Today is the birthday of Lupe Velez (read more about the talented and gorgeous Latin star here). A fitting day, we think to do this little post on her last (and today, best known) career phase, her “Mexican Spitfire” comedies.
While worth watching as historical curiosities, to the modern sensibility these films seem both sexist and racist. The Spitfire character is 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 would be prone to find it amusing is if you were by default poised to laugh at the idiocy of women and Mexicans. Leon Errol as Uncle Matt (and his alter ego Lord Epping) is a bit of welcome relief. Essentially these are cheapie B pictures on every level, forgettable, disposable, and very much representative of the times.
The Girl from Mexico (1939)
The first “Mexican Spitfire” movie, although no one knew at the time that a series of films would transpire. Lupe Velez plays an unknown singer in a small Mexican village brought north of the border by a radio scout (Donald Woods) who is affianced to a scheming phony. Lupe will of course win him for her own.
Mexican Spitfire (1940)
The first official one in the series. They settle into the formula. The couple are now married and its all about the culture clash of being a Latina in America. The comedy is much broader than in the previous one. This also introduces the recurring motif of the British distiller Lord Epping, played also by Leon Erroll. So Uncle Matt (also Errol) has several bits where he goes in disguise as the English gentleman (this was one of Errol’s stage specialties, in addition to his famous drunk routine).
Mexican Spitfire Out West (1940)
This one doesn’t quite deliver what the title promises. It’s not a western comedy. Carmelita goes to Reno to pretend to be seeking a divorce from her boring husband because she thinks he is being unfaithful (someone turned on the radio to a peppy station while they were on the phone). And Lord Epping returns. So there is an irritating subplot of Dennis (the husband) having to outscheme some rivals for the attentions of Lord Epping, who is sometimes Uncle Matt in disguise. But the main question is “Who cares”? Who cares whether he has a coup at work or if their marriage breaks up?” On the positive side, Tom Kennedy has a funny bit as a cab driver.
Mexican Spitfire’s Baby (1941)
The title of this film so badly makes me want to do a comedy mash-up sketch of this and the Mia Farrow/ Roman Polanski horror picture. The production values in this one seem to have improved over the previous one a little. The anonymous Donald Woods is now replaced by Buddy Rogers as Carmelita’s husband and he is much better at playing comedy than his soporific predecessor. Velez now sports a fashionable 40s haircut. And Zasu Pitts is in the cast as prissy hotel manager Miss Emily Pepper, and Fritz Feld does his patented Frenchman routine. This improved cast makes it a vastly more watchable movie, even if the script is as tedious as the previous ones. It opens on an anniversary party at a fancy night club. Dennis and Carmelita are still troubled. Uncle Matt suggests they adopt a “baby”. Unfortunately Dennis gets a “baby” – a gorgeous blonde French girl named “Fifi” whom he somehow has to host for work. Much misunderstanding and yelling in Spanish ensues.
Mexican Spitfire at Sea (1942)
The couple takes a ship to Honolulu to get away from work and have a second honeymoon. And who’s on board but Fifi and Miss Emily Pepper from the previous film? And Uncle Matt and his snobby wife? And it all becomes about Uncle Matt masquerading as Lord Epping to help Dennis land a business deal with a gent who is traveling on the same tub. Endless permutations of the various characters having conversations in different staterooms or on deck. Can there by anything more disposable?
Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942)
The inevitable spook comedy. The Carmelita character gets even more demeaning in this one. When we first see her she is having fun riding a painters scaffolding apparatus on the outside of a skyscraper oblivious to her safety. Dennis and his aunt go to Lord Epping’s country mansion to go hunting (for business reasons). They leave Carmelita behind because she lacks class; Uncle Matt takes her to a boxing match. But they show up anyway…after all they are the stars of the film.and it’s a good thing too. Lord Epping doesn’t arrive to clinch the business deal so Uncle Matt masquerades as him for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately the house is also haunted! (Naturally the explanation is the usual thing—crooks are hiding in the basement making explosives, and are faking the ghosts to scare them off.) One of the other guests is the irritating Donald McBride (the “jumping butterballs” guy from Room Service. And naturally the servants are Mantan Moreland and Lillian Randolph. It wouldn’t be a ghost comedy without some stereotyped eye popping and superstition.
Mexican Spitfire’s Elephant (1942)
We are initially disappointed to learn it’s not a circus elephant, but a statuette carved out of a gem (much like the titular rock in The Pink Panther). Lyle Talbot is the crook who is smuggling it. But thanks to a misunderstanding of Carmelita’s we do eventually get our live elephant. As if to provedthat the character of Dennis is a tedious cog, the actor playing him has been replaced yet again, this time by the mustachioed Walter Reed, who’s so unappealing he looks precisely like the sort of guys who normally play villains in movies like this . This one is also burdened with wartime propaganda nonsense…Uncle Matt is working for civil defense on air raid drills etc.
Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943)
This one, the last in the series, achieves new levels of inconsequentiality. Confusingly, unlike Mexican Spitfire Out West, this one actually has a “western” setting and theme. It’s set at an Arizona resort. When we first see Carmelita she is dressed in a little cowgirl outfit. The main plot of the film is actually similar toMexican Spitfire’s Baby. Dennis thinks Carmelita is pregnant but in reality its just that her cat is going to have kittens (apparently this is a world where even married people can’t have sex – particularly sex with Mexicans). The usual boring shit about business deals with Lord Epping, now with a bunch of guys in army uniforms running around, shoving the war down our throats. Hugh Beaumont and Alan Carney play minor roles.
The following year, Velez would be expecting her own “blessed event”. Unmarried at the the time, she took her own life rather than suffer the public humiliation of such a predicament given the mores of that day. Whether there would have been more Spitfire movies after that is academic. The popularity of the series had begun to wane, and she had resumed making other sorts of films.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc