Del Rio, Dolores (1905–1983)

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Del Rio, Dolores (1905–1983)

Mexican film actress of extraordinary versatility who charmed her audiences for better than half a century. Pronunciation: doh-LOH-res del-REE-oh. Born Lolita Dolores Asunsolo y Martinez on August 3, 1905, in Durango, Mexico; died in April 1983; daughter of Jesus (a bank president and large landowner) and Antonia (Lopez Negrete) Asunsolo (a highly placed noblewoman who could trace her lineage to the Toltecs); married Jaime Martinez del Rio (scion of the one of the richest families in Mexico), in 1921 (died 1928); married Cedric Gibbons, in 1930 (divorced, January 1941); married Lewis Riley, in 1959; children: none.

Born into an extremely wealthy family in one of the poorest states of northwestern Mexico; moved to Mexico City (1910) to avoid the ravages of Pancho Villa's army and was educated in a prestigious Catholic academy; visited Europe with her family and was presented to the king of Spain (1919); married at age 15 (1921); with husband, spent more time in Paris and U.S. than in Mexico; cast in minor roles in several films; having recently been widowed, starred in a critically important film, Evangeline (1929), the beginning of an impressive career in Hollywood that lasted throughout the 1930s and early 1940s; following a much-publicized falling-out with lover Orson Welles, returned to Mexico to work with the film industry there (1943); periodically returned to work in Hollywood films but made her permanent home in Mexico; became a figure of great repute, not just in film but on stage, where she was an unofficial godmother for a new generation of Mexican actors and actresses.


Joanna (1925); High Steppers (1926); The Whole Town's Talking (1926); Pals First (1926); What Price Glory? (1926); Resurrection (1927); The Loves of Carmen (1927); The Gateway of the Moon (1928); No Other Woman (1928); The Red Dance (1928); Revenge (1928); Ramona (1928); The Trail of '98 (1929); Evangeline (U.A., 1929); The Bad One (1930); The Girl of the Rio (1932); Bird of Paradise (1932); Flying Down to Rio (1933); Wonder Bar (WB, 1934); Madame Du Barry (WB, 1934); In Caliente (1935); I Live for Love (WB, 1935); Widow from Monte Carlo (WB, 1936); Accused (UA, England, 1936); Devil's Playground (1937); Lancer Spy (1937); International Settlement (1938); The Man from Dakota (1940); Journey into Fear (1942); Flor Silvestre (Mexico, 1943); Maria Candelaria ("Portrait of Maria," Mexico, 1943); Bugambilia (Mexico, 1944); Los Abandonadas (Mexico, 1944); La Otra (Mexico, 1946); The Fugitive (1947); Historia de una Mala Mujer (Argentina, 1948); Dona Perfecta (Mexico, 1950); La Cucaracha (Mexico, 1958); Flaming Star (U.S., 1960); Cheyenne Autumn (U.S., 1964); C'era Una Volta ("More Than a Miracle," Italian, 1967); Rio Blanco (1967); The Children of Sanchez (1978).

Durango is a dry, dusty Mexican state noted chiefly for its harsh physical conditions and for the self-reliance of its people. Ironically, it was precisely in this rough environment that Dolores Del Rio, perhaps the brightest flower in 20th-century Mexican cinema, was born and spent her earliest years.

Young Dolores came from a privileged background. Her father was the president of the Bank of Durango and one of the state's wealthiest landowners. In the nearly feudal atmosphere prevalent at the time, Dolores could expect to enjoy the life of a princess with all manner of luxuries and attention just for the asking. That few other children could aspire to such a life, however, was something that the poor of the state found increasingly hard to bear.

In 1910, when revolution swept the country, Durango went over wholeheartedly to the radical guerrilla fighters of Pancho Villa. Dolores' family fled their properties, never to return. Instead of being brought up in the Durango hinterland, therefore, she was raised in an affluent suburb of Mexico City. In many ways, it was the best thing that happened to her, for now she had the benefits of living in a cosmopolitan city with its many sights and sounds and foreign residents.

Del Rio received her education at the French convent of Saint Joseph in Mexico City. All her teachers agreed that she was an exceptionally lovely child with a natural talent for singing and dancing. She captivated all around her. In 1919, while on a European tour with her family, she was presented to the king of Spain who had much the same reaction.

Upon her return to Mexico, she made the acquaintance of Jaime Martinez del Rio, scion of one of the country's oldest families. In 1921, they married. The 15-year-old bride then settled down with her husband to pursue a pampered and idle existence on his family's immense ranch. For any other young upper-class Mexican woman this might have been the end of the story, but Del Rio had no intention of limiting herself to tea parties, dancing, and bearing children. She was restless for a different kind of life.

About that time, a noted American film director, Edwin Carewe, came to Mexico City with his new bride to spend a few days of their honeymoon. The young couple made the rounds in cultural and diplomatic circles and, in the course of one such engagement, met the Del

Rios, who were of a similar age and disposition. Carewe was at once struck by the beauty and poise of Dolores. Half smiling but still very serious, he asked her whether she had ever considered a career in movies. In fact, in more whimsical moments, she had considered it, but she also knew that such a course presented some deep problems for someone of her class. Carewe shrewdly suggested that he work on the matter through Jaime. The latter had often thought of himself as a writer—and now, as a potential screenwriter. Jaime visited Hollywood at Carewe's invitation in early 1925, and a few weeks later sent for Dolores. Her parents, with tears in their eyes, begged her not to go, weeping even at the Mexico City train station. For her part, Del Rio never looked back.

In truth, Dolores Del Rio had had little interest in the vagaries of the idle rich. She wanted a career that would demonstrate her talent, imagination, and scope. Hollywood offered this and more. In the mid-1920s, Tinsel Town was still only a small community hidden among the citrus groves of Southern California, but it nonetheless possessed great allure for the uninitiated. After all, thousands of fans crowded movie theaters every week to marvel at the likes of Douglas Fair-banks, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford , and John Gilbert. Hundreds of would-be actors and actresses were also arriving every week.

Orson Welles">

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.

—Orson Welles

Del Rio showed much of the same naivete as all the rest. In the mid-1920s, film audiences were much attracted to the Latin lover stereotype, as with Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino; could not she be the female Valentino? With this thought in mind, she signed a personal contract with Carewe and was rushed into the project that he was then filming at Burbank. In the film, Joanna (1925), Del Rio appeared as a society vamp who systematically mistreated the lily-white heroine. Greatly excited about this first experience before the camera, she urged friends and relatives to attend the film's premiere. She sat there horrified as she slowly learned that, after the ravages of the cutting room, her role had been reduced to a shadow of what she expected. The sensitive young woman nearly abandoned her career ambitions right then and there; it took all of Carewe's power of persuasion to convince her to stay.

He had less luck with her husband. Jaime, who had yet to find a screenwriting niche in Hollywood, was growing increasingly frustrated. As he struggled to define his identity in this environment, however, Dolores had already defined her own. Carewe could take much responsibility for this. Still enthralled with his discovery, he carefully molded and guided her through the various phases and contours of acting. He secured an interpreter for her and arranged for her to receive English lessons. She soon lost all of her initial roughness. Though her next few roles were certainly minor, her exotic beauty gained her considerable attention—and more and more, so did her acting skills. The gap between the reputation that she enjoyed and that of her husband widened.

Del Rio attained full-fledged star status in 1928 with the release of the film Ramona. This love story of Old California, based on Helen Hunt Jackson 's popular novel, featured Warner Baxter as Alessandro and Dolores in the title role as the tragic Spanish-Native American maiden. The public's reaction was extremely positive. Hollywood had found the perfect actress for the perfect role and the mass of filmgoers saw it immediately. Del Rio soon became the object of idolatrous fan mail. Film executives from every studio made offers. The upward shift that all this implied spelled the end for her marriage. Desperate for any work, Jaime had taken a writing position in New York, and in his absence Dolores filed for divorce. He died soon after in Berlin, purportedly of blood poisoning, though the fan magazines universally ascribed his death to a broken heart.

Though her personal life remained unsettled, Del Rio's film career blossomed. In 1929, she starred for United Artists in Evangeline, which she later referred to as her "finest screen role and most pretentious picture." The film was one of Hollywood's first productions to boast some sound sequences, and Del Rio actually sang a French chansonette and the title tune, which had been composed by Al Jolson. In the course of the film, she also aged from a young maiden to an elderly Sister of Mercy. In all, the film gave her room to display a great range of talents. The critics responded well (though many did fault her singing), and the public was again enthusiastic.

In the wake of her success with Evangeline, Del Rio made a surprising move. She broke with her longtime associate, Edwin Carewe, and signed a new agreement, which included a $9,000 weekly salary, with United Artists. Only weeks before, the fan magazines had linked Del Rio romantically with Carewe, who now withdrew, deeply hurt, another victim, so they said, of her ambitions. He died ten years later, a suicide.

In spite of the various canards, Del Rio's career did not suffer from these tribulations. In fact, she seemed to gain in popularity during times of personal conflict. In 1930, she met Cedric Gibbons, the shy, gentlemanly art director and set designer at MGM studios. They became involved very quickly, and, within just a few weeks, they wed in Santa Barbara.

Gibbons recognized something in Del Rio that her fans should have seen but did not: that despite being a part of the Hollywood star system, she was still fundamentally an aristocratic Latin with all of the prejudices and virtues associated with that class. Though flirtatious and sexy on screen and in front of the press, in her personal life she set a high value on decorum. These contradictions were often difficult for her to deal with. In the end, the pressures of her public image and the reality of her conservative, overly controlled private life were building in the weeks following her return from her honeymoon. In 1931, she suffered a nervous breakdown. This might have been the end for Del Rio, for Hollywood was notoriously fickle in such matters. Local wags simply passed her off as another spoiled has-been, but her husband stood loyally by her and nursed her back to health. By the end of the year, she had recovered sufficiently to resume her acting career.

In 1932, she starred in Bird of Paradise, a David O. Selznick production with a South Seas setting. Even the director, King Vidor, recognized that the story-line was trite, but Selznick insisted that Dolores Del Rio was too valuable an asset not to be used in it. "I don't care what story you use," he reportedly said, "as long as Del Rio jumps into a flaming volcano at the finish." Again the audiences loved what they saw. They were just as enchanted a year later when she appeared in a romantic role in the classic Flying Down to Rio, which also featured the first teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers .

Over the next four years, Del Rio starred in five films—Wonder Bar (1934), Madame Du Barry (1934), I Live for Love (1935), Widow from Monte Carlo (1936), and Accused (1936). The first four of these were made for Warner Bros. and the final picture for United Artists in England. These were not banner years for Del Rio, though she gave solid performances in all these films. Warner Bros. made little effort to develop her screen persona beyond what Carewe had done. And the pattern remained the same over the next three years when she worked for Columbia and for 20th Century-Fox.

Del Rio was aware of the problem; she hired a new drama coach and associated herself with the stage actors she had admired from a distance. But the good roles in film simply failed to materialize. Her wounded pride prevented her from accepting scripts that might tarnish her image any further (her 1940 part in The Man from Dakota was in every way a low point). During this period of decline, her second marriage fell apart. She divorced Gibbons, almost without an explanation, in January 1941.

Still without a clear direction in her work, Del Rio became the offscreen love interest of Orson Welles, ten years her junior and at that time the most controversial actor-filmmaker in Hollywood. Their romance was evidently ardent, though her studied discretion kept her from revealing much of anything to the press. Yet, when he abruptly left her for the much-younger Rita Hayworth , the much-wounded Del Rio made a decision that scarcely hid her disappointment and anger. In carefully worded language, she announced that she was returning to her native country: "I wish to choose my own stories, my own director, and cameraman. I can accomplish this better in Mexico." She thus left the glitter of Hollywood behind, though she kept the door open in many ways; she had invested heavily in real estate and still owned hundreds of acres in and around Los Angeles, and she knew every important director and producer in the city.

In Mexico, Del Rio found much of what she had missed in the United States. There the critics treated her with tremendous respect. To them, she was less exotic than she was distinguished, and in this, her beauty was almost incidental. The Mexican public adored her. Del Rio also now contributed in a wide-ranging way to her art by working as producer, planner, adviser, and unofficial godmother to the national film industry. Over the next three years, she won two Ariel Awards (the Mexican equivalent of the Oscar) and made five Spanish-language movies, including the famed Maria Candelaria. All were wildly successful on the Latin American film circuit. Now Del Rio could boast of being much more than a Hollywood creation; she could claim to be the ambassador of Mexican film to the world of cinema in general. She also realized a lifelong ambition by becoming a stage actress of much repute in Mexico.

Hollywood periodically beckoned. In 1947, John Ford paired her with Henry Fonda in The Fugitive, a suspenseful film with a spiritual theme shot in Mexico. During the McCarthyist period, Del Rio returned several times to the States, but, in spite of her strong anti-communist credentials, she never landed the right part. She made a curious comeback in the early 1960s when she played Elvis Presley's mother in the unusual film Flaming Star, a western "with a conscience." In the interim, she had made dramatic presentations on the Mexican and U.S. stage, guest-starred in television dramas, and continued her excellent work in Mexican film (winning several more Ariels). She opened a fully staffed nursery for the children of Mexican film actresses. (Having never had children of her own, she regarded her work with this nursery as especially fulfilling.)

In 1959, Del Rio remarried. The groom was Lewis A. Riley, an American film producer who had resided in Mexico for over 20 years. Unlike her previous marriages, this one endured and by all accounts was remarkably successful. Riley's appreciation of his wife's place in modern Mexican culture was well matched by her respect for his talents in film production.

Del Rio maintained a heavy work schedule well into her 70s. She appeared as the mother of Omar Sharif in Carlo Ponti's C'era Una Volta (1967) and eleven years later she starred with Anthony Quinn and Katy Jurado in The Children of Sanchez. This was to be her last film. She died in April 1983.

Jurado, Katy (1927—)

Mexican-American actress. Born Maria Cristina Jurado Garcia on January 16, 1927, in Guadalajara, Mexico; married Ernest Borgnine, in 1959 (divorced 1964).

Following a Mexican film career, Katy Jurado moved to Los Angeles as a columnist for Mexican publications. Her acting credits include High Noon (1952), Trapeze (1956), The Man from Del Rio (1956), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Barabbas (1961), The Children of Sanchez (1968), and Under the Volcano (1984). She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Broken Lance (1954).

Dolores Del Rio was a key figure in modern cinema. By giving depth to the image of the Latin American woman, she also made it more human, more approachable, and, at the same time, more attractive. Her trailblazing opened the door for other Latin women seeking to explore the ever-changing world of film.


King, John. Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America. Verso, 1990.

Parish, James Robert. The Hollywood Beauties. Arlington House, 1978.

suggested reading:

Michael, Paul, ed. Movie Greats. CT: Garland, 1969.

Thomas Whigham , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Del Rio, Dolores (1905–1983)

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