Philippine theater’s very own Ilagans--better than the Barrymores

Buddy Gomez

Posted at Dec 30 2015 10:19 PM

In observance of the hullabaloo created by sore losers in the recent Metro Manila Film Festival, here is something serious. Quick! In five seconds, answer me this question: “What is the very first Filipino full length movie?” Not a quiz but answer follows later.

You must pardon our title’s ‘colonial’ Hollywood allusion. Like or lump it, it is really part of who we are. No two ways about it. But let me begin with childhood memories. Not so much about Filipino movies as much as remembering its actors and actresses. 

As the 1940s began, Sunday afternoons in Sampaloc were a treat for this kindergartener. (We lived in then Alejandro VI, now M. de los Santos.) The yayas’ day-off (nannies: Guillerma was a tall girl while Sabel had a club foot, walked with a limp and leap--all from Calbayog, Samar) was spent with me tagging along G. Tuason, Lipa, Guipit, Lardizabal streets hoping to get a glimpse of Angel Esmeralda and Corazon Noble. Leopoldo Salcedo also lived in the area. I remember names like Rudy Concepcion, Ernesto Laguardia, Ely Ramos, Fely Vallejo, Elsa Oria and Carmen Rosales, Exequiel Segovia, Gregorio Ticman, among many others. 

I did not know it then but Rosa Aguirre and Miguel Anzures also lived in the general neighborhood. Somehow that square mile with Plaza Guipit at its center was home to the more prominent pioneering performers of Philippine silver screen. (That stretch of G. Tuason behind the twin churches of Bustillos, from Castanos to Lipa (now Jhocson) streets, had two neighborhood movie houses--the Alhambra and Odeon.)

And so, much later in life, when I made the acquaintance and friendship of Hermie Ilagan (I spoke about him in my last blog),

I came to know that he was a kid brother of Angel Esmeralda. Oh, what a source of simple glee and gladness! And then, that he was also a brother to Gerry de Leon, Tito Arevalo, Conrado Conde and Eddie Ilagan. All of them surnamed Ilagan, but took up some other screen and professional names. 

I speak of gentlemen who lived and loved in celluloid fame a generation or two ago. They were all recipients, at one time or other, of awards in various categories of their chosen careers. There were girls in the Ilagan family, of course. I can only remember a Laling, mentioned by Hermie and a younger sister whose name escapes me now.

Remembering gets me into a mental thread, an exercise in ‘dementia prevention’ as I am wont to engage in these days with some regularity. So, let me rattle off some more.

Hermie was a lawyer but never practiced. He was an advertising man but dabbled in script-writing. I remember one which he titled “Salamisim.” I think that is deep Tagalog for remembrance or reminiscence. 

Gerry de Leon was a medical doctor who forsook the practice and gained fame in cinematography. He was awarded the very first National Artist for Film. He was married to Fely Vallejo. Liberty Ilagan is their daughter. Both actresses. 

I am not sure if Angel Esmeralda was a lawyer, too. I have lost track of him. (I liked him a lot because I thought he looked like my uncle Wenzel Bayhon.) Angel was married to Corazon Noble who, aside from her pre-war movie fame, was a celebrated survivor of the Japanese atrocities during the Liberation of Manila. She was bayoneted many times, right elbow permanently disabled. The baby she was holding and shielded did not survive. Angel and Corazon were the parents of Jay Ilagan, another actor, who died in a motorcycle in the early 1990s. Corazon testified in the War Crimes trial of Gen. Yamashita, held responsible for the holocaust of Manila. From a distance, a few years later I remember having seen her with right arm all bandaged up and in a sling.

Then, through Hermie, I met his nephews--Robert Arevalo and Ruben Ilagan. Robert is the stage and screen actor son of Tito Arevalo, actor and composer (who I sometimes got confused with Tito Guizar, a Mexican guitarist/singer actor of the same era.) Robert was Robert Ilagan while in San Beda elementary in the late 1940s, before going to Ateneo. He is married to a Sampaguita Pictures movie star from Pangasinan, an Audrey Hepburn look-alike in those early years, Barbara Perez. 


Ruben Ilagan, on the other hand, is the son of Conrado Conde, who may have been the oldest of the Ilagan boys. I remember Ruben from advertising circles, radio talk shows and soaps. He did some acting, too, I think. There is not much that I remember about Eddie Ilagan, except that he was more of a writer than an actor and may have sired lesser known movie personalities. 

The brothers Gerry, Angel, Tito, Conrado and Eddie were the early giants in the film industry of the country. Actors, directors, producers, scriptwriters and musical scorer. All progenies of one Hermogenes Ilagan (and wife, Casiana de Leon) hailed as the father of Filipino Zarzuela (musical tragic-comic melodramatic operettas--an entertainment/literary genre inherited from Spain), himself a singer, playwright, actor, director, producer in Philippine theater just before Hollywood’s ‘silents’ took over popular culture in the islands.) He is enrolled in the pantheon of Philippine theater.

A proud Filipino that I am of accomplishments and contributions such as those of the Ilagans’, I am far from being an anti-American nationalist when I say ”better than the Barrymores!” The Barrymores, as the elders might remember, call upon Lionel, Ethel and John, children of one Herbert Blyth, an English actor who performed as Maurice Barrymore. The Barrymores have been referred to as Hollywood’s “Royal Family,” by American entertainment media.


Now, the answer to our quiz. The first Filipino full length film is “Dalagang Bukid.” (Country Maiden/1919) It is based on the zarzuela authored by Hermogenes Ilagan. Its fame as a milestone in Filipino film-making aside, “Dalagang Bukid” was the most popular Filipino zarzuela of all time, having been produced and staged the most number of times in pre-motion picture era. It has also been said that the role of ‘Dalagang Bukid” was what launched the fame and prominence of Atang de la Rama, another Philippine historical stage icon. 

As a dramatist and social commentator, Ilagan was avante garde. He tackled sensitive social issues such as divorce, homosexuality, inequality, graft in politics. He was prolific. I have yet to acquire his biography which I understand began as a doctoral thesis by a Ms. Rustica C. Carpio in Santo Tomas U. It has been published into a book. The book, expectedly, sings praises to this prominent man of Philippine arts and letters.

But beyond a biography to honor his memory, I sincerely believe that the true Hermogenes Ilagan magnum opus must lie not only upon his literary output but in the totality of the brood, the family, the clan he brought forth and in each and every family member’s achievements. A well deserved enrichment to Filipino cultural history would be an anthology of the five brothers’ career histories and a summation of their contribution to the country’s motion picture industry, along with the tons of accolades garnered during their lifetimes and beyond. 

Like Ms. Carpio’s work, “The Ilagans of Philippine Arts and Letters” (if I may pre-empt a potential title) can begin as a postgraduate thesis in Arts, Communications and Theater and then blossom into a volume worthy of prominent space in any Filipino bibliophile’s collection. 

I cannot imagine and do not know of any other pater familias or sire of a clan, perhaps in the whole world, to have had such an impact upon his progenies as to have them, at least five of them, follow in his footsteps, in some form or discipline, thus creating a pool of communication arts and theater talent, a legacy all together prolific, illustrious and outstanding as Hermogenes Ilagan Sr. had. 

A Happy New Year to Y’all. Please be safe celebrating!

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