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The Amazing and Tragic Life of Fernando Poe Sr., the King of Kings of Philippine Movies

Fernando Poe Sr. graduated from dental school, survived the Death March, and was the original king of Filipino films. Witness his extraordinary life in exclusive photos.
IMAGE COURTESY OF ALEX R. CASTRO
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At the peak of his fame, Fernando Poe Sr. was hailed as the King of All Stars—“Hari ng mga Bituin.”

He was in the top triumvirate of 1930s to 50s male screen legends, with Rogelio de la Rosa and Leopoldo Salcedo. 

THE ORIGINAL KING. Fernando Poe Sr., one of the early male superstars of the local silver screen. At his peak, he also became a director, producer and a short career as a military man.

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.
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As an actor, Fernando Poe Sr. appeared in a South Sea epic that was the first Philippine film to be shown worldwide. He went on to blaze trails by starting his own production company—producing his own films which he himself wrote, directed, and also starred in, to great acclaim.

As a director, he megged the first Darna film starring Rosa del Rosario that became a blockbuster hit here and across the seas.

But Poe Sr.'s achievements went beyond films—he was also a distinguished soldier who served in the military and was a decorated veteran of the war.

When he met his untimely death, half a million people turned up for the long, sad march to his final rest. 

Perhaps his best-known legacy is having fathered “Da King”—Fernando Poe Jr.who, just like him was once known as the King of Philippine Movies.

Yet, today, Fernando Poe Sr.’s life and works are hardly remembered because few of his films survived. His influences, however, still resonate in varying degrees in the current Philippine filmcraft, thanks largely to the efforts of his eldest son and namesake.

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A Catalan in Pangasinan

Fernando Pou y Reyes was born on 27 November 1916, in San Carlos, Pangasinan, the son of Catalan Lorenzo Pou, a dramatist, originally from the island of Mallorca, Spain, and local woman Marta Reyes. The elder Pou sought his fortune in the Philippines by establishing a mining business in north Luzon. “Pou” was later Anglicized to “Poe,” a surname deemed more fitting to carry, in the years of American rule.

PROFILING POE: Poe Sr.’s father, Lorenzo Pou, was a Spanish playwright, while his mother, Marta Reyes, was a Pangasinan belle who was previously married to a Samson. The chemistry graduate was also taking up a dentistry course when showbiz beckoned.

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.
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Poe Sr. grew up in Manila, and as a young boy, was affectionately called “Brick,” and later, Nanding. When he was school-age, he went to the premiere Meisic Primary School. He then went to Sampaloc Intermediate School, followed by Araullo High School, graduating in 1931. 

Then, it was off to the University of the Philippines where he finished his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry course in 1935. (Note: An urban legend has it that Poe Sr. served as a model for the iconic statue of U.P., the Oblation, but this has never been proven.)  

From 1937 to 1938, he worked as a chemist for the Blue Star Products, Co. During this time, he was already dabbling in movies—he shot the love story drama, Birheng Walang Dambana topbilled  by Rosa del Rosario in 1936. 

He felt, though, that acting was an unstable profession, so he enrolled at  Philippine Dental College and earned a degree in Dental Medicine in 1942. He, however, did not take the licensure exams. (It is interesting to note that the acclaimed actor/director Gregorio Fernandez, who was 12 years older than Poe Sr., was also a dentistry graduate from the same school.)

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Saga of a star

But a movie he shot in 1936 and released in 1937 would change Poe Sr.’s career path forever. That movie was Filippine Film’s Zamboanga, a lush adventure saga about native islanders down south, which paired him again with Rosa del Rosario, then the country’s most popular female star.

The lithe, 20-year-old Poe Sr., with his muscular frame, long legs, firm jaw, and smoldering eyes was the perfect choice to portray Del Rosario’s love interest. Clad only in loin cloth, the athletic Poe Sr. climbed coconut trees, frolicked in the tropical paradise and traded underwater kisses with his leading lady.

ZAMBOANGA. The film that Poe Sr. starred in was the first Filipno film shown worldwide. With his dark, handsome features and lean physique, he was perfect for the role of the island boy who cavorted on the sand and surf of Sulu with Rosa del Rosario.

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Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.

He made such a deep impression on moviegoers, and the film, released in 1937, would go on to be subtitled and exhibited all over Europe, in countries such as Spain, Finland and France. In the U.S., Zamboanga was exhibited at the Embassy Newsreel Theater at New York Times Square under the title Native Bride.

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In no time at all, Poe Sr. was being snapped by producers to star in their films. But he decided to sign up with the newly founded X’Otic Films put up by Jose Nepomuceno, Julian Salgado, and Jesus Cacho in 1938. 

The hunky Poe Sr. was first groomed into a well-rounded, dashing matinee idol who can do a bit of everything—from light drama, period movies, a bit of action and musical romance. He became the biggest box-office star of the company in such films as Giliw Ko, Datu Talim, and Bayani ng Buhay (1940). 

PUNIT NA BANDILA. Poe teamed with Lucita Goyena in this 1939 classic movie set against the backdrop of war. It was the first of six consecutive smash hits for the love team. 

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.
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With the lovely Lucita Goyena as his leading lady, Poe Sr. completed six movies in succession—Punit na Bandila, Leron-Leron Sinta (1939), Biyak na Bato (1939), Ala-alang Banal (1940), Dilim at Liwanag, and Dalagang Pilipinaall smash hits. For this feat, Goyena and Poe Sr. were acclaimed the “1940 Queen and King of Philippine Movies.”

It was in the mega-blockbuster hit Palaris (1941) that Poe Sr.'s star shone the brightest. As the fabled hero of the Philippine jungles who fought against Spanish oppression, Poe captivated movie fans with his inspired performance opposite Mona Lisa. 

An officer and a leading man

Unfortunately, World War II intervened. Twelve days after the war officially started in the Philippines, Poe Sr., who was a member of the Reserve Officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, was called to active duty on December 20, 1941 as 1st Lieutenant. His first assignment was as assistant Provost Marshall of the 59th Provisionary Brigade under Gen. Simeon de Jesus, from December 1941 to January 1942. 

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HANDSOMEST MAN ALIVE. Fernando Poe Sr. at the zenith of his popularity. 

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.

He rose to become a Platoon Leader, then the Morale Officer of the Lamao Combat Team Regiment. He saw action in Bataan—where he saved residents from a house bombed by the Japanese, carrying children and the wounded to safety. He stayed in his position till Bataan fell on April 9, 1942. With the surrender of the American-Filipino forces, Lt. Poe Sr. joined the dreaded Death March. 

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“Oh, the Death March,” he would recall after the War, “it  was a veritable journey to the grave. It was gruesome!’. Nonetheless, he survived the March and was released from the camp, as he was recognized as a famous Filipino movie star by the Japanese officers.

During the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese imposed strict censorship on Filipino and American films, so Poe Sr. bided his time by staging plays, often directing and starring in them. Little did the enemies know that Poe Sr. had secretly joined the Panay Guerrilas under Col. Macario Peralta. He became an undercover man of the Llanes Intelligence and Information Corps. These, he revealed, during his inquisition by the post-war Loyalty Status Board. 

Family, fame, fortune

Poe Sr. rose to become a captain, but there came a point when he had to leave his military career. In 1940, he had married Pampangueña beauty, Elizabeth “Bessie” Gatbonton Kelley (b. 8 Nov. 1918) the daughter of Marta Reyes Gatbonton and Irish-American Arthur Kelley, who had settled in Lubao.  They had met at the state university, college-mates, in fact, as Kelley had also taken up Chemistry. 

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HIS GIRL, BESSIE. Poe Sr.’s wife, Elizabeth Kelley Poe, was a schoolmate at the University of the Philippines. The American-Kapampangan mestiza is the mother of  Ronald Allan (FPJ), Andy Jr. and Freddie Poe, who all became movie stars. Motion Pictures in the Philippines. by Vicente Salumbides. © 1952.

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.
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By 1943, Poe Sr. had a growing family of three children—daughter Elizabeth, sons Ronald Allan and Fernando Jr. or Andy. (Ronald would later borrow the full name of his younger sibling Andy as his screen name: Fernando Poe Jr.). Poe, thus, made the painful decision to go full-time into movie making, which he deemed more lucrative.

DUGO NG BAYAN. Produced by Palaris Films, Starring Fernando Poe Sr. and Priscilla Mijares. Mijares would have a child with Poe Sr. who also became an occasional actor,  Conrad Poe.

Photo by The Golden Years: Memorable Tagalog Movie Ads 1946-1956, ed. By Constantio, Ronald K., Lo, Ricardo. Published by Danny Dolor.(c) 1994..
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In 1946, Poe Sr. put up his production company, Palaris Films, named after his hit pre-war movie, using the defunct Manila Pictures in San Francico del Monte, Quezon City. His first offering for 1946 Dugo ng Bayan (I Remember Bataan) was a huge hit, and provided more capital to produce a string of hits like Awit ni Palaris, Hanggang Pier (1946), and Intramuros: The Rage of a City, Limbas (1947). 

FERNANDO POE PRODUCTIONS INC., at San Francisco del Monte, Quezon City. 

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.
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In 1949, Poe Sr. built his own state-of-the art studio, with equipment ordered from the U.S., and renamed his outfit as Fernando Poe Productions, Inc. A subsidiary, Royal Films, was set up in 1951. 

It was also in that year that Poe Sr. directed a barrier-breaking movie featuring the country’s first female comics superhero. Created by comics legends Mars Ravelo and Nestor Redodo, the 1951 film was Darna, with Rosa del Rosario in the lead role as Darna, who saves a town from the snake-headed woman, Valentina, played by Cristina Aragon.

DING, ANG BATO! The first Darna film, shown in 1951, featured Rosa del Rosario as the high-flying heroine and her nemesis, Valentina, the snake-woman played by Cristina Aragon.

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.
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The 1951 film featured some of the most mesmerizing visual effects ever seen on the celluloid screen—from high-flying scenes, magical transformations of the cripple Narda into Darna, and special prosthetics and make-up that included real, live snakes.  

Darna was such a spectacular hit not only in the Philippines, but was also shown in Thailand and Indonesia where it set unprecedented box-office records. The original movie would spawn more hit sequels, and no other version is as loved and remembered as the 1951 “Darna” classic.

Fallen Star

Riding on the crest of his directorial success, Poe Sr. began work on a new melodrama, Basag na Manika, a story about a maltreated child of a leper, Nene, played by Mila Nimfa, who had been in the Darna movie, as the young “Narda.” He had just wrapped up the film when tragedy befell him, one that left the movie industry in shock and in tears.

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BASAG NA MANIKA. The last film directed by Poe Sr., starred Mila Nimfa, as the maltreated waif in this super-tearker of a drama. Its premiere was postponed in deference to the death of the director.

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro. 

On Monday night, October 21, 1951, Poe Sr. went to the Family Clinic on Maria Clara Street, Sampaloc, seeking treatment for severe pain in the hip area that he couldn’t shake. He thought it was the result of a hip injury he sustained a few days earlier, after a pillow fight with actor Fred Peñalosa, at a party.  

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Eight doctor-specialists attended to him—from an orthopedist, neurologist to contagious disease and cardiovascular specialists. They gave him several medications, to which Poe Sr. did not respond. The next day, Poe complained of difficulties in breathing and stiffness of muscles, especially in the neck.  

It was at this point Dr. Eliodoro Congco, owner of the clinic and a Poe family friend, took Bessie Poe aside and asked if her husband had had any incident with a dog. Bessie Poe revealed that in August, Poe had been bitten by a puppy, but brushed this aside and did not undergo anti-rabies injections. (Years later, son FPJ clarified that his father had a dog lick wounds he had accidentally sustained, in the belief that this would hasten their healing.)

The End

By early the next morning, all doctors confirmed that Poe had contracted rabies, and had reached a point where nothing could be done. His condition took a turn for the worse, and he was given the last sacraments.

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POE SIBLINGS, led by Ronald Allan (age 12) take a final look at their father, while their mother, Bessie Kelley-Poe, also looks on.

 

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.

Shortly before midnight on October 23, 1951, Fernando Poe Sr., just 35 years old, passed away, leaving behind his widow, Bessie, their six children, Elizabeth, 13; Ronald Allan, 11; Fernando Jr.  (Andy), 9; Martha Genevieve (Jenny), 7; Frederick (Freddie), 4; and Evangeline Ida, 1, and his mother, Marta Reyes. He also left behind his legion of sorrowing movie fans, and colleagues in the industry who could not believe his early demise.

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His body lay in state at the large studio of Royal Productions, to accommodate an endless stream of visitors who came to pay their last respects who had done much  for the Philippine film industry. The presence of beautiful movie stars at his wake—such as Delia Razon, Patria Plata, Diana Recto, Corazon Rivas, and the sobbing Rita Gomez, certainly contributed to the spike in the number of movie fan, industry attendees, and gawkers.

STARGAZERS. Grieving artists such as Mila Nimfa, Oscar Keesee, Delia Razon and Patria Plata pay their last respects to their fallen colleague.

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.
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At the requiem mass in Quiapo Church, 10,000 people were packed like sardines; 50,00 more were outside unable to squeeze in.  

Over half a million Filipinos showed up at his funeral procession, bigger than the crowds who came to the funeral of President Manuel Roxas in 1947. From Quezon Boulevard to the North Cemetery, the sides of the roads were lined with thousands of people who braved the heat to catch a final glimpse of their idol’s bier.

WEEPING WIDOW. Bessie Kelley-Poe takes a final glimpse of her husband Fernando Sr., dead at 35 years old. 

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro. 
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Three hundred thousand waiting people amassed at the cemetery grounds to witness his interment. In life, and in death. Fernando Poe Sr. was admired by all who knew him as a fine actor and a gallant soldier, a great director-producer, kind and upright, a pride not only to his profession, but to his race as well.

 

The King is Dead, Long Live Da King

He left behind unfinished business—his last film as a director, Basag na Manika, was scheduled to premiere  at Clover Theater on the day before he died, and had to be postponed. 

FINAL PAGE. Five months after shooting this print ad for Glo-Co Tonix, Fernando Poe Sr. succumbed to rabies infection. 

 

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.
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Poe Sr. had also set the groundwork for the filming of a war documentary chronicling the feats of the Philippines' 20th Battalion Combat Team that was fighting in Korea at that time, a project that then-Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay praised and endorsed. Poe Sr. had also scheduled a fundraising ball for the benefit of the Philippine Anti-TB Society.

Elder half-brother Jose Reyes Samson, the company treasurer, took over the helm of Poe’s production outfit which had been renamed Royal Productions. Eventually, he would be elected president and Royal would go on to produce many more films as well as act as distributor for other movies. 

Ronald Allan, Poe’s eldest son, took over the mantle of his father as an actor, a responsibility that certainly seemed heavy for a 12-year-old. He stopped schooling at age 15 to earn a few bucks as a movie extra. He was billed as ‘Fernando Poe Jr.’, a name borrowed from his younger sibling, Andy, to ride on the crest of his father’s popularity.

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THE SON ALSO RISES. The Fernando Poe name lives on in the showbiz success of eldest son Ronald Allan (aka Fernando Poe Jr.) would be known as the Da King of Philippine Movies, just like his father before him. 

 

Photo by Courtesy of Alex R. Castro.

In 1955, the 16-year-old finally came of age and was chosen to play the lead in Anak ni Palaris, a tribute to his father who had starred as the swashbuckling hero more than a decade before. Heralded as the “sensational new, teenage heart throb,” Poe Jr. had big shoes to fill but did very well for a first-timer. Though the movie did not do as well, the movie crowd took note of the promising, dreamy-eyed lead star.

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It was his next movie that would catapult Poe Sr.'s eldest son to national fame—Lo’Waist Gang, a timely story about rebel teenage gangs from Premiere Productions. The young Poe Jr. was paired with rising star Corazon Rivas, and the result was a smash movie hit that also earned rave reviews from local critics. 

For the next 50 years, the Poe legacy would live on in the lifeworks of his son, who would realize greater, more lasting fame than what Poe Sr. himself had reached. Which is why, in the hallowed history of Philippine cinema today, the name “Poe” not only endures, but has achieved immortality.

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