Monday 19 March 2018

Obituary: Lupita Tovar

Mexican silent movie actress who went on to star in the Spanish language version of 'Dracula'

Smash hit: Eduardo Arozamena, as Van Helsing, and Lupita Tovar, as Eva Seward, in the Spanish version of ‘Dracula’ in 1931. Photo: Everett/REX/Shutterstock
Smash hit: Eduardo Arozamena, as Van Helsing, and Lupita Tovar, as Eva Seward, in the Spanish version of ‘Dracula’ in 1931. Photo: Everett/REX/Shutterstock

Lupita Tovar, who has died aged 106, was thought to be the last surviving actress who starred as an adult in silent movies.

She later appeared in Hispanic versions of Hollywood films and became known as the "Sweetheart of Mexico" for her lead role in Santa (1932), the country's first talking picture.

She was born Guadalupe Tovar in Tehuantepec, Mexico, on July 27, 1910, the oldest of nine children of a devout Catholic mother and railway worker father. Modern music and films were forbidden in the Tovar household and it was only when, aged 16, she changed schools and took up dance lessons, that she struck on the idea of a career in showbusiness.

In 1926, after a chance encounter with the film director Robert Flaherty, Tovar was offered a screen test in Hollywood with Fox Studios. Having signed with Fox, her first role was to be the female lead in The Black Watch (1929), but the film's director was enjoying a liaison with the actress Myrna Loy, so Tovar had to settle for a supporting part.

She fared better in The Veiled Woman and Joy Street with Lois Moran (both 1929), but had only a minor role in The Cock-Eyed World (1929). "The early movies I made were all silent," she said. "Fortunately one didn't have to think about dialogue and had gorgeous musicians playing mood music the entire time."

The studio arranged for English language classes and she took dancing lessons from Rita Hayworth's father, Eduardo Cansino. But with the arrival of "sound", Fox executives were doubtful as to whether Tovar had a future since her grasp of English diction was poor.

By now Hollywood was in uproar. Actors made famous during the silent era suddenly found their careers were over.

Concerned about the loss of world audiences with the "talkies", the casting director Paul Kohner had suggested to the film mogul Carl Laemmle that there would be a market for foreign language versions of current box-office successes. Kohner approached Tovar and in 1930 she began filming The Cat Creeps, the Hispanic version of The Cat and the Canary (1927), opposite Antonio Moreno.

The film was a smash hit in her native Mexico, and at the Mexican premiere, she was "treated like royalty with thousands of fans and well-wishers coming to greet me from my train".

Back in Hollywood, she played Eva in the Spanish version of Dracula (1931), using the same sets and with the same costumes the director Tod Browning used in his original starring Bela Lugosi. The Spanish cast filmed during the night while the American cast shot during the day.

In the Spanish version, however, Tovar was allowed to wear more revealing gowns than her American counterpart. "Mexican and Latin American audiences wanted something sexier."

Her next role was in Santa (1932). It was Mexico's biggest grossing motion picture for almost 40 years and she became so famous in Mexico that she could not walk the streets or travel in a car without blacked-out windows.

After being signed to Columbia Pictures, Tovar made East of Borneo (1931) and the western Border Law (1931), starring Buck Jones. The following year, however, she left the studio after Kohner proposed to her, and the couple were married by a rabbi at Kohner's parents' house in Czechoslovakia.

In 1934 she was given the lead role by Buster Keaton to star opposite him in The Invader.

After production she joined her husband in Germany but the Kohners decided to leave the following year, and despite being detained for a while at the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia, they eventually made it back to New York by boat.

She returned to Hollywood and made a string of films including The Fighting Gringo (1939) and Green Hell (1940). She also tested for the part of Humphrey Bogart's mistress in Casablanca (1943), but lost out to Ingrid Bergman who had a better grasp of a French accent.

Kohner opened a talent agency in 1938, where many of his early clients were European actors who had fled from the Nazis.

In 1982 a four peso stamp bearing Lupita's image from Santa was reissued to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the film's premiere.

Paul Kohner died in 1988. Lupita, who died on November 13, is survived by her son, Pancho Kohner, and daughter, the actress Susan Kohner. Her grandsons are the producer/director/screenwriters Chris and Paul Weitz.

© Telegraph

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