FAST BACKWARD: A filmmaker’s love affair with Davao

Nobody, except perhaps his relatives, may have a less than vivid recollection of Edward Mayer Gross, an American film scenarist who produced the first full-length silent movies on the life of Dr. Jose P. Rizal.

A doctor in Philosophy, Gross was actually married to Suzima Loma, a resident of Toril, Davao City, with whom he had three children, namely Mary, Perla, and only son Victor. He used to be a first lieutenant in the US Army but resigned from the service on July 25, 1898, at age 32, based on records found at the Adjutant General’s Office (AGO).

Gross’ contribution to Philippine cinema is quite significant. Along with producer Harry Brown and cinematographer Charles Martin, they organized the Rizalina Photoplay Company, which produced in 1912 La Vida de Jose Rizal (The Life of Jose Rizal), which was shot with 22 scenes and had a length of 5,000 feet in film. The silent movie, based on the stage play Gross himself produced in 1905, traced Rizal’s birth, his career in Europe, the exile in Dapitan, the imprisonment at Fort Santiaigo, and the martyrdom at Bagumbayan.

It was actually Brown, a Rizal admirer and owner of the Gaiety Theater in Manila, who broached the idea of producing a profitable movie that would glorify the hero, given at the time that Rizal “was almost considered a god to the Filipinos.” Together, they shelled out the capital.

The film was slated for showing at the Zorilla Theater on August 24, 1912 but someone else shared the recognition as the first to show a silent movie. Albert Yearsley, manager of Oriental Films, Co. and owner of two theaters, on learning of the Brown-Gross film, promptly enlisted the zarzuela actors of the Gran Compania de Severino Reyes, to do a similar movie on Rizal using a script written by Austin Craig, a Rizal biographer. He titled his film El Fusilamiento de Dr. Jose Rizal (The Execution of Dr. Jose Rizal), shot inside the Manila North Cemetery. This was shown at the Manila Grand Opera House on the same day the Gross film was exhibited.

The partnership of Brown and Gross eventually produced more movies than Yearsley.

That same year, the triumvirate of Gross, Brown and Martin shot Los Tres Martires (The Three Martyrs), in honor of the three Filipino martyr-priests Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora, with the execution scene excised so as not to supposedly create unrest in the Spanish community.

This was followed by La Conquista de Filipinas de Legazpi (The Conquest of the Philippines by Legazpi, 1913), Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1915), El Filibusterismo (Subversion, 1916), La Fiesta de Obando (The Obando Feast), Los Milagros de Virgen de Antipolo (The Miracles of the Virgin of Antipolo), Medikong Laway (Saliva Doctor), and Nena Bozcadora.

After his film years, Gross worked as the sole agent of William H. Anderson Company in Manila before becoming the technical adviser of the Furukawa Plantation, then the largest Japanese holding firm at Daliaon, in Davao, from 1935 up to time World War II broke out.

In his notes, written on a worn-out cash book. Gross narrated the experiences he had when the Davao was under attack following the incessant drop of aerial bombs in population centers. On December 8, 1941, the day the Japanese invaded Davao, he took note of an incident that obviously elicited anger from those in the know. He sarcastically wrote:

“I looked up the vast sky to find some sanity over the madness that was raging on in the world. It was clear and blue and serene. But at eight 0’clock in the morning, 15 Japanese plane fighters appeared threateningly in the air. Then they flew over our heads, flying very low. Before long we heard that the airfield in Davao City was bombed and the radio stations [were] also hit. But the planes did not hit us in Daliaon.

“In the afternoon, one of the planes flew over Malalag. Encountering a shortage of gas, pilot maneuvered to a force landing. When the plane was already on the ground, the pilot did all he can to airborne his plane. But a Filipino soldier sprayed him with a machinegun. Having less fatal wounds, the Japanese pilot survived. When he was brought to the Davao General Hospital, he refused to talk.

“However, his identification tag revealed that he was born in Davao of a Bagobo mother and Japanese father. In fact, he was a graduate of Davao City High School. After graduation, as expected of a Japanese father living in Davao, the boy was sent to Japan to finish his education. But he came back to repay the favor of giving him free education in Davao with bombs to inflict deaths and widespread destruction.”

As an American gentleman well loved both by the Japanese and the local residents who worked with him in the hemp plantation, Gross was made “a prisoner of war on parole” in Daliaon by the Japanese Imperial Army, though he was forbidden from communicating with anybody. Not only did he save the Japanese from Filipino vendetta, he also extended help to Filipinos in danger of being persecuted and executed by the enemies.

As fate would have it, Gross was later sent to Manila where he was interned at the University of Santo Tomas until liberation, suffering starvation and maltreatment under his Japanese captors. After the war, he returned to Davao City, weak and frail, to rejoin his Filipino wife and children. He died in 1947 in Davao City at age 81; his remains are interred at the public cemetery in Lubogan, Toril.