“The variations on the role of the Western heroine found in Michelena’s characters are unusual for their time, allowing for an unprecedented fluidity in both ethnic and gender identity.” (Lyons, par. 6)
Much has been written about the gender inequality that exists in Hollywood today. Ironically, this wasn’t always the case. When the film industry began in the first decade of the 20th century, women played a prominent role. In Leticia Magalhaes’ words, “[i]n the silent film era, there were many great female screenwriters, directors, producers and, of course, actresses” (par. 1). In addition, Hollywood in the 1910’s and 1920’s had room for different ethnicities though, of course, many were pigeon-holed in stereotypes. For example, “Latin women were femme fatale prototypes: seductive and not trustworthy.” (Magalhaes, par. 2). But one Latina actress who broke these barriers was the Venezuelan-American actress, Beatriz Michelena. Michelena wasn’t only an actress but co-owned her own film production company, as well as wrote a newspaper column and acted and sang in theater and opera.
Michelena’s best known film was a very early western titled Salomy Jane (1914), produced by the film company she owned with her husband, the California Motion Picture Corporation. Many films at that time followed the formula of popular melodramas, complete with muscular hero, pretty and weak heroine, and curly-mustached villain. In fact, as Thomas Gladysz puts it in his Huffpost article, “Salomy Jane tells a melodramatic story of love, murder, and mistaken identity — all of which whirls about its feisty female heroine” (par. 4). Salomy Jane has a surprisingly complicated and interesting plotline and Michelena plays a plucky heroine who defies the damsel-in-distress stereotype. As MaryAnne Lyons states in her profile of Michelena for the Women Film Pioneers Project, “[r]eviews of Michelena’s acting emphasized her natural beauty, acting ability, and versatility” (par. 2).
Michelena plays Salomy Jane Clay, a lovely young woman stuck with her father (Matt Snyder) in a small Northern California town at the height of the Gold Rush. Predictably, the town is nearly devoid of women which makes Salomy Jane a person of interest to all the single men in town (even those who are old enough to be her father). In fact, throughout the film, she receives no less than four proposals. But Salomy Jane, rather than follow the Victorian gender protocol of women marrying as soon as they are old enough, she intends to choose with discretion.
Photo Credit: Still from Salomy Jane (1914) with Beatriz Michelena and William Nigh. The caption under the photo reads: “The scorn in the girl’s eyes flayed him.” The scene is probably Nigh refusing to kill Baldwin when Michelena’s character asks him to and she accuses him of being a coward. From Bret Hart’s novel Salomy Jane’s Kiss (on which the film was based), New York: Gosset & Dunlap, 1915 Photo-Play edition, Alco Film Corporation: Deanlaw/Wikimedia Commons/PD US
In fact, Salomy Jane makes it clear from the beginning that she can take care of herself. In an early scene, she and her father arrive in town and are welcomed by what seems like the entire population. Several men try to chat her up, even put their hands on her horse in lieu of trying to touch her. Salomy Jane does not do the demure flutter-the-eyelashes thing that young ladies were supposed to do at the time. Instead, she gives them such an icy glare they get the picture very quickly and back off. Later on, when a lecherous bandit named Baldwin (Harold Meade) follows her home from the store and tries to rape her, she fights him with gusto, slapping his face and getting away even before the hero of the film, referred to as “The Man” (House Peters) appears to save her.
But Salomy Jane is not content with just getting away – she wants revenge. So when a neighbor, William Nigh (Rufe Walters) wants to marry her, she agrees on one condition – that he kill Baldwin. This scene ties in with the Salome reference in her name as it is reminiscent of the story of Salome who, to avenge John the Baptist’s condemnation of her mother’s second marriage to Herod, demanded John’s beheading. So this is no weak woman with only good in her heart – she has power and vengeance.
Photo Credit: Still from Salomy Jane (1914) with Beatriz Michelena and the children in the film. The caption under the photo reads: “Tell us jest one fairy tale, S’lomy.” The scene shows Salomy, for all her pluck and courage, is still maternal and feminine. From Bret Hart’s novel Salomy Jane’s Kiss (on which the film was based), New York: Gosset & Dunlap, 1915 Photo-Play edition, Alco Film Corporation: Deanlaw/Wikimedia Commons/PD US
Salomy is the tough Wild West woman but she is also a feminine one in the more conventional sense. Salomy is almost maternal with her father and the children in town seek her out, comforted by her sweet and playful nature when their own mother (Clara Beyers) is so bogged down with housework and survival she can hardly give them a nod. Salomy Jane also embodies the martyrdom of the sacrificial mother, a quality even women in nineteenth century Wild West were expected to cultivate. Two incidents in the film bear this out. The first is when the stagecoach is robbed and an expensive bracelet becomes part of the take. Red Pete Heath (William Pike), Liza’s husband, is one of the thieves. He gives the bracelet to his wife as a gift in a moment of strange tenderness but practical Liza insists she needs food for her children, not jewelry, and throws it on the ground. Their young son retrieves it and innocently gives it to one of the little girls who in turn gives it to Salomy Jane to “borrow” for a time. During a vigilante meeting which Salomy Jane insists on attending (despite the fact that the men make clear it is no place for a woman) they find the bracelet on her wrist. The sheriff demands to know where she got it and, not wanting to implicate the little girl whom she thinks may have stolen it, refuses to say. Later on, her father’s rival Larabee (Harold Entwistle) is killed by The Man but the sheriff blames her father. Salomy Jane is all ready to take the blame to save him.
As a pioneering Hispanic actress during the birth of silent film, it seems like Michelena’s name should be more recognized. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as Gladyz describes:
“Salomy Jane, its star Beatriz Michelena, and the California Motion Picture Corporation (which ceased operations around 1920) all deserve to be better known. The reason they’re not is because in 1931 all of the prints and negatives of the CMPC went-up in flames at the studio’s then abandoned Marin County home. The studio, its stars and films faded into oblivion.” (par. 16)
However, I think it’s an exaggeration to say Michelena’s name has sunk into non-existence. Her film Salomy Jane is freely available on YouTube and in 2002, the president included her on the list of influential Latina actresses for Hispanic Heritage Month. As a pioneer of silent films, “[Michelena] didn’t give up when obstacles appeared, [she] found a place in the sun, [she] played courageous strong women and left a legacy that deserves to be admired by all, men and women, Latin or not” (Magalhaes, par. 13).
Gladyz, Thomas. “Once Long Film Returns to the Bay Area.” Huffpost: The Blog. Oath, Inc. 2017. 19 Sept 2012 (updated: 19 November 2012). Web. 20 September 2017.
Lyons, MaryAnne. “Profile: Beatriz Michelena.” Women Film Pioneers Project. Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University, 2017. Undated. Web. 20 September 2017.
Magalhaes, Leticia. “Latin Women in Silent Films: Myrtle Gonzalez and Beatriz Michelena.” Cine Suffragette. 19 April. Web. 20 September 2017.