Most comedy series from the Golden Age of Hollywood relied on a specific formula to crank out installments. Universal’s Blondie series always saw hapless husband Dagwood getting into one predicament after another only to be rescued by his much more sensible wife Blondie, while the Bowery Boys would get into comedic trouble just by showing up at a location.
RKO Pictures’ Mexican Spitfire series fits firmly into the formula mold, but also managed to keep itself fresh through the energy between two of its lead actors, despite the increasing staleness of some its jokes.
Turner Classic Movies will be running all eight of the Mexican Spitfire movies tomorrow starting at 9 am Eastern.
The titular spitfire of the series is Mexican actress Lupe Velez, a raven haired beauty who moved north of the boarder to pursue a career in Hollywood. Although she had landed some small roles that parlayed on her exotic beauty, it wasn’t until she was cast in the lead of the 1939 RKO comedy The Girl From Mexico that she became a star. In the film, Velez starred as Carmelita, a beautiful singer who falls in love with ad man Dennis Lindsay (Donald Woods), who has hired her to sing on a radio show. Dennis’ fiancée Elizabeth is none to happy with the new girl Dennis seems to be paying an inordinate amount of attention to, while Carmelita hits it off with Dennis’ Uncle Matt (Leon Errol). After a little more than an hour of screwball antics, Carmelita’s broken English malapropisms, slapstick and farce, Dennis and Carmelita are the ones on the way to the altar and presumable a happy ending.
The film turned out to be an audience favorite and RKO quickly put a sequel, Mexican Spitfire, into production. The plot, which capitalized on Velez’s chemistry with Errol, featured Errol in the double role of Uncle Matt and an absent-minded, high society business associate of Dennis’ by the name of Lord Basil Epping. As Uncle Matt and Epping share an uncanny resemblance to each other, the plot quickly degenerates into a mistaken identity farce with Uncle Matt impersonating Epping, leading to inevitable confusion and comedy.
The success of Mexican Spitfire and the chemistry between Velez and Errol quickly cemented the formula of all subsequent series entries- the bungling Carmelita and Uncle Matt cause problems for the beleaguered Dennis. In the course of a harebrained attempt to set things right, Matt will need to impersonate Lord Epping, usually right at the same time the real Lord Epping shows up. The only thing that varied would be either the location (Mexican Spitfire Out West, 1940) or the circumstances of Carmelita’s screw up (Mexican Spitfire Sees A Ghost, 1942). In fact, the role of Carmelita’s husband Dennis became quickly inconsequential compared to the antics between Carmelita and Uncle Matt that one barely notices when the role passes from Woods to Charles “Buddy” Rogers to Walter Reed as the series progresses.
Incidentally, the sixth entry in the series, Mexican Spitfire Sees A Ghost, is notoriously remembered as the top half on a double bill it shared with Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons!
But for as much fun as it appeared Velez was having making the films and that audiences were having seeing them, her life would take a tragic turn. A year after the release of what would become the series’ final entry, titled ironically Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event, Velez committed suicide, despondent over being pregnant out of wedlock. As a Catholic, Lupez would not even consider getting an abortion and her lover, married actor Harald Maresch, would not leave his wife for her.
Although the sordid circumstances of her death may overshadow the other facets of her life, Velez’s work in the Mexican Spitfire series stands out as an example of how a performer can overcome and elevate mediocre material.