When it comes to Puerto Ricans in classic film, the default is to mention Rita Moreno but we must do better and make room for Olga San Juan. You might be asking who is Olga San Juan? While her career may not have been as prolific in Hollywood with accolades like Moreno’s, she still must be credited for helping to bring Latin images on screen during the 1940’s.
San Juan danced with Fred Astaire, sang with Bing Crosby, was a side-kick to Betty Grable, and performed with “El Rey” himself, Tito Puente. She didn’t get the big, leading roles she deserved but this tiny, sassy Latina made her presence known as a scene stealer. Hollywood dubbed her the “Puerto Rican Pepperpot” because of her short stature of 5’2. Alongside Carmen Miranda, San Juan helped Americans escape the horrors of WWII with her turns in “Good Neighbor” films that combined musical numbers with Pan-American flair. But unlike Miranda, San Juan wasn’t restricted to the stereotypical spicy Latina characters, in some films she’d pass for white, a Mexican posing as an Indian, and even a Norwegian!
Before arriving onscreen, she dazzled crowds as a nightclub and theater performer. San Juan began dancing at a very young age, her L.A. Times obituary says 5 or 6, but we may never know for sure but what we do know is that the discipline she learned at an early age helped her success. She grew up in Spanish Harlem in New York with Puente and during her childhood she performed shows in his mambo act. They’d perform at a nightclub started by mothers called “Las Estrellas del Futuro” which means “stars of the future” in English. As we’ve seen now, those women were clearly onto something. It was clear that San Juan loved performing and her talents only expanded.
She would continue to perform in nightclubs in her teens mixing in radio work. Eventually she caught the attention of Paramount Studios. She was signed to a contract in 1943 at 16. Work didn’t come easy though. She was reduced to chorus girl parts but in films like Duffy’s Tavern and Blue Skies she stood out. Her attractive looks, dance moves, and spunky personality made an impression. Blue Skies features a great number of Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave” where San Juan performs a sultry dance with Fred Astaire. It was perfect for the time as Latin American landscapes were all the rage at the time. It wasn’t until the star-studded buffet film, Variety Girl, that audiences saw Olga San Juan the actress.
In this film, she shares above the title credit with Mary Hatcher as two best friends who switch identities to try and make it big in the movie industry. I watched this film a long time ago and remember being captivated by San Juan and confused. She’s blonde here and her character is named Amber Lavonne but the credits say Olga San Juan, a really Latin name, but I had to remind myself, this is 1940’s Hollywood. San Juan is hilarious in this role, she’s the more colorful character of the two and gets herself caught in some slapstick hijinks. Her energy is perfect for the part amidst the star studded cameos that include anyone and everyone who was on the Paramount lot: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Burt Lancaster, and the star-studded finale features a singing William Holden and Ray Milland with a dad joke about a ham. That alone is worth it. San Juan manages to steal the show here as the over confident Amber as she tries to get attention from studio bosses in order to become the next big star.
She’d follow Variety Girl with a few more roles. Standouts include the Ava Gardner-Robert Walker comedy One Touch of Venues and the Preston Sturges black comedy The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend. The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend was seen as a hot mess when it was released. It features Betty Grable against type as a gun-toting saloon singer but over the years it’s been lauded as an ahead of its time work. But for me, it’s a reminder of the kind of career Olga San Juan should have been given. San Juan is perfect as Grable’s side-kick Conchita. In this film, Grable’s character Freddie shoots a judge with a bullet met for her cheating boyfriend, she and her friend (San Juan) attempt to flee assuming the identities of a school teacher and her American-Indian student respectively. This film is all over the place but it’s a Sturges so it’s not meant to be taken seriously and you’re introduced to an array of zany characters along the way. This is a non-musical role for San Juan which allows her to flex her muscles in comedy and commit fully to the pepperpot label that Paramount bestowed upon her when she started out.
The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend would be the last major role San Juan would have. She essentially retired from the screen to devote her time as a mother and wife. San Juan was married to actor Edmund O’Brien for twenty eight years. Like many ethnic actors of Hollywood’s golden age, you’re left wanting more and wondering what their careers could have been if executives knew how to utilize their talents and if films were written with diverse actors in mind. San Juan was the package – she had the looks, talent, and was a chameleon who could adapt to the different roles offered to her. While her screen credits may only be 17 according to IMDB, she helped audiences during the dark times of WWII and put the island of Puerto Rico in the public conscience. So the next time Latinos in Classic Hollywood comes up in conversation don’t forget the Olga San Juans when you talk about the Rita Morenos, they are worthy of a place in the discussion.