Article written by Amadis Ma. Guerrero
Source: Philippines Daily Express, Sept. 28-29, 1978
1978 is Mary Walter’s Golden Anniversary in Philippine movies. The durable actress, who celebrated her 66th birthday last September 10, became a star of the silent screen at the age of 16. Since then (except for some pauses), she has appeared in a wide variety of roles, ranging from a blushing bride to anxious mother to domineering grandmother.
A Bicolana, Mary grew up in Bacon, a small town in Sorsogon which faces the Pacific Ocean. Her mother, Felisa Ebio, was a native of the place, while her father, Eugene Walter, was a first lieutenant of the Constabulary (then controlled by the Americans). A veteran of the Boxer Rebellion in China, Walter arrived in the Philippines with Dewey’s fleet and participated in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898.
During World War I, the German-born, naturalized American Walter was interned by the authorities because he did not have his citizenship papers, and his wife had to personally intercede before Governor Wood for his release. “We had a hard time during those days,” Mary recalls. “Sometimes we would eat only corn and flour because there was no rice.”
While she was still a child, the family had moved to Manila; and Mary, after finishing Grade Two at a public school and taking her first Holy Communion, was enrolled at the College of the Holy Ghost (now Hoy Spirit), then run by German nuns. This was the time of the kalesa, karetela, and tranvia. There was no pollution, no rat race such as we know it now, and people generally were more civilized towards one another.
Mary studied at the Holy Ghost until her junior year in high school, but she was not destined to graduate. Fate for her came in the person of Naty Fernandez, a silent screen star. In 1928, Naty enrolled at the Holy Ghost for a special course in Home Economics, and she and Mary became friends.
Naty was under contract to Malayan Movies, and at the time she was appearing in a movie (“Lillies of Benguet”) directed by the late Jose Nepomuceno. One day Naty found herself without a companion and she asked Mary to accompany her to the movie set; since it was the summer vacation and she had the time to do so, Mary agreed.
The scene being shot was a carinosa dance sequence and as luck would have it, the directed was in need o an additional female dancer. Nepomuceno spotted Mary, was struck by her mestiza looks and upon learning that she was Naty’s friend and classmate, asked if she wanted to dance in the movie. Upon being told that she would be provided with a costume, Mary agreed with alacrity.
“You cannot imagine how excited I was,” Mary enthuses. “I felt warm, cold, everything under the sun; and so I danced, and they said ‘keep on smiling’ and I kept on smiling!” She was paid 15 pesos and, beside herself with excitement, she went home and told her father all about it. Mr. Walter didn’t quite know what to make out of this experience, but he didn’t seem too displeased.
Mary thought the matter would end there but in June, shortly before the opening of classes, Mr. and Mrs. Nepomuceno visited the Walter residence in Quiapo. The director, it turned out, had been impressed by Mary and now wanted her to become a movie star. “Your daughter is very photogenic,” he told Mr. Walter in Spanish.
Mr. Walter turned to Mary and asked her if she wished to join the movies. Mary said yes instantly and her father, liberal European that he was, gave his consent (luckily for Mary, her more conservative mother was in the province at the time).
And so Mary became a star, joining the ranks of Naty Fernandez, Ann Harris, Sophia Lorca, Eduardo Fernandez, Eduardo de Castro, Carlos Padilla, Jose Padilla, and the handful of other screen personalities during the fledging days of the movie industry in the Philippines.
The cameras in those days of the silent screen were hand-cranked, and the lights were of the noisy, sparkling carburo type. Only the director had a script, and he would explain the story to the players, who usually spoke in English or (as in the case of Mary) in Spanish. The subtitles or dialogue were in English, although the titles were in Tagalog.
Her first movie (apart from her dancing role in “Lillies of Benguet”) was “Lumang Simbahan”, which paired her with Gregorio Fernandez. It was the story of a girl who, faced with the prospect of a lovelss marriage, runs off with her real love; the two then find, literally, a pot of gold.
Her first movie included a kissing scene between Mary and Gregorio Fernandez, and it turned out to be an ordeal of sorts for all concerned. Mary kept pushing her leading man away, saying “nobody has kissed me before except my papa!” and director Nepomuceno would remonstrate with her, “but May, you’re a movie star now and he’s supposed to be your husband.” It took ten takes to shoot the brief scene.
Mary earned 200 pesos per picture during her years with Malayan Movies, a princely sum in those times, and she would go home feeling like a millionaires; later she worked for Banahaw Films. Then came the talkies, which revolutionized the movie industry, and Mary’s voice had to be taked to see if it was suitable for the movies.
An American soundman did the job without orienting Mary on how to modulate her voice, with the result that it came out highpitched and cracking. Hearing this, a local soundman, Billy Smith, offered to record Mary’s voice properly, and the American producer gave his consent.
“Just talk in a natural way and make your voice level,” Smith instructed her, “don’t raise or lower it.” Mary followed directives, and this time she was vindicated for her voice projection passed the test.
Mary’s first talking picture was “Hinagpis Ng Magulang”, directed by Manuel Silos for the American-owned Philippine Films; it was to have paired her for the first time with Rogelio de la Rosa, but it turned out to be a shortlived team-up.
The following day, however, de la Rosa, for some reason, did not report for work, and he was immediately dismissed by the producer, a Mr. Harris. Carlos Padilla, Sr. took over. This incident underscored the discipline prevailing during those days, a diametrical contrast to today’s movie scene, with its unprofessional superstars and subservient producers who cater to their every whim.
Mary became a busy star during the 30s, making movies in rapid succession. Among her colleagues were Rosa del Rosario, Rita Rica, Fernando Poe, Sr., Mona Lisa (amaong the few still active today), and Angel Esmeralda.
World War II, however, brought a halt to her movie career and during the Japanese Occupation, with time on her hands, she learned how to hula and to tango and danced with the chorus in the shows staged by the late Lou Salvador, Sr. at the Savoy (later renamed the Clover). The Japanese took over the bakery owned by her husband, Alfonso Grimalt (they were married in 1930 and she bore him three children; Grimalt passed away in 1975) and to survive, they had to sell all their property. After the war, they had to start from scratch and Mary resumed her movie career.
In 1949, after doing “Maliit Lang Ang Daigdig” for Premiere Productions, Mary took a long leave of absence from the movies and went home to Bacon, Sorsogon to be with her daughter, Charito, then a growning teen-ager. She did not go back to the movies until 1957, when she did “Kastilaloy” with Nida Blanca and Armando Goyena.
By the 50s and 60s, Mary had become known as a character actress specializing in mother roles but, as Mary points out, she had been a character actress almost from the start. In her third movie, “Nanay Ko,” for example, she essayed a dual role (mother and daughter), a difficult feat that she would repeat in later years.
Mary is at her best when she portrays women of great strength and character, and she thrives on kontrabida roles. “Here you get some real acting” she says, “and they’re move challenging than the goody-goody roles wherein you’re just called upon to be patient and cry a little.”
Coincidentally, one of her favorite roles is that of the formidable mother of Susan Roces in the original “Maruja”, and she reappears in the current “Gumising Ka, Maruja”, this time as an apparition from the past. She and Susan were the only original members of the cast of the old “Maruja”.
Comparing the old days with today’s movie scene, Mary finds the present sadly wanting and deplores the lack of professionalism prevailing today. “You have to wait for the star, you have to wait for everything and it really gets your goat…during my time you couldn’t do anything like that. Now, even the make-up takes long, whereas before we had no make-up artist and we only used grease paint.”
The fans, too, have grown more unruly. “The fans before were more decent,” Mary notes. “When we would make personal appearances in the provinces, they would just shake our hands, give us flowers and then let us pass. No grabbing and pulling, like today. I noticed that when we arrived in Bacolod (for the location shooting of “Gumising Ka, Maruja”), where the fans were so rude.”
At the same time, Mary finds movie scripts today a bit unrealistic, unlike before when they were down-to-earth and (except for horror stories and the like) based on the life of the Filipino people.
As for the present crop of directors, Mary find them more learned in the sense that they have more tools of the craft to work with. “But you cannot compare the old ones because the young ones have modern ideas.”
Although most of her colleagues and contemporaries have passed away or retired, Mary intends to keep on acting for as long as she can. Her devotion to her craft is best exemplified by an episode in 1976 when her daughter (now an immigrant married to an Australian) asked her to migrate too to Australia. Mary agreed, but after most of the papers were cleared, she began asking herself: “What will I do in Australia? My daughter are both working, and their five children are working too or studying…and I will be all alone in the house the whole day.” She decided not to go at the last minute, and later she wrote her daughter: “I cannot join you yet because I’m still working. I’m still busy. Just wait for me. When no producer or director wants me, then I will just arrive in Australia and you can take care of me.”
And so Mary Walter, after 50 years in the movies, is still very much around and she vows to continue acting “for as long as producers and directors want me.” That will be for a long while yet for Mary, at 66, is in perfect health except for a smoker’s cough (she has been smoking since she joined the movies).
The key to her durability lies in her ability to adapt herself to the times. As the late Efren Reyes once said to her: “Mary, you have neve let go of your acting career. You keep on studying and learning, that’s why you’re never left behind.”
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