What Price Dignity?

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

Once there, she signed a personal contract in 1925 with Carewe, who immediately cast her as an upper-crust vamp in his Joanna--although most of her screen time wound up, as the cliché goes, on the cutting-room floor. The next year she popped up in a handful of pictures, notably director Raoul Walsh's film version of the Broadway war comedy What Price Glory?; the New York Times cooed, "The charmer of the movie, Charmaine, is impersonated by Dolores Del Rio, who, with no little abandon, gives an excellent characterization." (Hollywood consistently billed her in credits as "Del Rio," not "del Rio.") Not insignificantly for her career, del Rio was also selected as a Baby Star--along with Mary Astor, Joan Crawford, Fay Wray, and Janet Gaynor--in the 1926 WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) poll. While Dolores flourished, sailing through a bevy of silent pictures (including Carewe's 1927 Resurrection, an adaptation of the Tolstoy novel in which she plays a peasant girl who turns to prostitution after her prince lover gives her the heave-ho), Jaime languished, moving from pillar to post until he died in a Berlin sanitarium in 1928, reportedly from blood poisoning.

In 1929, with Carewe directing, del Rio made Evangeline, an affecting melodrama based on the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow narrative poem. Set in the mid-18th Century, it chronicles the oppression, subjugation, and diaspora of French-speaking Acadians by the spiteful local (Nova Scotia) governor general of the British crown, with del Rio lending a luminous quality to the title character, tragically separated from her fiancé. She once characterized it as "my finest screen role and most pretentious picture." Perhaps. But the image of her wrapped in a black shroud, Trojan Women-style, as she trudges back to shore after being torn from the arms of her lover remains potent more than 70 years later. (It screens at the Walker on Wednesday, January 23 at 8:00 p.m.)

Despite more than a trace of an accent, del Rio moved smoothly into talkies with 1930's The Bad One, again cast as a hooker--this time a French one. Though the industry again appeared able to imagine her only as sexpot and exotic other (one critic of the Thirties was compelled to note her "dusky, alien beauty"), del Rio used The Bad One to sever both her professional and personal relationship with Carewe, with whom she had maintained a dalliance for years. Thus began her odyssey aboard Hollywood's whirligig--including a second marriage, in August 1930, to celebrated art director Cedric Gibbons, and a subsequent nervous breakdown--as she bounced from studio to studio and from one forgettable movie to another.

The endurance: Dolores Del Rio (at right) in 'Maria Candelaria'
Museum of Modern Art
The endurance: Dolores Del Rio (at right) in 'Maria Candelaria'

Not all of them were total stinkers. In 1932 she made the sarong-and-loincloth drama Bird of Paradise, with hunky Joel McCrea, for David O. Selznick's RKO, with the studio boss purportedly informing director King Vidor, "I don't care what story you use, so long as we call it Bird of Paradise, and Del Rio jumps into a flaming volcano at the finish." In a review that was typical for del Rio, the New York Herald-Tribune's critic mused, "Miss Del Rio always seemed to me the most beautiful actress in the cinema... and I have always thought that she was a reasonably good actress." Even better is 1933's frothy Flying Down to Rio (Wednesday, January 30 at 8:00 p.m.), distinguished by several elaborate musical numbers and the mugging of Fred Astaire, while offering up del Rio in a merely decorative role (despite her top billing).

By the spring of 1938, though, she was en route to Palookaville. Then came her romantic and professional brush with Welles, after which she hightailed it back to Mexico. This proved a particularly fortuitous decision. Making good on her earlier promise, del Rio accomplished the remarkable feat of assembling an all-Mexican A-team--director Emilio Fernandez, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, actor Pedro Armendariz--to produce a skein of films that began with 1943's Flor Silvestre. Together, they became known as "Mexico's Big Four," hitting creative stride almost immediately with the next year's Maria Candelaria (Friday, January 25 at 8:00 p.m.), an engaging if sudsy tale of a beautiful Indian girl (del Rio)--daughter of the town prostitute--and her fiancé (Armendariz), who are ostracized by their own superstitious people. Figueroa's Soviet-influenced camerawork, which boldly ennobles both the two principals and their Garden of Eden environment, results in strong, seductive imagery, immensely enhancing the picture's appeal.

Following 1947's The Fugitive, a retooled Passion Play in which she portrayed the Mary Magdalene figure, del Rio continued to act exclusively in her homeland--and in South America--throughout the 1950s. Finally, in 1960, she returned to Hollywood to essay, somewhat curiously, Elvis Presley's mother in Flaming Star, the King's "Indian" movie). Del Rio: "It is a Western with some depth and humor, and Elvis is quite good in it. He acts well, and is very Indian." Uh-huh. Four years later, she showed up in director John Ford's final film, the 154-minute Cheyenne Autumn, invariably termed "sprawling." And while she put in periodic appearances on U.S. television (including I Spy and Marcus Welby, M.D.), del Rio made only one more film, 1978's The Children of Sanchez, before she died in 1983, of liver failure, at age 77.

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