Cinema Visionary Guillermo Yanquez, 1904 - 1984

Chile's Guillermo Yanquez, film pioneer,

by William Alexander Yankes

Guillermo Yanquez was a Latin American actor, born April 20, 1904, who starred as a lead in both silent films and the talkies. For Chileans, he became a symbol of self-esteem when the country lacked it.  A century has elapsed since he first appeared on screen.

He was my father. Thirty-one years have transpired since he left us. Aside from my family and me, perhaps he will also be remembered by those who appreciate the pioneering and heroic days of Chile’s nascent film industry. During those heady, groundbreaking years, he married Nina Pinto Riesco, a granddaughter of two Chilean presidents. With no divorce law, the two soon went their separate ways. Several years later, he partnered with Maria Teresa Casanova, a member of Chile’s oldest aristocracy. She died a natural death after eight years together. There were no children from either of these two unions.

My father’s  film career coincided with other domestic productions in Chile. These films interrupted an artistic lethargy exacerbated by an old-guard oligarchy  that, as a de facto government, saw no value in the public subsidy of art, an attitude that had been etched into the culture for generations. At the time, the  economic shock waves following the American economic depression after the crash of 1929 were felt in Chile and would last through the post-World War II years.

Even though Chile lay on the distant periphery of the global war tremors, those repercussions contributed to long years of cultural drought. In the 1940s, Chilean film production experienced a renaissance. The films being made gripped people with much-needed optimism. The techniques and equipment were all foreign models, but the stories, the actors and the way they spoke Spanish were distinctly Chilean. My father’s self-confidence and relaxed manner before the camera helped awaken Chile when, as a nation, it was mired in timidity and acquiescence to the more economically advanced societies.  While he continued to reach the public through magazine interviews in Ecran and in the newspaper El Mercurio, his screen presence waned when he pursued a career as a documentary film director.

He wrote, produced and directed  commercially successful films with a social conscience. A dónde vás? (Where are you going?), 1946, was his best known. Surprisingly, it garnered  national funds for early childhood education. He would go on to screen nearly fifteen of his productions within the next ten years.

When he was 50, my father was offered his third diplomatic appointment. His next assignment would be the Chilean Embassy in Brazil as a cultural attaché. His personal life blossomed. He had waited for just such an opportunity to propose to Luz, a Chilean concert pianist who played at private galas in the 1940s. She became his third wife. He accepted the post, and they settled in Río de Janeiro. He produced a successful radio show, “Chile lindo,” that was broadcast in Spanish with his own film-cultivated baritone voice.  His tenure as a radio host marked my father’s last hurrah as a Chilean celebrity. While in Brazil, he became a father for the first time when I was born in 1954.

Upon his return to Chile, he was well-received everywhere, even though times had become even more difficult. His name and personality were his best currency. Within two years, his second son, Max Edward, was born. My father’s vision to create Chile Films, a government-funded film studio to re-invigorate Chilean film with local stories and talent, was received as if from a quixotic character. His optimism was viewed more as that akin to a “gringo” and not as the sensible initiative of a chileno.     

As the world was seized by youthful hope for renewal in the 1960s, Chile was still in the clutches of a creative dormancy. Film was not viewed as an arena that merited consideration for government backing when other industries were teetering on the brink of collapse. My father was financially compelled to move the family from tree-lined Príncipe de Gales in the La Reina neighborhood, near The Grange, a private Scottish school, to a población half an hour outside Santiago by micro up Santa Rosa Avenue.

There, we lived in a small house taken over by his easels and his paintings. During this time, he was a prolific artist. He redirected his talents and energies. He produced charcoal drawings and pastels, mastering a realistic style laced with a hint of impressionism. He shrouded himself in clouds of cigarette smoke, emerging only to refill his cafecitos. Oblivious to time, he worked long hours in the company of the ever-present sound of classical music permeating our lives.

The logo for PubliCine, his documentary film company—which eventually fell into disuse—featured a yellow pick-up truck with black fenders carrying a 16-mm Siemens film projector atop a tripod pointing backward. The truck, an Austin, was a functioning leftover from his documentary-making days. We drove to marginal areas of Santiago and screened cultural documentaries on loan to him by European consulates.

At 12, I helped him by riding in the truck bed to protect his projector. We set up “movie theaters” at horse stables and in retenes de carabineros (rural police stations) in poblaciones or shantytowns. He’d give brief lectures, making people laugh and transporting them to Europe (a cultural region he admired and longed to see himself), injecting audiences with excitement in anticipation of the movie. For a small fee, he brought entertaining cultural programs to many people who might otherwise never have had access to them.  On our departure, I recall my father telling me Chileans were wedged between hope and disappointment; that once those dreamy screenings were over, they would face a barren reality.

Strolling next to him along Santiago streets, I recall how strangers walked up to him often, asking “Aren’t you Guillermo Yanquez?” then pressing him for an autograph. He was kind to people. He was patient. He answered their questions with contagious delight, sometimes reminiscing nostalgically over times gone by. And gone by they were. In the mid-‘60s, Chile continued to suffer unbearable economic difficulties. My father sold a large collection of his charcoal drawings to Banco del Estado. They depicted colonial architecture, landscapes and indigenous faces gleaned from his many journeys across Latin America. They reveal his filmic mastery of light and shadow.  They remain on exhibit at the bank’s museum.

This gleaming triumph, however, did not occur often. But he persevered, nonetheless, marshaling his considerable gifts behind efforts to flourish with his drawings and portraits, even if he was once told by a prospective client, “No thanks. No one can eat art.”

When he was invited to yet another TV talk show, my father dressed impeccably for the event. His considerable charm, charisma, elegance, intelligence and disarming sense of humor always made him a welcome guest. My mother kissed him good luck, and off he went by trolley car.  As he traversed the city, he could assess the country’s pulse. Just imagine Santiago in those days. Environmentally unfriendly micros burst with riders hanging from the sides like voluptuous grape clusters. Laws of every kind meant to protect citizens—labor, education, retirees, women, children and the indigenous—were in place but went unheeded in Chile. Social services were a sham. The gap between rich and poor was scandalous. In those days, my father straddled both worlds—he had become the star at his zenith held back by a stagnant artistic milieu.

There was only black-and- white television and not everyone had a set. People watched gathering around store entrances while waiting for their buses to arrive on run-down street corners named after Bello, MacIver and O’Higgins—historic names that brought political independence to Chile, eventually introducing a rich intellectual and artistic life.  After the TV host introduced my father, there was electricity in the air.  The host of the show was doubled over with laughter.  On my way home in the evening during my last year of grade school, I remember seeing a cluster of humanity crowding uproariously before a store window.

Cutting nervously through the assembled throng, I yelled out proudly, “That’s my father!” The incredulous bunch shoved me off with a “Yeah, sure!” What no one could know, but I did, is that under his elegant jacket, my father’s shirt back was torn to tatters. My mother had carefully washed and ironed it for the occasion.

Alongside these TV shows, there was a concerted effort by film directors and actors during the 1960s to create an institution that would support filmmakers. Evoking Italy’s Cine Citá, the home of the Italian neo-realist movement in filmmaking, they tried to create Chile Films, a film studio subsidized by Chile’s government. The notion, however, never managed to materialize.

Soon after the election of socialist President Salvador Allende, the poor were empowered and felt free to vent their aggression. They took over industry, broke into and burglarized the homes of the well-heeled. In spite of our economic stress, and living in a tiny house, we must have projected an air of solvency because people broke our windows and threatened us directly.

There was little left for my father in Chile, or for our future there, in his view. He decided that Hollywood, his last brilliant memory, was still making films the world enjoyed, and he believed he could again, forty years later, in his mid-sixties, start over.  My father left Chile, his birthplace and the country of his joys, struggles and accomplishments, in 1970.  It was a rushed, desperate decision. The family reunited in the United States in 1971. Once in the United States, self-exiled from his homeland, he found himself in limbo—artistic, legal as well as social—realizing that his U.S. tourist visa’s multiple extensions would probably not be replaced by permanent legal residence.

My father helped provide for us by selling his paintings. His subject matter revealed a world exotic to the eyes of Americans, many of whom could not locate Chile on the map.  Ambling around town with an easel under his arm and canvases in hand, he once hitched a ride from a young lady with striking, smiling Irish eyes.

“Señorita, may I impose on you…?” She joined her passenger on that day in 1970 for an impromptu tour of the old film studios my father remembered so fondly. Mary Carol Reilly, an actress who had already appeared in several major national television commercials, was television’s Romper Room teacher, and would soon appear in the popular sit-com, All in the Family, was instantly taken by the dapper gentleman with an old world demeanor.

Who could have imagined that a chance encounter between artists from two different eras would flower into an enduring friendship? She gave him a realistic sense of how the country had changed and how to navigate it. She took him to Metro Goldwyn Mayer where the studio gate, at the time, was closed to both of them.

Hollywood had changed radically since my father’s earlier days in the mid-1920s when he’d tutored Greta Garbo in Spanish for her upcoming Spanish-speaking roles and befriended Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin. The early 1970s were hard times for the United States while the Vietnam War raged and Chile’s socialist government was not viewed favorably by the Nixon White House.

News of the September 11, 1973 coup d’etat that toppled the Allende government was minimized in the American press. General Augusto Pinochet took power, ruling with violence and making the country an even worse place than the one we had left. My father knew that he would never be able to again set foot in the Chile he loved.

He continued to hope that the films which came steadily from his Olivetti typewriter would one day come to life on a silver screen. He became hopelessly obsessed with a film world that was gone for him. He reached out to Chile with incessant letters, He continued writing original scripts based on momentous vignettes of Chilean history. Regrettably, he had outlived many former friends, Hollywood executives who might have taken an interest.

One day, we arrived to our rented house in an old Pontiac stationwagon, when a Mexican couple from next door rushed to meet us. They were agitated, the man told my father in Spanish, “Se acaba de ir el suiper. Lo pasaron a buscar a Ud por su nombre y no lo encontraron.” We had just missed the INS “sweeper,” which operated much like a dog-catcher truck, rounding up those without legal status before deporting them, including those, like us, who had remained long after tourist visas had expired.

In 1982, we got a phone call from Chile. On the other end, his only living sister greeted him.
“Juanita,” he told her,“ this is the last time we will hear each other’s voices.” He was visibly overwhelmed by the emotion of that farewell.

My father’s twilight years were spent in the house we shared as a family in Glendale, California. There, he recalled the happy moments of his silent and sound film years in Hollywood and in Chile.

At the final hour, he was still dreaming up films with a visible sense of excitement. Lying in bed, his family gathered around him, he turned toward my mother. She held his hand. They smiled at each other. My father gave her a loving wink.

On that day,  April 22, 1984, two days after turning 80, his screen went dark.

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