Silent Star of February 1997

Rudolph Valentino

Of all the stars of the silent era, only a few have gone on to become an enduring icon. Of the handful of silent stars named by Entertainment Weekly as "The 100 Greatest Movie Stars of all Time," perhaps only the names Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Rudolph Valentino are recognizable to audiences of today.

In honor of Valentine's Day, it is only fitting that this month we honor Hollywood's first male sex symbol, Rudolph Valentino.

In 1913, 18-year old Rodolpho Guglielmi came to New York City from Castellaneta, Italy. After working at a series of odd jobs, and degenerating from $2.00 a night flophouses to vagrancy in Central Park, Rodolpho became a gigolo at Maxim's. The word may not have changed meaning too much since 1913, but at that time it more familiarly described young men who danced with wealthy young women (mainly widows) for money. A gifted dancer, Rodolpho came to the attention of professional dancer Bonnie Glass. After touring and performing with her as her partner, he went on to partner with another professional performer, Joan Sawyer.

Involvement in a society scandal in New York forced Rodolpho to take a part in a touring company. The tour ended in San Francisco, where he made the acquaintance of Norman Kerry, who suggested he go to Hollywood to try his hand at motion pictures.

Rodolpho made his film debut in a small walk-on part in the film Alimony with Josephine Whittell. As the standard $5.00 per day pay was far less than what he had earned dancing in New York, he auditioned for and worked with Katherine Phelps, a dancer of some reputation. He continued working in bit parts for the next three years: 1918's unreleased (and highly prophetic) A Married Virgin; A Society Sensation and All Night, both starring Carmel Myers; 1919's Delicious Little Devil and Big Little Person starring his friend from New York, Mae Murray; Rogue's Romance; The Homebreaker with Dorothy Dalton and Douglas MacLean; Out of Luck, starring Dorothy Gish and directed by D.W. Griffith, who, impressed with his dancing, hired him to dance with Carol Dempster on stage as a prologue to The Greatest Thing in Life; and Eyes of Youth, with Clara Kimball Young.

In 1919, the newly rechristened Rudolph Valentino married Jean Acker, a member of Russian actress Alla Nazimova's "sewing circle." It was a marriage in name only, for the marriage was never consummated, and Jean left the bewildered Valentino soon after their wedding day, refusing to see or speak to him.

Valentino continued in more bit parts: The Adventuress, starring Julian Eltinge, the famous female impersonator; 1920's The Cheater; Passion's Playground with pal Norman Kerry; and Once to Every Woman with Dorothy Phillips. Finally in 1921, Valentino was given the lead role of Julian Desnoyers in Metro's production of Vicente Blasco Ibanez's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, directed by Rex Ingram. He was chosen for the part at the urging of writer June Mathis, who had seen him in Eyes of Youth and felt he was right for the part.

While Four Horseman was a success, and Valentino received rave reviews for his performance, he had yet to become the Great Lover. His next major project for Metro was Uncharted Seas, with Alice Lake. Abandoned by Jean Acker, Valentino had since met the beautiful and mysterious Natacha Rambova, nee Winifred Hudnut, heiress to a cosmetics fortune and another confidante of the actress Nazimova. It was she who pushed for Valentino to be cast as Armand in Nazimova's production of Camille.

After Camille, Valentino's next starring role was in Eugenie Grandet -- later retitled The Conquering Power, written by June Mathis, starring Alice Terry, and again directed by Miss Terry's fiance, Rex Ingram. Valentino, chafing at the relatively small salary he was paid by Metro, paid a visit to Jesse Lasky at Paramount, where he was offered a 5-year contract and $500 per week. Valentino signed.

In 1921, the hot book of the moment was The Sheik, written by Edith Maude Hull, an English spinster. Its plot scandalized society: set in the French Sahara, it is the story of a young woman, kidnapped and raped by a desert sheik, who turns out to be a titled Englishman. All ends well, with the sheik and the young lady living happily ever after. Lasky purchased the movie rights, intending the film as a vehicle for the studio's newly acquired star.

The public went wild. Valentino not only was a new kind of hero in a new kind of film, he was the kind of man that increasingly emancipated women had been waiting for. Actors had been clean-cut, all American types, men like Wallace Reid, and Douglas Fairbanks. Valentino's characters were he-men, men who took what they wanted, subduing any woman who defied him. Yet they were also charming men, men who where sensitive, who needed a woman's love. Valentino played both extremes without making a mockery of either, effectively blazing a trail for the "men's men" actors who succeeded him, men such as Clark Gable and Cary Grant.

Finally divorced from Jean Acker, he waited the year required by California to remarry, this time to the love of his life, Natacha. But Valentino's public persona never quite equalled his private one; the Sheik who took what he wanted from women was, himself, a henpecked, dominated husband. Natacha's influence over him was total, turning the usually genial, easy-going actor into a willful and demanding star. Galled that "that trash" The Sheik had been such a success, she demanded that Valentino get better scripts, and insisted he next star in Blood and Sand, another Blasco Ibanez novel. He was given the role, as well as a raise, after completing two more films: Moran of the Lady Letty with Dorothy Dalton, and the film version of Elinor Glyn's Beyond the Rocks, with Gloria Swanson.

Bad publicity followed when it was discovered that Natacha and Rudy's marriage constituted bigamy for Valentino. After much discussion and activity on the part of Los Angeles District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine, attendants at the ceremony in Mexicali swore in court that the two had never been alone, had slept in separate beds, and that the marriage had never been consummated, due to Natacha's being ill. The charges were dropped.

Natacha personally chose Valentino's next vehicle, The Young Rajah, sketching the sets and costumes herself. The film made money, but it also marked Valentino's disaffection with Paramount. At Natacha's urging, he demanded more money and greater control of his films, going on strike and refusing to work until his conditions were met. Paramount held its ground, and Valentino, a profligate spender, found himself broke, with no income.

He and Natacha were saved when George Ullman, a representative of the Mineralava Beauty Clay Company offered them $7,000 a week to appear in a 17-week personal appearance tour -- all expenses paid. Rudy and Natacha signed.

The tour was an unqualified success, selling out wherever they appeared. Valentino and Natacha would perform a tango, say a few words about the benefits of Mineralava, and then sign autographs for the tremendous crowds. The press devoted a great deal of coverage to the tour, which in turn inspired a book of poetry, "written" by Valentino, which sold by the thousands.

Seeing that the tour such a success, and Valentino's popularity still high, Paramount capitulated, and signed Rudy to a new contract for $7,500 per week. His next project was Monsieur Beaucaire, with Bebe Daniels. Once again, Natacha took control of designing the sets and costumes, as she did for Valentino's next film, Cobra. But Natacha's interfering had proved to be too much for Paramount, and when Valentino's contract was renegotiated, giving him more money and a greater percentage of the profits, it included a clause that Natacha was to be banned from the studio. To Natacha's great outrage, Valentino -- broke, tired, and embarrassed at being the butt of jokes due to her henpecking -- signed.

It marked the beginning of the end of their marriage. Valentino's next film, The Eagle, with Vilma Banky, began production while Natacha began production on What Price Beauty, a vanity film granted her by Paramount as a consolation prize. Upon its completion, unable to find a distributor, Natacha left for New York. Their separation became permanent, and Natacha filed for divorce in Paris.

Valentino was still The Great Lover, and his films still made money, but they were not the successes that his earlier films had been. To boost his box office appeal, Valentino agreed to star in The Son of the Sheik, even suggesting he play both the parts of father and son. Recovering from his divorce from Natacha, he threw himself into the production, enjoying himself immensely. Teamed once again with Vilma Banky, he played his roles tongue in cheek and made perhaps the finest film of his career.

That the film would be a success was never in question, but Valentino never lived long enough to enjoy it. In New York to see his brother Alberto off to Italy, he collapsed in his hotel room and was taken to the Polyclinic Hospital. After two emergency surgeries, and a brief recovery, Rudolph Valentino died Monday, August 23, 1926 at 12.10 pm of peritonitis.

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1997 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431