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Why ‘Mexican Spitfire’ Lupe Velez Is Overdue for a Major Hollywood Reconsideration

Two experts explain to IndieWire why, on the occasion of her 114th birthday, Velez still remains a Hollywood footnote, despite proof of her unique contributions to the silver screen.

STRICTLY DYNAMITE, Lupe Velez, 1933

“Strictly Dynamite”

Everett Collection / Everett Collection

By the time she was 21, actress Lupe Velez had worked with nearly all the top directors of the silent era, including D.W. Griffith (“Lady of the Pavements”), Lon Chaney (“Where East Is East”), and Cecil B. DeMille (“The Squaw Man”). Her first big break came from the King of Hollywood himself, Douglas Fairbanks, in 1927’s “The Gaucho.” She was star of an eight-film series at RKO Studios.

And yet, for most, the image they have of the classic screen star is a fake one, one not at all in line with her prodigious talents and incredible filmography.

In 1965, when “Hollywood Babylon” was published, author Kenneth Anger claimed that his tell-all would unpack the sleazy and sordid lives of numerous stars of the silent and early sound film era, with many of his tawdry tales involving sex, drugs, and death. In several instances, Anger included photos of dead celebrities, like infamous murder victim Elizabeth Short (AKA The Black Dahlia). The book was banned upon publication and, after being republished in 1975, was denounced by critics and the children of several stars depicted within its pages.

The long-lasting impact of “Hollywood Babylon”? The falsehoods it published that have now entered the public consciousness, becoming “fact” in the process, including the story Anger wrote about the suicide of the Mexican actress. In 1944, at the age of 35 (she would have turned 114 on July 18), Velez ingested a massive amount of sleeping pills, allegedly because she was pregnant and her paramour refused to marry her. In Anger’s book, Velez’s death was far more, well, comical. As Anger describes it:

“The bed was empty. The aroma of scented candles, the fragrance of tuberoses almost, but not quite masked a stench recalling that left by Skid-Row derelicts. Juanita traced the vomit trail from the bed, followed the spotty track over to the orchid tiled bathroom. There she found her mistress, Senorita Vélez, head jammed down in the toilet bowl, drowned.”

None of this is true.

Still, it’s an image now etched in the stone of Velez’s legacy, which is one filled with humor, pain, struggle, and racism. Unfortunately, like many minority performers of the classic film era, Velez is now but a Hollywood footnote, aided by the fact that only her popular comedies are currently available on DVD and Blu-ray. Like most Old Hollywood stars who lack the name recognition of a Marilyn Monroe or an Audrey Hepburn, much of Velez’s work remains enshrined in Hollywood vaults. Some of it (particularly her silent work) is missing or considered lost, and other features are owned by studios who aren’t interested in prioritizing their classic features.

But Velez deserves a critical reevaluation, as author Luis Reyes told IndieWire during a recent interview. Reyes, who is publishing a book for TCM in September on the role of Latinos in Hollywood entitled “Viva Hollywood,” said that Velez’s impact can be felt in several facets of the industry’s comedy scene today. One can look at the likes of Sofia Vergara’s smartly wacky work on “Modern Family” or Fran Drescher’s high-energy performance on “The Nanny” and see shades of Velez’s brand of humor.

“She was a complete performer, a very talented performer,” said Reyes. In addition to her enviable lineup of directors and the “Mexican Spitfire” series at RKO, Velez also made several films in her native Mexico that, according to Reyes, helped invigorate the Mexican film industry at the time. She could sing and dance.

MEXICAN SPITFIRE, from left, Leon Errol, Lupe Velez, Joey Ray, 1940

“Mexican Spitfire”

Courtesy Everett Collection

The problem lies in what happened to Velez once she went to Hollywood. Unlike other foreign actors whose careers were undone by their accents once talkies rose to prominence, Velez thrived, at least to a certain degree. Her strong Mexican accent often placed in the role of “exotic island girl,” like her role as Tula in 1932’s “Kongo,” or, more often, as the “fiery Latina.”

In 1939, Velez starred in “The Girl from Mexico” as Carmelita Fuentes, a young woman wooed into coming to America to help an advertising executive, played by Donald Woods. The success of that film would spawn seven features with Velez as Carmelita, known as the “Mexican Spitfire” series. The role became a blessing and a curse for Velez.

“Comedy was her thing,” said Diana Martinez, creator of the podcast “Hollywood in Color.” But as Martinez noted, playing Carmelita opened the door toward chronic stereotyping of Velez. If one reads the fan magazine interviews from Velez at the time — and since many were ghostwritten, it’s unclear how many, if any, were actually conducted with Velez herself — many of them are reliant on Latino stereotypes and are written in broken English. In one particular magazine, Velez threatens to kill her lover at the time, actor Gary Cooper, “because he does not get angry when Lupe is angry with him.”

Martinez said Velez was often her own worst enemy. “She really was managing herself and she did a really bad job at it,” said Martinez. Velez, like many actresses in Hollywood, was soon labeled difficult off these interviews, and Martinez said that was aided because so many of the interviews were less about Velez as an actress and more about her personal life.

Comparisons abound to Jennifer Lopez’s 1998 interview for MovieLine. “People mix up her [Velez’s] candor and her no-bullshit attitude towards things…but I just think she didn’t care,” said Martinez. “I also don’t know to what extent she understood how famous she was.”

With Velez working against herself in print, not only was her popularity at the box office overlooked, but so were the ways she was able to work against the stereotyping that Latino actors were saddled with. Unlike other stars, Velez never changed her name and, though the “Mexican Spitfire” features have flaws, her role as Carmelita is that of a fiercely independent woman.

“She decided to get a job and work and make her way on her own,” said Reyes. “She didn’t need her American boyfriend, who later became her husband.” And if you spoke Spanish, her angry tirades often included some blue language that got past the English-speaking censors.

Velez’s most enduring legacy is probably one that we still see minority performers face today: what defines being Latino? Martinez’s “Hollywood in Color” podcast spent an entire season deconstructing Velez, alongside fellow Mexican actress Dolores del Rio. Where Velez was scrappy and fiery, del Rio was positioned as elegant; Velez was Mexican, del Rio exotic.

“Dolores is untouchable, she’s beautiful. She’s up on this pedestal, whereas Lupe is your homegirl,” said Martinez. People often chose sides as to which actress could accurately represent Mexico, with many at the time believing del Rio’s glamour was a better representation of the country than Velez’s tempestuousness.

Even today, Velez’s work remains critically underseen. To watch a Lupe Velez film is to see a magnetic woman with an indomitable personality, but that legacy remains obscured, both by a lack of access to her features and a misguided belief that she was nothing but a trope, an on-screen Carmen Miranda who had so much more to share.

[Editor’s note: The author of this article has done work for Turner Classic Movies publishing.]

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