In My Man and I, “it seems that America has fallen into decline and the Stones and Nancy Walkers of America need the redemptive power, the cultural revivification offered by the recent immigrant.”
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When I first saw the 1952 MGM film My Man and I, the thought immediately occurred to me that one of the credited screenwriters, Italian American novelist John Fante, had drawn on material from a project he struggled with in the 1940s, a projected saga about Filipino migrant workers in California. Material at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences confirms the accuracy of this hypothesis. John Fante and Jack Leonard’s original story titled “Letter from the President” did feature a Filipino American protagonist. However, within a mere two weeks in 1950, Sixto Luz became Chu-Chu Ramirez, a Mexican American. What accounts for this change? Could it be a matter of the hierarchy of race as conceived in 1950 America: a relationship between a white woman and an Asian man could not be presented on film, but a Mexican in the role could be permitted? Or does something much more mundane explain this change: MGM had a rising star in young ethnic actor Ricardo Montalban and he needed a dramatic role to enlarge his repertoire beyond that of his Latin lover image?
I do not recommend the film. It is tedious if not torturous to watch. If you choose to do so, keep a bottle of strong grappa alongside. And yet it is interesting for two reasons, one historical and one contemporary. Fante and Leonard did not work on the various script drafts, but they received full credit because of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Hollywood blacklist. Second, My Man and I is a film about immigration and what it means to be American. Therefore, it speaks to the present and to official America’s current racist immigration policies.
In the fall of 1950, Fante and Leonard sold their story to MGM for the handsome sum of $10,000. Nearly a decade earlier, Fante had struggled to complete a novel he called “Little Brown Brothers.” He wanted to write a Steinbeck-like big book about the Filipino population. Although he published short stories such as “Bus Ride” and “Helen, Thy Beauty Is to Me” out of this project, the grand work itself never saw completion nor publication. A main reason for this had been Fante’s condescending tone if not outright prejudicial view as evidenced even in his proposed title.
According to Fante biographer Stephen Cooper, the two heavy-drinking writers, Fante and Leonard, “knocked out a treatment” “between drinks” (236). The story they concocted at first featured a Filipino agricultural worker so proud of his naturalized American citizenship that he wrote President Truman and the president responded: hence the title “Letter from the President.”
Sixto holds this letter dear. He also takes pride in his appearance, his set of encyclopedias, and his work ethic. While his friends wait for work harvesting asparagus, Sixto takes a job working for a dishonest rancher. Goodness eventually triumphs, but only after the required complications of plot. Sixto meets a down-and-out woman named Nancy Walker whom he inspires through his decency and love of America.
The MGM reader’s synopsis of the story by Sheila Walker dated October 7, 1950, expressed the concern that “the love interest, featuring a Filipino and a white girl, presents a major obstacle here” to the filming of it. The Production Code of 1934 (still in effect in 1950) forbade scenes of “miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races),” but perhaps Walker assumed this rule also forbade an Asian/Anglo attraction. Walker believed this difficulty could not be easily surmounted. She added in her note, “the charm of the story would be lost if a white foreigner were substituted for the Filipino.”
In a little over two weeks Luz became Ramirez. When Helen Spencer evaluated the work, the protagonist still exuded patriotism for his new homeland, but now his country of origin had changed from the Philippines to Mexico. Her report of October 24, 1950, concluded that the story’s “plot line is thin” and that although “there is an appealing idea here,” the narrative “offers very delicate problems in handling.”
Fante and Leonard must have made the important, though superficially handled change, in regard to the main character’s country of birth. But after this point Marguerite Roberts and Millard Kaufman worked as writers for this film project. As Rachel Bernstein of the Academy told me in an email message:
John Fante and Jack Leonard wrote the original story that was sold to MGM then titled “Letter from the President.” We have the MGM scripts, and I checked all the drafts, and as far as I can see they did not work on the screenplay, their names do not appear on any treatments written after Dec. 1950. All the screenplay drafts list Marguerite [Roberts], and later Millard Kaufman.
The film as released only credits Fante and Leonard, most likely because Roberts’s contract, according to Bernstein, “was terminated on Nov 23, 1951.” Roberts had a top-notch reputation as a screenwriter, yet after her appearance before HUAC on September 20, 1951, she joined the ranks of blacklisted Hollywood writers. This would seem to be the reason for her name being removed from the credits for My Man and I.
Looking back on his Hollywood past from the vantage point of 1978, Fante told his close friend Southern Californian writer Carey McWilliams that his friendship with Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan “was always friendly but at times a bit of a nuisance” (Letter, January 12, 1978, 305). It annoyed Fante because Bulosan’s leftist leanings led to FBI interrogations of Fante. Fante wrote, “It was always necessary to hurdle these queries before I was permitted to take a job at MGM, RKO and Warner Brothers. The heart of the matter was always Carlos Bulosan” (305). And yet Fante added: “It was Carlos who brought me into the Filipino community of Los Angeles” (305).
Another friend of Fante’s during the 1940s, Norman Foster, directed films in Mexico and collaborated with Fante on a film script. Ricardo Montalban starred in one of Foster’s successful Mexican films, and Montalban became Foster’s brother-in-law. Yet, if the switch from Filipino to Mexican can be explained by Montalban’s needs as an MGM contract performer, I think it more likely a decision made by executives than friends and relatives. Montalban had a multi-year exclusive contract with MGM. He became known as a Latin lover character type. In 1949, he had appeared in a supporting role – Rodrigues here instead of Ramirez – in the MGM award-winning war film Battleground, directed by William A. Wellman, who would also direct My Man and I (and would later direct the actor in Across the Wide Missouri).
Montalban speaks of his immigration to America in the memoir Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds. He notes that when he and his brother drove into Texas, hungry, they pulled into the parking lot of a diner and saw a sign that read: “NO DOGS OR MEXICANS ALLOWED” (51). Then his brother reassured Ricardo:
What you saw was the evidence of one man’s prejudice. He cannot help it. He was brought up to hate Mexicans. You will find more of that in the United States, but you will find a great deal that is good. (51)
Although Cooper asserted that “‘Letter from the President’ was custom-made for nervous studio executives looking for HUAC-proof scripts” (237), the script and film do make some strong critical statements whether the protagonist bears the identity Filipino, Mexican, or if it had been, like one of its original authors, Italian American. Fante often wrote about ethnic characters spat upon literally or figuratively by dominant Anglo-American society. For example, in the great Los Angeles novel Ask the Dust, Fante wrote: “When I was a kid back home in Colorado it was Smith and Parker and Jones who hurt me with their hideous names, called me Wop and Dago and Greaser” (46). In the original story for the film, Fante and Leonard wrote that “there was still much of this [prejudice] in his [Sixto’s] life as an American. But he could bear it grandly now, bravely, enriched by his citizenship, brother of fellow-Americans, citizen at the polls, chooser of presidents, his rights the same as Lincoln’s, as Roosevelt’s, no greater and no less than the richest or the poorest in the land” (15). Yet when Sixto finds and accepts the job with rancher Stone while Sixto/Chu-Chu enthusiastically expresses his desire to work, Mrs. Stone says, “I don’t want no foreigner around here” (6). Mr. Stone at first defends his new employee, but when payday arrives Stone repeatedly cheats the ethnic, the new American citizen.
Sixto/Chu-Chu eventually gets his pay and his vindication. With Nancy, too, something similar occurs. She hates herself and drowns her depression in continuous drink. Why Sixto/Chu-Chu becomes attracted to Nancy escapes me, but she eventually reforms because of her man’s unflinchingly righteous example. In other words, it seems that America has fallen into decline and the Stones and Nancy Walkers of America need the redemptive power, the cultural revivification offered by the recent immigrant.
Montalban noted in his memoir that although he “felt a sympathy for the poor and oppressed,” he could not “embrace communism,” possibly, he suggested, because of his Catholic “religious training” (68). Similarly, Fante told a prospective employer, “I am a Roman Catholic in addition to being an American citizen and it is philosophically and emotionally impossible for me to associate myself with any group that is even remotely identified with Communism or Communist front organizations” (qtd in Cooper 244).
Did Fante and Leonard act as part of the ruse that allowed funds to be funneled to blacklisted authors? I am prone to believe that their motives were less than honorable and governed by self-interest.
Millard Kaufman, on the other hand, had lent his name in 1950 to the famous blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, and years later Kaufman had his name removed and Trumbo’s restored to the script for Gun Crazy (McLellan). Perhaps by 1952 studio authorities knew that Kaufman had allowed his name to be so used, and hence even though Kaufman had not been blacklisted, his name, along with Roberts’s, came off My Man and I.
Roberts and Kaufman revised the original story by expansion, but as they added scenes for additional plot development and the title changed, the project became confused. Does the narrative belong to the newly minted citizen Chu-Chu or to the fallen woman Nancy? Montalban makes no mention of this film in his memoir. He did write: “I never did get the big dramatic role that is so important for an actor’s career” (95). He did say his MGM years were “invaluable” (96) (the following year, 1953, as the American film industry constricted, studio head Dore Schary cancelled Montalban’s contract). But his role in My Man and I had been both large and dramatic. He has more screen time by far than any other performer in the film; from the point of view of performance, it is Montalban’s film.
Shelly Winters co-stars as Nancy Walker. Winters had received the Best Actress Academy Award the prior year for her work in A Place in the Sun. This may explain how “Letter from the President” became My Man and I. Montalban, the emerging actor on the American scene, may have been the “man” of the title, but the established performer, Shelly Winters, already had recognition and reputation. True, another reason for the title could be the continuous use of the song “Stormy Weather” in the film; the lyrics include the phrase “my man and I.” Publicity for the film and reviews mostly made inaccurate claims for it: they lessen Montalban’s role and heighten Winters’s role in the film. In his memoir, Montalban bemoans the fact that he “wasn’t cast for the starring roles that American actors got” (113) and that he felt his “native country had been betrayed by Hollywood” (148). Perhaps his experience in the making of My Man and I contributed to these beliefs.
An ad from a paper in Tipton, Indiana, places Winters’s name above Montalban’s, and at its start reads: “The Academy Winner Shelly Winters in her first MGM Picture” (“Diana Tonight & Tuesday”). Another newspaper’s advertisement pictures a shirtless Montalban embracing Winters and the accompanying caption says, “Does Her Kind of Girl Have a Chance for Love?” (“State – Starts Sunday”). In other words, the entire agricultural worker plot has been omitted in these ads. Another ad uses the phrase “LOVE – I never use the word!” These are words that belong to Winters’s character. Finally, an ad from Greenville, South Carolina, proclaims, “A Girl Who Travelled Alone!” Montalban appears on the left-edge of the image, falling out of it, while Winters appears more toward its center.
Reviews also heightened the film’s romance plot. A Kentucky review called it “an absorbing, down-to-earth and warmly human story of a girl who has lost all joy in life but who is given a fresh perspective through the love of a simple, kind-hearted farm laborer” (“Shelly Winters, Ricardo Montalban”). Another review interestingly noted that the supporting performers who play Chu-Chu’s friends and co-workers “act with intelligence and determination, not in the stereotyped manner of ‘south of the border’” (Fanning). Some reviews were more precise and critical. One noted “it’s a slow-paced vehicle, striving for realism in backgrounds and characterizations – but not in motivation” (“Fine Acting; Weak Yarn”). The New York Times review noted that Fante and Leonard “did not provide a story with enough substance or understanding to provide a solid basis for a monument to the people with whom they dealt” (“Drama of Courage of ‘Little’ People”). Fante failed with his “Little Brown Brothers” fiction that he struggled to envision and complete in the years prior to co-writing the original story for the film My Man and I. When writing his Filipino saga, he could not control his tone of condescension. So it continued with “Letter from the President.” As the Times review put it: “‘My Man and I’ misses being an important picture because its story was not conceived with true concern for its subjects.” Perhaps the ease with which Sixto became Chu-Chu indicates this lack of concern on the part of the authors. Although Fante and Leonard got their paycheck, the film that resulted lost money for the studio.
Bernstein, Rachel. Email to Dennis Barone, “Re: 1952 Script.” February 8, 2016.
Cooper, Stephen. Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante. New York: North Point P, 2000. Print.
“Diana Tonight & Tuesday.” Ad for My Man and I. The Tipton [IN] Daily Tribune, November 24, 1952. Newspapers.com. Accessed July 22, 2019.
Fanning, Win. “Shelly Winters in My Man and I Comes to Ritz.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 15, 1952. Newspapers.com. Accessed July 22, 2019.
Fante, John and Jack Leonard. “Letter from the President.” 1950. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Margaret Herrick Library. Los Angeles.
Fante, John. Ask the Dust. (1939). Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow P, 1980. Print.
Fante, John. Selected Letters, 1932–1981. Ed. Seamus Cooney. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow P, 1991. Print.
“Fine Acting; Weak Yarn.” Review of My Man and I. Miami News, October 21, 1952. Newspapers.com. Accessed July 22, 2019.
G., O. A. “Drama of Courage of ‘Little’ People.” Review of My Man and I. New York Times, September 6, 1952. Newspapers.com. Accessed August 5, 2019.
“A Girl Who Travelled Alone.” Ad for My Man and I. Greenville [SC] News, November 30, 1952. Newspapers.com. Accessed July 22, 2019.
“Love – I never use the word.” Ad for My Man and I. Quad-City [IA] Times, October 12, 1952. Newpapers.com. Accessed July 22, 2019.
McLellan, Dennis. “Millard Kaufman, 92, Dies; Oscar-nominated Screenwriter.” Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2009. Web, accessed February 17, 2006.
Montalban, Ricardo. Reflections: A Life in Two Worlds. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980. Print.
“Shelly Winters, Ricardo Montalban Head Strong Cast.” Review of My Man and I. The Owensboro [KY] Messenger, October 19, 1952. Newspapers.com. Accessed July 22, 2019.
Spencer, Helen. Synopsis of “Letter from the President.” 1950. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Margaret Herrick Library. Los Angeles.
Walker, Shelia. Synopsis of “Letter from the President.” 1950. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Margaret Herrick Library. Los Angeles.
“State-Starts Sunday.” Ad for My Man and I. Daily News (Lebanon, PA), October 1, 1952. Newspapers.com. Accessed July 22, 2019.
Wellman, William A., dir. My Man and I. MGM, 1952. DVD.