by Henry Jenkins

"In a church, I am a saint. In a public place, I am a lady. In my own home, I am a devil....My house is where I can do as I please, scream and yell and dance and fall on the floor if I like. I am myself when I am in my home." — Lupe Velez

The following is one of the many stories Hollywood told about Lupe Velez. This version appeared in New Movie in 1932 and begins when Lupe is 12 years old:

Even at that tender age, Lupe had sex appeal and no race is as quick to recognize this quality as the Mexican. The house was surrounded by boys of all ages, who whistled in various keys. For Lupe those young swains were simply a means to an end. She had an absorbing curiosity about motion picture stars and she discovered, young as she was, that her kisses were marketable. She would bestow a chaste salute on a masculine cheek in exchange for a picture of a star or a colored ribbon to wind in her dark braids. Thus, men became to her tools to gain the things she wanted, and the house was besieged with them. Her more placid sister, Josephine, carried notes between Lupe and the boys, and Lupe's keen little ears soon learned the different whistles of the young lovers.

This remarkable story links together the origins of Lupe's transgressive female sexuality (her willingness to use men as "tools" for her own ends) with the origins of her desire for film stardom. Lupe, the young Mexican girl, desires glamour photographs of Hollywood stars and is willing to trade her sexual favors to get them, to exchange bronze flesh for glistening celluloid.

Underlying this story is a perverse suggestion of child sexuality. Another variant on the story places its starting date even earlier, claiming that Lupe seduced her first lover at the age seven, offering "all of my best kisses" for "the boy who could get me the most pictures of the women who play in the movies" but she was quick to add, in her characteristically broken English, "That is all I have ever sell is my kisses. And kisses — bah, what do kisses matter." That such a denial was thought necessary tells us something of the rumors which dogged Velez throughout her career.

The specter of prostitution surrounded Lupe Velez, often surfacing in more blunt and explicit terms, as in Budd Schulberg's Moving Pictures: "Lupe's mother had been a walker of the streets....Lupe herself had made her theatrical debut in the raunchy burlesque houses of the city. Stagedoor Juanitos panted for her favors and Mama Velez would sell her for the evening to the highest bidder. Her price soared to thousands of pesos." Schulberg's memoirs makes explicit something that the Hollywood press of the 1930s only hinted — that Lupe Velez was a woman who sold her body for money — though the Schulberg version is suggestive in the ways that it strips Lupe of both responsibility for and authority over these transactions. Lupe's mother becomes both whore and pimp in this narrative, while Velez becomes the "goods" for trade.

More often, Lupe is characterized as a woman who knows how to use her body to get what she wants. One fan magazine writer rhapsodizes: "I have never seen a body so completely under control. I haven't asked Lupe to wiggle her ears but everything else she can move at will." The Hollywood press consistently portrayed Velez as a woman who took great pleasure in her body. Her promiscuity became part of the way her stardom was packaged and promoted. Lupe was quoted as saying, "I do not like to see any one mans too often. The same face over and over. Pretty soon his nose comes to look like the nose of a dog to Lupe." Velez often flaunted her disregard for public opinion and conventional morality, asserting that "people like to talk and I want to give them something to talk about."

If Velez is remembered today, it is not through her on-screen performances (since her career was characterized by marginal roles in major films and major roles in B-movie programmers) but because of the scandal that surrounded her life and death. She gave people "something to talk about" decades after her last film disappeared into obscurity. Kenneth Anger devotes an entire chapter to Velez in his underground classic, Hollywood Babylon, referring to her in the book's typically purple prose as "the gyrating cunt-flashing Hollywood party girl." Reversing the terms of the prostitution rumors, Anger hints that Lupe, in her "later years" (i.e. at 35), was reduced to buying sexual favors from "professional older-dame pleasers, studs on the take whose gig was gigolo." The only biography of her currently in print is entitled Lupe Velez and Her Lovers and manages to link her romantically and sexually with a who's who of Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, everyone from Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn to Red Skelton, from Johnny Weissmuller to black boxing champ Jack Johnson. Risky encounters with Lupe Velez are a stock element in star biographies and autobiographies, including Edgar G. Robinson's description of playing opposite her in Where East Is East: "Sex was her game and she played it on stage and off the stage. I could deal with the rubbing and roving hands...But I managed to elude her. Because she was a hot tomato and I was not a rock, it was not easy." Velez was even more blunt in her assessment of the sexual prowess of her leading men, suggesting that Gary Cooper "has the biggest organ in Hollywood but not the ass to push it in well." To understand Velez's screen persona, we must, I am afraid, wallow pretty deeply in the muck of Hollywood scandal, though what this paper hopes to address is why those scandals surrounded her and how they relate to the broader tradition of "unruly women" in Hollywood comedy. Some of what we are going to talk about is tasteless, but then, taste is precisely the issue which is worth exploring here.

In her own time, Velez became famous for her spectacular staging of her own flamboyant personality, with writers finding it difficult to separate her on-screen comic performances from her histrionic activities at Hollywood parties. She was sometimes accused of performing herself badly, of becoming a failed version of her own press copy. More often, she was praised for simply being herself, "simply Lupe." Velez was, from the start, surrounded by a culture of scandal, which seems to have been actively constructed by the studio system to add allure and interest to her vehicles, and the scandals seem to have been restaged, often literally and explicitly, as slapstick in films, such as The Half-Naked Truth, Hollywood Party, and The Mexican Spitfire. Read in that way, Velez would seem to be a prototype for contemporary female stars, from Madonna to Annie Sprinkles, who have proclaimed their pleasure in their body and their sexual liberation — a pro-sex activist before her time, doomed to suffer the rejection of a more puritanical age. Velez seems a particularly vivid enactment of the myth of the "unruly woman" which Katherine Rowe finds at the heart of female comic performance, a woman who, in Mary Russo's suggestive terms, wants to "make a spectacle of herself," rather than allow the Hollywood system to manufacture her as an erotic spectacle for the male gaze.

Cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis first introduced the concept of the "woman on top" to considerations of comic representation of gender relations, and her work has been foundational for subsequent accounts of this figure. Its influence can be traced from ancient representations of Phyllis riding Aristotle or terra cotta statues of ancient hags, through such Early Modern figures as the Wife of Bath and Shakespeare's Katrina in Taming of the Shrew, through to contemporary comic stars, such as Roseanne Barr. Davis tells us, "The female sex was thought the disorderly one par excellence in early modern Europe....As every physician knew in the sixteenth century, the female was composed of cold and wet humors (the male was hot and dry) and coldness and wetness meant a changeable, deceptive, and tricky temperament. Her womb was like a hungry animal; when not amply fed by sexual intercourse or reproduction, it was likely to wander about her body, overpowering her speech and senses....The lower ruled the higher within the woman, then, and if she were given her way, she would want to rule over those above her outside." As described by Natalie Zemon Davis, the "woman on top" is sometimes conceptualized as a virago, who possesses an uncontrollable temperament which leads her to berate and nag men, and sometimes as sexually insatiable and promiscuous, though the concept of the "wandering womb" bridged the two.

Velez manages to be figured both as a violent shrew and as a slut, becoming simultaneously an object of male dread and male desire, a woman of fearful and unpredictable disposition and a woman of insatiable sexual appetites. As one movie magazine profile explained, "Lupe's antics have been the despair and joy of Hollywood for a long time. Those who seek to win her affections in private life find the courtship a hazardous business, for it is impossible to tell when Lupe, the doe-like maiden, may become Lupe, the angry miniature cyclone. It is said that no male, with the possible exception of Gary Cooper, has ever quite recovered from one of her rampages." Anger offers a vivid description of the hazards of loving Lupe through this description of her relations with Johnny Weismuller: "The love-hate madness of their intense passion often left Lupe marks on Weissmuller's godlike torso, strawberry hickeys on that Thor throat, annular bites on his perfect pecks, eloquent scratches on his ivory back." Lupe, we are told, made love like an animal, was given to frequent jealous rages, and just as often felt an uncontrollable urge to seduce other men. She comes close to the image of the "wandering womb" when she discusses her flirtatious impulses: "Whenever I see a man, there is something in here which must make me winkle my eyes at him. I cannot help myself anymore than you can help yourself from breathing. Sometimes I say I will never flirt again. I sit around. I grow sick. When I cannot flirt with some mens, I get a fever."

Unlike other contemporary female clowns, such as Winnie Lightner or Charlotte Greenwood, Velez did not position herself as a spectacle of "failed femininity," nor did she construct her image as grotesque, graceless and gawky. Rather, she flaunted her sexual attractiveness as central to her comic persona. She was rendered funny because of an excess of sexual energy, not because of a lack of physical attractiveness. Unlike other sexually-charged comic performers, such as Mae West, who foregrounded the process of "feminine masquerade" as a central aspect of their comedy, Velez sought little ironic distance. Velez could never be described as a female "drag queen," as West has been. Instead, her on-screen persona was a "natural" extension of her "spontaneous" and uninhibited off-screen personality. Her sometimes lover, Gary Cooper, described Velez as "as elusive as quicksilver....She flashed, stormed, and sparked, and on the set she was apt to throw things if she thought it would do any good. But she objected to being called wild,. She'd say, ‘I am not wild! I am just Lupe!'"

Recent feminist criticism has done a wonderful service in rescuing female comic stars and texts from obscurity and in acknowledging that comedy may be a powerful vehicle for expressing feminine opposition to gender stereotypes, for challenging the conventional construction of women's desires and sexuality, and for promoting a more active and empowered vision of femininity that can not easily be contained within the domestic sphere. Rowe, for example, speaks of comic representations of "unruly women" as allowing women to become "subjects of a laughter that expresses anger, resistance, solidarity and joy." Such work has made comedy as central to the development of contemporary feminist cultural theory as melodrama had proven for an earlier generation. However, it is possible to over-state the case for female comic resistance, especially when gender and sexual identities are understood in isolation from racial identities, an issue which is only starting to get the critical attention it needs. As Davis notes, the "woman on top" was always an ambivalent figure, reconfirming stereotypes even as it questioned them, allowing for female agency but at the cost of rendering it laughable, allowing women to speak while designating what they said meaningless. The question always becomes who's laughing now and why.

The reintroduction of race into this discussion further complicates any easy ideological reading of the "unruly woman" as a trope of screen comedy. Reassessing her own earlier work, Pamela Robinson stresses the way Mae West's campy and transgressive performances depend upon her ability to claim "authenticity" through her appropriations from black culture, while denying her black co-stars the right to speak up or act up to the same degree. West shines, in Robinson's account, because she has darkened the other women around her. Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Nose poses another challenge to what he sees as a postmodern celebration of the fluid identities in early sound comedy. Rogin rejects the idea that the layering of racial identities in the performances of Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice or Hugh Herbert might be read as a breaking down of racial and cultural stereotypes. Rogin reminds us that not all performers enjoyed this same freedom to play with — or escape from — their fixed identities, suggesting that blacks wearing black-face were reduced to racial stereotypes, even as Jews wearing black-face might claim a space for themselves within the American mainstream. Thus, the ability to flirt with "darkness" was a freedom enjoyed only by those who could maintain a strong claim on whiteness.

Race operates in a somewhat different way in relation to Lupe Velez, the "Mexican Spitfire," who was constantly linked through star discourse to her "south of the border" origins. Velez enjoyed tremendous freedom to transgress the sexual and gender norms of American culture, precisely because her transgressions could be ascribed to particular racist myths of a "primitive," violent, "untamed,"and unpredictable Mexican character. Consider, for example, how one movie magazine profile dealt with the issue of her cursing: "As most of her so-called profanity is translated literally from the Spanish, where Dios and other sacred words are tossed lightly about, it doesn't seem to mean much." What might have been read as a refusal to conform to social expectations was instead repositioned as a natural consequence of her racial otherness. In the 1930s, white women didn't curse, but Mexican women, apparently, did, but "it doesn't seem to mean much" because her cursing itself conform to norms within her native culture. Despite, or perhaps even because of, persistent themes and images of inter-racial romance in Velez's screen vehicles, Lupe was constructed — on screen and off --as "non-white."

Velez's status as "non-white" is particularly complex because, as Richard Dyer notes, whiteness has often ambiguous borders: whiteness "creates a category of maybe, sometimes whites, people who may be let into whiteness under particular historical circumstances. The Irish, Mexicans, Jews and people of mixed race provide striking instances: often excluded, sometimes indeed being assimilated into the category of whiteness, and at others treated as a ‘buffer' between the white and the black or indigenous." One early profile of Velez positions her alongside Myrna Loy, who is characterized as "the screen's foremost oriental siren," as two "misbehaving ladies." Once she achieved stardom, Loy's yellow-face make-up quickly washed off, but Lupe couldn't scrub the brown-face from her skin. Dolores Del Rio, the Mexican actress who was Velez's contemporary, was able to move from exotic roles which were heavily coded in terms of her race, towards acceptance in racially-neutral roles as a romantic leading lady, in effect, becoming "white" on screen. Despite the fact that she was often compared to Del Rio early in her career, Velez remained trapped on the other side of the color barrier and as a consequence, remained more a comic than a romantic star. To understand the "scandal" surrounding Lupe Velez, then, we need to consider not only how she "transgresses" gender norms but also how she conformed to racial stereotypes, not only how she "refuses" to "act like a lady" but also how, as a "nonwhite woman," she was excluded from being considered a "lady." My goal in this essay is to consistently read her "Mexican Spitfire" persona both in relation to gender and in relation to race, and in so doing, to suggest the ways that the freedom enjoyed by some other female comic stars was linked to certain forms of "white privilege." In previous times, talking about race was a way of leaving whiteness invisible and colorless; more recent critical studies of race, however, have used the examination of other races as a filter to shed light on the social construction of whiteness.


In his classic essay, "The Face of Garbo," Roland Barthes examines the fascination and allure of Hollywood glamour photography. Garbo's face, he suggests, becomes the "absolute mask," less a real human face than "an archetype of the human face," which is "offered to one's gaze as a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature." Barthes emphasizes the ways that the conventions of the glamour photograph produce an unattainable beauty, making her physical features visible but at the same time, positioning her on a level which the audience could never reach. The glamour photograph is an abstraction, a perfecting of the human form, at the cost of removing it from the realm of human experience. The glamour photograph involves an erasure of the corporeal body, even as it makes the physical surfaces of the body glowingly visible. The female body is, as the language of the period suggested, "glorified," becoming soft, shining, flesh, which seemingly lacks an interior, which is streamlined and polished to perfection. In more contemporary glamour photographs, the body is erased even when it is fully exposed. 1970s screen star Margot Kidder poked fun at the airbrushing of her nude body to make it more glamourous in some portraits taken early in her career, claiming "I should have let him take pictures of my pubic hair so it looked as if it smelled of sex, not FDS!" It is precisely this sanitization of the body, the transformation of genitals into "angel floss," to use another of Kidder's memorable phrases, which makes the Hollywood standards of beauty so devastating for those who aspire to but can not match them.

A dramatically different image of many of these same stars emerged in the so-called Tijuana Bibles, cheaply reproduced sex comics, often depicting the exploits of Hollywood actors and actresses, which circulated in great numbers in the 1930s and 1940s. Historian Robert Gluckson estimates that in 1939 alone, over 300 different titles were produced and marketed as an underground literature existing in the shadows of the Hollywood entertainment system. According to R.C. Harvey, who has pulled together and republished several collections of these truly tasteless works, "the little booklets were drawn in attics, printed in garages on cantankerous machinery, and distributed surreptitiously from the back pockets of shady vendors in alleyways and in dimly lit rooms. Since the traffic was wholly underground, no one was likely to keep records." At a typical eight pages in length, the Tijuana Bibles offered little more than raw sex, sometimes between two screen stars (such as William Powell and Myrna Loy, or Errol Flynn and Maureen O'Hara), more often between a beautiful leading lady and some nameless schlub who can satisfy her desires far more fully than the Hollywood glamour boys. For example, in "Hot Panties," Ginger Rogers expresses her boredom with "these so called men here in Hollywood" and takes to the road, where she finds satisfaction through making love with a bell boy who stumbles upon her naked gropings with a dildo. In "Bigger Yet," Claudette Colbert has a go at the boy who delivers her groceries (who is drawn remarkably like Joe E. Brown), after she expresses a desire to discover the relationship between the size of a man's mouth and the size of his organ. Nothing is sacred in this realm, so we get to see Popeye and Whimpy take turns on Olive Oyl, Snow White have a tumble with Dopey, and Batman and Robin giving each other head while complaining that they really need to have a Batgirl for their comicbooks. Tijuana Bibles strip Hollywood's screen goddesses not only of their clothes but also of the aura of glamour, making us forcefully aware of the bodies underneath. Hollywood becomes a "pornocopia" where erotic desire is everything and must be satisfied at all costs. Sex is sloppy business in this realm, with saliva and sperm drawn dripping, spurting, and flying from every slurping orifice, yet there is nothing grotesque about the depiction of the female bodies — no sagging breasts, no bulging thighs — which are still depicted as erotically desirable. What has changed is not the conception of beauty but the relationship of that physical attractiveness to the spectator. What was once unreachably high has been brought low and within reach; what was once disembodied has been restored as all body; what was rendered invisible within the conventions of the Hollywood glamour photograph has been visualized in anatomically correct detail in the Tijuana comics.

As their name suggests, the Tijuana comics occupy a space "south of the border" or "below the belt" from Hollywood, reflecting the ways that, as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have suggested, cultural categories, bodily categories, and geographic categories get mapped onto each other. For many in southern California, Tijuana was closely associated with the availability of cheap and unpoliced prostitution, offering what Anglos could not obtain so readily closer to home. The concept of the Tijuana Bible frames Mexico as the carnivalesque and grotesque alternative to Hollywood, with Tijuana understood here less as physical space than as a cultural mode or better yet, a state of erotic frenzy.

The contrast between the Hollywood glamour photograph and the Tijuana Bible, between Garbo's face and Ginger's "lips" would seem to closely parallel the distinction which Mikhail Bakhtin has made between classical and grotesque conceptions of the body. The glamour photograph performs many of the same formal operations which rendered the classical body "isolated, alone, fenced off from all other bodies." In Bakhtin's words, "All signs of its unfinished character, of its growth and proliferation were eliminated; its protuberances and offshoots were removed, its convexities (signs of new sprouts and buds) smoothed out, its apertures closed. The ever unfinished nature of the body was hidden, kept secret; conception, pregnancy, childbirth, death throes, were almost never shown." The classical Garbo wants to be alone. The grotesque Ginger wants company. The images of Ginger Roger's body in "Hot Panties" could not be more different from this "platonic ideal": she is falling out of her clothes from the first panel, her nipples are visible through the fabric, her genitals emerge as a set of dense spiraling lines and sharp gashes, hot clouds of smoke radiate from her crotch, and she becomes the subject of a succession of insertions. She is all protuberances and openings. Her star image, as we might all agree, is "degraded" by the fantasies the Tijuana Bibles project onto it, all the more so because of Roger's conservative reputation. As Bakhtin writes, "The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of Earth and body in their indissoluble unity." Degradation means a stress on those operations and properties all bodies have in common over those which are unique. Degradation, Bakhtin argues, means "coming down to Earth," and in doing so, it often involves making public what was once private, making social what was once personal, and breaking down the boundaries between the body and the rest of the world. Often, the Tijuana Bibles are very explicit about offering us images of the stars not available in their films. Powell protests to Loy that "I'm sick of being married to you in the movies without getting anything." Errol Flynn complains that he plays Robin Hood but "all I get to shoot is arrows." Our desires are projected onto the stars, who want to satisfy urges that are evoked but not satiated by the screen representations of glamour and romance. The classical Hollywood cinema seemed to be all about sex, and yet the Production Code made it impossible for sex to be directly represented, and so it develop a language of suggestion and equivocation, a language that teases more than it "puts out," a language which substitutes dancing for love-making and cigarette smoke for bodily fluids.

The culture of scandal and gossip which have always surrounded Hollywood system perform a similar function, allowing us a "behind the scenes" peak at what gets hidden behind the glamour. This "degradation" function explains why gossip is so often preoccupied with the themes, "conception, pregnancy, childbirth, death throes" which are "hidden, kept secret" within representations of the classical body. Such themes represented the reassertion of the "material body" into discussions of ethereal stars, and thus also represented a process which rendered the unattainable ideal more accessible to the audience. This idea that the Tijuana Bibles and the scandal sheets represent the grotesque of the classical cinema is certainly consistent with Bakhtin's assertions that, in Mary Russo's words, "the grotesque goes underground in the course of the nineteenth century, becoming increasingly hidden and dispersed — a private and ‘nocturnal' category." These grotesque conceptions of the body shadow the Hollywood glamour system, occupying a space of ill-repute, sold in the back allies, printed in ink that comes off on your hands, yet essential to its creation and dispersal of erotic desire. This myth of the scandalous and uninhibited body may have been a necessary fiction, even for those who worked within the studio system itself, as Garson Kanin suggests in Hollywood. Kanin's memoir describes a brothel, frequented by film industry employees and film actors, where the prostitutes are fashioned to resemble Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and other leading ladies. The "stars" at Mae's were kept apprized of the latest "gossip, rumors, innuendos" so that they could more fully embody their customers' fantasies. Kanin suggests actors went to this place to release tensions that built up during the production day, and thus, as in the Tijuana Bibles, satisfy the fantasies hinted but never delivered by their films. A contemporary publication like Celebrity Skin engages in this same process, juxtaposing the titillating lines from movie publicity with nude shots of screen stars, offering "anatomy awards" which takes great pleasure in showing off the bodies of actresses who don't do nude scenes in movies or who are associated with serious drama and European art cinema. Laura Kipnis makes a similar argument for the notorious Jackie Onassis pictorial in Hustler.

Glamour, which involves the erasure of the body and the isolation of the star from the public, has no place in the grotesque, except to be degraded. Beauty may be another question. Bakhtin's descriptions of the grotesque body often conjure up images of bodies that are grossly overweight or sagging from age, but Mary Russo's The Female Grotesque also makes a case for considering bodies which push against other norms of feminine appearance and conduct as falling into the cultural category of the grotesque, even if they are otherwise physically attractive. Her example is Amelia Earhart who was figured as "tall, slim, and aerodynamic like the planes beside which she modeled" yet also often depicted as "boyish" and asexual, as outside the norms of traditional femininity, and therefore in a larger sense, grotesque. The female figures in the Tijuana Comics are grotesque in a similar sense — not grotesque in their appearance (at least as we traditionally understand the term), but grotesque in the ways that the openings and protuberances of their bodies become the central focus of our attention and interest, grotesque in that their desires and appetites are openly displayed, grotesque in that they refuse to keep their proper distance. In short, Ginger in "Hot Panties" is grotesque because she is "in heat" and "out of control."

Lupe Velez's "out of control" persona follows a similar pattern. Her excessive female sexuality can not be easily rendered laughable because she can not be discounted as grotesquely unattractive, but it pushes well beyond the classical conceptions of the body and sexuality which dominate the Hollywood glamor system. Far from unattainable, Velez, according to one 1932 Vanity Fair profile, enjoys "distributing her wiles among the male members of the cast — a while here and a while there. " Far from regulated and discipline, the same writer suggests, Velez "acts in general as if she had just downed six seidels of tequila." Velez emphatically refused to conform to the norms of decorum associated with the Hollywood system. She protested to one interviewer who reported that an unnamed actress had said she was "no lady": "What the hell? How can they tell? To act like everyone else, is that what they call a lady? Then, I am not a lady." In another interview, she contrasted herself with Garbo: "I couldn't be like Garbo. But it would be so dull if we were all Garbos! People like her because she's quiet and so beautiful. They like me because I have pep!" She was a woman who cursed, who threw herself at men, who held little sacred, not even the relations of a daughter to her mother. She told one fan magazine that her mother was constantly begging her for money, jewels, and other material goods: "She carried me for nine months and now she wants rent." And she emphatically refused to accept any attempts by men to regulate her behavior: "A husband might try to stop me. If he did, I would kill him. I am unafraid." Such an open rebellion against both matriarchy and patriarchy was hard to maintain, however, and the fan magazine writers often found themselves tempering her more overt defiance. A 1932 New Movie story quotes her as boasting, "Lupe must be free, free, free! I flirt, I kiss, I do what I like, but no man shall boss me! I shall never marry!" but then the writer starts to mute the statement, "But there is always a suspicion of hesitancy in the word, 'never.'"

Despite the romantic stories of her girlhood fascination with pictures of Hollywood stars, Velez's publicity pictures were often framed as parodies of the codes and conventions of the glamour photographs. One photograph, picturing her sprawled on a diving board, sticking her tongue out at the camera, bears the caption: "You've seen this yourself — the unimaginative stars who pose on diving-boards as if they intended to do something aquatic — when they haven't even removed high-healed slippers! Lupe's divorce [from Weismuller] is now final and she was making this face at Mr. [Clayton] Moore. It may be her way of looking ‘love-sick.'" Velez seemed to take enormous pleasure in finding new ways to shock or bemuse glamour photographers and the readers of the glossy fan magazines. She smokes a pipe. She is photographed with her pet Chihuahua biting her on the nose. She adopts a graceless and contorted posture trying to lift her leg to her breasts. A series of portraits depict her as sulking, glaring, snarling, and making aggressive gestures at the camera. Screen Guide framed one particularly grotesque set of photographs in terms of Velez's open antagonism to other screen stars: "GLAMOUR GIRLS TAKE ANOTHER BEATING! Annoyed glamour girls are almost constantly in a fret over the fact that Lupe Velez pokes fun at them in hilarious poses — which Screen Guide photographs and prints. They retaliate by looking down their noses, saying they don't think she is so funny. But the funny part is that the poses are basically true. Most much-photographed females have an exalted opinion of their importance and their beauty. But Lupe is wealthier than most of them, has a wider and more constant 'public.' Producers continually beg her to make pictures." Posing for such pictures were her way of thumbing her nose at the Hollywood establishment. Sometimes the photographs even give us a whiff of her own earthy sense of humor, as when following her divorce from Weismuller, she was photographed on a lawn chair, her legs spread wide and a funny pages open between them to Jungle Jim (a strip widely perceived as a "rip off" of Edgar Rice Burrough's character). The magazine's caption asks, "Where can she find another Tarzan? It is sad, si, si?." If the glamour photographed involved a disciplining or erasure of the body, as we have been suggested, Velez was described consistently as a uncontrollable force, as a "spontaneous combustion" waiting to happen, as having too much fun to care what anyone else thinks about her behavior.

"Glamour girls" took a beating through her performances, as well. Velez was notorious for standing up at Hollywood parties and launching into vicious parodies of other screen actresses, especially those she regarded as rivals such as Delores Del Rio, or those she felt had "stolen" one of "her men." When she suspected Gary Cooper of having an affair with Marlene Dietrich during the filming of Morocco, she staged an outrageously off-color impersonation of her before half of the movietown big shots. When at various points, Velez toured in vaudeville or appeared in stage revues, these parodies of Hollywood stars formed the crux of her act, translating antics that had been scandalous off stage into a performance that drew praise and laughter from audiences. One movie magazine spread features a series of mocking photographs where Velez suggests her ability to mimic Gloria Swanson, Dolores Del Rio, Fanny Brice, and her other contemporaries. Some of her caricatures are captured on film in the Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle, High Fliers, where she impersonates Del Rio, Simone Simon, and Shirley Temple in quick succession. As Del Rio, she arches her neck, wrapping a shawl over her head, and presses her teeth against her lips as she sings. As Simone Simon, she adopts a more demure demeanor, lisping and simpering incomprehensibly. As Temple, she is more perky and out-going, though there remains something profoundly silly about her singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop" through a thick Spanish accent. Her frontal assault on her screen rivals seems contagious since later in the same film, Robert Woolsey dresses in Latin American attire and sings "I am a Gaucho," a number which parodies the team's long-time competition with the Marx Brothers. Lupe sings, "we girls don't know Harpo or Chico. We all love Gaucho." Bert Wheeler first blackens his upper lip to mimic Charles Chaplin and later blackens his whole face and struts like Eddie Cantor. These spoofs provide the comic highpoints of an otherwise tepid comedy, the last to team Wheeler and Woolsey, and completed shortly before Wheeler's death.

If the classical conception of the body which dominates glamour photography stresses the screen goddess's unattainable beauty, Velez's body was consistently depicted as all too easily attainable — for a price. Apart from the rumors that she once worked as a prostitute and as a stripper, she is often depicted as flashing guests at her Hollywood parties, flinging her dress high above her head as she dances, to reveal that she wore no underwear underneath. Bert Lahr describes her as rehearsing her 1932 Broadway show, Hot-Cha! in the nude, since she found her tight-fitting costumes too confining, a practice that distracted her co-star but enthralled her producer, Flo Ziegfeld, and her primary backer, the gangster, "Dutch" Schultz. Photoplay's Ruth Biery is more coy in hinting at Velez's exhibitionism, writing "I have slipped into her bedroom unannounced and seen her parading before a mirror — showing off herself to herself as openly and unconsciously as small children show off before company."

Her film roles often capitalize on these same traits, casting her as a prostitute or fallen woman (Lady of the Pavement; East is East; Resurrection; Kongo) or a stripper (Half-Naked Truth, Hot Pepper, The Morals of Marcus), as a woman who loves two men at once (The Storm;The Broken Wing) or as the destroyer of good men's innocence (Palooka). A notable exception would be the Mexican Spitfire series, which is now most often associated with Velez, where she played a good, faithful wife, despite farcical situations and innuendos by her rival, Elizabeth, that suggest she may be breaking her marriage vows. Velez's screen vehicles seem to obsessively restage her real-world scandals, most overtly in Hollywood Party, which casts her as the Jungle Girl, opens with a spoof of a Tarzan movie, describes her break-up with Schnarzan star Jimmy Durante, and documents her frustrated attempts to crash a big Hollywood party, all evoking public knowledge of her on-again, off-again relationship with Weismuller. Echoing many of her off-screen lovers, Durante protests, "you don't belong at these parties. You get too rough. You get too involved."

Courting Lupe was, according to New Movie, like "flirting with dynamite." Gary Cooper gave her two eagles, which she jokingly called her "love birds," suggesting that they both understood the predatory nature of her attractions. Jealous of Cooper's friendship with Anderson Lawler, a flamboyant homosexual, she unzipped Cooper's fly at a social gathering and started sniffing his crotch, claiming to smell Lawler's cologne. Velez took great pleasure in shocking the bashful Cooper with her exhibitionist impulses, and indeed, in outraging many who worried that a return of the sex scandals of the 1920s might taint the film industry at a time Hollywood was courting the Catholic Legion of Decency. Perhaps, this discomfort explains why Velez, along with fellow Mexican-Americans Dolores Del Rio and Ramon Novarro, were accused of being "communists" by Sacramento DA Neil McAllister in 1934, representing one of the first volley in the decade's long attempt to link Hollywood with "UnAmerican activities." Defending her, Weismuller protested, "why Lupe doesn't even know what communism means." Lupe was not red; she was just red-hot and perpetually bothered.


That McAllister's charges against Lupe lumped her together with Del Rio and Novarro (stars of fundamentally different status, not to mention ideological commitments) is deeply suggestive of the racial politics that was never far beneath the surface in Hollywood in the 1930s. By definition, the three studio stars were "unAmerican." They were Mexicans, and despite Del Rio's acceptance as a leading lady who, at least in some of her films, is "unmarked" by her race, who, in effect, "passes" as white," none of them can, in the end, escape the taint of being born "south of the border."

The Mexican cultural critic Carlos Monsivais describes Dolores del Rio in remarkably similar language to Barthes' paen for Garbo: "A dazzling face. Timeless — not because it is immune to the devastation of age but, rather, for the radiant effect it still has on those who contemplate it. A figure boldly kept, accomplished in the slow sinuosity of its movements, in the care of its magnificent skin, in the way it incorporates elegance into facial movement, a stillness that denies languor, and in the Indian cheekbones that maintain both tension and imperial repose. The gift — we call it being photogenic — of knowingly administering one's looks for the camera, and keeping a wardrobe in which fashion pays homage to perfect features. A woman, the possessor of a face, who in the preservation of her beauty finds the meaning of her artistic life." Only one detail in this description —Monsivais's reference to her "Indian cheekbones" — serves to separate del Rio from Garbo, but that one detail makes visible how much Barthes' essay on Garbo is really a celebration of her whiteness.

Barthes speaks of Garbo's face as possessing the "snowy thickness of a mask"; he suggests she looks as if her features had been "set in plaster." He writes, "Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive, are two faintly tremulous wounds. In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn but sculpted in something smooth and friable, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes." She is described as "descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light." Far from a celebration of Garbo as a "universal" beauty who transcends culture, which is how Barthe's essay is often read, he positions Garbo as the embodiment of all that is desirable and precious about white women — their purity, their cleanliness, their illumination, their "perfect" features.

Richard Dyer's White provides a detailed account of the ways that the technical parameters and lighting conventions surrounding glamour photography — and Hollywood cinematography more generally — took shape around the presumption of a white subject, seeing the goal of accurately reproducing the "normal" range of white skin tones as the primary objective. Filming and photographing "non-white" skin was taken as a special problem, requiring adjustments and extra efforts, and of course, in a culture like Hollywood, where few "non-whites" achieved any degree of stardom, there was rarely a need to take that "special care" to make sure that non-white skin was reproduced with that same aura of glamour. As Dyer writes, "stocks, cameras and lighting were developed taking the white face as the touchstone. The resultant apparatus came to be seen as fixed and inevitable, existing independently of the fact that it was humanly constructed. It may be — certainly was — true that photo and film apparatuses have seemed to work better with light-skinned peoples, but that is because they were made that way, not because they could be no other way."

Photographed according to those conventions, glamour became something which white people — especially white women — possessed and darker people lacked. Dyer writes, "White women thus carry — or, in many narratives, betray — the hopes, achievements, and character of the race. They guarantee its reproduction, even while not succeeding to its highest heights. Yet their very whiteness, their refinement, makes of sexuality a disturbance of their racial purity." If whiteness is associated with purity and cleanliness, and sex in our culture is often described as "dirty," then this celebration of the white woman must surround her with an aura of glamour which protects her from sexual contamination. By this same logic, it becomes clear why an entertainment system which fed upon the creation of an erotic allure needed the presence of women who are "sometimes" or ambiguously white, who occupy the racial borderlands between whiteness and blackness. If they were black women, they would be closed off to white men's desires, at least within the public discourse of screen entertainment. If they were white women, they might become too clean to become the focus for nasty little fantasies and sleazy gossip. But, Lupe Velez as a Mexican (rumored to be of mixed race ancestry) was "non-white," neither white nor black, neither prohibited nor sanctified, and that made her a potent signifier for the grotesque conception of female sexuality that the classical narrative sought to both evoke and contain. [add stuff on "complexion."]

Monsivais notes the ways that the "authenticity" of Del Rio often lent credibility and concreteness to Hollywood's orientalist fantasies: "With a persuasiveness that is recognized only after the event, US cinema stages continents, countries and customs that are not to be found in encyclopedias. Slanderous but stylish inventions — Baghdad, Casablanca, Istanbul, Shanghai, Canton, Zanzibar, Morocco, the Pacific Islands, Ancient Rome or nineteenth-century Seville — all possess, in Hollywood's reconstructions, the authenticity of childhood fantasy, the concreteness of dreams redeemed by the obsession to travel. Dolores is asked to animate this sensual, racist, puerile (and not necessarily tropical) geography, which could just as well be a cardboard-cut-out Mexico as a vague ‘South America,' the court of Louis XIV, the Pacific Islands, the virgin forests of the Amazon,, or the countryside in Tsarist Russia....[As played by Del Rio,] the unusual ( read ‘foreign') beauty is possessed by an uncontrollable psyche, the emotions of a native frightened by the gods of the volcano, or a Hispanic whose sophistication stops at her clothes." On screen, Velez proved to be equally versatile in her ability to stage exotic (and erotic) otherness, playing a Greek peasant girl in Stand and Deliver, a Parisian courtesan in Lady of the Pavement, a half-cast Indochinese girl in Where East is East, the daughter of Morgan the pirate in Hell Harbor, a French-Canadian in The Storm, a Russian peasant in Resurrection, an Indian maiden in The Squaw Man, and a mullato in Kongo. On screen, she could play anything except Anglo-Saxon, never having been able to fully mask her accent.

Off screen, she remained, unescapably, unmistakably, Mexican, as suggested by the range of nicknames applied to her in her film career, "Mexican Wildcat," "the Mexican Spitfire," "Mexican TNT" Such phrases suggest her "wildness," often through explicit analogy to animals. Much of the comedy in The Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event turns on her husband's mistaken (and improbable) belief that she has born him a child, when in fact, it is her pet jaguar who has given birth. Either way, the gags suggest, the offspring will be a wildcat. Most often, such phrases evoke images of exotic "spices" which stand out against the blandness of American cuisine: "Hot Tamale," "Human Pepper Pot," "a Little Mexican Dish of Hot Chili," one of the "Tabasco Twins of the Silver Screen," "Paprika on Chile Con Carne." In short, Lupe was a spicy dish, good enough to eat, but she would burn the American tongue. Gringos were not accustomed to such wildness and temperament in their women.

Her star biographies pile on the ethnic signifiers, making her a literal embodiment of 20th century Mexican culture: "Lupe is a native of San Luis Obispo, an historic Mexican pueblo, the daughter of an opera singer and a colonel in the Mexican army. This she can authenticate with a series of documents as long as your arm." An article about her new mansion, titled "Mexican Fire," notes that she has, "after the fashion of her own country," had an outside hearth built on her patio, so that she can "make herself feel that her own temperature is normal." Another fanzine tells us that "Little Mexican Lupe is black-haired, black-eyed, slender, small and untamed. Lupe comes from Mexico — from the seething, turbulent Mexico of incessant warfare."

Often, the fanzine writers would describe various attempts, largely unsuccessful, to assimilate Velez into our American ways, "Lupe was just a crude, little soubrette who knew nothing of subtle make-up until Max Factor instructed her. Lupe Velez has changed her manner of dress and make-up, but her Americanization ended there." Her co-stars were even more blunt, often describing her as "dirty" or "unwashed." Velez might be dressed in better clothes, pampered with Hollywood luxury, and powdered by Max Factor, but she can never become fully white and can never become a "lady." As Photoplay reminded readers in 1930, "Leaping Lupe may be a little more ladylike when strangers are around, but there's still the same fire in the Velez eye. Here, she is dressed for a party, but no fancy duds can hide the hoyden!" Read within this racist and nationalistic discourse, her transgressive behavior and flamboyant mannerisms could be understood as "proof" of the distance separating white and non-white women, as evidence of a violent and primitive temperament which could never be assimilated into American culture. She remains, despite all the attempts to fit her into Hollywood glamour, "the Lupe of the rolling eyes, the Lupe of the mad gestures, the Lupe of the flaming personality."

Art historian James Oles has documented the fascination and allure which Mexico held for American artists, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, during the time when the screen careers of Lupe Velez and Dolores del Rio were at their peak. Painters and photographers flocked to Mexico in search of inspiration from its colorful landscapes, festive social life, beautiful women, and flamboyant culture. Most often, these artists depicted Mexico as primitive, untamed, and unspoiled, reproducing cliches of "peasants and burros, small villages, fields of corn or maguey, local fiestas and communal markets," as a world somehow existing outside the forces of modernization shaping American society: "American living rooms were filled with chrome and glass and angular art deco, while Mexican households cherished pottery vessels and quaintly painted lacquer chests."

Several of the fan magazine stories about Velez's house suggest that "she surrounds herself with the handicraft of her beloved Mexico," albeit these fragile artifacts run counter to other cultural stereotypes: "Her tantrums, so dear to her fans, do not prevent her from collecting bric-a-brac." Another stressed her fascination with "gypsy colors," such as "chrome yellow," which they describe as "primitive, elemental." Such profiles link Velez with the aesthetic sensibilities which were drawing American eyes southward, while at the same time, reaffirming her "primitiveness," her ties to a Mexican past as opposed to an American present. Velez is similarly linked to the natural wonders which captured the American imagination, with publicity photographers posing her with monkeys, tropical birds, and wild cats, suggesting that she has only recently emerged from the jungles. Photoplay's Ruth Biery situates her spontaneous Mexican temperament against the calculations of other Hollywood stars, describing her as "the most natural, the most primitive, the most unaffected offspring of an affected generation," phrases which search larger cultural movements which sought in the Mexican soul qualities which cultural critics felt had been corrupted in modern American culture. Lupe was not a product of modernity but a force of nature, whose temper tantrums were "an act as natural as the one nature puts on when it has two clouds collide to produce lightening and thunder....an act as natural, to Lupe, as nature's rains or droughts or river currents." Her biographer, Floyd Conner, begins the book by noting that she was born the same day that a hurricane devastated her town, "the violent weather was an appropriate introduction to the world for the woman who would become known as the ‘Mexican hurricane.'" Lupe, a fan magazine profile tells us, is "a vital, young savage chaffing under the restraints of impending stardom," a Roussian ideal on the verge of being corrupted by the forces of civilization.

This theme of her "untamed" nature most fully surfaced in discussions of her entanglements with Johnny Weismuller, a match made in some publicity agent's heaven. As Walt Morton notes, the film versions of Tarzan shift from the "naked nobleman" of the books to emphasizing his status as a barely human savage, a man of actions not of words. If Edgar Rice Burrough's character teaches himself to read and masters multiple languages, the screen Tarzan more often grunts and gestures. Morton notes, "Tarzan on film is always muscular, fit and (wearing animal skins) connected to nature, suggesting that fur and muscles are biological, hence, natural, whereas language and literacy are not natural but acquired through culture." Weismuller's films, in particular, were structured around the spectacle of male bodily display: "His only apparel is a thong waistband and buckskin loincloth, considerably more revealing than the costumes worn by previous Tarzans, many of whom wore an over-the-should leopard-skin tunic....Attention centered on Tarzan's appearance (sleekly muscled, ‘natural') but not what he says (‘Hungawa!')." Morton suggests that Weismuller's Tarzan was inarticulate because the actor, former Olympic swimming champ, had such limited range as an actor, but his grunting and broken English fit, never-the-less, within a representation of Tarzan that foregrounded his potency and sensuality rather than the contradiction of a nobleman raised by apes. Velez jokingly suggested that she spoke English so poorly because "I was married to a guy who can only say, ‘Me Tarzan, You Jane.'"

As this joke suggests, Velez was famous for her own mangled syntax, which was often mimicked by fan magazine prose, to exaggerate and poke fun at her hispanic accent: "Dees Fiery-y-y Tempestuous-s-s Lupee-e-e, she geeve Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga. But eef she geeve only wone leetle lesson (whether eets lofe or la conga) you'd had to admeet you ‘learn' well. For Lupee-e-e is wone gran-n teacher." Many of her film comedies involve plays with her accent or malapropisms that suggest to inability to master English. Promising to keep a secret in High Fliers, she explains, "I will say nothing to somebody." When Uncle Matt describes himself as footloose in The Mexican Spitfire, she exclaims, "I have a loose foot too." Later, in a more awkward situation, she explains that "I am just a gaulstone around your neck." In The Mexican Spitfire Out West, she advises Uncle Matt to "keep a stiff upper mouth." Other jokes stem from her cursing in Spanish. After a long tirade in Spanish, a friend asks Carmalita, "What does this mean in English?" She shrugs and explains, "Oh, you don't say that in English." In Hollywood Party, her cursing gets translated into English as "dirty such and such, so and so, this and that." But, for most of what she wants to say, Velez doesn't need words. Her broad gestures and sharp tone convey her anger and frustration even to those who can't understand Spanish, and her swinging hips and seductive gestures are charged with "animal spirits" that transcend national borders.

Similarly, Weissmuller's physicality makes him an appropriate match for Velez. The opening sequence of Hollywood Party parodies this relationship. In a mock prevue for Schnarzan the Conquerer, "the mighty monarch of the mudlands," Schnarzan (Durante), his chest padded with fake muscles and covered with tufts of fake body hair, wrests a stuffed lion, while Velez, dressed in a skirt that looks like it was made of the black and white fur of Lion-Tail Macaques, squeals with excitement. Later, as they are hanging together from a tree branch, Schnarzan proclaims, "Can't you see, Jungle woman, that I'm human even if I have a touch of the King Kong." When she scoffs at his proclamations ("human, ha! Don't make me laugh," he asserts, "Underneath this lion skin beats a heart seeped in sentiment." "Bah," she sputters, "I'll bet you say that to all the animal women." The razzed hero pushes down the tree in an exaggerated display of his virility. Elsewhere in the film, Velez plays the woman jilted by Durante, "that pelican face," who would stop at nothing to wreck his party. In one especially heated scene, she shouts into the telephone in Spanish, which keeps rattling even after Durante hangs it up. She stomps on his picture until his image takes on a battered appearance, including torn clothing and a black eye.

Film fans, no doubt speculated, that this portrayal contained more than a little truth about her relationship to Weismuller, which was rumored to have been equally combative. She was said to have given Weismuller boxing gloves as a wedding gift: "Darling, so you can punch me if I leave you." However, stories soon circulated that the groom was the one taking the battering. Lupe entertained fan magazine readers with her vivid blow-by-blow accounts of their arguments and her tactics for winning him back again: "If I scream at him and tell him that I am right, he will never give in. The only way I can win an argument with Johnny is to act like I am very hurt and pretend to cry. Then I make him ashamed and he is so sorry he says I am right." If Velez embodied a wild and untamed feminine sexuality, Weismuller personified a wild and untamed masculine sexuality, an explosive combination. As one profile suggests, "Lupe Velez's primitive nature finds its answer in Johnny Weissmuller, an athlete whose nerves are insulated by hawserlike muscles, kept in condition by much swimming." The movie magazines had often speculated how any man could withstand Lupe's love-making, but the muscular Weismuller was portrayed as the one man for the job. Similar stories surrounded her relationship with Gary Cooper. Ruth Biery reported, "I have seen her beat him with her shoe one moment and sob because she has done it the next; I have heard her rail at him in anger so terrible that I feared his life was in danger. But If another person said an unkind word about Gary I have known that his or her life was in danger." Another profile describes their bed as "eight foot square," an image which evoked a wrestling ring rather than a boudoir. One cartoon depicts Cooper cowering before her flashing teeth and monstrous visage. Significantly, in keeping with the racial discourse surrounding her screen persona, the cartoon's shading exaggerates Cooper's whiteness while darkening Velez's face. A thin line separates romance from hand-to-hand combat in the world of Lupe Velez.

The American romanticization of a primitive Mexican sensibility, though couched as a criticism of urban knowingness and modern alienation, was never the less a thinly veiled celebration of American cultural superiority, a call for the economic exploitation of our sister country. Oles notes, "American artists represented the peasant as an anonymous archetype, respected for his or her communal ways, honored traditions, and closeness to the soil, but rarely confronted on an equal basis, and almost never named." Citing the 1939 song, "South of the Border," as an example of the American imaginary construction of Mexico, Oles writes, "This melodramatic love ballad captures the enchantment of Old Mexico that thousands of American visitors longed for. Their reaction to this foreign culture was often an emotional one, palpable from the moment they crossed the border....More darkly, however, the lyrics of this song function as an extended metaphor for the political, economic, and cultural relations between the two countries. Mexico is personified as an innocent woman who lives in a land of Spanish traditions and religious ceremonies. This gendering of Mexico in feminine terms found visual resonance in widely varied forms, ranging from the photographs of elegant senoritas commonly depicted in the pages of National Geographic, to sensual travel posters, postcards and Hollywood films. As female, Mexico could be easily dominated by the artistic or economic forces of the North." If Mexico was depicted as feminine in the American imagination, popular memories of the still-recent Mexican revolution left many perceiving it as an "unruly woman" of fierce temperament and violent manners, one who would as soon scratch your eyes as kiss your lips. As Ole notes, "images of banditry and social strife reinforced American stereotypes of the Latin as prone to lawlessness and arbitrary violence." Americans had been both fascinated and frightened to witness a full-fledged revolution occurring just beyond the Rio Grande, and this experience led to much more ambivalant feelings towards Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s. These feelings would only start to subside in the wake of the "Good Neighbor" policies of the 1940s, which hoped to build a stronger alliance between the United States and its "neighbors to the south." Star biographies link Lupe Velez directly with the violence and bloodshed of the revolution. Her father, we are told, was Colonel Jacob Villalobos, known as "El Gallo" (the Rooster), an important officer in Porfirio Diaz's army during the struggle to put down Pancho Villa. She would recall riding with her father on military inspections and witnessing the massacre of partisans. As Monstevais notes, Dolores Del Rio was also touched by the Revolution, coming from a rich banking family that was part of the "Mexican aristocracy"and taken as a small girl to sit on the lap of the President of the Republic. One of her uncles was murdered by the Revolutionaries; Del Rio and her family fled from Pancho Villa, who had taken possession of their bank and family home. The class differences between Del Rio and Velez contributed to the resentment and rivalry which Lupe felt towards the other Mexican-born actress, since the lower class Velez felt she was always denied the recognition and respect that had come easily for Del Rio.

Comic portrayals of Lupe's temper would seem to be part of this larger discourse about Latin violence, a translation of the political upheaval into the figure of the unruly woman. Jean Franco traces a long tradition of disorderly women in Mexican literature and culture, starting with the female mystics in Seventeenth Century New Spain, who smeared their bodies with menstrual blood, spoke in tongues, and writhed in religious ecstasy, finding a voice through their hysteria denied them elsewhere in the culture. Far from demanding their silence, the church fathers forced them to confess and dutifully recorded their often erotically charged visions. This image of a grotesque female spirituality existed alongside myths of extraordinary female purity, such as the Virgin of Guadalupe (after whom Lupe Velez was named), who Franco characterizes as one of the central symbols of Mexican nationalism: "a Virgin who is not represented as a mother but rather as the woman of the Apocalypse, crushing the serpent and in possession of the heavens from which she protects her chosen people." These two contrasting constructions of Mexican femininity — the wild woman and the virgin — structure The Gaucho, one of Velez's earliest films. In the film's opening moments, a peasant woman (Geraine Greer) has a vision of the Virgin Mary (played by Mary Pickford) on the wall beside a watering hole, and the site becomes a shrine where the poor of the countryside come to be blessed. When we encounter Greer's character later in the film, she has herself assumed many of the aspects of the Saintly virgin, surrounded by radiating light, putting her hands on the sick and the desperate and offering them hope. Velez, on the other hand, is cast as the wild woman, who seems, at first, the perfect mate for the equally unruly El Gaucho (Douglas Fairbanks), the local bandit who has his own popular following among "the people."

When we first see Velez, she is mooning over a wanted poster for El Gaucho and when he enters her village, she throws herself at him, swooning in his arms. However, when another woman pursues a prior claim on his affections, she seethes with jealous rage, suggesting that she is something more than a star-struck maiden. She throws crockery at her rival and then pushes back the crowd, preparing to dance before her man. He tosses his whip, encircling her, and then ties the two of them together as they dance the tango — their bodies joined at the hips, but their hands at their side. He tries to kiss her and she shoves him away, beating him on his chest. The New York Time's Mordant Hall describes their love-making as a "pugilistic encounter," noting that "whether in rags or lace, she gives blow-for-blow to the men who come her way." In another scene, which opens with Velez gnawing on a chicken leg, El Gaucho insists that she pack up and leave with him at once, and she refuses, waving her knife and insisting on finishing her meal. An impatient Gaucho ties a team of horses to the house where she sits and pulls it behind him, as they both laugh. At first, they seem evenly matched, with the acrobatic Fairbanks holding his own against the histrionic Velez, and their scenes together are charged with a playful and yet earthy energy. He tells her at one point, "I love you as an Eagle loves the wings upon which it soars." She bites him on the hand when he tries to make love to her and he bites her back, giving as well as he takes.

However, when Fairbanks encounters the Virgin of the Spring, the once profane and openly atheistic bandit undergoes a religious conversion, dazzled by her beauty, purity, and spirituality. Richard Dyer notes that whiteness is often associated with translucent light: "Idealized white women are bathed in and permeated by light. It streams through them and falls on to them from above. In short, they glow. They glow rather than shine. The light within or from above appears to suffuse the body. Shine, on the other hand, is light bouncing back on the surface of the skin. It is the mirror effect of sweat, itself connoting physicality, the emissions of the body and unladylike labor, in the sense of both work and parturition....Dark skin too, when it does not absorb the light, may bounce it back." The casting of the film reflects the same ideology: Pickford and Greer, the figures of saintliness in the film, are both white. They are both portrayed in relation to illumination. Pickford always appears surrounded by glowing white light, a heavenly messenger. Early on, Fairbanks notes that Greer's eyes have "caught the moonbeams" and later, he tells her, "You're like a beautiful sunset — something I can't embrace," a creature of whiteness and light, against whom the darkness of Velez's character will be contrasted. Greer, Fairbanks proclaims, is "not of this earth." Though they both come from common origins, the saintly Greer has become a lady, while the film pokes fun at Velez's aspirations to rise above her class. Despite being dressed in lace and finery, Lupe chomps on an apple, eats with her elbows on the table, and takes great relish when El Gaucho sentences a man who beat his wife to harsh punishment. Greer, on the other hand, is consistently portrayed with grace and dignity which transcends her dress. The core conflict in the film stems around whether Fairbanks will stay with the dark woman, the wild and uncivilized woman, who fits him so comfortably or the white woman, the saintly woman, who he has placed upon a pedestal. Though Fairbanks applies dark makeup to give himself a swarthy complexion appropriate to the character of a Mexican bandit, we know that he is white, just beneath the surface, thus predetermining his final rejection of Velez for Greer, his repudiation of the disorderly woman in favor of the saintly one.


Describing the reason that the stardom of both Del Rio and Velez ended at the very moment when the "good neighbor" policy made the Hollywood screen more accommodating to Latin American actresses, such as Carmen Miranda, Ana M. Lopez notes that Del Rio was "not ethnic enough" and Velez was "too ‘Latin'" to fit within "Hollywood's new, ostensibly friendly, and temperate regime." Yet, one wonders why Velez remained "too ‘Latin," while Del Rio could pass for white. It isn't a matter of skin color per se. Velez's complexion is no darker than a good many leading ladies of the period, even if her recalcitrant accent might give her away if she tried to pass. Her "darkness," her exclusion from whiteness, was more a matter of taste and temperament than of skin color. White women displayed a refinement of manners, a regulation of emotions, and a control over their bodies which Velez refused to adopt. John F. Kasson's Rudeness and Civility, drawing on the work of Norbert Elias, traces the process by which Americans, in the late 19th century, sought to temper the robust and rustic manners of their frontiers past and embraced the more restrained etiquette associated with Victorian English and European high culture. Both men and women were brought under "public scrutiny" to see if they could maintain the self-restraint and dignity expected of the middle and upper classes, with the greatest burden born by white middle class women, who were consistenly expected not only to police their own behavior but also to discipline others in their families. Kasson writes, "Embarrassment could act as a powerful instrument of social regulation, guarding privileged social pathways and taking the place to some degree in a modern industrial society of older codes of social deference....Rudeness in this culture constituted a kind of social obscenity, a violation of the codes of civility in such a way as to make public that which should remain private, to single out for special attention that which should remain inconspicuous, or else to cast public actions, conduct and individual actors in an unworthy or degrading fashion."

One of the reasons that slapstick was experienced as so subversive and "vulgar" from the perspective of the middle classes was precisely the ways it invited us to take pleasure in witnessing the breakdown of this whole cultural system, the destruction of dignity, the loss of bodily control, the acting out on emotions that were expected to be suppressed. Laughter itself, Kasson notes, was often perceived as undignified and socially inappropriate, and if carried to excess, "might topple the carefully constructed public persona that the individual had erected." Yet, comedy was also a way of reinforcing the values of proper manners and bodily control, rendering those who clung to more primitive ways as comic rustics and those who could not regulate their tempers as laughable spectacles. The "pie in the face" came to signify the emotional volatility of contemporary culture, suggesting a world of well-behaved people who would shove pastry up each others snouts if their dignified facade was penetrated by someone else's rude actions. Often, as well, this comedy staged inappropriate and transgressive behavior between those of the lower orders and their social betters, focusing on tramps and cops, immigrants and aristocrats, at a time, when Kasson suggests, manners were perceived as an important marker of upward mobility and social betterment.

Compared to the restraint and decorum associated with white bourgeois ladyhood, Lupe Velez was like a bull in a china shop. She often flaunted her lower-class tastes and origins, hosting parties which featured cock fights and stag films. She conducted a public feud with Gary Cooper's mother who felt she was too "vulgar" and "tasteless" for her son. She got into a catfight with Lilyan Tashman in the powder room of the Montmatre Cafe in Hollywood, and photographs ended up plastered all over the papers. She was an enthusiastic fan of wrestling matches and boxing bouts, where she would verbally abuse the combatants and generally make a spectacle of herself. Budd Schulberg reports, "how many times had we seen the tempestuous Lupe in the front row at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, pounding on the blood-stained canvas of the ring and screaming profane Mexican incantations at brown-skinned countrymen who were failing to live up to her high standards of conduct?" Schulberg describes a particularly bloody match, where one boxer's eye was reduced to a pulp, as Velez screamed for him to fight harder, while Schulberg himself passes out from nausea: "Suddenly I felt as if I was inside that eye and this time I saw red circles spinning, spinning, spinning." Schulberg's story casts not only the bloody boxing match, but Velez's intense pleasure in the spectacle, as a violation of his own white and refined sensibilities. The white man faints; the "nonwhite" woman craves more blood. Not surprisingly, Velez's passion for boxing also found its way into her films, such as Palooka, which depicts her as a night club singer who floats from one boxing champ to the next, luring them into a wild nightlife that destroys their ability to fight. Here, the camera records her intense engagement with the ring action, as she shouts when she is unhappy with her champs, though the Production Code only allows a censored version of her actions and language to reach the screen. At one point, a man protests when she keeps leaping out of her chair responding to the action: "Hey, keep your seat, Lady." She protests, "I'll do what I want with my seat," and he responds curtly, "well, then, keep it out of my face."

Velez makes no attempt to regulate her tongue or to control her emotions. She told an interviewer, "I do as I please because I get more fun out of life. I laugh; I get mad; I cry. I like to laugh; I get fun out of being mad; I enjoy crying."What excluded Velez from "whiteness" was her hot and spicy tastes, while those lapses of taste were contained by being linked within star discourse to her national origins. No white woman acted like Lupe. Lupe was no white woman; she was a Mexican. Lupe, as Durante reminds us in Hollywood Party, plays "too rough," gets "too involved," and as a result, she can't be admitted to more refined company.

Hollywood Party contains the scene that showcases Velez's comic talents perhaps more fully than any other moment in her career. Having finally gotten into Durante's mansion, she demands a drink at the bar, only to be told that Durante has prohibited the bartender to serve her. She explodes, pounding the counter with her fist, and kicking off her shoes in rage, as Laurel and Hardy watch with perplexed expressions. Hardy picks up her shoe and hands it to her, starting a slow-paced and hysterically funny series of ritual humiliations. She takes the shoe and hits him in the head with it. Lupe takes off Hardy's shoe and dumps a raw egg into it; Hardy dumps another raw egg into the palm of her outstretched hand, but she responds by pouring it into his pocket and wiping her hand on his coat. Planning to strike back, Hardy takes an egg in each hand, but she punctures them, plop, plop, with the high heal of her shoe. She stuffs an egg down the front of his pants and slaps it with her hand. He writhes with a mixture of discomfort and (it is suggested) pleasure as the yolk oozes down his pants leg. Hardy puts an egg on her chair and she sits down on it, squirming uncomfortably. And, then, they all break down laughing, their animosity vanishing in their pleasure in playing with each other.

Lupe looks sexy and yes, even glamourous in this sequence, clad in an eloquent gown with a low-cut backline and cutaway patches on each hip that reveal her glistening flesh. She is restrained, embracing Edgar Kennedy's "slow burn" response to Laurel and Hardy's antics, a restraint that comes unexpectedly after a thunderstorm of curses and screams. She maintains a surprising level of dignity, even when she has eggs dripping from her hands, and it is this dignity which makes the indignities they perform on each other howlingly funny. But, perhaps, it is her reputation for angry outbursts which makes this scene funny after all, giving its quietude the uneasy sensation of watching someone kick a jug of nitroglycerin until it blows up in his face. We keep watching wondering when she is going to lose it and let lose on Laurel and Hardy the fierce temper we have already seen her direct against Durante. Even when she is describing what she plans to do to Durante when they meet again, she gives mild-mannered Charles Butterworth a serious thrashing. But with Laurel and Hardy, she finds perfect comic timing by slowing down her reactions and holding in check her more aggressive impulses. Such moments of true comedy are rare in Velez's vehicles, which are often too fast-paced to allow us to experience individual gags or to appreciate the sheer pleasure Velez takes in her own performances. A 1929 New Movie profile notes "Lupe's vivacity seems inexhaustible. It's amusing, entertaining — in brief spells....She will speak of her sense of humor. But it isn't humor. It's energy, laughter, noise, excitement, even merriment, but humor calls for a little subtlety and minus a director, Lupe isn't subtle." Often, even with a director, Lupe isn't subtle. The sequence reminds us that Velez's first screen appearances were bit parts in Hal Roach comedies, including playing opposite Laurel and Hardy in Sailors Beware! and appearing in several Anita Garvin vehicles.

Velez's "vulgarity" and her exclusion from whiteness constitutes a central subtext running through her Mexican Spitfire films. Across a series of eight programmers, produced in the final years of her screen career, Lupe plays Carmelita, a spirited Mexican nightclub performer, who has retired from the stage and married American ad-executive Dennis. His former fiancé, Elizabeth Price, still hangs around in the background, scheming to break up their marriage and reclaim her "rightful" place at his side, and seizes every opportunity to embarrass Carmelita or spark an argument with her. Promising to take her to buy some "decent clothes" so that she can dress more appropriately for her new role as a corporate wife, Elizabeth takes her bar-hopping instead and then condems her for her "digusting" drunkeness. Dennis's Aunt Della shares her disappointment in Dennis's bride, protesting that the "Mexican wildcat," as she often calls Carmelita, has "no right to be his wife" and hoping she will soon return to Mexico, "where she belongs." Della is clearly scandalized by their mixed race marriage and especially by the displacement of a white woman by a non-white one. In gag after gag, Elizabeth's WASPish is contrasted with Velez's Latin origins, though often in ways that suggests WASPs have their own kind of sting. In The Mexican Spitfire, Della notes that "Elizabeth Price can trace her family back to the Pilgrams. She's real Plymouth Rock Stock." Uncle Matt, who has taken a liking to Carmelita, wisecracks that Elizabeth is a "Rhode Island Red," changing the discourse about breading into a reference to farmstock. Elizabeth tricks Carmelita into barging into Dennis's office during an important business conference, pretending to be his secretary, and thus, to avoid embarrassment (now displaced from concern about a multi-racial romance onto issues of class), offers to pose as his wife when the client, Lord Epping, comes to dinner. The white, well-bred Elizabeth will, according to Aunt Della, "lend dignity and culture to the occasion." The comedy hinges on the contrast between Elizabeth's snooty pretensions and Carmelitta's down-to-earth innocence, with Lupe finding one way after another to thwart and confound Elizabeth's schemes and retain her claims on Dennis's affections. Elizabeth almost gets her way at the end of The Mexican Spitfire, when Dennis and Carmelita both believe that she has divorced him, only to discover that their "phony Mexican divorce" isn't worth the paper its printed on. Rallying to the fight, Carmalita disrupts the wedding, waving a cape around as an angry Elizabeth charges her, resulting in a pastry-tossing cat fight, which leaves all concerned dripping with icing. If The Mexican Spitfire series is very much about the cultural norms that exclude Lupe Velez from assimilating into American culture, it sides with her desires for acceptance and her unquestioned love for her husband over Elizabeth and Della's attempts to police racial and class boundaries.

Their claims to belong to the white American aristocracy are rendered absurd by the character of Lord Epping, an absent-minded, often drunk, and always rude and intemperate British nobleman, whose advertising contracts form the fulcrum of each of the films. Dennis wants to sign the Epping account; Lupe wants to help, but making things farcically worse, until the films' closing moments where she and Uncle Matt find someway to restore order to the chaos. Often, the farce requires Uncle Matt to impersonate Lord Epping (with both characters played broadly by Leon Errol) allowing Matt an excuse to insult Elizabeth and get revenge on Della for meddling in Carmalita's marriage. When Aunt Della brags that Elizabeth has had "lots of experience mixing cocktail," Uncle Matt (as Lord Epping) scrutinizes her face and then says, "I can tell." Later, he asks an offended Aunt Della whether she does her own laundry and ironing. When he leaves the room, they both protest, "I was always under the impression that the British were exceptionally polite." However, the actual Lord Epping behaves no better. Burping and grumbling, "hang that curry," barely able to walk under the influence of alcohol, incapable of conducting his own affairs, Lord Epping offers us a debased image of the aristocrat, one more governed by, then ruling over, his body, rendering the American's attempts to suck up to him totally absurd. In The Mexican Spitfire Out West, Epping meets his match with an assertive secretary who is totally unimpressed by his British accent and mannerisms, telling him to "take that phoney Boston accent down to the Janitor. Maybe he can use it." If accents are what keep Lupe from gaining acceptance into white society, then, the film suggests, accents deserve no great respect after all. As Dennis concludes in The Mexican Spitfire, "there is only one Carmelita. I can get thousands of contracts."


There was, of course, only one Lupe Velez. She seemed to resist attempts by writers and critics to fit her into stock feminine roles. One writer struggles to find the perfect comparison, "Lupe Velez! My mind played over the world's famous women whose charms had made men their victims. Which one did Lupe Velez resemble? Cleopatra? No! Cleo was too cold, too calculating in her captivations. Isadore Duncan? No! Isadore loved to suffer. Lupe loves only to be happy. Marie Antoninette. I hesitated. In some ways. Only Marie was selfish, Lupe is not selfish. Made Pompadour, Josephine, Bernhardt? I shook my head at each mental suggestion. Was she really a new type of woman?" It was this refusal to fit readily available categories that had made comic female stars such an attractive subject for feminist critics in recent years. The "unruly woman" refuses to remain in her proper place, refuses to play her assigned role, refuses to be domesticated, tamed, contained, mastered by a patriarchal culture. Yet, in other ways, Lupe Velez was anything but exceptional, having been constantly cast as somehow emblematic of the Mexican character and trapped within a succession of racial and ethnic stereotypes. Here, considering race alongside gender complicates any simple celebration of Lupe's transgressiveness, containing it within the hurtful suggestion that Mexican women are somehow unfit, that their bodies are "dirty" and too sexually charged, that their manners are crude and vulgar, that they can't govern their tongues or reign in their tempers, that they can never become "ladies," because it is not in their temperament. One recalls Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua's powerful phrase, "wild tongues can't be tamed, they can only be cut out."And that's why Lupe remained the subject of scandal, the target of gossip, who could never fit comfortably within the discourse of Hollywood glamour, despite her obvious charms and beauty.

The little girl who sold her kisses for glamour photographs always seemed too coarse, too "exotic," too "non-white" to fit into the inner circle. Schulberg quotes a dignified Mexican gentleman who he met on the train, "Del Rio, si! Velez, no!", implying that even in Mexico, Velez was perceived as a national embarrassment, lacking the refinement and grace that made Del Rio a star. The Lupe Velez story, which always threatens to spill over into such bad taste that it can't be told at all, walks an unstable line between farce and tragedy, between the absurdity of aspiring to cross class and racial lines and the melodrama of being rejected from the place that is rightfully yours.

Nowhere is the relationship between the two so clear as in the stories that surround Velez's death. Velez, who had often startled Hollywood with talk of adopting a child, found herself pregnant, and the father, Harold Raymond, a 27 year old bit player, refused to marry her. His rejection representing perhaps the final indignity for a woman who had once claimed that "she always gets her mans." A "good catholic girl" despite her sexual transgressions, Velez found the idea of abortion unthinkable, and instead, decided to take her own life, or rather, it might be more accurate to say, to stage her own death. She had redecorated her bedroom for the occasion, all in white, and she had dressed in blue satin pajamas. She lit dozens of candles, illuminating the room with glowing light. She had her hair and nails done, had the room filled with flowers, and lay down, having taken a lethal dose of Seconal, folding her hands in prayer upon her breast as she lay underneath a great crucifix. Hollywood Babylon describes the scene, "Her bedroom was Our Lady of Guadalupe's Chapel on her Day of Days: flowers, candles everywhere — everything aglow." Her friend, Louella Parsons reported the death in the Los Angeles Examiner, just as Lupe would have hoped: "Lupe was never lovelier as she lay there, as if slumbering....A faint smile, like secret dreams....Looking like a child taking a nappy, like a good little girl." The scene as Velez staged it and Parsons described it represented the epitome of glamour — the production of transcendent beauty, surrounded with the purity and illumination associated with whiteness.

However, even at the moment of her death, as Kenneth Anger and others have reported, her grotesque body erupted, refusing to be contained by such classical imagery. When her maid opened the door the next morning, she found not the image of glistening whiteness Velez had imagined, but a foul smelling mess. Having consumed a huge Mexican meal and drunken more than her share earlier in the evening, the sleeping pills hit Lupe's stomach badly. As Anger writes, "The bed was empty. The aroma of scented candles, the fragerance of tuberoses almost, but not quite masked a stench recalling that left by Skid-Row derelicts. Juanita traced the vomit trail from the bed, following the spotty track over to the orchid-tiled bathroom. There she found her mistress, Senorita Velez, head jammed down in the toilet bowl, drowned."