The popularity of one of the most riveting Latina screen stars of the 1940s is enjoying a resurgence through cable television and video rentals 40 years after her death.
She may never have won an Academy Award, but Maria Montez was once described by her most frequent leading man, Jon Hall, who died in 1979, as the "most beautiful woman in movies." Montez, Hall explained, was "the classic temptress, beautiful of face and form, and unlike Garbo who was more than human, or Dietrich who was inaccessible, Maria seemed flesh and blood. She seemed attainable."
Born on June 6, 1918, in the Dominican Republic as Maria Antonia Garcia Vidal de Santo Silas, Montez was made for Technicolor. Most of her screen career was confined to the 1940s and to Universal, but her impact has lasted.
In addition to exposure through old-movie and other cable channels, her gaudy films are popular on video. The films, a genre of spectacles based in exotic lands, include "Cobra Woman," "Sudan," "White Savage," "Arabian Nights," "Tangier," "Siren of Atlantis" and "Pirates of Monterey."
"Maria is bigger in death than in life," said Turhan Bey, 71, who was one of her co-stars. "She has a tremendous cult following that is international and intergenerational."
What made Montez unusual for a Latina actress was that she played powerful women. Unlike, say, Carmen Miranda, she was not a clown, and unlike Lupe Velez, her characters did not depend on men. In real life, Montez also evinced a headstrong ambition. Her widower, French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, 82, said:
"Maria had one career goal: stardom. That was all. She had no intention of remaining a supporting actor, and once she became a star, she had no intention of fading into supporting roles . . . . She wished to retain her stardom and her beauty."
Because she died at 33, she achieved both goals. Like Marilyn Monroe, Velez and other Hollywood beauties, she never grew old, and is remembered as ever-young.
Aumont, interviewed a few months ago in Paris, added: "Maria's goal in her personal life was happiness. For that, she chose a happy marriage. We wed in 1943 and were together until she died. We had a child, Maria Christina (now known as Tina Aumont, an actress in Europe). We were very happy, and while she was a bigger star in Hollywood, I was bigger in France, and she didn't mind eventually moving to Paris, for me."
But Maria never quenched her desire to stay on top, for she had such a struggle getting there. She once admitted that her biggest barrier had been "my strong accent in English. I had to distract producers from that with my looks and clothes and manner."
It was a majestic, sweeping manner.
Hall, who became a star in "The Hurricane," said: "Even in the beginning, when Maria played small parts, she walked and acted like a queen . . . . Once she became a star, she threw her weight around and refused to be intimidated, even by studio chiefs!"
Maria first contracted to RKO, which dropped her in less than a year. Universal then took her up, building her in minor roles until she made her big-time debut in 1942, in "Arabian Nights." Her incandescent smile, ruby lips and voluptuous but haughty demeanor lit up the screen. From then on, she was Universal's biggest asset of the 1940s. At decade's end and in the early 1950s, she made movies in Europe.
"After World War II, Hollywood turned from fantasies to realism," said Bey, now a Vienna-based photographer. "Maria specialized in fantasies--she ruled in an imaginary domain, as exotic queens or villainesses." As a matter of fact, in "Cobra Woman," made in 1944, she played two characters--one good and one evil.
During the professional slump, Maria focused on her home, husband and daughter. She refused to do any film in which she would not star. When producers failed to start the movies she had signed to do, she took them to court. She earned their respect and, recalled Aumont, "she also stayed in Hollywood's consciousness via the gossip columns.
"In Hollywood and Paris, we went to the top nightclubs, and Maria always wore the most beautiful, original and expensive fashions. She believed that clothes make the woman. . . . When our baby was born, she spent hours on the phone telling (gossip columnists) Hedda (Hopper) and Louella (Parsons) all about it . . . She also had us co-star (in "Atlantis"), because she thought it could boost us both, as later happened with Taylor and Burton."
Who knows what direction Maria's career would have taken. "She might have become a fine dramatic actress," Aumont said. But fate intervened 40 years ago, on Sept. 7, 1951: Maria's sisters, Anita and Teresita, were waiting for her to come downstairs from her bath at her Paris home. Finally, Anita went upstairs to see if something was wrong. Maria, who had a history of fainting spells, had apparently fainted in her hot bath and drowned.
"She was like a meteor--blinding and beautiful, quick to arrive and quick to go," Aumont said.
Gone, but in the eyes of her fans, not forgotten.