My Writer’s Voice entry is here.
17 November 2004 was the night I watched my first Rudy Valentino film, 1922’s Blood and Sand (which was remade in 1942 by the gorgeous Tyrone Power). I still remember how my heart literally skipped a beat the first time I saw him in motion. I’d seen his pictures before, and had been struck by what a kind, honest, non-threatening face he had, but seeing him in motion took it to a whole new level. I just knew, even without seeing the rest of the film, that he’d become my favorite actor. And my intuition was right. I’ve since seen all of his surviving films, both from his stardom and pre-stardom years.
Rudolph Valentino, né Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaele Guglielmi, was born on 6 May 1895 in Castellaneta, Italy, to a French mother and Italian father. He spoke French as his second language, and was said to speak English with a more French than Italian accent. Like many hopeful actors, he took bit parts for years before his big break finally came in 1921.
June Mathis, one of the most powerful women in Hollywood in the silent era, noticed him in his cameo role as the cabaret parasite Clarence Morgan in the 1919 Clara Kimball Young film Eyes of Youth. She took an immense risk when she decided to cast him as Julio Desnoyers, the lead role in the 1921 blockbuster The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He’d been acting for some time, including in lead roles (like the 1918 films The Married Virgin, All Night, and A Society Sensation), but hadn’t really been noticed or made into a big name yet.
He was forever grateful to her for what she’d done for him, believing in him and going to the bat for him, helping and mentoring him through the entire production of The Four Horsemen, every step of the way. She became sort of a surrogate mother to him.
When he passed on, he was in serious debt, and June gave up her spot in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, thinking it would be temporary. June sadly passed on only a year later, and took the spot next to him, in the spot intended for her husband. They’re still interred side by side over 80 years later.
It’s unfortunate that his best-known film among the general populace is The Sheik. That’s definitely not his most representative work, and not the greatest silent for a newbie either, for reasons too numerous to get into here. He was deeply unhappy at being typecast as a Latin/exotic lover, and took a break from the screen for almost two years in protest. He and his second wife, Natacha Rambova, the great love of his life, toured America on the Mineralava Dance Tour during this time. When he returned to acting, he got roles more to his liking, and more creative control.
Sadly, he died on 23 August 1926, at only 31 years old. Following surgery on a perforated stomach ulcer, he contracted peritonitis, and then pleurisy set in. His last days were spent in severe pain, screaming in agony, not even allowed morphine till near the end, and all because in 1926 antibiotics didn’t exist. His decline probably wasn’t helped by smoking, taking immense quantities of bicarbonate soda (along with a medication to retard baldness, which he was very afraid of), prolonging seeing a doctor because of his fear of hospitals, and the intense heat.
Just some of the reasons why I love Rudy:
He genuinely respected women. Yes, his attitudes on “sex roles” and women in general would be considered benevolently sexist today, but I’d rather have someone who thinks of women as “the fair sex” but still shows respect and admiration than someone who thinks it’s cool to beat and rape women, use misogynistic words, and institute laws forbidding women to drive, own property, and vote.
He was a fantastic actor. Even in his weakest or most unrepresentative pictures, there’s this feeling that he threw himself into these roles and became the characters he was playing. The sincerity of emotion just oozes off the screen.
He knew how to make a scene erotic or romantic more by suggestion. Once upon a time, less was truly more, and you didn’t need to have a couple tearing one another’s clothes off and having graphic sex to convey something really sizzling. Anticipation makes it even better, and sometimes it’s hotter to imagine it in your mind instead of seeing it portrayed.
He married a strong, independent woman. There are striking parallels between Natacha Rambova and Yoko Ono; either you love or hate these women, praise them as strong, creative, empowered women way ahead of their time or villify them as psychotic bitches who controlled their husbands. If they were men, more people would applaud them instead of acting like they’re the wickedest witches who ever lived.
He deeply respected the Arab people and refused to villify them because they had darker skin, a different religion, and lived in a different part of the globe.
He was a very sensitive person, with a beautiful soul, a genuinely nice person.
In spite of being unafraid to be gentle and tender in an era of rigidly-defined sex roles, he also acted in some more stereotypically “masculine” roles.
He did not want to be pigeonholed, and sought a variety of roles.
He was both sensitive and manly, the perfect combination in any man. Prior to The Sheik, most “decent” women hadn’t been given an outlet for sexual fantasies, hadn’t realized they could fantasize about a dark-skinned lover or desire a man who wasn’t some clean-cut all-American boy, someone who was much different than the screen idols they’d previously been given.
He loved animals!
He was well-read and intelligent, and very into the mystical.
The voice recording technology of 1923 didn’t really give a representative picture of one’s true voice. Had he tried again in 1925 or 1926 with the new, improved recording technology, we’d have a better picture of his actual voice.
This video makes me cry. This beautiful man, with such a good heart, was taken away so young, so much wasted talent and beauty, and without leaving behind any children. May you rest in peace forever, my sweet sheik.