Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Lost in Adaptation: Chicana History, the Cold War, and the Case of Josephina Niggli

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Lost in Adaptation: Chicana History, the Cold War, and the Case of Josephina Niggli

Article excerpt

In 1953, Metro Goldwyn Mayer released Sombrero, a film based on Josephina Niggli's 1945 novel Mexican Village. Niggli "was a stable writer for MGM and, with director Norman Foster (then best known for directing installments of the Charlie Chan series), adapted the novel for the big screen, becoming the first Mexican American woman to earn a writing credit on a major studio production. Upon its publication, Mexican Village received wide acclaim: it was reviewed in high-profile publications like the New York Times and Yale Review and was repeatedly singled out as one of the best novels of the year.1 MGM attracted the attention of the press when it announced that it had purchased the rights to the acclaimed novel as a vehicle for its rising star Ricardo Montalban.2 Jack Cummings, the nephew of Louis B. Mayer and producer of many of the studio's most successful musicals, produced the film and enlisted the talent of such high-profile stars as Pier Angeli, Cyd Charisse, Yvonne de Carlo, and Vittorio Gassman. This assemblage of talent sustained the interest of the press, which profiled the production as it was filming on location in Tepoztlán, Mexico.3 Optimistic about the prospects of the film, MGM commissioned Foster to prepare a sequel, based on other parts of the novel, even before the film was released.4 However, the sequel stalled after Sombrero was panned by critics. Referring to the film "as a squashy sort of picture, as massive as the garment for which it is named," Bosley Crowthers, writing for the New York Times, acknowledged Niggli's talents as a novelist while lamenting that the "stories [in the film] are told so poorly and the jointing is so curious and confused, in a clumsy staggered fashion, that the sum is a jumbled tedious blob."5 In later years, Niggli herself would wonder how so many talented individuals could make "such a stinker."6

The story of Sombrero is more than a story of a bad adaptation. We argue that Sombrero is representative of a crisis in the cultural production and political rhetoric of Mexican Americans in the 1950s. In the 1920s and 1930s, Mexican Americans found themselves responding to the political upheavals resulting from the Mexican revolution of 1910. In Mexico, the cultural arm of the revolution at once promoted its ideologies and helped a previously fragmented nation imagine itself as whole. Similarly, Mexicans in the United States who had previously identified with such local affiliations as California or tejano began to understand themselves, through the Revolution's doctrines and media, as part of a totality.7 In the fiction and drama of Niggli, most of which was written before 1950, the Mexican revolution becomes a vehicle to conceptualize and consider the obligations and demands of civic life and modernity. In the 1950s, Mexican Americans found themselves adapting to a radically shifting United States political climate that, with the commencement of the Cold War, more emphatically insisted on the pliant "Americanness" of its citizens. Cold War politics and the rise of McCarthyism in the United States necessitated the suppression of the revolution as a topic in both literature and politics. The loss of the revolution as an option for thinking and imagining political life turns the more coherent narratives of Mexican American life before World War II into something like the "jumbled tedious blob" that Crowthers discovered in his viewing of Sombrero.

The story of Mexican Village's adaptation into Sombrero is about more than the loss of the Mexican Revolution as a vehicle for thought. It is also a story of the loss of the 1950s in Chicana history. As the Chicano movement valorized "the history of class struggle and its impact on the mass of men and women who participated in these struggles," the "exceptional men and women" who were part of the middle class and achieved visibility in their moment were erased to bring the laborer and his and her concerns into the fore.8 To be sure, Niggli was an exceptional individual and unusual in Chicana literary history. …

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