A Tribute to Gilbert Roland
Born Luis Antonio Damaso Alonso, in Juarez, Mexico on December 11, 1905, to Spanish-born parents, Gilbert Roland’s career spanned over sixty years from silent films to his last screen appearance in “Barbarosa” (1982).
Gilbert’s father moved the family to El Paso, Texas when Gilbert was a child, in response to Pancho Villa’s threat to the lives of all Mexicans of Spanish descent. The Alonsos had been bullfighters for generations, and as a child Gilbert had worked in his father’s bullring in Juarez.
Gilbert grew up in the barrios of El Paso, selling newspapers in front of a hotel. As a teenager he hopped a freight train and made his way to Los Angeles to break into movies.
After a few years of working at whatever job he could find, Gilbert found work as an extra in countless movies, including “Blood and Sand” (1922) and “The Phantom of the Opera”(1925).
Gilbert was actually discovered in a mob scene by agent Ivan Kahn, and was signed for the second lead in “The Plastic Age” (1925) with Clara Bow. At age nineteen, Gilbert chose his screen name by combining those of his two favorites, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland. Gilbert attained stardom with Camille (1926) opposite Norma Talmadge. Gilbert was also the leading man in numerous silents like “Rose of the Golden West” (1927) with Mary Astor, “The Love Mart” (1927) with Billie Dove, and “New York Nights” (1929) with Norma Talmadge.
Although Gilbert was one of the few actors to survive the transition from silent to sound films, his career as a leading man waned in the early 1930’s. Some of the films Gilbert appeared during the 1930’s and 1940’s include “Life Begins” (1932), “A Parisian Romance” (1932), “Call Her Savage” (1932), “She Done Him Wrong” (1933), “After Tonight” (1933), "The Last Train from Madrid" (1937), "The Sea Hawk” (1940) and “Angels with Broken Wings” (1941).
Gilbert enlisted in the United States Army during World War II. After the war, he starred in a series of popular Cisco Kid films at Monogram Studios. In 1949, his career took an upward turn when director John Huston picked Gilbert to play a cynical Cuban revolutionary in “We Were Strangers” (1949) with John Garfield and Jennifer Jones. The picture wasn’t a success, but the critics in New York gave him wonderful notices.
In 1950, Gilbert appeared in “Crisis” (1950) opposite Cary Grant, Ramon Novarro and Antonio Moreno. Gilbert gave a moving and much talked about performance as an aging bull fighter in “The Bull Fighter and the Lady” (1951) and played a Latin Lover in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952). Some of Gilbert’s other films from the 1950’s are “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima” (1952), “Glory Alley” (1952), “The Diamond Queen” (1953), “The French Line” (1954), “Underwater” (1955), and “Around the World in Eighty Days” (1956).
In the 1960’s, Gilbert had a featured role in John Ford’s “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964). He went to Italy and made several spaghetti Westerns. Some of Gilbert’s films from this period include “Guns of the Timberland” (1960), “Samar” (1962) and “Any Gun Can Play” (1968).
Even though Gilbert played a wide variety of roles, he is best remembered as a Latin Lover. However, he distinguished between the tough Latin Lover and his own more sentimental personality. For example, Gilbert carried in his pocket a picture of a gray-haired teacher that taught him to speak English in El Paso, and the gold ring he always wore was given to him by his mother. He also fought the industry’s tendency to stereotype Mexicans, and although he had been born in Mexico, Gilbert considered himself a Spaniard.