Lupita Tovar, a groundbreaking Mexican-American actress who starred in the 1931 Spanish-language Dracula and in 1932’s Santa, one of Mexico’s first narrative sound films, died Friday in Los Angeles.
The 106-year-old former actress was a matriarch to an enduring Hollywood dynasty that includes grandsons Chris and Paul Weitz, the film directors and writers, and entertainment attorney Alex Kohner of Morris Yorn in LA. Granddaughter Melissa Kohner is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley.
Tovar, whose Hollywood career reaches back to the silent era, is best remembered by horror aficionados for her role opposite Carlos Villarías’ Dracula. Thought lost for decades, the film was shot concurrently with the more famous Bela Lugosi version, utilizing the same sets and cobwebs but with Spanish-speaking actors.
Rediscovered in the 1970s, the Spanish Dracula, available on various DVD compilations of classic Universal horror films, has since become highly regarded by critics and fans who believe it to be the superior version. Of particular note is the film’s heightened eroticism between Villarías and Tovar. It was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2015.
Born Guadalupe Natalia Tovar in Matías Romero, Oaxaca in 1910 to a strict Mexican father and an Irish-Mexican mother, Tovar was the eldest of nine children. Spending her earliest years impoverished during the tumult of the Mexican civil war, she was 8 years old when her father took a job with the National Railroad of Mexico, relocating the family to Mexico City. It was there at age 17 that Tovar was discovered at a dance class by documentarian Robert Flaherty and invited to a screen test competition.
Tovar won the screen test and the prize: a 6-month probation period followed by a 7-year contract with 6-month options, at $150 a week with Fox. After some resistance from her father, she relocated to Los Angeles in November 1928, accompanied by her maternal grandmother Lucy Sullivan. She underwent an intense educational regimen that included learning guitar, Spanish Dances, and dramatic acting, while becoming fluent in English by reading voraciously and watching English-language talkies.
In 1929 Tovar appeared in The Veiled Woman and The Cock-Eyed World, but after her second 6-month option ended, Tovar was released from her Fox contract. Having sent most of her money to Mexico, she scrambled to record Spanish dubs for Universal Studios films, usually for $15 a night three nights a week.
After working on the Spanish-language version of The Cat Creeps, Tovar was hired for Drácula, playing Eva Seward, the film’s version of the English-language’s Mina.
In 1931, Tovar starred in the Mexican melodrama Santa, the story of an innocent girl from the country whose life unravels after an affair with a soldier. Mexico’s first big commercial film success, Santa made Tovar an icon in her home country, where she was known as “the sweetheart of Mexico”. She would later be featured on a postage stamp commemorating the role. Santa was screened by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2006 as part of a tribute to Tovar.
Between 1929 and 1945, Tovar starred in 31 films in both Mexico and the United States, appearing alongside Buster Keaton, Buck Jones, Henry Fonda and Gene Autry, among many others. Among her many famous and influential friends was legendary artist Diego Rivera, who immortalized her in a painting.
She would also establish an important entertainment industry family after her marriage to agent Paul Kohner. They were married October 30, 1932 in Czechoslovakia, and lived in Europe until 1935, returning to the United States as the political climate tilted rightward under the influence of Nazi Germany.
The couple were married until Kohner’s death from a heart attack in 1988. They had two children, son Paul Julius “Pancho” Kohner, Jr., a director and producer, and daughter Susan Kohner, an actress best known for her Oscar-nominated role as Sarah Jane in Imitation of Life. Chris and Paul Weitz are co-directors of films including American Pie and About a Boy. In 2015, Paul Weitz directed Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin.