You know you’re in for a treat when a book begins with a definition of the word heel: “A contemptibly dishonorable or irresponsible person.”¹
A “heel” is the type of character perfected by Hollywood actor Ricardo Cortez (1900-1977), for which he received critical acclaim. Example: “Mr Cortez is one of the screen’s best menaces”². Or: “Ricardo Cortez is what is known in American parlance as a first-class rat.”³
He specialized in playing The Man You Love To Hate.
So why haven’t most people heard about him? And why are we talking about him today?
We’re glad you asked. We just finished reading The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez, by historian and biographer Dan Van Neste. Van Neste has written the definitive biography of a hard-working actor who coulda been a contender.
Cortez began his Hollywood career in 1922 when Paramount Pictures hired him as a big screen Latin Lover type. He was to be a potential “replacement” in case screen legend Rudolph Valentino abandoned Paramount for another studio.
Cortez certainly had The Look. He was dark, handsome and flawlessly attired. What more could a person want in a Latino Romeo?
Except he wasn’t Latino. “Ricardo Cortez” was a creation of the studio’s publicity department. His real name was Jacob Krantz, and he was from a poor Jewish family in New York City.
Van Neste has written an engaging, meticulously annotated history of Cortez, the man who referred to himself as a “synthetic Spaniard” (The Magnificent Heel, p. 159). Van Neste has pieced together every recoverable shred of biographical information, including an ad that claimed “Ricardo Cortez had been killed more times in the movies than any other major actor” (ibid, p. 200).
Compiling this book took four years. Van Neste had a time of it because Cortez was a notoriously private person. He didn’t keep a diary or give many interviews, and most of his contemporaries had already died. But Van Neste persisted; he had a good story about an ambitious man who tried to be a Hollywood Leading Man, but never made it.
Superstardom continually eluded Cortez, even after several busy years in the industry. According to Van Neste, the actor appeared in over 100 feature-length movies, most of which saw him playing the cad.
Cortez eventually made his peace with playing the villain instead of the Hero. “There’s always more color, more magnetism, more fascination in the villain’s role, if it is properly written, than in the hero’s,” he said (ibid, p. 169).
Critics loved his performances, and one reviewer dubbed him “the cinema’s magnificent heel” (ibid, p. 181).
Cortez himself must have been a polarizing character. He had two tumultuous marriages: the first to the troubled Alma Rubens, which ended with her death in 1931; the second to Christine Coniff Lee, which ended in divorce in 1940. Yet, his marriage to Margarette Belle – his third – lasted until his own death in 1977.
The Magnificent Heel avoids trite conclusions about Cortez. Its primary focus is to document an actor’s life, and it does so in a highly readable manner. We could hardly put it down.
At first glance, the book is divided into two parts. The first covers Cortez’s life and career; the second is an impressive filmography complete with reviews and production notes. (If you want to learn more about the business side of the Studio Era, you’ll want to read this book for Part II alone.)
You could say the book has a third section, where Van Neste outlines his own thoughts on Cortez. It’s a thoughtful interlude, one that puts the actor’s career in context. Van Neste isn’t telling us what to think about Cortez; as biographer, he’s summing up his personal observations of a complex man.
Now, we must warn you about The Magnificent Heel. It’ll tempt you to Drop Everything so you can spend the day watching Ricardo Cortez films on YouTube.
Ask us how we know this.
¹Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
²Los Angeles Evening Express on Cortez’s performance in Bad Company (1931)
³Los Angeles Examiner on Cortez’s performance in Flesh (1932)