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Spotlight: Dolores del Río




We specially curated the retrospective Wild Flower, Flaming Star: The Films of Dolores del Río for the 20th anniversary edition of the Glasgow Film Festival Taking place in March 2024. Dolores del Río was both a defining performer of the Mexican Golden Age and one of the first Latin American stars to cross over into Hollywood and for this very special season at the GFF we brought together a small selection of definitive del Río titles rarely screened in the UK.


Here we delve deeper into the life and legacy of this mesmerising star.


 

Hollywood, what a place it is! It is so far away from the rest of the world, so narrow. No one thinks of anything but motion pictures or talks of anything else. And, I, too, am getting like the rest.

Dolores del Río


 


AN ENCHANTING EARLY LIFE 


María de los Dolores Asúnsolo y López Negrete was born in 1904 into one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the state of Durango. While her early years were largely idyllic, like many aristocratic families, the Asúnsolos lost all their assets during the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). Dolores’ father had to flee to the US to escape Pancho Villa’s rebels, while young Dolores and her mother made their way to Mexico City by train, disguised as peasants. Years later, Dolores would remember that during this journey she saw, at every station, men with mighty moustaches and dusty cotton trousers waiting to go off to fight, just like the characters played by Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández and Pedro Armendáriz in the revolution-set films which she would later star in.


Although they had lost their wealth, the Asúnsolos still retained their social status. It helped that Dolores' mother was the cousin of Mexico’s current president Francisco I. Madero, who helped them settle in Mexico City and continue the lifestyle young Dolores had been accustomed to. She studied at the prestigious Liceo Franco-Mexicano convent school, instructed by French nuns, where she developed an early fascination with literature, dance, and art. After her mother took her to see Anna Pavlova perform, Dolores  began to study ballet,  aspiring to become as good a dancer as the Russian prima ballerina. 


The always committed Dolores soon started dancing at recitals and other high society social occasions. At a benefit she met Jaime Martinez del Rio, who immediately fell in love with 16 year old Dolores. Jaime was 34 at the time and from one of the most influential families in Mexico. They married in 1921 and embarked on a three year European honeymoon, where Dolores delighted in voice and dance lessons at prestigious schools in Madrid and Paris. Once the del Rios returned to Mexico City they continued their lavish socialite lifestyle. 



It was at one of these dinner parties that Dolores was discovered. When American silent film director Edwin Carewe saw her dancing a tango, he instantly fell in love and promised to make her a star if she came to Hollywood. At this point Dolores spoke only one English word, which she used to emphatically respond to Carewe’s invitation: ‘Yes!.


Carewe invited the couple to join him in Hollywood, convincing her husband that he could make Dolores into the female equivalent of Rudolph Valentino. Although becoming an actress was not on the agenda for a married woman of the aristocracy, Jaime did not need much convincing; this would also give him the opportunity to pursue his dream of screenwriting.


 

 

THE MOVE TO HOLLYWOOD


In 1925 they arrived in Hollywood, and Carewe set out to shape the public image of the newly rechristenedDolores del Río, enhancing her aristocratic background to sell her image as a high society lady, taking out magazine ads promoting his ‘new discovery’:


Dolores Del Rio, the heiress and First Lady of the High Mexican Society, has come to Hollywood with a cargo of shawls and combs valued at $50,000 (is said to be the richest girl in her country thanks to the fortune of her husband and her parents). She will debut in the film Joanna, led by her discoverer Edwin Carewe.





Joanna (1925)

Carewe was also never shy of highlighting del Río’s exotic image; he is even said to have referred to Dolores and Jaime as his ‘chilli peppers’. With Carewe in full control of her life, career and image, del Río made several silents including her debut Joanna (1925) and Pals First (1926), featuring her first starring role. Both were only modest successes, but did help to raise her public profile. 


During this period del Río also began to draw the attention of the Hollywood elite. In 1926, Raol Walsh cast her in the war film What Price Glory?, in which she plays a beautiful, sassy and wilful French coquette caught in a love triangle, a role which sealed her star persona. After the success of What Price Glory? and subsequent rise in stardom for Dolores, her husband became increasingly jealous of his wife’s status as a sex symbol. Del Río, naturally, had other opinions, later commenting on the role which shot her to celebrity: 


I am not, by nature, melancholy, weepy, sorrowful, languishing, or sweet. I am not patient. I am not conventional. I am not a Ramona or an Evangeline. More, 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. I have never had a chance to express the sex that is in me. I am going to begin now. I am going to be free.



What Price Glory? (1926)

Following the triumph of What Price Glory, United Artists, the production and distribution company founded by Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, signed del Río and Carewe. Under United Artists the pair would collaborate on one of her most iconic early roles, and one of the first films ever to be released with a recorded soundtrack; 1928’s Ramona


United Artists would eventually encourage del Río to sever her professional ties with Carewe, who had become increasingly obsessed with her, especially after her divorce from her first husband. To counter his attentions, del Río would declare to reporters at the premiere of Evangeline (1929): ‘Mr. Carewe and I are just friends and companions in the art of the cinema. I will not marry Mr. Carewe.’ This was their last picture together.


 

TRANSITION TO TALKIES


Ramona (1928)

The arrival of the talkies put a lot of pressure on all actors, but was especially worrying for nonnative English speakers. United Artists decided to confront the challenge directly. In 1928, the day after the Los Angeles premiere of Ramona, del Río along with the other United Artists pioneers, appeared on a national radio show to prove themselves in the audio realm. The aim was to make the cinema going audiences hear that the stars that they loved had ‘acceptable’ talkies voices. Del Río gave a short speech and then sang the title song from Ramona. When reflecting back on the transition she said,: ‘Many big stars didn't survive. Their voices were too high, or they didn't speak English well enough. I survived, but it was difficult. I had to work very, very hard at my English.’


In 1930, del Río married acclaimed MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons, and they became one of the most glamorous Hollywood couples of the decade. They built an extravagant Art Deco estate in Santa Monica, where they organised famous Sunday brunches which attracted visits from Hollywood’s crème de la crème, such as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and Marlene Dietrich, who claimed ‘Dolores del Río was the most beautiful woman who ever set foot in Hollywood’. 


Marlene Dietrich and Dolores del Río

Shortly after the wedding del Río was signed personally by media mogul David O. Selznick at RKO Pictures. Following south of the border musical The Girl from the Rio (1931) she was assigned to King Vidor’s 1932 big budget picture Bird of Paradise. The film was  controversial at the time due to del Río's daring costumes, as well as an implied nude swimming scene. It’s rumoured that it was this scene which first caught the eye of her future beau Orson Welles, but of course, it wasn’t just Welles who fell in love with del Río watching Bird of Paradise; the film made her one of the erotic symbols of her time. 


However, Bird of Paradise also firmly entrenched the exoticising typecasting which would haunt del Río’s career. Del Río is cast across ethnicities as an Indigenous woman living on an unspecified Pacific island, who speaks in a nonsense made up language or broken English, wears revealing outfits and is endlessly objectified by the white male characters. These tropes make the film difficult to watch today, although it does serve as a powerful reminder of the extraordinary racism of the era, and of the barriers del Río, as a Latina woman working in the US, would continue to face over the course of her Hollywood career.


 

FLYING DOWN TO RIO 


Bird of Paradise was a box office success and secured del Río her next leading role in Flying Down to Rio (1933) opposite Gene Raymond. This film also marked the debut of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and was the first in a total of ten RKO musicals that featured the iconic dancing duo. 


Dolores del Río and Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio (1933)

Del Río stars as a Brazilian aristocratic beauty caught in a love triangle between her dubious fiancé (Raul Roulien) and a dashing US band leader (Raymond). Ostensibly set in Rio de Janeiro, the film presents an idealised vision of a pan-Latin American paradise, but despite the stereotyping, del Río’s performance sizzles with vivacity and charm. A pre Hays code film (and therefore uncensored), it features lots of see-through dresses, skirts and blouses, especially in the gloriously preposterous finale, an aerial ballet which unfolds on the wings of a plane. Pre-code liberties not only allowed for skimpily dressed showgirls and the first depiction of a two-piece women’s bathing suit on screen, but also for the risqué dialogue (‘what do these South Americans got below the border that we haven’t?’ utters one of the American girls saucily, as she jealously watches del Río knock all the men sideways).


Flying down to Rio (1933)

RKO failed to anticipate Flying Down to Rio’s global success and, in the midst of the financial crisis, terminated del Río’s contract. It was to be her last big American hit. Her contract was picked up by rival studio Warner Brothers, who hoped  Dolores del Río would ‘bloom into another Greta Garbo.’ That didn’t happen; instead del Río was stuck with a series of typecast roles in average films, including  Wonder Bar (1934), Madame Du Barry (1934) and In Caliente (1935). In the coming years she worked on a few projects for Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia Pictures, but ultimately gained more visibility in ads for Lucky Strike cigarettes or Max Factor makeup, than on the silver screen. 


 

ORSON WELLES AND LEAVING HOLLYWOOD 


Orson Welles and Dolores del Río at Citizen Kane (1940) premiere

In 1940 del Río  divorced her second husband Cedric Gibbons, and began an affair with Orson Welles, who was in the midst of making Citizen Kane (1941). Welles was smitten - he attended Citizen Kane’s World premiere with del Río on his arm, and announced that they were planning to marry. He would later give del Río the leading role in Journey into Fear (1942,) an espionage film which he wrote, produced and was eventually ousted from directing:


Orson insisted I play this role. He said he was unable to see anyone else in it, and after reading the part I became equally enthusiastic. I wear no glamorous gowns in the film. My main costume is a battered raincoat. 


Del Río is exaggerating a bit here; She does wear an incredibly sexy, albeit somewhat silly, leopard print costume in the first half of the film, which naturally made its way all over the (misleading) promo material and is now one of the most iconic images of the star. Otherwise though, Journey into Fear didn’t do her career much good. After a troubled shoot, RKO fired Welles in post production, re-editing without the director and releasing it to disparaging reviews.



Journey Into Fear (1943)

Soon after its release, del Río broke off her relationship with Welles via telegram, following reports of his philandering during a film shoot at the carnival in Brazil. He would eventually marry another ‘Latin’ beauty Rita Hayworth. Devastated and with her career at a stand still, she decided that she needed a change:


[I had to] stop being a star and become an actress, and that I could only do in Mexico. I wish to choose my own stories, my own director, and cameraman. I can accomplish this better in Mexico. I wanted to return to Mexico, a country that was mine and I did not know. I felt the need to return to my country 


In 1942, del Río left Hollywood to become one of the foremost stars of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.


 

FROM BOX OFFICE POISON TO MARIA CANDELARIA


By this stage in her career, del Río’s US career had been tainted, by her inclusion in the list of ‘toxic’ stars included in the famed ‘Box Office Poison’ advert, and by her association with known communists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. She had also, however, been receiving offers from Mexican filmmakers since the 1930s. She therefore had no difficulty finding a foothold as soon as she was back in her home country:  


When I returned to Mexico, I joined with people eager to create Mexican cinema. We were full of dreams and had no money whatsoever, but we were able to achieve something and open markets for our films all over the world.


Flor Silvestre (1943)

Shortly after she arrived, Mexican actor turned filmmaker Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández, who would go on to become one of the most prolific directors of the Mexican Golden Age, invited del Río to star in Flor Silvestre (1943). He had been a great admirer of del Río, having first come across her while he was working as an extra in Hollywood, and he was eager to work with her on her return. Flor Silvestre (Wild Flower) would mark the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Fernández as director, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, the screenwriter Mauricio Magdaleno and del Río and Pedro Armendáriz as the stars, who could go on to make several films in this constellation. 


FROM BALLERINAS TO BARE FEET


Fernández, who had been the son of a revolutionary, was interested in portraying working class Mexican society.  With del Río as his leading lady, he began to impose his very particular vision of Mexican women on her characters, forcing her to leave Hollywood glamour behind and begin to embody the ‘campesina’ (peasant). As del Río put it: ‘I shed the furs and diamonds, satin shoes and pearl necklaces; I traded everything for the shawl and bare feet’.


MARIA CANDELARIA


Only four months after the release of Flor Silvestre, the same team began filming María Candelaria. Fernández had conceived the film specifically as a star vehicle for del Río (legend had it that he had come up with the story in a cantina, writing it out one night across 13 napkins, before presenting the film to del Río the next day as a gift for her 37th birthday). Maria Candelaria would go on to be the first Mexican film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and the first ever Latin American film in history to win the prestigious Palme d’Or prize.


María Candelaria (1944)

It's no surprise that this radiant melodrama stands out as a defining masterpiece of the Mexican Golden Age. In what is arguably her most iconic role, del Río portrays a young Indigenous woman ostracised by her community due to her mother's profession as a sex worker. Her sole source of protection comes from the young man who loves her (Pedro Armendáriz). Set against the picturesque floating gardens of Mexico City’s Xochimilco district, the film unfolds as an epic tragedy. Del Río's portrayal amidst the flowers, bathed in beautiful light, adorned with two lush braids, and dressed in the traditional attire of a Mexican Indigenous woman — a white muslin blouse, a sash, and a black skirt — indelibly captures the essence the flawless and ultimately unattainable beauty of Fernández’ idealised Indigenous woman.


In both Flor Silvestre and María Candelaria, Dolores del Río effectively shed her image as a Hollywood star, captivating the hearts of her audience and becoming a beloved figure among Mexican viewers. Despite portraying roles such as a peasant, an Indigenous woman, and a prostitute, del Río continued to embody the essence of a modern bourgeois woman for her Mexican fans, thereby contributing to Mexico's evolving sense of national identity.


Dolores del Río as María Candelaria

 

EMANCIPATION FROM EL INDIO


With this transition, from exotic symbol of Latin womanhood abroad to being hailed as a national treasure, del Río's significance grew even more pronounced. In Bugambilia (1945), Fernández sought to emulate the grandeur of the Hollywood productions that del Río had been a part of. In La Malquerida (1949), her last collaboration with him, life would imitate art, as she finds herself ‘replaced’ by the younger actress, Columba Domínguez. In the film, del Río portrays a woman who competes for the love of a man with her own daughter (played by Domínguez). Domínguez would become Fernández’ new muse and romantic partner. This generated rumours, caused  tensions on the set and ultimately sealed the personal and professional separation between del Río and ‘El Indio’.


La Malquerida (1949)

The 1940s marked a period of prolificacy for del Río, as throughout this era, she starred in 14 films, collaborating not only with Fernández but also with other esteemed directors. Following her departure from working with Fernández, del Río began a fruitful partnership with director Roberto Gavaldón.


LA OTRA


In La Otra (1946), her first film under Gavaldón's direction, del Río gives one of her most formidable performances, portraying twin sisters. The film, with its urban-themed noir aesthetic, presents del Río in a markedly different light from the archetypal Mexican beauty she had embodied in ‘El Indio's’ works. Here she delivers double the star power in the alluring dual roles of downtrodden manicurist Maria, who is struggling with mounting debts and sleazy customers, while vivacious young widow Magdalena lives in casual luxury after the death of her millionaire husband. As the gulf between the sisters' lives grows, Maria’s jealousy begins to spiral dangerously out of control. Roberto Gavaldón had worked with his most trusted screenwriter, José Revueltas, to create this distinctly Mexican version of the time-honoured Evil Twin trope.  La Otra would eventually be remade in 1964 as Dead Ringer with Bette Davis, in her version of the good-twin-bad-twin Melodrama.


La Otra (1946)

Her Mexican films garnered attention even in the United States, as evidenced by a letter from legendary director John Ford offering her a leading role alongside Henry Fonda in the film that would mark her return to the US silver screen The Fugitive (1947). That film however, was a critical fiasco and ultimately labelled as communist, and once again rumours about her politics rang the alarm bells in Hollywood.


RIVALRY OF THE MEXICAN GRAND DAMES 


During the 1950s and 1960s, del Río found herself starring in several low-budget films, including El Niño y la niebla (1953), Señora alma (1954), A dónde van nuestros hijos (1956), and then, La Cucaracha (1958), directed by Ismael Rodríguez, in which  she appeared alongside ‘her rival’, María Félix.


La Cucaracha was among a series of films that reimagined the Mexican revolution and its heroic figures. To many critics however, that history was merely a backdrop for legendary duels between the most formidable forces of Mexican cinema: María Félix vs. Dolores del Río and Pedro Armendáriz vs. ‘El Indio’ Fernández. This starry casting played into gossip - since del Río’s return, her rivalry with Félix had become a hot topic in the press. As Rodríguez would later comment: ‘Look, I would like to see Griffith, Fritz Lang, or Kurosawa try. I would even like to see God try directing Dolores del Río and María Félix together.’


La Cucaracha (1958)
 

FLAMING STAR


After being ‘forgiven’ by the US government for alleged communist tendencies, del Río returned to Hollywood in 1960 to portray Elvis Presley's mother in Flaming Star. In this quirky Western, directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz), Presley stars as Pacer Burton a half-Native American Texan cattle rancher who finds his loyalties split when his Kiowan relatives return to reclaim their stolen land. Del Río is cast across ethnicities as Pacer’s mother, an Indigenous woman who has married outside her community. Like many period Westerns Flaming Star has problematic elements, but nevertheless there’s much to enjoy here, from a bracingly bleak exploration of generational colonial violence to a surprisingly effective performance from Presley. As always del Río brings gravitas and class to proceedings. Four years later she would star as another Native American woman, here the wife of a chief in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the last western of John Ford in their second collaboration.


Flaming Star (1960)

Although she no longer received the same kind of on screen time or attention, and was not necessarily identified as the exotic beauty in those roles, the ageing del Río still served the same narrative function she had in the 1920s and 30s: Her presence as a non-white woman signified a narrative disruption, an enigma that had to be resolved before the film's plot could come to its logical conclusion, the resolution of the arc of the white hero.


LAST ACTIVE YEARS AND PHILANTHROPY


Del Río remained active in theatre, cinema, and television until old age, with her last Mexican film, Casa de mujeres, being filmed in 1966, and her last US TV appearance in 1970. In the seventies, del Río directed her image towards philanthropic endeavours. She co-founded the International Cervantino Festival and the Rosa Mexicano union group, aimed at creating free childcare opportunities for working mothers in the creative industries, and became a spokeswoman for UNICEF. 


Despite her career and philanthropic legacy, the press would, until her death in 1983, mostly focus on her timeless beauty. But del Río, always poised and elegant, would gracefully reply: ‘Take care of your inner beauty, your spiritual beauty, and that will reflect in your face.

Her list of accolades is extensive, positioning her as a trailblazer in cinema: She was one of the first women to serve on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival in 1957 and was also the first Mexican woman to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Dolores del Río in early 1980s

As one of the earliest examples of a Mexican actor achieving success in Hollywood, del Río paved the way for many Latin American performers to come, establishing the myth of the Hollywood Latina which would later be followed by many other stars, the likes of Lupe Valez, Katy Jurado, Salma Hayek and many more. Although she struggled with typecasting and racism, del Río also managed to push at the boundaries of the Hollywood machine, investing her characters with an intensity, power and dignity which many of the limited roles she was offered did not fully deserve. Let’s not therefore remember del Río as a Latin bombshell, hot tamale, sultry spitfire or hot cha cha. Instead let’s remember her through the words of her friend, and contemporary Joan Crawford, who had this to say about her fellow diva: ‘Dolores became, and remains, as one of the most beautiful stars in the world.’






1 comentario


Ronnie Lanna
Ronnie Lanna
29 feb

The conversational tone of this blog post made it feel like I was chatting with a friend. fireboy and watergirl

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