EXCLUSIVE: Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz will co-write and co-direct Spanish Dracula, the true story about how silent film star and Mexican actress Lupita Tovar found a second wind starring in Spanish-language versions of Hollywood films like the Universal classic Dracula. The Weitz brothers are her grandsons, and they will produce with their Depth of Field cohort Andrew Miano, along with Pancho Kohner. He is their uncle and author of The Sweetheart of Mexico, a memoir he helped his mother write about her most fascinating life.
Tovar, who moved from Mexico to Hollywood, would go on to become a wildly successful actress back home where she was known as The Mexican Rose. Their grandfather is Paul Kohner, Universal Pictures chief Carl Laemmle’s right-hand man who ran the studio’s international film production business.
Falling head over heels in love with Tovar — as did many others including John Huston and a Mexican general, both of whom she had to escape from — Kohner created opportunities for Tovar, initially because he was in love with her and didn’t want her to return to Mexico when talkies replaced silent films in 1929 and work evaporated for everyone with an accent. She would become a star in her own right when she toplined Santa, a film that was Mexico’s first talkie and, according to the book, is considered the Gone With the Wind of Mexican cinema. That would propel her to become known as La Novia de Mexico (the sweetheart of Mexico).
Her life with Paul Kohner — she was Catholic and he was Jewish — is filled with color and sometimes peril, when in Germany he overestimated the power of having an American passport and his connections, as the Nazis began to persecute and round up Jews. Tovar and Kohner were forced to make a harrowing escape out of Germany. But the making of Spanish Dracula, the filmmakers felt, is a strong handle to tell her story. They are writing and will look to set it up shortly.
“It’s just such a great story, and I think that once Pancho wrote the book it was just an extra reason to bring focus to it,” said Chris Weitz. “Pancho has been thinking about making a movie about our grandma and grandpops for a while and trying to figure out what the shape of that would be, and we felt the Spanish Dracula is kind of a great focus. It brings together the romance and is an interesting way to look at old Hollywood, and also, to look at foreigners in Hollywood. This isn’t really a story about immigration, but it is a really interesting story about how this very sort of American industry was inflected by the talents of all these people who came from abroad,” said Weitz, who directed the Oscar-nominated contemporary immigrant story A Better Life, as well as films that include Twilight Saga: New Moon and who scripted Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Pancho got his late mother to tell him her entire life story for the book, and that included growing up in Mexico in the household of a very repressive father who tried to keep the virtues of his beautiful young daughter from being corrupted after she was discovered and recruited to Hollywood to act in silent films. She signed a Fox contract and later signed with Universal at a time when accents didn’t much matter as she emoted alongside Russian actor Ivan Lebedev and Brazilian actress Lia Tora in The Veiled Woman. All that changed with talkies, and immigrant actors with accents were left out of jobs. Tovar, for instance, had been set to act for director John Ford in The Black Watch, only to watch Myrna Loy replace her because of her Mexican accent. By then, Tovar had caught the eye of Kohner, the Universal exec who’d fallen hard for the Mexican actress and knew that he might lose her if she went home. So he was determined to keep her in Hollywood.
That is when Kohner had the idea to shoot in local languages films like Universal’s Dracula, translating the script pages to Spanish. Basically, Bela Lugosi, director Tod Browning and cast and crew of the classic Dracula would come shoot their scenes during the day. They would leave, and in would come the cast and crew of the Spanish version — Carlos Villarias played the title character, working on the same set from a translated version of the same script. The exteriors and long shots would be the same in both movies. Spanish Dracula would become a big hit and presage the production of movies made specifically for Spanish-language markets.
The Weitz brothers and Pancho Kohner are certainly biased, but they feel that even though Spanish Dracula was made in three weeks — half the time of the English-language version — the lack of scrutiny by the Hays Office of Censorship led to the ability to explore the sexy mythology of the vampire far more fully than the Hollywood classic. In other words, they got away with a lot more. Here’s a clip on the differences:
“You had these two different groups of actors coming in, and they wouldn’t even meet each other,” said Pancho Kohner. “My mother didn’t meet Bela Lugosi until much later at a party. They turned the lights off at six and turned them on again at eight o clock, and they shot through the night but there wasn’t any mix between them.”
Said Paul Weitz, who with brother Chris directed About a Boy and solo most recently the Kevin Hart-starrer Fatherhood: “It seems so cinematic, the idea of this sort of the American production coming in, and then, this group of people who are making a film that was not subject to the same code. They could make it make it a little sexier.”
“Since my father was in charge and he was in love with Lupita, he made sure that the film was as good or better a film, and apparently, it is a better film,” Kohner said. “It is about 20 minutes longer. Not having to contend with the censorship of the Hays office…well, the first time that Paul and Chris saw the film, we were at the U.S.A. festival in Dallas, and they had it on this great restored theater with an organist that came up from the floor, big screen. And there was their grandma onscreen, with nipple bumps. She was wearing a very sheer nightgown in the film and especially when you put it up on a big screen instead of seeing it on a television screen or something or other, it was a very sexy film for its time. Either Paul or Chris commented at the time, I now see why grandpa married grandma.”
Said Chris Weitz: “There’s a moment when Dracula bites Lupita on the neck and it’s very erotic. He draws his cape over and around her, so you don’t see what he’s doing, which was very different from the English-language version. The lighting. The cobwebs. The candle lights. It’s just more erotic and artistic, I would say, than the English-language version. You had this B-team of foreigners making something and trying like outdo the version that was being made during the day. The harder work was being done after midnight by these guys who didn’t otherwise have a way to work within the industry, which had changed, technologically, in such an extraordinary way. It’s very much in keeping with the theme of The Artist, the French film that did so well at the Oscars, when this career-killing kind of change was happening.”
Said Pancho Kohner: “[Tovar] went on right away to make Santa, which was Mexico’s first talkie, and she became not only the sweetheart of Mexico, but she is known as what they call an Alita, where the women who followed the men into battle, took care of their wounds, fed them, bandaged them, but also, wore the double bandoleros of bullets across their chest and carried a rifle. Mom was a big symbol in Mexico. Someone who went out in the world, went to America and came back successful, and then, became a Mexican star.”
“All of that is in the background,” Chris Weitz said. “It’s also at least as much about this young woman coming to Hollywood to get away from her dad and making her way and becoming a success against great odds, and also, sort of her being in this group of actors from all across the Spanish-speaking world and coming together to make something. It’s as much that as it is a love story. And it’s also this sort of like this underdog story of a group of people who are literally having to work at night and making something that everybody could be proud of, and that’s juxtaposed to the love story. Hitler coming to power in Europe is also a backdrop to it, but we’ll focus on the making of Dracula.
While her escape from some of her adventures — from being pawed over by Hollywood powerbrokers and foreign dignitaries when she accompanied Kohner to places like Spain and an increasingly hostile Germany, where she was cruelly strip-searched as they made their escape — could be considered lucky because she was so naive to the dangers out there. But the Rose of Mexico was no shrinking violet.
“The three of us knew her as mother and grandmother, as a mature woman, but everything I’ve learned about her before we knew her was that she was a feisty, gutsy woman and she had a lip on her,” Pancho Kohner said. “I think that showed up more when she was in Germany. She often almost got in trouble because she spoke her mind and I think in Los Angeles too, she was a spitfire, a fireball. She had a lot of guts and a lot of personality.”
Added Paul Weitz: “Her nickname in the family was ‘The General.’ ”
Said Kohner: “Among the family, in Mexico, when she would come down, even her mother would say, ‘The General is coming,’ because she would take charge and tell everyone what to do.”
The Weitz Brothers are repped by UTA and Morris Yorn.