The talkies did not diminish del Rio's aura of glamour, and her excellent voice and English diction made her a natural to play parts that were exotic (Bird of Paradise 1932) and romantic (Madame Du Barry 1934). But when her star temperature began to cool in the mid-'30s she found herself signing up for a genre programmer for Columbia pictures, Devil's Playground (1937). It's a Navy tale about submariners and her character Carmen is the center of a love triangle. At Warner Bros., she had been starring in costume pictures and supporting top stars like Al Jolson, so the Navy 'service drama' is indeed a step or two rungs down the career ladder. Not only is Devil's Playground an ordinary program picture, but it's a second remake of a silent picture directed by Columbia's top talent Frank Capra.
Military movies between the wars were often light comedy-dramas about men in uniform. With no actual fighting to exploit, the stories usually center on career competition, with jealousy over a 'special' girl being the main conflict, a theme that likely began with What Price Glory.
The armed services routinely courted Hollywood in the 1930s, even before there was a special office to vet scripts for official approval. The pre-Pentagon War Department granted access to shipyards and air bases, seeking to connect Hollywood glamour to their enlistment drives. In the 1930s, none of the services were lacking for personnel - the privations of the Depression had made the Army and Navy a haven from economic hardship. Thus, the services had their pick of recruits suitable to play popular inter-service sports. The image of a 'jock strap Army' given in James Jones' 1951 book From Here to Eternity is not an exaggeration. The Navy was no different, with the emphasis on sports just as strong as technical advancements in aviation and deep-sea diving.
Like other service stories, Devil's Playground is a fantasy that suggests that 'real men' are all in uniform. They face danger with style and take their recreation in ports of call where 'available' women congregate in bars and clubs. Gender sensitivity is largely unknown in these films, which largely subscribe to a double standard that divides women into the marrying kind and those that are in one way or another available for the pleasure of servicemen, the kind with a girl in every port.
Instead of a glamorous star vehicle, Devil's Playground is cast from talent available at a set price. The budget-conscious project was greenlit because Columbia already owned the story and had already filmed it twice before. Remakes of remakes were not rare, as can be seen in the three iterations of The Maltese Falcon produced by Warner Bros. in the span of just 10 years. Columbia's original silent drama Submarine (1928), directed by Frank Capra, establishes the basic story and the first sequel, Fifty Fathoms Deep (1931), pulls the basic storyline out of the Navy and into a civilian diving context.
By the time the property was revived again for Devil's Playground, Dolores del Rio was taking second billing. She is framed by male stars that had also been leading players in top-tier pictures just a few years before. Stern-faced Richard Dix was nominated for an acting Oscar for 1931's Best Picture winner Cimarron. The handsome Chester Morris had also received an acting nomination, for director Roland West's gangster saga Alibi (1929).
This second remake reverts to the original story of Submarine, yet adds three new screenwriters, including the ambitious Dalton Trumbo. The male leads keep the same names, but the enforcement of the Production Code mandated some major changes. Del Rio's Carmen is now only a dime-a-dance taxi dancer, and it's not implied that she sleeps with her admirers. Rather than a conniving femme fatale, Carmen is simply incapable of fidelity. She marries one man, and when he's away she dates the other out of boredom, unaware that the two men are best friends. Again, 'women trouble' causes a breakup between fast friends. When Morris' sub sinks after a collision at sea, Carmen persuades Dix's hero to attempt a rescue at the extreme depth. In this sanitized Production Code iteration, various levels of vice and professional dereliction have been softened into a simple romantic misunderstanding.
Although Devil's Playground did little for del Rio's career, it was praised for its tense and realistic rescue scenes. Director Erle C. Kenton was a competent stylist who could turn fine work when paired with an artistic cameraman, such as Karl Struss on the eerie H.G. Wells horror adaptation Island of Lost Souls (1932). Kenton eventually directed some Universal horror pictures as well. This submarine picture benefits greatly from the input of lighting cameraman Lucien Ballard, who had refined his craft at Paramount, helping Josef von Sternberg film several Marlene Dietrich pictures. Ballard would later become known as the cinematographer of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and the best films of director Sam Peckinpah, Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969).
The Hollywood trade papers rated the movie as 'suitable for the duals,' which means double bill exhibition. They acknowledged its status as a remake and had little to say about the standard performances of the two male leads, but they praised the technical aspects of the deep-sea rescue scenes. Although the sequence aboard the sunken submarine was noted for its realism, one reviewer pointed out Chester Morris' superhuman powers as the commander; he's the only trapped sailor not to turn blue and weak from lack of oxygen. Variety called Devil's Playground "B product at its unimportant best" and described as routine the finale with proud fleets of battleships with Navy planes in formation overhead, accompanied by rousing music.
The reviewers had even less to say about del Rio's contribution. Variety's critic describes her Carmen as 'a coy viper,' a sentiment echoed by the reviewer of The Council of Federated Church Women. That moral watchdog organization opined that the inclusion of a faithless woman struck a discordant note and suggested that the romantic triangle could have been discarded altogether. As if acknowledging the film's general misogynistic attitude, more than one reviewer observed that the del Rio character is more or less dropped from the story, which ends with the good buddies Richard Dix and Chester Morris riding off together in a rickshaw.
When WWII arrived, Hollywood naturally replaced the peacetime antics of servicemen with combat pictures of a more serious nature. As many stars enlisted or were called up to serve, younger actors with deferments got their chance via roles in war movies. Acting pros too old to enlist continued to play he-man soldiers. The careers of the two male stars of Devil's Playground would diminish toward the vanishing point of B-movie obscurity, although Richard Dix would enjoy a late-blooming popularity spike as the lead in five Columbia Whistler mysteries, beginning with The Whistler in 1944.
Dolores del Rio's reign as a Hollywood glamour queen ended before the war broke out, but she was never at a loss for admirers. Even into the 1940s, the photographic record of her beauty rivals that of Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford. Del Rio had divorced her first husband Jaime del Rio in the silent era but kept his name. Afterwards, she resisted breaking up the home of her mentor/director Edwin Carewe, choosing instead to marry MGM art director Cedric Gibbons. That union lasted for 11 years before it was broken by her torrid affair with a young Orson Welles, who stated in public that del Rio was the most exciting woman he had ever met. When Welles fell out of favor after Citizen Kane (1941) and was no longer welcome in some Hollywood social circles, del Rio refused to disassociate herself with him. She performed with Welles in the RKO film Journey Into Fear (1943), at which time he took up with Hollywood's sensational new attraction, Rita Hayworth. Del Rio then returned to Mexico for the next chapter in her long career. Despite never having made a Spanish language feature, she became an instant star in Mexican classics, some of them for the top director Emilio Fernandez. Always a popular figure, she returned to Hollywood to work in television and to play character parts in features. Several were for her old friend John Ford; one of her more memorable performances was as Elvis Presley's mother in his Western hit Flaming Star (1960).
By Glenn Erickson