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The First Latina to Conquer Hollywood




By Martin Mulcahey.

Hollywood has not always been accepting of Latinas. Current stars Salma Hayek, Eva Mendes, and Penélope Cruz follow in the footsteps of trailblazing Dolores Del Rio. Celebrated as “The Princess of Mexico”, Del Rio was a star whose allure captivated legendary figures Orson Wells, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, and Frida Kahlo. Fast friend Marlene Dietrich labeled Del Rio, “The most beautiful woman in Hollywood. She has better legs than Dietrich and better cheekbones than Garbo.” A beauty that created tales of an orchid petal diet, or that Del Rio slept 16 hours a day to maintain her loveliness. Sadly, in a fundamental way, Del Rio’s talent became a prisoner of her splendor.

Dolores Del Rio’s life was not always glamorous. Born in Durango, Mexico, in 1905, she was the only daughter of Jesus Jacques and Antonia Lopez-Negrete. Her father was the prominent director of the Bank of Durango, but the family lost their wealth and influence in the Mexican revolution. A forced relocation to Mexico City, when Dolores was five, reestablished her parents fortunes and standing within the social hierarchy. Little Dolores was fortunate to study at the prestigious Liceo Franco-Mexicano convent school, instructed by French nuns, gaining a lifelong passion for literature, dance, and art.

A debutante’s life in that era came at a price. For the 16 year-old Dolores it was an arranged, loveless marriage to lawyer Jaime Del Rio. Jaime was 18 years older, his family one of the oldest and most influential in Mexico. Their wealth allowed for a European honeymoon, where the newlyweds even dined with the Spanish Royal family. The honeymoon morphed into a three-year excursion, with Dolores delighting in voice and dance lessons at stately Madrid and Paris schools. In 1924, the couple returned to Mexico City, Jaime intent on advancing his career while Dolores was to act the part of a socialite wife.

The “discovery” of Dolores Del Rio reads like a Hollywood movie. Edwin Carewe, an influential director at First National Films, fell under Dolores’ spell watching her dance a tango at a dinner party. The infatuated Carewe cajoled Dolores and Jaime into moving to Hollywood, urging the couple to rebuff familial objections that viewed acting as socially demeaning. Dolores saw it as a marriage strengthening opportunity. “Jaime wanted to escape an environment that did not satisfy him, hoping to develop his literary inclinations writing scripts for Hollywood.” She was also aware that it was a risky adventure for a 21-year-old. “I was mad to do it. My family and my friends would have ostracized me if I’d been a failure.”

The swiftness of Dolores and Jaime’s move to Hollywood was mirrored by Dolores’ ascent in movies. Edwin Carewe became her mentor, first casting Del Rio in a bit role as a sultry antagonist in Joanna (1925). In her second film, Del Rio already received second female billing, beneath celebrated Mary Astor, for the Jazz Age drama High Steppers (1926). The heist comedy Pals First (1926), gave an evolving Del Rio top billing in only her third film. The discerning eye of a Variety magazine critic noted her performance as “lackluster”. An appraisal of the review is impossible, since the movie is one of thousands lost to history by the erosion of nitrocellulose films. Only still photos, magazine reviews, and promotional material remain to extract details of performances. Del Rio’s successes came despite not mastering English yet, moving her lips phonetically for silent film audiences.

Stardom came with the aptly titled What Price Glory? (1927). Directed by legendary Raoul Walsh, it became the second highest grossing movie of the year and voted a New York Times ten best films in 1927. Del Rio played French innkeeper’s daughter Charmaine, torn between loves for two American soldiers, delivering a vivacious performance. The following year Ramona (1928) thrived on positive reviews in The New York Times. Their critic thought Del Rio’s performance, “An achievement. Not once does she overact, and yet she is perceived weeping and almost hysterical. She is most careful in all the moods of the character.” Photoplay, an influential movie magazine, piggybacked Del Rio’s box-office appeal with a cover feature. Del Rio told Photoplay one character mirrored her personality. “I am not, by nature, melancholy, weepy, sorrowful, languishing, or sweet. I am the girl of What Price Glory? There, for a bit, I could show my real self. I am, by nature, tempestuous, fiery, stormy, eager.”

Del Rio’s marriage suffered the strains of career success. An anonymous insider ruminated, “In Mexico City she had been Jaime Del Rio’s wife. In Hollywood Jaime became Dolores Del Rio’s husband. The situation was intolerable for both of them.” A miscarriage added trauma, and subsequently doctors advised Del Rio not to have children. After a short separation, Dolores filed for a divorce as rumors of an affair with Edwin Carewe circulated. Gossip that was never substantiated and Del Rio’s strict Catholic upbringing argues against. Shocking news that Jaime died of blood poisoning arrived from Germany six months later. Whispered rumors of a suicide were just as widely accepted.

A succession of movies, lacking artistic merit, were produced to exploit Del Rio’s fame. Critics noticed, calling Gateway of the Moon (1928) “A badly-directed, sappy melodrama obviously released only to cash in on the popularity of the star.” They cited Red Dance (1928) as, “One of Dolores Del Rio’s early movie mistakes, dug up for no good reason.” The Loves of Carmen (1927) was the exception, Del Rio’s background in dance adding to an already convincing portrayal. Camera angles made the 5’4” (162.5 centimeters) Del Rio appear strikingly statuesque, receiving positive appraisals for “A biff-bang performance.” In the year-end credits of Photoplay Del Rio was singled out for, “The versatility to combine a terrible Carmen with a beautiful Resurrection.” Del Rio received 15,000 pieces of fan mail a month, and was a hit internationally voted the number one female star in England. Twenty-six Mexican cities requested Del Rio be their guest of honor for Independence Day celebrations.

In all, from 1925 to 1929, Del Rio made fifteen silent films. Evangeline (1929) was a critical success, but box office disappointment, notable as Del Rio’s final partnership with Edwin Carewe. Del Rio singing the title track received extensive radio airplay, enjoying a longer life than the movie. Photoplay singled out Del Rio for her performance. “She now steps into a role that might have been reserved for a Lillian Gish. It’s a tribute to her versatility.” United Artists studio agents convinced Del Rio to separate herself from Carewe, buying her contract and adding Del Rio to their roster for $9,000 a week. The freedom it engendered was palpable in Del Rio. “For the first time in my life I am myself. I do what I want to do. I enjoy life and happiness which I never had as a young woman because I married too quickly, scarcely two weeks after graduating from parochial school. I want to have a romance, laugh, and talk about nothing important. I am now regaining lost time.”

Del Rio’s first “talkie” was The Bad One (1930), but a Spanish accent was noticeable and became a burden for the rest of Del Rio’s American film career. Around the same time, a whirlwind romance began with Cedric Gibbons, celebrated art director and designer of the Oscar statuette, culminating in a grandiose marriage ceremony at the Old Mission Santa Barbara Church. The high profile couple became a toast of high society, hosting lavish parties attended by personalities like Fay Wray, Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and many more. The marriage combined with a kidney infection (some speculated about a nervous breakdown) kept Del Rio out of movies an entire year, causing the dissolution of her United Artists contract.

RKO Pictures facilitated Del Rio’s comeback, but the pairing suffered an ignominious unveiling with Girl of the Rio (1932). The film paraded debauched Mexican stereotypes, showcasing Del Rio as a feisty cabaret dancer. The Mexican government condemned the movie, a censored version was shown in Mexico, and the influential Los Angeles Latino newspaper La Opinion headline lamented “We Have Lost Del Rio!” A quick study, Del Rio subsequently turned down roles (Viva Villa! most famously) slandering her heritage, refusing to become a pawn in Hollywood’s image machine. RKO’s follow-up Bird of Paradise (1932) was well received, creating a minor scandal for a scene in which Del Rio swam nude under scarcely concealing water. Del Rio held little sentiment for those films, “I tried to interest my producers in stories about Mexico. I was forced to play glamorous characters which I hated.”

The global success of Flying Down to Rio (1933) swept away all concerns and controversy in its wake. Cinema history notes it as the first pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, though Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond received top billing. It might also be the first appearance of the two-piece bathing suit, worn by always fashion conscious Del Rio opposite Fred Astaire in an intricate dance number. Failing to anticipate the movies success RKO, in the midst of financial crisis, inadvisably terminated Del Rio’s contract. Flying Down to Rio was Del Rio’s last American hit, though she continued receiving roles casting her for beauty instead of talent. Those Hollywood prejudices holding little effect on Del Rio. “I must not regret anything I have ever done. Only the things I have been afraid to do. If there is a little hurt, bah! It makes you appreciate the better people.”

MGM studios picked up Del Rio’s contract, their press release touting how she would “Bloom into another Greta Garbo.” A plan sabotaged by average material, movies such as Wonder Bar (1934), Madame Du Barry (1934), and Caliente (1935) completed Del Rio’s contract with no particular career upswing. In later years, Wonder Bar regained prominence for extravagant sets, controversial scenes, and provocative plot. In a pivotal scene, an enticing Del Rio dances a sensuous tango opposite whip wielding Ricardo Cortez. The Hollywood Reporter called Del Rio “Uncomfortably real” as a scheming wife in The Devil’s Playground (1937). Despite positive reviews, roles diminished as box office numbers dropped. In ensuing years, Del Rio worked on Columbia Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox films, but was more visible in advertisements for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Max Factor makeup, or promoting clothing lines and perfumes than acting in films.

An eleven-year marriage to Cedric Gibbons ended in 1941, coinciding with Del Rio’s exit from American films. It was a horrible year for Del Rio, losing her father and one time benefactor Edwin Carewe to heart attacks as well. The divorce made Del Rio Hollywood’s most eligible woman and an intense affair with ten-year younger Orson Welles made headlines. The relationship was serious, a photograph caption of the pair in Life magazine proclaiming, “Standing next to Dolores Del Rio, whom he hopes to marry.” Del Rio’s literary influences on Welles, filming Citizen Kane at the time, should not be underestimated. Welles’ daughter Chris wrote in her biography, “She [Del Rio] was a living legend in the history of my family. My father considered her the great love of his life.” Feelings obviously reciprocated, Del Rio recalls Welles as “The most intense and volcanic passion I had in my life.”

Unable to control her image in America, Del Rio returned to Mexico as the bond with Orson Welles dissolved. Luck was on the 37-year-old actress’s side, her return coinciding with a renaissance in Mexican film that lead to a Golden Age. Del Rio was eager to participate, “I didn’t want to be a star anymore. I wanted to be an actress. By 1940, I knew I couldn’t build a satisfying career on glamour, so I came home.” A home that was not entirely welcoming, some resented the Hollywood star that previously turned down roles in Mexican films. Del Rio won them over by winning international acclaim playing distinctly Mexican roles and characters. Behind the scenes, Del Rio made intelligent contract demands, negotiating a percentage of her movies’ profits instead of lump sum payments alone.

Motives for Del Rio’s homecoming are easily discernible, “I want to choose my own stories, my own director. I think I can get all this in Mexico.” Success was immediate. Paired with celebrated Mexican director Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez in Flor Silvestre (Wild Flower, 1943) Del Rio won the first of four Silver Ariel Awards (Mexican equivalent of the Academy Award) playing a peasant girl who falls in love with a landowner’s son as the Mexican revolution unfolds. Maria Candelaria (Portrait of Maria, 1944) became even more popular, winning the first post-World War II Cannes Film Festival prize for best picture. Del Rio is spellbinding as an outcast killed by pious villagers who mistakenly believe she posed for a nude painting. It can be argued neither film, despite their obvious merits, would have garnered international attention without the presence and talent of Del Rio.

Del Rio’s masterpiece performance came in La Otra (The Other One, 1946), a noir tale of twin sisters she plays with obvious zest. Del Rio is striking as a disheartened manicurist, jealously plotting to kill a rich sibling and take over her life. The presentation of the characters is impeccable, alternating from aloof to unsophisticated, often in the same scene. Others suggest a polar opposite role in Dona Perfecta (1951) is the quintessential Del Rio. Intensely dramatic as the devout Dona, she is outraged by the refusal of newly arrived nephew Pepe to observe religious traditions. Del Rio plots to prevent Pepe’s impending marriage, ultimately causing introspection and casting a shadow on her own faith. In these roles Del Rio was left to act, and comes to life on the screen as never before.

Despite the success of Del Rio’s Mexican pictures, she was not welcome in America because of entanglements in the infamous McCarthy hearings. Claims of Del Rio “Aiding anti-Franco refugees from the Spanish Civil War” were interpreted as communist leanings. Denied a visa for a part opposite Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance, Del Rio’s role went to Katy Jurado who earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal. As Mexican cinema abated, quality roles became difficult to find. Consequently, Del Rio accepted smaller roles in Hollywood films when allowed to return in the late 1950’s. Del Rio’s reputation still drew offers, like the outstanding Western Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and the role of Elvis Presley’s mother in Flaming Star (1960). She was cast as the mother of another rising star, Omar Sharif, in an Italian production of C’era Una Volta (More Than a Miracle, 1967) where Del Rio still rivaled star Sofia Loren in the beauty department.

Provoked by inferior movie roles, Del Rio took to the stage in Mexican theater productions. As usual, when her movie career took a dip Del Rio’s personal life sprang to life. Stage producer Lewis Riley, who encouraged her theater exploits, became Del Rio’s third husband in 1960. The pair shared a happy 23-year marriage lasting until Dolores’ death. In one of her last interviews, Del Rio revealed how a French book she read at age seventeen, La Peur de vivre (The Fear of Living by Henry Bordeaux, originally published in 1902), imbued in her the courage to take chances. The passages inspired Del Rio; and she attempted to change others. “I am constantly giving my advice to young friends; ‘Leave home, find a job, make your own way, live fully, you will succeed.’” Del Rio understood how compromises affect life. “Living for me is made of three things: Love, travel, and good books or music. Success – it never made me happy. Fame – When I had it most, I was miserable. Money – Love costs nothing.”

In retirement, Del Rio devoted herself to charities, marshaling support from governmental agencies and the Mexican Actors Society for day-care centers. Del Rio’s understanding of child psychology was ahead of her time, “A babies first six years are the most important. We play Brahms and Bach to them. Teach them English, Folklorico dancing, and all the arts.” She founded the Society for the Protection of the Artistic Treasures of Mexico, working with philanthropist Felipe Garcia Beraza to protect buildings, paintings and other cultural works in Mexico. Del Rio’s love of animals is well documented too, often photographed with dogs she took on daily two-mile walks featuring prominently through the years.

Del Rio’s creativity was lost on April 11, 1983, when she was taken by liver disease at age 78. Her remains are interred at the prestigious Rotunda of Illustrious Persons at Panteón Civil de Dolores Cemetery, in Mexico City. The Del Rio legacy lives on, the Mexican Society of Film Critics bestows a Diosa de Plata award for the best dramatic female performance in Del Rio’s honor. Vestiges of Del Rio remain in America, such as a statue at Hollywood-La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles, honoring ethnic leading ladies of cinema, featuring Dolores Del Rio with Mae West, Dorothy Dandridge and Anna May Wong. A star is dedicated to Del Rio on the iconic Walk of Fame, located on 1630 Vine Street.

Author Salvador Novo gave a perfect, if unintended, eulogy a year before Del Rio’s death. “With Dolores Del Rio we are in the presence of a case in which extraordinary beauty is only the material form of talent. She has been gifted with grace, and fresh and vibrant nimbleness that, being natural, seems exotic.” Time caught up to the ageless beauty, which Del Rio, never a vain person, at no time worried about. “So long as a woman has twinkles in her eyes, no man notices whether she has wrinkles under them.”

Martin Mulcahey is a Graduate of United States Department of Defense Information School. He is published by, among others, Latino Today Magazine, Hispaniconline.com, Stars and Stripes Newspaper, Navy Times, Colorado Country Life, ESPN.com, The Ring Magazine (and many other US and international boxing publications).

3 Comments for “The First Latina to Conquer Hollywood”

  1. I’m surprised because the article doesn’t mention two of the most important Dolores Del Río’s works in Hollywood: “Journey Into Fear” (1943), by Norman Foster and uncredited Orson Welles; and overall “The Fugitive” (1947) by John Ford -shot in Mexico, with and impressive visual style influenced by Emilio “Indio” Fernández (advisor in the film) and the master work of photographer Gabriel Figueroa, and co-starred by Henry Fonda and Pedro Armendáriz- that in my humble opinion is the best film in her filmography. In fact, it was the good relationship between the actress and Ford, the reason of their next late collaboration in “Cheyenne Autumn”, in which Del Río gives the short but strong role of Sal Mineo’s indian “fordian” mother.

    Ricardo Jimeno (Madrid)
    Graduate and Master in Cinema Studies for Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

  2. Fascinating. Thank you for shining a light on a fabulous actress!

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