Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Mexican Spitfire Films

During the Golden Age of Hollywood it was not unusual for an actor to become identified with a role that he or she played in a series of films. While William Powell and Myrna Loy each did many other films, to this day many still think of Mr. Powell and Miss Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" films. While Penny Singleton appeared in a number of movies over her career, for many she remains Blondie Bumstead. Basil Rathbone played the villain in many a swashbuckler movie, yet Sherlock Holmes is still his best known role. Like many other actors Lupe Vélez also became forever identified with a role she played in a series of films. Namely, for many Lupe Vélez will always be Carmelita Lindsay (née Fuentes), better known as the Mexican Spitfire.

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.

Lupe Vélez had arrived in Hollywood during the Silent Era. She appeared in various Hal Roach comedy shorts before receiving her big break in Douglas Fairbanks' The Gaucho (1927). Miss Vélez followed The Gaucho with other successful films, including The Wolf Song (1929) and  East is West (1930). Having played dramas for several years, Lupe Vélez found her niche in comedy with the films The Half-Naked Truth (1933) and Hot Pepper (1933). In both films she played what could be considered prototypes for Carmelita in the "Mexican Spitfire" films: hot tempered Latinas who were blatantly sexy. It would be the sort of role for which Lupe Vélez would become known for the rest of her career. Indeed, both Hollywood and to some degree Miss Vélez herself cultivated that same image of the actress in real life. Lupe Vélez was known for being overly emotional, very open about sex, saying exactly what was on her mind,  and, of course, her temper. Miss Vélez often received more press for what she did in real life than she did her films. After RKO did not renew her contract in 1934 Miss Vélez spent a good deal of time on Broadway, appearing in such productions as Hot-Cha! (Florenz Ziegfeld's last musical), Strike Me Pink, and the Cole Porter musical You Never Know. She even returned to her native Mexico to make the film La Zandunga (1937).

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"
Mexican Spitfire set the tone for the rest of the series. To a large degree the film was a farce, and so too would be the "Mexican Spitfire" films that followed it. Much of the humour in the films emerged from misunderstandings, mistaken identities, double entendres, and so on. At the same time the "Mexican Spitfire" movies seem very reminiscent of the situation comedies of both radio and television. Indeed, the "Mexican Spitfire" films have been compared to the classic sitcom I Love Lucy on more than one occasion.  Carmelita and Uncle Matt were hatching schemes well before Lucy and Ethel ever appeared on the small screen. It was guaranteed that at some point in every film Uncle Matt would impersonate Lord Epping. Less often noted is that to a degree the "Mexican Spitfire" films resemble another classic sitcom, namely Bewitched. Just as Samantha often tries to help Darrin in winning accounts, so too does Carmelita try to help Dennis.

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.


Citizen Screen said...

Terrific post, Terry! I think I've only seen the first two installment of the Spitfire series and that was a very long time ago. I'm tempted to revisit, particularly the Haunted House entry this month as a Halloween treat. I love the background information you include as well as the comparisons to popular television shows.

Thanks so much for submitting this entry to the blogathon. A fantastic addition!


Hal said...

Great post, Terry; I have been working on a review of the series finale myself recently. Leon Errol and Lupe Velez were sensational working together; Mr. Errol remains to my eyes the most underrated comedy great of the 20th century.

At the time he passed away in 1951 he was still making RKO shorts and was in negotiations for a TV series. I think if Lupe Velez had lived, she would have been a television superstar in the 1950's as well. I could easily see the Spitfire film formula translating successfully.

bunnybuntales said...

I am a Lupe Velez fan and when is that biopic starring Ana de la Reguera ever going to be made? Anyway I've seen Lupe's silents and early 30s movies but never a Spitfire film and yes, despite not having seeing a Mexican Spitfire movie, I do identify her with them. lol

I agree with the above that Velez could have been a TV star. It would had been wonderful if she had still lived. She was already in her late 30s but would have been blossoming career wise into her 40s.

Silver Screenings said...

What's not to love about Carmelita? She practically ignites the screen with her personality and charisma.

I've only seen the first "Mexican Spitfire" film and became an immediate fan. That Lupe Velez sure knew how to give audiences their money's worth.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I have always loved Lupe Vélez. She is one of my favourite actresses from the Thirties and Forties. I also love Leon Errol. I have to agree with you, Hal. I think he was very underrated. He was definitely one of the funniest men around at the time. I have to agree. I think had Lupe not committed suicide and Leon had not had a heart attack, the Mexican Spitfire could have made for a very successful sitcom. Indeed, I think Lupe would have added something different from other 50's sitcoms. Most film actresses dimmed their glamour a bit for TV comedies (Lucy is a prefect example), but I can't see Lupe doing that. She would have come to television with her sex appeal in tact!

Christy's Tales of Adventure... said...

Excellent commentary about the career and life of Lupe Velez. I also think that she would eventually have made a successful transition to 50's sitcoms, Terence. Great post!


Too bad Lupe is remembered usually by her death (and the ridiculous account by Kenneth Anger).
You pointed a lot of things about the Mexican Spitfire series that I hadn't seen. Indeed, they were very modern in portraying interracial marraige and a woman with a career. Bravo, RKO!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)