For this noir blog, it was tempting to participate in Once Upon a Screen’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon by sharing the disturbing tale of abused young Margarita Cansino, the lovely girl who was transformed into troubled Hollywood celebrity Rita Hayworth. But it’s a story often told of an actress often lauded for her glamour, beauty, and talent.
Leaping from Hayworth to Jurado is no small feat, especially given that I want to discuss the specific role of Mrs. Ramirez in High Noon for Dia de la Raza. While the film is clearly a Western, it does have noir elements, especially the way Jurado confronts the femme fatale stereotype. So let’s go with that.
Classic Hollywood Westerns aren’t known for their nuanced portrayals of racial diversity or gender equality. Some may reject or satirize the anti-Native American / anti-Mexican representations, but on those rare occasions it’s attempted at all, it’s usually accomplished through the perspective of a sympathetic white male protagonist, or one who has a change of heart.
High Noon is in many ways a film that challenges Hollywood Western norms, from the age of its protagonist to his desire for marriage from the film’s outset to his failed attempts to gather a posse in a town that claims to value his efforts but will not risk their lives to support them. (And yes, there’s also the allegorical reading of blacklisting and the horrors of HUAC.)
Katy Jurado’s Helen Ramirez stands out from the glaring whiteness of the film — there are no “Indians” and the only Mexicans we see don’t seem to be allowed into the town’s establishments. She also stands out from the other images of (white) femininity in the film, especially the Marshal’s (Gary Cooper) Quaker bride (Grace Kelly) who wears her spotless white bridal dress throughout the film. While Amy proves to have some gumption in the end and defends her man despite her pacifist beliefs, it is only after she gets a lecture from Helen Ramirez that she does so. But we’ll come back to that at the end of this post.
With the dark vs. light contrasts between dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark clothed, sexually experienced Helen vs. pale, blonde and blue-eyed, white-clad virgin Amy, the familiar iconography of virgin/whore is present. The fact that Helen was formerly the girlfriend of the very villain (Frank Miller played by Ian McDonald) whom Will put behind bars and now returns with his brothers to kill Will and take over the town pushes her into the femme fatale category. That she has taken up with Will’s deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), adds to her black widow image.
But soon and for the rest of the film, we are encouraged to question the sexism and potential racism in the initial judgment to which we are led. We learn, for example, that Helen is “Mrs. Ramirez,” a widow and a great benefactor of the town, with her name on several establishments that help the town to flourish and as a silent partner to local white businessmen.
We also learn that she is the one who dumped Will, not the other way around, just as she dumps his deputy Harvey (a very young Lloyd Bridges) when he acts possessive and childish, seeming to use her as a way to get “even” with Will, who did not choose Harvey for the next Marshal when he stepped down from his job upon marriage.
Perhaps Helen was also playing games by taking up with Harvey, but we see her claim her self-respect when she throws Harvey out, and then again when she leaves town, recognizing that Will Kane is not her man and that she, as a widow and Mexican woman in the white male-dominated (Hollywood) West must fend for herself.
Perhaps my favorite moment in Jurado’s compelling portrayal of this nuanced character is when she welcomes Amy Fowler (who has left Will because he plans to fight Frank Miller) into her room. There is no competition from Helen’s side; she gave Will up before he met Amy. And we know too much now to accept this as the meeting of feminine purity vs. corruption (with racial implications). But Amy is frightened, and it is Helen who advises her to stand by her man. It may not seem a progressive, feminist message in general terms, but it is a powerful one within the context of the film, and what Helen would do if Will were hers…if he had ever truly been hers.
With this, Helen boards the train out of town (and out of the film). We see that as a woman of color in the wild white West, this is her only real option. She has existed at the fringes of society, and this may be her fate for the rest of her life. Her role and her actions make a viewer think — about gender, about race, about Westerns — and I applaud her performance.
Helen Ramirez is a truly sympathetic, dynamic character played by a powerful, beautiful actress. And even if Cooper got the only acting Oscar for High Noon, not only Cooper (as Best Motion Picture Actor) but Katy Jurado brought home a Golden Globe (for Best Supporting Actress, along with a nomination for Most Promising Newcomer – Female).