May 4, 2017

Book Review--Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez

The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez
Dan Van Neste
Bear Manor, 2017

Though co-star to Stanwyck, Garbo, Young and Crawford, Ricardo Cortez has never achieved big name recognition in his own right. Classic film fans know him and love him, especially pre-code fanatics, but he is not familiar to the average movie fan. He never made a bonafide classic, but he's been in a lot of well-made films, like the underrated 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, Midnight Mary (1933) and Wonder Bar (1934). Now in a new biography, Dan Van Neste gives this fascinating, but notoriously private actor and director his due.

I was amused to learn that the famous "Latin" star Cortez was born Jacob Krantz in New York City. For a while he played along with studio bios that gave him Spanish, French or Viennese heritage, but eventually he wanted his public to know that he was proud of his Jewish roots. He set aside his education as a young man to help his family, doing a lot of odd jobs, from physical labor to Wall Street number running, until he became interested in the stage. The movies followed.

Hollywood first recruited Cortez as a replacement for an increasingly troublesome Rudolph Valentino. As the Italian actor was popular among his peers, this made life difficult for Ricardo in his early years as a contract player. He was often the victim of nasty gossip and lies, though enough people came to know him that he eventually had his defenders.

In the first part of his book, Van Neste describes Cortez's turbulent, but essentially busy career, balancing it with insight into the actor's personal life and personality. Though a devoted professional with a sensitive character, he could be cold, cruel and self-absorbed, and the author is fair in his assessment, digging into his motives, but not giving him a pass for bad behavior. Cortez was both adored and reviled on the set, depending on who you talked to, but he never got on the wrong side of a studio executive, which helped keep him working, if not exactly getting the best parts.

Cortez had a pair of uneasy marriages before he found a happy third union, and much is devoted to his first, with actress Alma Ruben, who struggled with morphine addiction. Van Neste deems the actor poor husband material in his early years, though his first marriage in particular did get under his skin. When he finally did find wedded bliss, it was only because he found a mate who would play by his rules.

While he wasn't always a popular man, he wasn't despised either and he was loyal to his family, starting both of his brothers on successful careers in the film industry. The athletic actor also knew how to take care of himself, staying interested in life with hobbies including sports, fashion and finance. When he would experience various lags in his career, he'd take control, filming his own screen test, launching a vaudeville tour or scheduling a series of personal appearances to demonstrate his lasting appeal to audiences and earn more movie work, eventually including a much coveted series of assignments directing 'B' films.

In essence, Cortez was a complex, fascinating character, who for the most part lived life by his own terms. Despite the challenge of researching such a private man, Van Neste provides a great deal of insight into his personal life and character as well as filling in many professional details. While the author laments not having more personal insights from the actor to add to his story, I thought he did a fine job creating a vivid, revealing portrait of Cortez.

The second part of the book provides more detailed information about Cortez' career in film, television and radio. In addition to chronologically listing productions and sharing basic cast and crew details, there are excerpts from reviews and additional tidbits about each production. I thought that was an effective way to share these bits of information without impeding the flow of the main narrative.

I know that this book has been eagerly anticipated by many and I am happy to report that it is an entertaining, informative read that does its subject justice. A must for fans of the actor and pre-code lovers in particular.

Many thanks to Bear Manor for providing a copy of the book for review.

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