Trivia question: what was the first comedy series to feature a hot-tempered, Latin-born musical performer who mangled the English language and launched into paroxysms of invective en Espanol when angered by a Caucasian spouse?
If you said I Love Lucy, you’d be wrong. The correct answer is Mexican Spitfire, a series of eight, feature-length “B” comedies from RKO Radio Pictures starring Lupe Velez, now available in a delightful four-disc set from the Warner Archive Collection. More than a decade before Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz broke ground as (arguably) TV’s first interracial couple, the Mexican Spitfire films introduced American audiences to Carmelita Fuentes (Velez), a hot-blooded singer from south of the border who marries ad man Dennis Lindsay (Donald Woods). The misadventures continued for four years (1939-1943) as director Leslie Goodwins churned out the successful series despite Velez’s infamous off-screen romantic travails with a who’s who of Hollywood icons.
The similarities between Spitfire and Lucy are striking. Both are based in New York City, interrupt the action for musical numbers in nightclubs, generate laughs from broad slapstick, and feature a partner-in-crime who conspires with the protagonist, much to the consternation of the spouse. But unlike in Lucy, the fiery Latin in Spitfire is the female. In fact the role of the spouse was so marginal it ended up being played by three different actors in eight films: Canadian-born Woods (the best) in the first three; WINGS leading man Charles “Buddy” Rogers (the worst) in the middle three; and Walter Reed (just okay) in the final two.
The true stars of the Spitfire films series are not the wife and the husband, but rather the wife and the husband’s uncle, hilariously portrayed by Australian comic actor Leon Errol. To extend the metaphor, the 60-ish Errol is the “Ethel Mertz” of Mexican Spitfire, getting into all manner of misadventures, thanks to Carmelita’s well-intentioned but harebrained schemes to help her husband’s advertising business.
After a third-billed debut in the THE GIRL FROM MEXICO (1939), Vaudeville vet Errol was promoted to sidekick in the second offering, MEXICAN SPITFIRE (1940), and shared above-the-title status with the leading lady in the next six entries. As the series progressed, Errol’s screen time grew to exceed Velez’s, in part due to the introduction of a second character played by the actor: Lord Basil Epping, an absent-minded, British distillery magnate courted by Dennis’ firm. Errol played Lord Epping in a toupee and bushy moustache and, to make matters even more confusing, Uncle Matt often disguised himself as Epping – in a toupee and bushy mustache. This was the best idea Goodwins and principal writer Charles E. Roberts had and they beat it mercilessly into the ground, essentially recycling the same plot in movie after movie.
But the real spark of the Spitfire films is Velez, the Mexican stunner who began her film career in Hal Roach-produced comedy shorts with Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase, and made her feature debut opposite Douglas Fairbanks (rumored to be her lover) in The Gaucho (1927). Tragically, she is best known today for the (untrue) urban legend of “drowning in the toilet” after a fatal Seconal overdose at age 36, but Velez should be remembered as one of the great comediennes of her era. She has impeccable timing, an infectious screen presence, and her improvisational chemistry with Errol is a thing of beauty. While the series became increasingly derivative as it proceeded, it almost doesn’t matter. Velez and Errol appear to be having such a good time – Goodwins intentionally kept in moments where they crack each other up – that the plots become secondary. I only wish Roberts and Goodwins (a veteran of slapstick short subjects) had spent more time exploring the charming dynamic between Carmelita and Uncle Matt, and less time recycling the masquerade schtick with Matt and Lord Epping, funny though it is.
Multi-installment “B” comedies were, in many ways, the precursors of the television situation comedy. While the sitcom format originated on episodic radio with shows like Fibber McGee and Molly and countless others, theatrically released filmed comedy series are arguably more analogous, particularly when the humor is primarily visual. A good example is Blondie, based on Chic Young’s popular newspaper comic strip, with 28 slapstick-filled installments produced by Columbia between 1938 and 1950. Like in Blondie and other similar series, the Spitfire films feature a core cast of characters in consistent settings, with the comedy arising from contrived situations.
The supporting cast in the Spitfire films is particularly strong. English actress Elisabeth Risdon is the primary antagonist as Matt’s wife Della, recycling the familiar shrewish wife trope from Errol’s long-running RKO series of two-reelers. Linda Hayes plays Dennis’ fiancée (and later, ex-fiancée) Elizabeth who, in a testament to Goodwins’ love of recycling, manages to appear in three films, despite Dennis’ marriage to Carmelita at the end of the first. Lydia Bilbrook plays Lady Ada Epping in six installments. Slow-burn specialist Donald McBride is Dennis’ boss in the first, and then a different character in MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST (1942). Sexy Marion Martin also plays two different characters in three films, as does Charles Coleman. Recognizable character actor Tom Kennedy appears in three installments, each time in a different “blue collar” role. And silent film leading lady Zazu Pitts plays the same character (though with entirely different personalities) in MEXICAN SPITFIRE’S BABY (1941) and the follow-up, MEXICAN SPITFIRE AT SEA (1942).
In this sense, the Spitfire cast is almost like a repertory company, which contributes to the fun, but not necessarily to storytelling continuity. At the height of the series, new “episodes” were hitting theaters roughly every three months, yet the producers routinely ignore key plot details from film to film. Characters who’ve met don’t remember they’ve met, or appear to forget aspects of their previous meetings if it serves the “mistaken identity” narrative. But the biggest inconsistency regards Matt’s masquerade as Epping, which always fools everyone, despite the fact that he’s been caught in the act numerous times. Granted, Goodwins and the writers never planned for a reality where viewers could watch all eight movies at home over a weekend, but it’s crazy to expect that an audience watching a sequel won’t remember what happened three months ago.
But these are minor nitpicks about films I have only recently discovered but already grown to love. If all you know about Lupe Velez is the greatly embellished story of how her life ended, the Mexican Spitfire films will remind you why so many cared about her in the first place.
I’m not alone in loving Lupe, apparently. A biopic starring Ana de la Reguera as Lupe was announced earlier this year, and a recently released biography promises to clear up many of the misconceptions about Velez’s complicated private life, and her unfortunate death. Written by Michelle Vogel (with a foreword by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow), Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s Mexican Spitfire suggests that evidence indicates Lupe did not have an affair with superstar Douglas Fairbanks during the filming of her first feature, THE GAUCHO (1927). Vogel reports that Velez did have a relationship with director Victor Fleming, which came to an end when she met Gary Cooper, her co-star on Fleming’s THE WOLF SONG (1929).
“Despite the fact that they never made it to the altar,” Vogel writes, “by Lupe’s own admission, Gary Cooper remained the love of her life.” The lovers’ passion often morphed into physical violence, and Lupe reportedly stabbed Cooper in the arm and attempted once to shoot him. Their dysfunctional relationship came to an end when Lupe wed TARZAN star Johnny Weissmuller on October 8, 1933. Cooper married Veronica “Rocky” Balfe two months later, on December 15.
Eleven years later, on December 14, 1944, Lupe committed suicide. She was unmarried (after her divorce from Weissmuller in 1938) and four months pregnant, reportedly with the child of Austrian actor Harald Ramond. Lupe took 75 Seconal pills, a huge overdose, and “died an almost instantaneous death” in her bed.
But another possibility exists: that Velez was pregnant with Gary Cooper’s child.
The Mexican Spitfire Complete 8 Movie Collection
Format: Made To Order (M.O.D.) DVD
Quantity: 4 discs/2 films per disc
Special Features: none
1) THE GIRL FROM MEXICO
Release date: June 2, 1939 Duration: 71 minutes
Director: Leslie Goodwins Producer: Robert Sisk
Writer: Lionel Hauser and Joseph A. Fields (screenplay) Lionel Hauser (story)
Cast: Lupe Velez (Carmelita Fuentes), Donald Woods (Dennis Lindsay), Leon Errol (Uncle Matt), Donald McBride (L.B. Renner, Dennis’ boss), Linda Hayes (Elizabeth Price, Dennis’ fiancée), Elizabeth Risdon (Aunt Della), Frank Yaconelli (San Proximo Hotel proprietor)
Synopsis: “We’ll get you the best singer in Mexico!” advertising agency boss L.B. Renner tells an important client as the film opens. Soon after, handsome young account executive Dennis Lindsay finds himself in the small Mexican town of San Proximo, courting a beautiful young singer who works at the local hotel. Dennis brings Carmelita back to his New York apartment to prepare for her audition, much to the dismay of his conniving fiancee Elizabeth and his judgmental Aunt Della. But Carmelita hits it off with Dennis’ Uncle Matt, and the two head out for a night on the town – leaving the vocalist hoarse and unable to sing. Dennis is forced to “fire” Carmelita, who takes a job singing at Mexican Pete’s Casa Del Toro. Uncle Matt hatches a plan to make Dennis fall for the Mexican Spitfire, and everything ends happily – on the altar.
Notes: Unquestionably the best entry in the series, THE GIRL FROM MEXICO is also the least like the other Spitfire films. This is essentially a musical comedy, and Lupe’s Carmen Miranda-esque song and dance numbers make me wonder why the producers didn’t allow her to spend more time on stage in later entries. Velez is also extremely goofy here, engaging in self-consciously broad tics that were scaled back in subsequent entries. Grade: A+
2) MEXICAN SPITFIRE
Release date: January 12, 1940 Duration: 67 minutes
Director: Leslie Goodwins Producer: Cliff Reid
Writer: Joseph A. Fields and Charles E. Roberts (screenplay) Joseph A. Fields (story)
Cast: Lupe Velez (Carmelita Lindsay), Leon Errol (Uncle Matt/Lord Epping), Donald Woods (Dennis Lindsay), Linda Hayes (Elizabeth Price), Elizabeth Risdon (Aunt Della), Cecil Kellaway (Mr. Chumley), Charles Coleman (Ponsby, the butler)
Synopsis: “When I think of Dennis jilting a lovely girl like Elizabeth to marry that little Mexican wildcat, I can hardly contain myself,” Aunt Della tells Uncle Matt as they wait at the airport to greet the returning honeymooners. Thanks to the machinations of Dennis’ now ex-fiancée Elizabeth, potential client Lord Basil Epping mistakes Carmelita for Dennis’ secretary. When Epping cancels a dinner invitation at the Lindsay’s Central Park West apartment, Carmelita hatches a plot: Matt will masquerade as Epping to teach Elizabeth and Della a lesson. But the real thing shows up unexpectedly, and two Lord Eppings prove to not be better than one. Carmelita heads back to Mexico for a divorce, but returns just in time to stop Dennis from marrying the cara de perro, Elizabeth.
Notes: As much a reboot as a sequel, MEXICAN SPITFIRE establishes the metier for the remainder of the series: slapstick buddy comedy. The extended dinner party sequence with two Lord Eppings is a hilarious comedy of logistics, nearly as funny and well-staged as the iconic mirror sequence in the Marx Bros.’ DUCK SOUP (1933). But Goodwins makes one important mistake: he allows Aunt Della to catch Uncle Matt in the act of dressing up. This should prevent her from falling for the gag each of the next six times, but it doesn’t. The weakest link in this film is the climax, which descends into a Three Stooges-style “cake fight,” a lazy conclusion to an otherwise ingenious picture. Grade: A
3) MEXICAN SPITFIRE OUT WEST
Release date: November 29, 1940 Duration: 76 minutes
Director: Leslie Goodwins Producer: Cliff Reid
Writer: Charles E. Roberts and Jack Townley (screenplay) Charles E. Roberts (story)
Cast: Lupe Velez (Carmelita Lindsay), Leon Errol (Uncle Matt/Lord Epping), Donald Woods (Dennis Lindsay), Linda Hayes (Elizabeth Price), Elizabeth Risdon (Aunt Della), Cecil Kellaway (Mr. Chumley), Lydia Bilbrook (Lady Ada Epping – first appearance), Eddie Dunn (George Skinner, Dennis’ competitor), Charles Quigley (Roberts, Dennis’ business partner), Tom Kennedy (Cabbie), Charles Coleman (Ponsby, the butler)
Synopsis: Carmelita celebrates her first wedding anniversary – by going to Reno for a divorce. Everyone follows (for conveniently coincidental reasons), including Skinner, another ad man trying to win Lord Epping’s business. Before the real Epping arrives, Carmelita (again) convinces Matt to don the hairpiece and false mustache and she and fake Lord Epping lead Dennis to believe they are in love. Matters are further complicated by an appearance by the previously unseen Lady Ada Epping, who ends up in a hotel room with both of her husbands. Carmelita drags the man she thinks is Matt back to his room, much to the screaming chagrin of Aunt Della. And Matt and Lord Epping end up side by side in twin beds, in the series’ first of many meta moments.
Notes: We’re only three films in, and Lupe Velez is already sliding out of the spotlight. As both Matt and Epping, Leon Errol is in nearly every frame of the movie, often twice. His antics are undoubtedly amusing, but Lupe’s lengthy disappearances are frustrating. This is also the final appearance of original Dennis Donald Woods, the only one of her three Spitfire leading men with whom Lupe had any real chemistry, and his departure is a loss. Grade: B+
4) MEXICAN SPITFIRE’S BABY
Release Date: November 28, 1941 Duration: 69 minutes
Director: Leslie Goodwins Producer: Cliff Reid
Writer: Jerry Cady and Charles E. Roberts (story and screenplay)
Cast: Lupe Velez (Carmelita Lindsay), Leon Errol (Uncle Matt/Lord Epping), Charles “Buddy” Rogers (Dennis Lindsay – first appearance), Elizabeth Risdon (Aunt Della), Fritz Feld (Lt. Pierre Gaston de la Blanc), Zasu Pitts (Miss Emily Pepper), Marion Martin (Fifi, the “baby”), Lydia Bilbrook (Lady Ada Epping), Lloyd Corrigan (Chumley – recast), Tom Kennedy (Lake County Sheriff)
Synopsis: Dennis and Carmelita celebrate their first wedding anniversary (again) by adopting a “French war orphan” – a gorgeous buxom blonde named Fifi, courtesy of Lord Epping. “It’s a little early for this war, so I picked one out from the last war,” he explains. Uncle Matt fears Aunt Della will get the wrong idea, so he takes “the baby” to a lakeside inn. Busybody hotel manager Miss Pepper suspects them of being on a “rendezvous” and investigates by hiding under the bed. Aunt Della shows up, and Matt claims that “Fifi” is actually Epping’s fiancée – but the only way to prove that is by, you guessed it, disguising himself as Epping. This seems like a great idea until the real Lord Epping shows up with Lady Epping, and Fifi’s jilted fiance Pierre challenges Epping to a duel. Matt begins the duel in costume but not before he’s hauled off by the local sheriff for impersonating Epping.
Notes: A flawed but fun entry. German actor Fritz Feld as Pierre is a welcome addition to this film, as are Zazu Pitts and Marion Martin, but the expanding cast means even less screen time for Lupe. Brutish character actor Tom Kennedy, so memorable as the New York cabbie who drives the real Lord Epping OUT WEST in the previous entry is back here as the local sheriff. Kennedy playing a different role, plus the re-casts of Dennis and Mr. Chumley add to an overall continuity mess. Matt’s arrest really should put an end to his impersonations of Lord Epping, but it doesn’t. Epping’s signing of the contract, essentially buying one third of Dennis’ firm should put an end to the “we need Lord Epping to sign the contract” storylines, but it also doesn’t. Biggest frustration: Lupe fools around with a piano, but doesn’t sing. Why? Grade: B
5) MEXICAN SPITFIRE AT SEA
Release Date: March 13, 1942 Duration: 69 minutes
Director: Leslie Goodwins Producer: Cliff Reid
Writer: Jerry Cady and Charles E. Roberts (story and screenplay)
Cast: Lupe Velez (Carmelita Lindsay), Leon Errol (Uncle Matt/Lord Epping), Charles “Buddy” Rogers (Dennis Lindsay), Elizabeth Risdon (Aunt Della), Zasu Pitts (Miss Emily Pepper), Marion Martin (Fifi), Lydia Bilbrook (Lady Ada Epping), Eddie Dunn (George Skinner), Harry Holman (Joshua Baldwin), Florence Bates (Mrs. Baldwin)
Synopsis: Dennis and Carmelita are headed to Hawaii on a honeymoon cruise (even though they got back from their honeymoon at the beginning of the second film). By strange coincidence, Uncle Matt and Aunt Della are also along for the ride, as are the Eppings, Dennis’ business rival Skinner, Miss Emily Pepper (the hotel manager from MEXICAN SPITFIRE’S BABY) and the “baby” herself, Fifi. Carmelita quickly gets her knickers in a twist because Dennis is also trying to conduct business on the boat with a potential wealthy client, Joshua Baldwin. The buffoonish Baldwins want desperately to meet the Eppings, who are “traveling incognito.” One problem: Lord Epping doesn’t know the name he and his wife are traveling under, so he can’t find her once he gets on the boat. After Carmelita and Dennis fight, she comes up with the bright idea that Uncle Matt should masquerade as Epping and convince Dennis to reconcile. Dennis unintentionally brings fake Lord Epping to the Baldwins’ stateroom, but they want to meet Lady Epping too, so Matt and Carmelita talk Miss Pepper into impersonating her. When the real Lord and Lady Epping show up at the same party, there’s some splaining to do.
Notes: Even though she got him arrested for impersonating Lord Epping in the last film, Miss Pepper and Matt seem to have no memory of each other, and she is fooled by the Epping costume. Why even bother to call her by the same name, particularly since the writers decided to change the character from a hotel manager into an actress for their narrative convenience? Fifi also doesn’t remember Lord Epping. And Matt doesn’t remember Fifi. Lupe Velez is starting to look tired, as are the writers. Grade: B-
6) MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST
Release Date: June 26, 1942 Duration: 75 minutes
Director: Leslie Goodwins Producer: Cliff Reid
Writer: Charles E. Roberts and Monty Brice (story and screenplay)
Cast: Lupe Velez (Carmelita Lindsay), Leon Errol (Uncle Matt/Lord Epping), Charles “Buddy” Rogers (Dennis Lindsay – final appearance), Elizabeth Risdon (Aunt Della), Donald McBride (Percy Fitzbadden), Minna Gombell (Edith Fitzbadden), Lillian Randolph (Hyacinth, the maid), Mantan Moreland (Lightnin’)
Synopsis: Dennis is now working for Epping Ltd. and courting financing from wealthy fussbudget Percy Fitzbadden. With the boss off on a hunting trip in Canada, Dennis must host Mr. Fitzbadden and his sister at the Epping country estate – which Bascombe the realtor informs him is haunted. Unbeknownst to Dennis, Bascombe is actually a gangster, operating an illegal nitroglycerin lab in the basement with two henchmen. Posing as a maid and butler, Matt and Carmelita bring the Fitzbaddens to the estate, where they are shocked to find no Lord Epping. To prevent the Fitzbaddens from leaving, Matt dons the disguise (like he did “once before,” he says). Soon the real Epping shows up, and the typical confusion and near misses occur. When unexplainable things start happening in the house, the disturbances are blamed on ghosts, until the gangsters try to escape with their combustible contraband which, of course, combusts.
Notes: Ouch, this is a clunker. After gradually declining in quality, the series falls through the floor in the sixth entry. It’s unfortunate, because there’s so much potential here. Though hackneyed, the “haunted house that’s not really haunted” plot could have given Lupe and Errol so many comedic opportunities, but Goodwins insists on shoehorning the Lord Epping impersonation into the plot once again. Donald McBride, so memorable as Dennis’ boss in the first film, returns as Fitzbadden, and the amount of screen time he’s given is a testament to how the producers appear to have tired of their own cast. Sadly, the film opens with an exchange that would be rendered poignant just two years later: “Go ahead, get old,” Carmelita says to Dennis. “I’m going to be young all my life.” Grade: C
7) MEXICAN SPITFIRE’S ELEPHANT
Release Date: September 17, 1942 Duration: 64 minutes
Director: Leslie Goodwins Producer: Bert Gilroy (first appearance)
Writer: Charles E. Roberts (screenplay) Charles E. Roberts and Leslie Goodwins (story)
Cast: Lupe Velez (Carmelita Lindsay), Leon Errol (Uncle Matt/Lord Epping), Walter Reed (Dennis Lindsay – first appearance), Elizabeth Risdon (Aunt Della), Lydia Bilbrook (Lady Ada Epping), Lyle Talbot (Reddy Madison, a jewel smuggler), Marion Martin (Diana De Corro, Madison’s moll), Luis Alberni (Luigi), Arnold Kent (Jose Alvarez, dancer at Villa Luigi), Tom Kennedy (Joe, Villa Luigi bartender)
Synopsis: On the boat to the U.S. to appear at a fundraiser for Aunt Della’s Women’s War Relief Association, Lord Epping is made an unwitting accomplice to a diamond smuggling plot. Beautiful blond Diana gives him a small onyx elephant containing a million dollar jewel, which Epping promptly loses, to the consternation of violent gangster Reddy Madison. Back in New York, Carmelita (as always, in a tiff with Dennis) goes to work as a singer and dancer at Villa Luigi, and convinces Matt to masquerade again (“Remember that time you put on a goat face like Lord Epping?” she asks him.) The elephant finally turns up at the benefit, just in time to save Epping – from everyone except Aunt Della.
Notes: Behind the scenes changes: after five films as producer, Cliff Reid is replaced by Bert Gilroy; Walter Reed succeeds Charles “Buddy” Rogers in the role of Dennis; director Leslie Goodwins has a co-writing credit for the first time in the series; Lupe Velez gets a hair color change (brunette to strawberry blond); Marion Martin (Fifi) returns in a different role (as Diana, the jewel thief); and, most importantly, Velez is allowed to strut her musical stuff again for the first time since THE GIRL FROM MEXICO. She does three numbers, one as a singer and two as a dancer (paired with Arnold Kent, making his feature film debut). Perhaps after the debacle that was MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST, RKO decided it was time to return to the roots of the series. If that was the case, it worked. ELEPHANT is the third-best film in the series. Sadly, it’s also the second-to-last. Grade: B+
8) MEXICAN SPITFIRE’S BLESSED EVENT
Release Date: July 17, 1943 Duration: 63 minutes
Director: Leslie Goodwins Producer: Bert Gilroy
Writer: Charles E. Roberts and Dane Lussier (screenplay) Charles E. Roberts (story)
Cast: Lupe Velez (Carmelita Lindsay), Leon Errol (Uncle Matt/Lord Epping), Walter Reed (Dennis Lindsay), Elizabeth Risdon (Aunt Della), Lydia Bilbrook (Lady Ada Epping), Hugh Beaumont (George Sharpe, Dennis’s competitor), Charles Coleman (Parkins, Lord Epping’s butler), Marietta Canty (Verbena, Carmelita’s maid), Alan Carney (Sagebrush Inn bartender), Wally Brown (Sagebrush Inn desk clerk),
Synopsis: Dennis is now a Merchant Marine (it’s WWII, remember) on two-week leave, and apparently no longer working for Epping, Ltd. He, Uncle Matt and Aunt Della are at Epping’s hunting lodge in Canada, trying to get him to sign a contract (again), when they receive a telegram from the Sagebrush Inn about Carmelita’s “blessed event.” Soon, the entire cast (along with Leave it to Beaver dad Hugh Beaumont as competitor George Sharpe) is headed to Arizona (where Carmelita is performing in a “fiesta for the soldiers”) to met the new addition to the Lindsay family. Once there, Matt discovers the blessed event really belongs to Carmelita’s pet ocelot Fuzzy Wuzzy, but Epping is there to meet a baby – and a baby there shall be! A quickie adoption at the local orphanage fails, and Carmelita poses as a nurse and “borrows” another guest’s baby, whom she introduces to Lord Epping as “Basil Lindsay.” Matt masquerades as Epping to fool Sharpe – and everyone else, including Epping himself. (In the series’ most meta moment, both Lord Eppings meet and chat.) When the borrowed baby is revealed to be the son of the local sheriff, everything comes to a somewhat violent conclusion, until the doctor makes a big announcement: Carmelita is pregnant!
Notes: After a mid-series slump, the Mexican Spitfire was back in business with two consecutive solid outings. The focus was returned to Carmelita, with greater emphasis on her relationship with Matt, and her musical talents. Sadly, this ended up being the final entry, and her last American film. Following completion of principal photography on BLESSED EVENT, Lupe returned to Mexico to appear in ROMEO Y JULIETA, a Spanish language parody of the Shakespeare play. She ultimately turned down that role, and instead accepted the titular role in NANA (1944), a Spanish melodrama. The film was a box office disappointment, and Lupe was released from her three-picture deal with the producer. NANA ended up being Lupe Velez’s final performance on film. Grade B