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F ro m D e r is io n t o D e s ire : T h e “G r e a s e r ” in S t e p h e n C r a n e ’s M e x ic a n S t o r ie s a n d D. W. G r i f f i t h ’s E a r l y W e s t e r n s J u a n A l o n z o In t r o d u c t i o n During perhaps the most climactic and disturbing moment in D. W. Griffith’s The Greaser’ s Gauntlet (1908), the narrative presents the lynching of the central character, the “greaser” in the film’s tide. A member of the lynch party ties a noose around the Mexican’s neck and another secures the rope to the branch of a tree. In the next horrific instant, the mob raises die Mexican, and he is left hanging from the tree. D. W. Griffith. SCARLET DAYS. 1919. Paramount. Showing Richard Barthelmess and Carol Dempster. J u a n A l o n z o 3 7 5 Because of its verisimilitude, the scenc is shocking, even to modern-day viewers. Fortunately for the Mexican, a woman intervenes on his behalf, and he is saved from a fate that befell many innocent real-life Mexicans on the western frontier.' The lynching scene in The Greaser’s Gauntlet seemingly confirms Arthur Pettit’s analysis of the Mexican’s representa­ tion in early American film: that the Mexican, like his nineteenthcentury dime novel predecessors, “remains a subject--someone to be killed or mocked, seduced or redeemed by Saxon protagonists” (132). Pettit’s critique of Mexican stereotypes contains a binary quality— an understanding that sees stereotypes as only positive or negative— that persists in contemporary film scholarship on ethnic identity.2 The con­ clusion of The Greaser’s Gauntlet, however, challenges the binary' critique of the stereotype in an important way. The greaser is not vanquished; instead, he goes on to perform the story’s most heroic deed. Thus, Pettit’s argument fails to explain the contradictory-' moments in film when the Mexican is spared total denigration, when film narrative simultaneously expresses repulsion for and attraction toward the Mexi­ can subject. Such an argument does not account for what Homi Bhabha calls the ambivalence of stereotypical representation. In this essay, I draw upon Bhabha’s analysis of ambivalence for my reading of Mexican identity representation in two short stories by Stephen Crane and in several early films by D. W. Griffith at the turn of the twentieth century. Rather than contending that representations of the Mexican in Crane and Griffith are merely stereotypical and de­ rogatory, I read in their depictions a wavering— sometimes derisive, sometimes admiring— attitude toward the Mexican subject. Crane’s stories demonstrate an indirect regard for the Mcxican in their refusal to make the Anglo-American the definitive victor over his Mexican rival. Crane reveals a sense of equality between Anglo and Mexican combat­ ants at odds with the dime novel tradition. I read Crane’s cvenhandcd treatment of the Mcxican and Anglo as expressing ambivalence toward the Anglo-American, specifically, in myths about the western hero. Thus, Crane engages the positive figuration— the positive stereotype— of the Anglo male and subverts it. In the second half of the essay, I focus on the emergence of the “greaser” film stereotype in the films of D. W. Griffith from 1907 to 1910 and argue that the greaser con­ stitutes not the reproduction of dime novel stereotypes but an ambiva­ lent form of racial discourse. Griffith’s often inconsistent appraisal of the Mcxican suggests that Anglo-America’s relation to ethnic minorities in general and Mexicans in particular encompasses contradictory feelings of derision and desire. 3 7 6 WAL 3 8 . 4 WINTER 2 0 0 4 Because the film medium relied heavily upon popular literature for its narrative and stereotypical tropes at the turn of the century, an assessment of early film calls for a comparison with its literary pre­ cursors. Juxtaposing Griffith with Crane in...


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