The Velvet Light Trap 55 (2005) 19-32
[Access article in PDF]
Lupe Vélez and the Ambivalent Pleasures of Ethnic Masquerade
Lupe Vélez is best remembered for her suicide. It is perhaps the most vivid story in Kenneth Anger's sensational compendium of film scandals, Hollywood Babylon. In 1944, at the age of thirty-six, Vélez found herself pregnant and jilted by the child's father, French actor Harald Ramond. Ramond agreed to marry her, but only if she signed a contract declaring that she understood he was consenting to marry her only to give a name to her child. Enraged, she called off the wedding. The Catholic Vélez could not bear to have an abortion or a child out of wedlock, so she elected to take her own life instead. She audaciously covered her bed with roses and gardenias, lit every candle in her bedroom, put on a silver lamé evening gown, and took an overdose of Seconal before lying down to die. The Seconal made her nauseous, however, and instead of drifting peacefully into an aesthetic slumber of death, Vélez drowned while vomiting into the toilet (Anger 231–38).
It is an obnoxious anecdote to start the article with, certainly, but for those who are familiar with Vélez's death the scenario colors her work in unexpected ways—ways that are better examined than ignored. Anger's narrative of her death participates in the logic of comedy—a melodrama gone awry, presumption deflated, elegance defiled. Charles Ramírez Berg points out that more people have probably heard of Lupe Vélez through a joke about her death made in the pilot episode of the sitcom Frasier in 1993 than have ever seen one of her films (92). The death of Lupe Vélez has also been the subject of an Andy Warhol film, Lupe (1965), starring Edie Sedgwick. Also treating the suicide as comedy, Warhol ends each sequence with a shot of Sedgwick's head stuck in a toilet. The only biography of Vélez in English is Floyd Conner's Lupe Velez and Her Lovers, hardly an edifying tome, which boasts on the book jacket that its heroine "changed lovers as casually as one eats breakfast." Conner gets the details of several of her films wrong, but then they are not really the focus of the book.1 Although Hollywood legend often emphasizes the cruel or the bizarre, the mocking way in which Vélez's death is often invoked references a particular set of attitudes about Mexican immigrants in the United States.
The ethnic contempt that informs this lurid joke also helped shape the downward trajectory of Vélez's career. She was first treated as a novelty and, like any novelty, was quickly demoted to the status of cliché. María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez grew up in the village of San Luis de Potosí, Mexico. After appearing in a number of Mexican stage venues, she came to California in 1926 at the invitation of Richard Bennett, who wanted her for the lead in his film The Dove (United Artists, 1927). When she arrived the director decided the seventeen year old was too young, and she was removed from the picture.2 The energetic Vélez quickly broke into American films, with a bit part in the Laurel and Hardy short Sailors Beware (Pathé, 1927) and a featured role in Douglas Fairbanks's rip-roaring The Gaucho (United Artists, 1928) as the passionate and athletic "Wild Mountain Girl" who wins the gaucho (Fairbanks) away from a saintly and sedate rival (Eve Southern).
Following this star-making performance, Vélez made the rounds of United Artist directors, working with D. W. Griffith in his first sound picture, Lady of the Pavements (United Artists, 1929), a sentimental drama in which she plays a café singer, and going to MGM to [End Page 19] work for Cecil B. DeMille in a sentimental remake of his very first film, The Squaw Man (MGM, 1931). Despite this promising start, Vélez never maintained a...