Following is a special, guest post by Fernando Silva. You can visit Fernando’s FB page here.
When I read about this Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, I was intrigued and also piqued. I wondered about which would be the outlook of the pieces written by American people, most of them, perhaps, without Hispanic roots. You might wonder why; Well, I feel, in a way, like a “Hispano” in Hollywood; a guy who has been accepted and “adopted” by “American” friends.
I am indeed a man with Hispanic Heritage; a South American; a Chilean; a person who since his childhood has loved Classic, Vintage American Cinema (to me, basically films made between 1920-1960) and who always thrived to get classic cinema-related books, most of which were in English Language, and which I was able to read thanks to my upbringing in a British School in Santiago de Chile.
I always felt like a fish out of water among my peers regarding my love for Classic Cinema (I was born in 1967) and even more so because this love had to do specifically with American cinema and not with anything local. When the internet era began I joined some message boards based in the USA and began exchanging views and interacting with “my” American peers, who loved Classic Cinema; who knew who Olivia De Havilland, Joan Fontaine and Fred Mac Murray were; who weren’t turned off by B&W films, quite the contrary, and I also tried to get my hands on every single classic film I could get. I began making lots of long-distance friends on the net; exchanging views, films; writing reviews on boards, communities, as well as on Amazon.com and Imdb.com; learning about new concepts in the early 2000s (when the Pre Code rage widely began at TCM and with LaSalle’s and Vieira’s books); feeling at home in the USA in the world of “Classic Hollywood”, because in my country I felt a foreigner.
Thus, when I knew about this Blogathon I told to myself: Wouldn’t it be interesting if a man of almost 80% Hispanic roots (there are some British and French in the Family Tree, as well as Native Chilean blood, I gather), whose maternal language is Spanish, participated sharing his point of view with his American peers, with regard to a certain film or actor pertaining to the Hispanic Heritage in Hollywood? And I immediately thought of Dolores Del Río, for me one of the foremost members of the Latino Legacy in Hollywood.
I would dare to say that the beautiful, classy and elegant Dolores Del Río was the first feminine Hispanic superstar in Hollywood in an era in which due to her –then- almost European appearance, she became a first magnitude star in a series of vehicles designed for her. Her beauty, elegance, allure, talent et al, as well as the lack of dialogue in Silent films, took pivotal part in this. Later, when the Talkies arrived, her Mexican accent caused her typecasting in more “Ethnically Latin” parts.
In her Silent films she wasn’t typecast as just only a “Señorita” or a “Latin Woman”; she indeed played roles of that kind, but for a time, she was able to transcend a certain categorization playing an European femme fatale, a French charmer, Russian peasants, a young Jewish girl in the Klondike and an Acadian beauty in Canada, in the wonderfully evocative Evangeline (dir. Edwin Carewe, 1929), one of the first -and finest- Silent Films I ever saw and which made me long for more Silent films to watch.
Dolores Del Río was a woman of a very different background than most of her peers, Hispanic or not. She was born not only in a very affluent family, but on both sides of it she belonged to the Mexican Aristocracy. She was cultured, educated in excellent schools, she travelled; she was a child of privilege. She got married and left for Hollywood, where with the aid of her unique beauty, natural talent and her mentor Edwin Carewe, who fell madly in love with her, she became a front rank star.
Indeed, during her heyday in Hollywood during the 1920s, her publicity emphasized not only her exoticism and femininity, but her high-class and aristocratic highborn status in her native country, her impeccable morals, convent education and European training in ballet and art.
She was not only beautiful and cultured, but sophisticated, elegant, with an innate taste and flawless manners. She was femininity personified. The camera loved her. Artists loved her. She was painted by many noteworthy painters during her life, among them, the legendary Diego Rivera. She was a woman of conviction and ideas; she was even blacklisted during the witch-hunt era, although she mainly worked in Mexico and Spain during the late ‘40s and the ‘50s.
Many men were crazy about her, including boy genius Orson Welles who had a long affair with Del Río, who looked much younger than she actually was due to her excellent genetics, the flawless bone structure of her face and healthy way of life. During the 1930s, she continued to be an important star and during her marriage to the powerful and famous MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons, I’d dare to say that she became part of “Hollywood Royalty”, but due to her accent, which caused her to get more limited kind of roles and the change in public tastes, the decline of her stardom in Hollywood took place rather quickly and in the second half of the ‘30s she was even labeled as “box-office poison”.
During the early forties she went back to Mexico, where she became an even bigger star during the Golden Years of the Mexican Cinema and especially under the direction of the masterful Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, she made history in some films opposite Pedro Armendáriz, most notably in the legendary María Candelaria (dir. Emilio Fernandez, 1943).
During these years she only returned once to the Hollywood, to appear under John Ford’s direction in the allegorical and mystical The Fugitive (1947) opposite Henry Fonda and in which she played not a Hispanic character, but a native in Mexico. Afterwards, when she was blacklisted in the USA she was not able to go back and appear in films in America until the 1960s, when she was featured in two Westerns in which she definitely was stereotyped as a Native American.
In my opinion, with the passing years, Dolores Del Río’s persona got distanced from her European-Spanish Ancestry present in her blood and became more identified with her Native Mexican roots present on her maternal family, which was more apparent in her way of dressing, her hairstyles, her identification with certain social movements in her country, her friendship with noted artists, painters and writers, and her re-discovery of her Mexican Ancestry, becoming an icon not only in the Cinema but on the stage, as the First Lady of the Mexican Stage. Compare any photograph of Dolores Del Río in the 1920s in films as Evangeline or The Red Dance (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1928), with her appearance in The Fugitive, María Candelaria or Flaming Star (dir. Don Siegel, 1960), and one can see as her native blood took control of her persona and her beauty.
All in all, my much admired Dolores Del Río, like Marlene Dietrich and Norma Shearer, wasn’t perhaps a great actress, but she was a smart, disciplined, driven and ambitious woman, who was focused on being a successful performer and to improve herself, who, most of the time, knew what was best for her, all of which helped to establish her as an icon in Hollywood and in Latin American countries.
By the end of her life her beauty and fame had become legendary, as well as her ability to stay youthful, fit and healthy forever. Dolores del Rio is undoubtedly and definitely one of the most important stars of Hispanic Hollywood.
This post is Fernando’s entry to the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Movie Star Makeover. Be sure to visit both host sites on October 11 and 12 to read about many of the great Hispanic-themed films and other Hispanic stars who’ve shined in Hollywood.