Our occasional series The Long View profiles people of long experience, this week in show business. At 97 years old, Lupita Tovar has a very long view. As a child in Mexico she saw Poncho Villa's rebels. As a teenager in Mexico City she was discovered at the dawn of the talking picture. An American talent scout had come to her school and she found herself among dozens of girls taking a screen test.

Her big moment came when the talent scout directed her to imagine her mother has died, and she wept.

Ms. LUPITA TOVAR: Tears just started rolling down, you know. Then he got up and he said I will see you in Hollywood.


Lupita Tovar's Los Angels living room is filled with the memories of those early Hollywood days. Awards crowd the top of a grand piano and photographs of the black-haired beauty she was and still is.

This cozy scene contrasts with the spooky scenery of her first big movies - the silent hit "The Cat Creeps," which earned her back home the title the Sweetheart of Mexico, and the Spanish language "Dracula."

(Soundbite of movie, "Dracula")


The young actress came to star in "Dracula" because Hollywood studios had realized they could make money from foreign language films, so when Universal shot "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi, a Spanish language cast was waiting in the shadows

Ms. TOVAR: We work at night, from 7:00 o'clock in the evening to 7:00 in the morning. The English picture was in the daytime.

MONTAGNE: On the same sets?

Ms. TOVAR: On the same set.

MONTAGNE: That Bela Lugosi was making the English one.

Ms. TOVAR: Yeah, yeah. Bela Lugosi was in the daytime.

MONTAGNE: Did you cross paths?

Ms. TOVAR: No, I never met him. I came in at 7:00. They had cobwebs everywhere and make it very eerie, you know, and so I got scared when I came into the set. I always liked to be early. And I got there and I sat there in the dark. And about 3:00 in the morning, when we were very, very tired, something would drop by my side. It was a Hershey bar from the electrician on top.

MONTAGNE: No doubt an admirer. Was there a difference between the two Draculas other than just language?

Ms. TOVAR: Yes, the wardrobe. My wardrobe was the sexiest ever. They gave me the negligees that were transparent, you know. It was a different wardrobe than the American. Helen Chandler was very, you know, so...

MONTAGNE: She's very demure.

Ms. TOVAR: And me, I was very sexy.

MONTAGNE: Lupita Tovar's next big role, Mexico's first talking movie. "Santa" was based on a famous model about the travails of a country girl still in braids.

(Soundbite of movie, "Santa")

MONTAGNE: She falls for a dashing soldier who seduces and then abandons her.

Ms. TOVAR: That's right.

MONTAGNE: Very innocent.

Ms. TOVAR: Very innocent and then becomes the most famous prostitute of Mexico. Now, I had no idea.

MONTAGNE: What the story was?

Ms. TOVAR: What the story was. I thought it was about a saint. Santa.

MONTAGNE: So you said, Santa, that sounds like a good project.

Ms. TOVAR: Yeah, I immediately said yes.

MONTAGNE: In that film, you're so beautiful, you're 21.

Ms. TOVAR: I was 20.


Ms. TOVAR: 'Cause that was 1930. I was born in 1910.

MONTAGNE: What's your best memory about making "Santa"?

Ms. TOVAR: It was like a family. And they had no money, and my mother always complained they borrow from her a rocking chair and they never came back. You know, we were helping each other with makeup, with everything. It was fun.

MONTAGNE: The costumes were beautiful that in the brothel all the prostitutes wore.

Ms. TOVAR: I tell you, we design our own.

MONTAGNE: You just made them yourselves.

Ms. TOVAR: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: So "Santa" became a major cinematic milestone in Mexican cinema, so...

Ms. TOVAR: Yeah, it was the first talking picture in Mexico, you know.

MONTAGNE: Was there a stamp made with your image in Mexico?

Ms. TOVAR: Yes, I think it's in the piano there.

MONTAGNE: Can I pick it up?

Ms. TOVAR: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: This is so great. You're a stamp. Your postage stamp.

Ms. TOVAR: That's my stamp, yeah.

MONTAGNE: There you are as the glamorous harlot in the brothel. And that is...

Ms. TOVAR: That is Martinez Casado(ph) who played the bullfighter.

MONTAGNE: The bullfighter who loved you?

Ms. TOVAR: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: The man who loved Lupita in real life was a Czech emigre who produced the Spanish "Dracula." Paul Kohner would go on to become a top agent and by the 1950's was representing John Huston, Orson Welles, and Ingmar Bergman.

But in 1932 Kohner was headed to Europe to make movies, and with him, Lupita Tovar. They were married in Berlin.

When you and your husband, Paul Kohner, went to Berlin, this was the moment that Hitler was rising.

Ms. TOVAR: That's when Hitler came. And then I was offered a film. The producer sent a script and he says, Would you like to do it? And I said yes. He said, There is only one condition. During the filming you will have to live in a hotel as Ms. Tovar, not as Mrs. Kohner.

MONTAGNE: And why?

Ms. TOVAR: Because my husband was Jewish, see. I got up. I took the script and I said, And you know what you can do with it. And I walk out. My husband laughed like the dickens. But you know, I can never keep my mouth shut. If I feel something, I mean I'll say it.

MONTAGNE: And you made many other movies for a time.

Ms. TOVAR: Oh yes. I work at Columbia. I made "Ten Cents a Dance," which was a big success. And I make a lot of westerns. I made "South of the Border" with Gene Autry.

MONTAGNE: Do you ever miss acting? Being in the movies?

Ms. TOVAR: I haven't thought about it. I think life, you always acting anyway. Yeah, sometimes, you know, I'm here alone at night and I start thinking back, would I change anything? No. I will do exactly what I did, yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Lupita Tovar was married to Paul Kohner for 56 years. Her son, Poncho, is a producer; her daughter Susan an actress nominated for an Oscar for "Imitation of Life." And you may have heard of her grandsons, the directors Chris and Paul Weitz, who made their names in Hollywood with "American Pie" and "About a Boy." You can see some glamorous publicity stills of Lupita Tovar at This is NPR News.

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