A scorching swan song

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.”

Rudolph Valentino Week, Part II (“O, untimely Death”)

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In the summer of 1926, NYC was locked in the throes of a brutal, miserable heatwave. Rudy had the great misfortune to arrive in the city during this heatwave, as part of his cross-country promotional campaign for The Son of the Sheik. He had also recently been divorced by his wife Natacha, which totally broke his heart.

In addition to a horrific heatwave and heartbreak, he was still smarting from the cruel “pink powder puff” allegation made by an anonymous Chicago Tribune editorialist on 18 July. This writer, who didn’t have the balls to sign his own name, said some quite nasty things:

A powder vending machine!  In a men’s washroom! Homo Americanus! Why didn’t someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo, alias Valentino, years ago?… Do women like the type of “man” who pats pink powder on his face in a public washroom and arranges his coiffure in a public elevator?… Hollywood is the national school of masculinity. Rudy, the beautiful gardener’s boy, is the prototype of the American male.

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Rudy wanted to challenge this anonymous coward to a duel, but since duels were illegal, he settled for taking boxing lessons from his friend Jack Dempsey. He also defended his masculinity and personal tastes in an interview with The Herald Examiner. Dempsey put him in touch with sportswriter Frank “Buck” O’Neil, and they had a public boxing match on the roof of the Ambassador Hotel to prove his masculinity.

The New York première of The Son of the Sheik was 9 July, and proved a most smashing success. It left critics and viewers in no doubt about Rudy’s masculinity. He was extremely well-built, with a muscular physique that could easily flatten an opponent.

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On 15 August 1926, Rudy collapsed by the Hotel Ambassador in NYC, and was found spitting up blood and doubled over. He’d already had ulcers, but had refused to see a doctor owing to a superstitious old-country fear. He’d also been going to clubs and speakeasies, was a heavy smoker, and was taking some kind of medicine meant to prevent baldness. The heat probably exacerbated pre-existing health issues.

Rudy was rushed to the Polyclinic on the Lower East Side, and X-rays determined he had gastric ulcers in the abdomen (including a large perforated ulcer) and appendicitis. There was also a very serious infection. Rudy was immediately taken to surgery, and when he awoke, he vomited blood, was feverish, and groaned in agony.

16–20 August saw him in a great deal of pain, feverish, and being fed via vitamin injections. He was unable to eat due to the pain, and developed peritonitis. On 18 August, his doctors gave him a very positive prognosis, and told the media no further updates were necessary.

Everything changed on 21 August.

Rudy came down with very bad pleurisy in the left lung, and it progressed rapidly due to his already weak health. Like most doctors of the era, Rudy’s doctors too deliberately withheld the news that he was probably going to die. Rudy firmly believed he was going to get better.

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On the evening of 22 August, his pain increased even more, and he received Last Rites, though was unable to take Communion.

In the early hours of 23 August, Rudy regained consciousness and had a pleasant chat with his doctors about his future. Then he lapsed back into horrific pain, fell into a coma, and shortly after noon, the Angel of Death took him away at only 31 years old.

An official came out of the hospital to break the news to the mob of female fans standing vigil outside, and pandemonium broke out. Women began screaming and fainting. Some of them passed out. As it turned out, this was just a foretaste of the mob scene which was to follow by his funeral and wake.

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If only Rudy hadn’t had such a fear of doctors and hospitals, he’d taken better care of his health to begin with, there hadn’t been such a brutal heatwave, and antibiotics had existed, this dear, sweet soul might have enjoyed a longer life, and not died in such terrible, protracted agony.

Now this beautiful man belongs to the ages.

P.S.: Happy heavenly 70th birthday to Keith John Moon, the greatest drummer ever!