Sometimes a story is so significant that it’s worth trying to overlook the flaws in the way in which it is told. This is the case with “Break of Dawn” (selected theaters), which has the awkwardness typical of some low-budget productions of a first-time feature director. But the true story of Pedro Gonzalez, a Mexican singer who became a major Latino recording and radio star in the late ‘20s, is compelling, and it has implications for today as well as offering a fascinating glimpse at local political corruption and discrimination in the ‘30s.
That Gonzalez’s story hasn’t been told before on the screen and that it’s possible to have lived your life in Los Angeles and possibly never heard of the man says it all. The fate of Gonzalez is the stuff of a great film, another “Chinatown”; realistically, we’ve reason to be grateful to Isaac Artenstein, a native San Diego film maker raised in Tijuana, of attempting so ambitious a project with so little money and experience. (Six years ago Artenstein directed “Ballad of an Unsung Hero,” a splendid half-hour documentary on Gonzales for San Diego’s KPBS-TV.)
In Artenstein’s telling, Gonzalez (Oscar Chavez), who emigrated from Mexico in the ‘20s after serving as Pancho Villa’s personal telegraph operator, was refused an audition at KMPC because it was believed that there was no audience for a singer of Mexican songs. Undaunted, Gonzalez got his foot in the door by delivering commercials in Spanish. Eventually, he landed his own show by accepting a 5 a.m. slot and swiftly became a celebrity in the Spanish-speaking community.
Artenstein persuasively presents Gonzales as enterprising but fatally naive. His success coincided with the Depression, a time of massive deportation of Mexicans, even those of U.S. citizenship, which the film maker attributes to bigotry ignited by the dire economy. Gonzalez unhesitatingly lent his support to his fellow Mexicans; at the same time, he allowed an ambitious Chicano police lieutenant (Tony Plana) to talk him into helping get out the Mexican-American vote for district attorney Kyle Mitchell (Peter Henry Schroeder)--based on D.A. Buron Fitts. Gonzalez, however, wouldn’t back down in support of his people, Mitchell became enraged, and Gonzales found himself facing a felony charge of raping a 16-year-old.
Artenstein makes clear the collision of Mexican aspirations and the corruption of the now largely forgotten era of Mayor Frank Shaw, and the various elements within Gonzalez’s life and character that brought him down. We see Gonzalez become carried away by his unexpected fame, succumbing to the charms of a beautiful tango singer (Aixa Moreno), but emerging with heroic strength in the face of extreme adversity.
“Break of Dawn” tends to idealize its warm domestic scenes while becoming heavyhanded in its depiction of various Anglo villains. Oscar Chavez may be too old for Gonzalez, but he has a dignified presence and is a wonderful singer. If Schroeder’s Mitchell had a mustache he would surely be twirling it.
Filmed entirely in the San Diego area, “Break of Dawn” evokes a sense of period with fewer anachronisms than films with much bigger budgets, thanks to production designer Don De Fina. As for Oscar Gonzalez, now 94, and his wife of seven decades, they have been living in California since 1971, after a three-decade exile in Tijuana.
‘BREAK OF DAWN’
A Platform Releasing presentation a Cinewest production. Producer Jude Pauline Eberhard. Writer-director Isaac Artenstein. Camera Stephen Lighthill. Music Mark Adler. Production designer Don DeFina. Costumes Marianna Astrom-DeFina. Film editor John Nutt. With Oscar Chavez, Maria Rojo, Tony Plana, Pepe Serna, Peter Henry Schroeder, Socorro Valdez, Kamala Lopez, Harry Woolf, Valerie Wildman, Maria Rubell, Aixa Moreno, Abel Franco, Burt Miller, Eduardo Ricard.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.