A star of both American and Mexican cinema, Dolores Del Rio was born Lolita Dolores Martinez Asunsolo y Lopez Negrette on August 3, 1905. She grew up in a wealthy family in Durango, Mexico. After being educated in a convent school, at 16 she married writer Jaime Del Rio.
A member of Mexico City’s high society, Dolores Del Rio met director Edwin Carewe at a tea party in 1925. Struck by her beauty, Carewe persuaded her to return to Hollywood with him. Del Rio appeared in Carewe’s Joanna (1925), the first of a dozen silent features she would make in the United States. Because of her dark features, she was most often cast as an ethnic or European beauty. She was a French girl in What Price Glory (1926), a Russian peasant in Resurrection (1927), and an American Indian maiden in Ramona (1928).
Del Rio was well established as a leading lady when the advent of sound pictures threatened her career. She knew little English and spoke with a heavy accent. Despite these obstacles, however, Del Rio remained a box-office draw. She made her first talkie, The Bad One, in 1930, the same year she married art director Cedric Gibbons. She and Gibbons lived extravagantly and were one of Hollywood’s most glamorous couples until their divorce in 1941.
Del Rio worked steadily throughout the 1930s, although she was typecast as the exotic love interest. Only her dignity helped her overcome the silliness of many of these roles. For instance, in director King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise (1932), she played a Polynesian princess who, as punishment for her love of a white man, threw herself into a volcano. Among Del Rio’s better roles was that of a Brazilian heiress in Flying Down to Rio (1933), in which she danced with a young Fred Astaire.
In 1942, Del Rio appeared in Journey Into Fear, irected by Orson Welles, with whom she had an intense romance. Unsatisfied with the parts she was offered, she then left Hollywood to carve out a new career in the growing Mexican movie industry. Del Rio quickly became Mexico’s leading actress, largely on the basis of two classic films— Maria Candelaria (1943) and Flor Silvestre (1943)—which paired her with director Emilio Fernandez. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Del Rio remained a star in Mexican film, while occasionally performing on stage in productions of classics such as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. In 1960, she married theater producer and director Lewis Riley.
Periodically, Del Rio appeared in American movies. Most notable were The Fugitive (1947) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), both directed by John Ford. She also played Elvis Presley’s Kiowa Indian mother in Flaming Star (1961). By the 1970s, Del Rio had largely left film behind, devoting herself instead to charity work. She made her last appearance in The Children of Sanchez in 1978. Five years later, she died on April 11, 1983, of hepatitis. Del Rio today seems remarkable for working more than 50 years in an industry traditionally unwelcoming to Hispanic women.
Hershfield, Joanne. The Invention of Dolores Del Rio. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Woll, Allen L. The Films of Dolores Del Rio. New York: Gordon Press, 1978.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1990.
Flying Down to Rio (1933). Turner Home Video, VHS, 2000.
Maria Candelaria (1943). Cobra Prodocciones, VHS, 1993.