‘Sombrero’ Is a Forgotten Technicolor Gem

Some may find Sombrero's quaintness patronizing and stereotypical, but those people may be more politically correct than truly multicultural.

One of the occasionally wonderful things about the made-on-demand availability of sundry obscurities is our chance to discover titles that suffered a bad rap. One such flick is Sombrero, which Leonard Maltin’s guide dismisses with one and a half stars as a “strange, overwrought MGM melodrama with music”.

A modest success in 1953, this beautiful curiosity needs to be better known. Shot in Mexico in stunning Technicolor by Ray June, it’s the moody, peculiar story of three couples in the fictional Mexican village of Columba, set by a river between two volcanos, with some scenes taking place in Mexico City.

It opens with scampish trickster Pepe Gonzales (Ricardo Montalban, winking and mugging irrepressibly) addressing the camera and explaining that he and his two friends, the wealthy Alejandro Castillo (handsome Vittorio Gassman, cast as a replacement for Fernando Lamas) and the candy vendor Ruben (Rick Jason), seem destined to remain bachelors. You best not believe it, though, for the story will intertwine the varying fates of their great loves.

Pepe falls for the demure Eufemia (Pier Angeli), the mayor’s daughter of a village that’s feuding with Columba, and therefore won’t tolerate this Romeo/Juliet match. Alejandro isn’t free to marry “Maria of the River Road” (Yvonne De Carlo) because he’s rich and she’s “nameless” or illegitimate, so she persuades him to marry the heartless Elena (Nina Foch). Ruben falls for Lola (Cyd Charisse), the sister of a famous Gypsy matador (José Greco) who guards her as jealously as a lover.

Maltin’s book notes, “One good dance number with Charysse.” Actually, the one good dance number is Greco’s, a magnificent, thrilling flamenco display shot and edited with matching precision and grace. It’s enough to make you cry that Hollywood didn’t make more use of him. Meanwhile, the Charysse dance, neither very Mexican nor Gypsy, is a bit of campy Hollywood modernism from Hermes Pan against a spectacular mountain background with a pagan idol. It’s impossible for any Charysse dance not to be worth watching, but this one isn’t in her top ten. (One that may well be in that number is her stunning dance with an equally stunning Montalban in Fiesta, another shamelessly underrated Hollywood-Mexico confabulation.)

Despite these two dances and a song by Montalban, the movie is not really a musical. It’s even less so since Gassman’s performance of “You Belong to My Heart” (listed in the opening credits) is missing in action, and sharp-eyed viewers may surmise it’s got something to do with the opening shots of Gassman and DeCarlo at a swimming hole that never appears in the movie. Sure enough, internet searches yield a PR shot of the shirtless Gassman serenading her with a guitar, but to see this footage, you must check the bonus disc on the DVD box of That’s Entertainment. In a curious if appropriate joke, we hear the band playing “The Three Caballeros” during Eufemia’s birthday party.

Some may find the movie’s quaintness and superstition patronizing and stereotypical, but those people may be more politically correct than truly multicultural. This is certainly an MGM fantasy, but it’s no more stereotypical and patronizing than MGM’s fantasies about the USA. The screenplay by Josefina Niggli and the director is derived from Niggli’s 1945 novel A Mexican Village, here renamed Sombrero for no obvious reason except that Montalban wears one.

The Monterey-born Niggli, now recognized as a significant Mexican-American (and Anglo — it’s complicated) writer of the 20th Century, devoted her career to bridging the cultures she felt herself to dwell between. Her “novel” is a series of folktales linked by a male analogue to herself, so it diverges in many ways from this movie, which should be seen as an alternate-universe incarnation of some of the themes. She didn’t mind including folk beliefs from Indian, Catholic, Gypsy, and Mexican sources.

Niggli and and Foster’s screenplay is structured as a series of thematic oppositions or contrasts: city and country, medical science and folkways (and guess which is more effective), the modern and ancient, Christian and pagan (yet both superstitious), rich and poor, happy and tragic, masculine and feminine. These are presented organically rather than schematically, with the uniting of oppositions as the most consistent theme, which is expressed clearly at the end.

Director Norman Foster had worked with Orson Welles on the Mexico segments of his unfinished It’s All True and directed him in Journey Into Fear. Among other projects, Foster directed the excellent character-based romantic western Rachel and the Stranger. Right before the big-budget Sombrero, he made the semi-documentary Navajo and a B-romance in Las Vegas, Sky Full of Moon.

These works show an investment in authentic locations, a sense of friendliness and gentility among the “common people”, and a method of allowing the plot to unfold in a genial, unforced, organic manner–which Bosley Crowther of the NYT found odd, shapeless, and confusing on Sombrero. The prevailing philosophy, ever since D.W. Griffith had to re-edit Intolerance so that its timelines were consecutive instead of concurrent, seems to have been that cutting between different stories upset the digestion and disturbed the sensibilities. What would they make of modern soap operas?

Sombrero was shot in Mexico City and the small towns of Tetecala and Tepoztln. It made a profit for MGM, and Foster soon moved on to successful associations with Walt Disney on TV episodes of Davy Crockett, The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca (another Mexican-American subject) and Zorro (set in Mexico) that got released as features.

The bustling supporting cast includes Kurt Kasznar (as the village priest), Walter Hampden (Alejandro’s aristrocratic father), Thomas Gomez (Eufemia’s father), Rosaura Revueltas (local “bruja”), John Abbott, Andrés Soler, Alfonso Bedoya, Fanny Schiller and Luz Alba. The print on this DVD would look even better with a fancy restoration, but we can whistle for it. Perhaps if enough people rediscover this forgotten effort… or are we dreaming?

RATING 7 / 10