Ride the Pink Horse (1947) Directed by and starring Robert Montgomery. Thomas Gomez, Wanda Hendrix (101 min) 35mm print from Universal Studio Archive
A hard-boiled army vet arrives in a small New Mexico town to shake down the war profiteer he blames for his best friend’s death. Shot in downtown Santa Fe during the fiesta of Zozobra, you can linger in the lobby of the (real) hotel La Fonda, as Georgia O’Keefe once did. Gomez was the first Latinex actor to receive an Oscar nomination. “With its relentless pace, expressive cinematography by the great Russell Metty, and punchy, clever script by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, this is an overlooked treasure from the heyday of 1940s film noir” (Criterion Collection)
Ride the Pink Horse was based on a novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes. Dorothy Belle Flanagan was born in Missouri. She did graduate work at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and wrote a history of the institution. After marrying Levi Allan Hughes, they moved to Santa Fe. He was wealthy, his father was a “wool baron” and president of the First National Bank. She lived in Santa Fe most of her life, raising her two daughters there, and she used the town as a setting for some of her novels. Hughes wrote late into the night, after her children went to bed. She also reviewed mysteries for the Albuquerque Tribune for 40 years. She has been called the grande dame of American mystery writers (at least mid-century mystery writers) and several of her novels were filmed, the most famous being In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.
Writing in a hard-boiled style, she often foregrounded complex female characters, rare in a primarily male genre. Many of her crime stories were about race and the American West. Her fifth novel, The Blackbirder, was about a refugee from occupied France arriving in Arizona, where she finds safe haven with a family of Tesuque Pueblo Indians. The Expendable Man’s hero is an African American doctor accused of murder. Ride the Pink Horse takes place during the fiesta commemorating the Spanish conquest of New Mexico in 1692. Hughes uses the racial attitudes of the day to comment on the complicated story of the New Mexicans.
“Pancho was solemn. Big and sweaty and shapeless, he was dignity. ‘No,’ he said, “This is not a Mex town. This is an American town.’
Her attitudes while somewhat progressive for her time, would not resonate without criticism today. “Sailor, the xenophobe of Ride the Pink Horse, frequently uses the word “spic,” and casually dubs the carousel operator “Pancho Villa.” But the selflessness of the novel’s Hispanic and Indian characters seems to spark a kinder, gentler awakening for Sailor. One commentary on Hughes’ minority characters, published in the literary journal Melus in 1984 by Laurence J. Oliver Jr., is titled “The Dark-Skinned ‘Angels’ of Dorothy B. Hughes’s Thrillers,” highlighting her tendency to make the black, Native, or Hispanic people in her novels morally superior to the rest” (Santa Fe New Mexican).
“Montgomery’s character — called Sailor in the novel and Lucky in the film — initially has scorn for the Hispanics who populate the back alleys of San Pablo, until their humanity and ties to the land and culture slowly win him over. They not only save him from a near-fatal assault but lead him toward a moral and spiritual redemption” (Santa Fe New Mexican Desert Noir) There is a lot of untranslated Spanish in the film (spoken in American accents by Wanda Hendrix and Thomas Gomez). Language is an issue for Gagin, and he slowly starts to use some Spanish words to make himself understood. Although the Spanish speaking characters in the film are stereotypes, they are not unkind stereotypes, and perhaps inch towards archetype, instead. By the end of the film, Pila and Pancho have become the main characters, and the loyalty and friendship that they offer are outside the boundaries of noir culture. Both the book and the film, to reiterate, clearly present the casual racism of 1940s American culture.
Montgomery, Hendrix and Gomez
La Fonda on the Plaza on the Santa Fe Trail has been the site of a hotel since 1607. The current building dates to 1922, designed in the Pueblo Revival style by Isaac Hamilton Rapp. Purchased in 1925 by the Santa Fe Railway, the interior was redesigned by Mary Colter to reflect the distinctive Southwest aesthetic style. The train did not stop in Santa Fe, but rather in the smaller town of Lamy. Then, transportation had to be arranged to town, and since the railroad owned La Fonda, it was probably easiest to go straight there. When Georgia O'Keeffe came for her first extended stay in New Mexico in 1929, she continued on to Taos, where she stayed with the patron of the arts, Mabel Dodge Luhan. On that occasion, she did not stay at La Fonda, but at another hotel, La Posada. But, in her annual trips to New Mexico to paint, it would have been impossible for her to avoid this center of Santa Fe social life.
“Both Ride the Pink Horse and The Blackbirder feature several scenes set at La Fonda, whose ’40s incarnation, complete with an atrium dining room, is the center of the action for well-heeled visitors and their schemes. The hotel seems to have been integral to the Hughes family, too. According to Sarna, “We always went and had dinner or lunch there. Any time we needed to find my dad, he was in La Fonda. La Fonda was the place you went to if you wanted to find anyone, or just have dinner, or if you wanted to hang out.” (Santa Fe New Mexican).
On location at La Fonda
“A central feature…is the historic Tío Vivo Carousel, owned and operated by the Taos Lions Club since 1939. The carousel offers the war veteran a place of solace, protection, and community. That is where he tells the young Mexican waif who becomes his protector — Pila, played by Wanda Hendrix, an actress whose film career inexplicably stalled by the mid-1950s — to ride the pink horse. For her, such a choice can lead to life changes. For Gagin, it’s just a matter of picking one color over another. Universal paid $2000 to the Lions Club for the use of the carousel, including a fee for its caretaker. The studio shipped the carousel out to Hollywood for use during the production, and then returned it” (Santa Fe New Mexican Desert Noir)
Pila (Wanda Hendrix) and her friends, played by Rita Conde and Iris Flores
Joan Harrison was one of the few female producers in Hollywood, who worked with Alfred Hitchcock since 1933, contributing to the scripts of Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion and Saboteur. She hired writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, and may have contributed to the screenplay as well, she certainly was instrumental in making sure the film did not share the novel’s grim ending. The Breen Office was concerned about the amount of drinking in the film, which is ironic, since in the book, Sailor/Lucky is a non-drinker. Noir Historian Eddie Muller suggests Harrison may have been instrumental in ensuring that Hughes’ commentary about the treatment of indigenous people in post-war America comes through in the film version: “You see a sense of corruption coming with American society as it sweeps over the Southwest.” (Santa Fe New Mexican Desert Noir).
Robert Montgomery was born Henry Montgomery Jr, into a wealthy family. His father was a vice-president of the New York Rubber Company, and Henry Jr was educated by private tutors and then went to prep school, planning to become a writer. When he was 16, his father committed suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and the family was left destitute. Rather than going to live with relatives, he set off on his own, working as a laborer on a railroad. He moved to Greenwich Village to begin his career as an author, unsuccessfully, and eventually took part time jobs, one of which was a walk-on in the theater. Stage struck, he changed his name to Robert Montgomery and decided to become an actor. After a brief Broadway career, he was signed by MGM, where he was under contract for 17 years. He spent most of his time there playing opposite the studios biggest female stars, often as suave men about town. He was very active in the Screen Actors’ Guild, serving as president. In World War II he enlisted in the Navy, where his service record was impressive, he served in the Pacific and the D-Day invasion. After the war, he was making a film with John Ford, They Were Expendable, when the director broke his leg, Montgomery stepped in to finish the picture. He then directed Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake, using a daring first person camera technique, which inspired Universal to borrow him for Ride the Pink Horse as both director and star. He made relatively few films after this one, but became producer/director and host of a prestigious tv series, Robert Montgomery Presents, which lasted for seven years. Although he had been active in the union his entire Hollywood career, he was a Republican who was a friendly witness during the HUAC hearings. He also acted as a media consultant to President Eisenhower, advising him on his television appearances; he had an office in the White House. Surely he is the first person ever to hold that job! And, of course, he’s the father of Elizabeth Montgomery, of Bewitched fame.
Thomas Gomez, who made more than 60 films and countless radio, tv and stage shows, was born on Long Island, New York. At 18, he won an oratory prize reciting lines from Falstaff’s role in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. He won a scholarship to drama school, and afterwards joined prestigious theatrical troupes. In 1942, he was signed to a Universal contract. In his first film in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, he played a Nazi spy. His reviews for Ride the Pink Horse were excellent, and he was nominated for an Oscar, although he lost to Edmund Gwenn playing Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street. He was a character actor often cast as a villain; his memorable film noirs include Phantom Lady, Force of Evil, and perhaps most memorably, Key Largo. He once said that he preferred to play characters with “some rascality, warmth and dimension” of which his “courageous and compassionate carousel operator” in Ride the Pink Horse is a notable example. (Hannsberry 275).
Wanda Hendrix was born Dixie Wanda Hendrix, a name with two x’s in it! She joined her hometown theater in Jacksonville FL, out of junior high school, and made her Hollywood debut at 16. She’s just 18 years old in this film, which almost garnered her an Oscar nomination. She had her best roles at the beginning of her career. In 1949, she married decorated WW II hero turned movie star Audie Murphy. He was plagued by PTSD, and their marriage didn’t last long, and the negative publicity surrounding her divorce did not help her career. She married two more times, and died of pneumonia at the age of 52.
Her character, Pila, was 14 years old in the book, not a love interest, but a child to be protected, even though the roles are reversed. Hendrix plays the role in brown face make-up, objectionable today, unless you are a fan of Natalie Wood in West Side Story. She acts as a foil to the treacherous femme fatale (played by Andrea King) already a cliché in such crime films.
Andrea King gets all the best clothes
From the moment Gagin gets off the bus, in his out of place chalk stripe suit, he is clearly in unfamiliar territory. Cut off from the urban reality that he known, he has to recalibrate in this new setting. The lure of Mexican/New Mexican locations and story elements has contributed to a subgenre of noir dubbed “fiesta noir” in which everyday behavior is suspended. Some authors (I’m talking to you, Sara Smith) seem to think it is set in Mexico. New Mexico magazine has a regular feature, “One of our 50 is missing” in which readers are encouraged to submit examples of people being unable to tell the different between Mexico and New Mexico. https://www.newmexico.org/nmmagazine/heart-of-nm/one-of-our-50-is-missing/
This scene was filmed on the mezzanine of the La Fonda dining room...you can see the chandelier handing low in the background.
The screenwriters specifically link Gagin’s PTDS to his wartime trauma, and his desire for revenge for a war profiteer’s crimes. The hero’s battle experience in the Pacific relates to his present day catatonia, and what seem to be flashbacks to his combat experience in New Guinea. Jonathan Auerbach finds significance in the FBI agent Retz (played by Art Smith) and his resemblance to Harry Truman. Truman found war profiteering “treasonous” and his feelings on this matter were one of the reasons FDR selected him as a running mate for his fourth term. Gagin eventually chooses patriotism over profit.
This was the second film Montgomery directed, and he was clearly influenced by Russell Metty, his DP, who had worked with Orson Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons. The opening shot is a tour de force, an unbroken 3 ½ minute take that goes in and out of the bus station. Leaning against a pole, and pointing him to La Fonda is Charles Stevens, who had been a regular with Douglas Fairbanks in the silent era, supposedly (but not, really) a grandson of Geronimo. There is class and ethnic conflict, and the urban/rural divide is sharply depicted.
“Fiesta. The time of celebration, of release from gloom, from the specter of evil. But under celebration was evil; the feast was rooted in blood, in the Spanish conquering of the Indian. It was a memory of death and destruction. ... A memory of peace, but before peace, death and destruction. Indian, Spaniard, Gringo; the outsider, the paler face. One in Fiesta.”