Saturday, January 28, 2017

Stubs - The Girl From Mexico

The Girl From Mexico (1939) Starring: Lupe Vélez, Donald Woods, Leon Errol, Linda Hayes, Donald MacBride, Edward Raquello, Elisabeth Risdon, Ward Bond Director: Leslie Goodwins. Screenplay by Lionel Houser, Joseph Fields Producer: Robert Sisk Runtime: 71 minutes USA Comedy

If you’re a friend of the TV show Fraiser or have read Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger, you have no doubt heard of Lupe Velez, but not for her acting. Rumor has it that with her career waning, Lupe wanted to commit suicide in such a way that she would be forever remembered, you know, make an impression on the way out. She took seconal and then, in her best dress, lay down on the rose petal covered bed and waited for death. But the spicy Mexican meal that she had chosen for her last meal didn’t agree with her. She managed to get out of bed, but on the way to the bathroom, she tripped, hit her head and was found dead in the toilet. While it might make for a great story, that is all it is.

Still, having heard the story made me interested in seeing her act and when The Girl From Mexico played on TCM, I got my chance to see Lupe in action.

The Girl From Mexico has B-movie written all over it. A low-budget offering from RKO, the film is just one more example that not every film released in Hollywood’s Golden Year was up to the standards of Gone With The Wind or The Wizard of Oz or even Gunga Din.

The story revolves around Dennis Lindsey (Donald Woods), an advertising executive who is sent to Mexico to find a singer for one of his company’s client's radio shows. He is not the first one sent down and he is anxious to please his boss, L. B. Renner (Donald MacBride), even if his fiancée, Elizabeth Price (Linda Hayes), is not happy about it.

But things don’t go as planned. On his way to see one singer, Dennis’ car breaks down in a small town. Without parts to fix his car, Dennis is stuck. That night, at a local festival, he hears the hot-tempered Carmelita Fuentes (Lupe Velez) sing and offers to take her to New York and fame and fortune. But Carmelita doesn’t want to leave. Finally, Carmelita, after several incendiary confrontations with Dennis, accedes to her family's wishes and signs a singing contract with him. After Dennis promises to look after her welfare in New York and puts up a $10,000 bond, she accompanies him back home.

He invites her to stay with him as well as his aunt Della (Elisabeth Risdon), who has moved in with him to help get him ready for the upcoming wedding. And along with aunt Della comes uncle Matt (Leon Errol), a rather shiftless sort who makes fast friends with Carmelita. Meanwhile, Carmelita has decided to steal him from his fiancée.

Although Dennis tells her to stay home on the day before her audition, Carmelita persuades Uncle Matt to take her to a baseball game and a wrestling match, where she loses her voice cheering on wrestler Mexican Pete (Ward Bond). During the match, Mexican Pete ends up sitting in her lap at ringside and a newspaper photographer snaps a photo.

Carmelita cheers on Mexican Pete (Ward Bond) at a wrestling match.

The next day at her audition, despite uncle Matt’s attempts to help, Carmelita’s voice croaks, causing the sponsor to cancel the show and Dennis great embarrassment. When the photo of Mexican Pete and Carmelita comes out, Dennis questions her about it. To cover for Uncle Matt, Carmelita tells Dennis that she was out with an unnamed man, prompting Dennis to threaten to send her back to Mexico.

Uncle Matt (Leon Errol) tries to help Carmelita get her voice back before her big audition.

Angry Carmelita blames Mexican Pete for her bad luck and goes to a restaurant that the wrestler owns. But Mexican Pete offers her a job in his nightclub as compensation.

Meanwhile, Renner and his wife and Dennis and Elizabeth are out entertaining a new and divorced client, Tony Romano (Edward Raquello), at the same club. Romano is so impressed by Carmelita's performance that he hires her to advertise his perfume. As the night progresses, Elizabeth becomes jealous of Dennis' attention to Carmelita and Dennis becomes jealous of Romano's attention to Carmelita.

Dennis (Donald Woods) pays too much attention to Carmelita at Mexican Pete's cantina.

After the performance, Carmelita escapes with Uncle Matt and the two of them stay out all night at the six-day bike races then going on in New York. (An NYC six-day bike race was also featured in 1933's International House, so it was a real thing.) When they get home the next morning, Dennis has been waiting up for her. Carmelita leads Dennis to believe that she was out with Romano, so as not to implicate uncle Matt and to make Dennis jealous.

Carmelita uses Romano's perfume in prep for Dennis' arrival.

While at a photo session for the perfume at Romano's house, Carmelita calls Dennis and tells him that she is thinking of moving in with Romano. When Dennis decides to leave his own wedding rehearsal to rescue Carmelita, Elizabeth breaks off their engagement. Dennis rushes to Romano's house to defend her honor, and after an altercation with Romano, Dennis scoops up Carmelita and carries her to the altar.

Dennis breaks off his own engagement to save Carmelita.

When the film was released on June 2, 1939, it was a surprise hit. At the time the film was made, RKO had no plans to make a series out of it, but its success led to a sequel, Mexican Spitfire (1940) and a series of films starring Lupe: The Mexican Spitfire's Baby (1941), Mexican Spitfire at Sea (1942), Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942), Mexican Spitfire's Elephant (1942) and Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event (1943).

Having seen the film, it’s hard to imagine why it was a hit. While Lupe Velez may have had talent, the character she played was loud and annoying and hard to take. It’s hard to know how much of it was the actress or the script, but no matter, I can’t see why anyone would want to see more of the same.

The story is also as bad as it is predictable. This is one of those films, and there are many, where the couple falls in love only because it is in the script. There is no chemistry, no development or obvious attraction that would lead them to the altar. While Elizabeth is no real prize herself, she's rather a cold fish, she and Dennis do seem to have some history that Dennis is all too quick to throw away for a woman he barely knows and who is wildly annoying. But the script says he falls in love with Carmelita, so he does.

To call Donald Woods bland would be doing a disservice to plain yogurt. His uninspired acting is the perfect blank slate for the vivacious Velez to dance all over. He doesn’t add much more than a fairly good-looking actor who had blood in his veins and was available. He would be gone from the Mexican Spitfire series after Mexican Spitfire Out West.

It is interesting that the relationship with Uncle Matt would be the best one in the film, which isn’t saying much, and would eventually become the focus of the Mexican Spitfire series. The actors playing her husband Dennis would change, but Leon Errol would become a staple.

The Australian-born Errol has Vaudeville routine written all over him in this film, so it’s no surprise that he had spent time on the circuit. After moving to America, he got involved with not only performing but also management, giving an early boost to a young comedian, Roscoe Arbuckle.

His flirtation with movies began in the silent era, but it wasn’t until 1930 that he gave up Broadway for films, working for Samuel Goldwyn, Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and RKO, where he would make six shorts a year from 1934 until his death in 1951. While he’s not as off-putting as Velez is, a little Errol seems to go a long way.

The teaming of Leon Errol with Lupe would last
 through the run of  Mexican Spitfire movies.

Lupe Velez, born María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez in 1908, had been a fixture in the Pre-Code party days of Hollywood. She was a regular at the Garden of Allah, a famous hotel known for having the same sort of reputation the Chateau Marmont has today. She had begun on the Mexican stage performing in revues. The recommendation of Frank A. Woodyard to stage director Richard Bennett, brought her to Los Angeles to appear as a Mexican cantina singer in his play The Dove. But she arrived too late and was replaced in the role.

But while in Los Angeles, she made the acquaintance of comedian Fanny Brice, who was quite taken with her. Brice recommended her to Flo Ziegfeld, who hired her to perform in his New York City club. As she was preparing to leave, she got a phone call from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Harry Rapf, who offered her a screen test. That screen test was seen by Hal Roach, who hired her to perform in the Laurel and Hardy comedy short Sailors, Beware! (1927).

She would go on to appear in The Gaucho (1927) opposite Douglas Fairbanks and Wolf Song (1929) opposite Gary Cooper, both were silent. One of the first successful Mexican actresses in Hollywood, she was often typecast as a hot-tempered Latin woman, known as The Mexican Spitfire. She successfully made the transition to sound and was featured in many Pre-Code films, including playing Naturich in Cecile B. DeMille’s 1931 remake of The Squaw Man. She would eventually find a place in comedies playing beautiful but volatile characters. As time went on and her star dimmed, Velez would drift into B-Pictures, like this one and the series of related films that followed. She would make 13 films after The Girl From Mexico, so her suicide at age 36 had little to do with her career tanking; she seemed to be working steadily.

Instead, it was love gone wrong and perhaps undiagnosed bi-polarity that led her to take her own life. The former wife of Tarzan’s Johnny Weissmuller, she began to date a struggling young Austrian actor named Harald Maresch (aka Harald Ramond) in 1944. In September, she discovered she was pregnant by Ramond and announced their engagement in November. But that only lasted until December 10, when she announced their engagement was off and he had moved out of her house.

Harald Ramond and Lupe together in happier times.

On the night of December 13, Velez dined with her friends, actress Estelle Taylor and Benita Oakie from 9 pm to 3:30 am the next day. When she retired to her room, she consumed the 75 seconal pills and a glass of brandy, after leaving a suicide note. Apparently, after they had broken up, Ramond having told her he was only marrying her to “give the baby a name,” Velez didn’t see any other way out. A devout Catholic, she couldn’t have an abortion and so she took her own life.

Not being an expert on Velez, I have read that at the end of her last Spitfire film, Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event, released five months before her suicide, Carmelita and her husband Dennis, then played by actor Walter Reed, learn that she is pregnant. It is ironic that her own would lead to suicide.

Carmelita and Dennis (Walter Reed) learn they are expecting in Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event,
the last in the series of  films inspired by the success of The Girl From Mexico.

While her life came to a very sad end, that was five years away when this film was made and is no excuse to watch it now. I have no idea if any of the films from the sequel series were any better, but it is hard to imagine they could be any worse. The Girl From Mexico is almost unwatchable unless you’re a die-hard fan of Lupe Velez, and I’m doubtful there are many of those around these days if there ever were.

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