The oft-heard cliché “they don’t make them like that anymore” is refreshingly true when it comes to describing the career of Francisco “Chico” Day. The first Mexican-American member of the DGA (he joined in 1937) led a life that reads like one of the screenplays he helped to bring to fruition as an assistant director and unit production manager during Hollywood’s golden age.
Born in Juarez, Mexico, in 1907 to parents who were both bullfighters, Day was whisked across the U.S. border on the eve of his country’s revolution. Growing up in East L.A., he sang Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, interpreted for Eddie Cantor’s double on The Kid from Spain, and learned about moviemaking from his brother, silent film star Gilbert Roland.
In a poignant article written just after his death in 1995, DGA director Luis Reyes (author of Hispanics in Hollywood: A Celebration of 100 Years in Film and Television) says Day treated everyone with dignity and respect. “He had class and never indulged in the kind of yelling and shouting matches” common in the industry. In fact, Day spent nearly 30 years at Paramount, working for Billy Wilder, Don Siegel, and George Stevens, among others. Day’s experience working as a 2nd AD alongside Cecil B. Demille’s long time 1st AD Eddie Salven taught him the importance of a calm and meticulous work ethic.
In a 1971 interview, Day described his working method with DeMille. “I had to stage action that would harmonize with what Mr. DeMille did with the principal actors; but I didn’t know in advance what he was going to do. So I just had to guess.” And he guessed well. Day became so adept at reading the “Old Man’s” mind he was promoted to 1st AD when Salven died during the filming of The Ten Commandments. Day, who once defended the perimeter of an island camp against 48,000 Japanese troops in WWII, refused to be bowed by DeMille’s intimidating tactics: “I want you to know that I’m not afraid of you,” he told the director. “I worked the greatest under fire during the war. I’ll do the same for you.”
Indeed he did. Throughout the remainder of The Ten Commandments, Day neutralized DeMille’s infamous temper by having the crew steer complaints to department heads. And just after the final shot of Moses crossing a sandstorm wrapped the film, Day was called over to DeMille’s customary spot next to the camera boom. “This was the easiest, happiest picture I ever made,” DeMille told him. “I’ll never do another one without you.” Such was the way most everyone felt about Chico (a Mexican nickname for the youngest born) Day. Studios paired him with Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando when the stars each made their directing debuts. Reyes says Day epitomized the elegance and professionalism of Old Hollywood.
“He was always impeccably dressed, usually in gray slacks, a blue blazer with white handkerchief, and a silk scarf around his neck.” Day’s longtime involvement with the Guild, serving on the National Executive Board and heading committees devoted to educating the next generation of ADs and UPMs, was an inspiration to many. In 1981, Day was presented with the Frank Capra Achievement Award by the DGA for his lifelong dedication to his craft.
And befitting his professionalism, Day wrote this about his craft: “The perfect assistant takes care of every detail... [and] knows the importance of keeping the cast, crew, and staff working together in perpetual harmony... He does not distract the director with budget worries or minor decisions, but leaves him free to concentrate on story, camera, and action of his principals... If he is unwilling to dignify the position with the imagination and dedication it deserves, he has no claim to the name.”