Helen Hunt Jackson wrote her 1884 novel Ramona as a beacon against racism and injustice, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the Native American. Jackson, a writer and U.S. Interior Department agent, became radicalized after attending a lecture given by Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who told harrowing tales of forced removal from their lands in Nebraska and mistreatment by government agents. When her 1881 nonfiction work A Century of Dishonor and a later government report on the Mission Indians of Southern California failed to effect change, she decided to mobilize public opinion with a novel to detail the prejudice, displacement, and outright murder Native Americans suffered at the hands of intolerant whites and Mexican Americans. She created Ramona, a half-caste Indian adopted by a wealthy Mexican-American widow, who falls in love with and marries a Native American sheep shearer, only to suffer great hardship, including the death of a child after a white doctor refuses her treatment. Ramona, however, failed to accomplish its author’s mission. Instead, it became a best-seller on the strength of its central romance and picturesque rendering of Southern California.
Nonetheless, the atmospheric, authentic story Jackson wrote from her experiences among the Mission Indians struck a lasting chord with the public. Ramona has never been out of print and was adapted for the screen four times: a 1910 short directed by D.W. Griffith with Mary Pickford in the title role; a 1916 feature film (now lost) directed by Donald Crisp and starring Adda Gleason; a 1936 feature directed by Henry King with Loretta Young; and the 1928 version directed by Edwin Carewe, starring Dolores del Río.
Jackson’s story dovetails with the heritages of both the star and director of the 1928 version. Del Río grew up in privileged circumstances in Mexico City and married Jaime Martinez del Río, a British-educated lawyer from a wealthy Mexican family. Carewe, born Jay Fox and of Chickasaw ancestry, was a well-established director for First National, MGM, Universal, and Paramount. Carewe met del Río at a party in Mexico City and induced her and her husband, an aspiring screenwriter, to come to Hollywood. “He told me I was the female Valentino,” del Río recalled in a 1981 interview, a label that was picked up by the entertainment press of her time. Under the auspices of Edwin Carewe Productions and Inspiration Pictures, Carewe and his screenwriter brother Finis Fox developed properties for del Río to capitalize on her beauty and exoticism, among them an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1927), in which she played a Russian peasant girl.
At a time when “exotics” were played almost exclusively by Anglo actors and actresses, del Río won acceptance through careful image management by Carewe. He not only directed her in many of her early films but also acted as her manager, developing her on-screen persona and guiding her toward stardom. Del Río was the antithesis of Hollywood glamour when she first arrived in the United States, beautiful, but old-fashioned in her modest dress and appearance. Del Río’s public image became the responsibility of publicist Harry D. Wilson, whom Carewe hired to give her a makeover into a fashionable woman of, alternately, Mexican, Spanish, or Castilian heritage. Fashion designer Peggy Hamilton, whose most famous client was fashion plate Gloria Swanson, created a wardrobe for del Río that ranged from traditional Spanish lace to haute couture and ensured that del Río fashion spreads appeared in women’s magazines and newspapers. Del Río’s contract with Carewe specified that all her pictures would be made with “first-class scenarios and produced in a high class and artistic manner.”
Del Río made a rapid climb to stardom, usually playing innocents battered by fate or love (or both) into compromised circumstances. In only her fourth film, she played the coveted part of Charmaine de la Cognac in Raoul Walsh’s 1926 version of What Price Glory? She was ultimately unable to avoid stereotyped roles altogether—Photoplay described her in the Bizet-opera-inspired The Loves of Carmen (1927) as “raven-haired, olive-skinned sinuous-limbed Carmen”—but she escaped the fate of her her less-well-connected compatriot, Lupe Vélez, who was irretrievably typecast as a Latina sex kitten.
Ramona came to typify del Río’s early screen image. The title character is beautiful, carefree, happy, and innocent as she plays with her adopted brother Felipe. Her (wicked) stepmother pampers Felipe and openly scorns Ramona, strenuously opposing her wish to marry Alessandro, a match that would disgrace the Moreno name. Learning that she is actually half-Indian reveals the source of her stepmother’s contempt yet frees her to marry. The hardships and cruelty piled on Ramona arouse pity in the audience. The dramatic lighting of cinematographer Robert D. Kurrle almost beatifies del Río and lends dignity to a character who might just as easily have aroused prejudice. Del Río is utterly convincing as a tragic, romantic figure despite the mawkish device of amnesia she had to negotiate.
Del Río had a hit with Ramona and with the title song, which the public loved even before the movie opened. The song, performed by del Río for RCA Victor, was synched with a scene in the otherwise silent film; her version was reused for the 1936 Ramona. Del Río’s relationship with Carewe became strained as the director suggested they were romantically involved, a deception the popular press helped to spread. Carewe and Finis Fox both made claims that they were the sole reason for the actress’s success. Fox told the Los Angeles Times, “I feel that I understand Miss Del Rio better than she does herself. She has said, indeed, that she is happiest when acting in stories by me, directed by my brother. Together we contrive characterizations exactly suited to her abilities and her limitations.”
Following Ramona, del Río searched for appropriate roles to dignify her heritage. The sound era, however, saw her fortunes and those of her benefactor, Edwin Carewe, wane. Carewe did not make the transition and his career ended in 1934. He died six years later. Del Río’s second marriage to MGM art director Cedric Gibbons helped secure her as a member of the Hollywood elite, but her thick accent consigned her to ethnic roles in melodramas and a number of Busby Berkeley musical comedies. Journey into Fear (1942) was her swan song to both her lover Orson Welles (the film’s producer and uncredited director) and Hollywood. She headed back to Mexico where, over the next 30 years, she helped put the burgeoning Mexican national cinema on the map, most notably with the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner María Candelaria (1943), one of five collaborations she made with director Emilio Fernández, writer Mauricio Magdaleno, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and actor Pedro Armendáriz.
Del Río’s successes in Mexico were of little help to her as she tried to make a re-entry into Hollywood, then in the grip of McCarthyism. The star was denied a work permit to appear in 20th Century Fox’s Broken Lance (1954) because she had aided anti-Franco refugees of the Spanish Civil War. After she passionately defended herself in a letter to the House Un-American Activities Committee, she regained her U.S. work privileges. She took television and movie roles in the United States (including playing Elvis Presley’s mother in 1960’s Flaming Star), Italy, and Mexico until 1978, when she made her last film, The Children of Sanchez, an American production with fellow Mexicans Anthony Quinn and Katy Jurado. Dolores del Río died in 1983 in Newport Beach, California, leaving behind a legacy of integrity and excellence for future Latina actresses to emulate.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra