Dolores del Rio

The first Mexican born Hollywood star

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Maria de los Dolores Asunsolo Lopez Negrete was born on August 3, 1904 in Mexico. Her family was actually really rich, with her mother’s lineage going back to Spain and the viceregal nobility. Her parents were members of the Mexican artistocracy that existed during this time (which was during dictator Porfirio Diaz’s reign). She had many notable family relations – the most high-profile was her cousin Ramon Navarro, who was a sough-after „latin Lover“ in silent cinema. 


Her life in Mexico

Her family basically lost everything during the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920 and fearing for their lives, they fled their region – the father fled to the US, Dolores and her mother to Mexico City. They actually reunited there when Francisco I. Madero became president – he was a cousin of Dolores mother. 

As with many silent movie stars, Dolores developed a love for ballet and dance early – she saw Russian dancer Ana Pavlova and also Anionia Mercy, called „La Argentina“. She took dance lessons with a renown teacher and artist and aged 17 she was invited to dance for a hospital benefit. There she got to know Jaime, Martinez del Rio y Vincent, son of a wealthy family – two months later they got married. Afterwards they honeymooned for approximately two years, traveling throughout Europe. Back in Mexico, Jaime decided to become a cotton farmer, but the cotton crises took all their wealth. Moreover, Dolores lost the child she was pregnant with to severe complications that would later result in her not being able to have children. 

It was pure coincidence that Adolfo Best Maugard, a close friend of Dolores and her husband, visited the two with American filmmakers Edwin Carewe. The latter was so impressed with Dolores that he invited her to Hollywood. He wanted to make her „The female equivalent of Rudolph Valentino.“

Hollywood Calling

At age 21, Dolores arrived in Hollywood together with her husband, against Mexican social norms and against the wishes of their respective families. Carewe shortened her name to her screen persona Dolores del Rio and became her agent, manager, producer and director. 

Carewe was a very good sales person and published stories in the major Hollywood magazines that read: “Dolores Del Rio, the heiress and First Lady of the High Mexican Society, has come to Hollywood with a cargo of shawls and combs valued at $ 50,000 (is said to be the richest girl in her country thanks to the fortune of her husband and her parents). She will debut in the film Joanna, led by her discoverer Edwin Carewe.“

Initially, Del Rio acted only in supporting roles, her first starring role was in the now lost movie „Pals First from 1926. She got steadily bigger parts and made remarkable progress. So much so that she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926 – along other newcomers like Joan Crawford, Mary Astor and Janet Gaynor. 

Demand for Del Rio was big and she was hired together with Carewe to United Artists, starring in several high-profile and financially successful movies. In 1928, Hollywood was very much concerned with the effect of sound for television. So, United Artists brought together Mary Pickford (who was a founder of United Artists), Douglas Fairbanks (husband of Mary Pickford), Dolores Del Rio, Charles Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore and D.W. Griffith in Mary Pickford’s bungalow to speak on a radio show – thus proving that they are fit for talkies, Del Rio actually sang live proving her skills. 

Her discoverer, manager and director Edwin Carewe wanted to marry Del Rio, especially once she was divorced from her husband Jaime. He placed rumors about the intended marriage when campaigning for new movies and harassing her. United Artists convinced Dolores to sever all ties with him, which she did. He campaigned against her, but they reached a settlement and her first talkie, The Bad One, which she filmed freed from Carewe was a huge hit, showing that she was a hit in the new medium.

When her contract with United Artists ended because of a severe kidney illness that required an extensive bed rest for Del Rio, she signed with RKO exclusively. Their formula for Del Rio movies: exotic scenery, little clothes, lots of Dolores. And that actually paid off. The contract was not renewed though because of the uncertain economic situation. So, Warner Bros. came up and offered her a two-movie deal. The first was a musical comedy along side Kay Francis under the choreography of Busby Berkeley and the second one was Madame du Barry the same year. Just as Theda Bara and Pola Negri, Del Rio loved the role and the production was exquisite. Her dresses were designed by Orry Kelly and proved to be absolutely divine.

Nevertheless, her movies started to fail at the box office and she started to focus more on advertising than on movies – becoming the face of such brands like „Lucky Star“ and „Max Factor“. 

The studios never saw much potential in Latin stars and did not do much to push their careers. Eventually, Dolores del Rio was also put on the list of stars appearing in the infamous „Box Office Poison Ad“.  

Personal Life

After her marriage to Jaime, Dolores got to know Cedric Gibbons, art director at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and one of the most influential men in Hollywood, at a party of William Randolph Hearst. They married the same year. Gibbons actually tried to help her in her career when her movies started to fail, but MGM was focusing on its roster of stars including Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. The same year that she was officially placed on the Box Office Poison list, she met actor Orson Welles and fell in love with him. They started an affair which eventually led to the divorce from husband Cedric Gibbons after 11 years. 

Orson Welles famously created Citizen Kane, which is only a thinly if at all veiled portrait of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst actually wielded great influence in Hollywood and probably might have had his hand in cutting film offers for Dolores del Rio, the partner of his arch-enemy, short. But – Orson Welles travelled to South America and behaved their very promiscuously  and Del Rio upon hearing it, ended the relationship. Apparently, Orson Welles never really got over her though. He married later the star that would be dubbed the „New Dolores del Rio of Hollywood“ – Rita Hayworth.

Shortly after, her father died. 

So – her career was at an all-time low, her lover had betrayed her and her father had died. She was a such a low point that she decided to just start over. She left Hollywood and went back to Mexico, her home country. 

In 1949, del Rio met Lewis A. Riley, an American millionaire, in Acapulco. Riley had been known as a lover of Bette Davis before when he was a member of the Hollywood Canteen. They started dating and married after ten years in New York. They stayed together until Del Rio’s death in 1983. 

Mexican Cinema Fame

Dolores del Rio had been courted by Mexican filmmakers for many years – now was the time to start filming. Her Mexican film career started with Mexican film maker Emilio „El Indio“ Fernandez and proved to be hugely successful. Her movies were box office hits and she established herself in the Spanish-speaking Mexican film scene as an A-lister. One of their movies, Maria Candelaria, would even go on to win at the Cannes International Film Festival – the first Latin American film to do so. 

But, things were a bit more complicated than they seemed. Fernandez had fallen in love with del Rio who had no intention of entering into a relationship with them. So, filming became excruciating for everybody involved – Fernandez showing mood swings, del Rio threatening to quit filming and the rest of the team had to try to hold it together. They actually stopped filming together.

Del Rio made many more movies with notable Mexican film directors who would garner great reviews. She even made a movie with director John Ford and co-star Henry Fonda set in Mexico. For the Americans that was further proof that she entertained and helped Communist projects. At that time, the fear of communism and the ban of communist or those believed to be communists from Hollywood was very much at its height. Subsequently, del Rio was refused a working permit for a movie with Spencer Tracy and Hollywood.

A very significant incident happened with the first lady of Argentina, Evita Peron, while del Rio was filming in Bueons Aires. Peron wanted to meet the actress, who had to decline of her rigorous filming schedule. The solution: The next day the government ordered the film industry to shut down completely for one day – so that Evita Peron could have tea with Dolores del Rio. 

Theatre and Retun to Hollywood

When her situation in the US was remedied and she was granted access to the US once again, Dolores took another approach and tried her hands at acting on stage with the help of famous acting coach Stella Adler. Her theatre debut was successful and she continued her love for theatre acting in Mexico, where she and her husband founded their own production company. 

After 18 years she finally returned to Hollywood – in a movie with none other than Elvis Presley, playing his mother in Flaming Star in 1960, when Dolores was 56 years old. She had several TV and movie roles until she made her last appearance 1970, 66 years of age, in an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D.

Cultural influence

  • Dolores del Rio is regarded as the first Mexican actress who became a Hollywood star 
  • She has been invited to act as vice president of the jury at Cannes Film Festival – being the first woman to ever sit on the jury – in 1957
  • She was a main promoter for the Mexican arts and cultures. Some of her contributions include: promoting the Acapulco International Film Review, co-founding the Society for the Protection of the Artistic Treasures of Mexico, co-founding „Rosa Mexicano“, a day nursery for the children of members of the Mexican Actor’s Guild and raising funds for it. 
  • Her beauty was absolutely legendary – she was voted „the most perfect female figure“ in Photoplay in 1933. She helped define what glamour would actually mean in Hollywood and Josef von Sternberg credits her as well as Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard and Rita Hayworth with helping create the glamour in Hollywood. 
  • She was a popular subject for artists and painters. Her face with perfect facial bone structure, smooth dark skin and slanted eyes were just too mesmerizing. Also, a lot of books, statues and poems have been inspired by her. In her hometown of Durango, a street is named after her. In 1995, John Galliano created a tribute collection called Dolores
  • And, after she had died, actor Vincent Price signed his autographs as “Dolores del Río”. When asked why, the actor replied: “I promised Dolores on her deathbed that I would not let people forget about her.”

With all my love!




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