Dolores Del Rio in RAMONA (1928)

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“Take care of your inner, spiritual beauty. That will reflect in your face.” … Dolores Del Rio

Of his romance with her, Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman I’ve ever met.” Her friend Marlene Dietrich thought she was, “the most beautiful woman in Hollywood.” As impressive as that sounds, Dolores Del Rio was all of this and so much more.

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Drawn to the shimmering opportunities of the silent era motion picture industry, Dolores Del Rio came to Hollywood from her homeland of Mexico to soon be hailed the ‘female Rudolf Valentino.’ After a successful film career in Tinsel Town by the age of thirty-seven (when many leading ladies would be forced into retirement by Hollywood standards), Del Rio launched into a second phase of success back in Mexico. Ushering in what was called the Golden Era of Mexican Cinema, she flourished as an international film star, but now in her native language. She continued a bountiful career in film, television and theater, with her last film at the ripe age of seventy-four.

How did I not know anything about this dazzling international star and beauty? That all changed when I screened Edwin Carewe’s RAMONA (1928) at CapitolFest this summer.

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Based on Helen Hunt Jackson’s bestselling 1884 novel, RAMONA is a dramatic tale of heartbreak and racism. Adapted into film four times, with a stage production (Ramona Bowl Amphitheater in Hemet, California) that has been running annually since 1923, this story was ahead of its time and continues to appeal to audiences. The 1928 film version is a journeyed melodrama in itself. Considered a lost film for many decades, it was discovered in a vault in Prague. The good folks at the Library of Congress went through the painstaking process of restoring and transferring the nitrate film and meticulously translating intertitles from Czech into English. Since its restoration world premiere in March, 2014, I felt like the winner of the golden ticket to be one of the lucky to screen this rare silent gem.

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Dolores Del Rio portrays Ramona, a young woman of mixed ethnicities (Native American and caucasian) adopted and raised by Senora Moreno (Vera Lewis) in southern California. Senora Moreno owns an affluent sheep ranch, along with her son Felipe (Roland Drew). Ramona and Felipe are very close. The problem is, Felipe doesn’t view her as an adopted sister, he’s in love with her. The other problem is Senora Moreno’s poor treatment of Ramona. She wants Ramona to conform tightly to her upper class world but constantly treats her differently than Felipe; a reminder that she’s the beautiful black sheep of the family.

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When shearing season comes along, Native American Alessandro (Warner Baxter) and his work crew arrive at the ranch. Soon Ramona and Alessandro fall in love. Elitist Senora Morena snobbishly objects, claiming he’s beneath her class. She also takes this opportunity to express her racist bias in the discussion that her real mother was Indian. Alessandro and Ramona escape to the mountains and elope. Years go by and they have a child, living in a nearby Indian village. She has finally found true happiness. No longer living as an outsider, she finds her place in the world with a deeper connection to her Indian roots.

The joy doesn’t last for long. Tragedy after tragedy follows in horrific detail. The racist experiences are shocking and transparent on the screen. You feel such an invested commitment to her character that when unjust horrors unfold, we as an audience are devastated too. Dolores Del Rio as Ramona is stunningly beautiful and full of life. She is strong and charismatic. Her portrayal is sincere and real and I can assure the tears welling in my eyes were equally genuine.

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Of her many talents, Dolores Del Rio was a magnificent singer. Here’s an audio clip of a beautiful RAMONA song for your listening pleasure…

The stars of this film were not of Native American background, but the director was. Born Jay Fox from Texas, Edwin Carewe’s heritage is from the Chickasaw tribe. He and two of his brothers were all very successful in Hollywood as filmmakers/producers/screenwriters. His brother Finis wrote the screenplay and created the intertitles for RAMONA. Edwin Carewe was a rather fascinating and prolific filmmaker in early Hollywood. He often made a point to feature women and focus on the ‘underdog’ of a story in his films. I believe his background was ideally suited to bring out the compassionate heart to this film adaption that it deserves. Carewe is also credited as bringing Dolores Del Rio to Hollywood. (In addition to discovering Del Rio, he is also known for discovering Wallace Beery, Warner Baxter, and Gary Cooper.)

If you’re more familiar with the technicolor 1936 version (and fourth film adaption) of RAMONA which stars Loretta Young and Don Ameche as the Indian romantic leads (because they look perfectly the Indigenous part, right??), please do yourself a favor and figure out a way to see the 1928 version instead. With all apologies to the lovely and talented Loretta, Dolores was simply born to play this role.

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*This post is my proud contribution to Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of ONCE UPON A SCREEN. I am grateful to Aurora for originally introducing me to Dolores Del Rio. Be sure to read all of the fellow participants’ contributions for a wondrous celebration of hispanic artists of the silver screen.

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