What Price Dignity?

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

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."

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.

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.

In truth, del Rio's cinematic résumé won't leave anyone breathless. Probably more effective in silent films (many of them lost) than in the sound era, she stunningly embodied both joy and grief in Evangeline, while exuding a perfect porcelain saintliness in The Fugitive. Certainly she never disgraced herself onscreen, despite being hamstrung by boneheaded Hollywood scripts and studio myopia. To her eternal credit, she deep-sixed Hollywood before it completely deep-sixed her, reinventing herself as a star in Mexico as she exercised control over her own career--an intrepid and virtually unprecedented move. (Oddly, Welles followed her lead, but in Europe.) "There are 10,000 disappointments facing anyone who goes into this business," del Rio once explained, "and discipline will give you the guts to get through them, to not let them destroy you, and to help you endure."

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