What ever happened to that glamorous, untouchable aura created by super celestial Hollywood stars of the classic movie period?
No “just folks” acts for them. The feet of big stars rarely, if ever, seemed to touch the ground. They were different from you and me, and not only because they were richer.
What brought this to mind was a brief but telling recollection of Dolores del Rio contained in the highly recommended memoir, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, written by veteran stage and screen actor Frank Langella.
We’ve written about del Rio before in our periodic series covering Mexican-born talent in Hollywood. One of the all-time biggest silent screen stars of the 1920s, she was born in Durango (nee Lolita Dolores Asunsolo de Martinez in 1905), and began her movie career in the mid-Twenties (Joanna, High Steppes, Pals First).
But her career flourished well after the silents were history. del Rio became noticed early on as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses. She had many romances including an extended fling with Orson Welles.
Among our Frank’s favorite performances is Dolores’ turn as a worldly-wise cabaret performer in 1943’s Journey Into Fear. As ‘Josette Martel’, the better half of a slightly cheesy husband-wife dance team (her husband is played in jaded fashion by Jack Durant), del Rio explains to costar Joseph Cotten (as ‘Howard Graham’) that her parents were very poor.
“Poor but honest, no doubt,” replies Cotten. “Oh, no,” gushes del Rio, whose character goes on to describe various nefarious and totally dishonest activities embraced by her family.
A great touch to a fine performance. (Don’t miss any opportunity to see Journey Into Fear, which costars, of course, Orson Welles.)
In his 1987 memoirs, Cotten described del Rio as “the second most beautiful woman in the world” (first place went to wife, Patricia Medina). Dolores lived in an aura of dreamland exoticism, the actor wrote. Her house and its decor were poetically conceived by Omar Kiam…The aroma of her garden was heady, and the protective wall of thick green leaves was cooled by a trickling fountain.
Looking in the back seat of her limousine, a keen observer might glimpse a quick impression of her her cuddled under layers of fur, her black eyes sparkling with humor and the joy of living.
Langella didn’t encounter del Rio until much later, in 1956 when the then 18-year-old aspiring actor was apprenticing at the Pocono Playhouse in Pennsylvania. She was touring, as stars did in those days, from summer theatre to summer theatre, playing one-week engagements to full houses of audiences anxious to see the glamour, allure and mystery celebrities of today no longer possess.
Langella writes sharply that there were no TV talk shows then for the incessant dismantling of self. If you wanted to see Miss Del Rio you had to watch her movies or venture forth of a summer’s evening.
The play at hand was Anastasia — a movie version co-starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner was made in 1956, directed by Anatole Litvak — in which del Rio (then 51) starred in the title role of a 24-year-old woman, recalls Langella.
He once asked why he never once saw del Rio at the Playhouse when she was not onstage.
Dolores’ costar at the time, character actress Lili Darvas, patiently explained that she doesn’t leave her accommodations. Never on this tour does anyone see her in daytime. She travels alone in her Rolls-Royce with her lady-in-waiting from theater to theatre and only comes out for the performances. Her shades are always drawn in her rooms to protect her skin from the light, and she lies in a bath of milk.
A fascinated Langella noted that Dolores performed “exquisitely” onstage especially as the grande dame when she departed it. At play’s end, after each actor had taken his or her bows, the stage emptied. A wait of approximately five seconds. The two center doors upstage opened, and out came Miss del Rio in a stunning white flowing gown over which hung an equally beautiful soft and voluminous long white coat.
She floated to the apron of the stage, a radiant smile on her face, and sank into a deep curtsey as the applause swelled….
Langella also noted that after the curtain fell for the final time, she immediately left the theater building — her driver, standing by the door, arm outstretched, took her hand, brought her down the steps, and put her into the waiting Rolls-Royce, its engine already humming.
Above is del Rio in Bird of Paradise with co-star Joel McCrea. In her films she often portrayed exotic or mysterious women, and looks pretty streamy here.