Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Dolores del Rio

Episode Summary

Dolores del Rio (1904-1983) was a Mexican actress whose career spanned 50 years. She was one of the first Latin American actresses to successfully make it in Hollywood.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s leading lady was a Mexican actress whose career spanned 50 years. She was one of the first Latin American actresses to successfully make it in Hollywood. Let’s talk about Dolores del Rio. 

María de los Dolores Asúnsolo y López-Negrete was born in 1904 in Victoria de Durango, Mexico. She belonged to a family of aristocrats who lost their fortunes in the Mexican Revolution. Her family fled their hometown and eventually reunited in Mexico City. 

In 1919, Dolores was inspired to pursue a career in dance after seeing Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova perform. But Dolores felt unattractive compared to her peers. To encourage her, Dolores’ mother commissioned the famous artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez to paint her portrait. Dolores credited this painting with helping her recognize her own beauty.

In 1921, Dolores married Jaime Martinez del Rio y Viñent, whom she had met at a hospital benefit. By 1924, they’d lost their fortune, and Dolores suffered a miscarriage. She was informed that a future pregnancy would risk her life. 

In 1925, Dolores and Jaime met Edwin Carewe, an influential Native American filmmaker. Edwin was struck by Dolores’s musical talent and suggested that she return with him to Hollywood.

Dolores made her debut in Edwin’s 1925 silent film Joanna. Though she was billed as a “Spanish” actress, she fought to change the label to “Mexican” to reflect her true heritage. Dolores’ films attracted small and dedicated audiences.. Because of her ethnicity, Dolores was repeatedly cast to play Latin tropes. 

Dolores’ breakthrough came when she starred in the second-highest grossing film of 1926, a movie called What Price Glory. Then in 1928, she earned rave reviews in Ramona, which achieved greater popularity due to a title song that she sang.

Ramona came out just as films with sound were replacing silent ones. Dolores sang “Ramona” on the radio to prove that she was an actress fit for sound. She triumphed in her transition to “talkies”, but her personal life suffered.

In 1928, Dolores and Jaime separated. He died six months after she filed for divorce. As she grieved, Dolores also grappled with calculated harassment from Edwin as he attempted to control her career. Edwin wanted to marry Dolores, and even prepared his own divorce. When she canceled her contract with him, Edwin pressed criminal charges against her, which were settled out of court.

In 1930, Dolores married Cedric Gibbons—an MGM art director. During the 1930s, Dolores and Cedric were considered one of the most glamorous couples in Hollywood.  

Dolores earned critical acclaim for her performances in the films Flying Down to Rio and Madame Du Barry. In Flying Down to Rio, Dolores became the first major actress to wear a two piece swimsuit on camera. 

Cedric had power in the film industry and attempted to use it to get Dolores cast in lead roles for high-budget films. But even with his influence, Hollywood executives prioritized white American stars. Dolores was considered to be extremely beautiful with a classic, chiseled face. But her race was seen as alien and she was repeatedly given sexualized and highly exoticized roles. 

In 1940, Dolores met Orson Welles and had an affair, causing Dolores and Cedric to divorce. Orson became notorious with the release of Citizen Kane, and Dolores’ association with him caused her role to be drastically cut in the film Journey into Fear. 

In 1943 Dolores abandoned the glamour of Hollywood, and said that she wished to “Stop being a star and become an actress” which she felt she could only do in Mexico. She became a key figure in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema and starred in several Spanish language films, including Maria Candelaria, which was the first Mexican film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Occasionally, Dolores returned to Hollywood. In 1954, she was slated to star opposite Spencer Tracey in Broken Lance, when the U.S. government denied her permission to work in the United States. Dolores was close friends with outspoken Communists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and her association with them resulted in the accusation that she was “sympathetic to international communism.” 

Eventually, Dolores was given permission to work in Hollywood again, and in 1957 she was selected as the vice president of the Cannes Film Festival jury. She was the first woman to hold the position.

Later on in her life, Dolores dedicated her time to philanthropy. In 1960, she co-founded the Society for the Protection of the Artistic Treasures of Mexico, which served to preserve historic buildings and artwork. In the 1970s, Dolores helped found the union group, Rosa Mexicano, which provided childcare for members of the Mexican Actors Guild. 

In 1983, at the age of 78, Dolores died of liver failure. 

Dolores was always conscious of the power of artistic representation. She said, “I am eager to play in stories concerning my native people, the Mexican race. It is my dearest wish to make fans realize their real beauty, their wonder, their greatness as a people.” Dolores paved the way for women of color in Hollywood. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.