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Lupita Tovar, Mexico's Sultry Screen 'Sweetheart'

Feb 15, 2008 (Morning Edition)

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Mexican screen siren Lupita Tovar was just a teenager when she received her big break: Dozens of aspiring actresses had gathered in Mexico City to audition for an American talent scout, but the black-haired beauty separated herself from the pack when she was asked to imagine that her mother had died.

"Tears started rolling down," Tovar, now 97, tells Renee Montagne. "Then [the scout] got up and he said, 'I will see you in Hollywood.'"

In Hollywood, the silent era was winding down. American studios, sensing money in overseas markets, were eager to find talent for foreign-language "talkies." Tovar starred in the silent hit The Cat Creeps, which earned her the nickname "The Sweetheart of Mexico," as well as in a Spanish-language version of Dracula. The latter shared a set — filming on the night shift — with the Bela Lugosi version. Other production elements, however, were decidedly different.

"My wardrobe was the sexiest ever," Tovar laughs, remembering the transparent negligees she wore. "It was a different wardrobe" from the demure designs worn by Helen Chandler in the English-language version, Tovar says. "Me, I was very sexy."

Tovar's next role also required a flashy wardrobe. In Santa, Mexico's first talkie, she plays a country girl who is seduced, then abandoned, by a dashing soldier, before finally becoming the most famous prostitute in Mexico. The film was such a hit that the Mexican government issued a postage stamp featuring Tovar as Santa.

In 1932, Tovar married Paul Kohner, a Czech emigre had who produced the Spanish Dracula and who later became one of Hollywood's top agents. They were married for 56 years, during which time Tovar continued to make movies for Columbia Pictures.

And though she's no longer active on movie sets, her family continues to work in show business. Her son, Pancho, is a producer, and daughter, Susan, an actress who received an Academy Award nomination for her work in Imitation of Life. Grandsons Chris and Paul Weitz made their names in Hollywood with American Pie and About a Boy.

As for Lupita, she has no regrets: "Sometimes, you know, I am here at home at night and I start thinking back, 'Would I change anything?' No, I will do exactly what I did."

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