Dolores del Río: The triumph of introspectionBy: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1
Whether it’s holding a piglet or meeting again with her son who can’t recognize her, the image of Dolores del Río usually evokes the pain of losing something or of being about to lose it. Her face was too beautiful for her characters but realism was not one of cinema’s great concerns in her time. Films were actually searching for the sort of beauty that lies beyond everyday life, but Del Río had also a varied intensity. In her classical Mexican films she often represented the anguish of a country disorientated by revolution and particularly a femininity consumed by puritanism, misogyny and inequality. Of course, Del Río did much more than that and was also capable of playing twin sisters with opposing senses of morality and European peasants from tolstoyan adaptations. She could dance and sing but more than anything Dolores del Río knew how to adapt.
Born in 1904 in Durango, Del Río was a local aristocrat who ran away with her mother when Pancho Villa’s army was nearing the state capital. The child and her mother boarded a train disguised as peasants and in the meanwhile her father ran away to the United States. Only she knew it but one cannot help but wonder if this adventure would define her ambitions in the future: Del Río would become a storyteller by pretending to be other people in the United States, far from her birthplace. But long before that, in 1919, the future star discovered her love for dancing during a show by the great Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. This would eventually lead her to meet Jaime Martínez del Río, her future groom 18 years her senior.
After a two year honeymoon in Europe —where she impressed the king and queen of Spain by dancing for the soldiers fighting the Rif War— Del Río and her husband settled in Mexico City. Professional drawer, public official and future filmmaker Adolfo Best Maugard —mostly remembered for his film La mancha de sangre (1937)— visited the couple along with some American friends. Filmmaker Edwin Carewe was among them and he decided to make a star of Del Río but not for the best reasons. In the times of #MeToo it’s important to remember that, long before Harvey Weinstein harassed Salma Hayek, Carewe did the same to Del Río until 1929, when she told the press that she would never marry him. Enfuriated, Carewe would try to destroy her career, but with a large filmography in silent cinema behind her and the friendship of some of the most important figures in Hollywood —it’s important to remember that she was a star as big as any of them, from Charlie Chaplin to Mary Pickford—, Carewe’s revenge was rendered impossible.
Even though Del Río had succeeded in silent cinema without speaking English, she quickly developed her skills in the language as sound was coming in order to retain her stardom. By the 40’s Del Río had made 30 films and worked with directors like Raoul Walsh, Busby Berkeley and Orson Welles —with whom she held a romance—, yet her figure in American cinema became less popular and she had gone through personal matters and the death of her father. Besieged, Del Río made a last great escape to Mexico, which would result in the most important stage of her career.
Curiously, Dolores del Río made less than 20 films in Mexico, which aren’t even the majority in her career, yet they brought her the largest success in every way. In films like Wild Flower (1943) and Portrait of Maria (1943), both directed by Emilio Fernández, Del Río would contribute to the Mexican cinematic canon unforgettable characters that express the immense pain of being born a woman. In some way they reflected Del Río’s personal difficulties as a teenage wife and a harassed actress. In The Abandoned (1945, dir. Emilio Fernández) Del Río plays the abnegated mother of a lost son when, in reality, she had suffered the trauma of a miscarriage. In Mexican cinema Del Río explored herself and contributed to the consolidation of film as an art form capable of reuniting the individual and the world around her.
Toward the 60’s Del Río returned to American cinema, where she played Elvis Presley’s mother in Flaming Star (1960, dir. Don Siegel) and worked with John Ford in Cheyenne Autumn (1964). But her work as an actress would become more infrequent due to her interests as a philanthropist. In the 70’s she supported the founding of the Festival Cervantino and she founded the Rosa Mexicano group, which devoted itself to protecting children and women in show business. Her last film would be The Children of Sanchez (1978, dir. Hall Bartlett).
Del Río died in 1983 but she comes back often when someone pronounces the name of her beloved Lorenzo Rafael like her in Portrait of Maria or when someone recalls her duel with María Félix for the love of a general in The Soldiers of Pancho Villa (1959, dir. Ismael Rodríguez). Her body is gone but her moving pains will live as long as there is cinema.