The Spanish Lady and the Mexican Spitfire: Hispanic Heritage Month


Today is the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month and cause for celebration! 

I’ve been watching a lot of silent films from the 1920s lately as research for a new historical cozy mystery series I’ll be working on next year and launching in 2025 (keep an eye out for more on that in the future). I’ve found classic films to be one of the best means of getting a sense of the atmosphere and everyday life from those eras.

I was pleased to find that Hispanic actors and actresses did exist during this early Hollywood era. Even more interesting, two Hispanic women dominated the screen during the 1920s and early 1930s, presenting two very different, and sometimes controversial, images of Latina women during this time. 

Photo Credit: Dolores Del Rio, 1927, gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute: Intellectualpropri/Wikimedia Commons/CC-Zero (public domain)

Photo Credit: Lupe Velez in Sailors Beware, 1927: Mahar27777/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

Dolores Del Rio came from Mexican aristocracy and was dubbed “The Spanish Lady” in the press. Her roles in this early period of Hollywood often centered around dignified and refined ladies of Hispanic origin. She blended the acceptable behavior of elegant women with a touch of exoticism that audiences loved. But during the 1940s, her roles grew more stereotypical and it was harder for her to control her scripts and how her Latina characters were portrayed. She abandoned Hollywood and went back to Mexico and became a very successful film star in the Mexican cinema.

Lupe Velez was completely the opposite. Nicknamed “The Mexican Spitfire,” she wasn’t afraid to present herself as the hot and sexy Latina lady who said what she felt, shrugged off conventions, and even yelled and screamed when the situation called for it, both on screen and off. Audiences loved her vivacious and high-spirited personality and her Mexican Spitfire comedies were a big hit with audiences. Her life ended tragically in the mid-1940s when rejected by her fiance, she took her own life.

Today many critics dismiss Del Rio as having played into the hands of white producers and directors in an Anglo version of “the Spanish lady” and Velez for having played the stereotype of the uncontrollable Mexican woman. But it’s important to remember that in the 1920s and 1930s, the Hispanic community was very much isolated and ostracized. For Hispanic women especially, there were few opportunities to see themselves represented by Hispanic actresses. Dolores Del Rio and Lupe Velez gave voice to the existence of the Latina-American woman not only in film but in real life. 

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!


Fact and Fiction: Charlie Chapin’s The Circus (1928)


The circus has always been a favorite topic of books and films. There’s something dynamic and fascinating about reading or watching a story take place within the crucible of the circus. There’s so much mystery and intrigue surrounding the circus that it makes a great setting for a mystery (which is one reason why Book 5 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries is set in the circus).

But when it comes to accuracy, we know films and books don’t always make the grade (though I would argue books do better with this since authors tend to love researching and we like to “get it right”). This is natural since films are more concerned with providing a good story and entertaining an audience than they are with getting the details straight. 

Photo Credit: Poster for Chaplin’s film The Circus from 1928 by United Artists, scanned 1 April 2013: Sir Julian Esteban/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Circus (1928) is no exception. Although Chaplin films weren’t exactly known for their realism, the setting matters in some of his films (like The Gold Rush from 1925 which takes place during the infamous gold rush in the Klondikes of the late 19th century). Chaplin’s The Circus makes us feel the energy and chaos the circus held for audiences in the 1920s. That’s not an easy thing to do when we’re talking about a silent film since the sounds of the circus are as important as its sights (the 1956 film Trapeze is a good illustration of this).

There are some things about the circus Chaplin’s film does admirably well. For one, the film shows how being a circus performer required extreme discipline. The opening of the film shows the manager’s daughter Merna (played by Merna Kennedy) listlessly swinging on a bar trying to practice her act (she’s an equestrian performer). Later on, we see her in her act where she misses jumping through a hoop from a horse. Her manager’s father (played by Al Ernest Garcia) gets on her case backstage and even hits her and throws her to the ground. 

Circuses also depended on audience reaction (just like vaudeville) for the success or failure of an act. In The Circus, the clown act is not up to par and the audience shows it. One boy yawns while a man opens a newspaper while the act is going on. Later, when Chaplin as The Little Tramp stumbles into the ring trying to escape the police (and gets into all sorts of funny scrapes, of course), the audience roars with laughter and applauds like crazy. Then, when the clown act comes on again, the audience boos it off, shouting for “the funny man” instead. 

The film also shows how not all circus acts were treated equally and there was a hierarchy of respect among circus performers. As you might imagine, the more daring the act, the more honor the performer received (because of the more money he or she brought in). The storyline in the film shows this. Chaplin’s tramp falls in love with Merna, who returns his affection. Then, a tightrope walker named Rex (played by Henry Bergman) comes onto the scene and Merna immediately falls in love with him. Why? Because his act is daring and dangerous while Chaplin’s clown act has less prestige. 

Also, the performers that were the most successful could make the highest demands. In the film, the innocent tramp Chaplin plays has, at first, no idea he’s the star of the circus and, in fact, keeping the circus from going bankrupt. When Merna tells him, he realizes his worth and begins to make demands of the manager, including a huge raise in salary. This was something many circus performers did in real life. 

In true Chaplinesque humor, though, there are some elements in the film added more because they make a better story than the fact that they portray the circus in a realistic light and they don’t do the image of the circus any favors. For example, Chaplin makes the manager of the circus an abusive tyrant. He constantly slaps his daughter around and even punishes her for not going through the hoop during her act by starving her. He yells at his performers and makes fun of them and orders them around. While circus managers were known to be tough taskmasters, the portrayal of them as abusive and bullying is a little extreme (though Barnum and the Ringling Brothers didn’t exactly have a reputation for being nice guys.) 

In addition, the film brings in one of the stereotypes we see a lot in circus films: crime. When we first meet The Little Tramp, he’s watching a sideshow with a large crowd while a man beside him picks the pocket of a wealthy spectator, then tries to throw the blame on Chaplin by quickly moving the wallet he stole into the tramp’s pocket when the police aren’t looking. Many films show the circus as being dishonest and even collaborating with pickpockets and thieves (like Nightmare Alley and The Unholy Three). In reality, early circuses were diligent about their reputation and keeping their performers out of trouble. Big circuses like Barnum & Bailey and The Ringling Brothers had strict rules about the conduct of their performers and many circus people kept close to the circus grounds rather than mingled with the crowds or the towns in which they stayed. 

Still, The Circus is a fun film to watch and very Chaplinesque in its tropes (the sentimental Little Tramp, the situational gags, the triumph of love). Interestingly, many film critics consider it one of Chaplin’s underrated films because Chaplin himself underrated it. It was a difficult film for him to make, taking two years to complete and fraught with tragedy (including Chaplin’s own messy divorce at the time and a fire that burned down all the sets which had to be rebuilt). Though it did well on its release, Chaplin chose to shelve it for years and didn’t bring it out again until the 1960s, when it received the credit it deserved as both a great Chaplin comedy and a fun circus film.

If you want to see more fun (and mayhem and murder) in the circus, check out Murder Under a Twilight Roof, coming out next month. It’s on preorder now at a special price so take a peek at it here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!


More Than Brando’s Mouthpiece: Sacheen Littlefeather


This month is American Indian Heritage Month so I wanted to celebrate a classic Indian American actress. I came across this article from the Vintage News website in my Facebook feed last month about Sacheen Littlefeather who passed away on October 2. However, Littlefeather was known as an activist for American Indian rights more than for her acting. But what fascinated me about her story was how in 1973 she made headlines when, in Marlon Brando’s name, she went onstage to decline the Oscar he won for his role in The Godfather.

Photo Credit: Sacheen Littlefeather standing in front of the Oscar statue holding Marlon Brando’s statement declining the Oscar for The Godfather, 45th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, 27 March 1973, UCLA Library Special Collections: TarkusAB/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

The story behind her appearance at the Oscars has now become legendary. Before the 1973 Oscars, an incident occurred at Wounded Knee where Oglala Dakota and the American Indian Movement entered the town and took over in protest of Native American inequality and were eventually driven out by law enforcement. This incident sparked Marlon Brando’s rage and prompted him to declare that if he won the Oscar for The Godfather, he would decline it in protest of how American Indians were portrayed in films and television and treated by the film industry.

When the announcement that Brando had won came, people were surprised to see a young woman appear on the stage in traditional Apache dress, holding up her hand to decline the Oscar statuette. The story goes that Brando prepared a long speech for Littlefeather to deliver but the producers of the show threatened to have her forcefully removed from the stage if she didn’t keep it to thirty seconds. Put in a difficult position, Littlefeather handled it with dignity and grace. She condensed Brando’s wordy speech to a few eloquent and respectful words as to why he was declining the Oscar (you can watch that here). She endured booing and racial slurs from the audience, and John Wayne had to be restrained from attacking her onstage. The incident got her blacklisted from Hollywood and she never worked as an actress again.

Many have criticized Brando, accusing him of being a coward and sending a young woman to do his dirty work. There’s no doubt Littlefeather showed more courage and grace than Brando in facing the hostile Oscar crowd and backstage reporters. But Littlefeather maintained it was her idea to go in place of Brando and she did it to put across her message of inequality and prejudice that many American Indians working in Hollywood had to endure at the time and she never regretted what she did. 

Let’s celebrate the courage and dignity of American Indians like Sacheen Littlefeather to stand up for their equality and heritage this month!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here


Creative License: Sherlock Holmes During World War II


May is National Mystery Month, so what better way for us mystery lovers to celebrate than to take a look at one of the most, perhaps the most, famous sleuths in history: Sherlock Holmes?

I have to be honest here. I am not a great lover of the Holmes character. I find him too egotistical and woman-hating for my taste. However, there’s no denying Conan Doyle had something when he created this sleuth whose deductive reasoning and attention to detail wove intricate (and sometimes hard to believe) plots. I personally prefer sleuths who appreciate the value of intuition and psychology along with reasoning, such as Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and, of course, the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries. 

Last month, I binge-watched the Sherlock Holmes films, but not the contemporary ones. I binge-watched the twelve Universal films and the two 20th Century Fox films. All were made in the late 1930s and 1940s and feature Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. 

The series is pretty distinctive in several ways. Classic crime buffs are familiar with Rathbone playing many villainous characters so the series gave him a chance to play a good guy. Bruce, whose name might not be familiar to you, created the Watson character as the lovable but somewhat bumbling sidekick which set a precedence for the Watson character (and many sleuth sidekicks) for books, TV, and film after that. 

Photo Credit: Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, cropped screenshot from Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, 1943, Universal Pictures: Patrick CecilF/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

But the most distinctive feature of the series is that most of them are not set in the late 19th or early 20th century when Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes books. They are set in the late 1930s and 1940s (that is, in times contemporary to when they were made). The series has an interesting history. Fox made the first 2 films which were actually set in the 19th century like the original books. These films weren’t very successful so Fox dropped the series. Universal picked it up and decided to change the setting to contemporary times. It was then the series became a huge hit and went on for twelve more films. 

Why did Universal decide to change the time period? When the third film in the series (and Universal’s first), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, came out, it was 1942 and World War II was raging. They thought the audience would identify more with a contemporary Holmes than a Holmes far removed from the war’s troubling times by fifty years. Audiences identified with the scenery of London and Europe featuring bombed-out buildings, air raids, and blackouts.

Universal took it a step further. The screenwriters revamped many of Conan Doyle’s plots to make them fit with the war. Instead of London underworld criminals. Holmes was fighting Nazi spies. For example, the fourth film in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is based on a Conan Doyle short story but features a secret code Holmes is trying to keep from falling into German hands. 

Universal’s creative license was very effective not only in making the series more successful than Fox’s version but also in inserting messages to boost the morale of British and American audiences. Many of the films end with Holmes imparting philosophical messages to Watson that are essentially telling audiences not to lose faith and good will triumph over evil in the end. 

I’ll admit I’m a purist when it comes to films based on literature. I initially resisted seeing the series because so many of the films were set in contemporary (relative) times instead of when the books take place. But once I started to watch them, I got hooked on how the films show the life and struggle of citizens living during World War II. I highly recommend giving them a chance. You can find most of them on YouTube here

And if you want more mystery, check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries here. The first book in the series, The Carnation Murder, is out! You can find out all about it and pick up your copy here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here


The East West Players and Confessions of an Opium Eater (1965)


This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, so I’m paying tribute to Asian Pacific Americans who fight for visibility, respect, and honor for their culture. 

As you know, I’m a huge classic film fan, and I was fascinated by a bit of trivia I read on the Internet Movie Database when I stumbled upon the film Confessions of an Opium Eater (1965) on YouTube. According to the trivia, this film was partly responsible for the formation of a theater group in Los Angeles dedicated to Asian Pacific American actors.

If the title of the film itself sounds pretty tawdry, its roots are historical. The movie is loosely based on an autobiography written in 1821 by Thomas DeQuincy called Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The book is essentially the granddaddy of the drug memoir, giving accounts of DeQuincy’s addiction to laudanum (a tincture of opium widely available and unregulated in the 19th century) and its consequences. The book was meant as a warning against laudanum addiction, a big problem at the time, though critics claim DeQuincy’s book is rather more about the pleasures of opium addiction than its pains.

But the film is only loosely based on the book. The main character (played by Vincent Price, who steps out of his horror film persona to play a rather dubious hero) is supposedly an American descendent of DeQuincy. Like my Adele Gossling Mysteries, the movie is set in San Francisco and involves crime. Price arrives in Chinatown, looking for the pleasures of opium, and ends up unraveling a mystery that includes prostitution, white slavery, and, of course, opium.

The film, unlike many before it, has a very large cast made up of Asian and Pacific Americans, many of whom would be familiar to fans of classic films, including Richard Loo, Phillip Ahn, John, Fujioka, and Victor Sen Yung (who played in many of the Charlie Chan films in the 1940s as one of Chan’s many sons). These and other actors complained to the producer about how their Asian Pacific American roles perpetuated Hollywood stereotypes of sinister men and loose women, drug addicts and prostitutes. Producer Albert Zugsmith took no notice of their complaints. So this film was one of many that, as they say, became the hump that broke the camel’s back.

Photo Credit: Logo for the East West Players, 2013, East West Players: Yeeno/Wikimedia Commons/PD textlogo 

No surprise, nine Asian Pacific American actors, including Mako (Conan the Barbarian, Pearl Harbor), Soon-Tek Oh (Mulan), and James Hong (Blade Runner, Kung-Fu Panda) formed the East West Players that same year. They were tired of Asian Pacific Americans being typecast in sinister roles and seeing Asian Pacific American main characters played by Caucasians (I always found it absurd that Charlie Chan’s sons were played by Asian Pacific Americans in the 1940s but Chan himself was played by Swedish actor Warner Oland.). Their mission was to create a space where Asian Pacific American actors would have better roles and a chance to show their culture and people were anything but the Hollywood stereotypes. The theater puts on performances with Asian Pacific American actors, directors, choreographers, playwrights, and others behind the scenes.

It’s no wonder this amazing group has many Tony award-winning plays under their belt, including A Little Night Music (1973), M. Butterfly (1988), and The Who’s Tommy (1993). You can find out more about the East West Players here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here