In the old days of Hollywood, they got a lot of things about movie-making right. But unfortunately, there was even less emphasis on minority casts and crews than there is today, with some filmmakers going so far as to cast white actors in Latino roles (this was in addition to an overall climate of ethnic ambiguity when it came to pairing actors with roles – Japanese actors were cast as Comanche chiefs, and so on). But, there are still a healthy number of classic movies that feature Hispanic actors in some capacity or another. Here are some of the best.
Ricardo Montalban is something of a punchline nowadays, thanks to his appearances in kitschy TV commercials and self-mocking roles in movies like The Naked Gun. But as a young actor in the 1940s and 50s, he was one of the most prominent Latino actors in Hollywood, and Border Incident is one of his very best movies. Director Anthony Mann is better known for his classic westerns, but this black-and-white noir about dirty dealings near the Mexican border is surprisingly violent and tense for a movie from 1949.
Comedian Cantinflas remains one of the most iconic figures of the Latin world, but his most famous work in Hollywood is undoubtedly the star-studded epic Around the World in Eighty Days. Although most fans of the iconic comedian would agree that this isn’t a complete showcase of Cantinflas’ talents, he’s still one of the best things about the movie – which is saying something, considering the sheer quantity of starpower on display (Hollywood legend says that the term “cameo” was invented for the myriad celebrity appearances in this movie).
Unfortunately, many Hispanic actors during the classic Hollywood era had to play parts that today seem stereotypical. But a few actors managed to stand out even within those restraints – such as Alfonso Bedoya in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His “Gold Hat” character in the film is a fearsome villain who stands up to no less than Humphrey Bogart onscreen – and as if that weren’t enough, he also delivers one of the most memorable and iconic lines in movie history, “we don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” with gusto.
Spanish actor Fernando Rey had a long and illustrious career on screen and on stage in both his home country of Spain and across the globe. He’s probably most recognizable among cinephiles for his work with acclaimed surrealist director Luis Buñuel – but his big break in Hollywood came as the titular crime boss in The French Connection. Yes, he’s playing a French druglord in the police action classic, but his work on the film (and its little-seen sequel) makes him one of the all-time great film villains.
Although in reality he was of Cuban descent, “Latin Lover” Cesar Romero was called upon to play all kinds of ethnicities during his time in Hollywood, but his most famous character is difficult to pin down, ethnically speaking. Romero was the first actor to ever bring the iconic Batman villain The Joker to the screen, and his performance in both the TV series and its big-screen spin-off is to this day considered by some to be the definitive version of the character.