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The Girl From Mexico (1939)

I wish the name Lupe Velez was known throughout the world. Lupe was a colorful woman, both on-screen and off. But, like many of my favorite Golden Age celebs, it is her death (offensively exaggerated) tends to overshadow her career. Case in point, the delightfully fun opening act to what would become the Mexican Spitfire series. The Girl From Mexico wasn’t originally planned to spark a franchise, but after its success in 1939 audiences wanted more Lupe, and it’s easy to see why. The Girl From Mexico introduces the formula that would carry the Mexican Spitfire series, but differentiates itself with a fresh attitude and a leading lady game for anything.

Dennis Lindsay (Donald Woods) is sent to Mexico to find a singer for an advertising campaign. While eating dinner he meets Carmelita (Velez), a firebrand with an interest in seeing the bright lights of New York. Carmelita soon starts to fall for Dennis but a series of shenanigans, and a seething fiancee of Dennis’, threatens to undo everything.

I’ve already seen Mexican Spitfire (1940), the first film officially listed in the franchise, and if you’ve seen one then the format is readily apparent. The difference between this feature and Mexican Spitfire is that Dennis and Carmelita’s relationship is just starting out, whereas in the second film they’re already married. Here, director Leslie Goodwins and screenwriter Lionel Hauser get to go through the motions of a romantic comedy, with the added caveat of cultural difference. At barely an hour, the norm for most of these movies, there isn’t much time wasted on set-up. Almost as soon as the credits stop rolling our hero — all-American boy Dennis — is sent to scour Mexico for a lady singer.

He runs out of luck and it’s only sheer chance that he ends up at a Mexican restaurant and hears Carmelita sing. But even before he realizes she’s a singer, he’s taken with her, and why wouldn’t he be? Velez’s entrances in these movies highlight not just her beauty, but her comedic timing. In this case, she gets a darling introduction punctuated by taking a dunk in a fountain. What Goodwins harnesses so adroitly with Velez is how she’s a fierce presence in a tiny package. After taking that dip in the fountain Carmelita starts screaming at Dennis, in two languages, in a way that’s so intimidating yet humorous because she’s such a dainty thing.

It’d be easy for the feature to play on outdate stereotypes of Latinos, and that’s not to say it doesn’t, but it doesn’t play on everything. In this case, Dennis realizes that Carmelita’s family won’t let an unchaperoned girl travel to America. The movie cuts to a courtroom, with the belief that Carmelita’s family are going to sell her into marriage. Instead, Carmelita outright refuses and says she’ll go to New York, but strictly to work. Sure, their relationship develops remarkably quickly from there, so much so that it almost seems one-sided on Carmelita’s point. But what Velez does is make the character so fun and engaging that you’d be mad not to want to marry her.

That could explain why what little chemistry Velez and Woods have is replaced by the fun and warmth found between Velez and Leon Errol as Uncle Matt Lindsay. The Mexican Spitfire franchise is built far more on Carmelita and Uncle Matt’s wacky friendship than anything else. For all of Carmelita’s desire to go out, Uncle Matt is right there next to her. His character indulges Velez’s penchant for mimicry and outlandishness in a way that’s respectful.

What surprises me the most about this (and Mexican Spitfire to an extent) is how the movie is both about Latin stereotypes but also not. There aren’t nearly as many cultural dichotomies in the two movies I’ve seen, especially not here. Sure, Carmelita has some trouble with English, mispronouncing Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, but the majority of the humor is derived from her hotheadedness which, yes, is a stereotype but is pretty much the only one. I was leery to get into this series expecting there to be jokes about tacos or other overt Mexican jokes. Really, the series is more so about how an American man and a Mexican woman, in the 1940s, coexist.

I might come back and do a proper review of Mexican Spitfire (1940), especially as it made my classic film discoveries of 2020 list. But I can say that The Girl From Mexico is my favorite of the series, so far. Velez is sparkling and funny, as is Leon Errol.

Ronnie Rating:

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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