What Price Dignity?

Dolores del Rio Spent Hollywood's Good Fortune on a Respectable Career

In a black-and-white photograph dated May 1, 1941, taken at the New York premiere of Citizen Kane, a trim, cherub-faced, and impossibly youthful-looking Orson Welles--the film's producer, director, co-screenwriter, and star--beams engagingly as he enters the theater dressed in a tuxedo and overcoat. Standing at his side, completely swathed in a white fur coat and clutching a silver purse, Welles's paramour of the moment--raven-haired actress Dolores del Rio, considerably better-known than him--positively glows.

On the surface they seemed an unlikely couple. The brash Welles, five days short of his 26th birthday at the time, had established his reputation in radio drama as architect and conductor of the Mercury Theatre, notably with the troupe's infamous 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. The more demure del Rio--three months shy of 36, fresh from her second divorce, and the first Mexican woman to attain star status in Hollywood--had started her career in silent movies in 1925, then successfully moved into talkies. Tellingly, however, critics usually cited her ravishing beauty as often as her acting ability.

A smitten Welles once explained, "I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I used to follow her around--at a discreet distance, of course--just to admire her. I followed her out of a nightclub once in New York, and stood there on the street admiring her as she waited for a cab. But I always thought she was a dumbbell. Didn't really want to meet her, because I didn't want to spoil an illusion." Eventually, though, the boy genius succumbed, apparently convinced that she wouldn't embarrass him. "She has a mind full of talk," he allowed. "We both love music, though we quarrel about it a lot. We do not agree on ballet... We are one on the theory of exercise: We do not take it, and don't like to watch others exercise, either. We both take massage to keep our circulatory systems fit. We both like to fish."

On the occasion of the Kane premiere, these fishing buddies were heading in markedly opposite directions, at least by Hollywood measure. Welles was about to embark on the ultimate bumpy ride, wrestling with the suffocating constraints of the studio system. Meanwhile, del Rio already had been through the Hollywood meat grinder, toiling under contract to every major studio in town while appearing in melodramas, musicals, Westerns, thrillers, and costume epics. (A number of these can be seen during the Walker Art Center's current del Rio retrospective, which runs through January 30.) Neither box-office sensation nor box-office poison, she had pretty much exhausted the possibilities, giving up on Hollywood as it gave up on her.

Welles stepped in, though, and corralled her to be the female lead of the 1942 spy picture Journey Into Fear, on which he served as co-director. But the studio butchered the film during editing, thwarting del Rio's "comeback." Worse, arguably, Welles dumped her that same year for a new Latin flavor, the decade-younger actress Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino), whom he wed in September 1943. Preparing to flee to her homeland, a flummoxed and heartbroken del Rio announced, "I wish to choose my own stories, my own director and cameraman. I can accomplish this better in Mexico." And she did.

 

Del Rio's disenchantment with Hollywood stemmed primarily from the fact that, at the time, the major studios controlled all aspects of their employees' professional lives, including the genre of film in which an actor appeared, the assignment of specific roles (often resulting in typecasting), and the image presented to an impressionable public. In her book The Invention of Dolores del Rio, author Joanne Hershfield (who'll give a free lecture at the Walker on Thursday, January 24 at 8:00 p.m.) writes, "Hollywood repeatedly situated del Rio as a foreign, exotic woman in films about exotic locations, and she consistently responded to her audience's understanding of what and who an 'exotic' woman was." Over time, del Rio grew weary of these restrictions, and she took the extraordinary step of reclaiming--and determining--her own career on her own terms.

Born Lolita Dolores Asunsolo y Martinez on August 3, 1905, in Durango, the daughter of an aristocratic banker father and a mother descended from Mexico's indigenous Toltec people, Dolores del Rio enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending a French convent school in Mexico City, where she studied singing and dancing. At age 15 she was married off to Jaime Martinez del Rio, scion of a wealthy Mexican family with vast land holdings, a man who entertained vague ambitions of becoming a playwright. They segued into the pampered existence of the idle rich--teas, bullfights, operas, formal dinners, tours of Europe--until a chance meeting with Hollywood director Edwin Carewe, in Mexico for a quickie honeymoon, dramatically altered their lives.

Struck by Dolores's innate loveliness, Carewe alluded to her undertaking an acting career; her family laughed off the suggestion as nonsense. When Carewe persisted, however, Dolores's parents issued an edict against acting, necessitating an end run by the director, who first lured Jaime to Hollywood. The wannabe writer took the bait. "After he had been gone but a week," Dolores noted later, "I received a cable from him telling me to pack and come to Hollywood. Again, a storm of protest from family and friends. I left much against their will, it seemed."

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