Archive for Dolores Del Rio

Forbidden Divas: A Woman of Her Importance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by dcairns

Our regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns with another in his series, Forbidden Divas.    



When I wanted your trust, I didn’t get it.

Now that I have your trust, I don’t want it!

Dolores del Río, Story of a Bad Woman

On the long list of places I’ve never been to, Argentina is the one that makes me most curious. I’ve heard that Eva Perón – a prostitute who married a dictator – is still revered by many as a saint. That the tango is popular only in the capital, Buenos Aires, and reviled elsewhere in the country as vulgar and salacious. That decades of conflict over las Islas Malvinas (known to imperialists as the Falklands) have done nothing to blunt a perverse but enduring fascination with all things British. According to one old saying: “An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, works like a German and tries but fails to dress like an Englishman.”


So perhaps it’s weirdly fitting that Argentina (not the UK) has produced the smartest and most elegant screen version of an Oscar Wilde comedy. Historia de una mala mujer (which translates literally as Story of a Bad Woman) is a liberal but pitch-perfect adaptation of Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Made in 1948 – when Argentina still rivalled Mexico as the leading film industry in the Spanish-speaking world – it’s the work of one Luis Saslavsky, a brilliant but little-known auteur who fled into exile in the 50s and spent the bulk of his career in Europe. Its star, Dolores del Río, was a legend in both Mexico and Hollywood. Here she pays a gracious goodwill visit to points further south.


Sinuous in its camerawork, eye-wateringly lavish in its costumes and sets, Story of a Bad Woman may be the best film ever made from an Oscar Wilde text. The other contender for me is Carmelo Bene’s 1972 version of Salome, with 60s supermodel Veruschka shedding a skin of jewels off her nude body while her director/co-star writhes in understandable lust. That film was an Italian avant-garde epic – so perhaps, in order to film Wilde successfully, you have to slice his text to ribbons and translate him into a foreign language. The one truly Wildean film in English, Robert Hamer’s 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, is not actually based on Wilde at all.

While British and American directors tend to preserve Wilde’s bonbons of wit in a glaze of stiff and flavourless aspic jelly, Saslavsky uses the text as a springboard and sets his camera free to do its job. He opens at the opera, at a gala performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. As in Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) – which opens at a performance of the same opera – there’s far more drama in the audience than on the stage. Every pair of opera-glasses in the house is trained on a single empty box, in which the scandalous femme fatale Mrs Erlynne is due to appear. Once the lady shows up, she does not disappoint. In a black velvet gown with a long trailing black-and-white cape, Dolores del Río is an Aubrey Beardsley illustration sprung to life.


Stalking the corridors at the interval, Dolores gives Saslavsky and his team a chance to show they have read other works by Oscar Wilde and not just the one they are adapting. She runs into an old admirer called Arthur Savile (Francisco de Paula) – who retrieves her glittering serpent bracelet when it falls off her wrist onto the floor. (The device used to entrap the villainous Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband.) But her main purpose of the evening is blackmail. The world-weary husband (Alberto Closas) of an insufferably priggish young socialite (María Duval) has unaccountably started paying Mrs Erlynne’s bills. Given that this lady’s wardrobe alone could bankrupt a small South American nation, we know that ugly and long-buried skeletons are fairly beating on the closet door.

Or that, at any rate, is what the neighbours think. A bevy of gossipy old crones spy out through the windows of one house – and in through the windows of Mrs Erlynne’s house next door. At last, the camera seems to grow tired of their world and glides, seamlessly, through a pane of glass into the salon where Dolores sits at her piano. (For sheer bravura, this shot is easily a match for the famous glass ceiling shot in Citizen Kane (1941), whose director Orson Welles was a real-life admirer of Dolores.) Having found its way into her home, the camera now enters her mind. A flashback shows us how Dolores, once a dutiful wife and mother, lost custody of her child when her husband suspected her of an affair.


Apart from The Importance of Being Earnest, all Wilde’s comedies contain a strong dose of melodrama; Saslavsky is perhaps the one filmmaker to give this aspect its due. The flashback is staged and lit like a Gothic horror movie, all blazing candelabra, crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning outside the windows. He resurrects this Sturm und Drang later on in the movie, for a scene that reveals Dolores is actually the long-lost mother of the prissy Duval. (My God, does heredity count for nothing?) That, of course, is why the husband is paying her money. If not, she might reveal The Truth and destroy the family’s good name.

Not that Duval is any model of discretion. She flirts quite openly with a smarmily handsome dandy played by Fernando Lamas, a few years before his Hollywood career as a ‘Latin Lover’ to the likes of Esther Williams and Arlene Dahl. Lamas describes her as “a charming puritan” (well, he’s half right) and does his utmost to lure her away from her admittedly dull husband. In fact, nobody in this film has much appeal apart from Dolores – who grows only more radiantly beautiful (like some queer and monstrous orchid) the more other characters prattle on about how depraved she is.

One of those stars whose acting verges on the subliminal, del Río transforms herself from dewy-eyed victim to hardened adventuress with barely a trace of visible effort. She may rival Greta Garbo and Catherine Deneuve for the crown of Great Actress Who Is Most Unlike Meryl Streep. At the film’s climactic ball (which resembles a luxuriant dress rehearsal for Vincente Minnelli’s in his 1949 Madame Bovary) she makes her entrance in a gown of purest virginal white. Wielding an outsize bouquet of stainless white flowers, just in case we miss the point!


At the ball, her irritating simp of a long-lost daughter looks set to compromise herself (yet again) with the lusty Lamas. Without hesitating, Dolores sacrifices her own reputation to save her child – who is still unaware they are related. This new scandal costs her the love of her latest suitor, who offered her the fleeting prospect of respectability and marriage. (Yawn!) She stands without flinching as the man slaps her publicly across the face. The camera – taking its cue, perhaps, from Dolores – does not move either. We stay in a tight close-up as her face runs the gamut of shock, defiance, hope, anguish and despair. It’s not for nothing that Dolores del Río began in silent films.

Moments like this may make you prefer Story of a Bad Woman, not just to other Wilde adaptations, but perhaps even to Wilde’s original play. Lady Windermere’s Fan climaxes with a cloyingly sentimental mother-daughter reunion and ends with the ‘dangerous’ mother safely married off to a benign elder gent. In Luis Saslavsky’s version, mother keeps her identity to a secret to the end. She strides out of the movie – much as she strode into it – alone and resplendent. Immaculately styled and radiantly gowned, her head held high. “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.” Wilde must have had Dolores in mind when he wrote that.

David Melville

Y is for Yucaltepen

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2015 by dcairns

We are, as William Holden complains in NETWORK, nearer the end than the beginning: David Melville offers the penultimate installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama from the golden age. Final episode later this week…


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

Y is for Yucaltepen

Our crime has a name. Its name is love. ~ Dolores del Río, Deseada


“Yucaltepen…Yucaltepen,” croons a tenor voice over moody and misty shots of the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen-Itza. Crumbling temples and rambling banana trees, populated by stark and geometric sculpted heads. Endless stairways lead up and up, to a sky thick with clouds. Perhaps the only movie theme song with lyrics in a dead language (well, there is “Ave Satanae” in The Omen) this prelude drifts along for five minutes at least. What’s this? A melodrama with nary an emoting diva in sight? Made in 1951 by genre maestro Roberto Gavaldón, Deseada is defiantly and unrelentingly a mood piece.

Well, perhaps it’s not as different as all that. Dwelling amid those oh-so-photogenic ruins is the gorgeous Dolores del Río. She plays an ineffably glamorous spinster school teacher, who dedicates her life to the edification of young ladies. She and her charges waft about the ruins in trailing, diaphanous white gowns; she enthrals them with Mayan legends of the Sun God’s hopeless love for the Moon Goddess. Can you imagine a steamy latino version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? If not, do not even contemplate watching this film. One of her pupils is her younger (much younger) sister, who is played by a pudgy-faced starlet named Anabel. Our heroine has spent years caring for her sibling, eschewing all offers of marriage and earning the nickname Deseada. The woman all men desire but no man can have.


That will, of course, change dramatically within the next 90 minutes. A train pulls into the dusty local station, carrying a dashing young caballero from Spain (Jorge Mistral) who is betrothed to Deseada’s drippy sister. The young girl flees the station as the train arrives – partly because she has never seen this man in her life, partly because she is not used to wearing shoes. But Deseada is there to greet him and the two plunge, instantly and irrevocably, into the sort of delirious amour fou that movies like this are made of. As she heads for home in her horse-drawn carriage, Deseada gazes into her mirror and sees reflected, not her own face, but that of Mistral as he trots along behind her on his virile black stallion. This may sound far-fetched but is, in fact, strangely appropriate. The swoonily handsome Mistral is the one actor whose bone structure is comparable with hers.

Deseada is one of those movies where every character comes with a symbolic animal attached. Mistral has that rampaging black horse, which breaks out of its stable late at night and goes thundering towards Deseada through a swirl of moonlight and mist. Dolores, meanwhile, keeps a tame fawn with long delicate bones, which looks even more like her than Mistral does. The skinny local witch, who shows up occasionally to cast spells and mumble prophecies of doom, has a mangy black jackal as a sidekick. By way of a chorus, various owls glare and hoot ominously from the branches of trees.


Unique among Mexican melodramas of its time, Deseada seems to exist in the queer quasi-mystical territory of Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) and Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948), of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1950) and Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950). Strange, as most of these movies were flops in their day but won a fervent cult following in decades to come. Yet their influence was clearly felt in Latin America, where audiences found their flamboyance far less shocking than the gringo public may have done. Following a full-blown Freudian dream sequence, where Dolores wanders about the ruins in a swirl of soft-focus dissolves, she wakes up and rises from her hammock. Gavaldón shoots her, exquisitely à la Sternberg, through a gauze of mosquito netting. Towards dawn, she and Mistral meet, silhouetted by a setting moon. Their shadows make passionate love on the steps of a ruined temple.

We know that this can never end well. “The truth is you suffer much when you love much,” Dolores intones, looking as solemn as one has to look when reciting dialogue of this ilk. Not only is Mistral engaged (inexplicably) to that annoying sister. The other man wracked with desire for Dolores is Mistral’s “uncle” (José Baviera) who is, in fact, his long-lost illegitimate father! As the rivalry between the two men builds alarmingly towards an act of (unwitting) parricide, the poor lovelorn Dolores poses ever so gracefully on the rim of a deep and ominous pool. Will this be a tragic but inevitable solution to the whole mess? A wealth of Powell and Pressburger movies (the whirlpool in I Know Where I’m Going, the precipice in Black Narcissus, the balcony high above the train station in The Red Shoes) suggest that it may well be…


Dramatically frail but visually exquisite, Deseada is held together by the gilt-edged star emoting of Dolores del Río. A star since the silent days of Hollywood, Dolores was approaching fifty by the time she played Deseada. Her eerily unlined face is monumental, the stuff of legend, easily a match for any of those sculpted Mayan gods. Yet she has the Garbo-like skill of conveying boundless depths of emotion while doing, apparently, nothing at all. “If Garbo is a woman who has become a goddess,” wrote the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, “del Río is a goddess who has become a woman.” You might quibble that Dolores is easily old enough to play the young girl’s mother, and the script might have been rewritten that way with no appreciable loss. But that would be churlish – and an affront to star power as we know it. Like the temples and palaces that surround her, Dolores del Río can never be old. She is, quite simply, ageless.

David Melville

The Sunday Intertitle: Gold Fever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2013 by dcairns


Clarence Brown’s THE TRAIL OF ’98 makes somewhat morbid viewing, if you’re aware of the story told about its making — a boatload of stuntmen overturned while running the rapids, and a rope strung across the river to help them resist the current proved ineffectual, because the assistant director hadn’t reinforced the dangling nooses with wire. The nooses hung limp and froze into knotty poles — the numb fingers of the perishing crew men could not find purchase, and four were swept off to their deaths. Only two bodies were recovered, the other two being carried away into the glacier.

So we’ll get them back any day now.


The movie is spectacular — the Chillcoot Pass sequence easily dwarfs its equivalent in Chaplin’s earlier THE GOLD RUSH — but lacks a plot for most of its running time. An opening montage shows how the discovery of gold energizes a motley band of hopefuls to drop everything and Go North, and then we follow their travails, but the drama is stubbornly not on a human scale — we can’t learn much that differentiates Dolores Del Rio’s character (she’s not playing Mexican here, which is interesting) from, say, Tully Marshall’s scraggly preacher or Karl Dane’s comedy Swede (yes, he does say “Yumping Yiminy!”)


The only one to make a real impression is Harry Carey as the villain, because he has such a fiery screen charisma. Just by grinning coldly he lets us know that this guy is dangerous. Later, he rapes Del Rio, and Brown films a driving track-in on her terrified face from Carey’s point of view — the scene fades out with a Vitaphone scream, this being an MGM soundie (also featuring gunshots and a song).

The movie is also a pre-code, which means that Del Rio, forced into prostitution, doesn’t have to die — she and her lover are reunited and he begs her forgiveness, since it was his abandoning her to go hunt gold that led to her downfall in the first place. MGM movies weren’t usually so progressive, but Clarence Brown does embody the studio’s more humane and liberal tendencies (making the brutality of this film all the more startling).


At the impressive climax, Carey biffs it out with hero Ralph Forbes, in the bloodiest bit of stage fighting I’ve seen outside of RAGING BULL or TOKYO FIST. Finally, Carey draws a gun and Forbes lets him have it with an oil lamp — the blazing Carey (or rather, his double) staggers down the corridor, setting fire to the building as he goes, then topples over a balcony onto the dance floor. He’s still trying to pull himself along by his hands as the whole of Dawson City bursts into flames…

The movie isn’t exactly likable — movies with fatalities seldom are — and the thinness of the plot doesn’t help it, but the spectacle is shockingly good. A special effects avalanche saved them from killing even more people, and though you can see that the victims vanishing beneath the falling snow are actually being removed by an animated wipe, it’s very effective.

The IMDb reports that Jacques Tourneur was an extra in this and that Dolores Del Rio’s stunt double was Lou Costello. This is hard to imagine, but fairly amusing if you manage it. The main problem with the anecdote is that Dolores doesn’t jump out of any windows, but plenty of other people do, so the possibility of Lou donning drag and defenestrating himself cannot be dismissed altogether.


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