Ricardo Cortez (1900-1977) was a handsome and talented leading man whose image, in the silent era, was that of a hot-blooded Latin lover.
In truth, his name was Jacob Krantz, the son of a kosher butcher, born and raised in the mean streets of New York’s Lower East Side.
Cortez worked as a runner on Wall Street while training to be an actor at night. Soon his good looks afforded him an opportunity to break into the young but flourishing movie business. Paramount groomed the tall and handsome Cortez by giving him bit parts, and then moving him up to more substantial roles.
One of the more interesting glimpses into Cortez’s career and character comes from a 1965 interview Cortez granted the distinguished silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, published in The Parade’s Gone By. Brownlow was seeking information regarding director D.W. Griffith. Cortez had starred in Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan (1926).
I recall vividly making the The Sorrows of Satan. He [Griffith] took an awfully long time. I went to California for eight weeks and made Eagle of the Sea while he kept going with Lya de Putti, Adolph Menjou, and Carol Dempster.
Griffith was a strange sort of man—very quiet. There seemed to be an invisible barrier around him. You couldn’t get near him. I was under the impression that he was a very lonely man—although I got to know him quite well. I felt terribly sorry for him and would visit him at his hotel—the Astor.
He would go out for a walk, and end up at the Pennsylvania railroad station, where he’d sit on a bench and just watch people.
During the making of the picture, I was playing in one of the attic scenes. We’d been working for six weeks, not getting very far, and for just thirty seconds I lost my temper.
He had said, “If you knew anything about acting you wouldn’t do that.”
“I don’t know a thing about acting,” I snapped, “which was why I wanted to be directed by you.”
Cortez was a leading star for a brief period during the silent era. His dashing good looks and Latin lover image catapulted him into competition with other Latin lovers of the era such as Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Navarro and Antonio Moreno.
The Torrent, Garbo’s first American film, is the only American film where Garbo gets second billing, under Ricardo Cortez.
At the time, Cortez, 26, had been working non-stop in the movies for over four years. His stardom was such that he was considered a threat to Valentino. Cortez resented newcomer Garbo from the beginning. He was deeply annoyed at being made to work with a “chubby, dumb Swede” who barely spoke a word of English. Treated with contempt by Cortez, Garbo almost sailed back to Sweden in despair.
The Torrent was a hit and Garbo clicked with the public—big time. Garbo never again took second billing, and as we all know, she went on to become one of the most enduring stars of all time. After The Torrent’s release, Garbo had the clout to choose her own leading men. Not surprisingly, Cortez never appeared in a Garbo film.
Cortez should have heeded the first rule I learned when I came to Hollywood as a wide-eyed screenwriter. My agent took me to lunch and advised: “Be nice to everyone in the business, because the kid running errands will be running a studio in a few years.”
Cortez was married in 1926 to the deeply troubled actress Alma Rubens. For a brief period, 1910-1920, the lovely, doe-eyed Rubens was one of the biggest stars of the silent cinema. But like so many early stars who came from broken homes and impoverished backgrounds, Alma had a self-destructive streak a mile wide. She succumbed to drugs—cocaine, heroin—and her marriage to Cortez was a nightmare unfolding in slow motion.
In my profile of Alma Rubens, I quote from Ruben’s lurid but historically important 1930 confessional This Bright World Again, serialized in newspapers and tabloids, in which the bitter actress outed her estranged husband:
Many persons who have followed my career on the screen and stage mistake me for a Jewess. This belief perhaps was strengthened when I married Ricardo Cortez, my third husband, the only one I ever really loved, and whom I am now trying to divorce.
Although I didn’t find it out until almost a year after our marriage, Ric, instead of being a gallant Spanish caballero which I believed him, was the son of a kosher butcher, with a shop on First Avenue, New York City. His real name is Jacob Krantz.
Rubens was a drug addict given to erratic and violent behavior. She died in 1931 at age 33, a casualty of narcotics and fast-living.
Rubens (her father was probably Jewish) was attempting to damage Cortez’s career. But by this time, sound had arrived and Cortez, with his unmistakable New York accent, had been carefully shifted by the studios from Latin lover—the public didn’t buy that story for long—into urban leading man roles. And the anti-Semitism that Ruben’s felt sure would hurt her husband’s Hollywood career never materialized.
America is far more tolerant country than many would have us believe.
Cortez’s portrayal of detective Sam Spade in the original Maltese Falcon (1931) is an absolute stunner. Cortez is more dangerous and sensual than the lip-curling and deeply mannered Bogart. There’s a great moment when Cortez suspects leading lady Bebe Daniels of stealing money and hiding it under her clothing. Casually, with an amused but sharp-as-dagger delivery, he orders Daniels to strip naked. The delight he takes in the bad girl’s oh-so-shocked expression is just priceless. He’s playing a game with her, but she knows it’s a game with deadly consequences. It’s a beautifully modulated performance—one minute silken, the next steel—and Cortez is in charge of every frame.
On TCM a few years ago–God bless Robert Osborne—I was lucky to catch a little known Cortez film, Symphony of Six Million, AKA Melody of Life, (1932). Cortez plays a brilliant Jewish surgeon—is there any other kind—from the Lower East Side, who, in his drive to build a “Park Avenue practice” abandons his family and his Jewish roots.
Irene Dunne co-stars as Jessica, a love interest from the old neighborhood who, get this, walks with a limp and teaches blind children braille.
Talk about stacking the deck against the beautiful and haughty WASP babe with whom Cortez is having an affair.
Irene Dunne, with her lilting Kentucky accent, doesn’t even try affecting a Noo Yoik accent. Dunne doing Jewish is charming and completely unconvincing.
By the way, the title refers to the six million people in New York City, not to the Holocaust, which, obviously, had not yet taken place.
The studio heads, all Jewish (except for Darryl F. Zanuck) generally shunned movies with authentic Jewish themes, especially after The Motion Picture Code went into effect. The moguls were deeply self-conscious about their humble Jewish roots and wanted, more than anything, to be full fledged Americans. For most Hollywood Jews–and for a vast number of American Jews— this meant shedding their Jewish identity, especially the religious Orthodoxy of their parents.
Which makes Symphony of Six Million so unusual. It’s the only Hollywood film I have ever seen where a Pidyon Ha-Ben, the Redemption of the First Born ceremony, is enacted. Although some of the Jewish characters are cringe inducing stereotypes, so were all ethnic groups portrayed in movies in those days. But what’s lovely and unique here is that the Jewish characters are depicted lovingly as decent, hard-working people struggling upwards in the Goldenah Medinah, the Golden Country. The film comes down squarely on the side of old-fashioned values where ritual, tradition and loyalty to family and friends take precedence over the blind stampede to assimilation.
Cortez appeared in over 100 films starring opposite Hollywood’s leading players: May McAvoy, Louise Dresser, Adolphe Menjou, Betty Bronson, Lois Wilson, Lon Chaney, Bebe Daniels, Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae Clarke, Mary Astor, Helen Twelvetrees, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard, and Bette Davis.
In the mid-thirties, Cortez realized that good roles were getting harder to secure, and so he tried his hand at directing. He helmed seven B movies between 1939 and 1940, but was dissatisfied with the work.
Cortez retired from the film business before he was relegated to a has-been status. A smart move. He returned to Wall Street where he built a successful career.
His many fine performances and long list of credits should afford Cortez a prominent place in the pantheon of great Hollywood actors. But I’m afraid that our celluloid memories are tragically short and Ricardo Cortez is all but forgotten.
Ricardo’s younger brother was the brilliant cinematographer Stanley Cortez, (1908 – 1997) whose best credits include The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Night of the Hunter (1955), and The Three Faces of Eve (1957).
Near the end of his career, a Hollywood committee approached Stanley Cortez proposing to honor him as a prominent Hispanic in the film industry. With some amusement, Cortez explained that he was Stanislaus Krantz, a Jew who felt it would be easier to move upwards in American society—as an Hispanic.
Both brothers are buried in Jewish cemeteries.