Classic Movie Travels: Dolores Del Rio
Individuals from all over the world have found success in Hollywood and Dolores Del Rio was no exception. The first major female Latin American crossover star in Hollywood, she had a notable career in American cinema throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, she was considered one of the key figures in Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Maria de los Dolores Asunsolo y Lopez-Negrete was born in Durango City, Mexico, on August 3, 1904, to parents who were part of the Mexican aristocracy. Her father was the son of wealthy farmers and the director of the Bank of Durango, while her mother’s family was one of the wealthiest in the county, with a lineage that traced back to Spanish nobility. On her mother’s side, she was cousins with actors Ramon Novarro and Andrea Palma, while on her father’s side, she was cousins with Mexican sculptor Ignacio Asunsolo and social activist Maria Asunsolo.
During the Mexican Revolution, her family lost all of its assets. Del Rio’s father escaped to the United States, while Del Rio and her mother fled to Mexico City via train, disguised as peasants. By 1912, the family reunited in Mexico City and regained their social position.
Del Rio attended the College Francais de Saint-Joseph, which was run by French nuns and located in Mexico City. In 1919, Del Rio and her mother attended a performance of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, which inspired Del Rio to become a dancer. Del Rio started to take dance lessons but possessed a great sense of insecurity. As a result, Del Rio’s mother commissioned painter Alfredo Ramos Martinez to paint a portrait of Del Rio, which helped her to overcome her insecurity.
During her teen years, Del Rio was invited by a group of Mexican women to dance in a party to benefit a nearby hospital in the Teatro Esperanza Iris. There, Del Rio met Jaime Martinez del Rio y Vincent, who was the son of a wealthy family. After courting for two months, they were married in 1921; he was 34, while Del Rio was 16. The couple embarked on a two-year honeymoon trip to Europe, allowing Del Rio more opportunities to dance in other countries.
When the couple returned to Mexico, they intended to live on Jaime’s country estate. The estate’s main output was cotton. However, they found that the cotton market was suffering and was on the verge of ruin. To complicate matters, Del Rio found out that she was pregnant. Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage and doctors warned her that another pregnancy could put her life in danger. The couple settled in Mexico City.
By 1925, Del Rio met an American filmmaker named Edwin Carewe, who was also a notable director at First National studio. He was in town for a wedding and was fascinated by Del Rio. The two were introduced through an artist friend and Carewe was able to see Del Rio dance while her husband accompanied her on the piano. Seeing potential in Del Rio, Carewe invited the couple to work in Hollywood, convincing her husband that he could make her into the female equivalent of Rudolph Valentino. Jaime felt that this would improve his economic status, while also giving him an opportunity to pursue his dream of writing screenplays.
With Carewe as her agent, manager, producer, and director, Del Rio and her husband left Mexico via train for the United States. Her name was shortened to Dolores Del Rio, with an incorrect capital “D” in “del.” Del Rio made her film debut in the silent romantic named Joanna (1925), appearing for five minutes as a Spanish-Brazilian vamp. Carewe continued to give Del Rio much publicity. While he found film roles for her, they were not major hits; rather, they helped to increase her profile with the public. Her first starring role comes in the comedy Pals First (1926), which is now a lost film.
Soon after, Director Raoul Walsh cast Del Rio in the war film What Price Glory (1926), which was a commercial success. In the same year, she was chosen as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, alongside fellow newcomers Joan Crawford, Mary Astor, Janet Gaynor, Fay Wray, and more. Afterward, she enjoyed starring roles in Resurrection (1927), The Loves of Carmen (1927), and The Trail of ’98 (1928). As her star power grew, her marriage to Jaime crumbled. The couple divorced in 1928.
By 1928, Hollywood was growing concerned with the arrival of sound. At Mary Pickford’s bungalow, United Artists brought together Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, and D.W. Griffith to speak on the radio show The Dodge Brothers Hour, in an effort to prove that they could meet the challenge of talking in movies. Del Rio surprised the gathered audience by singing “Ramona.”
In the meantime, Carewe harbored a desire to marry Del Rio and hoped that they would become a famous Hollywood couple. While he prepared to divorce his wife, United Artists convinced Del Rio that she should separate herself professionally form Carewe, who still held an exclusive contract with her. Del Rio canceled her contract, while Carewe pressed charges against her. The two reached an agreement outside of court, though Carewe started a campaign against her. Carewe filmed a new sound version of Resurrection, instead starring Lupe Velez—another popular Mexican film star.
Nonetheless, Del Rio filmed her first talkie, The Bad One (1930), which was directed by George Fitzmaurice. The film was a success and critics felt that Del Rio could speak and sing in English with her charming accent, allowing her to be seen as an appropriate star for the talkies.
In the same year, Del Rio met Cedric Gibbons, the artistic director of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, at a Hearst Castle party. They started a romance and married in 1930, becoming one of the most famous Hollywood couples of the 1930s. The famously organized Sunday brunches in their Art Deco mansion.
Soon after her wedding, Del Rio became ill with a kidney infection and needed to take time off for bed rest. Once she recovered, she was hired exclusively by RKO Pictures. Her first film for the studio was Girl of the Rio (1931). Later, Del Rio appeared in Bird of Paradise (1932) alongside Joel McCrea, earning rave reviews. Though the film was made before the Production Code, it did create a scandal upon release due to a scene featuring the two leads swimming naked.
Reeling from their success, RKO cast Del Rio in Flying Down to Rio (1933), the first film to feature Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as dance partners. Del Rio and Astaire also happen to share a dance in the film. Unfortunately, RKO became concerned with economic problems and did not renew Del Rio’s contract.
In 1934, Jack Warner met Del Rio at a party and offered her starring roles in two Warner Brothers films: Wonder Bar (1934) alongside Al Jolson and Madame Du Barry (1934). While Wonder Bar was a box office success, Madame Du Barry was too affected by censorship to experience the same success. Del Rio would also appear in other musicals for Warner, including In Caliente (1935), continuing her glamorous image and sophisticated wardrobe. In addition to being one of the prototypes of female beauty in the 1930s, she is also considered the pioneer of the two-piece swimsuit.
Del Rio would also be painted by numerous Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, Miguel Covarrubias, Jose Clemente Orozco, and others.
After working for Warner, Del Rio also appeared in films for Universal Studios and 20th Century Fox. Unfortunately, the films she made for them were box office failures. While Gibbons tried to exert his influence at MGM to get roles for his wife, his efforts were unsuccessful. While the producers admired her beauty, her career was not of interest to them. She was subsequently put on a list called “box office poison,” which included the likes of Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and more.
While her career declined, in 1940, Del Rio met Orson Welles. The couple began an affair, leading to Del Rio’s divorce from Gibbons. Del Rio traveled with Welles across the United States and was at his side throughout the production of Citizen Kane (1941). Del Rio soon ended the relationship due to Welles’s infidelities and returned to Mexico. Her return to Mexico occurred after the death of her father and after her being a victim of McCarthyism. Upon her return to Mexico, she immediately carried out various film roles, winning the Silver Ariel for Las Abandonadas (1944). Later, she became a key promoter of the Acapulco International Film Review and served as its host on several occasions.
In 1957, Del Rio made her television debut as part of the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, followed by an episode of The United States Steel Hour. Del Rio co-founded her own production company called Producciones Visuales, which produced many projects to show off Del Rio on stage.
In 1960, Del Rio returned to Hollywood after 18 years when she was hired by Fox to play the mother of Elvis Presley’s character in Flaming Star (1960). This role was followed by an appearance in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and the Spanish film, La Dama del Alba (1966). Her last Mexican film would be Casa de Mujeres (1966).
At the same time, Del Rio became active with the Society for the Protection of the Artistic Treasures of Mexico, serving as its co-founder. In collaboration with other Mexican actresses, she founded the union group “Rosa Mexicano,” which provided a day nursery for the children of Mexican Actor’s Guild members. In addition, she helped found the Cultural Festival Cervantino in Guanajuato.
In 1981, Del Rio was diagnosed with Hepatitis B after a contaminated injection of vitamins. The following year, she was admitted to Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, California. She passed away from liver failure at age 78 on April 11, 1983. Her ashes were moved from the United State to Mexico, where they were interred at the Dolores Cemetery within the Rotunda of Illustrious Persons in Mexico City.
Today, the vast majority of tributes to Del Rio stand in Mexico. There is a commemorative plaque on the house where she was born in Durango City. The plaque reads, “Dolores del Rio. In the history of photography, there are two perfect faces: hers and Greta Garbo’s.”
Affixed to the house where Del Rio lived in Coyoacan, Mexico City, is another plaque. This plaque reads, “Here lived from 1943 to 1983 Dolores del Rio, eminent Mexican actress, national glory.”
In the Parque Hundido in Benito Juarez, Mexico City, visitors can encounter a bust of Del Rio.
Another sculpture of Del Rio exists in her hometown of Durango on Constitucion Street.
The nursery that Del Rio founded in her later years remains to this day as the Estancia Infantil Dolores Del Rio. It is located at Fernando Alencastre 104, Lomas Virreyes, Lomas de Chapultepec IV Secc, 11000, Mexico City.
There are also some tributes to Del Rio within the United States. Del Rio was the model for the statue “Evangeline”, the heroine of Longfellow’s romantic poem. The statue was donated by Del Rio, who happened to play Evangeline in the 1929 film version. The statue is located behind the St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church at 133 S. Main St., in St. Martinville, Louisiana. Here is a shot of the statue today:
Del Rio is immortalized in a mural in Hollywood High School in California
Del Rio is also honored as part of the “Hollywood and La Brea Gateway” or “The Four Ladies of Hollywood” on the southeast corner of Hollywood Blvd. and La Brea. The structure celebrates four significant multi-ethnic actresses, with Del Rio being one of them.
As an actress who had ties to Mexico and the United States, she is fittingly celebrated in both countries.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.
Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.