Monday, October 10, 2016

Raquel Welch: The Most Desired Woman Of the Seventies

If one were asked to name a sex symbol from the Sixties, it would very likely be Raquel Welch. If one were asked to name a sex symbol from the Forties, it might well be Rita Hayworth. Beyond both being major sex symbols of their eras, I have always thought the two women had a great deal in common. They both studied dance. Rita Hayworth was the daughter of dancers who took dance lessons from an early age. Raquel Welch studied ballet from age seven to seventeen. Both women became famous through lightweight feature films--Rita Hayworth in musicals, Raquel Welch in genre films. Both women were popular pinups in their respective eras. Among the greatest similarity between the two women is the fact that both Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch are Latinas, but the general public did not realise it when they were at the height of their fame.

Raquel Welch was born Jo-Raquel Tejada on September 5 1940 in Chicago. Her father was an aeronautical engineer originally from  La Paz, Bolivia. Her mother was the daughter of architect Emery Stanford Hall, whose ancestry traced back to England (his family had arrived in North America on the Mayflower). Her parents moved to California, where they later divorced. Young Raquel took an interest in the performing arts from early on. As mentioned above, as a young girl she studied ballet. She studied acting at San Diego State College and was only 19 when she played the lead role in the Ramona Pageant, the annual outdoor play based on the novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson held in Helmet, California. She married James Welch, her high school sweetheart in 1959. The two would be divorced in 1964.

Before she became famous Raquel Welch worked as a weather girl for KFMB in San Diego and later moved to Dallas where she was a model for Neiman Marcus and a cocktail waitress. She moved back to Los Angeles in 1963 where she met Patrick Curtis, who had played Melanie's baby in Gone With the Wind (1939). Mr. Curtis became her manager and it was he who suggested that she use her married name, Welch, rather than her given name, Tejada, to avoid typecasting as a Latina. Together the two of them decided to make Raquel Welch a sex symbol.

Miss Welch tried out for the role of Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, but failed to get the part. She made her feature film debut in a bit part in A House Is Not a Home in 1964 and made her television debut in a bit part in the TV series The Virginian that same year. She had slightly more substantial guest roles on the TV shows McHale's Navy, Bewitched, and The Rogues, and a bit part in the movie Roustabout (1964). The year 1965 saw Raquel Welch have more substantial roles. She had a major role in the movie A Swingin' Summer, as well as guest appearances on Wendy and Me and The Baileys of Balboa. For the 1964-1965 season she was the "Billboard Girl" on the variety show Hollywood Palace.

Eventually Miss Welch came to the attention of producer Saul David's wife. It was Saul David who brought her to the attention of 20th Century Fox, who signed her to a seven year contract. Miss Welch was then cast in the lead female role in the science fiction film Fantastic Voyage (1966). Arguably, it was Fantastic Voyage that turned her into a star, but it would be another film that would turn her into a sex symbol. 20th Century Fox loaned Miss Welch to Hammer Films for their caveman fantasy One Million Years B.C. (1966).  As part of the promotion for the film, Raquel Welch was prominently featured in posters and promotional art in what can only be described as a deerskin bikini. Not only did One Million Years B.C. see a good deal of success, but Miss Welch was soon the most popular pinup of the year.

Raquel Welch appeared in two Italian films, Spara forte, più forte... non capisco (1966) and Le fate (1966), as well as a French film, Le plus vieux métier du mond (1967), before appearing in her first lead role in a film. Fathom (1967) was one of many spy comedies released in the mid-Sixties to capitalise on the spy craze. It starred Raquel Welch as Fathom Harvill, a skydiver who gets involved in espionage. Unfortunately the film opened to negative reviews and poor box office. Sadly, Fathom would be a sign of things to come in Raquel Welch's career in the late Sixties. She appeared either as the secondary lead or in supporting roles in the films Bedazzled (1967), The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968), Bandolero! (1968),. Lady in Cement (1968), and 100 Rifles (1969).  While some of those films did quite well, it seemed that when Miss Welch played the lead the results would be less than impressive. Flareup (1969) received unenthusiastic reviews and did poorly at the box office. Myra Breckinridge (1970) not only bombed at the box office, but is counted by many among the worst films of all time.

While Raquel Welch sometimes fared poorly in movies in the Sixties, she fared somewhat better on television. In 1967 she guest starred on The Hollywood Palace, the variety show on which she had the Billboard Girl only a few years before. She also guest starred on The Dean Martin Show and two Bob Hope specials. In 1970 she starred in her own television special, Raquel!. The special did extraordinarily well in the ratings.

The Sixties saw Raquel Welch appear in films that are now considered classics in their genre. Fantastic Voyage, Bedazzled, Bandolero, and  One Million Years B.C. still have many fans. Unfortunately films like Fathom and Flareup would more resemble the films she made in the early Seventies. The Beloved (1971), Hannie Caulder (1971), and Kansas City Bomber (1972) received over all poor reviews. That having been said, Hannie Caulder and Kansas City Bomber were moderate successes at the box office. It was in 1973 that Raquel Welch's luck with films truly began to change. She was part of the ensemble cast of The Last of Sheila. The film received positive reviews, although it did poorly at the box office. She followed The Last of Sheila with two films that not only received positive reviews, but proved to be hits at the box office. She played Constance de Bonacieux in both The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge (1974), both directed by Richard Lester. Mr. Lester also directed Crossed Swords, also known as The Prince and the Pauper (1977). While Crossed Swords received positive reviews, it did not do very well at the box office. The opposite was true of Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976), which did very well at the box office, but was not particularly successful with critics. L'Animal (1977) was a French film that was not released in the U.S. at the time, although it is somewhat respected now. The Wild Party (1975)  received poor reviews and disappeared from theatres swiftly.

As in the Sixties, in many ways Raquel Welch fared better on television than she did in movies. She appeared in two more specials, Really Raquel and From Raquel with Love. She also guest starred on The Muppet Show and Mork & Mindy, and hosted Saturday Night Live as well.

Unfortunately Raquel Welch's film career would come to a screeching halt in the Eighties. She was fired from Cannery Row (1982) after only a few days filming. Miss Welch sued MGM for breach of contract and ultimately won a settlement of $15 million. Sadly the whole ordeal would get Miss Welch labelled as being "difficult", so that she would be off the big screen for the entirety of the Eighties.

While Raquel Welch did not appear in any feature films in the Eighties, that did not mean she wasn't busy. She appeared in four TV movies throughout the decade: The Legend of Walks Far Woman (1982), Right to Die (1987), Scandal in a Small Town (1988), and Trouble in Paradise (1989).  She also took over Lauren Bacall's role in Woman of the Year on Broadway.

The Nineties saw Raquel Welch make guest appearances on the shows Evening Shade, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Seinfeld, and Spin City. She was a regular on the night time soap opera Central Park West. She appeared in the films Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994), Chairman of the Board (1998), and Folle d'elle (1998). She appeared on Broadway in the title in Victor / Victoria.

In the Naughts Raquel Welch played the role of Aunt Dora on the drama American Family. She was also a regular on the short lived sitcom Welcome to the Captain. She guest starred on 8 Simple Rules. She appeared in the films Tortilla Soup (2001), Legally Blonde (2001), and Forget About It (2006). Since then she has appeared in the TV movies House of Versace (2013) and The Ultimate Legacy (2015), and guest starred on CSI: Miami.

As I mentioned above, I do think Raquel Welch has a lot in common with Rita Hayworth. One thing I did not mention is that both were consistently underestimated during their careers. I don't think either was ever really given credit as good actresses. In an interview with Jeannette Smyth of The Washington Post, Miss Welch said that she thought she had been good in some of the bad movies she had made, "...but being good in a bad movie doesn't do anything for your career." I certainly have to agree with her on that. Even in movies such as Kansas City Bomber Miss Welch delivered good performances. It is a sad fact of her career that she was too often given too little to work with. When she was given good material, such as the three films she made with Richard Lester (The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and Crossed Swords) and the TV series American Family, she absolutely shined.

For much of her career Raquel Welch did not play Latinas, but it is too her credit that when she did they were never stereotypes. This was true of Hortensia in Tortilla Soup and particularly true of Aunt Dora on American Family. In HBO's animated series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child she played La Madrastra ("the Stepmother") on a Latin version of "Cinderella".

Of course, much of the reason for Raquel Welch's lasting popularity is that she was revolutionary as a sex symbol. Many of the sex symbols that preceded her in the 20th Century tended to cling to traditional female roles and were careful not to be too overt in their sexuality.  The characters played by Raquel Welch were strong and independent, and could generally handle themselves in any situation. And unlike some of the sex symbols who had preceded her, her image was openly sexual. There was nothing coy or submissive about Raquel Welch's image. She more resembled sex symbols of the Silent and Pre-Code Era, than the blonde bombshells of the Fifties.

While Raquel Welch has given good performances throughout her career, it seems likely she will be always remembered most for being a sex symbol. This is one more thing that she shares in common with Rita Hayworth. Indeed, while Rita Hayworth was one of the top pinups of the Forties, Playboy would name Raquel Welch "the Most Desired Woman of the Decade" during the Seventies. That having been said, she is also an actress, one who gave memorable performances in The Last of Sheila, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, Right to Die, American Family, and yet other films and TV shows. In her TV specials she proved to have some talent for dancing and singing. Raquel Welch will always be remembered as one of the most popular sex symbols of all time, but she has always been something more than that.

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