Lupita Tovar, a Mexican-born actress who began her Hollywood career in the silent era and went on to play an imperiled heroine in a racy Spanish-language version of “Dracula” and was once nearly drowned by an inebriated Buster Keaton while making another film, died Nov. 12 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 106.
Her grandson Paul Weitz, a movie director, writer and producer, confirmed the death and said the cause was a heart ailment.
Ms. Tovar, who was immortalized in a painting by her artist friend Diego Rivera, was the matriarch of a family involved in filmmaking for three generations. Her daughter, actress Susan Kohner, earned an Oscar nomination for “Imitation of Life” (1959), and her grandsons Chris and Paul Weitz co-directed such films as “American Pie” (1999) and “About a Boy” (2002).
In 31 credited roles over 16 years, Ms. Tovar did not establish herself in the pantheon of film greats. But as the decades passed, her sheer longevity sparked renewed interest among movie aficionados and scholars. She had worked with major stars, including Henry Fonda and Gene Autry, and had played a historic role in Mexican cinema.
Ms. Tovar was promoted as “the sweetheart of Mexico” for her starring part in “Santa” (1932) — “The Saint” — a melodrama about a humble country girl who is seduced and abandoned by a soldier and whom fate leads down a path to prostitution and death.
Often mistakenly called the first talkie made in Mexico, “Santa” was nonetheless the first commercial breakthrough for the nascent industry. The film proved such a cinematic landmark in Mexico that, many decades later, the government issued a postage stamp featuring a likeness of Ms. Tovar in the role. In 2001, she received a special Ariel Award, Mexico’s equivalent of an Oscar, for lifetime achievement.
A lithe brunette with strikingly photogenic features, Ms. Tovar was discovered at 16 by Hollywood talent scouts and made a handful of silent movie appearances. Her arrival in the film capital coincided with the transition to sound, and her limited dramatic training and heavily accented English were barriers to greater stardom. Stage actors from New York were most in demand.
Her skills were put to use, however, in Spanish-language versions of Hollywood fare. The films were made at Universal, with the Spanish-speaking crew working overnight after the English-language cast had clocked out. The idea — often credited to Universal executive Paul Kohner, Ms. Tovar’s future husband — was to tap into the Latin American market demand for sound films and make them at a fraction of the cost of the originals; the sets were already built.
At Universal studios, best known for its horror movies, Ms. Tovar had leading roles in a Spanish-language version of “The Cat Creeps” (1930) co-starring romantic idol Antonio Moreno, followed the next year by “Dracula” with Carlos Villarías in the bloodsucking role popularized by Bela Lugosi.
Many critics have come to prefer the Spanish “Dracula” for its less static camerawork, livelier acting and more pronounced eroticism. The filmmakers were unencumbered by American censorship standards, and Ms. Tovar recalled spending much of the film swanning about in a transparent negligee.
In his book “Hollywood Gothic,” film historian David J. Skal wrote that Ms. Tovar seems “sexually animated as the vampire overtakes her” whereas her English-language counterpart — Helen Chandler — “seems merely dazed. The actresses in the American version are a bit schoolmarmish as compared to the Spanish vampires who let their hair down and wear low-cut gowns.”
Last year, the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry included the Spanish-language “Dracula” on its list of “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant films.
Ms. Tovar also proved an alluring presence in a Spanish-language version of “Ten Cents a Dance” (1931), in the dance-hall hostess role played in English by Barbara Stanwyck. The same year, she appeared in the jungle adventure film “East of Borneo” and was a peppery dancer in the Buck Jones Western “Border Law.” Ms. Tovar starred in a 1943 Mexican production of “Resurrection,” based on the Leo Tolstoy novel.
But back in Hollywood, her film career dwindled. She had small roles in bigger-budget fare, including the antifascist Spanish Civil War drama “Blockade” (1938) starring Fonda, and was a leading lady in oaters such as “South of the Border” with Autry and “The Fighting Gringo” with George O’Brien (both 1939).
One of her less pleasant experiences was in “The Invader,” also known as “An Old Spanish Custom” (1936), a bare-budget clunker starring Keaton, long past his silent-comedy prime. He played a clueless American yachtsman, and Ms. Tovar a fiery Iberian cabaret dancer.
According to Keaton biographer Marion Meade, Ms. Tovar once said that the comedian had been drinking excessively and nearly drowned her in a scene filmed in a water tank.
“His reflexes were not so quick,” she recalled. “He tried to get me out of the tank by pulling my legs instead of my head. By the time the crew jumped in to pull us out, I had swallowed a great deal of water and my costume was in shreds. Afterwards I didn’t say a word. I was so grateful to be alive.”
The oldest of nine siblings, Guadalupe Natalia Tovar was born in Matías Romero on July 27, 1910, and grew up in San Pedro de los Pinos, near Mexico City. One of her earliest memories was coming under attack during a train ride by marauding revolutionaries affiliated with Emiliano Zapata.
She described her father, whose job she likened to that of a political ward heeler, as a man given to drink and who ruled over his home with a heavy hand. She was 16 when a phalanx of talent scouts, along with noted Hollywood filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty, visited her school. The men came to her gymnastics class where, despite being clad in big black bloomers and a sailor top, she stunned them with her beauty.
When she won a contract with Fox studios, her father protested — until he saw that it paid her $150 a week, more than he made in a year. Her grandmother accompanied her to Hollywood by train in 1928, and she took dance lessons with Eduardo Cansino Sr., father of future star Rita Hayworth.
After her Fox contract lapsed, Ms. Tovar went to Universal and in 1932 married Kohner. He later was a talent agent, representing clients including Fonda, Yul Brynner, David Niven, Lana Turner and director John Huston. Kohner died in 1988.
Besides their daughter, who married fashion designer, novelist and historian John Weitz, survivors include a son, producer Pancho Kohner; and grandchildren.
In recent decades, Ms. Tovar appeared at festivals that revived “Santa” or “Dracula.” During a screening of the vampire film, she once quipped, one of her grandsons was astonished by the slinky outfit she wore in the picture. He told her, “Now I know why Grandpapa married you!”
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