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Book Review: The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez

In a beautiful, thick softcover book from Bear Manor Media, author Dan Van Neste has written a thorough biography about actor Ricardo Cortez, and follows it with a complete, annotated filmography. The fascinating story, accuracy of detail, and wealth of information is so vast, it might be among the most satisfying biographies ever written about a Hollywood star.

Cortez had a long and varied career in movies, dating back to the silent era, and his talent quickly elevated him from minor roles to second leads, and finally to leading man. As sound films took over, Cortez had no trouble handling dialog, and made the transition smoothly. He notably portrayed Sam Spade in the first screen version of “The Maltese Falcon” (1931) bringing a dimension to the role that even Humphrey Bogart’s more noteworthy portrayal did not investigate. Offset this role with the capitalist doctor he played in “Symphony of Six Million” (1932), the theatrical producer in “The Man With Two Faces” (1934), the gambler in “Frisco Kid” (1935), even Perry Mason in “The Case of the Black Cat” (1936), and one can see Cortez’s range and versatility as an actor.

Van Neste’s book carefully takes readers on a journey through Cortez’s entire life, his development in the profession, his creative process, and his personal exploits -- such as how the Jewish born Jacob Krantz emerged from a poverty-stricken childhood to become a successful New York actor whose popularity as a Latin Lover in silent movies rivaled the great Rudolph Valentino. It tells how Cortez’s ability to turn in a dependable performance in a variety of roles and genres finally settled into a niche as one of the great screen heavies.

In 1939 and 1940, Cortez tried his hand at direction, his only acting appearance during these two years being in one Mr. Moto mystery and two Charlie Chan films. Cortez’s creative vision as a director is examined in detail, adding further depth to his cinematic contribution. Cortez decelerated his screen activities in the 1940s, becoming a broker on wall street and achieving enough success in this field to live comfortably until his passing in 1977 at the age of 76.

After the great biography portion that is written in an informative and entertaining manner, Van Neste then offers a complete filmography for which he provides a great deal of fascinating information for each movie. Not only is the reader provided the usual stats and background info, Van Neste gives us such interesting anecdotes as one of Cortez’s knee high boots springing a leak during a flood scene in an early movie, forcing the actor to shoot the scene by wading into the ice cold water barefoot. Cortez was one of four actors to have played crime fighters to appear in “Charlie Chan in Reno,” including Sidney Toler as Chan, Cortez himself who once played Perry Mason, Robert Lowery, who would soon play Batman, and Morgan Conway, who would later portray Dick Tracy. And that Slim Summerville refused to play a scene in that same film with a black cat, due to superstition—but that director Norman Foster was also superstitious and insisted on having a black cat in all of his movies. The entire filmography includes this sort of amusing, interesting information.

Coming to nearly 600 pages, “The Magnificent Heel” is the definitive book on one of the most durable and fascinating Hollywood stars of his time. It is most highly recommended to all fans of vintage American movies, as well as libraries and research centers.

The book can be ordered here.

James L. Neibaur
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