How I fell in love with Rudy

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In honor of Rudy Valentino’s 91st Jahrzeit (death anniversary), I present a piece edited from the final two paragraphs of an old Angelfire post entitled “The Most Perfect Moment of Just Knowing.” I’m always stunned to see how LONG many of my paragraphs were in those days, and how equally long and rambling my sentences were!

That same you-have-to-see-it experience, a translation from stillness to movement, took place on the night of 17 November 2004, when I first watched Blood and Sand, the first time I saw Rudy Valentino in motion. From the first time I remembered seeing a picture of him in 2001, I was mesmerised by how beautiful he was, what a kind, non-threatening face he had. However, I hadn’t had the chance to see him in motion until that night.

I know why my great-grandmother went to Pittsburgh every Saturday to see his movies. I was just riveted, couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen. You can’t really put into words why, just that he had natural charisma, effortless sex appeal, intensity, drawing the viewer in, involving you, making the viewing experience personal, speaking to your soul, such natural, emotional body language, an incredibly expressive face, emotional, seductive eyes.

I genuinely don’t understand people who genuinely don’t understand the fuss over him, who truly believe it was just a product of the times. Usually they’ve only seen his most unrepresentative films.

I couldn’t believe how much more beautiful he was in motion. I felt weak, and my heart skipped a beat, when I first saw him on the screen. Such depth of emotional intensity can’t be manufactured or learnt in acting school. It was genuine, throwing himself into his roles, becoming the characters, looking so genuine and sincere in his interactions with the other players, esp. women.

I just knew I could never be more impressed by any other actor, modern or bygone. I roll my eyes when I read or hear the often-repeated complaint that all or most silent films or actors are guilty of “overacting.” I’ve seen so many talking films which are so over-the-top and overacted, and many modern-day actors don’t have as much talent in their entire bodies as some silent actors had in their pinky fingers!

People have forgotten what expressive body language looks like, how a face can express emotions without words. Forget the ridiculous eye-bulging in his most famous movie; his talents are much better-expressed in his other ventures.

I’m not interested in any modern actors. Someone who died 53 years before I was born mesmerised me in a way no modern-day wannabe ever could. Current actors don’t have “It,” that unexpressable magnetism and sex appeal. None of the modern-day male actors who are supposedly so sexy and in demand do anything for me.

You know beyond all knowing. Some people don’t want to believe in epiphanies, feeling they need to test out what they think before coming to a conclusion. But some things you either sense right away or you don’t. Most people don’t “decide” they love their child; they just know they’ll love him or her forever. Some things you just know.

P.S.: Happy heavenly 71st birthday to Keith Moon!

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A scorching swan song

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Happy heavenly 70th birthday to Freddie Mercury!

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The Son of the Sheik, Rudy Valentino’s unintentional swan song, had an advance première screening at L.A.’s Million Dollar Theater on 9 July 1926, and went into general release on 3 September. Now 90 years old, it’s held up most incredibly well, and easily stands as one of Rudy’s greatest performances.

It’s obviously a sequel to the runaway 1921 success The Sheik, and was likewise based on a novel by Edith Maud (E.M.) Hull. Ms. Hull wrote the sequel in 1925, six years after the release of the first book. The Sons of the Sheik features the twin sons of Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan and Lady Diana Mayo. Ahmed, Jr., is in the desert, while Caryll is in England with his grandpap.

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The sequel is so much better than the original, for so many reasons:

A much better director! TSOTS was directed by George Fitzmaurice (most of whose films are sadly lost), while The Sheik was directed by George Melford. A lot of The Sheik‘s shortcomings have been blamed on Melford egging his players on to overacting. He wanted a commercial hit, not a serious, quality, artistic masterpiece, and it sure shows. TSOTS isn’t one of the greatest films of all time either, but at least it’s a very solid, quality film.

Much better chemistry between the romantic leads. Yasmin is played by the beautiful Vilma Bánky (née Koncsics [Kon-cheech]), known as “The Hungarian Rhapsody.” She also was Rudy’s leading lady in 1925’s The Eagle. In both films, they make such believable, intense, complex couples. With Agnes Ayres in The Sheik, sparks don’t really fly.

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A much better script, with a more believable love-hate story, compelling subplots, and great secondary characters. Both source novels were trashy pulp fiction, but the screenwriters of TSOTS (the legendary Frances Marion and Fred de Gresac) did a much better job than Monte M. Katterjohn did with The Sheik.

A very tongue-in-cheek, campy spirit, with the sense that Rudy was having a lot of fun spoofing his own image and the original film. I love all the light comic relief, particularly from the wonderful character actor Karl Dane and Hyman Binunsky. The latter gets on the nerves of both the good guys and bad guys!

Fun intertitles, like “The night was young at the Café Maure. Not a knife had been thrown—so far.”

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Rudy plays a dual role so well. Early split-screen technology also allowed both the young Ahmed, Jr., and the older Ahmed, Sr., to appear together in a few scenes. For the reprised role of Sheik Ahmed, Rudy had a moustache and beard. Based on his performance, I could easily see him as having transitioned well to an elder actor. Someone once suggested he would’ve been great as the title role in The Godfather.

It’s got everything—romance, adventure, action, drama, lust, revenge, swashbuckling, intrigue, comedy, you name it.

Much better acting from everyone.

I love the interactions between father and son, both serious and funny.

Great pacing!

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When the film starts, we’re introduced to a band of vagrant outcasts, “entertainers by profession, thieves by preference,” headed by André (a Frenchman) and Ghabah (a Moor), “whose crimes outnumber the sands.” André’s daughter Yasmin dances to support the troupe, and is unhappily betrothed to Ghabah.

In the Touggourt marketplace a few days ago, Yasmin met and fell in love with young Ahmed, who gave her his ring. They’ve been regularly, secretly meeting in the ruins.

One night, Ghabah spies Yasmin getting ready to go out, and he runs and tells André. They track her to the ruins, where they capture Ahmed. He’s lashed to a grating in the ruins, and tortured quite horribly.

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During the torture, Ahmed is led to believe Yasmin never loved him, and was the bait to lure him just as she supposedly lured many another. His loyal servant Ramadan (Karl Dane) leads a rescue mission, and Ahmed recovers at a friend’s house.

Ahmed concocts an extremely un-PC, shocking plan for revenge, and abducts Yasmin from the Café Maure. As disturbing as this revenge is for a modern viewer, I love the moments when Ahmed’s face displays hesitancy. That helps to make his actions somewhat more tolerable.

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The plot thickens when Ahmed, Sr., discovers his son isn’t home yet, and goes to confront him. I won’t spoil anything that happens after this, but suffice it to say, it all helps to make this a 5-star film.

Rudolph Valentino Week, Part V (Reception and legacy)

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It can be hard for a contemporary person to fully grasp just what a social, historical, and cultural watershed Rudy’s popularity was in the 1920s. These days, there are so many graphic movies, songs, music videos (which apparently still exist), and books, coupled with a detachment from anything more than few decades old. The idea that women would faint in the aisles of a movie theatre or find a silent film without sex erotic strikes many people as laughable.

Some overgrown mean girl on a message board I left years ago once haughtily insisted that if women were truly fainting in the aisles when they saw The Sheik, their corsets must’ve been laced too tightly or they had no idea of what real sexiness actually was. Just because YOU, as a 21st century person, can’t fathom the mindset of a 1920s woman doesn’t mean they were a bunch of ninnies or suffering from tight corsets!

In every generation, the concept of shocking, sexy, vulgar, violent, radical, etc., changes. No one exists in a vacuum.

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The Sheik was based on a trashy 1919 bestseller by Edith Maud Hull (writing as E.M. Hull). Women loved both the book and film because it was a forbidden romance. The only kind of sex a so-called “respectable woman” could fantasize about was rape, since it wasn’t sex she sought out. Women were expected to stay 10000% virgin until marriage, not enjoy or initiate sex, only endure sex as something done for the man’s benefit, not have affairs, not get caught alone with a man outside of marriage (no matter how innocent the situation), basically be asexual, celibate, ignorant flowers.

Women loved the story of Ahmed and Diana because that kind of excitement and passion was missing in their own lives. They loved the idea of a strange man driven wild with desire for them, so much so he’d kidnap and ravish her. I’m very uncomfortable with people who insist rape fantasies are inherently unhealthy and unfeminist.

In a true fantasy, you’re always in total control, and things go exactly the way you’d like. These women didn’t really want to be beaten up and raped so brutally they feared all their bones had been broken. It was about what it represented, not truly wanting to get kidnapped, beaten, and raped. We can’t police strangers’ fantasies!

The film also significantly tones down Ahmed’s actions to make him a more sympathetic character, and the fate of Diana’s virginity is rather open-ended.

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Before Rudy, American women had only seen stereotypically masculine, clean-cut actors like Wallace Reid, Thomas Meighan, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. While I love those actors too, they represented a much different type of man. Rudy showed women an image of manliness they hadn’t known existed, a guy who harnessed sensitivity, beauty, grace, charm, wit, intelligence, physical strength, thoughtfulness, attention to his appearance. He also wore a slave bracelet.

Rudy was also dark-featured. Though he was actually half French (from his maternal line), he was blessed with dark Italian good looks and terra-cotta skin. He was an exotic, dark, foreign lover, an exciting change of pace from the stereotypical all-American boy next door they were socialized to want. That made the powers that be very uncomfortable, since it challenged the status quo.

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American men began emulating Rudy’s slicked-back hair and attention to his physical appearance. This made the powers that be even more terrified, fearing for the future of “American manhood.” Back in Italy, it was normal for men to display emotions, show gentleness and tenderness, write romantic poetry, cultivate gardens, and wear jewelry. Those weren’t considered signs of a weak, effeminate man or a gay guy. It was the Italian version of normal.

Basically, it let both sexes know there were options beyond what they’d been socialized to see as the only acceptable way. Though the word “gender” was still predominantly only a grammatical term during this era, Rudy’s nonconformism was a perfect example of breaking down gendered stereotypes. Since gender is a social and cultural construct, there’s no one right way to be a “real” man or woman.

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To this day, the name Valentino is synonymous with a handsome, suave seducer of women.

Lower right quadrant, perforated abdominal ulcers are called Valentino’s syndrome, since that’s what led to Rudy’s agonizing death.

The Valentino crypt is said to be notoriously haunted. Many visitors have reported feeling a cold spot, and seeing strange light show up in photographs. A lot of female visitors have also reported feeling phantom kisses.

Rudolph Valentino Week, Part IV (Filmography)

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Between 1914–26, Rudy starred in 38 films, 14 of them in the leading role. He began with uncredited bit parts, gradually moved up to secondary roles (often as a villain), and finally got his big breakthrough with the incredible 1921 blockbuster The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Screenwriter June Mathis was very impressed with his 1919 cameo in Eyes of Youth (one of star Clara Kimball Young’s few surviving films), and put her career on the line when she chose this relative unknown for such a huge role.

Rudy never forgot what June had done for him, believing in him when no one else did, mentoring him every step of the way, helping him to get the best roles, serving as a surrogate mother figure, being so loyal and kind. She was also one of the Hollywood élite who helped to bail Rudy out of jail when he was arrested for bigamy in 1922, having married Natacha Rambova before being divorced from paper wife Jean Acker for an entire year.

In a 1923 interview with Louella Parsons, Rudy said: “She discovered me, anything I have accomplished I owe to her, to her judgment, to her advice and to her unfailing patience and confidence in me.”

When Rudy passed on, he had some serious debts, so June lent her burial vault at Hollywood Forever. Sadly, June herself died the next year, and her husband gave up his own crypt for Rudy. They’ve been side by side for almost 90 years now.

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Amazingly, almost all of Rudy’s stardom-era films have survived, giving him a very good survival record for a silent star. Most of the silent stars whose entire or near-entire body of work survived were the big-name stars with total or a great level of creative control, and who took care to preserve their own archives.

Some of Rudy’s earlier films were edited to showcase him and rereleased after his breakthrough, and so survive only in fragmented form.

The lost films are starred.

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My Official Wife (1914)*
The Battle of the Sexes (1914) (surviving fragment only)
La Corsara (Italian film) (1916)*
The Quest of Life (1916)*
The Foolish Virgin (1916)*
Seventeen (1916)*
Alimony (1917)*
Patria (1917) (partially lost)
A Society Sensation (1918) (only 24-minute reissue survives; original cut was 50 minutes)
All Night (1918)

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The Married Virgin (1918)
The Delicious Little Devil (1919)
The Big Little Person (1919)*
A Rogue’s Romance (1919)*
The Homebreaker (1919)*
Virtuous Sinners (1919) (print exists in Library of Congress archives)
Nobody Home (1919)*
Eyes of Youth (1919)
Stolen Moments (1920) (only 35-minute reissue survives; original cut was six reels)
The Isle of Love, a.k.a. An Adventuress (1920) (only 39-minute reissue survives)

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The Cheater (1920)*
Passion’s Playground (1920)*
Once to Every Woman (1920)*
The Wonderful Chance (1920)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
Uncharted Seas (1921)*
The Sheik (1921) (which I kind of almost wish were a lost film!)
The Conquering Power (1921) (hugely underrated!)
Camille (1921)

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Moran of the Lady Letty (1922) (now available in a gorgeous print that’s like night and day compared to the horrible VHS copy I first saw!)
Beyond the Rocks (1922) (miraculously found in 2003)
Blood and Sand (1922) (my very first!)
The Young Rajah (1922) (A near-complete print surfaced in Italy in I believe the 1970s, but due to lack of funds, much of it deteriorated. The DVD pieces together stills and surviving footage.)
Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) (has noble intentions and a great theme about being true to yourself, but it got lost in all that damn wig powder and bloated length)
A Sainted Devil (1924)*
Cobra (1925) (with a gorgeous print courtesy of the original camera negative)
The Eagle (1925) (set in Catherine the Great’s Russian Empire)
The Son of the Sheik (1926)

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The most ideal starting vehicles for a new fan are The Four Horsemen, Blood and Sand, The Eagle, Cobra, and The Son of the Sheik. I’m also very partial to The Conquering Power, though Rudy is only in about a third of the film and it’s more a starring vehicle for Alice Terry. If you want to see Rudy in more of a man’s man role, go for Moran.

Of the pre-stardom films, I’d most recommend All Night, as well as Eyes of Youth. Though Rudy only has one scene near the end of the latter film, he’s absolutely marvellous. It’s easy to see what June Mathis saw in him.

I highly recommend NOT seeing The Sheik first! It’s very unrepresentative of both silent cinema and Rudy’s talents.

Rudolph Valentino Week, Part III (A crazy funeral and wake)

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The pandemonium which erupted after news of Rudy’s death was but a foretaste of what was very soon to come. Women standing vigil outside the Polyclinic screamed, tore their clothes, fainted, and passed out. The grotesque heatwave only made their hysteria worse. There were a number of reports of crazed fans’ suicides.

A mob of more than 100,000 people gathered on the streets of Manhattan to catch a last glimpse of the actor. Inside the Frank Campbell Funeral Home were four alleged Blackshirt guards sent by Mussolini, though it turned out they were actors hired for a publicity stunt.

More than a few hysterical female fans had to be bodily evicted from the funeral home. Pola Negri, with whom Rudy was romantically involved at the time of his death, fainted over the coffin. For his funeral, she sent a huge floral display of white roses spelling out POLA, surrounded by thousands of red roses.

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Fans smashed windows in an attempt to get into the funeral home, and an all-day riot erupted on 24 August. Over 100 cops (some on horseback) were called in to try to preserve a semblance of order. Even more general-purpose cops lined the streets during the wake.

The funeral home consistently denied the claim that a wax dummy was placed in the coffin to trick the public and prevent body-napping.

The funeral Mass was held by the then-fairly new St. Malachy Church, nicknamed The Actors’ Chapel, in the Broadway theatre district. A second funeral was held by the also then-new Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, on 7 September.

Since Rudy was in serious debt and had no burial plot, his mentor and dear friend June Mathis (one of the most powerful women in Hollywood at the time) loaned her crypt at Hollywood Forever. When June herself unexpectedly died the following year, her husband gave up his own crypt for Rudy and had him moved there. For almost 90 years, Rudy and June have been interred side-by-side.

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Chapter 23 of The Twelfth Time is entitled “Death of Valentino,” and includes the vigil outside the Polyclinic, the mob scene in the streets during the wake, and the tragic sight inside the funeral home. Absolutely no one is surprised Anastasiya is one of the hysterical fans. Not only does she faint and pass out after getting the news of Rudy’s death, she also has to be hauled out of the funeral home by several police. She fights against them and tries to climb over them to get back inside, loudly protesting that she’s a very important woman.

The large group is only allowed to go into the funeral home a few at a time, due to the huge line waiting to get inside and the need to preserve as much order as possible. Four-year-old Fedya gets the last lines in the wake scene:

“Bye-bye, Mr. Moviestar,” Fedya waves. “I hope you have a good time with the angels.”