Lupita Tovar, a Mexican-born actress who began her Hollywood career in the silent era, went on to play an imperiled heroine in a racy Spanish-language version of “Dracula” and was nearly drowned on the set by an inebriated Buster Keaton, died Saturday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 106.
A grandson, movie director, writer and producer Paul Weitz, confirmed the death from a heart ailment.
Tovar was promoted as “the Sweetheart of Mexico” for her starring part in “Santa” (1932) — “The Saint” — a melodrama about a humble country girl who is seduced and abandoned by a soldier and whom fate leads down a path to prostitution and death.
A lithe brunette with strikingly photogenic features, Tovar was discovered at 16 by Hollywood talent scouts and made a handful of silent movie appearances. Her arrival in the film capital coincided with the transition to sound, and her limited dramatic training and heavily accented English were barriers to greater stardom.
Her skills were put to use, however, in Spanish-language versions of Hollywood fare. The films were made at Universal, with the Spanish-speaking crew working overnight after the English-language cast had clocked out. The idea was to tap into the Latin American market demand for sound films and make them at a fraction of the cost of the originals; the sets were already built.
Many critics have come to prefer the Spanish “Dracula” for its less static camerawork, livelier acting and more pronounced eroticism. The filmmakers were unencumbered by American censorship standards.
But back in Hollywood, her film career dwindled. She had small roles in bigger-budget fare, including the antifascist Spanish Civil War drama “Blockade” (1938) starring Henry Fonda, and was a leading lady in oaters such as “South of the Border” with Gene Autry and “The Fighting Gringo” with George O’Brien (both 1939).
One of her less pleasant experiences was in “The Invader” (1936), a bare-budget clunker starring Keaton, long past his silent-comedy prime.
According to Keaton biographer Marion Meade, Tovar once said the comedian had been drinking excessively and nearly drowned her in a scene filmed in a water tank.
“His reflexes were not so quick,” she recalled. “He tried to get me out of the tank by pulling my legs instead of my head. By the time the crew jumped in to pull us out, I had swallowed a great deal of water and my costume was in shreds. Afterwards I didn’t say a word. I was so grateful to be alive.”