The Tiger's Coat
There are two reasons to notice The Tiger’s Coat. First, it seems to be the only surviving film that Tina Modotti appeared in. There are IMDB entries for Riding with Death (1921) and I Can Explain (1922), but they don’t seem to be available. Apparently she also acted in other silent dramas which are even more obscure. Pino Cacucci says “In 1920 she made several films; in one of them she appeared nude, wrapped in a lace veil that left one breast exposed”. In October 1920, a film magazine described her as a standard femme fatale of the era, “dangerous as the tiger whose tints and tones were in her eyes, her skin, her hair.”
Tina Modotti was, of course so much more than a celluloid vamp: revolutionary photographer, muse to several of the era’s most world-shaping men, and dedicated political operative. There are several parallels between the life of Tina Modotti and the life of the character she plays in The Tiger’s Coat.
Marie/Jean was, in her earlier life, the servant of an Anglo woman. The rural Italian Modotti family lived in miserable conditions (think Angela’s Ashes) and spent some time as migrant workers in another European country. It was all grinding poverty and no child labor laws. Tina went to work as a factory hand at age 12. One of her siblings told a biographer that Tina’s usual expression in those days was one of sad resignation, and she was the only one who didn’t complain about the cold and hunger. (That’s kind of counter-intuitive. Considering that Modotti grew up to be a committed Communist, struggling for the workers, doesn’t it seem that, as a child, she would have been the exact opposite, like complaining and rebellious?
Eventually the family moved to America, settling in San Francisco. It was the precisely right place for someone of Modotti’s talents and charisma. What turns would her life had taken if immigration had been instead to New York or Chicago? Or, Goddess forbid, Detroit?
Modotti worked in a factory, and independently as a seamstress. Still shy and gloomy, she became a different person onstage in theatrical performances. She “married” Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey and became immersed an American version of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of creative geniuses where every inherited value was called into question. Unlike millions of other new arrivals in America, Tina Modotti escaped the realm of dull, mindless drudgery. (And then later, flung herself back into it for ideological reasons.)
So, both Tina Modotti and Marie/Jean came from destitute peasant backgrounds and, arriving in the New World, pursued artistic careers and married well-to-do men. Living with Richey and out from under the usual economic pressure, she became more of a clothing artist. In one of the biographies, there’s a photo of her wearing a gown she made with batiked fabric of her own design. I would have bought one. Her talent for inventing and making clothes turned out to be a real asset to her acting career, because in those days, players supplied their own wardrobes. She made, among other things, the plaid outfit seen in The Tiger’s Coat and, for this or other movies, made harem pants, a tie-dyed shawl, a satin cloak, jeweled bra, and feathered beret.
The Tiger’s Coat is based on the novel of the same name, written by Elizabeth Dejeans and published in 1917, after first being serialized in a magazine. Directed by Roy Clements, the screenplay was written by Jack Cunningham. It takes place in a prosperous Southern California town where the wealthy Alexander MacAllister makes an enemy of another tycoon, department store owner Andrew Hyde, by threatening to expose his dirty business practices.
First announced as “The Mysterious Visitor” a haggard and tattered woman turns up at MacAllister’s door with a letter. There’s a misunderstanding about who she is, and whom the concerns. He believes she is Jean Ogilvie, daughter of an old friend, and he’s being asked to assume guardianship of her. MacAllister reflects to himself, “She’s got the darkest skin I ever saw on a Scotch girl. Too much of that Mexican climate.”
A good night’s sleep transforms her into a sultry temptress in slinky Isadora Duncan -like drapery, which this movie would have us believe is a Mexican outfit. “You may excite the gossips of the neighborhood,” MacAllister says. Her reply is, ” What difference does it make if you like it?”
Recognizing the impropriety of keeping this young lady, who is now his ward, in the house, he arranges for her to live more respectably with an artist and his wife. Carl the artist is a Chaplinesque figure, but on meeting his new houseguest, he gets real serious and scrutinizes her closely. “You look like a native girl I painted once in Tehuana Mexico,” he says.
There’s a scene in Hyde’s fancy store, where he and his son and some other people meet Jean, who comes in properly chaperoned by the artist’s wife. Old Hyde is suspicious and makes inquiries, and when he learns that Jean came from Mexico, he sets out to fully investigate her past.
Carl the artist paints Jean’s portrait in the supposedly Mexican peasant outfit. Here’s another parallel between actor and character. In real life, Tina Modotti posed for Edward Weston and, of course, for several motion picture cameras. At a later stage, she modeled for Diego Rivera, who included her in five of his Chapingo murals.
Study for "Germination" by Diego Rivera
A sketch for “Germination” is shown, and a study for “The Flowering” is at Sotheby’s. A view of “Creation” is found also online. In a mural called “En el Arsenal,” Rivera painted her handing out ammunition to revolutionaries, accompanied by two of her lovers, Julio Antonio Mella and Vittorio Vidale.
En al arsenal by Diego Rivera
Meanwhile, MacAllister has proposed to Jean and there’s a big engagement party, where the surprise entertainment is the Mexican dance, performed by Jean and a male partner. The number has kind of a novelty ending – the male dancer pretends to die, and then gets up and runs off. Old Hyde confronts her with his knowledge of the truth found out by his spy.
“On the eve of his marriage MacAllister’s dream of happiness is rudely shattered,” as the title card informs us, when Hyde confronts him with proof that Jean Ogilvie died and the woman he plans to marry is an imposter, Jean’s former servant. “A low-born greaser peon girl has duped you,” he flings at MacAllister. “You’ve been tricked by an adventuress.” (That was old-school for ho.) MacAllister knocks Hyde down
Back at the artist’s home, Jean says of her portrait, “There’s something weird about that picture. Why do you paint me so? Am I like that?” She slashes it to ribbons. (Too bad – that prop painting would have been a great acquisition for a collector.) The parallels again: some interpret this destruction as portending Tina’s abandonment of art, further on up the road, but that may be stretching a point. Anyway, Carl freaks out because it was the best work he’d ever done.
So then, the terrible scene between MacAllister and his now-no-longer fiancee. “I thought I had given my love to one with blood as pure as my own,” he says. “Instead of that I find myself yoked to a low-born peon, one of a race loathed and despised.” Strong words. Jean (whose real name, we now learn, is Marie) tells her story. Born in a village, both parents dead of yellow fever, she became Jean Ogilvie’s servant. Jean died, and the whole thing with the letter was a misunderstanding. She’d meant to tell MacAllister the truth, but then he treated her like an honored guest of equal rank. “You wouldn’t let me explain that first evening,” she pleads, but to no avail. “My love’s just dead,” MacAllister grimly insists. Maria packs up and leaves.
Pretty soon MacAllister changes his mind, but she’s gone. Then he gets a tip to look at the opera house, where she’s on stage performing an expressive dance. (I can’t help wondering if the dancer in this film is actually Tina Modotti or someone else. In those days, they didn’t used to credit body doubles or stunt people.) MacAllister’s card is brought to the star backstage, but Maria refuses to see him. Later on, she turns up at his mansion. Coming in from the pouring rain, she kneels before him and begs forgiveness, which of course is granted. Happy ending for all.
So now the second reason for noticing The Tiger’s Coat is clear: it’s a sterling example of racist attitudes in early 20th Century America. It’s one of a very small genre of films about people of color “passing for white.” (I never understood how Mexicans got to be colored in the first place. When I grew up there were three races: causasian, negroid, oriental. Mexicans aren’t black or yellow, so they must be white. I don’t get it.) Anyway, this is where the film’s title comes from: the artist’s remark that Jean/Marie has the tawny skin of a tiger.
I can see some well-intentioned hysteric wanting to ban this as a racist film. Is it? Yes, if you mean by racist that it says some vile things, and assumes that the culture and society of the time are in agreement. No, because love overcomes racial bias and conquers all (as long as the person of the “wrong” race assumes a kneeling posture and apologizes for existing….)
Anyway, it’s just one more parallel. Coming from another land, looking like a furriner, Jean/Marie had a difficult time, but found her niche on stage, where her exotic appearance and ways were appreciated, rather than scorned. This is exactly what Tina Modotti did. In the Bohemian world she hooked up with in the States, her alien-ness was not a liability but an asset.
In Riding with Death too, Modotti played a Mexican. In I Can Explain, she again portrayed – you guessed it – a Mexican. Weston saw one of the movies she was in and said, “The brains and imaginations of our movie directors cannot picture an Italian girl except with a knife in her teeth and blood in her eye.” But Modotti didn’t take it too seriously. Later, says Pino Cacucci, “…the rare times she did watch one of her films, it was to laugh about it with her friends.”
Letizia Argenteri says the moral lesson of The Tiger’s Coat is, “Lying is bad and only gets you into trouble, and one should not try to be what one is not.” It might also be the stupidity of racism. The real moral is, when re-releasing a silent film, get some extra financing to clean it up. This movie is truly irksome to watch, with a terrible flicker and all kind of other visually annoying flaws. What a shame that it was not restored. It does offer either English or German subtitles, and piano music.
Everyone knows how closely Tina Modotti’s art and life were associated with Mexico, but it was Roubaix de l’Abrie Richey who turned her on to that country when he described some of the sights he found there, stating that they held more poetry “than could be found in Los Angeles in the next ten years…” So, although she had played a Mexican many times in the movies, she didn’t actually cross the border until 1922, arriving in Mexico City to find that Richey had died two days before.
Las Milagrosas: Tribute to Women Artists, by Mary Nash 2001 - with Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Elizabeth Katlett
Las Milagrosas photo by franco folini, courtesy of this Creative Commons license
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