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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
RUDOLPH VALENTINO

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1936 R-95 Linen Portrait Rudolph ValentinoRoss Post Card featuring Rudolph ValentinoIt took a bit of creative genius to come up with the catchy name of Rudolph Valentino (and his even catchier nickname, The Sheik); this heartthrob was born Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla on May 6, 1895. He was born in Castellaneta, Italy, not too far from the first public motion picture screening ever, in Paris that same year. Rufolf’s father had been a circus-man and traveled a lot in this capacity before he settled down to have a family; he had three children and became a veterinarian.

Rumor has it that Rudolph, the middle child, (his siblings were Alberto and Maria), was his mama’s favorite and an extremely beautiful child. She doted on him and lavished him with attention. As one would expect, Rudolph grew into a wild child, spoiled and of the belief that he could get away with anything. His teachers didn’t share that belief, and Rudolph was expelled from many schools before he managed to graduate from the Academy of Agriculture with a diploma in the Science of Farming. One couldn’t imagine a more bizarre career choice for someone who would go on to become ... well, Rudolph Valentino!

Farming didn’t stick. Rudolph moved to Paris and studied apache dancing while happily immersing himself in the City of Lights’ gay scene while still a teenager. In 1913, after he had collected the $4000 inheritance coming his way, he took off for New York. He did what he could to get by: he bussed and became something of a gigolo, and also continued to develop his skill in and passion for dance – he worked particularly hard on perfecting the tango.

In 1917 (or possibly earlier), Valentino made the exodus to Hollywood, bypassing the New York movie scene that many of his peers delved into before making their migrations West. Almost immediately he procured his first movie role – albeit a small one – in the film Alimony, thanks to his dance savvy. Actually, there’s some discrepancy (as there usually is), on what his first movie role is: he apparently appeared uncredited in a few other films before Alimony, such as My Official Wife (1914, starring Clara Kimball Young) and The Foolish Virgin (1916).

Rudolph Valentino made just over 20 films before his big breakout role, and in none of these did he play the smoldering lover he would become so famous 1926 Rudolph Valentino BAT Tobacco Card1922 Rudolph Valentino American Caramel Trading Cardfor. He was still finding his footing in Hollywood, and this included finding the right name for himself. At various times, he has been credited as M. Rodolfo De Valentina, M. Rodolpho De Valentina, M. De Valentina, R. De Valentina, Rudolpho De Valentina, Rudolpho De Valentine, Rudolph DeValentino, Rudolpho Valentina, Rodolph Valentine, Rudolph Valentine and Rodolph Valentino. Some of these early films include: All Night (1918), Virtuous Sinners, Eyes of Youth (both 1919), Passion’s Playground and The Sinner (both 1920). He primarily played the villain in these films.

Finally, in 1921, Metro was persuaded by screenwriter June Mathis and director Rex Ingram II (not Rex Ingram the actor) to cast Rudolph as the lead in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It was a perfect role for Valentino, who plays a lazy and un-ambitious heir to a cattle baron who prefers tango music to business, and whose life changes dramatically when World War I breaks out and he decides he must join the army. Metro needed a hit at the time, and invested a then-hefty sum of a million dollars into this film. It paid off – Metro recouped its money and then some, and Rudolph became a bona fide star.

The Four Horsemen led to other great opportunities for Rudolph Valentino, whose newfound stardom seemed to indicate a healthy appetite for Latino lovers among the general American public. Alla Nazimova hand-picked him to star opposite her in Camille (also 1921), a role that was followed by the one that would immortalize his nickname: The Sheik (also 1921). Adventure, melodrama, high romance – this was the stuff of Rudy’s films. At the same time, he met Natacha Rambova, a friend of Alla’s, and they eloped in Mexico by 1922 – he thought his divorce to Jean Acker was final (after all, they were only married for six hours!), but it wasn’t, and he was ultimately jailed and fined $10,000 for being a bigamist. That year, his second big hit, Blood and Sand, was released – it was also written by June Mathis.

Rudolph and Natacha re-married eventually, but soon after took off to Paris without ever stepping foot into his new, famed mansion, the Falcon Lair. She did leave her mark on him, however, as he continued holding séances and practicing the occult, some of her favorite pastimes. None of these eccentricities seemed to affect his public image, as he continued making films and also began dating Pola Negri, the Italian diva – it’s quite possible this union was a publicity ruse. The idea was not to detract attention from his numerous liaisons with women, but to deflect attention Rudolph Valentino featured on 1920's post card with Gloria Swanson1920s Rudolph Valentino P & J Cadenazzi Caramel Cardfrom rumors that he was gay.

Rudolph Valentino only made 10 more films between 1922 and 1926, though he was busy basking in the glory of his almost ludicrous level of stardom. In 1923 he recorded two songs for Brunswick Records, though he was not a natural singer – fans wanted as much Rudy as they could get (performers like J-Lo, Mandy Moore and Lindsey Lohan seem to be following suit today, singing, dancing and acting in as many star vehicles as they can). The same year, he also published a volume of sentimental poetry, “Day Dreams”, which sold far better than it should have based on the merit of the work alone. Rudy was officially a commodity.

While promoting his last film, The Son of the Sheik, a scathing article came out in the Chicago Tribune questioning Valentino's sexuality and targeting him as principle cause behind the effeminization of the American male; he was also called “pink powder puff.” In defiance, he challenged the writer to a boxing match, but he died shortly after the incident, of blood poisoning on August 23, in New York. He had two funerals, in New York and California, and hordes of devastated fans attended both. Heavily in debt, his friend and screenwriter June Mathis “lent” him space in her crypt, which is where he remains buried today, between Mathis and her husband.

Rudolph Valentino is one of those figures from the silent era whose sheer magnitude as a star far overpowers the actual film roles he did. His films, some good and some pedestrian, were a vehicle for this dashing man who charmed his way into American women’s hearts. For this legacy, he was ranked #80 in Empire magazine’s Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time in 1997 – not bad for someone who made far fewer films than most of his prolific contemporaries. He was also one of 10 silent stars chosen to appear on 29 cent US commemorative postage stamps in 1994, along with Clara Bow, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Theda Bara and Buster Keaton, among others. More than actor, he was the 20th centuries first major sex symbol, which is why his name rolls so easily off the tongue today. What a fascinating man.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.