The Afterlife of Rudolph Valentino

July 4, 2010 at 2:34 am (General blather, Photo Gallery)

Even after becoming a national sensation, Valentino only got second billing in Beyond the Rocks (1922)… and no billing at all on this lobby card.

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That same year. Here’s a theater that knew how to sell a movie…

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… though the doorman might have preferred a western.

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The Valentino legend is all about romance, but his best films had everything. Here, he rehearses an action scene for The Eagle (1925).

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His image was often kidded, scolded or scorned during his lifetime; less so afterward.

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If she’s not a fan yet, she will be soon enough. Valentino meets little Gloria Corea during a visit to San Francisco in June 1926.

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Two months later, the life is all over. But the legend is only beginning.

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One thing that’s always interested me about the silent era is the durability of fame. Some of its greatest stars are now little more than names in film reference books: Norma Talmadge, Milton Sills, Thomas Meighan.

But there were other silent stars whose mystique endures in the 21st Century. The faces of Chaplin, Keaton and Louise Brooks are still recognized by millions today, and each of those stars have devotees just as dedicated as anyone back in the 1920s had been, if not more so.

That’s especially true of Rudolph Valentino. He was a celebrity in the mid-1920s, and sometimes a controversial one, but a sudden serious illness in the summer of 1926 revealed just how deep his fame really was. Newspaper bulletins about the state of his health were announced daily in giant type, margin to margin, and the public was likely as surprised to recognize its own obsession with the man as it was by his precarious mortality. His death drew spontaneous mobs to the hospital, the church and the mortuary: genuinely despondent admirers, milling about helplessly.

Movie stars had died unexpectedly before. But this was different. Valentino was so larger than life that he was larger than death, too. Screen Secrets reported in September 1928 that at the New York headquarters of United Artists, the company was still receiving an average of five letters a day asking for more Valentino movies, even though everyone knew the man was gone.

Like that of Marilyn Monroe, his final resting place is something of a tourist attraction. But no one comes by for the glamor. It’s a somber destination. The overwhelming majority of visitors to his Hollywood crypt bring silence and respect with them, leaving their cynicism in the car to bake in the California sun. And it’s always been that way; even in 1929, according to Motion Picture Classic, the crypt was drawing between 25 and 150 visitors a day, with up to 500 on holidays. That pace has understandably dropped off since then. But still they come.

And the faithful aren’t simply moping in perpetual grief. They love him. There are Valentino collectors, biographers, websites, online communities. After the long-lost Beyond the Rocks turned up in Europe recently, a new print was struck and toured major theaters, drawing delighted fans in droves. There’s really something unique about Valentino. The charisma and talent are there, and a distinctive courtliness (born in old Europe) that was rare enough in the silent era, and extinct today. But Valentino carries something deeper, too. The shorthand for it is “romance,” but it’s more than that. Plenty of matinee idols went through the paces of huggin’ and kissin’, but with Valentino that always seems to come with rich incense and mandolins strumming in the background. When he looks into the camera, he looks at you, deeply and with candlelight reflected in his eyes. It’s Romance 2.0.

The truly dedicated Valentino buffs are a breed apart. No other screen star ever had devotees animated by such a driving passion. Homosexual Valentino fans argue persuasively that of course Rudy was gay: you can just tell! Heterosexual Valentino fans argue that of course he was straight. Both sides can cite a convincing set of facts and informed speculation. Would Valentino have made it in talkies? The consensus opinion is in the affirmative. Personally, I’m not so sure, but who knows.

Recent months have seen an unseemly schism among the faithful. Battle lines have been drawn, charges hurled, feelings wounded. Lawsuits are threatened. It’s all very real and painful to those caught up in it, and regrettable (especially since I’m acquainted with some of the folks involved, and they’ve all been nothing but nice to me). I’m hoping for reconciliation.

Here are some of the key online landmarks for anyone intrigued by Valentino. To see the man in action, I recommend this deluxe (but affordable) DVD of both The Sheik (1921) and the sequel that tops it, The Son of the Sheik (1926). For questions and answers about his life and career, there’s a Yahoo group that’s been humming for over a decade now. There’s also Hala Pickford’s Rudolph Valentino Society, with its own forum.

There have been a lot of books on Valentino over the years, but be careful. Some of them are awful, and the earlier ones aren’t very reliable. The most acclaimed biography of all is probably Dark Lover by Emily Leider.

This week marks the release of the most eagerly-awaited addition to the Valentino bookshelf since the Leider bio, the sumptuous Rudolph Valentino: The Silent Idol by Donna Hill. It’s so new that I haven’t seen it yet, but the pages reproduced at her website are tantalizing, and the early reviews are unanimously glowing. The author will have copies for sale at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and (I believe) at Cinecon over Labor Day weekend.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

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4 Comments

  1. sweetwaterannie said,

    I have only recently begun to appreciate silent movies, so I know little about them beyond the standard ‘ I know what I like’ of the under-educated, so stumbling across this blog was serendipity, and I thank you for taking the time to post it.

    I love the pics you chose as well.

  2. Monitortop said,

    Startlingly, the “Dark Lover” citation links to Amazon, which quotes a Publisher’s Weekly review giving El Rudy’s year of death as 1936. Typos are typos, but woudn’ cha think that someone might have caught that one???

  3. faak said,

    awesome!!!

  4. Donna said,

    Chris

    Thanks for the plug on the book. You can update the link on my website to:

    http://www.rudolph-valentino.com/silent-idol.htm

    Hopefully you will see it soon, if I so say so (without any bias at all) it’s very pretty. The pic you show above is one of the many in the book. That was taken in San Francisco on Valentino’s last visit in June 1926.

    Donna

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