Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Born Today July 18: Lupe Velez


Tragic Mexican-American actress Lupe Velez was born María Guadalupe Villalobos de Vélez on this day in San Luis Potosi Mexico.  Her mother was a performer, of that we can be sure; there have been conflicting reports that her mother was either an vaudevillian singer of some considerable talent or, alternatively, a opera singer.  Given where they were located it was probably both.  The family was reportedly well-off and living in a large home in the prominent northern city.  Her father was a colonel in the army (under Diaz), and she had siblings, albeit all them male, that had college educations.  At the age of 13, she was sent by her family to what is now Our Lady Of The Lake University in San Antonio, Texas.  There she learned how to dance, performed for the first time and learned English.  This was cut short when the Mexican Revolution broke out and she was sent to Mexico City, where she worked to support her family in a large department store (her father, was, of course, called back into active military duty).  It was there that she got her professional start, performing in revues there in the early 1920's.  She initially performed under "Villalobos," but that being her paternal name, her father strenuously objected after returning from the war and finding out that his daughter had decided to become a performer.  From that time on, she chose to perform under maternal name of Vélez.  At various dance and performance companies, she became one of the premiere vaudeville performers in Mexico by the mid-1920's.  She sometimes was fired for having such a fiery personality; but then again she had also learned this sort of behavior brought the press around.  Seems to be one of those learning lessons that "there is no such thing as bad press."  Indeed, this paid off--perhaps more than she expected it to--as it wasn't just theaters in Mexico who were paying close attention to her. She had come to the attention of famed stage director Richard Bennett, who invited her to audition in Los Angeles for a play he was staging that needed a Mexican actress (she had be planning to tour in Cuba, but changed her plans when the offer came up).  However by the time she arrived in L.A., the part had been given to another actress.  Not wanting to just flee, she stuck around long enough to met comedian Fanny Brice who took a liking to her and wanted to help promote her career, being particularly impressed with Vélez's dancing (Brice was obviously a person in her short life that Lupe admired and respected highly).  Brice secured for her an actual job in New York City with famed Broadway giant Flo Ziegfeld, but before she left for New York she found herself in film work first.  There is some confusion as to which of the first two films that she appeared in came first--over-whelming evidence points to Sailors, Beware! in 1927, a Hal Roach film starring Laurel and Hardy.  Harry Rapf, of MGM, had reportedly called her personally to screen test for the film. She next appeared in What Women Did For Me  (1927) a silent Charley Chase film.  She next was screen tested for an upcoming Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.) film; he took an immediate shine to her and cast her straight away; that movie was the hit The Gaucho.  He star in the industry was quickly rising, and as a result of this, her next film was the Cecil B. DeMille produced Stand And Deliver, starring Warner Oland.  The first film that had sound in did feature some talking sequences and a musical and singing score--Lady Of The Pavements (1929) an early sound film by D. W. Griffith--did not feature her voice.  Her next two films that featured sound were partial silents in the purest definition of the term.  Studios seeing the rapid on-coming of the sound era discarded many of their actors with accents of any sort, especially accents that clearly came from other countries (though many American colloquial accents didn't fare much better!)--it was just assumed that Velez would not survive the dawn of the talkie.  She proved them spectacularly wrong.  In 1929, they took a gamble on (or what they saw as a gamble) putting her into an early full talkie Tiger Rose.  Her co-stars? Monte Blue & Rin Tin Tin.  The film was a run-away hit and her continuance in the film industry was assured.  The bulk of her film appearances date from the 1930's, when she starred along side of the likes of Jimmy Durante and his complete opposite Ramon Novarro.  She did finally make her Broadway debut in 1932 with Florenz Ziegfeld--it was delayed by years, but when it came, it was a success.  During the mid-1930's she also spent time in England, appearing in at least two films there.  She appeared on and off the stage all during the decade, making her final Broadway appearance in 1938 (the tour of the production did not go well--her fiery temper effectively ended the tour).  That same year, she returned to Mexico to make her first film there.  She was greeted with throngs (thousands, actually) of screaming fans.  The film was a huge hit and she was slated to star in 4 more Mexican films, but instead returned to Hollywood and made a series of films that had elements of Mexican stereo-type in them.  Her personal life was always tumultous and ever increasingly out of control.  She had been linked to several well known actors from the time of her arrival in Hollywood and would go on to have troubled relationships with men that included a high-profile relationship with Gary Cooper to a trouble marriage that had all sorts of terrible stories attached to it, including pet killing.  Things only got worse from there, with her finally ending up in a relationship with a much younger newly arrived Hollywood actor from Austria.  When, at the age of 36, she found that she was pregnant and things apparently blew up between the two of them.  On the 13th of December, she had dinner with two friends, one of whom was Estelle Taylor, afterward consuming 75 Seconal pills with a glass of brandy, leaving behind a two sided suicide note.   She was found dead the next morning by her secretary.  When she was released for burial, she was given a funeral in Los Angeles after the coroner's office concluded that she had meant to do away with herself.  Her body was then shipped to Mexico City and given another funeral and buried in Mexico's famous Panteon Civil de Dolores cemetery. The death caused a great deal of publicity and, in many cases, outrage from various sectors.  Rumors also immediately began to fly as well.  Everything from questioning whether she really meant to kill herself, to the paternity of her child (a real question in the case of Gary Cooper).  The most outrageous was no rumor at all--just a made up story by none other than Kenneth Anger, vulgarly claiming (with not a shade of proof) that she actually drowned in a toilet after stumbling to the bath room to vomit.  Seconal is an extremely fast acting drug, even in small doses--75 pills would be enough to take the life of a 5 foot tall women very, very quickly--especially when mixed with brandy.  Let's hope she has found peace.  

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