CATEGORIES Movie NewsYou'd think a movie starring Marlon Brando at the height of his young-firebrand sex appeal, written by Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, and directed by the great Elia Kazan, would be better remembered today. Yet "Viva Zapata!", released exactly 60 years ago (on Feburary 7, 1952), is all but regarded as a footnote in the careers of Brando, Steinbeck, and Kazan. That's a shame, since it's at once a terrifically exciting action film, a heroic biopic, and a penetrating political study. Of course, even then, it was an odd one -- a movie about legendary figures in Mexican history portrayed by an almost Mexican-free cast; a movie about a pro-peasant revolutionary hero made at a time of anti-Communist hysteria in Hollywood. That it got made at all was remarkable, given the battles over censorship and casting, not to mention the battles between Brando and co-star Anthony Quinn, whose bitter tension often erupted into elaborate pranks and practical jokes. Read on for tales of the film's tumultuous production -- and its unlikely connections to "The Flintstones" and Alvin and the Chipmunks.
1. Throughout the 1940s, various studios were interested in making a Zapata biopic, but the Production Code Authority frowned on the idea, worried that a film about the revolutionary leader might be perceived as pro-Communist, that Zapata had an antagonistic relationship with Catholic Church leaders in Mexico, and that any inaccuracies in the film might damage U.S. relations with Mexico.
2. A Zapata biopic finally became a reality when "Grapes of Wrath" author Steinbeck, who'd been researching Zapata for years, teamed up with A-list director Kazan. Both men were former Communists who had become disenchanted with Communism as practiced by the tyrannical government of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union. Their take on Zapata was a cautionary tale about how revolutionary movements tend to become as corrupt and oppressive as the established orders they overthrow. To them, Zapata was unique for gaining power via rebellion and then walking away from it.
3. Fox initially wanted swashbuckling Tyrone Power for the role of Zapata and Julie Harris for Josefa, the wealthy woman Zapata woos and marries.
4. Kazan, however, went with Brando, still largely an unknown in Hollywood. When he was cast, he had yet to make an impression on film audiences. Kazan knew him from having directed him on Broadway in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (and, soon, in the landmark film version as well), but he'd appeared in only one movie, 1950's "The Men," as a paraplegic war veteran, a role that failed to make him a star. By the time "Zapata" was released, however, "Streetcar" had made him a bankable leading man.
5. Quinn had played Brando's role of Stanley Kowalski in the road company version of "Streetcar." Many (including Quinn) thought he did an even better job than Brando. Kazan took advantage of their rivalry when he cast Quinn as Zapata's brother, allowing the tension between them to flourish off-camera. One legend from the set had them involved in a literal pissing contest, to see who could pee further into the Rio Grande. Brando won.
6. Fox starlet Marilyn Monroe unsuccessfully sought a part in the movie. Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck nixed the idea, as Monroe had yet to prove herself as a box office draw or a dramatic actress.
7. Jean Peters, a beauty queen turned starlet (she'd made her debut opposite Power in "Captain from Castile") had been dropped from her 20th Century Fox contract after turning down a number of roles in scripts she didn't like. But when she heard about "Viva Zapata," she screen tested for the female lead before Kazan in New York, won the part, and was soon back under contract at Fox. Little known at the time was that she was discreetly dating Hollywood producer/aviation mogul Howard Hughes.
"Viva Zapata!" -- Trailer
8. Recognize the voice of the actor playing Pancho Villa? It's Alan Reed, future voice of Fred Flintstone.
9. Henry Corden, who went on to play Fred Flintstone in the '80s and '90s after Reed died, also appears in "Viva Zapata" as a military officer. Alas, he and Reed have no scenes together.
10. Another soon-to-be-famous animation voice actor in the film, playing another officer, was Ross Bagdasarian, eventually the voice of David Seville on the Alvin and the Chipmunks cartoons and records.
11. Playing corrupt general Victoriano Huerta was Frank Silvera, a light-skinned black actor who, like Quinn, would make a career out of playing characters of various ethnicities. After starring in Stanley Kubrick's first two movies ("Fear and Desire" and "Killer's Kiss"), he'd go on to costar with Brando again as a Tahitian in "Mutiny on the Bounty."
12. Joseph Wiseman played journalist and revolutionary ideologue Fernando Aguirre in "Zapata," which was only his third movie. After spending the next decade working mostly in TV, he went on to lasting fame (or notoriety) as the first James Bond megavillain, playing the title character in the first 007 film, "Dr. No" (1962).
13. Kazan didn't want the film's scenes of village life and guerrilla warfare to look like glossy Hollywood product. He took inspiration from "Paisan," Roberto Rossellini's 1946 neorealist classic about Allied partisans fighting World War II in Italy.
14. Despite Kazan's efforts at verisimilitude, Brando complained about the lack of authenticity. No one in the film spoke with a Mexican accent, and few of the actors even looked like Mexicans. Brando said Zanuck often complained that Peters looked too dark-skinned (and that a movie with a dark-skinned love interest wouldn't sell tickets), and that the studio chief kept ordering the director to reshoot her scenes in brighter light and with lighter makeup. For his part, Brando chose makeup that did darken his skin; it also rounded his eyes and flared his nostrils.
Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, and Joseph Wiseman in "Viva Zapata!"
15. None of the movie was actually shot in Mexico. Some was shot on the Fox lot, but most was filmed in such southwestern locations as Durango, Colorado and Roma, Texas.
16. One reason the movie didn't shoot in Mexico: A Mexican production about Zapata was in the works, and officials there didn't think it was beneficial to cooperate with a competing Hollywood production. Nonetheless, there were negotiations with the Mexican government over the script, in order to secure distribution in Mexico for the completed film. When it was released in Mexico, some scenes unflattering to Zapata were altered or cut out, particularly those depicting Zapata as illiterate (he wasn't). Also cut were a scene showing the aristocratic Josefa squatting outdoors while washing clothes by hand and the sequence where Zapata has to execute his friend Pablo for treason. In the Mexican edit, Zapata is elsewhere when the execution takes place.
17. Quinn, who was born in Mexico in 1915 (in the midst of the period covered in the film) but raised in Los Angeles, played on Kazan's fetish for authenticity by telling him tall tales about his father's experience in the revolution. He claimed that the guerillas had communicated in code by banging stones together and by whistling. "And so we whistled," Quinn recalled in his memoir. "Kazan was so gullible he even had me show the other actors the 'special' way my father used to trill!"
18. Despite his own serious insistence on authenticity, Brando was just as much a practical joker on the set as Quinn. Set lore has him shooting off fireworks in a hotel lobby, serenading Peters from a tree at 3 a.m., convincingly playing dead for several minutes after filming the scene where his character is shot, and lying to visiting reporters that he had dined on gazelles' eyes and grasshoppers.
Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, and Jean Peters in "Viva Zapata!"
19. Kazan took the completed film to the 1952 Cannes Film Festival, where Brando won Best Actor, and where Kazan nominated for the festival's Grand Prix.
20. At the Oscar ceremony in 1953, Quinn finally won out over Brando, earning a Best Supporting Actor trophy. Also nominated were Steinbeck's screenplay, the film's art direction, and Alex North's musical score. So was Brando's lead performance, but just like the year before, with "Streetcar," he failed to win. Quinn wasn't present at the ceremony, but his wife Katherine was there, and she picked up his trophy. That same night, her father, Cecil B. DeMille, won Best Picture for "The Greatest Show on Earth."
21. Mildred Dunnock, who played Peters' mother, earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She had worked with Kazan on Broadway in "Death of a Salesman," where she originated the role of Linda Loman, a role she would reprise on film and on TV. She would work with Kazan again in the movie "Baby Doll" (1956).
22. Peters reprised her role in a one-hour radio drama version in late 1952.
23. After "Zapata," Peters found herself typecast in outdoorsy roles. She had perhaps her greatest success in "Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954). Soon after, however, she married Hughes, dropped out of movies, and lived with her husband in seclusion for the next 14 years. They divorced in 1971. She resumed her acting career with guest spots on TV and never discussed with the press her marriage to the eccentric mogul.
24. Third time was the charm for Brando and Kazan. In 1954, Brando finally won his first Oscar for their third movie together, "On the Waterfront." It would also be their last project together.
25. In 1954, Kazan would work with Steinbeck on another film, "East of Eden" (based on Steinbeck's novel), a movie in which Kazan finally got to work with Julie Harris. Of course, today, the film is most famous for launching the all-too-brief movie career of James Dean.