Still photo showing lead actor Victor McLaglen with Girl #1 in Panama, Elena Jurado, in Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Photo courtesy of Wilfredo Pascual
Culture Spotlight

The first Filipino movie star in Hollywood is a woman

Elena Jurado was from the rustic seaside town of Sibonga, Cebu, but fate led her to the US where her steely ambition led to a career in movies. In this feature pieced from the extensive research of writer Wilfredo Pascual, we chart the journey of this “Island Cinderella” from being billed alongside Hollywood hotshots until her fairy tale took a different turn
Isidra Reyes | Nov 25 2019

Wilfredo Pascual first stumbled into the story of Elena Jurado in 2008, in the microfilm section of the San Francisco library. Since then, he’s searched for her in archives, periodicals, traced her roots in ancestral records, looked for her name in manuscripts, microfilms, and every material accessible. “Each time a veil is lifted or another falls to dim her flickering image,” says Pascual, a Filipino writer, “the archives staff handed me a small old envelope labeled ‘Jurado, Elena.’” From that folder of fragile clippings from 1922, he labored over putting her story together. “I had to read it through a sheet of transparency to flatten it. I checked the envelope again and noticed crumbled bits of paper stuck inside – a jumbled phrase here, a faint word there.” 

You may also like:

Thus began Pascual’s journey in discovering Jurado’s own life journey from the rustic seaside town of Sibonga, Cebu, hometown of erstwhile Queen of Visayan Movies, Gloria Sevilla, to Camp Jossman in Guimaras, then off to a Manila convent school and an early marriage which brought her to America where she pursued her American Dream in the land of her father.

 

Sibonga beginnings

Elena Jurado was born Elena Jurado Jacobs in Sibonga on May 19, 1901 to Mark Jacobs, a U.S. Army Sergeant of Company H, 19th Infantry stationed in Cebu, and Placida Jurado, a native of Sibonga, this rural municipality south of Cebu City overlooking the Strait of Cebu. Elena was a child of the Philippine American War. According to Pascual, Elena’s father, then only 22 and of French ancestry, was assigned in Sibonga to install and repair telephone poles to aid in combat when he met the comely Cebuana lass, Placida. They lived together but were not married.

“Out for A Good Time,” photo taken circa 1911 showing U.S. Army men out for a good time outside Camp Jossman. Photo courtesy of Matthew Westfall from his FB album, Images of Iloilo and Guimaras, Circa 1911.

Elena spent her early years until age eleven at Camp Jossman, a military base in Guimaras. She grew up mingling with children of U.S. army and civil officers. Photos of Camp Jossman taken during that time show a clean and orderly community with beautifully furnished officers’ houses, a military hospital, sumptuous holiday gatherings, and the American lifestyle led by its inhabitants—which Elena must have imbibed.

 

A bride at 13

After attending convent school in Manila, the 13 year-old Elena married Ira O. Jones, an American-born post office clerk from Franklin, Indiana who first came to the Philippines as a volunteer medic for the U.S. Army, serving only six months, after which he found work at the Philippine Post Office. Elena’s early marriage to a man 20 years her senior was with her mother’s written consent. Placida Jurado was present at her daughter’s wedding solemnized at San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila. According to Pascual, Ira had a wife and child living in the U.S. when he married Elena, and it is uncertain if he divorced his first wife before tying the knot with the Filipina. Elena’s father had left her and her mother a year before and headed for the U.S. where he lived with his American wife. There are no records of any communication between Elena and her father at this time nor of any financial support extended by him to Elena and her mother.

On May 20, 1919, just a day after Elena’s 18th birthday, she sailed to San Francisco, California with her husband. They tried their luck at a gold mining camp in the Sierras where Ira found a job as an electrician. After only about a year, Elena and Ira moved to San Francisco due to lack of opportunities at the mining camp which by then was almost abandoned. In San Francisco, Elena took up studies in wire transfer technology with hopes of landing a job as a radio operator. Failing to land a job and with finances running low, Elena had to make her own way.   

Publicity material for Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928) where Elena Jurado played Girl #1 in Panama. Source: imdb.com

First shot at stardom

Following  are excerpts from a narrative of Elena’s first shot at movie stardom written by Pascual: “One day, she noticed in the newspapers that a great Arabian film story called White Hands (1922) was being produced (by Max Graf) at the studios at (Coyote Point), San Mateo, (near San Francisco, California). The article described the setting, gave a synopsis of the story, and told of the difficulties of the producer in getting the Arabian type they needed for the cast. ‘I made up my mind that I had to be in that picture. The newspaper reported that there was to be a café in the story, at which terrible orgies were carried (out), and where sensational dances (were performed)...So I went to the place and asked for the man whose name I had (read) in the newspaper.  I told him I must be in that picture. 

Photo showing the New York premiere of Lambert Hillyer’s White Hands in 1922 at B.S. Moss Broadway Theater at Broadway and W. 53rd Street, New York City. This is the same theater where Lea Salonga performed as Kim in Cameron Mackintosh’s Broadway production of Miss Saigon which opened here on 11 April 1991. Source: Exhibitor’s Herald, 25 February 1922, p. 50.

“He wasn’t very encouraging--I began to lose my self-confidence rapidly.  He asked me if I could dance the hula and other Oriental dances and I told him I thought I could. Finally he told me I could fill out an application card and leave it. They would let me know if there was a chance for me. Then he went away, leaving me with the application card. I filled out one then I thought I was hopeless and tore it up. I must have sat there half an hour filling out cards, yielding to my sense of failure, and tearing up the cards.  In the end...I signed the card and left.  A few days later I went back to the studio and was told to return Saturday…(only to find out) that he had gone for the day. On the following week, I made a third try. They seemed to be expecting me...and gave me a test. That was the day I met Mr. (Hobart) Bosworth (the film’s lead actor).”  

Photo of Dean of Hollywood Hobart Bosworth, star of Elena’s first movie, White Hands (1922), and Elena’s first mentor. He fondly called her “Swede,” saying that Lena was a Swedish name. Source: imdb.com

Quoting Hobart Bosworth, Pascual added: “‘From the moment I saw her I realized that she was the type we wanted. She said she could dance, and we tried her out and found that she could.  So I had my assistant put her down for a minor part--that of a dancer in a café.  She was to have had two or three scenes, with a host of others...But on her first day of work, I told her to sit down on the floor of the café.  She did it with a grace and ease that caught my eye instantly. I asked her where she learned to do that, and she replied that she had done it more or less all her life. ‘I’m a Filipina.’ she said.  (When asked to dance), she threw herself into it with abandon.’  Bosworth was astonished, mesmerized.  ‘I began to be annoyed with her, because I couldn’t keep my mind on the star when she was on the stage. She was not an extra girl, without a name or identity. She was an Arabian dancer.’”

‘I began to be annoyed with her, because I couldn’t keep my mind on the star when she was on the stage.’

While Lambert Hillyer’s White Hands, which premiered on 9 January 1922, received fair reviews from Variety and Lima News citing how the picture, “a typical C. Gardner Sullivan tale...laid in the African desert country...was completely dominated by the rugged personality of Mr. Bosworth,” Elena did not go unnoticed.

 

Who’s that girl?

Within six months, Wilbur Hall and other reporters wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle a few articles on Elena, the former “extra” who came all the way from the Philippine Islands, America’s colonized archipelago in the Far East: “Girl Succeeds as Dancer in Film Play,” “Island Cinderella Finds Fairy Godfather,” “Cinderella of Screen Sails Across Oceans.” Her publicity reached the East Coast with the Washington Post dubbing her “The First Filipino Movie Star.”

A Filipino-American journalist identified as Venerando Gonzales, who sought her out to interview her for the Philippine Independent News, elicited the following statement from Elena: “Personally, I have nothing to be proud of. The fact that I am the first Filipina to enter the moving picture profession simply demonstrates that the Filipino women, like their sisters of the Caucasian race, will rise up from obscurity to limelight if they are given (the) opportunity. I believe more freedom of education for our women will largely contribute to the realization of their claim for a higher level of social position.”

Color poster of Cecil B. DeMille’s first production of The Ten Commandments (1923) starring Theodore Roberts as Moses where Elena Jurado appeared as a woman in the Main Story set in modern times. Source: imdb.com

On April 13, 1922, Elena signed a contract with the Motion Picture Utility Corporation which engaged her services to appear in two pictures to be shot in her native Philippine Islands entitled, Sunshine and Shadow and Wings of Love whose scenarios Elena herself had written. These scenarios about life in the Philippine Islands during the American Occupation greatly impressed not only Hobart Bosworth but also the novelist, Peter B. Kyne. 

She sailed back to Manila via Japan and Hong Kong on board the Tenyu Maru with her husband in 1922, acquiring beforehand a Passport under the name, Lena Jurado Jacobs (she rarely used Jones) as an Insular Resident of an Insular Possession of the United States issued on 29 March 1922.  With them on the voyage were Kenneth McGaffey and the first unit of a company which was to film exterior (shots) of the two films. The second unit, it was announced would follow within a month.

The fact that I am the first Filipina to enter the moving picture profession simply demonstrates that the Filipino women, like their sisters of the Caucasian race, will rise up from obscurity to limelight if they are given (the) opportunity.

Newspaper write-up published in San Francisco Chronicle, 26 June 1923 which gave details on the suit filed by Elena Jurado against Motion Picture Utility Corporation. The suit was later dismissed. Image courtesy of Wilfredo Pascual

In 1923, her fairy tale took a different turn: “Filipino ‘Princess’ of Film Awakes From Dream of Stardom, Sues for $2261, Second Unit of Utility Cast, She Says, Did Not Arrive,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle in its June 26, 1923 issue. Elena reportedly filed a case against the Motion Picture Utility Corporation, represented by her lawyers, Glickman & Glickman, claiming payment in the amount of $ 2,261, representing unpaid fees ($ 500 per week while shooting the film and $ 30 per week while resting) and expenses she had to shoulder while in the Philippine Islands as no funds were remitted to her to produce the two films she was supposed to star in. According to Pascual, silent film historian David Kien, told him the Motion Picture Utility Corporation did not attract enough investors for their ambitious project to turn San Francisco into another Hollywood. There was no follow-up to the case Elena filed against the production company in San Francisco, with no news about it published in the newspapers in the following weeks, months and years. Elena’s case was reportedly dismissed.

Still photo showing lead actor Victor McLaglen and another actor feuding over Girl # 1 in Panama, Elena Jurado, in Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Photo courtesy of William Pascual

Her silent film career did not end there however. She moved to Hollywood and landed small roles in two other silent films about American sailors fighting over women abroad:  Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory (1926), where she had a billed part as Carmen, and Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928), starring Victor McLaglen, Robert Armstrong, and Louise Brooks, where she played Girl #1 in Panama City, one of the many girls in various ports of call around the world whom McClaglen and Armstrong fought over. She was also in Robert “Bobby” Ray’s Twenty Legs Under the Sea (1927), a film about beauty contestants, and in Cecil B. De Mille’s earlier version of The Ten Commandments (1923), starring Theodore Roberts as Moses with Estelle Taylor as Miriam and Julia Faye as the Pharaoh’s wife. According to Wilfredo Pascual, Elena played the role of a woman in the main story set during modern times; the film’s narrative shifted intermittently from Bible scenes to contemporary setting.

Color flyer for Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory (1926) where Elena Jurado as Carmen shared billing with lead actors, Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe, and Dolores del Rio. Source: imdb.com

Thus far, based on documentary research, Elena’s last film appearance was as one of the women in a Viennese bordello “in that little crooked house--in that crooked little street” frequented by the playboy Prince Nicki played by Erich von Stroheim in The Wedding March (1928) directed by Stroheim himself.

Fawning over Prince Nicki played by Erich von Stroheim. Sources: imdb.com and youtube.com

Elena may have worked in other films but it is difficult to come up with a more definitive filmography, especially with her unbilled roles, as only a few silent films have survived intact and are accessible online. Scant as her filmography appears to be, Elena, nonetheless had the good fortune to work with some of the greatest Hollywood directors, notably Erich von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and Cecil B. De Mille, and the opportunity to star with Hollywood acting legends, Hobart Bosworth (once called Dean of Hollywood, who played Davy Crockett, John Alden, the Wizard, and Rip Van Winkle), Victor McLaglen (the British American actor best known for Westerns who worked with John Ford and John Wayne), Dolores del Rio (the beautiful Mexican actress who was the first major crossover Latin American star in Hollywood), Zasu Pitts (the star of Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece, Greed), Fay Wray (best known as Ann Darrow, King Kong’s first love), and Louise Brooks (the Flapper Icon best known for Pandora’s Box).

ublicity article for Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1928) produced by Paramount Pictures. Source: imdb.com

Based on Pascual’s research, Elena was already living by herself in Los Angeles during the filming of her latter movies. Her husband had fallen very ill and was confined at the Veteran’s Hospital.  He managed to recover and lived alone working as a clerk at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) until he passed away in 1942.  By then, Elena had already left Ira and remarried Andrew James Wingate, a New Yorker draftsman who worked for an aircraft company and was thirteen years Elena’s junior. According to Pascual, Elena worked as a kindergarten teacher during her marriage to Andrew. They had one son. Later, Andrew divorced Elena and she would pass away in a home for the elderly in Los Angeles County on her 73rd birthday, on May 19, 1974.  Her grave marker simply stated:  Mother, Elena J. Wingate, 1901-1974.  There are no records indicating she returned again to her native land— which would have warmly welcomed and embraced her as their Island Cinderella, the first Filipina movie star to have sparkled in Hollywood.

 

This Wednesday, Archivo 1984 presents “Finding Elena,” an exhibit curated by multi-awarded writer, Wilfredo Pascual, featuring photographs of “the First Filipino Movie Star in Hollywood,” following her curious rise to fame and her final performances as an actress. Also featured is the writer’s lecture, presenting his extensive research on the life and career of Elena Jurado, happening at 7 pm, at the Archivo 1984, Pasillo 18, La Fuerza Compound, 2231 Chino Roces Ave., Makati City. The exhibit and lecture are open to the general public, free of charge.