The "Mexican Spitfire" series of movies proved to be some of RKO's most popular films in the late Thirties and early Forties. The films centred around Lupe Vélez as Carmelita Lindsay, a Mexican singer who married New York City advertising man Dennis Lindsay (played in succession by Donald Woods, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, and Walter Reed). Carmelita's staunchest supporter and partner in her various schemes was Dennis's Uncle Matt. Uncle Matt was played by veteran comedian Leon Errol, who also played the role of Lord Basil Epping, a doddering English peer and alcohol tycoon. Given Uncle Matt and Lord Epping looked a good deal alike, it should come as no surprise that Uncle Matt often impersonated the British noble.
While Carmelita Lindsay would become Lupe Vélez's most famous role, it did not exactly mark a big change in her career. Many actors would find their careers redefined after playing a character in a popular series of films. Myrna Loy began her career playing various femmes fatales, vamps, and exotics before being cast as the witty, sophisticated Nora Charles in The Thin Man. After The Thin Man and its sequels, Myrna Loy generally played sophisticated women. In contrast, Lupe Vélez had been playing roles similar to Carmelita for years before the "Mexican Spitfire" series began.
It was in 1939 that Lupe Vélez made a B comedy titled The Girl from Mexico for RKO. It would be the film that would inaugurate the "Mexican Spitfire" series. In The Girl from Mexico advertising man Dennis Lindsay (Donald Woods) brings Mexican singer Carmelita Fuentes to the United States to work in national radio. Complications arise when Carmelita falls in love with Dennis. The Girl from Mexico introduced many of the characters of the "Mexican Spitfire" series, including Dennis's Uncle Matt and his disapproving Aunt Della (played by Elisabeth Risdon). The Girl from Mexico proved so successful that the head of RKO, George Schaefer, not only gave the go ahead for a sequel almost immediately, but he also signed Lupe Vélez to a contract with the studio with a salary of a $1,500 a week.
Mexican Spitfire was released only six months after The Girl from Mexico and marked the official start of the "Mexican Spitfire" series. In Mexican Spitfire Carmelita and Dennis have just married and face two very big obstacles. One is Dennis's Aunt Della, who strongly disapproves of the marriage. Another is Dennis's scheming ex-fiancée Elizabeth (played by Linda Hayes), who wants him back. Mexican Spitfire would mark a significant shift from The Girl from Mexico. Namely, Leon Errol received a larger role in the film, one he would maintain for the rest of the series. Indeed, Mexican Spitfire introduced the role of wealthy distiller Lord Basil Epping, whom Mr. Errol would play as well as Uncle Matt. The character of Uncle Matt also played a bigger role in Mexican Spitfire than he had in Girl from Mexico, playing Carmelita's co-conspirator in the film as he would the rest of the series. Donald Woods, who as the rather bland Dennis Lindsay, had been second billed in The Girl from Mexico was then reduced to third billing in Mexican Spitfire.
|Marion Martin, Leon Errol, |
and Lupe Vélez"
For the most part the "Mexican Spitfire" films featured the sorts of plots one would expect from a series of B comedies. In Mexican Spitfire Out West, because she thinks Dennis has been taking her for granted Carmelita goes to Reno to get a quickie divorce In The Mexican Spitfire's Baby Carmelita and Dennis adopt a war orphan who turns out to be a beautiful French woman (played by Marion Martin). Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost was set in a haunted house (practically every series of film comedies had to have at least one entry set in a haunted house). Mexican Spitfire's Elephant found Carmelita mixed up with jewel thieves. Mexican Spitfire at Sea found Carmelita and Dennis going on a cruise for their much delayed honeymoon. The final film in the series, Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event, saw Dennis believing Carmelita was pregnant when in reality she was referring to their pet ocelot.
Like many series of B comedies from the era, the "Mexican Spitfire" films were not particularly inventive. Gags and routines were reused from film to film. As mentioned above, Uncle Matt impersonates Lord Epipng in every single movie. Carmelita tries more than once to help Dennis win an important account. There are misunderstandings between Carmelita and Dennis often enough that one sometimes wonders how they stayed married.
While the sorts of plots featured in the "Mexican Spitfire" films varied little from film to film, the series would undergo a few changes throughout its run. Dennis Woods left the series and was replaced by Charles "Buddy" Rogers as Dennis Lindsay in The Mexican Spitfire's Baby. In turn Walter Reed took over the role with Mexican Spitfire's Elephant. Linda Hayes was last seen as Dennis's conniving ex-fiancée in Mexican Spitfire Out West (apparently she gave up on getting him back after that film).
Today anyone reading about the "Mexican Spitfire" films might assume that Carmelita Lindsay was an outright stereotype--the hot tempered, hot blooded, highly sexualised Latina. Indeed, the very title of the series, "Mexican Spitfire", would seem to indicate this. It is certainly true that certain aspects of Carmelita's personality are stereotypical. Carmelita certainly had a temper. Like Ricky Ricardo after her, Carmelita is prone to rapidly shout a stream of Spanish when angered. Carmelita also had a tendency to mangle the English language. Even after living in the United States for a few years, Carmelita still spoke with an exaggerated Mexican accent.
While there were some elements of Carmelita's character that were stereotypical, however, there were many that were not. In fact, in some respects the "Mexican Spitfire" series could even be seen as progressive for the era. Indeed, the "Mexican Spitfire" movies are among the first to portray a mixed marriage, this at a time when some states still had laws forbidding Mexicans to marry individuals of other ethnicities. In fact, it is Aunt Della, who is constantly trying to break Carmelita and Dennis up, who is the villain of the series. In having Carmelita and Dennis marry, then, RKO was in many ways making a very bold move.
While Carmelita and Dennis's marriage was portrayed positively, so too was Carmelita's friendship with Dennis's Uncle Matt. Uncle Matt always treated Carmelita with respect and as an equal, to the point that he always went along with her schemes. And while Uncle Matt does correct Carmelita when she errs with regards to the English language, he does so politely and without ridicule. Like Carmelita, Uncle Matt was one of the protagonists of the series, and to have him treat her with respect definitely sent a message to audiences about both women and ethnicity.
It must also be pointed out that throughout the series Carmelita never gave up her singing career, despite the fact that women of the time were generally expected to set aside their careers when they married. What is more, Carmelita was not particularly anxious to have children, this at a time when most married women were expected to embrace motherhood. As odd as it might sound, one can read a feminist subtext into the "Mexican Spitfire" films. Quite simply the series says that it is all right for women to continue to have a career after marriage and not to consider motherhood their foremost goal in life.
Indeed, not only is Carmelita independent, but she is also intelligent. It is always Carmelita who resolves the various misunderstandings that have arisen in the course of the films. And more often not, after some difficulties, it is Carmelita who insures that Dennis wins an important account. Throughout the series Carmelita prevails, this in the face of many obstacles, not the least of which is Aunt Della's none too thinly veiled racism. In many ways Carmelita entirely subverts the hot tempered, hot blooded Latina stereotype, using aspects of it to create a character who was very progressive for her day.
Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event, released in 1943, would be the last film in the series. Lupe Vélez would make only one more movie, Nana (1944) in her native Mexico. Sadly, Miss Vélez committed suicide on 13 December 1944. While the reasons Miss Vélez took her own life are not certain, it must be pointed out that she did not die with her face down in a toilet as Kenneth Anger claimed in his libellous account in Hollywood Babylon. While accounts at the time of her death said that her secretary found Miss Vélez on her bed, police photos show she was found on the floor beside her bed. Regardless, the public still loved Lupe Vélez. At her funeral held in California more than 4,000 people walked past her casket. In her funeral held in Mexico later thousands also showed up to express their grief at her passing. In both the United States and Mexico Lupe Vélez was a beloved star.
The "Mexican Spitfire" films were very successful upon their first release. Today it seems likely that they are only known to fans of classic film. The films certainly do have their flaws. Often one "Mexican Spitfire" movie differs very little from another. Gags are often repeated and the same sort of misunderstandings arise in each film. That having been said, there is much to recommend the "Mexican Spifire" movies. While they are hardly Noel Coward, they are pleasant films that can be very funny in much the same way that the concurrent "Blondie" movies are. Indeed, Lupe Vélez and Leon Errol made a great comedy team, the two playing off each other very well. While the "Mexican Spitfire" films are largely forgotten today, there is good reason that they should not be.