Family & Companions
One of the first Mexican actresses to become a Hollywood success, Lupe Vélez was aptly named "The Mexican Spitfire" due to her feisty onscreen persona that often translated behind the scenes as well. After a start as a dancer in her native Mexico, Vélez moved to Hollywood where she made her film debut in "Sailors, Beware!" (1927) and quickly landed her first major part opposite Douglas Fairbanks in "The Gaucho" (1927). From there, she starred in D.W. Griffith’s "Lady of the Pavements" (1929) and Victor Fleming’s "Wolf Song" (1929), which led to a highly-publicized romance with Gary Cooper. In fact, her personal life – which consisted of many affairs with the top leading men of her day – was a constant subject of press fascination and often overshadowed her work on screen. She eventually found a niche and strong degree of popularity in comedies like "The Half-Naked Truth" (1932) and "Palooka" (1933), but was ultimately unsatisfied and tried her hand at Broadway while appearing in a handful of Mexican films. Vélez found her way back to Hollywood in 1939 and rejuvenated her career with the popular "Mexican Spitfire" series. Despite her renewed success, Vélez opted for suicide in 1944 amidst the shame of an illegitimate pregnancy that cut short a turbulent life that had failed to live up to its true potential.
Born on July 18, 1908 in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Vélez was raised by her father, Jacobo Villalobos Reyes, a colonel in the Mexican Army under the dictator, Porfirio Díaz, and her mother, Josefina Vélez, an opera singer. A rebellious youth prone to impulsive and aggressive behavior, Vélez was sent to a convent in San Antonio, TX, by her parents when she was 13 years old. Two years later, after the death of her father, Vélez left the convent in order to earn money for her family, working as a clerk at a warehouse while taking dance lessons. She began dancing in vaudeville and eventually found her way to Hollywood, where she met and was promoted by comedienne Fanny Brice. While preparing to travel to New York City for a play, Vélez was given a screen test by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and attracted the attention of famed producer Hal Roach, who cast the actress for a small part in an early Laurel and Hardy silent comedy, "Sailors, Beware!" (1927). Following a bit part in another short comedy, "What Women Did For Me" (1927), Vélez made her feature debut as a lust-fueled mountain girl opposite Douglas Fairbanks in the adventure drama "The Gaucho" (1927).
Having gained widespread exposure from her role in "The Gaucho," Vélez was cast in a series of ethnic roles deemed to exotic for her Anglo contemporaries while earning nicknames like The Mexican Panther or Miss Hot Tamale. She played a Greek peasant girl in "Stand and Deliver" (1928) and sang Irving Berlin classics in D.W. Griffith’s part-talkie "Lady of the Pavements" (1929). After playing the beloved daughter of an animal trapper in Tod Browning’s silent "Where East Is East" (1929), Vélez was a feisty woman who toys with the affections of two men in the melodramatic "Tiger Rose" (1930). By this point in her career, Vélez’s popularity rivaled Hollywood’s "It Girl," Clara Bow, prompting some to call her the "Mexican It Girl." Meanwhile, Vélez started to become known for her numerous love affairs with some of Hollywood’s top talent, including John Gilbert, Charlie Chaplin, Victor Fleming, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable. She entered into a rather complicated affair with Gary Cooper, whom she met while starring in Fleming’s synchronized musical "Wolf Song" (1929).
Because of her many romances, and her penchant for making scenes at parties and other public events, the tempestuous Vélez’s escapades were receiving more press than her acting skills. But her popularity continued to rise as she starred in films like "Hell Harbor" (1930), Cecil B. DeMille’s "The Squaw Man" (1931) and "Resurrection" (1931), before finding her niche in comedies. Vélez turned in a number of brilliant comic performances during this time, playing a hot-tempered dancer in "The Half-Naked Truth" (1932), a feisty nightclub performer in "Hot Pepper" (1933) and a more glamorous cabaret singer opposite Jimmy Durante in "Palooka" (1934). Of course, most of her roles were slight variations on the same hot-blooded singer-dancer which by contemporary standards would smack of stereotypes toward Latina woman. But Vélez enjoyed her success even though parts were limited and remained a popular figure, thanks to movies like "Strictly Dynamite" (1934), "Laughing Boy" (1934) co-starring Ramón Navarro, and "Hollywood Party" (1934), where she enthusiastically engaged in a hilarious egg fight with Laurel and Hardy. Meanwhile, following her highly publicized affair with Cooper, Vélez married Olympic athlete-turned-"Tarzan" star Johnny Weissmuller, with whom she had a rocky relationship that led to numerous splits and reunions until finally ending with divorce in 1939.
Once her contract with RKO Pictures was over in 1934, the studio chose not to renew and left Vélez adrift. After making "The Morals of Marcus" (1935) and "Gypsy Melody" (1936), the disappointed actress left Hollywood for Broadway, where she made her debut in "Hot Cha" (1934), before landing a role in the short-lived Cole Porter musical "You Never Know." Meanwhile, Vélez went back to Mexico to star in the Spanish-language romantic drama "La Zandunga" (1937), in which she played a young woman being courted by three men, only to regretfully marry one while being in love with another. She returned to Hollywood in 1939 and found herself cast as a B-movie actress in "The Girl from Mexico" (1939), in which she played a tempestuous entertainer hired by a straight-laced nightclub owner (Donald Woods) while striking up a friendship with his ne’er do well uncle (Leon Errol). The movie proved successful enough to commence an immediate sequel, "Mexican Spitfire" (1939), thanks in large part to Vélez’s comic scenes with Errol. In fact, the original film sparked a popular series that spawned another six films of varying degrees of quality and success, including "Mexican Spitfire Out West" (1940), "Mexican Spitfire’s Baby" (1941) and "Mexican Spitfire’s Elephant" (1942).
The popularity of the "Spitfire" pictures rejuvenated Vélez’s career and allowed her to branch out beyond the series, appearing in "Honolulu Lu" (1941) and John Barrymore’s final film, "Playmates" (1941). She tackled the dual leading role of twin sisters in the musical comedy, "Redhead from Manhattan" (1943), while churning out "Spitfire" movies like "Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost" (1942) and "Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event" (1943). Returning once more to Mexico, Vélez delivered a highly acclaimed dramatic turn in "Nana" (1944), a role that was a brief look into her wider talents but would ultimately be her last. Around this time, Vélez had been engaged in an affair with actor Harald Raymond, who refused to marry her after she became pregnant with his child. Consumed by shame over the rejection, Vélez committed suicide by consuming dozens of sleeping pills. She went to bed and died of an overdose on Dec. 14, 1944 at 36 years old. People close to Vélez disputed that shame would have been enough to have driven her to suicide, while more contemporary observers conjectured that her extreme behavior throughout her life might have been undiagnosed depression or even bipolar disorder. In the 1960s, Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger invented the legend that Velez had drowned in her toilet, an assertion which – while physically impossible – nonetheless has been widely believed.
By Shawn Dwyer
Cast (Feature Film)
US stage debut, "The Music Box Review"
Film debut, "What Women Did for Me"
First leading role, "The Gaucho"
First comedy role, "The Half-Naked Truth"
Broadway debut, "Hot Cha!"
Reutned to Mexico to film drama "La Zandunga"
Starred in "The Girl from Mexico", the first of seven "Mexican Spitfire" movies
Final film, "Nana"