Susan Roces and the making of a movie queen 2
From left: Jesusa Sonora y Levy when she graduated at age 14 from La Consolacion College Bacolod. Courtesy of jocellebatapasigue.com; colorized publicity photo of Susan by Jonjon Diquiatco Valle
Culture

The making of a movie queen: Susan Roces, her growing up years, her leading men, her fiercest rival

How did this doctor’s daughter become one of the most beloved movie stars in Philippine cinema? And how did she become its queen?
ISIDRA REYES | May 29 2022

She was the beloved Queen of Philippine Movies, and the Queen to FPJ’s Da King. She was Swannie, Manang Inday, Susanang Daldal, Dory, Susie, Maruja, and Cardo Dalisay’s feisty Lola Flora of the long-running TV series, “Ang Probinsyano.” When news broke last May 20, a Friday, that Susan Roces had passed on, it seemed the entire nation went on a pause to pay its respects. Her death seems to mark the passing of a more innocent era in Philippine Cinema which now survives only in YouTube and Facebook uploads of black and white Sampaguita Pictures movies—which many would remember watching on afternoon TV during their childhood and teenage years in the 1960s up to the 1980s. Remember “Dance-O-Rama,” “Amy, Susie & Tessie,” and “Susanang Daldal vs. Amaliang Mali-mali”?  

Susan as Queen of Philippine Movies, 1963. Photo courtesy of June de Leon.
Susan as Queen of Philippine Movies, 1963. Photo courtesy of June de Leon.

For almost a week, VIPs of showbiz and politics trooped to Heritage Park Mortuary Chapels to catch a last glimpse of Manang Inday and give tribute to her legacy. The list includes incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, incoming President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., ex-President Joseph Estrada, Senate President Tito Sotto, Senator-colleagues of Susan’s daughter Grace Poe, cabinet officials, mayors, plus television and movie industry executives, colleagues. Coco Martin and the entire "Ang Probinsyano" cast made their presence felt, as did Sharon Cuneta, Maricel Soriano, Pops Fernandez, Gary Valenciano, Dulce, and Susan’s Sampaguita Pictures leading man Eddie Gutierrez. Also part of the crowd were Susan’s Balik Samahan barkada led by Pempe Rodrigo and Boots Anson-Roa. Spotted too were Charo Santos, Caridad Sanchez, Boy Alano, more friends, more family, more loyal fans. The wake became, hands down, Manila’s most well-attended gathering since the pandemic struck.

Susan Roces' paternal great grandfather, Adolphe Blum Levy (1849-1888),
Full-length photo of Susan’s paternal great grandfather, Adolphe Blum Levy (1849-1888), one of the three Levy brothers of French Jewish origin who founded Levy Hermanos, Inc., La Estrella del Norte, and Levy & Blum (later known as Oceanic Commercial). He managed Levy Hermanos, Inc. in Iloilo City. Courtesy of Levy Abad, filipinojournal.com

Who was Susan Roces and why did her passing elicit such grief, loss, mourning, love, adulation, and respect? Her life history holds the answers.

Jesusa Purificacion Levy Sonora was born at Harrison Hospital, Pasay, Rizal on the eve of World War II on July 28, 1941 to Dr. Jesus Tongoy Sonora and the former Purificacion Gallo Levy. Dr. Jesus was of Negrense-Chinese-Spanish ancestry, born to Jose Locsin Sonora (son of Domingo Montelibano Sonora and Justina Locsin) and Jovita Rivera Tongoy (daughter of Juan Tongoy and Necita Rivera).  The Locsin clan was of Chinese ancestry and was descended from Wo Sin Lok, a peddler born in 1730 in Amoy (now Xiamen), China who emigrated to the Philippines and first settled in Molo, Iloilo. Susan’s mother, on the other hand, was of mixed French, Jewish and Ilonggo ancestry, the daughter of Francisco Enriquez Levy (son of Adolphe Blum Levy and Benita Enriquez) and Luisa Gallo of Iloilo. 

Susan Roces birthplace
Photo of Harrison Hospital at F.B. Harrison, Pasay, Rizal where Jesusa Levy Sonora was born on 28 July 1941.

Jesusa was the second of five children. There was Bennett, the eldest; Teresita, the third child; and  Maria Rosario, or Rosemarie, who would also become a movie star. The youngest child was Jose Mari, the only boy. Their father’s work as a physician brought the family to various places. Apart from his native Bacolod City where Dr. Jesus had a clinic, the family likewise lived in Mankayan, Benguet. Here, Susan’s father was assigned as company physician of Lepanto Mines. Mankayan, Benguet is also where Rosemarie was born on April 21, 1948.  In a video interview on the occasion of Lepanto Mines’ 85th Anniversary in 2021, Susan shared her fond recollections of her family’s stay in Lepanto Mines: “It must have been in 1945 or 1946 that I first set foot in Lepanto Mines. We traveled to Baguio City where my father was waiting for us. From Baguio City we had to take the bus to get up to Lepanto. So during the travel, I fell asleep…I had motion sickness at the time…Pretty soon my father was waking me up…so I opened my eyes and said: ‘What happened? Is there fire? Why is there smoke all over?’ My father said: ‘That’s not smoke, that’s fog.’ ….I felt it was very cold. After a few minutes, the sun started to shine. And lo and behold, all around us (were) yellow, golden sunflowers welcoming us. It was such a beautiful sight! So how can I forget my days in Lepanto?...We were then ushered to the place we were going to stay in. Looking around, it looked so different. Where we came from, there were a lot of ruins from the World War. Here, there are full-grown trees, big, big pine trees…and they smelled so good…So we reached our destination.  It was a beautiful, newly built cottage. Green roof (with) a balcony in front and the walls outside were all painted white with trees at the back (which became) our play area. The front area my mother made into a garden. She filled it with a lot of roses and dahlias, huge dahlias!  

“My childhood in Lepanto was very, very happy (especially) for us children.  It was  made so because of the friends I gained and everything we wanted to do, we were allowed to do: games, pottery making out of clay which native children taught us how to do...Before I left Lepanto, my friend David Foster, a blonde boy, buried our toys at the back of our house. We promised we would come back one day and dig (them) up. (Laughs.) That won’t happen anymore because I have reached this age, I will be eighty in a month.  

La Estrella del Norte, Escolta, Manila
La Estrella del Norte, Escolta, Manila, a purveyor of luxury goods founded by the Levy brothers, Adolphe, Charles, and Rapahel, French Jews originally from Alsace-Lorraine, France. Courtesy of Lou Gopal

“I had my First Holy Communion at Lepanto…it was a big event…We stayed for a few years (in Lepanto). I had my early studies there. My classmates in public school were natives, children of people from the lowlands and from different countries, mayroong blonde ang buhok, mayroong Amerikano, taga ibang bansa, it was a mixed crowd of children. My elder sister (Bennett) was brought to another school in Mankayan as an intern. I would walk to school by myself. It was safe even for children to be walking by themselves through the woods. I remember I had to wear high cut shoes to secure my ankles and coveralls with striped T-shirt inside…We played a lot of games in school and were taught a lot of lessons, especially poetry, singing…mostly in English as it was a common language among us (children) of different nationalities.”  

In the same interview, Susan shared her recollections of her father. “My father as a doctor was very much in touch with everyone. His priority in life was his service as a physician. One thing I cannot forget is one day, we were celebrating New Year’s Eve. There was an urgent call for him to report to the hospital. Somebody got wounded. He had to leave our celebration and I went to tag along with him to see him at work. He allowed me to go with him. I was holding a walnut that was half open. And then we reached the hospital and I saw the patient that he was going to attend to. I saw part of his skull was gone because of the wound. I looked at the walnut I was holding and thought, ‘My God! It is very much like the inside of the walnut! What a challenge for my Dad  to work on this guy. I hope he stays alive.’ And I prayed so hard to God for my Dad to perform the operation  well. Thank God that patient was saved! He was one of the guards in the hospital who accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun…

Color print ad for Roberta (1951).
Color print ad for Roberta (1951). The young Tessie Agana inspired Susan and many other kids to be an artista. Courtesy of Video 48

“It is very difficult to have  a doctor in the family.  It is like having a soldier in the family.  Because the first service that he has to do is for the profession that he chose.”

In 1955, Dr, Jesus was listed in the telephone directory of Lima, Ohio, U.S.A. as an intern at the Lima Memorial Hospital, a level 2 trauma center, with his wife’s name similarly listed in the same telephone directory. It is unlikely that Susan accompanied her parents at the time as she was then studying at La Consolacion College Bacolod City where she spent three of her high school years (she graduated with High School Class of 1956).  In an article written by Joe Quirino in 1958, Dr. Jesus was said to have been a resident physician in a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thereafter, the Sonora family moved to San Juan, Rizal where they stayed at 226 Wilson Street near Greenhills for many years.

Several sources, including Joe Quirino’s Don Jose and the Early Philippine Cinema, have revealed that Jesusa Sonora, then billed as Maria Levy, made her movie debut at nine years of age as a child star in Jose Nepomuceno Productions’ :Mga Bituin ng Kinabukasan" (shown at Dalisay Theater from January 21-30, 1952) along with fellow child stars Ike Lozada and Mila Ocampo. As Susan recalled in Inside the Cinema with Boy Abunda, it was child star Tessie Agana, who appeared in Sampaguita Pictures’ hit 1951 movie, "Roberta," who inspired her to become a movie star. “Lahat ng bata na katulad ko nangarap na maging Tessie Agana. In fact, hindi lang iyon. I remember nag-line-up din kami para mag-screentest para sa "Darna" (1951, starring Rosa del Rosario and produced and directed by Fernando Poe, Sr.). Nakita ko yung tatay ni FPJ na ang taas-taas na tao, siguro dahil napakaliit ko. Ang kapatid ko ang gusto mag-audition doon pero hindi na kami inabot dahil napakahaba ng linya. Sa mga sumunod na pangyayari, naghahanap naman sila ng mga gagawing artista nila sa Nepomuceno Productions, kaya ako ang napasama diyan sa "Mga Bituin ng Kinabukasan"…parang yung ginagawa natin dito sa ABS na yung mga bata portray the roles of grown-ups.”

Studio portrait of Susan Roces by Dominador Cruz of Tropicana Studio. Colorized by and courtesy of Jonjon Diquiatco Valle.
Studio portrait of Susan Roces by Dominador Cruz of Tropicana Studio. Colorized by and courtesy of Jonjon Diquiatco Valle.

"Mga Bituin ng Kinabukasan," however, would be Jesusa’s last appearance as a child star. Her parents deemed it more important for their daughter, whom they called “Baby Darling,” to continue with her studies.  Susan was then  in Grade 5 at Our Lady of Loreto College in Sampaloc, Manila for School Year 1950-1951.  

While her career as a child star was nipped in the bud, Jesusa’s interest in acting, singing, and public speaking never waned. She was also active in various school organizations. In the 1956 La Consolacion College Bacolod High School Yearbook, it is stated that she was a member of the Glee Club, the  Student Catholic Action, the Sodality, and was Tagalog Editor of the school paper, The Ripples. At a young age, she knew what she wanted to be. Her ambition, the yearbook says, was:  “To be a successful dramatist.” Jesusa credited her third year high school Speech and Drama teacher, Luisa Medel, for recognizing and nurturing her talents in public speaking and acting. Ms. Medel advised Jesusa to take a course in Speech & Drama in Manila like she did. Jesusa followed her mentor’s advice with the intention of going back to Bacolod to teach but fate intervened. 

Susan Roces
Print ad for Jose Nepomuceno Productions’ "Mga Bituin ng Kinabukasan" (1951) where Susan, using the screen name Maria Levy, made her first and only film appearance as a child star. Courtesy of Video 48

As recounted in Dr. Romy Protacio’s biographical profile of Susan Roces in his book, "Balik Tanaw: The Filipino Movie Stars of Yesteryears": “After graduating from high school, Susan actually planned to pursue her college studies, until one day (sometime in June 1956), she learned there was an open house at Sampaguita Studios and that day completely changed her destiny. Being an avid fan of Gloria Romero, she went to visit the studio with her Aunt Tessie Alava (who had a short-lived career as an actress and was a favorite travel agent of Sampaguita Pictures). Upon arriving at the studio, she was approached by a man (with) a mustache (who) asked her if she was there in the studio because she wanted to become an actress. Susan was taken aback and did not know how to answer the man’s offer. She walked away. Susan did not realize (that) she was talking to the owner of Sampaguita Pictures. Her aunt told Susan who Dr. (Jose) Perez was and was told to go to the Vera Perez Residence the next day.  

“Early in the morning, carrying her graduation dress, Susan went to the Vera Perez Residence. She was accompanied by her uncle, Nestor Levy. There she met Aring Bautista, a character actress living at the Vera-Perez Compound (where the Sampaguita Pictures film studios were located). Aring asked Susan about the purpose of her visit and Susan said she was there for a screen test, as per Dr. Perez’s request.  She was told that Sampaguita Pictures was not in need of new talent and advised her (to go to) LVN which was recruiting new faces.  When Susan and her uncle were about to leave the studio, Director Mar S. Torres saw them and asked: ‘Are you the lady who is scheduled to take the screen test today?’ Susan just nodded so Mar Torres (brought) her to the set (of his movie, “Rodora,” in Antipolo) for her first ever screen test and the rest is history.”  

Jesusa Levy Sonora’s transformation from a gawky teenager with pigtails—“who looked like a chubby Japanese doll”—into the lithe and poised Susan Roces was nothing short of amazing. In his article entitled, “Fastest Rising Star,” published in The Philippines Free Press on September 20, 1958, Joe Quirino wrote: “Launched in the movies as ‘the face that refreshes,’ Jesusa underwent a complete metamorphosis. The plain and gawky kid with the duck walk who before her ‘discovery’ lived a sheltered life, became a glamorous celebrity almost overnight. Even her name was changed—to Susan Roces—after somebody observed that she reminds people of ‘moonlight and roses.” Others said Susan resembled the legendary beauty, Susan Magalona, who was also an Ilongga. Meanwhile, “Roces” was also an aristocratic family name, just like the other similarly aristocratic family names appropriated by other Sampaguita stars which started with “Ro”: Romero, Rodriguez, Rodrigo, Romualdez, among them.

Print ad for Octavio Silos’ Boksingera Daw!
Print ad for Octavio Silos’ Boksingera Daw! (1956), Susan Roces’ first title-roler, co-starring Luis Gonzales and Dolphy. Courtesy of Video 48

The first film Susan shot at Sampaguita Pictures was Octavio Silos’ “Boksingera, Daw!” (1956). Based on a Tagalog Klasiks comics serial, the movie co-starred Susan with Luis Gonzales and Dolphy. As recounted by Joe Quirino in the Philippines Free Press article published in 1958: “In 1956, the year she was discovered, studio top brass were looking for a leading lady for Boksingera…'We needed a leading lady with childlike qualities, in pigtails, and who could box,’ Perez disclosed. Seven tested for the title role…Susan won the part by a vote of 19-1.”  

In the same article, Joe Quirino recounted Susan’s meteoric ascent into stardom: “Today, 17-year-old Susan is the fastest rising star among the teen-age sensations produced by local moviedom’s frenzied search for new talents and fresh personalities…The truth of the matter is that Susan is a genuine phenomenon. She started breathing the rarefied air of stardom in her first year in the movies when she was barely 18. After less than three years and only 10 pictures, she is now earning P5,000 per film. What's more her financial chart is still going up…Producers, directors, fellow troupers, and plain studio hands are all praise for Susan as far as behavior on and off the set is concerned. To hear them talk you’d think she was just an angel in disguise. No rebellious or mixed-up kid, she is dependable, responsible, and completely devoid of temperamental outbursts or the prima donna complex. She reports promptly for work or social engagements. ‘What’s more important, she checks in already made up and ready with her lines,’ Dr. Perez (observed).”  

Joe Quirino summed up Susan’s secret to success: ‘her good breeding, a thorough overhauling job and well-planned build-up, her deep understanding and kind regard for her many fans, and her fierce competitiveness. (Add to these) her natural charm and delicate beauty.’”

Print ads of fantasy and fairy tale movies made by Susan for Sampaguita Pictures: Prinsesa Gusgusin (1957) and Mga Reynang Engkantada (1966).
Print ads of fantasy and fairy tale movies made by Susan for Sampaguita Pictures: Prinsesa Gusgusin (1957) and Mga Reynang Engkantada (1966). Courtesy of Video 48

Susan starred in over 60 movies for Sampaguita Pictures from 1956 to 1967. There were movies based on popular radio and TV shows such as “Kulang sa 7” (1956), “Mga Reyna ng Vicks” (1958),  “Tawag ng Tanghalan” (1958) and “Kahapon Lamang” (1959); dramatic movies such as “Mga Anak ng Diyos” (1957), “Sino ang Maysala?” (1957), “Pasang Krus” (1957), “Ulilang Anghel” (1958), “Pitong Pagsisisi” (1959), “Ipinagbili Ko ang Aking Anak” (1959), “Debutante” (1959), “Kuwintas ng Ala-ala” (1960), “4 na Yugto ng Buhay” (1961), and “Sa Puso ng Isang Ina” (1963); musicals such as “Madaling Araw” (1958), “The Big Broadcast” (1962), “Dance-O-Rama” (1963), “The Dolly Sisters” (1964), and “Jukebox Jamboree” (1964); light-hearted comedies such as “Beatnik” (1960), “Susanang Daldal” (1962), “Susanang Twist” (1962), “Susan Susay, Susie” (1963), and “Amaliang Mali-mali vs. Susanang Daldal” (1963); romantic comedies such as  “Wedding Bells” (1959), “Amy, Susie, and Tessie” (1960), “Joey, Eddie and Lito” (1961), “Lab na Lab Kita” (1962), “Sweet Valentines” (1963), “Eddie Loves Susie” (1964),  “Binibiro Lamang Kita” (1965), and “Ang Maganda Kong Kapitbahay” (1966); fantasies and fairy tales such as “Prinsesa Gusgusin” (1958) and “Mga Reynang Engkantada” (1966); crime thrillers such as “Batas ng Lipunan” (1961) and “Dope Addict” (1961); and even action and war movies such as “Eca Babagot” (1961), “Tulisan” (1962), “Sa Bilis Walang Kaparis” (1964), and “Mga Kanyon ng Corregidor” (1964). Susan’s last movie for her home studio was “Ang Pangarap Ko’y Ikaw” (1967), a romantic drama musical where she co-starred with one of her favorite Sampaguita Pictures leading men, Eddie Gutierrez, and which introduced then new singing sensation, Nora Aunor.

During her heydays at Sampaguita, Susan was paired with some of the top leading men of the time, a number of whom became lifelong friends. Among them was Romeo Vasquez who co-starred with Susan in “Miss Tilapia” (1956), “Pasang Krus” (1957), “Mga Anak ng Diyos” (1957), “Wild Flower” (1957), “Prinsesa Gusgusin” (1957), “Sino ang Maysala?” (1957), “Mga Reyna ng Vicks” (1958), “Madaling Araw” (1958), “Tawag ng Tanghalan” (1958), “Lover Boy” (1958), “Ipinagbili Ko ang Aking Anak” (1959), “Pitong Pagsisisi” (1959), “Kahapon Lamang” (1959), “Debutante” (1959), “Wedding Bells” (1959), “Sa Hardin ng Diyos” (1960), “Amy, Susie & Tessie” (1960), “Dugo Sa Aking Kamay” (1961), “Apat na Yugto ng Buhay” (1961), and “Batas ng Lipunan” (1961). Romeo left Sampaguita Pictures in 1961 to become a freelance actor and would reunite onscreen with Susan in Lea Productions' “Bayan Ko, Lumaban Ka!” (1965), “Maruja” (1967), “Bakasin Mo sa Gunita” (1968) and “Bandana” (1968), RAS Productions’ “Mula nang Kita’y Ibigin” (1966), and GM Film Organization's “Romansa sa World’s Fair” (1965). Romeo would later marry Susan’s rival, the movie queen Amalia Fuentes, in 1966 but Susan and the actor remained friends through the years. In 1980, the two were again reunited onscreen in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s directorial debut, “Tanikala.”

Amalia Fuentes & Susan Roces in a colorized photo by Jonjon Diquiatco Valle.
Amalia Fuentes and Susan Roces in a colorized photo by Jonjon Diquiatco Valle.

Another favorite leading man is the tall, fair, and handsome mestizo actor, Eddie Gutierrez, who was built up as a matinee idol by Sampaguita after Romeo left the studio. In his eulogy for Susan last week, Eddie talked about his friendship with the actress: “Naging kaibigan ko siya for 60 years, at lahat kinukuwento ko sa kanya at nagkukuwento rin siya sa akin. Very, very close kami. Sabi nung ibang fans: ‘Eddie, hindi mo ba naging girlfriend si Susan?’ Sabi ko: ‘Hindi, never kong niligawan si Susan. We were just partners,’ ‘ka ko.” 

The two had fun times together, especially in Las Vegas where they shot “Eddie Loves Susie” (1964) and met Elvis Presley (Elvis was then shooting “Viva Las Vegas” (1964) with Ann-Margret). They waited for the rock and roll king at the Flamingo Hotel from 3 AM until he emerged from the elevator hours later, indulging them with a photo op together with Susan’s younger sister, Rosemarie.  Eddie and Susan acted like giddy fans with the latter screaming “Ang guwapo niya!” when Elvis rolled down the window of his limousine so he can wave goodbye.  

Amalia, Susan,and FPJ at the FAMAS
Amalia, Susan, and FPJ at the FAMAS. Photos courtesy of Video 48

Starting with a bit role as a soldier in Carlos Vander Tolosa’s "Prinsesa Gusgusin," with Susan in the title role, Eddie rose to stardom at Sampaguita Pictures and made a series of movies with Susan as her leading lady, starting with “Joey, Eddie, and Lito,” “The Big Broadcast,” “Susanang Daldal,” “Susanang Twist,”  “Susan, Susay at Susie,” “Sabina” (1963), “Eddie Loves Susie,” “Jukebox Jamboree” (1964), “Leron-Leron Sinta” (1964), “Hi-Sosayti” (1964), “Hamon sa Kampeon” (1964), “Ang Maganda Kong Kapit-bahay” (1965), “Portrait of My Love” (1966), “Anong Ganda Mo!” (1967), “To Love Again” (1967), and Ang Pangarap Ko’y Ikaw, their last movie under Sampaguita Pictures. Four years later, they would co-star again in FPJ Productions’ “Adios Mi Amor” (1971). It took 16 years for another reunion to happen, and this was via Mel Chionglos’s domestic drama, “Paano Kung Wala Ka Na?” (1987) which was immediately followed in quick succession by Mike Relon Makiling’s “1 + 1=12 + 1” (1987) and "Love Boat: Mahal Trip Kita" (1988), J. Erasthea Navoa’s "Kambal Tuko" (1988), Artemio Marquez’s “Here Comes the Bride” (1989), and Rudy Meyer’s “Feel na Feel” (1990), all produced by Regal Films. Their last movie together was also by Mel Chionglo, "Isinakdal Ko ang Aking Ina" (1997), produced by Viva Films. Their last appearance together as co-stars was in the  TV series, "Sana Ngayong Pasko" (2009), directed by Michael Tuviera.

Another favorite leading man of Susan’s at Sampaguita was Jose Mari Gonzalez who first worked with Susan in his launching movie, “Handsome” (1959), followed by “7 Amores” (1960), “Ang Magkakapitbahay” (1960), “Amy, Susie & Tessie,” “Beatnik,” “Sa Linggo ang Bola” (1961), “Joey, Eddie, and Lito,” “The Big Broadcast,” “Dance-O-Rama,” and “Ako’y Ibigin Mo Lalaking Matapang” (1963). Susan and Jose Mari did at least two pictures outside of Sampaguita: “Ana-Roberta” (1965) produced by Ambassador Productions, Inc. and “Viva Ranchera” (1966) produced by Alpha Pictures. The Susan-Jose Mari love team fizzled out after fans found out Jose Mari was dating fellow Sampaguita star Liberty Ilagan. Jose Mari would later marry a beautiful mestiza model, Charito Malarkey, and quit acting in 1967.

Publicity photo of Susan Roces
Publicity photo of Susan Roces with one of her favorite Sampaguita Pictures leading men, Jose Mari Gonzales.
Susan Roces
Susan Roces on the cover of Literary Song-Movie Magazine, 16 June 1959, to promote her movie, "Debutante" (1959) where she played the title role,

The other leading men Susan worked with during her Sampaguita days were Luis Gonzales, Eddie Arenas, Juancho Gutierrez, Tito Galla, Lito Legaspi, and Ramil Rodriguez. She made life-long friendships with co-stars from those Sampaguita days who were also especially close to her husband, FPJ: the comedian Dolphy and character actor Eddie  Garcia.  

As recounted by Susan in Dolphy’s biography, “Dolphy, Hindi Ko Ito Narating Mag-isa,” the comedian, whom she called Dolphs, was very kind, caring and  gracious. “Lalo na sa mga baguhang artista na katulad namin. Wala pa kasing workshops dito noon, so we learned from our co-stars, and it was from Dolphy that I learned kung papaano ‘yong timing sa comedy. Pati sa radyo, ‘yong pagde-deliver ng lines, tinutulungan niya kami; tinuturuan kung paano. Hanggang pati outside of work, iniisip niya ang aming kapakanan. Bago lang kami no’n nina Amalia (Fuentes) at Barbara (Perez), pinangangaralan niya kami na maging street smart, at baka kung anu-ano na’ng sinasabi ng mga lalaking kausap namin na hindi namin naiintindihan, dahil double meaning...Hindi pa uso si Big Brother, si Dolphy Big Brother naAt the height ng kasikatan niya, walang ka ere-ere. ‘Yon ang naging role model naming mga artista na nagsisimula pa lang–na Dolphy na siya at lahat e mapagkumbaba pa…Kung mayroon tayong Mother of Perpetual Help, si Dolphy, Father of Perpetual Help…Hindi ko talaga alam kung paano nagsimula ang friendship nila ni Ronnie, pero it was a friendship na hindi pangkaraniwan. Kahit hindi sila magkita ng maraming taon, parang kanina lang sila naghiwalay pag nagkita ulit.”  

Print ad for RVQ Productions’ Buhay Artista
Print ad for RVQ Productions’ "Buhay Artista" (1967), one of the Susan Roces-Dolphy starrers made after their years of working together at Sampaguita Pictures. Courtesy of Video 48

Susan and Dolphy first worked together in her first movie, “Boksingera, Daw!” and this was followed by “Kulang sa 7,” “Mga Reyna ng Vicks,” “Wedding Bells” (1959), “Beatnik,” “Ang Mga Magkakapitbahay,” “7 Amores,” “Sa Linggo ang Bola” (1961), “Eca Babagot,” “The Big Broadcast,” “Lab na Lab Kita” (1962), and “Susanang Daldal,” all produced by Sampaguita. Outside of Sampaguita, the two co-starred in “Pepe en Pilar” (1966), “Buhay Artista” (1967), RVQ Productions’ first movie “Sitsiritsit Alibangbang” (1967), and “Kaming Taga-ilog” (1968). Nearly 40 years would pass before they would reunite onscreen, this time in the TV series, John En Shirley (2006).

Susan’s closeness to Eddie Garcia, meanwhile, stemmed not only from having worked together at Sampaguita where Eddie was the perennial villain, but also due to Eddie’s special friendship with FPJ. In her tribute to Manoy Eddie when he passed away in 2019, Susan recalled: “Marami kaming pelikulang ginawa, iba-iba ang character niya…madalas ang labas ni Eddie ay kontrabida ni FPJ, pero sa totoong buhay, sila ay matalik na magkaibigan. Eddie is so much fun to be working with…Noong mawala ang aking asawa, andiyan sina Eddie at Lilibeth (Romero), sila ang unang-unang nakiramay sa akin kasama sina Dolphy at iba pa naming kasamahan…”

In a recent phone interview, Lilibeth Romero confirmed how close Eddie was to both FPJ and Susan and how she became close to the movie queen herself as the go-between for Manoy and FPJ’s better half. Susan even suggested to her daughter Grace to get Lilibeth as one of her children’s ninangs.  Susan gave credit to Lilibeth and her family for making Eddie so happy in his latter years.

Amalia and Susan on the covers of Literary Song Movie Magazine, circa 1950s.
Amalia and Susan on the covers of Literary Song Movie Magazine, circa 1950s. Courtesy of Video 48

It was Eddie Garcia and Gloria Romero who inspired Susan to continue acting even in her latter years: “Nag-isip-isip ako, ano ba ang gagawin ko ngayong biyuda na ako? Marahil magre-retire na rin ako. Pero pag nakikita ko si Eddie, at nagtatrabaho pa siya, mas matanda siya sa akin, ganun din si Gloria Romero—sila ang naging inspirasyon ko na magpatuloy."

Eddie and Susan worked in several movies beginning in 1956 when Susan was introduced in Mar S. Torres’ "Miss Tilapia" (1956). After many years, they were reunited in the long-running TV series, “Ang Probinsyano” (2015-present) where Eddie played the villainous Don Emilio Syquia/Señor Gustavo Torralba to Susan’s feisty Lola Flora. One of their most memorable movies together was Armando de Guzman’s “Maruja” (1967) where Susan was cast in the title role of the ill-fated Maruja and Cristy, and Eddie as the Governor-General who marries Maruja against her wishes leading her to kill herself on her wedding night. They would also be reunited on the big screen in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s first movie, "Tanikala."

Colorized movie still from Maruja (1967)
Colorized movie still from "Maruja" (1967), one of Susan Roces’ and Eddie Garcia’s most memorable films together. Colorized by Venjoy Venzon Alegre.

Susan was very well-liked among her peers at Sampaguita. She was Muse of the Sampaguita Family Club which held frequent get-togethers among Sampaguita stars in order to build friendships and camaraderie. Susan remained in touch with them over the years, especially through the frequent Balik Samahan get-togethers usually held at the homes of Pempe Rodrigo or Liberty Ilagan or at Liberty’s Barrio Fiesta Restaurant along Makati Avenue. Even stars from rival LVN Studios and Premiere Productions and younger stars were welcome in these get-togethers. Among those who attended were Sampaguita stars Amalia Fuentes, Gloria Romero, Barbara Perez, Liberty Ilagan, Pepito Rodriguez, and Ramil Rodriguez, as well as Caridad Sanchez, Gloria Sevilla, Lollie Mara, Liza Lorena, Marissa Delgado, and Ricky Davao.

Much has been written in the past about the Amalia-Susan rivalry, especially during their Sampaguita Pictures days. Was it for real or only for reel? Was it merely concocted by studio heads and publicists to drum up interest in the movies the queens made, or by entertainment writers to sell their magazines and newspapers? Or by fans who engaged in hair-pulling and shouting matches just to defend their respective objects of idolatry?   

James De la Rosa, one of Susan’s most avid fans, recounted an interview with veteran movie scribes and publicists, Douglas Quijano and Lolit Solis, about the fierce rivalry between the two movie queens and their respective fans: “Ang panahon nina Susan Roces at Amalia Fuentes ang may pinakamatinding labanan ang mga fans. Dito raw talagang nagsasabunutan ang mga fans; magbabanta ang mga maka-Amalia na sasabuyan ng asido sa mukha si Susan, na gagamiting banta naman ang mga Susanians na susundutin nila ng aspili si Amalia, at kung anu-ano pa. Simple lang ang dahilan, sino ang mas maganda: Si Amalia ba o si Susan? Mayroong mga nagsasabing suplada raw kasi si Amalia Fuentes, kaya para sa mga Susanians hindi ito magandang katangian ng isang artista para sa mga tagahanga. Ayon naman sa mga maka-Amalia, mas maganda raw ito kaysa kay Susan at ito raw ay parang buwan ang mukha at parang pamalo ng dalag ang mga binti. Ganun ang mga awayan ng mga fans nila.”

“In the long run, box office naman ang gauge,” said Douglas Quijano in an interview. And the ringing box office registers obviously adored both Amalia and Susan.

According to an article entitled, “Amalia at Susan, Walang Alitan,” published in Kislap Movies, October 1960, the rivalry between the camps of Susan and Amalia began in 1958 when the former was chosen over the latter to represent the Philippines in the Pan-Pacific Film Festival held in San Francisco, California in 1958. Amalia’s fans were even more furious when Susan was again chosen to represent the Philippines in another event abroad the following year. But was the quarrel just between their fans?

At Sampaguita, Susan and Amalia made at least 16 movies: “Mga Reyna ng Vicks,” “Madaling Araw” (1958), “Tawag ng Tanghalan,” “Ulilang Anghel,” “Ipinagbili Ko ang Aking Anak,” “Pitong Pagsisisi,” “Kahapon Lamang” (1959), “Wedding Bells,” “Sa Hardin ng Diyos,” “Amy, Susie & Tessie,” “Siete Amores,” “Joey, Eddie, & Lito,” “Sa Linggo ang Bola” (1961), “The Big Broadcast,” “Tulisan” (1962), and “Amaliang Mali-mali vs. Susanang Daldal.”  

Amalia Fuentes and Susan Roces
Amalia Fuentes and Susan Roces at the premiere night of Jafere Productions’ "Cover Girls" (1967), Amalia and Susan’s first and only movie together outside Sampaguita Pictures. Courtesy of Joey Perlado, Baul ni Joey

As contract stars, Susan and Amalia did not have much say about the projects thrown their way, even the choice of co-stars, and billing issues. As stated in the article, “Amalia Fuentes–Susan Roces, Will They Make a Picture Together Again?,” published in Screen Stardom, January 1965:  “For eight years, while Susan was in contract with her home studio, billing was never her problem. They had standard procedures of giving senior stars top billing priority except on rare occasions when the title role is not played by the senior star. Besides, as a contract star, the producer’s word is the final decision. When both Amalia and Susan were in Sampaguita, Amalia’s name was billed first before Susan('s)--the former being proclaimed a star earlier than the latter–whenever they starred in a picture together. If and when they make a picture again, they will make it both as freelancers standing all on their own, without anybody but themselves to keep their names at the top of the movie world.” The billing issue must have been a tricky one to resolve so much so that when the two worked on their first and only movie together as freelancers, Jafere Productions’ "Cover Girls" (1967) directed by Luciano “Chaning” B. Carlos, both of them got the first billing (see poster to see what we mean).

Attempts to reunite the two queens onscreen never quite took off. In the 1970s, Juan de la Cruz Productions, producer of such movies as “Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae” (1974) and “Huwag Maglaro ng Apoy” (1975), announced their onscreen reunion: “The film, Stepsisters, will have Susan and Amalia ‘feuding, clawing, clashing’ for dramatic supremacy in this forthcoming boldest  sex-drama ever to be filmed in Full Eastman Color.” Amalia and Susan never got to make Stepsisters but a movie with the same title was shown in 1979 starring Lorna Tolentino and Rio Locsin. It was directed by Elwood Perez and written by Orlando Nadres and Wilfrido Nolledo, the same team behind Juan de la Cruz Productions’ hit movie, "Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae" (1974). Another aborted onscreen reunion was the ABS-CBN teleserye, "Muling Buksan ang Puso" (2013) but Amalia backed out from the role of the poor copra farmer to Susan’s haciendera. Amalia was replaced by Pilar Pilapil.

On a personal level, however, Amalia and Susan did become good friends. As Amalia herself revealed in an interview with Baby K. Jimenez published in Stardom in 1967, while talking about why she enlisted Susan to be the ninang to her unica hija Liezl: “I must admit that in the past when we were still working with Sampaguita, we had never been so close.  But it looks like the recent picture we made–Cover Girls–has brought us closer, really closer.” What could be the reason?, Baby asked. “For one, we are now more mature. I cannot forget how Susan showed her sympathy when Bobby met his accident. She took pains waiting for two hours at the lobby of the hospital when the doctors proclaimed that Bobby was in a critical condition…I wasn’t able to talk to her then–do you know what she did?” Amalia heaved a long sigh as her eyes gathered tears. Then she continued with a choked voice: “She wrote a letter–and that letter gave me more strength. I am keeping it because it means so much to me. Susan is a real friend.” Here’s what the letter said, “In case you need my help, don’t hesitate to ask me…I’ll be around all the time to lend a helping hand. Just let me know, Nena.” 

The decline and eventual collapse of the studio system due to labor problems left the studios with no other choice but to release their prized stars from their long-running contracts. Susan was released by Sampaguita in 1965 and she contemplated on retiring from show business and go into business instead like her Levy forebears. But again, fate intervened and Susan would meet the love of her life who not only made her his leading lady in reel life and allowed her to grow professionally but brought her to the altar as his queen.