Embezzler Of Hearts

Film still for Embezzler Of Hearts

In this celebrity-driven time, actors are the aspect of film-making that gets the obvious attention. But their craft remains mysterious and their cultural input is rarely taken seriously. Sight & Sound wants to change that. In this new series we ask writers to respond to actors, not only as icons of their age, but also in terms of their expertise, their physical presence and their importance to the films of their day. We begin with David Robinson on the ultimate star, Rudolph Valentino.

He was born on 6 May 1895 at Castellaneta, near Taranto, beneath the heel of Italy. In later years publicists would boast that he was baptised Rodolpho Alfonzo Rafaelo Pierre Filibert di Valentina d'Antonguollo Guglielmi - which is unlikely, though the 'Pierre Filibert' is a reminder that his mother Maria Berta Gabriella Barbin Guglielmi was probably of French origin. His father Giovanni was the village vet, and supported the family in comparative comfort until his death in 1906. Rodolpho was the third of four children: his elder sister Beatrice died in infancy; his elder brother Alberto and you-nger sister Maria kept contact with him throughout his years of success. The young Rodolpho seems to have been a minor delinquent, and records of his schooling are doubtful, though his claims of having attended an agricultural college are probably true, if only because so improbable.

On 9 December 1913 Rodolpho set out for New York on the S.S. Cleveland. Arriving penniless, he was glad to accept the hospitality of Castellenatans who had preceded him to the New York ghettos until he found work as a gardener on grand estates - which probably gave him the opportunity to observe, envy and emulate the rich and elegant. Meanwhile, he worked on his innate dancing skills, mastering the crazes of the day - the maxixe, the cakewalk and above all the American and Continental tangos. The handsome, charming and graceful boy easily found work as a taxi dancer in the 'cabarets' that flourished in New York. Almost certainly additional service as a gigolo would have been demanded. He quickly made it to the fashionable Maxim, where he was able to earn $100, with handsome tips, when he pleased the ladies.

Probably humiliated by this rental status, he accepted a considerable cut in salary to replace Clifton Webb as partner to the exhibition dancer Bonnie Glass. He moved on to partner Joan Sawyer, but soon became involved in a complex sex scandal involving millionaire Jack de Saulles, his wife Blanca, the actress Mae Murray and Joan Sawyer herself. Rodolpho was a divorce witness for Blanca, which abruptly ended his partnership with Sawyer. Soon afterwards Rodolpho himself was arrested and gaoled. When he became famous Metro arranged for the police records to evaporate, so the details of the case are unknown, though they seem to have involved blackmail and extortion. Soon afterwards Blanca de Saulles shot her estranged husband dead; with his vulnerable immigrant status, Rodolpho decided it was best to leave town before her trial.

Go west, young man

He got a part in the chorus of the touring musical The Masked Model and when that collapsed found a three-week job in the chorus of Nobody Home, playing in San Francisco. The Seven Little Foys were appearing in vaudeville, and 20-year-old Bryan Foy (later to become a prominent film producer and 'Keeper of the B's') took a fancy to Rodolpho, convinced him to try his luck in Los Angeles, and put him up in his apartment on 6th Street, near the Elks Club.

For a year or so he lived from hand to mouth, working as a dancer and occasional mechanic and endeavouring to break into movies, starting with an unbilled role as a dancer in Alimony in late 1917. Over the next two years he appeared in a dozen or so films, sometimes unbilled, otherwise getting secondary roles in minor pictures or bit parts in bigger productions. His name was rarely spelled the same way twice on the credits: he was M. Roldolpho De Valentina, Rudolph Volantina, Rudolph Valentine. Only on two films at the end of 1920 does his screen name appear in more or less its definitive form of Rudolph Valentino (though there remained uncertainty about the 'ph').

It has generally been stated that he was frustrated at being typecast as Latin heavies and co-respondents, but in fact he had his fair share of characters with good American names like Jimmie and Maurice and played sympathetic Italians (Prince Angelo in Passion's Playground, 1920) as well as the neurotic (Juliantimo in Once to Every Woman, 1920) and plain nasty (Jose Dalmarez in Stolen Moments, 1920). The last role of 1920, as a crook called Jimmie Klingsby (and still billed as Rudolph DeValentino), was in the aptly titled The Wonderful Chance.

Having paid Vicente Blasco Ibáñez $20,000 advance against 10 per cent of the eventual gross for the film rights to his best-selling epic novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Metro was regretting it, as war films plummeted in public favour. Nevertheless, Metro's star writer June Mathis produced a clever adaptation, suggested Rex Ingram as director and proposed the unknown Rudolph Valentino for the leading male role of Julio Desnoyers. Mathis seems never to have met Valentino, but to have been impressed by his cameo role in 1919's Eyes of Youth. Metro accepted, confident that the film was guaranteed by its female star, Ingram's wife Alice Terry. Almost as soon as shooting began, and definitively after shooting the extended tango scene, Ingram recognised the singular magnetism of his new actor. Julio's role was progressively filled out - and when the film opened in 1921, the public saw only Valentino. Myth and star alike were born overnight.

Erotic and exotic

Valentino is the perfect screen actor. He moves with extraordinary grace and skilfully adapts his elegant mime to the age or mood of his character. With his fine skin and slicked-back hair, he has a commanding facial beauty that transcends a misshapen bruiser's ear and a scar on his right cheek (which can even serve as a beauty spot). He seems to absorb himself completely into every character, though he always found a costume helped: he preferred not to play contemporary roles, and even when he did usually sought to introduce some fantasy sequence that permitted him to retreat to a distant and exotic place or era. His playing appears exceptionally restrained for the time, and at the same time acutely expressive. His clinical myopia may have contributed to the depth of his melancholy eyes, under eyebrows often quizzically drawn together. Although the intensity of his passions is rarely compromised by humour or cynicism, he nevertheless had an elegant style in light comedy, seen at its best in Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) and The Eagle (1925).

From the moment of his first entrance in Four Horsemen, hijacking his partner for the tango, he brought a new eroticism to American cinema. As Life said, for women newly emancipated by the Great War, he was "the symbol of everything wild and wonderful and illicit in nature". Beside him, his American predecessors and contemporaries were domestic dull-pots, while Douglas Fairbanks, though dedicated in other ways to glorifying the male physique, seemed always to be doing all those things recommended to adolescent boys to take their minds off sex. Valentino's erotic play ranged from the exquisitely gentle to the no less exquisitely brutal. He was attentive, considerate - and impetuous. His lips just brushed the fingers of a married woman's hand, or kissed the palm (a trick taught him by Elinor Glyn when he was making 1922's Beyond the Rocks) of one who might be more attainable. He would seize his partner, bend her backwards dangerously, then tenderly arrest the movement to plant a kiss. He was the Sheik and the Great Lover.

The heterosexual American was inevitably uneasy; Dick Dorgan spoke for many when he famously wrote in Photoplay: "I hate Valentino! All men hate Valentino. I hate his oriental optics; I hate his classic nose; I hate his Roman face; I hate his smile; I hate his glistening teeth; I hate his patent leather hair; I hate his Svengali glare; I hate him because he dances too well; I hate him because he's a slicker; I hate him because he's the great lover of the screen; I hate him because he's an embezzler of hearts; I hate him because he's too apt in the art of osculation; I hate him because he's leading man for Gloria Swanson; I hate him because he's too good-looking." Just the same, screen lovers - and not just Valentino's Latin rivals like Ramon Novarro and Gilbert Roland - changed their ways with women after Valentino.

Valentino's private sexual life is enigmatic, but not irrelevant to the on-screen erotic charisma that still endures. Everyone who met him emphasises his boyish, unaffected charm and sincerity; and there's a good deal of evidence that he cherished an Italian bourgeois ideal of a well-ordered home and a dutiful wife to supervise it. Yet in Hollywood he seemed to be drawn into a sexual maelstrom and to be dominated throughout his career by strong women, starting with Mathis. The Russian-born stage star Alla Nazimova snubbed him in 1919 when someone attempted to introduce the then-unknown young man in a restaurant. It seemed almost unconscious revenge when he immediately married Nazimova's most recent lover Jean Acker (herself irked, it seems, by Nazimova's dallyings with Dorothy Arzner, the editor on her latest film). Acker instantly regretted her error, locked the door of the bridal suite and went back to another girlfriend. With astonishing naivety, Valentino seems to have continued to plead for her return.

Nazimova changed her attitude after Valentino's success in Four Horsemen and persuaded him to play Armand to her Camille. The production was dominated by another of Nazimova's lovers, Natacha Rambova (in reality Winifred Shaughnessy, the stepdaughter of cosmetics tycoon Richard Hudnut). Valentino was bewitched by this forceful, pretentiously high-brow young beauty - and married her. When shortly afterwards he was charged with bigamy (his divorce from Acker was not yet legally concluded) the couple had no difficulty in establishing there had been no consummation, while Rambova's biography of Valentino - admittedly largely devoted to communications from beyond the grave - persistently refers to his "childlike" qualities and never hints at a mutual erotic attraction.

Outside these two marriages, Valentino was untouched by the usual Hollywood scandal machine, with no suggestion of sexual affairs with any other women or men - though he openly enjoyed the companionship of his own sex, with (not surprisingly) a number of homosexuals among his most faithful chums.

Art and industry

Rambova's pretentions and ambitions were to have a seriously adverse effect on Valentino's career. After Four Horsemen he made three more films for Metro: Camille (1921); Uncharted Seas (1921), a melodrama set in the Arctic; and The Conquering Power (1921), directed by Rex Ingram, who clearly resen-ted being eclipsed by Valentino and was determined to cut him down to size. When Metro refused to raise his salary despite the huge profits of Four Horsemen Valentino was happy to be part of a package that Mathis sold to Famous Players-Paramount, which involved starring Valentino in The Sheik (1921) at a considerably larger salary than he had earned at Metro. Edith Maude Hull's 1919 novel had garnered a notoriety that sold millions of copies; to have read this slyly pornographic tale was the mark of the New Woman. It relates how a liberated young aristocratic lady is abducted in the desert by a handsome sheik. Borne off to his tent, she yields - but happily discovers he is really an English nobleman in mufti. The story has everything - sin, miscegenation and a last-minute racial corrective.

With The Sheik Valentino's fame and popularity soared; but Rambova thought such stuff below her husband's dignity and from then on made more and more difficulties between Valentino and Famous Players, encouraging him to be increasingly demanding about his projects and their visual qualities (with Rambova, naturally, the preferred designer and artistic adviser). There were some good films nevertheless - a finely played contemporary role in Moran of the Lady Letty (1922) and a return to Ibáñez with Fred Niblo's admirable Blood and Sand (1922). Immediately before this last film, and while relations with the studio were still comparatively cordial, Sam Wood directed Valentino and Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks, from Elinor Glyn's 1906 novel. The film was long lost, but has just been rediscovered by the Nederlands Filmmuseum, which is in the process of restoring it. Swanson herself always longed, vainly, to see it again, since she had such happy memories of its making. She was 25, Valentino was 27, and she found him modest, endearing and fun; the two youngsters would run off for tennis games together. Valentino plays the English Lord Bracondale, who saves the life of the beautiful Theodora (Swanson), the young wife of an elderly millionaire, when she slips off an Alpine precipice. They fall in love, with predictable complications that are eventually resolved when the millionaire husband is slain by bandits in Arabia. Madame Glyn, the author of this farrago, was on the set to offer tips on the finer points of romantic love-making, and her hand is also evident in an article signed by Valentino in the March 1922 issue of Photoplay.

Goaded by Rambova, Valentino broke completely with the studio after the decorative but unbearably tedious The Young Rajah (1922), alleging Famous Players' tyranny over his artistic creation. For a year and a half he survived by doing exhibition dances as a cosmetics commercial. Valentino was still a valuable property, however, and in 1924 there was a reconciliation with the studio, which knuckled under to most of his demands. Monsieur Beaucaire, made at Paramount's New York studios, is a touch weighed down by Rambova's design and A Sainted Devil (1924) and Cobra (1925) are among his least successful films. Famous Players was clearly not too disappointed when it finally parted with what one executive called "the double hernia".

Recruited to United Artists by Joseph Schenck (or rather coerced - Schenck had providentially covered some of the huge debts incurred by Valentino's extravagance), Valentino was to make only two more films. The Eagle, directed by Clarence Brown, remains one of his most sophisticated; he plays a young Russian officer slyly evading the attentions of the lustful Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser). Finally he returned to the lurid world of Edith Maude Hull for The Son of the Sheik (1926). It is old tosh, but Valentino is at his best, finely differentiating his double roles, his mime beautifully characterising the old Sheik gracefully yielding to time.

Valentino went east for the premiere. He was unhappy. He and Natacha, who was forbidden by the contract with Schenck from even entering the studio, had quietly separated. He had been cut by nasty press attacks on his virility - despite his increasing insistence on posing with boxers and athletes and on showing off his body (not always easy, as from early days he had a constant weight problem). Most surprising was the still from The Young Rajah in which his knitted swimming trunks reveal a display of manliness at which even contemporary newspapers might jib. After his death the "powder-puff" jibes were largely blamed for his distress, but H.L. Mencken, who interviewed him at the time, felt it was the experience of The Son of the Sheik which had knocked him so low. He had risen from nothing, and had striven to be an artist, only to find that what he had done was worthless.

A new star in heaven

On 15 August 1926 Valentino was rushed into the Polyclinic Hospital New York and operated on for a gastric ulcer and ruptured appendix. On 23 August he died, setting off a mass display of necrophilia such as had never been seen before. Vast crowds (most of them, it was noted, under 35, with some of the men in gaucho costume) converged on Campbell's Funeral Church on Broadway and 66th Street. Three hundred and fifty policemen and a horde of private detectives attempted to control them, but there were at least a hundred casualties and Campbells opened a temporary clinic. For three days people - more in carnival mood than in mourning - filed past the bier at the rate of 9,000 per hour. United Artists, with its big investment in The Son of the Sheik at stake, did not discourage the spectacle. Nor did Paramount, anxious to promote Pola Negri's next film Hotel Imperial, raise any objection when the diva announced that she and Valentino had been engaged, and embarked on a much publicised cross-continental pilgrimage, weeping, swooning, screaming, giving press conferences and doing re-takes for the news camera by turns. A song 'There's a New Star in Heaven Tonight' was rushed out and proved a best-seller.

After a memorial service in the Church of St Malchy the body was taken west by train, stopping for further memorial services at Chicago. Finally, in Hollywood, the funeral took place in the Church of the Good Shepherd, and the double bronze coffin was laid to rest in June Mathis' crypt in the Hollywood cemetery as an aeroplane dropped a hail of blossoms to cover the ground below.

Valentino died at a time of revolution in communications technology. The furore over his last illness, death and lying-in-state was to a large part generated by the new medium of radio. The image of his corpse was the first press picture to be transmitted across the world by wireless. Seventeen days before his death Warner Bros. had premiered its first Vitaphone programme in New York: sound films had arrived.

Valentino would certainly have survived the revolution. Some broadcasts and rather amateur but sweetly engaging recordings of 'The Kashmiri Love Song' and 'El relicario' had shown he had a pleasant voice. He had mastered perfect English, with an exotic accent which was said to sound more French than Italian.

Valentino would have survived the revolution - but would the legend? "We had faces then. We didn't need to talk," said Norma Desmond. These mythical figures - Chaplin's tramp, Fairbanks' Thief, the Lillian Gish of Broken Blossoms, Theda Bara, Negri, Swanson, Musidora and Mozhukhin - existed outside ordinary reality, larger far than life, and not chained to nationality by common speech. Valentino's exotic contemporaries Nazimova and Ramon Novarro were to end their careers as ethnic character players; Negri's last role was in Disney's The Moon-Spinners (1964). Rudolph Valentino lived, died, and remains a legend.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012