Dolores del Rio: Beauty in Light and Shade

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Dolores del Río's enormously successful career in Hollywood, in Mexico, and internationally illuminates issues of race, ethnicity, and gender through the lenses of beauty and celebrity. She and her husband left Mexico in 1925, as both their well-to-do families suffered from the economic downturn that followed the Mexican Revolution. Far from being stigmatized as a woman of color, this Mexican star was acknowledged as the epitome of beauty in the Hollywood of the 1920s and early 1930s. While she insisted upon her ethnicity, she was nevertheless coded white by the film industry and its fans, and she appeared for more than a decade as a romantic lead opposite white actors. Returning to Mexico in the early 1940s, she brought enthusiasm and prestige to the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, becoming one of the great divas of Mexican film. With struggle and perseverance, she overcame the influence of men in both countries who hoped to dominate her, ultimately controlling her own life professionally and personally.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Those interested in Hollywood history will find this book a particularly good read, as Hall carefully shows how Carewe planned to make del Río a star as well as possibly his wife. Those who continue to research race, ethnicity, and whiteness in early Hollywood will find valuable information in Hall's book."—Alicia I. Rodriguez-Estrada, Western Historical Quarterly

"Linda B. Hall's new book, Dolores del Río: Beauty in Light and Shade, radically revises previous study of the Mexican film star . . . Hall crafts a lively story out of the various strands of del Río's complicated life, all while building a historical argument . . . [H]istorians interested in twentieth-century transnational cultural history, Mexican gender history, and film history will want to read Hall's book."—Anne Rubenstein, American Historical Review

"Hall bases her work on a close study of del Río's personal papers, contemporary publications about her, and del Río's filmography . . . Hall provides historical context to help readers make sense of the opportunities and constraints that del Río faced. Hall gives a nuanced account of how del Río's personal and professional lives meshed, explaining how she navigated the transition from fading Hollywood stardom in the late 1930s to her remarkable comeback as a leading figure in the golden age of Mexican cinema in the 1940s and 1950s."—Lisa Jarvinen, Journal of American History

"Linda Hall provides a wonderfully written and compelling biography of one of the most famous and beautiful women of the twentieth century: actress Dolores del Río."—Cynthia E. Milton, The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Latin American History

"Hall has created a well-researched, readable biography of a major international star, first in Hollywood, then, later, in her native Mexico . . . Highly recommended."—J.M. Welsh, Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804784078
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 1/9/2013
  • Pages: 376
  • Sales rank: 1,031,479
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda B. Hall is Distinguished Professor of History and Regents Professor at the University of New Mexico.

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Read an Excerpt


Beauty in Light and Shade
By Linda B. Hall

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-8407-8

Chapter One

Beauty, Celebrity, and Power in Two Cultures

These famous are symptomatic and symbolic, the large-screen projection of those human possibilities a culture believes are the most fascinating and perhaps useful for its survival. Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History

Only after Valentino could a blonde leading lady accept and return the ardent kisses of a screen lover with dark coloring. Emily Leider, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino

Only after Dolores del Río could a blond leading man make passionate love on the Hollywood screen to a dark female lover. She herself believed that she had established a new phenotype for female beauty in Hollywood—a dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-skinned ideal—to match that established for men by Rudolph Valentino. Yet on arrival in California in 1925, she agonized over her brunette loveliness, faced with the "fairy-tale" stars with blonde hair and blue eyes. At the same time she became a celebrity in the United States, she became a source of national pride for Mexico. On the day of his assassination in 1928, former Mexican President and President-Elect Alvaro Obregón asked for a showing of her film Ramona that evening, or so the London press claimed. The pleasure was denied him when he was shot and killed by a religious fanatic at a political luncheon. Later she became one of the country's great divas when she returned and participated in its Golden Age of cinema.

Who was this extraordinary woman, and what were the qualities that made her compelling to so many? How was this woman able to appeal so completely to two nations and two cultures, simultaneously gaining international fame?

Is it possible that, as Leo Braudy said of celebrated individuals, she was "symptomatic and symbolic" of her times and her places, was "fascinating" to those who saw her films and followed her life story (both the real and created), and found her public persona somehow "useful?" She began her career in the post—World War I United States; renown and wealth followed almost immediately, if not always happiness. She seemed to provide on the screen and in her private life a vision of "human possibilities" that would begin to shift important markers of racial and ethnic division within U.S. society. Later she returned to Mexico, where again she seemed to provide more "projections" useful to a society still in transition after its bloody revolution of 1910–1920.

The Mexican actress Dolores del Río was the first major Latina crossover star in Hollywood, and thus subject to two cultures, rather than the single one envisioned by Braudy's quotation. Departing the economic and social changes of her home country that followed its violent civil war, 1910–1920, in which dictator Porfirio Díaz was overthrown by a cross-class alliance that included peasants bent on land reform and other revolutionaries who threatened and then in fact affected and diminished the position of the upper class, she arrived in Los Angeles in 1925. Under the sponsorship of director Edwin Carewe, she very quickly rose to the height of stardom and personal wealth and remained both popular and employed for over a decade. When good roles diminished and her personal life took a turbulent and unexpected turn in the early 1940s, she returned to Mexico to join an artistic and literary renaissance that was already flourishing. There she was able to take more control over her life, in both personal and professional aspects, and went on to become one of the most celebrated actresses in that nation's history and a key participant in Mexican film's Golden Age. This progression toward autonomy and personal control had been going on for a long time, and interpretations that see her as a largely passive victim of the Hollywood milieu or of the men in her life are surely mistaken. She was sometimes disappointed or distressed even to the point of illness, setbacks she was able to overcome though with difficulty. Yet del Río, at least from the early 1930s on, was aware of her interests and took an active part in charting her own course. Her success at doing so varied over time, but she was never simply a tool for powerful men.

A number of issues arise in looking at her life and career, but by far the one most commonly and notoriously associated with her is that of her physical beauty. Contemporaries as well as later viewers of her photographs and films reacted with dazzled admiration. Her friends and fellow great foreign beauties in Hollywood, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, considered her the most beautiful of all. Dietrich even called her "the most beautiful woman who ever set foot in Hollywood." Other closely related themes have to do with the questions of gender and relationships with men, power, sexuality, race, age, and social position. These things played out in various concrete ways: the creation of an image (she started in Hollywood, after all); the corporeal creation of beauty, ranging from cosmetics and hairstyles to plastic surgery; and the re-creation of her bodily actions, that is, her voice, her movements, her acting. As with most Hollywood stars, then and now, among her roles was her own self-creation. Within that self-creation, major questions emerge: How much of what resulted was her own choice or was indeed a part of her "real" self, whatever that might mean, and what was imposed or forced on her, either by mentors or the market or both?

However difficult it may be to separate the woman Dolores del Río from the Hollywood creation and then later from her film images in Mexico, she was nevertheless a real human being with a background, a personality, a will. Joanne Hershfield, in her fascinating analysis of del Río's films, has argued: "A movie star has no 'personal identity' (even though the person who inhabits the star's body may claim such an identity). In other words, she is a figure composed of a presence and a set of discourses that symbolize an iconic identity." Although I understand Hershfield's point and admire her book on del Río, I cannot accept it as an exclusive guide in this work. Such a view robs the individual of both agency and humanity. Rather, the actual person is in continuing interaction with the constructed image—including her publicity and her acting roles—but nevertheless continues to be a living, breathing individual. It is in the neighborhood of the interaction between the individual and the constructed image that I have looked to find the biography of this celebrated woman.

Del Río's beauty is sometimes seen as making her a victim and a commodity, but her beauty, charm, talent, and energy gave her enormous power to shape her own fate as well, and she realized this power more fully over time. Psychologist Rollo May defines power as "the ability to cause or prevent change," and he goes on to say that in psychology, "power means the ability to affect, to influence, and to change other persons (or oneself)." Further, he considers personal power as "self-realization and self-actualization." Del Río was able to be powerful in the ways that May suggests. Moreover, much of her power came precisely from her beauty. One definition of beauty is "the quality that gives pleasure to the mind and senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality." Yet another sees it as "the quality of being very pleasing, as in form, color, etc.," or in another choice, "good looks." Most definitions of female beauty equate it with sexual attractiveness. In particular, beauty seems to be associated with the female face and body, and it is no surprise that Dolores's male biographers often include the word "face" in their titles. In this particular case, images of del Río were ubiquitous in both countries for decades, and whether in person or on the screen or in still photographs or painted portraits, she was certainly sexually appealing. Yet her popularity—and even more important, her career—extended throughout her lifetime, far beyond the age at which most experts would believe that this erotic attraction was the only (or even the major) source of her power. In this case, perhaps, her beauty, though still physical, extended into areas associated more with manner and way of being—and, certainly, with memories and nostalgia for the young Dolores in those who had seen her work years earlier or those who saw these images replayed in various formats in later decades. She was a celebrity in both countries within months of her arrival in Hollywood, and though her fame and popularity waxed and waned, she remained one until her death. Yet the nature of this celebrity differed significantly north and south of the border.

Moreover, the perception of her beauty was enhanced by her very celebrity, defined here as fame or the quality of being well known across a large public. Celebrity is rarely earned simply because one is "great and talented and virtuous" or even very, very beautiful; it is almost always accompanied by a "publicity apparatus" and a great deal of luck. Celebrity was a major key to certain kinds of power that del Río achieved, beyond the power that beauty carries to those who are attracted by or enamored of that quality. Celebrity from her publicity and her films brought far more attention—indeed, international notice—to Dolores than had she exerted that power only with others who knew her personally, though this aspect of power was certainly important to her throughout her life and career. Yet celebrity had an additional economic advantage: it made her projects bankable, and she was able to use her power in the realm of filmmaking to bring people of talent into her endeavors, particularly in Mexico.

In this case, her very beauty and social class diminished the significance of her Mexican background and her somewhat darker rather than lighter skin, and a good publicity machine and good fortune in her early directors and roles helped a great deal. Her success, however, was not inevitable, and its achievement was, for her, personally costly. Though her ability and resolve increased as she grew older, her marketability in U.S. films declined. This phenomenon had far more to do with age than race. It also had to do, to some degree, with a reaction against foreign stars, both male and female. Still, she seems to have known from her midtwenties onward that she did not need a male mentor, though at that time she still seems to have wanted a protective husband. She always recognized and appreciated working with talented and perceptive directors. When she returned to Mexico in the 1940s, in her late thirties and in considerable emotional distress, she was paradoxically both alone and in control.

Gender is significant throughout her life. She was able to engage in behaviors not initially acceptable for young women of her social class in Mexico—working as an actress for more than fifty years, making her own money, divorcing two husbands—but she did not engage in overt political activity as a rule. The changes she may have inspired in Mexico in regard to women's roles had more to do with her example, particularly as she achieved increasing autonomy in her personal life and her professional endeavors. During the 1920s, in Hollywood, she was an almost quintessential model for the "chica moderna," working, wearing cloche hats and shorter skirts, and eventually cutting her long hair into a more fashionable bob. Although it would be hard to tell to what degree acceptance of these styles in Mexico had to do with her, her publicity photos showed her as a very elegant version of a modern young Mexican woman with her own money, and it seems likely that she was emulated as well as envied. Though she came into criticism for breaking from tradition, particularly among the high upper class to which her first husband's family belonged, it may be that she also was an example to other women of what was possible. Criticism of her in Mexico, strongest when she was first in Hollywood, was no doubt partly based on envy of the freedom and renown that she had achieved.

The issue of age itself is in dispute, and she tried to conceal her actual birthdate from the beginning of her Hollywood career. At that time, the perception was that an actress could count on being attractive to audiences only through her midtwenties. She insisted from her arrival in California that she had been born on August 3, 1906, which would have made her barely fifteen at the time of her wedding in 1921 and nineteen at the beginning of her film career. She was, in fact, born in 1904 and celebrated her twenty-first birthday just before she arrived in Los Angeles.

By the time she reached the claimed age of twenty-four (actually twenty-six) and was married to her second husband, Cedric Gibbons, there were speculations in the press that she was "washed up." She was already saying that she was hopeful her career might last three or four years longer. It lasted, in fact, almost until her death, but by no means always in Hollywood.

Power is also an important theme in her life story. Her extreme youth at the time of her first marriage (whether she was fifteen or seventeen) relative to the age of her spouse, Jaime Martínez del Río, who was about two decades her senior and from a wealthier and more prominent family, indicated an initial, very significant power differential. When she and her husband were brought to California by Edwin Carewe, the director was eager to take over her life along with her career, and conflicts inevitably developed. The story that then unfolded was very different from what Jaime, Dolores, and Carewe himself initially envisioned, and power shifted.

Other issues arise from context, particularly those of celebrity and race. These important factors were clearly entwined in Dolores's life story. The growth of the mass-market press, both newspapers and magazines, taking off in the latter part of the nineteenth century, led to the "development of celebrity journalism as a specific genre." Immediately upon arrival in Hollywood, Dolores became a person of enormous interest in this new type of reporting, and Hollywood, of course, was a perfect venue for fostering celebrity and celebrities. The possibility of placing stories that would lead to the fame and therefore employability of their protégés gave directors, studio heads, and others involved in film production an incentive to employ a new breed of journalists—press agents—operating from outside newspapers and magazines themselves. Early on, Dolores had a particularly effective one, Harry D. Wilson. He worked with her from the moment she arrived in Hollywood, and he spun stories that would show her in what he felt was a favorable light and keep her before the public. Enormous interest in the famous led to the emergence of another group of journalists working for newspapers and magazines who specialized in following film stars, especially those who were beginning to enjoy wide popularity as they appeared on the silver screen. Some of these were gossip columnists; others produced stories for the society pages; and some, of course, were film critics. They focused on del Río from her earliest days in the United States. The Los Angeles Times alone covered her extensively, with 101 mentions of appearances in that first year in Hollywood (August 25, 1925–August 25, 1926) and 221 in the subsequent year (August 25, 1926–August 25, 1927). Even the relatively stodgy New York Times, which focused more on actors and actresses from the theater than on Hollywood stars, mentioned her five times in her first year in the United States and fifty-seven times in the second. She began to appear as a specifically Mexican celebrity just over a month after arrival, in a Los Angeles Times layout of caricatures of prominent Mexicans including President Plutarco Elías Calles. She was the only woman. She had not yet appeared in a film. Hollywood reporters covered her constantly throughout her career, even after she returned more or less permanently to Mexico, among them gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, society writer Grace Kingsley, and feature writer Gladys Hall. Although male writers often mentioned her as well, female journalists took a more consistent and insistent interest. Still, Mexican racial status was ambiguous. It is probable, in my view, that her popularity as a romantic leading lady was enhanced by the tension of being almost forbidden. This exoticism was played up more in her Hollywood roles of the 1930s than in those of the 1920s, particularly in the film Bird of Paradise.

The case of race is more complex. Hershfield, for example, makes it a major issue, as she discusses the roles in which Dolores was cast, particularly early in her career. However, Hershfield points out that the publicity designed by Wilson and Carewe actually emphasized her "ethnic and racial characteristics" and notes that she was described in Photoplay, one of the first movie magazines and certainly the most important at that time, as "the raven-haired, olive-skinned, sinuous-limbed Carmen." This emphasis on the part of Dolores's handlers seems contradictory both to Hershfield's analysis and to their own stress on her as rich and of European descent, but it played into the vision of del Río as exotic and foreign, maybe even, subliminally, a little more appealing because just on the edge of dangerous. Later on, Hershfield sees evidence of the "whitening" of Dolores, still performing exotic roles but looking more and more European. Of course, casting will always depend a great deal on appearance, and in film the actor must appear believable in the role. Only occasionally on the stage, and very occasionally at that, will an actor be cast as a character in which facial features or skin color make her or him implausible. Yet Dolores's very beauty led producers and directors to seek out or create roles for her in which she would be convincing, and later she herself would do the searching. Far from losing parts because of her race, she found roles were being created for her because of her beauty. Certainly, accounts of Dolores and her success reflected awareness that she was Mexican, but they consistently emphasized her high social status and the wealth of her family and her husband's. Race and ethnicity, in this case, were significantly modified by class.


Excerpted from DOLORES DEL RÍO by Linda B. Hall Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Note on Translation and Orthography xiii

1 Beauty, Celebrity, and Power in Two Cultures 1

2 Mexican Princess 21

3 Hollywood Baby Beauty 43

4 Unwelcome Triangle 70

5 Pushing the Envelope 92

6 Fame and Its Perils 121

7 Second Chance 146

8 Affair 176

9 Return 204

10 Resurrection 225

11 Diva 252

12 Icon 275

Notes 301

Filmography 335

Bibliography 337

Index 343

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