Friday, December 2, 2011

HOLA Legends: Lupe Vélez

Lupe Vélez (July 18, 1908 – December 14, 1944) was a Mexican film actress. She began her career in Mexico as a dancer, before moving to the U.S. where she worked in vaudeville. She was seen by Fanny Brice who promoted her, and she soon entered films, making her first appearance in 1924. By the end of the decade she had progressed to leading roles. With the advent of talking pictures, she acted in comedies, but she became disappointed with her film career, and moved to New York where she worked in Broadway productions.

Returning to Hollywood in 1939, she made a series of comedies. She also made some films in Mexico. Her personal life was often difficult; a five year marriage to Johnny Weissmuller and a series of romances, were highly publicized. She is often associated with the nicknames "The Mexican Spitfire" and "The Hot Pepper."

Born María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez in the city of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, the daughter of an army officer and his wife, an opera singer, both from prominent families in the state of San Luis Potosí. Her father refused to let her use his last name in theater because at that time it was considered inappropriate for a person from a well-to-do family to be an actor, so she used her mother's surname. From an early age, she had a strong temper and an explosive personality. She took dancing lessons and in 1924, made her performing debut at the Teatro Principal in Mexico City. In 1923 she moved to Texas, where she began dancing in vaudeville shows and finding work as a sales assistant. She moved to California, where she met the comedienne Fanny Brice, who promoted her career as a dancer. In 1926 she was cast in her first film by director Hal Roach.

Her first feature-length film was The Gaucho (1927) starring Douglas Fairbanks. The next year, she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, the young starlets deemed to be most promising for movie stardom. Most of her early films cast her in exotic or ethnic roles (Hispanic, Native American, French, Russian, even Asian). She worked under the direction of notable film directors like Victor Fleming in The Wolf Song (1929) opposite Gary Cooper; D.W. Griffith in Lady of the Pavements (1928); Tod Browning in Where East is East opposite Lon Chaney and Cecil B. DeMille in The Squaw Man in 1931. By the end of the silent era the sparkling personality of Lupe rivalled that of the Flapper Girl, Clara Bow.

Within a few years, she found her niche in comedies, playing beautiful but volatile foils to comedy stars. Her slapstick battle with Laurel and Hardy in Hollywood Party and her dynamic presence opposite Jimmy Durante in Palooka (both 1934) are typically enthusiastic performances of her. She was featured in the final Wheeler & Woolsey comedy, High Flyers (1937), doing impersonations of Simone Simon, Dolores del Río and Shirley Temple.

She was now nearing 30 and had not become a major star. Disappointed, she left Hollywood for Broadway. In New York, she landed a role in You Never Know, a short-lived Cole Porter musical. After the run of You Never Know, she looked for film work in other countries. Returning to Hollywood in 1939, she snared the lead in a B comedy for RKO Radio Pictures, The Girl from Mexico. She established such a rapport with co-star Leon Errol that RKO made a quick sequel, Mexican Spitfire, which became a very popular series. She perfected her comic character, indulging in broken-English malaprops, troublemaking ideas, and sudden fits of temper bursting into torrents of Spanish invective. She occasionally sang in these films, and often displayed a talent for hectic, visual comedy. She enjoyed making these films and can be seen openly breaking up at Leon Errol's comic ad libs.

The Spitfire films rejuvenated her career, and for the next few years she starred in musical and comedy features for RKO, Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures in addition to the Spitfire films. In one of her last films, Columbia's Redhead from Manhattan, she played a dual role: one in her exaggerated comic dialect, and the other in her actual speaking voice, which was surprisingly fluid and had only traces of a Mexican accent.

Quite popular with Spanish-speaking audiences, she returned to Mexico in 1943 and starred in the movies La Zanndunga (1938), and an adaptation of Émile Zola's novel Nana (1944), which was well received. Subsequently, she returned to Hollywood.

Emotionally generous, passionate, and high-spirited, she had a number of highly publicized affairs, including a particularly emotionally draining one with Gary Cooper, before marrying Olympic athlete Johnny Weissmuller (of Tarzan fame) in 1933, and later, in 1938, Mexican actor Arturo de Córdova. In the early 1940s she was also linked romantically with Clayton Moore, later known for his television role as the Lone Ranger; Moore insists in his autobiography that he was only a social escort. About her romance with Cooper, Marlene Dietrich said "Gary was totally under the control of Lupe." The marriage with Weissmuller lasted five years; they repeatedly split and finally divorced in 1938. However, her love affair with Gary Cooper lasted until her death.

In the mid-1940s, she had a relationship with the young actor Harald Maresch, and became pregnant with his child. However, other accounts place Gary Cooper, with whom Lupe had had a romantic relationship for years and up to her death, as the father of her unborn child, either making her alleged suicide note bogus, or Maresch only a scapegoat. Unable to face the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate child, she decided to take her own life. Her alleged suicide note read, "To Harald: May God forgive you and forgive me, too; but I prefer to take my life away and our baby's, before I bring him with shame, or killing him. Lupe." She retired to bed after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. According to newspaper accounts, her body was found by her secretary and companion of ten years, Beulah Kinder, on her bed surrounded by flowers, as she had wished.

Andy Warhol's underground film, Lupe (1965), starring Edie Sedgwick as Lupe, is loosely based on this fateful night, suggesting that she was found with her head in the toilet due to nausea caused by the overdose. Another report says she tripped and fell head-first into the toilet, knocking herself unconscious and drowning.

She was laid to rest in the Civil Cemetery of Sorrows (Panteón Civil de Dolores), in the Tacubaya section of Mexico City, in a walled section within the itself walled cemetery, reserved for artists and administered by the National Association of Actors (A.N.D.A.).

Singing "Oh Me, Oh My" from the film Strictly Dynamite (1934)

With Laurel and Hardy in Hollywood Party (1934)

Singing and dancing in Redhead from Manhattan (1943)

Doing impersonations in High Flyers (1937)

In the film La Zandunga (1937)

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