The Mexican villages where the late Josefina Niggli, a WCU professor and Mexican-American writer, spent her childhood influenced much of her work, and her fans can get some sense of their landscape and local color in an upcoming presentation of her movie “Sombrero.” The 1953 musical, romantic drama is scheduled to air at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7, on Turner Classic Movies, and coordinators of WCU’s yearlong event in her honor, “Josefina Niggli: A Celebration of Culture, Art, and Life,” plan to present the movie later this year.
Niggli co-wrote “Sombrero,” which was based on a collection of her folktales called “Mexican Village.” The movie was filmed on location in Mexico and exemplified Niggli’s style of “costume dramas,” showcasing local color and personalities. The film centers on three interwoven love stories amidst obstacles and feuds in Mexican villages in the early 20th century, and features Ricardo Montalban, a leading Latino actor of the time. Other actors included Pier Angeli, Vittorio Gassman, Cyd Charisse and Yvonne De Carlo. Elements of the movie, according to TCM, include a protest of a beauty contest that excludes a poor woman, a secret love of a wealthy man for her, an attempt to retrieve bones from a cemetery of a town involved in a feud, a bullfight, a terminal brain illness, a voodoo doll, a cockfight and a tower of cheese.
Although Niggli was an award-winning writer and popular playwright, the movie did not open to glowing reviews. One published April 23, 1953, in The New York Times stated “MGM’s colorful ‘Sombrero,’ is a big, broad-brimmed, squashy sort of picture, as massive as the garment for which it is named.” The review goes on to mention that while the cast is noteworthy they simply lack the talent to portray such an overarching and complex tale such as “Sombrero.” The highlight in the review is that the movie is “beautifully photographed in very fine Technicolor and the actual countryside of Mexico, in which it is set, is lovely.”
Niggli was born in Monterrey, Mexico, to American parents in 1910 – the first year of the Mexican Revolution. Her family fled to the United States when she was 3 years old and returned to Mexico when she was 10. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of the Incarnate Word and a master’s degree in drama from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After leaving Chapel Hill, Niggli lived and worked in San Antonio as a radio writer but soon Hollywood called out her name. In the late 1940s, she moved to Los Angeles and worked as a stable writer for Twentieth Century Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She worked on notable Western television series such as “Have Gun – Will Travel” and “Laramie.” There, she co-wrote the adaptation of “Mexican Village” into the screenplay “Sombrero.”
Ultimately she followed a childhood dream to teach – an interest that eventually led her to Western Carolina University, where she taught for two decades and helped found the drama department.
This story is by Bobby Willover, a WCU undergraduate student serving on the Niggli celebration committee.