Lady of the Pavements opened in 1929 to rave reviews. Although directed by the distinguished D.W. Griffith, recognized as a master even then, it was Lupe Vélez’s performance both on and off screen that got all the attention. While Griffith was reinventing his style with the emergence of sound, Vélez was just beginning to make her mark on Hollywood. She did not receive top billing, but as one Variety review noted, “…Vélez gets everything in the picture; nine-tenths of the close-ups are hers….” Although Lady of the Pavements is all but forgotten today, the film is an intriguing look at Griffith’s attempts to build a career into the sound era and Vélez’s brief burst of fame.
David Llewelyn Wark Griffith had directed landmark films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), and Way Down East (1920), pioneering a seamless language for narrative film. By the mid-1920s, however, his popularity with audiences had waned considerably. In 1924, he traveled to Germany to make Isn’t Life Wonderful, his last film at United Artists, a production company he had co-founded with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Shot on location with several non-professional actors, the film was a semi-documentary account of economic depression in Germany. The film failed at the box office, and Griffith found it financially impossible to produce independently at United Artists. Instead, he joined Paramount Pictures as a director-for-hire, with the studio agreeing to pay off his most pressing debts. Griffith helped vaudevillian W.C. Fields launch his film career with Sally of the Sawdust (1925), but, after several box office failures with Paramount, the studio did not renew Griffith’s contract.
In early 1927, Griffith returned to United Artists, but not as an independent producer. Joseph Schenck, who had taken over as UA president, offered Griffith a job directing films for his independently owned Art Cinema Corporation, which distributed films through Griffith’s former company. Griffith had no choice but to accept and worked under Schenck’s supervision. He directed three films for Art Cinema, including Drums of Love (1928), The Battle of the Sexes (1929), and Lady of the Pavements (1929).
Schenck had full control of Pavements. Writer Sam Taylor had planned to direct the film but was preoccupied with Mary Pickford’s Coquette (1929). Schenck assigned Griffith, giving him a completed shooting script, which was based on German author Karl Vollmoeller’s story “La Paiva.” Schenck selected Lupe Vélez as the leading lady after the success of her performance opposite Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in The Gaucho (1927). He also chose William Boyd (a DeMille discovery) and French actress Jetta Goudal as principal cast members.
Lady of the Pavements reunited Griffith with cinematographer G.W. “Billy” Bitzer, well known for his work on The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The two had worked closely together until the late teens, when Bitzer’s battles with depression and drinking negatively affected his career. On Lady of the Pavements, Bitzer was billed as “assistant” to lead photographer Karl Struss. The film referenced German Weimar cinema, shooting with the “entfesselte Kamera,” a moving camera first used by Karl Freund in F.W. Murnau’s 1924 Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh). Although praised by contemporary critics for its handsome photography and sets, Pavements did not draw big audiences. Historian Richard Schickel believes the lack of interest derives from the absence of Griffith’s customary handiwork—suspenseful scenarios, elaborate costumes, battle scenes, and historical figures.
As an active heroine in Pavements, Lupe Vélez defies the typical Griffith female protagonist, steeped in Victorian mores. A charismatic and manipulative cabaret singer and prostitute, she dresses in glamorous gowns and passes as a noblewoman to fool Prussian Count Karl von Arnim. The rags-to-riches element of a Lillian Gish-type heroine are on display, but Vélez’s potent character does not need any rescuing. Vélez embraced her role in promoting the film, attending the premieres and living up to reviews, which focused on her rowdy nature rather than on the story or technical issues.
Born Maria Guadalupe Vélez de Villalobos in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, on July 18, 1909, Lupe Vélez started as a dancer in a musical show in Mexico City. After her success in The Gaucho and Lady of the Pavements, she starred in Wolf Song with Gary Cooper, Where East Is East, costarring Lon Chaney, and Tiger Rose, all from 1929. She had a few well-publicized relationships with Hollywood stars, including with Cooper. In 1934, she married Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller, divorcing him after five years. In the 1930s, Vélez was primarily a B-movie actress, with her biggest starring role in a series of seven “Mexican Spitfire” films between 1939 and 1943.
When she wasn’t flaunting her sexuality onscreen, Vélez earned a reputation off-screen as infantile, irrational, and occasionally violent. Photoplay gossip columnist Cal York wrote in 1930, “When you enter the house [Vélez] screams ‘I hate you. Get out of my house.’ But when you want to leave she locks the door and throws the key away. You can’t get out until she lets you out.” In one interview, “Whoopie Lupe” herself said, “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.”
In 1944, at the age of 35, Vélez returned to Mexico and appeared in Roberto Gavaldón’s Nana, based on the novel by Émile Zola. It was her first dramatic role in seven years and many critics saw it as a comeback opportunity. The resurgence was short lived. Nana was her last film. A yearlong affair with bit player Harald Maresch left Vélez pregnant. Knowing an illegitimate child would end her career, Vélez took an overdose of sleeping pills and died at her Beverly Hills home on December 13, 1944.
Director Griffith shot Pavements as a silent film and then re-shot several sequences for the transition to sound. He had already experimented with sound in 1921’s Dream Street, which featured music and effects recorded on discs. For Pavements, Griffith added a few scenes of dialogue and songs by Irving Berlin for Vélez (including “Where Is the Song of Songs for Me?,” which would become a hit). He tried making the sound more realistic by increasing and decreasing the volume of Vélez’s singing voice as she approached and retreated from the camera. Unfortunately, the new technology couldn’t yet accommodate Griffith’s vision.
Griffith was unhappy about the addition of sound to cinema. He believed filmmakers needed to use the “technique, which has made motion pictures what they are today, and add the dialogue…[filmmakers] must preserve the speed, action, swirl, life, and tempo of the modern picture today.” After the premiere of Pavements, Griffith predicted “sound film would force the drama from the stage and spell the end of the silent film.” While stars like Lupe Vélez blossomed with the coming of sound, some directors, including Griffith, found that the end of silent film was also the death knell of their careers.
Presented at SFSFF 2009 with live music by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton