a rapist. a) True; or b) False?
Answer: (b) False. As critic David Thomson notes, Valentino in The Sheik captures a British girl who was masquerading at the time as an Arab. In any case, Valentino’s character did NOT have to resort to force to establish his romantic allure.
Question 2: Valentino always prided himself on his acting skills, and demanded roles that tested such skills. a) True; or b) False?
Answer: b) False. Valentino was well aware of his dramatic shortcomings as were parts of his audience (mostly men), who regarded him disdainfully as a sexual opportunist.
Question 3: Valentino was dogged by whispers about his shady beginnings in America, from 1914. Which of these occupations were in his past at that point? a) cafe dancer; b) petty thief; c) movie extra; or d) ad salesman.
Answer: a), b) and c). No, Valentino never peddled ad space.
Question 4: Where was Valentino born? a) Rome; b) Monte San Martino; c) Bologna; or d) Castellaneta.
Answer: d). It’s a town in the Apulia region of Southern Italy. The former Rudolpho Guglielmi was born there in 1895. There’s now a museum in town dedicated to him should you visit.
Question 5: What killed Valentino, resulting in a funeral attended by thousands of fans? a) cancer; b) cirrhosis of the liver; c) heart failure; or d) peritonitis.
Answer: d) Peritonitis.