Film: Lupe Velez

In honor of the 22nd Chicago Latino Film Festival, 2006

LUPE VELEZ

by Steve Starr

Lupe Velez was born Maria Guadalupe de Villalobos July 18, 1908, in the tiny Mexican town of San Luis de Potosi. That very day, the little village was devasted by a hurricane.

Lupe's father was a colonel in Porfirio Diaz's army. Growing up amid revolutions, the little girl acquired a taste for violence early on. At 13, the turbulent, pretty child was packed off to Our Lady of the Lake Convent School in San Antonio, Texas, which did little to stifle her rebellious nature. 

When she was 15, Lupe's father died, and she landed back with her family in Mexico City. There, she began working at the Nacional Department Store. Saving some of her $4 per week salary for dancing  lessons, Lupe turned over most of her pay to her poor family.

At 16, Velez made a theatrical debut at the Teatro Principal where she was spotted by a Mexican producer who was charmed by her vibrant personality and dancing ability, and hired her for his musical revue, Ra-Ta-Plan.

Lupe soon supplemented her income by appearing in short Mexican films and dancing in cheap burlesque houses. Mama Velez, a prostitute who Lupe later claimed was once a diva with the Mexico City Opera, sometimes sold her daughter for the evening to the highest bidder, often for thousands of pesos.

One day a family friend introduced Lupe to American matinee idol Richard Bennett, whose daughters Barbara, Constance and Joan became movie stars. Bennett invited Velez to appear in a play in Hollywood.

Arriving after many delays, Lupe was robbed of all her money the moment she stepped off the train. Finally, reaching the theatre, she was dismissed from the show for looking too young. Alone and broke, she found a part in a policeman's benefit show. There, Lupe was discovered by a producer who cast her in star Fanny Brice's Music Box Revue.

 Soon, Velez was hired by the Pathe' Studios for their "Bathing Beauty" comedies and made her debut in a comedy short titled What Men Did To Me(1927). She was 19 years old.

One day that year, a talent scout brought Lupe and her Chihuahua to meet powerful movie star Douglas Fairbanks in order to win a role in his elaborate new film, The Gaucho (1928), which was to be shot in black and white with some sequences in color.

At first, Fairbanks thought Lupe too languid for the vivacious part. During the interview, a stagehand "stole" her dog as a prank. When Velez, barely five feet tall, discovered this, she beat the man mercilessly. Impressed, Douglas hired Lupe and gave her a five-year contract at his studio, United Artists.

Lupe became a star seemingly overnight, and was highly praised for her comedic and singing talents, athleticism, and beauty. She interspersed her movie career with New York stage appearances which included Hot-Cha, Strike Me Pink, and Transatlantic Rhythm.

Velez's brief affair with Douglas Fairbanks accelerated the breakup of his famous union with Mary Pickford. Lupe's other affairs were legendary. Her men included Tom Mix, Clark Gable, Russ Columbo, John Gilbert, Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante, and Charlie Chaplin.

Velez's tempestuous liaison with Gary Cooper drove the tall, handsome, slim actor to lose 40 pounds and suffer a nervous breakdown. Their three-year relationship was marked by brawls and rages, yet they would have married, if not for the vehement disapproval of  Cooper's mother. Finally, when Gary was boarding the Twentieth Century train to Chicago, vengeful Lupe arrived, pulled a gun and shot several times at her lover, narrowly missing his head. Cooper dove into the car and Velez quickly stormed out of the station, swearing at her lack of marksmanship and escaping arrest.

On July 24, 1934, Lupe married handsome Olympic champion and Tarzan star Johnny Weismuller. Their union was ferocious, and famed for its public scenes. Johnny was the one who always ended up bruised, bitten, and beaten to a pulp during their five years together.

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