The arrival of the Lumière brothers in Mexico stirred up the ingenuity and creativity of those who inhabited these Porfirian lands. That fascination with seeing the world through a camera or a primitive projection room aroused the interest of Mexicans to tell their own stories. The charm of what was beginning to be called « cinema » inspired them to discover its forms, its adventures and, soon after, its sounds and voices. The first words of the nascent industry were those of a woman named Lupita Tovar.

On March 30, 1932, the native of Matías Romero, Oaxaca, made history. That day, the Cinema Palacio de la Ciudad de México premiered a new adaptation of Santa, famous novel by Federico Gamboa, which would officially become the first sound film in Mexican cinema. Antonio Moreno’s film was released with a drum and cymbal. The so-called “first great national film” caused the 2,307 seats in the place to be occupied and hundreds of onlookers to gather outside the building, located at number 30 on Calle 5 de Mayo. However, its protagonist would not be allowed to attend his own celebration.

« Very sad for not being able to go to my beloved Mexico on such a solemn day for me, » Lupita Tovar wrote in a cablegram that day, as El Universal reported, from the set of Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932), by Eddie Sutherland. “The director did not grant me the three days I asked for. From here, at the time that the exhibition of Santa takes place, I will try to attend that party in imagination, and I will think a lot, a lot, about Mexico and my compatriots, in an effort to make my thinking come and let them know the immense affection that I have them ».

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Mexico’s first girlfriend

Since her debut in 1929 with The Veiled Woman (Dir. Emmett Flynn), Lupita Tovar founded a filmography that was divided between Mexico and a peculiar Hollywood; one who spoke English by day and Spanish by night. With the advent of sound film, the US film industry faced a new problem that prevented it from marketing its films in their original language. « The dubbing technique not yet refined, and the public not yet accustomed to reading subtitles, Hollywood could lose its hegemonic privileges if it did not find a way to satisfy the demand of its non-English speaking markets, » wrote Emilio García Riera, in Brief history of Mexican cinema (1998). « In such a way that, in just two years, 1930 and 1931, he released a total of more than 70 tapes produced in his Los Angeles studios and spoken in Spanish. »

Lupita’s versatility – and the support of her husband, Paul Kohner, a top executive at Universal Studios – allowed her to roam both worlds, working on 30 films alongside John Ford, on her tape The Black Watch (1929); with Buster Keaton, in The Invader (Dir. Adrian Brunel, 1933); with Chano Urueta, in María (1938) and with José Bohr, in El rosario de Amozoc (1938). After the premiere in Mexico of The Will of the Dead (Dir. Enrique Tovar, 1930) –Hispanic version of The Cat Creeps–, the local press gave her the distinguished title of “the bride of Mexico”.

Like Santa, the Hispanic version of Dracula by Tod Browning – directed by George Melford in 1931 – marked a key moment in his filmography. “There was some tension on the set because we knew we were competing with the American Dracula; we had the pressure to do better than them, « the actress wrote in her autobiography Lupita Tovar: The girlfriend of Mexico, in 2011. » We work very hard. We finished our movie in just 22 nights; the American version took seven weeks. « 

Years later, in 2015, the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress chose this version of Bram Stoker’s novel (the English version was selected in 2000) to preserve it in its list of significant films, for its cultural, historical and aesthetic value.

The Crime Doctor’s Courage (Dir. George Sherman, 1945) marked the last appearance on the screen of the Oaxacan actress born on July 27, 1910. From there, Tovar took refuge in his family and the world heard his name every time he revalued his time in the cinema. When it was time to leave, on November 12, 2016 – at the age of 106, Lupita Tovar left this world surrounded by applause.

In December 2001, the Mexican Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences (AMACC) presented him with the Ariel de Oro, in memory of his time at the dawn of Mexican cinema. “The ceremony was held on the Fine Arts stage, the same opera house in front of which my sister and I passed on the tram when I was 16 years old. So, I had told her that someday she would be famous and dance there. Now, I was going to be on the same stage to accept this great honor, ”the actress wrote in her autobiography. « When arrive [al centro del escenario] and the searchlight found me, the audience got up. There was tremendous applause. My family was sitting in the front row and I knew that many of my old colleagues and friends were also there. I thought of Paul and how proud he would have been of me. It was a very exciting moment. They gave me the statue of the Ariel, who must have weighed about 12 kilos! (…). She was so excited that she could hardly speak. I wanted to say how much that moment meant to me, being honored in Mexico by the industry of which I had been a part in its beginnings, 70 years earlier. Maybe because of my emotion or the weight of the statue, I just couldn’t. All I could say was: ‘Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.’ ”

Lupita Tovar with Juan J. Martínez Casado, co-star of Santa, in the framework of the XL Anniversary of sound cinema in Mexico, in 1971. Photo: Mil Nubes Archive (Roberto Fiesco)

This article was originally published in Cinema PREMIERE magazine No. 310 in July 2020. Buy your copy here.

Mexican cinema

Arturo Magaña Arce Passionate about seeing, writing, reading, researching and talking about cinema in all its forms. I am a Star Wars fan, I know all the chapters of Friends by heart and if you ask me about Mexican cinema, there is no one to shut me up. Editor at Cine PREMIERE.