2019 Natatanging Gawad Urian



Butch Francisco

For the so many languages and dialects there are in the Philippines, local film products has always been synonymous with Tagalog movies.

Blame this on the fact that in the one hundred years of Philippine cinema, about 99% of the movies exhibited in the country were in the national language.

As a consolation to people in other parts of the archipelago, regional TV-radio networks at least broadcast programs in the vernacular.

And as early as the so-called “peace time” (the period prior to World War II), Liwayway magazine already had sister editions that catered to various language speaking groups: Bisaya for the Cebuanos, Hiligaynon for the Ilonggos, Bannawag for the Ilocanos, and Bikolano for the people of the Bicol peninsula, where practically every province and even town has its own dialect.

But Philippine cinema had been traditionally in the Tagalog medium.

Tagalogs, of course, do not necessarily have a monopoly of artistic talent and creativity. In time, Cebuanos started making Visayan-language movies that saw two golden ages: 1947 to the late ’50s and the first half of the 1970s.

As to the first Cebuano film ever made, an early research claims that dramatist Florentino Borromeo came out with El Hijo Disobediente in 1922. It starred Cebuano actors Buenaventura Rodriguez and Eulalia Hernandez.

There are film scholars, however, who insist that it was Bertoldo ug Balodoy, released in 1939, that should e credited as the first Cebuano movie. That issue has yet to be resolved.

There is one fact in the history of the Visayan movie industry though that can never be contested: Gloria Sevilla remains the one and only queen of Visayan films.

A true-blue native of Cebu, Gloria is the product of a union between two very enterprising people. Her father, Bonifacio Sevilla, was originally from Bantayan Island. A trader who conscientiously learned Fookien to be able to conduct business with the Chinese, he also held an important position in Nestle Philippines in Cebu.

Gloria’s mother was the former Natividad Florida of Sibonga (near Carcar, which is famous for its chicharon). She was a teacher who also oversaw the family’s tailoring shop and beauty salon business.

Gloria was born on January 24, 1935, although in her legal documents, it is 1932 that is indicated. The confusion started when a fire hit the Sto. Rosario Church where she was baptized. All parish records were burned. A disconcerted parish clerk must have typed 1932 instead of the correct 1935 while her baptismal certificate was being reconstructed.

She only had one sibling, an older brother, Wilfredo, who worked as a ship captain for William Lines.

Except during the war when everyone else suffered, Gloria lived a comfortable life with her family in downtown Cebu. “I had a very happy childhood,” she remembers.

Her early education was spent at the Cebu Normal School, at the Zapatera Elementary School, and a year or two at the Abellana High School. In fifth grade, she was picked on mercilessly by three of the brightest but naughtiest boys in class — “Kasi pangit daw ako.” The mean boys calle dher so many names that tore her heart into a million pieces–tingting (“because I was thin”) and negra (“because I was dark”). The bullying got so intense to the point that Gloria had to transfer to another school.

Fortunately for Gloria, she always performed well academically and had no trouble blending in with the rest of the school population. “I was not what you would call very intelligent. But I was diligent and was capable of memorizing every text up to the last comma and period,” she recalls of her school days.

In her final years in high school, at the University of the Visayas this time, her perennial rival was a girl who also came from a Cebu family of relative means. Her name was Caridad Sanchez, who, like Gloria, later found success in Tagalog movies.

In the class standing, they alternated in the top position. “If I was No. 1, Caridad was No. 2. If I was No. 2, expect Caridad to be No. 1,” volunteers Gloria.

Their competition was not merely confined within the classroom. They also competed in declamation contests. “Naku, ang laki ng boses n’yang si Caridad, kaya mahirap kalaban.”

In college, she opted to remain at the University of the Visayas, where she earned her liberal arts degree. From there, she proceeded to the University of the Visayas law school, where she found herself still in demand as a declaimer.

In her second year of law, she was asked by her university to represent the school in a province-wide declamation contest, the winner of which shall be sent to a national competition in Manila.

Since that was a huge event, the organizers invited some of Cebu’s prominent people. One VIP in the audience was established character actor Danilo Nunez, who was on a mission on behalf of Azucena Pictures to find a talented newcomer to play the female lead in the upcoming production of Prinsesa Tirana. The film was going to be directed by Fernando Alfon, the brother of illustrious writer, Estrella Alfon.

It was a double win for Gloria that day. First, she won the contest. And then, Nunez invited her to do a screen test for Azucena Pictures.

Gloria gave up the opportunity of representing Cebu in the grand finals. To her, the bigger challenge was to make it to the movies. Yes, it had always been her dream to become an actress. But she didn’t think that was possible. After all, wasn’t she dark, skinny, and ugly? And now here she was, being considered to play “bida” in a film.

Auditioning for the role, Gloria found herself up against some 300, or as per her estimate, maybe even 400, other girls. “And they were all beautiful,” she remembers. Still, in the end, she got the coveted part of Princess Tirana.

To Gloria, being part of a movie–in the female lead at that–was like winning the jackpot. And thrown into the grand prize was an added bonus: playing leading lady to her longtime crush, Mat Ranillo, Jr.

A German-American mestizo (his maternal grandfather’s name was Archibald Kaper), Mat was the son of Matias Ranillo, Sr. (originally from Jagna, Bohol), a former governor of a then still undivided Zamboanga.

Mat, whose first language was Chabacano, went to UP Cebu to study law, until he was discovered for the movies and became a top leading man in Visayan pictures.

When Gloria was first introduced to Mat at the Azucena Pictures office that also doubled as a tailoring shop below, she had one fervent wish: “Sana ligawan ako.”

Wish granted on the fourth day of shooting. The location was in the middle of the sea and the scene called for Mat’s character to save a drowning Gloria as Princess Tirana, after which they’d lock in a tight embrace.

By the time the director said, “Good take,” the two were lovers.

Since they kept their romantic relationship a secret (her parents disapproved of it), a beeline of suitors continued to pursue the heart of Gloria, whose body by then had already filled out. In the queue, believe it or not, were the three nasty boys who bullied her in fifth grade. Of course, Gloria summarily rejected all three – “although we all remained good friends.”

Aside from a steady stream of gentleman callers, she also maintained a growing fan base both in Cebu and in Davao, where Cebuano is likewise spoken.

Prinsesa Tirana may have just been a mild hit, but the next Mat-Gloria film project, Leonora, was a blockbuster at the tills. Their subsequent movies were such crowd-drawers that theater operators always had difficulty controlling movie patrons. Sadly, lives were sacrificed on at least two occasions. First was the case of a young mother who had to see the latest Gloria Sevilla film on opening day that she brought to the movie theater her infant child. In the onrush of the jam-packed crowd to get inside the cinema, the baby was squeezed. Then there was this toddler who died in a stampede in a Standing Room Only screening of a Mat-Gloria movie.

To this day, Gloria is still horrified thinking about those tragedies.

Equally heartbreaking for her was that episode early in her movie career when a Mindanao chieftain had her fetched from Cebu in order to carry out the dying wish of his seventeen-year old daughter. The girl had terminal-stage cancer, and all she wanted before breathing her last was to see Gloria in person.   

In her deathbed, face to face with her screen idol, the girl said: “Now I can die. Nakita ko na ang kaligayahan ko.” All throughout that personal meeting with the dying teenager, Gloria kept a brave front. But she broke down and sobbed after they had exchanged goodbyes. The girl died weeks later.

Back in Cebu, Gloria kept a tight schedule. For a while, she even tried to attend night school, until she finally accepted the fact that she had to give up her law studies in favor of a flourishing career in the movies.

A versatile actress, she was paired with different leading men. But it was always her tandem with Mat that was most popular with fans

In just a couple of years in the early 1950s, Gloria and Mat made twenty movies – all money-makers. By then, they had already been proclaimed King and Queen of the Visayan movies.

In 1953, however, a chance meeting between her father, Bonifacio, and Premiere Productions’ Ciriaco Santiago altered the course of Gloria’s career. The two men were both in Davao that time doing separate business. When their paths crossed and Ciriaco discovered that Bonifacio was Gloria’s father, he made a solid offer: Send the daughter to Manila and Premiere will take care of her.

Gloria saw this opportunity as another challenge. Tagalog as a medium wasn’t alien to her. Didn’t she spend long hours watching the Tagalog movies of screen idols Rogelio de la Rosa, Carmen Rosales, Pancho Magalona, Alicia Vergel, and Oscar Moreno at the Vision and Oriente theaters in downtown Cebu?

Everyone wished her luck, except for Mat. He didn’t want her to go and be separated from him. They broke up, and Gloria sailed with her parents to Manila, where Premiere housed them in a chalet within the studio compound in Caloocan.

Premiere introduced her in Banga ni Zimadar with the billing, “Queen of the Visayan movies.” Directed by Gerry de Leon, the movie actually starred Efren Reyes, Edna Luna, and Johnny Monteiro, with Gloria playing only a special role in two crucial scenes.    

In Salabusab, she played “kontrabida,” which was a refreshing change for her. While doing Ifugao, Premiere matriarch Adela Santiago was so impressed with her screen presence that her role got bigger and bigger by the day, until she became Efren Reyes’ love interest in the film.

Ifugao was shot in Banaue, again under the direction of Gerry de Leon. Playing the mountain maiden, Aniway, she was supposed to be costumed like a native, which meant not wearing any upper garment. Some film scholars, in fact, have written that “Ifugao featured the first nude scene in Philippine movies.”

The truth is that Gloria wore prosthetic breasts that had to be glued on to her for one hour in the morning and had to be removed at the end of the day. That proved to be a very painful daily ordeal for her. At times, she would just sleep wearing the prosthetic breasts – “since they were going to put those back on the following day anyway.”       

After Premiere, Gloria starred opposite Leopoldo Salcedo in Mr. Dupong, which the Great Profile produced himself (he was among the first independent producers).

Way before she made this film, Mat had reappeared in her life. He followed her to Manila to court her again, proposing marriage even. Hurt by the breakup, Gloria said no.

But he was determined to win her back. If she was going to stay in Manila, so would he. To make his stay in Manila more productive while pursuing Gloria, he enrolled at the Manuel L. Quezon College (now University) for review classes in preparation for the bar exams.

During the first day screening of Mr. Dupong at the Center Theater, Gloria and Leopoldo – as the practice was then – posted themselves at the cinema lobby to sign autographs. At around 11 a.m., Mat arrived at the Center Theater and dared Gloria to elope with him right that minute. She finally agreed.

Gloria then went to Leopoldo and asked permission “to have lunch with Mat.” From Center Theater at Azcaraga (now Claro M. Recto), Mat and Gloria drove to Cavite to get married before the mayor of Imus. Their only companion to stand as witness was Mat’s brother-in-law, Jack Papa, a commodore in the navy.     

In a yellow dress with black trimmings, Gloria became Mrs. Matias Kaper Ranillo, Jr. The newlyweds were back at the Center Theater before 2 p.m. that day like nothing happened.

Since Mat had no livelihood yet in Manila, Bonifacio and Natividad Sevilla invited the young couple to live with them in their house in Cebu, in D. Jakusalem.

Gloria had children after the civil rites. By the time she and Mat had their church wedding at the Sacred Heart Parish in Cebu, they already had two children, with the third on the way.

Although he was already a lawyer by this time, Mat couldn’t resist the call of the acting profession. He and Gloria, therefore, decided to put up their own movie outfit in Cebu in 1955 and called it S-R Productions. Paradista was their initial film venture. It featured both of them as the lead actors. Their followup had local flavor, Dalagang Pilipinhon.  

Since Mat came from a political family, he decided to carry on with the tradition and ran for Congress twice. He lost both times.

He and Gloria used up all their savings for that failed political ambition. Their funds had dried up so bad that during the birth of one of the kids, the baby had to be left behind at Cebu’s Chong Hua Hospital because they did not have the money to pay for Gloria’s maternity expenses.

In time, Mat decided to permanently move his family to the Ranillo compound in Scout Lozano in Quezon City. Gloria welcomed the relocation since she didn’t have to worry about leaving the children behind in Cebu every time she had to do Tagalog movies in Manila.

As for Mat, he knew early on that Tagalog films were not for him. In 1952, he did a couple of movies for LVN. The first was Isabelita with Tessie Quintana and Armando Goyena. Later that year, he and Priscilla Cellona became part of the movie, Honi sa Gugma, that combined Tagalog with Cebuano – and even a dash of Ilocano. It was a failed experiment. Awit ng Pag-ibig, the all-Tagalog version with the same cast didn’t fare any better.

Since he had a growing family to feed and could not rely on the uncertainties of a movie career, Mat joined the legal department of the Bureau of Customs as a trial lawyer.           

It was Gloria who stuck it out in the movies, doing mostly Tagalog films at this point of her career. By 1962, she had earned her first FAMAS as Best Supporting Actress in Madugong Paghihiganti.

She found equal success on TV. When Sylvia la Torre left the early afternoon variety series, Everyday Holiday, in the mid-1960s, it was Gloria who was taken in by ABS-CBN to replace the then first lady of Philippine television. Later, she also did another variety show, Alright, Okay, for the pre-martial law Channel 11.

Gloria had become so popular as a mainstay of Tagalog pictures that she even ranked second place – notches higher than movie queens Susan Roces and Amalia Fuentes – in the Lux Star of Stars race, a contest that saw movie fans sending coupons in support of their favorite actresses.  

As the 1960s came to an end, Mat and Gloria decided to revive Visayan movies by putting up MG Productions. They immediately lined up four projects: Palad ta ang Nagbuot that saw the pairing of Gloria and Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, Badlis sa Kinabuhi, Lungsod sa Buenavista, and Hain ang Langit.              

On September 12, 1969, Mat flew to Cebu to collect the box-office receipts from the successful run of Lungsod. The weather in Manila was bad on the morning of his flight and thought about cancelling his trip. Gloria was also supposed to fly with him, but since he was returning the same day anyway, he told her to just stay behind and lead the Friday novena to the Sacred Heart at home. Besides, she was seven months pregnant.

“Maghanda ka ng masarap na hapunan at darating ako before nine.” Those were his words to her, as he kissed her goodbye. At 5 p.m., he sneaked in a long-distance call from Cebu to confirm his flight – and that he had gifts for everyone.

That evening, Gloria and the children were already at the domestic airport before 7 p.m. to fetch Mat. “I think I even saw that plane,” recalls Gloria. But by 9 p.m., no plane from Cebu had landed. The airport counters were closed, to her surprise.

She and the kids rushed home so that she could make calls to Cebu. Yes, Mat was in that last flight that took off from Mactan, she was told.

While watching TV, they saw a news flash reporting that a PAL BAC-111 from Cebu had crashed. Gloria fainted. Friends and relatives who came rushing to the Ranillo home told her to keep her hopes high – that maybe Mat was among the survivors. Before dawn, Joseph Estrada (then San Juan mayor) arrived to confirm that Mat was among those who died in the plane crash.  

Fifty years after the tragic death of her husband, Gloria still believes that the plane crash was due to pilot error. It was an election year – Marcos vs Osmena – when the tragedy happened. With the elections only two months away, there were so many politicians on the campaign trail. In fact, there was a Liberty Party gathering at Plaza Miranda that weekend. (Mat himself was the LP campaign manager for Dipolog.) A lot of politicos courting voters in various parts of the country used private planes and that caused heavy air traffic at the airport.

That plane from Cebu with Mat in it could not land and was advised by control tower to stay up in the air for several more minutes. The plane circled the metropolis until it crashed in the fog-shrouded hills of Antipolo, in Sitio Kulaiku.

There were 47 people in that ill-fated flight. Only two survived. One of them was Paul Brazil, Jr., a flight attendant who did bit parts for Sampaguita Pictures, prior to joining the aviation industry. Among those who perished with Mat was Rene Mendoza, a former member of the FAMAS and the PMPC.

Mat was identified through his belt buckle that bore his name. There was looting. His wristwatch, wallet, and UP ring were stolen, along with cash earnings from the Visayan movie he produced with his wife. More than a decade later, when the son Mat Ranillo II was already a famous movie star, an Antipolo resident returned the ring that luckily also had his name.

The death of Mat exposed Gloria to the cruelties of the world. At the wake, politicians elbowed each other to get her endorsement. And as a widow, she became prey to lecherous men who thought she had become easy lay. “But they were all married! So ano ako, kabit?”

With six children to feed, Gloria took a gamble and continued producing movies that combined both Tagalog and Cebuano. There was Basta Bisaya in 1970 that starred opposite her karate king Roberto Gonzalez.That same year, she also produced the tearjerker Dodong Ko with Vic Vargas and Frankie Navaja, Jr. Inday sa Balitaw, meanwhile, gathered the three most famous Cebuanas that time: Pilita Corrales, Pilar Pilapil, and of course, Gloria herself.

Perhaps as a consolation for all her suffering the previous year, fate smiled at her in 1970: she won FAMAS Best Actress for Badlis, a victory applauded even  by members of the Tagalog movie industry.

Gloria also did movies outside of her own film outfit. Under Lea Productions, she traveled with Amalia Fuentes to Hawaii to shoot Aloha (they even took hula lessons for that) and, later, to Mexico for Fiesta: South America. They also worked on a couple of dramatic movies with the key cities of Europe as backdrop.

In time, she decided to produce a picture shot abroad: the espionage/thriller Escape from Berlin in 1972. Filmed in the shadows of the Berlin Wall before Germany was unified, it was directed by Solano Gaudite – from a script written by Greg Macabenta.

In 1973, she experienced what friends loved to call “her pangalawang gloria”: she married again, this time Mat’s best friend, Amado Cortez. “He was always a shoulder to lean on.” Since the children learned about the marriage only in the papers, they gave their stepfather a frosty reception.

Family differences, however, were set aside when Gloria produced Gimingaw Ako, which featured daughter Suzette (using the screen name Nadia Veloso) and was directed by Amado. In the FAMAS race the following year, Gloria and Suzette made showbiz history by winning Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress – a mother-daughter victory yet to be duplicated. (The same night, Ramon Revilla Sr. won Best Actor, while his son Marlon Bautista was voted best Child Actor.)

In 1980, Amado joined the Philippine consulate in San Francisco. By then, the Ranillo children had warmed up to him (he gave Gloria another child, Czareanah). They even joined him and Gloria in the US, where they continued life as a family. In San Francisco, Gloria kept herself busy by selling caldero – expensive and durable sets of cookware – just like Eddie Gutierrez in LA. Her only artistic outlet was singing at the Bahay-Kubo restaurant for $50 a night.    

By 1998, Amado had become Consul General. When he retired in 2001, he and Gloria returned to Manila for good. Suzette went ahead of them, while the rest of the children, Lilibeth, Jojo, Dandin, Junius, and Czareanah, decided to stay behind in San Francisco.

Two years later, Gloria was widowed a second time when Amado succumbed to complications as a result of heart problems. Instead of wallowing in sorrow, she devoted her time to work – as TESDA board member and as one of the directors of BASECO; she is currently a reviewer at the MTRCB as well. 

She went back to show business, and her comeback coincided with the emergence of indie films. “I admire the young directors today. They are very talented, and given more resources,they will fare better in international film festivals,” insists Gloria. Surely, she knows what she is talking about since this pioneering woman was already doing the international filmfest route way before Lino Brocka brought Insiang to Cannes in 1978.

Her Badlis was the first Cebuano movie to be exhibited at the Berlin filmfest. A few years later, Gimingaw was also invited to Moscow where she recalls getting upset because the flag of the Philippines was not displayed at the festival hall. The Philippine flag was eventually produced at Gloria’s insistence.

One beautiful memory there was when Hortensia Bussi, the wife of the late Chilean President Salvador Allende, complimented her for the lovely white terno she was wearing in one of the formal functions.

A source of pride for her now is the return of Cebuano films through the efforts of indie filmmakers. Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria won Best Picture in the 2010 Gawad Urian.

Her wish is for Cebuano movies to thrive again, maybe even become an industry once more like it was during her prime. Or perhaps to see a third golden age.

She contributed a lot to its first golden age by lending her talent and screen presence. Sure, there were other Cebuano goddesses: Lady Ramos, who married Napoleon Rama; Rosita Fernandez, who became Mrs. Manuel Dionaldo; and of course, Caridad Sanchez. But it was Gloria’s phenomenal box office draw that kept the Visayan film industry alive.

Even when she was a new actress, there was at least one Gloria Sevilla movie showing every month. On December 15, 1952, her movie with Arturo Blanco, Mapait ang Balaod, opened in downtown Cebu. A month later, on January 12, 1953, this was followed by Bugas Mais, with Fred Montecillo. On February 17, 1953, Gloria’s fans lined up to watch her in the musical drama, Handumanan.

When she became Queen of Visayan Movies, two or even three of her films would be showing simultaneously in Cebu and Davao cinemas.     

Gloria and Mat should also be credited for ushering in the second golden age of Visayan movies. The film industry of the south was dead when they began producing Visayan pictures. That was in 1969. By 1975, Visayan movies were making so much money again that producers down south decided to organize their own film festival. Sadly, the first Visayan Film Festival was also the last.

During the awards night, it was said that Best Actress winner, Chanda Romero, was displeased over the defeat of her director, Emmanuel Borlaza, that she supposedly dropped the trophy on the floor on purpose. The organizers slapped her with a P1-M suit. The case did not prosper. Neither did the Visayan Film Festival

That signaled the end of the second golden age of Visayan movies that was painstakingly resurrected six years earlier, mainly through the efforts of Gloria and Mat as producers.

As an actress, Gloria always gave solid performances on the big screen and is recognized as one of Philippine cinema’s finest artists. The country may have several other equally brilliant female stars, but it was only Gloria who made a major impact as lead actress in both Visayan and Tagalog movies.

Even before Nora Aunor, the brown-skinned and very Filipino-looking Gloria was able to penetrate an industry overflowing with mestizas.

It should be noted that in a setting like the local entertainment scene, where poking fun at provincial folks and their ways is standard fare, Gloria never allowed her being Bisaya to be ridiculed. In her every project, she maintained the Visayan pride and dignity.

Although she has been recognized many times for her accomplishments as an artist, she is not one to just sit back and relish her glorious past. In the last four years, she has been getting successive acting nominations from the Gawad Urian – for Boy Golden, M. Mother’s Maiden Name, and Maestra.

With her children, she continues producing Visayan films, the latest of which is Ang Pagbalik, a co-production with daughter Suzette, who is becoming a respected name in the indie film circuit.

After almost seven decades in the movies, Gloria continues to live her glory days.

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