|You have to give it to a man who's prettier than his dance partner|
With the advent of cinema in the late 1910’s, America obtained its first taste of modern mass culture as people from all social classes and regions suddenly had access to a mutual art form. As a result, fashions, slang, and standards of beauty became the fabrics that were now able to tie together the diverse threads of American culture. One of the most scintillating of these cultural changes was the arrival of the concept of national sex symbols. While today celebrities are expected to possess a standard form of sex appeal, during the 1920’s filmgoers were enthralled by the arrival of one actor who possessed a combination of matinee idol good looks and star-powered charisma; Rudolph Valentino. In his brief life and career, Valentino went from an unknown taxi dancer to a major Hollywood player and international icon.
Valentino was born Rudolfo Alonso Rafaello Pierre Filibert Gugliemi di Valentina D’Antonguolla in Castellanata Italy on May 6, 1895 as the second child of Italian veterinarian Giovanni D’Antonguolla and his French-born wife Marie. A poor student, Valentino earned a degree in agricultural studies rather than pursue an academic degree before traveling to Paris, only to find himself unable to obtain work. After a year of working various odd jobs, he departed Paris for New York and emigrated to the United States. He found similar difficulty finding work in the U. S. and ultimately turned to a job working as a taxi dancer in a New York nightclub which specialized in providing their wealthy clientele with dance partners who were ‘exotic’ as well as talented.
During this time, he befriended Chilean heiress Blanca de Saulles and provided her with moral support when she discovered that her husband, prominent businessman John de Saulles was engaged in several affairs throughout their marriage. This friendship led many to speculate that Blanca was engaged in an affair of her own with Valentino, a suspicion that quickly gained popularity when Valentino testified against John de Saulles during the couple’s divorce. During the trial, Valentino revealed that not only was de Saulles pursuing affairs with several women, but that one of those women was actually Valentino’s dance partner. In an effort to reestablish his own credibility, de Saulles arranged for Valentino to be arrested on a false vice charge, alleging that the dancer was working as an escort for known madam “Mrs. Thyme”. Shortly after the very public trial, Valentino once again found himself unemployed, a circumstance that was made even more hopeless when Blanca fatally shot de Saulles and brought the events of the trial back into the public eye. In order to distance himself from the scandal, he took a job in a national dance tour, which later disbanded in Utah. Determined to give himself a fresh start, he continued traveling west in hopes of pursuing his dancing career in San Francisco.
In San Francisco, Valentino finally gained the following that he had been seeking and soon set his sights on moving up the show-business ladder in Hollywood. With the help his roommate, actor Norman Kerry, Valentino began auditioning for various bit parts while continuing to perform and teach dance lessons. Initially he was typecast as gangsters and other villains, largely due to Hollywood’s taboo against casting immigrant and minority actors as leads. By 1917, he finally became so discouraged that he returned to New York, where he met and befriended cinematographer Paul Ivano who would later become his mentor. Following Ivano’s advice, Valentino returned to Hollywood, where he began a relationship with actress Jean Acker, a closeted lesbian. Acker reportedly became involved with the actor in order to distance herself from a love triangle with actresses Alla Nazimova and Grace Darmond and to avoid the possibility of her sexuality becoming public. Acker quickly regretted her decision and locked Valentino out of their suite on their wedding night, ensuring that the marriage would remain unconsummated. Despite Acker’s homosexuality, the couple remained married until 1921 when Acker sued for divorce and claimed desertion.
While his marriage continued to spiral downward, Valentino suddenly found his career rapidly rising when he pursued a part in the film adaptation of the popular World War I novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He began lobbying for an audition, only to learn that the film’s screenwriter, June Mathis, was impressed with his work and had been attempting to contact him about auditioning while he was in New York. Following the audition, he landed his breakout role as the film’s lead, playboy turned war-hero Julio. Through Valentino’s thrilling combination of acting skill and dance technique the film became an instant success and brought the once unknown actor to national attention. Following his meteoric rise to stardom, he soon learned the difficulties of working under the studio system when he was forced to star in the B-picture Unchartered Seas. While the film was unremarkable, it did prove to have a lasting impact upon the star, as it was on the set of the film that he met his second wife, actress, dancer, and costume designer Natacha Rambova. The pair married in 1922, which led to Valentino being charged with bigamy because he had not been legally divorced from Acker for a full year yet, as was required by California law. In an effort to avoid further scandal, the couple obtained an annulment and lived in separate apartments for a year before remarrying in 1923. Unfortunately, his second marriage proved little more successful than his first as Rambova became controlling and alienated him from both his friends and business associates to such an extent that MGM banned her from his film sets. The couple eventually divorced, with Valentino so bitter towards Rambova that he reportedly only left her one dollar in his will.
After moderate successes with Camille and The Conquering Power, Valentino was cast in his most famous part; Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan in the 1921 romance, The Sheik. In the film, he plays a modern take on Beauty and the Beast as an Arab sheikh who kidnaps a European tourist in hopes of making her one of his wives, only to later find himself softened by the woman’s plight. The film ends with Valentino earning the heroine’s affections after revealing that he is not really an Arab after all but actually a half-British, half-Spanish orphan who was raised by the local sheikh following his parents’ deaths. Although the film contains many racist elements (including the final reveal), Valentino actually tried to inflect as much complexity and humanity into his character as possible. He also defied Hollywood norms when he refuted a reporter during an interview promoting the film saying, “people aren’t savages because they have dark skin; the Arab civilization is one of the oldest in the world. The Arabs are dignified and keen brained”. While some consider the film’s Beauty and the Beast style romance sexist, the film became nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, which led to popularization of the slang terms “sheikh” and “sheba” to describe men and women with sex appeal, and cemented Valentino’s status as a silver screen sex symbol.
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Despite the film’s success, Valentino was displeased with the way in which it limited his career. Following The Sheikh, he was cast in a series of similar films, all of which featured him in the role of the ‘exotic lover’. While the typecasting ensure that he would continue to receive steady work, it also left the actor frustrated with the lack of challenges it posed. Compounding this issue, he was still making significantly less money than his fellow stars ,which led him to go on a ‘one man strike’ against his studio, Famous Players. The studio retaliated by suing, but quickly withdrew the suit after their other leading actor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle became embroiled in a career ending scandal. After the end of his strike, he continued to feel limited in his career and took a brief hiatus from acting during which he returned to dancing in a national tour alongside his wife, Rambova. In 1923, he returned to acting and starred in a series of successful films at Famous Players, but left the studio in 1924 when Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks approached him about joining their new studio venture, United Artists.
Although he achieved success at United Artists, Valentino’s career suffered as a result of Rambova’s insistence upon managing his career. In an effort to help him move beyond the roles he was typecast in, she picked a series of films that required him to play more subdued, even effeminate parts. The drastic change in roles caused a shift in his public perception, particularly amongst male moviegoers who viewed the star as a ‘sissy’. Following his divorce from Rambova, speculation arose that the star was actually a closeted homosexual and that both of his marriages were attempts to hide his sexual orientation. These accusations infuriated Valentino, who viewed the rumors as both an affront to his masculinity and a slight against his personal character. When an editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune that accused him of contributing to the rise in homosexuality in America, he arranged for the writer to face him in a boxing match. While the stunt did provide publicity for Valentino’s latest film, the writer failed to attend the match and rumors continued to abound regarding Valentino’s sexuality.
Towards the end of his career, he continued to challenge himself with a variety of new ventures. In 1923 he attempted to launch a writing career by publishing a book of poetry entitled Day Dreams, and several articles for Life and Photoplay magazines. He also produced two song recordings, “Kashmiri Song” and "El Relicario", which were not released until after his death. He eventually achieved his goal of gaining more input in his films and continued to challenge himself by venturing into the business world with the creation of Rudolp,h Valentino Pictures in 1924. He also started the tradition of awarding honors for the cast and crew of exceptional pictures before the Academy Awards was even formed when he awarded the first (and only) Rudolph Valentino medal to John Barrymore for his role in Beau Brummel in 1925.
While on tour promoting the sequel Son of The Sheikh, Valentino collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with gastric ulcers and appendicitis. Following surgery to remove his appendices, he suffered a pleuritis relapse in his left lung and entered a coma. After briefly regaining consciousness, he slipped back into the coma and died on August 23, 1926 at age 31. An estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral, including numerous distraught fans who made dramatic scenes and threatened to commit suicide in hopes of gaining media attention through association with the deceased star. Four actors were also hired by the funeral home to impersonate Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts and pretend to guard the funeral in hopes of stirring up more publicity. Valentino’s then-girlfriend, actress Pola Negri, also participated in the pandemonium by throwing herself onto his coffin and announcing that they had been engaged, despite the fact that none of his friends had been told of any such engagement. Even after the funeral, the stunts persisted with a woman being hired by a local newspaper to visit the star’s grave and place flowers upon it while wearing a black veil that concealed her face. The ‘woman in black’ tradition continued for decades as dozens of copycats imitated the original stunt.
Today, the name Valentino remains as synonymous with seduction as the fictional Don Juan. In his brief career, Rudolph Valentino proved himself to be far more than a mere pretty face, however, as he continued to challenge himself as a dancer, actor, writer, and entrepreneur. His films remain a reminder of the timelessness of talent and magnetism, as his performances continue to cast their spell nearly a century later. Take a tango on the sultry side and see how much there is to love about cinema's most famous of Latin lovers.
|Rudolph Valentino: Making the ladies say ole since 1921|