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Mexican Spitfire

Mexican Spitfire(1940)

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teaser Mexican Spitfire (1940)

Though she was often marginalized by critics as a cut price Dolores Del Rio or Carmen Miranda, Lupe Velez had an almost twenty-year tenure as a Hollywood exotic. Yet despite her popularity with moviegoers in the Thirties and Forties, caustic Tinseltown gossip (particularly Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon) doomed "the Mexican Spitfire" to be remembered less for her accomplishments than for the particulars of her tragic death in 1944. Born Mara Guadalupe Vlez de Villalobos on July 18, 1909 in a suburb of Mexico City, the future "Whoopee Lupe" was the daughter of an opera singer and a Mexican army colonel. Spirited as a child (confessing in interviews that she played with boys because other girls found her too rough), Lupe was packed off on the cusp of puberty to be educated (and tamed) at Our Lady of the Lake convent in San Antonio, Texas. When her father was killed in the line of duty two years later, Lupe returned home and took a job as a department store sales girl to help support her widowed mother. With money saved from her $4 a week salary, Lupe enrolled in dance classes. Her voluptuous measurements and bobbed "flapper" hairstyle got her work as a chorus line dancer. Making her stage debut in the revue Ra-Ta Plan, Lupe was given a letter of introduction to American stage actor Richard Bennett, who was preparing a Hollywood run of the Willard Mack play The Dove and needed an actress for the role of a Mexican cantina singer.

When Lupe arrived in Hollywood (after first having been turned back across the border by immigrations officials), the fifty-something Bennett was alarmed to discover she was just 17 years old and not sufficiently trained for the demands of the production. (The role went instead to Dorothy Mackaye, while Norma Talmadge starred in Roland West's film adaptation later that year.) Undaunted by the disappointment, Lupe (by this time she was using her mother's maiden name as her stage name) finagled her way into a spot in a Hollywood benefit revue, which won her a dancing job in a show at the Music Box Theatre. When he saw her frolicking in Music Box Revue, film producer Hal Roach invited Lupe to join his stable of pretty young things, whose number included Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and later Paulette Goddard. Lupe appeared in several comic two-reelers, including the Laurel and Hardy short Sailors Beware (1927), in which Oliver Hardy first performed his trademark "tie twiddle." Lupe's athleticism won her a fan in Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., who bought out her contract from Roach for $50,000 and made a place for her as the second female lead in his lavish, part-Technicolor costumer The Gaucho (1927). Cast by Fairbanks as his hot-tempered Latin lover, Lupe allowed the template for her Hollywood career to be stamped in the mold of the hot tamale nonpareil. In his review of The Gaucho, the critic for Variety raved that "this kid has a great sense of comedy value to go with her athletic prowess" and declared Lupe Velez "a feminine Fairbanks."

Lupe Velez worked steadily through the next decade (most memorably, as Lon Chaney's half-caste daughter in Where East Is East in 1929 and in the title role of Hot Pepper in 1933) but it was her love affairs that earned her the most press clippings. She weathered a tempestuous love affair with Gary Cooper (on the rebound from Clara Bow) and might have married the lanky, laconic actor were it not for the disapproval of his domineering mother. In 1933, Lupe did marry Johnny Weissmuller, the Romanian migr and Olympic gold medalist who had parlayed his swimming prowess into a rolling paycheck as cinema's first talking Tarzan. Not surprisingly, the union of Weissmuller and Velez was stormy, marked by public fights, allegations of physical abuse and occasional separations. The year the marriage was dissolved, Lupe starred in the first installment of what would become a popular film series tailor-made to her talents. Mexican Spitfire (1940) came about due to the box office bonanza reaped by RKO's lowbrow comedy The Girl from Mexico (1939), in which Lupe played a Chicana singer groomed for stardom as a radio star. The fish out of water formula seemed so sure-fire that RKO studio head George Schaefer negotiated a deal with Lupe for the modest but steady salary of $1,500 a week and ordered an immediate follow-up of more of the same.

"This entry might be better termed a well-pastried bit of buffoonery," wrote New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent of Mexican Spitfire, which had its premiere just six months after the release of The Girl from Mexico. Truth be told, Lupe's shtick as Carmelita Fuentes-Lindsay was nothing new: the facial contortions, malapropisms, double entendres, and pratfalls were all pulled unapologetically from the shallow bag of tricks the actress had been carrying since her time with Hal Roach. Nevertheless, the public ate it up. Men seemed to love Lupe's unpredictability and undeniable sex appeal while women found a role model in this libertine loose cannon. While her fiery Carmelita Lindsay was a married woman (her mixed marriage was highly unusual for Hollywood at this time), she retained a separate life as a singer, one that (at least initially) she was not going to forsake by having children. (Mexican critics were of an opposite mindset and derided the sexually adventurous and frequently profane Velez's influence on young Mexican women.) Although Mexican Spitfire and its eight sequels (all directed by Leslie Goodwins) were vehicles for Lupe Velez, the films were carried in part by the participation of her Australian costar Leon Errol. A former Vaudevillian and Ziegfeld rep player, Errol's mtier in Hollywood was the two-reel comedy but he stayed with the Mexican Spitfire series until the very end. (Mexican Spitfire's Baby, released in 1941, was intended to be the final film in the series until box office receipts again encouraged additional installments; in New York the programmer was the B-film accompaniment to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, 1941.) The series grinded to a halt with Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event in 1943.

That year Lupe announced her retirement from the Hollywood scene. Returning to Mexico City, she played the lead in Nana (1944), a Spanish language adaptation of mile Zola's 1880 novel directed by Celestino Gorostiza and Roberto Gavaldn. While Mexican critics were kind to Lupe, they panned the production as an obvious star vehicle which compromised Zola's naturalism. Lupe soon returned to California. After ending a relationship with actor Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, she began dating expatriate Austrian Harald Ramand (aka Harald Maresch). In December of 1944, Lupe discovered she was pregnant but a proposal of marriage was not forthcoming from Ramand. Exhibiting symptoms of what would now be called manic depression, Lupe hosted a lavish celebration of her patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, on December 12, 1943. On December 13th, at the Hollywood premiere of Nana, she told friend Estelle Taylor "I am just weary with the whole world...I'm so tired of it all." The next day Lupe Velez committed suicide by swallowing Seconal tablets. She was thirty-five years old. Many years later, Kenneth Anger alleged that Lupe died not from the overdose but from drowning in her own toilet after vomiting up the pills. Despite glaring inaccuracies in Anger's account of the death of Lupe Velez, his version persisted. The macabre death scenario was reenacted by Edie Sedgwick in Andy Warhol's Lupe (1966) and became a pop culture punchline for such sitcoms as The Simpsons and Frasier. Meanwhile, film critics, scholars and "Velezians" have been laboring to reclaim Lupe's legacy. "I now consider Lupe Vlez to be the Chicana Queen of the B's," wrote Rosa Linda Fregoso in 2007. "She is rarely considered as important as Katharine Hepburn or Irene Dunne, but she was one of the most accomplished and popular screwball comediennes of the time."

Producer: Cliff Reid
Director: Leslie Goodwins
Screenplay: Joseph Fields, Charles E. Roberts
Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Paul Sawtell
Film Editing: Desmond Marquette
Cast: Lupe Velez (Carmelita Lindsay), Leon Errol (Uncle Matt/Lord Basil), Donald Woods (Dennis Lindsay), Linda Hayes (Elizabeth Price), Elisabeth Risdon (Aunt Della), Cecil Kellaway (Mr. Chumley), Ward Bond (policeman).
BW-68m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:

Twinkle, Twinkle, Movie Star! by Harry T. Brundidge
Lupe Velez and Her Lovers by Floyd Conner
"Lupe Vlez, Queen of the B's by Rosa Linda Fregoso, From Banana to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, Myra Mendible (editor)
The RKO Gals by James Robert Parish
Immortals of the Screen by Ray Stuart
Dishing Hollywood: The Real Scoop on Tinseltown's Most Notorious Scandals by Laurie Jacobson
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz

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