The Glory and the Glamour: Reminiscing the Golden Years of Philippine Cinema
This feature story was originally titled as The Glory and the Glamour, and was published in the May 2009 issue of Tatler Philippines
Philippine movies have never been so vividly defined by Hollywood glamour than in the fifties. It was an era when stars dressed the part, on and off the screen, and when a good reputation was golden, on which plum roles and prime billing depended.
Before you are heard, you are first seen: this was the unwritten rule of the day, according to the late veteran actor Leopoldo Salcedo. Cut in the mould of Cary Grant, Salcedo said that they had to always talk, dress, and conduct themselves like the glamorous figures that the public expected them to be. Rosa Rosal, who behaved and dressed in the grand Hollywood tradition, said that their production company required them to look their glamorous best all the time and gave them allowances or salary advances so they could buy new gowns. A contract star of LVN Pictures, Delia Razon said they were always invited to formal parties at the Manila Hotel or on the huge grounds of the studio. Some occasions called for costumes, some for Filipino dress. "Once, [then] Prince Norodum Sihanouk [King of Cambodia, until his abdication in 2004] came to present Lilia Dizon her Best Actress Award at the Asian Pacific Film Festival. On that occasion, it was I who greeted the prince and put a lei around his neck. Doña Sisang [de Leon, owner of LVN] often assigned Rosa [Rosal] and me to greet guests," Razon said.
Of the male actors then, Razon named Rogelio de la Rosa as the one who best exemplified the glamorous movie star; Salcedo was a close second. She also remembered the actor Nestor de Villa, whose house had all the trappings of luxury—a Roman bath, revolving closets and a swimming pool—and who drove around town in a flashy convertible.
Two weddings also epitomised the glamour of that era: that of Rosal to the American pilot Walter Gayda in 1957; and that of Gloria Romer to another actor, Juancho Gutierrez, in 1960.
The Manila Times described Rosal as "elegant in her European gown of heavy lace, cut with a sheath skirt, three fourths sleeves and high neckline that dipped into a deep V in the back." White butterfly orchids formed her bouquet, and a single bloom to match decorated the lapel of her bridegroom, Captain Gayda. The sunset wedding drew a throng that crowded the aisle of Our Lady of Sorrow's Church, preventing a smooth march of the bride to the altar as she was escorted by Lamberto Avellana, the movie, radio and stage director.
In the case of Romero, billed as the "Queen of Philippine Movies", her wedding to Gutierrez, who was also a contract star of Sampaguita Pictures, was held at the break of dawn at the Sanctuario de San Antonio in Forbes Park. According to a newspaper account, "she never looked more beautiful, in a Ramon Valera terno of French faille, the basic sheath of which was embellished with heavily embroidered corded Swiss lace."
Other Sampaguita actresses Susan Roces, Amalia Fuentes, Barbara Perez and Daisy Romualdez formed part of the wedding entourage, together with principal sponsors Azucena Vera Perez (wife of Sampaguita Pictures owner, Dr Jose R Perez) with Senator Francisco "Soc" Rodrigo.
Perhaps what made the actors of the fifties maintain a clean and dignifies stature was the prevalence of the contract star system then, They were under the tutelage of their producers, who treated them like family members and protected them from even being overexposed. They were taught social graces and sanctioned when they got involved in any scandal or notoriety. There were not more than five major production companies then, the top three being Sampaguita Pictures, LVN Pictures, and Premiere Productions. This is different from today, where there are so many film companies and when most movie personalities maintain their own managers, some of who would even create a scandal just to keep the stars in the news.
But then again, glamour was also not the order of the day when the movies first arrived in the Philippines.
The first films shown in the Philippines were introduced in 1897 by Swiss entrepreneurs who showed these in rented hall on Escolta Street in Manila. The one-hour films, consisting of documentary strips and clips of events in Europe, were shown four times in the evenings. Good seats went for one peso and general entrance cost 50 centavos.
Then the Americans came at the turn of the century and brought along silent films, creating a serious market for movies. After the silent movies in 1903, the films evolved: first the talkies, then the black-and-whites and then the colour films. In 1919 the Philippine movie industry began, initiated by foreign entrepreneurs.
The first movie house was opened by the Pertierras; the second was called Cine Walgrah on Calle Santa Rosa in Intramuros, named after its British owner. Later, there were the Gran Cinematografo Parisien in Quiapo, which showed French films, and the Cinematografo Rizal on Azcarraga Street in front of Tutuban Station. Many foreign films were brought in and by 1910 there were 13 more movie houses were set up as soon as electricity became available.
Many of the first films were produced by wealthy Spaniards, American businessmen and well-to-do Filipinos. Initially, they were influenced by Hollywood films. At first, the foreign films did not capture the local audience because of their foreign content; but when two Americans made a film in 1912 about the execution of Jose Rizal, the response it created saw the need for film stories to be close to Filipinos' hearts.
In 1919 Jose Nepomuceno became the first Filipino to make a film, Dalagang Bukid, based on a musical play by Hermogenes Ilagan and Leon Ignacio. For this feat he was called the "Father of Philippine Movies". The early films portrayed plots and characters found in theatre pieces, as these already had a following. From the komedya (comedy) and sarswela (zarzuela), action movies developed. Movies portrayed conflict, such as the good and the bad, with Christians as the former and Muslims the latter. This division was later portrayed in class divides.
Philippine literature was also a source for movie themes, Francisco Baltazar and Rizal's classics have given content to many films.
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, moviemaking stopped. The Japanese brought their own movies to show to Philippine audiences, but these did not appeal to local audiences as did the Hollywood-produced films.
During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), a new role of film emerged: propaganda. Movies produced at this time sought to foster Filipino-Japanese friendship. They included The Dawn of Freedom, made by the director Abe Yutaka and Gerardo de Leon, and Tres Marias, directed by de Leon and written for the screen by Tsutomu Sawamura from Jose Esperanza Cruz's novel.
The war years were the darkest in the history of the film industry. The lack of movies being produced made people turn to live theatre, which provided jobs for displaced movie people. Theatre flourished because many actors, directors and technical people returned to the stage.
When the war ended, there was a ready market for war films, dealing with the heroism of the soldiers and the guerillas. Movies were produced about patriotism and the struggle against foreign enemies. These were stories that people wanted to hear, about the heroes and villains of the war.
The fifties were a time of rebuilding and growth in the Philippines. The wounds of the war had somewhat healed; it was a time of hope.
The Philippines gained a status of an independent country and established a government bureaucracy. This decade was good for Philippine cinema and filmmaking reached its peak. Filipino film content had improved and cinematic techniques achieved an artistic breakthrough.
The studio system of producing film after film turned the movie industry into a monopoly, making it difficult for independent cinema to develop. The Big Four studios—LVN Pictures, Sampaguita Pictures, Premiere Productions and Lebran International—produced a total of 350 films, making Manila a bustling film capital in Asia.
LVN Pictures, with Doña Sisang de Leon at the helm, did super productions, rural comedies and musicals. The studio also produced socially relevant films like Avellana's Anak Dalita (1956), Tony Santos' Badjao (1957) and Manuel Silos' Biyayang Lupa (1959).
For Sampaguita Pictures, it was high-gloss glamorous movies like Maalaala Mo Kaya (1954). Premiere Productions produced action films such as Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo (1952) and Salabusab (1954).
In this decade, awards were instituted and the competition encouraged better productions. Filipinos won international awards as well. In 1952 Manuel Conde's Genghis Khan became the first Filipino film to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1954 Gerardo de Leon's Ifugao received honours. In 1956 Lamberto Avellana's Anak Dalita received the Golden Harvest Award for Best Picture in the Asia Pacific Film Festival.
Stars also had their share of awards. In 1954 Lilia Dizon receiced the Best Actress Award in the Asian Pacific Film Festival and the year before, Leroy Salvador gained recognition for his performance as best supporting actor.
Award-giving bodies were established in the country. The first was the Maria Clara Awards of The Manila Times Publishing, Inc., composed of film publicists and writers who deliberated on the best movies.
Then came the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) patterned after the United States Academy Awards. The first film industry award-giving body in Asia, it gave the Best Pictures Awards in 1952 to Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo, Premiere Productions and MJ Vistan Productions; in 1953 to Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay, LVN Pictures; in 1954 to Salabusab, Premiere Productions; in 1955 to Higit sa Lahat, LVN Pictures; in 1956 to Luksang Tagumpay, LVN Pictures; in 1957 to Kalibre 45, Premiere Productions; in 1958 to Hanggang Dulo ng Daigdig, Premiere Productions; in 1959 to Biyayang Lupa, LVN Pictures.
The sixties saw the decline of filmmaking both in content and in artistic techniques. Violence and sex (bomba) films flooded the market and the young sought refuge in love teams. It was a time of revolution, and dissatisfaction with the status quo was in the air. Movie plots depicted criminality and corruption. Despite the situation, several films directed by Gerardo de Leon shone in this period: Noli Me Tangere (1961), El Filibusterismo (1962), Huwag Mo Akong Limutin (1960) and Kadenang Putik (1960).
Film studios were hit by labour management conflicts. One after another, the Big Four closed shop, paving the way for the emergence of new and independent producers.
Marking the seventies were a growing social unrest and the strong arm of a dictator to squelch it, A liberal democratic system was replaced by an authoritarian government. The old society or the period before was made to represent all things bad; the new society: good, upright, disciplined, patriotic. There was a clampdown on bomba films, so creative ways had to be thought of to depicts sex. The most talked-about film then was Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa, starring Miss Universe Gloria Diaz.
While they sought to regulate filmmaking by establishing the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, martial law technocrats tried to incorporate their ideology into the local films.
Towards the end of the decade and on to the eighties, young directors produced movies showing their talent in filmmaking. There were directors who are remembered for their films: Lino Brocka—Maynila, Sa Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) and Tinimbang Ka, Ngunit Kilang (1974); Ishmael Bernal—Himala (1981); Gerardo de Leon—Banaue (1975); Mike de Leon—Itim (1976) and Batch '81 (1982); Marilou Diaz Abaya—Karnal (1984); Peque Gallaga—Oro, Plata Mata (1982); and Celso Ad Castillo, who portrayed revolt, unionism, class divisions and social problems.
An unknown filmmaker from Baguio, Kidlat Tahimik won the International Critics' Prize in the Berlin Film Festival in 1977 for his film, Mababangong Bangungot. Tahimik started a trend in independent cinema. Short film festivals by the University of the Philippines Film Centre and Experimental Cinema of the Philippines also gave rise to alternative filmmakers.
In the nineties the film industry fell into decline, copying and reverting to old styles. Petronilo Daroy described the industry as "in a state of refining and formulating its own conventions, with broader interest in culture.
In 1993 ABS-CBN' Star Cinema ventured in movie production with its first production, Ronquillo: Tubong Cavite, Laking Tondo, with Regal Films.
Today, the Philippine movie business is in the doldrums, dominated by Hollywood movies and afflicted with rampant piracy, overtaxation, and a poor economy. Few Filipino movies are being produced and shown in the theatres compared with foreign films. Going to the movies is costly making for fewer moviegoers.
The industry is also floundering because it is being milked too much. Television networks are the only ones financially capable of producing movies, and also able to promote their movies.
Fortunately, there are a few openings. Government, for one can impose stiff taxes on Hollywood films and put a limit on the number of films distributed locally. Also, Filipino filmmakers could start to find ways to get into the international market.
Then there is the advent of digital, independent films, which have, in a way democratised moviemaking.
With the independent films being produced these days, the viewers get a certain level of expectation that the quality of the story will be good. The Cinemalaya Film Festival has brought to jam-packed theatres Filipino films that boldly depict Filipino life with fresh and artistic insights. Among the films given recognition are Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005) by Aureus Solito, Kubrador (2006) by Jeffrey Jeturian, Todo Todo Teros (2006) by John Torres and Endo (2007) by Jade Castro.
Cinemalaya is an all-digital film festival, and competition began in 2005 with the objective of discovering, encouraging, and honouring the works of Filipino filmmakers who boldly articulate and freely interpret the Filipino experience with fresh insight and artistic integrity. A non-stock, non-profit and non-government foundation, it was established to develop and promote Philippine independent films and support Filipino independent film artists and filmmakers.
In 100 years Philippine cinema seems to have reached full circle. It is fading into the sunset to give birth anew.
READ MORE: Cine Sandaan: 10 Iconic Films That Shaped Philippine Cinema
- Images Sampaguita Pictures archives, Cultural Centre of the Philippines Library, and LVN Pictures Archives