By Joseph Toone
Often folks leave home to have a big, splashy career. Even Jesus left the confines of Nazareth to start preaching. Entertainers, in particular, often need to immigrate to find their big successes.
Locally we imported from the pampas Margarita Gralia who soared to Mexican soap opera stardom in a way not seen again until British Joan Collins migrated to Dallas to sashay across America’s televisions. You’ll see Margarita’s image in her San Augustin restaurants where she adds glamour to the common street food, churros.
Aside – Once on a tour I had two couples from the same tiny hamlet as Jerry Hall so I asked them who was the most famous person from there. They responded about a 9 year old spelling champion and I remarked I was surprised they didn’t mention Jerry Hall. I thought they were going to spit on me! Turns out they all went to high school together and cheerleader Jerry Hall wasn’t an amiga!
Before Margarita another ex-pat, Jose Mojica, left Mexico to soar into Hollywood talkies with a great voice and handsome face. He came here to San Miguel de Allende to rebuild the ruins of the Santa Monica hacienda (now a hotel restaurant off Parque Juarez) to house his mother. Later he became a priest building the boys’ orphanage and our chapel to Guadalupe before migrating down to Peru to work the poor.
The two most interesting women to leave Mexico for glory on the silver screen were Jose Mojica’s pals – Dolores Del Rio and Lupe Velez. Dolores and Lupe, on paper, had much in common – foreign entertainers that married successful white men, didn’t have children and craved movie stardom. However, like their contemporaries, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, sometimes having too much in common creates hostilities.
With the addition of sound movie studio recruiters tossed their nets wide across the pond to pull into Hollywood the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead. They also looked south of the border finding Dolores and Lupe already on the lot.
Both gals reached movie star status though with vastly different images, Dolores’ image was more refined and a welcomed image of Mexican womanhood. Lupe, on the other hand, came across as more chaotic, funny and physical. Dolores lived longer and her career was far more varied though, oddly, it was Lupe that gained a morbid immortality.
Dolores, following an early marriage to a wealthy Mexican man, arrived in California first becoming the dark lady of the silents. Unlike many, her transition to sound was an easy one and she continued playing leads and marrying Cedric Gibbons, the most respected Art Director in the business, a brilliant jewel in the MGM crown. She was the Mexican Madonna draped in skin-tight satin.
German Marlene Dietrich, no slouch in terms of physical perfection, often stated how it was not her, but Dolores that was the prettiest gal in Depression Era Tinsel Town.
By middle age Dolores returned home becoming one of the most important female figures in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and still one of the most beautiful actresses of the era. She got along famously with the younger and equally pretty pioneer of Mexican cinema, Maria Felix, who has a street in town named for her. By the 1960s Dolores returned to Hollywood for character roles like portraying Elvis Presley’s mother in one of his films and on TV’s Marcus Welby, MD.
Dolores died in 1982 never having publicly stated her feelings towards Lupe Velez. Lupe seems to have talked of little else.
Velez came to Hollywood gracing the silents in ethnic sexpot roles while having a three year mercurial and violent relationship with Gary Cooper whom she once shot at in a train station. (Luckily she had poor aim.) However it was an Austro-Hungarian Olympic swimming champion, Johnny Weissmuller, the most famous of the movie Tarzans, Velez married. Again the relationship was violent with five foot tall Lupe often being the aggressor.
In the press, Lupe was pitted against Hollywood’s only other female Mexican star, higher-class and more elegant Dolores Del Rio. Meanwhile Lupe settled nicely in a span of seven Mexican Spitfire films playing a tempestuous nightclub entertainer married to a white American as her comic foil. A perfect mimic, one of her best scenes is Lupe poking fun at Dolores’ screen image of perfection.
Getting farther into her thirties, combined with her very publicly reported on-set feuds in both film and stage work, Lupita’s appeal and opportunities dwindled. Finding herself unwed and pregnant, Lupita committed suicide and here the story varies.
All agree she had studio hair and make -up pals dolly her up as she lit shrine-like candles to be found in bed the next morning like a peaceful Madonna at rest. Some, instead, contend she got up during the night to vomit in the toilet, pass out and drown there.
It is the toilet version that has given Lupe a perverse immortality known to the general public more than Dolores’ longer and more respected career. Lupe’s bathroom demise pops up in popular culture still in shows like The Simpsons and Frasier.
In Dolores’ defense it is hard to remain visually relevant a century or so after your peak working actor years unless you starred in a still-watched movie that continues to be parodied especially at Halloween, think Wizard of Oz. The other option is taking really memorable still shots like Marilyn Munroe on the subway grate or fellow silent star, Louise Brook’s memorable bob. Otherwise it’s rare to remembered today by the general public. Judy Garland’s, Marilyn Munroe’s and Louise Brooks’ images are seen around town to this day.
As for Mexicans in today’s Hollywood we’ve the 1990’s It Girl – Salma Hayek. She, unlike Maria Felix, pursued Hollywood. Felix in the 1950s feared that instead of getting the parts she competed with North Carolina’s Ava Gardner for (again, they had a very similar look) she’d be “doomed to play squaws”.
by Joseph Toone
- TripAdvisor’s top tour guide with History and Culture Walking Tours and Joseph Toone Tours.
- Amazon’s best-selling author of the San Miguel de Allende Secrets books.
- Creator of the National Geographic-sponsored Maria Dolls coloring book helping indigenous doll makers.
- Producer of San Miguel de Allende Secrets YouTube channel with over 100 videos and 1,500 views monthly.
- International speaker on the Power of the Feminine in San Miguel de Allende.