Forgotten Hollywood: Dolores Del Río

by Noël de Souza September 16, 2020
Dolores Del Río

Edward Steichen/Getty Images

Maria de los Delores Asunsolo y Lopez-Negrete was born in the Mexican town of Durango on August 3, 1904, to wealthy Mexican aristocracy. They lived the high life in the company of intellectuals and artists. Dolores attended a prestigious school but soon their world was turned upside down, threatened by an insurrection led by Pancho Villa in the region. Del Rio and her Mother escaped Mexico City disguised as peasants, while her father crossed the border to the United States. When the family eventually reunited in 1912, they did so under the protection of Francisco I. Madero.

In 1919, a 15-year-old Dolores was inspired by a dance performance from the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and begged her mother to allow her to take dance lessons. Two years later she was invited to dance at a charity event where she caught the eye of a wealthy landowner, Jaime Martinez del Rio y Vincent who was 17 years her senior. Within two months of meeting, the two were married. They had the longest honeymoon in history spending over two years in Europe.

In early 1925, Dolores met the American filmmaker Edwin Carewe who was in Mexico attending a wedding. Instantly charmed by her looks and personality, he tried to convince her to come to Hollywood where he thought she would have a promising career. After some consideration, her husband (who secretly wanted to be a screenwriter) agreed that they would take Carewe up on his offer and move to Los Angeles. After arriving in Hollywood, she took her husband’s name, and from then on went by the stage name Dolores del Rio.

Carewe got straight to work publicizing Del Rio’s arrival, contacting magazines and newspapers even before she had faced a camera, and announcing her as an heiress and First Lady of High Mexican Society who had arrived with trunk loads of expensive shawls and combs. The first role he gave her was a very tiny part in Joanna in 1925. Her second role was in the film High Steppers the following year.

Carewe was gradually building his stars’ reputation by publicizing her every move. She went on to star in The Whole Town’s Talking in 1926 before landing her first starring role in Pals First, also directed by Carewe. She was declared the most beautiful face in Hollywood, to quote Bernard Shaw, “The two most beautiful things in the world are the Taj Mahal and Dolores del Rio”. When asked about her beauty she said “Take care of your inner beauty, your spiritual beauty, and that will reflect on your face. We have the face we created over the years. Every bad deed, every bad fault will show on your face. God can give us beauty and genes can give us our features, but whether that beauty remains or changes is determined by our thoughts and deeds”.

As her fame began to rise in Hollywood, her marriage crumbled because her husband felt that he was playing second fiddle to her career. They divorced and he went to Europe where he died shortly after. Dolores wasn’t alone for long, she met the artistic director of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Cedric Gibbons, who made a significant contribution to motion picture theater architecture and designed the Oscar statuette in 1928.

Making her transition from silent films into talkies, del Rio starred and sang in the first United Artists film with synchronized sound, Ramona.  

Dolores del Rio in “Ramona” (1928)

Dolores del Rio in Ramona (1928)

 

She went on to make her third film with Raoul Walsh, The Red Dance, 1928. In 1929 Carewe enticed Dolores to work on his next film Evangeline. Like Ramona, the film was released with a Vitaphone disc selection of dialogue, music, and sound effects.

Del Rio divorced Gibbons after meeting Orson Welles who would later describe Dolores as “the greatest love of his life”. Welles directed her in Day of Terror. She accompanied Welles as he filmed Citizen Kane. Welles proposed several projects with Dolores but none of them came to fruition. Welles was invited by Nelson Rockefeller to visit South America as an Ambassador of Goodwill to counter fascist propaganda about Americans. While he was away, Welles had affairs in Rio de Janeiro. Dolores got wind of this and ended the relationship by a telegram, to which he did not answer.

In 1932, David O. Selznick approached Dolores to star in Bird of Paradise as a Polynesian beauty who would jump into a volcano. She was later invited to a screening of a Mexican film Que Viva Mexico which she attended with Ramon Novarro and Lupe Velez. The film was directed by Sergei Eisenstein and was accused of promoting Communism in California with nationalist sentiment and socialist overtones. Because of this, Dolores was accused of being a communist in the United States.

She went on to make films for Warner Brothers, MGM, Universal, and 20th Century Fox starring in a variety of films including Warner Brothers’ I Live for Love (1935), Universal Studios The Devil’s Playground (1937), and MGM’s The Man from Dakota (1940). It became increasingly hard for her to work because her name was placed on what was known as “The Poison List”, alongside Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West. This meant their salaries were considered too high and the theater owners did not know if they could recoup their money from low ticket sales.

Amid personal and professional crises, Dolores decided to return to Mexico after the death of her Father. “I wanted to go the way of the art. Stop being a star and become an actress, and that I could only do in Mexico, not in a country that was mine and I did not know”, she said.

In Mexico, she was sought after by many of the top Mexican film directors including Emilio Fernandez who in 1943 invited her to film Flor Silvestre, the first Mexican film to be screened at Cannes. Fernandez’s interest in Dolores went beyond the professional. He gave her the best roles, including in Las Abandonadas, where Dolores played a woman who gives up her son and falls into the world of prostitution. She won the Silver Ariel, Mexico’s equivalent of the Academy Award. Fernandez’s unrequited love led to his erratic behavior on the set. He was torturous and difficult to work with. There were many times when del Rio threatened to leave the production. When the film was completed, del Rio announced that she would never again work with Fernandez. She proceeded to work with other well-renowned directors before returning to work on Fernandez’s film La Malquerida in 1949. Dolores got good notices for her portrayal of Raymunda, a woman confronted by her own daughter for the love of a man.

The very same year, her cousin activist Maria Asunsolo asked her to sign a document for a “Conference for World Peace”. The last thing she expected to happen was that she would again be labeled a supporter of international communism.

Soon after, she met millionaire Lewis A. Riley who was engaged in a torrid affair with Bette Davis. The two would go on to marry.

She became the face of the Mexican Golden Age of Cinema. Her career flourished, with continued meaty roles, which won her many awards including a second and third Silver Ariel Award. Twentieth Century Fox took notice and wanted her to play the wife of Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance. Then came a rude awakening: Dolores was denied a work visa to return to the States and so the role instead went to Katy Jurado. In 1956, the political situation was resolved, and she returned to the US and started to work on stage. In 1957, Dolores was selected to be the Vice President of the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, making her the first woman to do so.

Dolores was hired by Fox to play the role of Elvis Presley’s mother in the film Flaming Star. She went on to shoot an Italian film with director Francesco Rossi called More Than a Miracle with Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif, in which she played Sharif’s mother. She played roles in various television shows, such as The Dinah Shore Chevy Show and other shows like I Spy. Her last show on television was Marcus Welby, M.D. Her last film was The Children of Sanchez (1978).

Besides her acting career, she founded the Society for the Protection of Artistic Treasures of Mexico as well as providing care to the children of actors through the Delores del Rio residence.

When asked how she dealt with her old age, she said “Exercise, diet, beauty treatments – these things are all a complete waste of time because everyone must get older. If women were more sensible, they would cease going to beauty parlors for facials and would instead lie down quietly in the peace of their bedrooms for the same length of time and arise more beautiful in face and more peaceful in spirit. The fact that I’m aging makes me a part of life, a part of the bigger scheme of existence. It is my mind, not my body, that I am trying to preserve because it is through the mind that I can stay young.”

On April 11, 1983, Dolores received an invitation to attend the Oscars. Hours later she died at her home in Newport Beach, California.