July 19, 1908 – Lupe Vélez
Mexican Spitfire is not a term for Latin bondage porn; you’re thinking of Mexican Hayride. Mexican Spitfire is used to describe Lupe Vélez in a series of seven films released by the RKO Pictures between 1940 and 1943 starring Vélez and Vaudevillian Leon Errol. The movies were comedies featuring the character of Carmelita (Vélez), a temperamental Mexican singer who leaves her career and her native country to marry Dennis, an elegant and handsome American businessman.
The humor comes from the culture shock facing Carmelita in her new married life, especially when she gets to know the family and friends of her husband. She becomes a buddy of her husband’s uncle (Errol), the perfect accomplice and companion for her adventures. They both get into trouble and situations usually caused by their scheming and by the volatile temperament of Carmelita. The plots were not as important as the gags, most ad-libbed by Vélez and Errol during filming.
The films are: The Girl From Mexico (1939), Mexican Spitfire (1940), Mexican Spitfire Out West (1940), The Mexican Spitfire’s Baby (1941), Mexican Spitfire At Sea (1942), Mexican Spitfire Sees A Ghost (1942), Mexican Spitfire’s Elephant (1942), Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943). Mexican Spitfire Goes Back To Mar-a-Lago (2017) is in the can but has a delayed release date.
These films are satires of the stereotypes of the Mexican people in American society at the time. Think of Modern Family, the former ABC sitcom with gorgeous Colombian actor Sofía Vergara, and her representation of Latin women that provides a unique moment of visibility. It ran for eleven seasons, ending with an emotional, funny series finale in April 2020. Vergara/Gloria brought a transformative representation of Latin women at a time of increasing hostility towards Latin immigrants and brown-skinned minorities.
The traditional Hollywood spitfire archetype was supposed to make foreign Latin Americans less threatening to white people through humor while celebrating the potential for intercultural exchange and good old straight romance. Vergara’s Latina spitfire is ethnically safe because of her ability to serve as a cultural bridge and comedic foil to her white upper-middle class husband and his extended family.
Vélez was born María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez in Mexico. Her mother was an opera singer, her father was a colonel in the Mexican army.
When Vélez was 13 years old, she was sent to a Catholic school in San Antonio, USA to study. She learned English and began taking dance lessons. By her own admission, Vélez was good at dance, but was a poor student.
At the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Vélez returned to Mexico and worked in a department store to help support her family while her father was away fighting. Her father returned from the war to discover that his daughter was now a nightclub performer. He did not approve.
She performed in revues and in Vaudeville for several Mexican theatre companies before being invited to Los Angeles, where she was offered a screentest at MGM and was hired for the Laurel and Hardy short film Sailor’s Beware! (1927).
Later that year, she did a screen test for the upcoming Douglas Fairbanks film The Gaucho. Fairbanks was impressed and cast her, plus signed her to a contract. The Gaucho was a hit and fans and critics were impressed that Vélez could hold her own alongside Fairbanks.
Vélez made several movies right away, including opposite Gary Cooper in the film The Wolf Song (1929). Regularly cast as “exotic” or “ethnic” women that were volatile and hot tempered, gossip columnists called Vélez: “Mexican Hurricane”, “The Mexican Wildcat”, “The Mexican Madcap”, “Whoopee Lupe” and “The Hot Tamale”.
By 1930, Hollywood had transitioned from silent to sound films. Several stars of the era found their careers ruined because their heavily accented English, yet Vélez’s accent served her well. Her first talking roles was Rin Tin Tin‘s vehicle Tiger Rose (1929). The film was a hit.
In 1932, Vélez signed with Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and was cast in the musical revue Hot-Cha! with Bert Lahr, Eleanor Powell and Buddy Rogers. In 1933, she starred opposite Jimmy Durante in the musical revue Strike Me Pink on Broadway.
Although Vélez was popular, RKO Pictures did not renew her contract in 1934. Vélez then freelanced for various studios and made her final appearance on Broadway in the musical You Never Know (1938), by Cole Porter. The show received plenty of publicity because the feud between Vélez and fellow cast member Libby Holman. The feud came to a head during a performance where Vélez punched Holman in between curtain calls and gave her a black eye, which pretty much ended the run of the show.
Vélez returned to Mexico in 1938 to star in her first Spanish-language film. Arriving in Mexico City, she was greeted by 10,000 fans. The film La Zandunga, was a critical and financial success and Vélez was slated to appear in four more Mexican films, but instead, she returned to Los Angeles and went back to work at RKO. That is when she began making those Spitfire films.
She spent Friday nights attending boxing matches where she sat ringside screaming at the boxers. She was wild at parties, often proving that she didn’t wear underwear as she twirled and danced.
She dated Gary Cooper; he would often appear in public with scratches and bruises. One time, she attacked him with a knife during a fight. He needed stitches. By the end of their time as a couple, Copper had lost 45 pounds and was physically exhausted. He was ordered by the studio to take a vacation. As he boarded a train, Vélez shot at Cooper but missed. Despite their tumultuous relationship, later, during her marriage to the beautiful Olympic swimmer and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller, Vélez sought comfort from her fights with Cooper.
Weissmuller’s body, Vélez said, was ‘like a piece of sculpture”. They fought and made up constantly, and their public battles at nightclubs and premiers became infamous. Vélez:
For no reason, I punch him right on the nose. He rears up and says ‘Mama, you hit me’, and I say: ‘Darling, I am so sorry. Hit me back!’
Makeup artists on the Tarzan movies had to cover the bite marks and scratches she inflicted on Weissmuller. Unsurprisingly, this mutually abusive relationship could not last, with Vélez disparaging Weissmuller as a “furniture-breaking caveman”.
Vélez filed for divorce from Weissmuller three times in five years. They married in 1933 and finally divorced in 1939. Vélez was territorial about the men in her life, she was vicious toward any woman who might be competition for her man or an acting role. She mocked Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Shirley Temple by doing imitations of them.
Vélez’s image was that of a wild, highly sexualized woman who spoke her mind and was not considered a “lady”, while fellow Mexican actor Dolores del Río projected herself as classy and restrained, with aristocratic roots. Vélez hated del Río, and called her “bird of bad omen”. Del Río was terrified to meet her in public places. Vélez hated Marlene Dietrich whom she suspected of having an affair with Cooper while filming Morocco in 1930.
She had so many stormy relationships over the course of her career, including with Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, and boxers Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey. After her breakup with Cooper, Vélez had a fling with John Gilbert while Gilbert was separated from his third wife Ina Claire. In late 1941, she had an affair with writer Erich Maria Remarque, whose wife, actor Luise Rainer later wrote that Remarque told her “with the greatest of glee” that he found Vélez’s volatility hot.
In 1944, Vélez dated actor Harald Ramond. She discovered that she was pregnant, and after a heated argument, Ramond agreed to marry her, but only so that the child would not be born out of wedlock. She later told the media that she had called off her engagement and that he was no longer living in her home.
One evening in December 1944, Vélez and Estelle Taylor and Venita Oakie, two friends from her silent film days partied until early in the morning. When her secretary arrived for work, she found Vélez dead in her bed. Vélez had taken more than 50 Seconal pills. She left a suicide note addressed to Harald, which read:
“To Harald, May God forgive you and forgive me too, but I prefer to take my life away and our baby’s before I bring him with shame or killing him. How could you, Harald, fake such a great love for me and our baby when all the time you didn’t want us? I see no other way out for me so goodbye and good luck to you, Love Lupe.“
Legend has it that she was pregnant with Cooper’s child, and being a good Catholic, could not have an abortion. At the time, Cooper was married to socialite Veronica “Rocky” Balfe, and Cooper refused to acknowledge the child, believing that Ramond was the father.
The funeral for Vélez was held at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Among the pallbearers was Johnny Weissmuller. After the service, Vélez’s body was sent by train to Mexico City, for a second service. She is buried at Panteón Civil de Dolores Cemetery.