Features and Columns · Movies

The Contradictory Mexican-American Representation of ‘Bordertown’

The 1935 film relies on stereotypes but inadvertently shows the debilitating barriers that racism puts on Mexican immigrants.
Bordertown Paul Muni
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on August 31st, 2021

Beyond the Classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. This installment looks at what we can learn about Old Hollywood’s treatment of Mexican-Americans in Archie Mayo’s Bordertown. 

Going into an old film expecting today’s morals is usually a good way to set yourself up for disappointment. Yet, this doesn’t mean these films are not worth looking at critically as a modern viewer. Censoring problematic aspects of older films or avoiding them altogether is a topic that has been run over many times in the past few years. But it usually focuses on films deemed classics. Movies like Gone With the WindHoliday Inn, and Breakfast at Tiffany‘s.

What about the movies that have not been on a pedestal for decades? There is value in revisiting them today to better understand the structures that have followed filmmaking into the modern era. Archie Mayo‘s Bordertown, for instance, shows us how Hollywood was portraying Mexican Americans in films with less artistry. But such movies still influenced how audiences saw Latinx people and their experiences. The general public may have forgotten the 1935 release, but Bordertown tells an interesting story of how Hollywood tried to capitalize off of social issues while perpetuating those problems in the process.

Adapted from Carroll Graham’s 1934 novel Border Town, the movie follows Mexican American Johnny Ramirez (played by Ukrainian American actor Paul Muni) as he overcomes adversity to become a lawyer. His first trial goes awry because he is not prepared to play the games of the courtroom. Racist remarks from defendant Dale Elwell (Margaret Lindsay) and her lawyer, Brook Manville (Gavin Gordon), understandably upset him. After getting into a fight with Brook, Johnny is disbarred.

He skips town and finds work in a casino, eventually becoming manager and business partner with Charlie Roark (Eugene Pallette). Johnny seems to have come up in the world. Then Charlie’s wife, Marie (Bette Davis), tries to seduce him and fails. So, she murders her husband in order to get closer to Johnny. As a result, Johnny gets richer. But he also becomes more responsible for the increasingly unhinged Marie. Meanwhile, he’s also trying to pursue Dale, the woman who jilted him in court years ago.

While Warner Bros. was making Bordertown,  the studio was well aware of the racist and derogatory nature of the characters and plot of the film. Muni’s accent is inconsistent and also just horrible. The Mexican characters come across as simple or dumb. And nearly every character of color is a recognizable stereotype.

To studio head Jack Warner, these distasteful aspects of the film were not of concern. But the head of the Production Code Administration, Joseph Breen, believed the derogatory language and stereotypical treatment of Mexican Americans would certainly upset Mexican viewers in the US and particularly in Mexico as well. In a letter to Warner, Breen wrote these thoughts about the movie:

“It presents Johnny, although an American, as a Mexican and in such a role that he becomes a murderer, gambler, and crook, always trying to ‘go American.’ The whole story raises vey vividly the race distinction between Mexicans and Americans, which is bound to be offensive to our Southern neighbors.”

Neither Warner nor director Archie Mayo shared these worries. And Breen was only concerned for financial reasons. The final script and subsequent movie contained all of these issues and more. However, along with the clearly racist and offensive depictions of Mexican Americans, Bordertown inadvertently shows a less-than-ideal America that most audiences did not want to see on film.

Johnny does desperately want to “go American.” And in the first scenes of the movie, this seems like a very possible outcome. He has done everything that people think needs to happen in order to assimilate as an immigrant. He works during the day and then studies law at night. His “criminal” ways are behind him. He takes care of his family. He idolizes Abraham Lincoln. And he believes in the American Dream. Despite all of this, Johnny’s dreams drift away. What could he have done wrong?

Johnny may be the hard-working and admirable immigrant that Americans idealized during the time. But the larger forces at work are not absent in this movie, as they are in others from the same era. Johnny has his odds stacked against him. He recognizes this after his courtroom brawl with Brook. Most lawyers have the opportunity to learn from other lawyers after graduation. However, Johnny must immediately provide for his family, so he opens up his own practice. He has not had the chance to intern. And he is not afforded a second chance after his bad first court appearance. He has no connections or support within his profession.

Once disbarred, Johnny recognizes that being successful comes down to money. And having the privilege of possessing it already. Brook has everything America requires to be successful in the country: wealth, status, and by extension, whiteness.

For a social problem film concerning race, this is a relatively stark depiction. Many social problem films have a hard time showing racism as something that inhabits all institutions and facets of American society. Bordertown does not shy away from the pure helplessness that immigrants feel trying to establish themselves in America.

Later in the movie, Johnny finds work in a town on the US border with Mexico. He works hard to rise in the ranks at the casino. Just as he begins bargaining his position as partner, though, Brook and Dale come back into his life. Now, he is the one who is secure, the one with connections, but Johnny still aims to gain acceptance from these two wealthy white Americans. He pursues Dale romantically, and she acquiesces for a time. However, Johnny’s new life can still come crumbling down in an instant. Which is exactly what Marie enacts in the movie’s final moments.

Despite Johnny’s resilience, despite his hard work, and despite his goodwill, an accusation from Marie takes away everything that he’s worked for, once again. Marie tells the police that Johnny had ordered her to murder Charlie. With nothing but her word, the police believe her and prosecute Johnny. Only when Marie shows signs of insanity does the court exonerate him. After he’s free, he tries to salvage his chances with Dale.

The woman who once labeled him a “savage” never changed her opinion of him, however. Even as he gained the success he thought he needed. They could never be together, she says; they are from different “tribes.” After her racist monologue, Dale storms off into the road where she’s hit by a car. Johnny’s chances of moving up in the world have officially run out. He has no money and no “real lady” to call his own. He decides the only place he knows he will be happy is with his mother and his community in LA.

Just as this movie approaches a semi-critical approach to the problem of racism in America, it backs away, puts the responsibility on the main character, and suggests it’s easier to stick with one’s own kind. This was a typical M.O. for old movies, especially those dealing with Mexican and Chicano stories.

Chon Noriega has a great analysis of Mexican and Chicano films between 1930 and 1960 in Hollywood, which routinely “attempted to mediate Mexican-American demands for assimilation and the rights of citizenship” but “through outright stereotype [and] ‘enlightened’ segregationism.” Mexico outright protested these movies and instead of reforming them, Hollywood decided to pull back on Mexican stories, favoring silence.

It’s interesting to watch Bordertown today when we know a more reasonable cause for Johnny’s tragic story. The problem is not, as the end of the movie suggests, that his brute nature predetermined his inability to deal with racist people in a docile fashion. It’s that the expectations of him and the prejudices in every facet of our country are impossible to overcome for most people.

This movie followed Bette Davis’ breakthrough film, Of Human Bondage, released in 1934, though it was filmed earlier. The actress’ inklings as a star are certainly evident in her performance in Bordertown, where she gets to play both seductress and deceitful murderer. It’s difficult to cherish her talent in this movie when you really have to dig amongst the muck to find it.

The value of Bordertown today is not in any of its artistic achievements but in the way that it allows us to see how Mexican Americans were represented in films in the past. And where that representation continues. Many of the stereotypes found in the movie are still present in movies today. The hardworking, but simple-minded immigrants and the Madonna-like Mexican mothers are still characters that Hollywood falls back on.

Social problem films of Old Hollywood back Mexican-American characters into a corner and limit the stories they get to tell. We’ve made great strides in terms of storytelling since the 1930s. But tracing those racist foundations can help us to see where we still need to improve. And to see the kinds of narratives that Latinx people still have to fight against every day.

Related Topics:

Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_