Today is the birthday of Lupe Vélez (1908-1944). While her career was not restricted to comedy by any means, it made up a substantial portion of her output and remains what she is best known for today.
The daughter of a Mexican army officer, she took dancing lessons in her teenage years and made her debut in vaudeville in the mid-1920s. Her film debut came with two Hal Roach shorts in 1927, What Women Did for Me with Charley Chase, and Sailors, Beware! with Laurel and Hardy. This was followed by her first feature The Gaucho (1927) with Douglas Fairbanks. Another notable film was The Wolf Song, which paired her with Gary Cooper, with whom she was to be romantically linked for two years. She was married to the champion swimmer and actor Johnny Weissmuller from 1933 through 1939.
One of the first Latin American women in Hollywood, she was naturally typecast as feisty, fiery, hot-headed Latinas (or other ethnic types such as Native Americans and Gypsies). She was presented as sexy but often also funny and her public image was as a wild woman, although she always insisted that offscreen that truly wasn’t the case. (Many details of her private life would seem to indicate otherwise).
While she made plenty of dramatic films in both the U.S. and Mexico, notable comedies of the sound era included Hot Pepper (1933), two films co-starring Jimmy Durante, Palooka and Strictly Dynamite (1934), Hollywood Party, featuring a funny battle with Laurel and Hardy (1934), High Flyers with Wheeler and Woosley (1937), and the Mexican Spitfire series for RKO with Leon Errol (1939-1943), which is what she is best known for today.
I’ve seen all of the Mexican Spitfire comedies, and frankly didn’t find them very funny (see my post on them here). To the modern sensibility they’re both sexist and racist, with her character a sort of combination of Lucy and Desi, hot tempered, fast talking, and trouble prone, like some sort of wild animal. The only way you could conceivably find it amusing is if you were automatically poised to laugh at the pre-determined idiocy of women and Mexicans. Leon Errol as Uncle Matt is a bit of welcome relief. But essentially these are cheapie B pictures on every level, forgettable, disposable, very much representative of the times.
And because Velez was a talented, beautiful actress who had known genuine stardom in her time, I can’t imagine her later career didn’t feed into her sad suicide in 1944, although the larger reason seems to be that she was reportedly with child but unmarried. Despondent over her breakup with the baby’s father, a young Austrian actor named Harald Ramond, she washed down 75 Seconal with a glass of brandy and was found a few hours later. Ironically her last comedy was Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943).
For more on show biz history, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold. To learn more about slapstick comedy please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc