Film: Valentino - the first celebrity of the silver screen
Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30
If you're looking for a prototype of the modern American celebrity, it would have to be Rudolph Valentino. An Italian immigrant with a colourful past who was forced to change his name to make it pronounceable, Valentino appeared from nowhere in 1921 to become one of the biggest stars of the silent era. Scandal dogged him, he was idolised by legions of women but hated by their jealous men, and was dead by 1926, at the age of just 31.
He was one of the first real movie stars, the first pop star, and, perhaps, the first 'celebrity' in the modern sense, in that his fame vastly outstripped his talent. He had poise, though, and style, was a fine dancer and his natural charisma was probably enhanced by the fact that few of his fans ever heard him speak. He died 90 years ago this year, but remains a surprisingly potent cultural reference. He's been name-checked in songs by everyone from Tom Waits and David Bowie to Bowling for Soup, and was recently reincarnated as a vampire in the hit US TV series American Horror Story. There have been quite a few movies about him, too, and last week Ken Russell's 1977 biopic Valentino was re-released on Blu-ray.
Russian ballet star Rudolph Nureyev plays the title role in a film that was savaged by most critics on its original release, but is very nice to look at and not without its points of interest. It's full of the baroque excesses for which Russell is famous, and also demonstrates the difficulties of separating Valentino's story from the many myths that have grown up around it.
Many of these were first peddled by Kenneth Anger in his lurid 1965 book Hollywood Babylon, which represented all sorts of urban myths as fact. Valentino was not Anger's only victim, and the family of Clara Bow may not have been impressed by the assertion that she'd once slept with the entire University of Southern California football team. But the claims about Valentino were the ones that really stuck: Anger suggested the great Latin lover had actually been gay, effeminate and prone to giving male friends presents of dildos.
Actual evidence of this is sketchy, to say the least, but it's no surprise to find people still talking about Rudy's tendencies all these years later, because sex was what he was all about. The thing that distinguished Valentino from his Anglo-Saxon screen rivals was his ability to simulate passion. Dashing heroes like Douglas Fairbanks wooed their maidens in passing, but Valentino did it with commendable aplomb, making sexual passion seem like a violent frenzy or affliction, and manhandling his leading ladies with a fierce and distinctive grace.
"Lie still, you little fool!" he told his squirming lover in The Sheik (1921), and American womanhood swooned in delight. He brought the Argentine tango to the US by performing it in his breakthrough hit The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), and became a style icon and trendsetter - a correctly slicked-back mid-1920s haircut was known as a 'Vaselino". He shot to fame and disappeared almost as quickly, having lived his last days in the full glare of tabloid celebrity.
His early years in America gave little indication of the glory to come. Born Rudolfo Alfonso Guglielmi in a small town in the boot of Italy in 1895, Rudy set sail for the US in 1913, and was herded through Ellis Island on December 23 of that year.
He found indifference and hardship on Manhattan's mean streets, was homeless for a time, and eventually landed a job as a 'taxi dancer' at Maxims'. Taxi dancers hung around on club floors and were paid by the dance, but the job was synonymous in the public mind with prostitution. Things got worse when he was befriended by a Chilean heiress called Bianca de Saulles. She was unhappily married to businessman John de Saulles, and while it's unclear if Valentino and Bianca became lovers, her embittered husband used his political connections to get Rudy arrested. Shortly afterwards, Bianca shot her husband dead during a custody battle over their son. Fearful of being called as a witness, Valentino fled west to Los Angeles, and began picking up bit parts in movies.
His Mediterranean complexion ensured he was initially typecast as gangsters and heavies. He quickly tired of playing snarling villains, and was about to give up acting when a stroke of luck transformed his life.
A clever young screenwriter called June Mathis had noticed Valentino in a 1919 film called Eyes of Youth: he'd only had a walk-on part, but something about his bearing and presence had stuck in her mind. She was determined to turn a best-selling adventure novel called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse into a feature film, and persuaded her bosses at Metro Pictures to give Valentino a screen test.
They thought him too swarthy to play a hero, but changed their minds when they saw the rushes. The role of Julio was made for Valentino, and he was electrifying as the dashing adventurer who moves from Argentina to Paris, falls in love and goes to war. In the film's most famous scene, Rudy led a wild Buenos Aires beauty on a tango through a crowded bar.
When it was released in 1921, The Four Horsemen caused a sensation. People, and most especially women, queued around the block to see Valentino fight, dance and love: the film became one of the first to make a million dollars, and remains one of the highest grossing movies ever made.
Suddenly, Valentino was a mega-star, and a glorious future seemed secure. But though the hits kept coming in films like The Sheik and Blood and Sand, battles with the studios over money and creative independence would blight Rudy's career for the remainder of his days, and his racy private life didn't exactly help.
He had married the actress Jean Acker in 1919, but their union was never consummated, perhaps because he chose their wedding day to break the sunny news that he had contracted gonorrhoea. Acker, in any case, was a lesbian, and currently involved in a love triangle with two other actresses. Wisely, Rudy retreated, but seems to have forgotten he was already married when he decided to wed again.
His second wife, a manipulative costume designer who went by the name of Natacha Rambova but was really Winnie Shaughnessy out of Salt Lake City, was cordially detested by all Valentino's friends. Married in 1923, they were forced to separate when it emerged that Rudy was still married to Acker, and the star was temporarily jailed for bigamy. Their union ended acrimoniously in 1925, and Valentino pointedly left Rambova the princely sum of one dollar in his will.
All of this - at least the printable parts - was gold-dust for the gossip columnists, but Valentino's army of female admirers couldn't care less, and in fact the idea that he was a star-crossed lover only made him more alluring. The hysteria that greeted him everywhere he went in America had no precedent, and is only comparable to the furore that would later engulf Elvis Presley.
Men, by and large, loathed him, threatened no doubt by his sexual charisma and power over women. Some commentators began to make barbed comments about Valentino's unconventional dress sense. He sported a wristwatch at a time when they were considered too bracelet-like to be worn by real men, and had a fondness for silk scarves and fur coats. He also used a corset, though not as some implied because he was a fan of cross-dressing: Rudy liked pasta, but had to seem trim.
Sleek and Latin and unashamedly passionate, Valentino just didn't seem like a real American man. So he was distrusted by one half of that country, tearfully adored by the rest. Caricatured, pigeon-holed and constantly scrutinised, he grew increasingly unhappy about his status and public visibility, and his health began to fail.
On August 15, 1926, he was hospitalised with a misdiagnosed ulcer that quickly developed in peritonitis. Complications set in, and within a week the 31-year-old superstar was dead.
His passing became a global news story, and a number of female suicides in the US were attributed to his death, though the poor ladies may not have been feeling too good anyway.
One wonders what might have happened had he lived, and whether Valentino would have been obliterated like so many of his illustrious colleagues by the arrival of sound. He missed talking pictures by a year, and perhaps that's why he'll always be remembered.
A spectacular send-off
If everything about Rudolph Valentino's life had been dramatic, his death was even more memorable. His funeral in New York City (above) can perhaps best be imagined by comparing it to Lady Diana's, but only if you multiply the hysteria by 10. Upwards of 100,000 people lined Manhattan's streets to pay their respects. Windows were smashed at the funeral home where he was lying in state, as fans sought to gain access.
Others saw an opportunity for self-promotion in this unique event. The actress Pola Negri, who Valentino had been dating at the time of his death, circulated the rumour that they'd been engaged, appeared at the funeral dressed all in black and collapsed in hysterics over the coffin. The funeral home's director decided to add to the drama by hiring four actors to impersonate a Blackshirt honour guard supposedly sent by Mussolini.
It was all most unseemly, but after his body had been transported across the country by train, a second and more dignified funeral took place in Beverly Hills. The young actor had made no burial arrangements, but old friend June Mathis stepped in and offered a tasteful crypt in Hollywood Memorial Park. She is buried next to him.