Written by Raquel at Out of the Past Blog
In post WWII Hollywood, filmmakers started featuring latino characters in more sympathetic roles. These films showed how latinos, especially Mexican Americans, suffered from prejudice and segregation. Based on the novel The Square Trap by Irving Shulman, The Ring (1952) tells the story of Tomas Cantanios (Lalo Rios) a young Mexican American man living in East Los Angeles. The patriarch of the family has just lost his job and Tomas is determined to help his family makes ends meet. While on a date with his girlfriend Lucy Gomez (Rita Moreno), Tomas knocks out a couple of guys who hit on his girl. He catches the notice of Pete (Gerald Mohr), a talent scout and boxing manager who sees potential in Tomas as a boxer. Tomas soon becomes known as the more Anglo friendly name Tommy Kansas. The promising young prize fighter is already on a winning streak with his first matches. Tomas has to deal with the struggles of being the sole breadwinner, the fickle nature of his employment and the racism he and his friends must face in and out of their community.
The Ring (1952) was produced by the King Brothers who ran a Poverty Row production company and turned out low budget B-movies. The project was originally intended for The Filmmakers, Inc, Ida Lupino and Collier Young's production company. Working titles included Pachuco, a derogatory term for Mexican Los Angelenos, and The Ring is a Trap, which spoke more to the film's cautionary tale about the trappings of being a boxer. It was eventually shortened to The Ring. The King brothers brought the script to the PCA (Production Code Administration) and they responded: “we feel it would not be good to infer that the police discriminate against these boys because of their nationality.” In one scene, Tomas and his friends stop at a Beverly Hills diner where the staff refuses to serve them. They're then confronted by a police officer who could antagonize them but shows sympathy instead. In fact, there is nothing nefarious about Tomas at all. His motivations are sincere and we as the viewer can't help but root him on. As a latina myself, I was fascinated with the cultural representations and relieved that instead of focusing on a downward spiral, Tomas' journey is one of self-discovery. The ending surprised and delighted me because it really stood out as different from your average boxing movie.
The movie was directed by Kurt Neumann, best known for his science fiction films including The Fly (1958) which came out a month before he died. He directed films throughout the 1930s and 1940s including comedies for Hal Roach and several Tarzan films. Top billing went to Gerald Mohr, a character actor who had done extensive voice work in radio, and relative newcomer Rita Moreno. This was Moreno's seventh film and made the same year she played Zelda Zanders in Singin' in the Rain (1952). Perhaps you've heard of it? Moreno was 20 years old when she made The Ring but she had already been in the industry for almost a decade. While Moreno was frustrated by playing stereotypes in her early films, she looked back on The Ring fondly. In an interview she said, “Everyone in the film and in the family are good people. He’s not a gangster, he’s not a bad boy. She’s a good girl. She has very traditional Mexican values. She doesn’t want him to box.” While Lalo Rios was third billed, he's really the star of the show as the film centers on his character Tomas. This was Rios' biggest role. He only made a handful of films, including Touch of Evil (1958) and Lonely Are the Brave (1962). He retired from acting in the late 1960s and tragically died at the age of 46.
The critics raked The Ring over the coals because it does not fit the boxing movie mold. Tomas' trajectory doesn't find triumphing in the boxing world rather he finds contentment in another way. While that works in real life it didn't make for the cinematic ending that critics wanted. I don't think this film should be overlooked though. It's a sweet film, with a lot of heart and sympathetic depiction of its Mexican American characters. The King Brothers tried to capitalize on the prevailing prejudice against latinos in their advertising but viewers were going to discover a film that championed them instead.