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Actober: Cinema’s First Lover – Exploring Rudolph Valentino’s legacy

Rudolph Valentino… You have most likely seen his photograph, perhaps even heard of his name. If you are aware of him, then his death attended by the legions of adoring female fans is most likely a fact that you know. But, how much of Rudolph Valentino, is fact and how much is fiction created by the studio system?

Born on May 6, 1895, was an Italian-American film actor. After immigrating to the United States in 1913, Valentino moved to Hollywood, taking up small film roles until he landed his breakout role as Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Idolized as the “Great Lover” of the 1920s, he starred in several romantic dramas, including The Sheik (1921), Blood and Sand (1922) and The Eagle (1925). His star status was evident after his sudden death in 1926 — at just 31 years old, the actor suffered a ruptured ulcer, causing fans to grieve worldwide.

At first, Valentino only landed bit parts, often playing the bad guy. There is something about his appearance, which gives of an impression of danger. His dark hair, brooding features and piercing eyes, made him stand out. There was an intensity to his appearance and he represented a forbidden love. To many female cinema goers, he was their dream man. However, in his private life Valentino had relationship problems.

In 1919, Valentino married actress Jean Acker, but their union was never consummated. According to several accounts, Acker locked Valentino out of their hotel room on their wedding night. There were reports that Acker had been in a romantic relationship with a woman. Their wedding was most likely a sham.

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It was around this time that Valentino captured the attention of screenwriter June Mathis, who believed that he was the perfect choice for the lead in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). She had to work hard to convince the executives at Metro to sign Valentino, but they finally agreed. He stole the hearts of female movie-goers by dancing a tango in his first scene in the film.

The camera seemed to love him as much as his adoring, newly founded fans. The movie was a box office hit, and the darkly handsome actor quickly became a star. In The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse there’s something about Valentino that seems other worldly, and hypnotic to watch. He is a natural in front of the camera. Some actors are made, and some are born. Valentino is seems is the latter.

The mania around Valentino grew so rapidly that some women reportedly fainted when they saw him in his next picture The Sheik (1921). In this day and age, it seems unreal to think that an actor could have such a reaction of a member of the audience. It was The Sheik which cemented Valentino’s reputation of a great box-office draw. This desert romance told the story of a Bedouin chief who wins over a cultured, WASP woman (Agnes Ayres).

The following year, Valentino had another stellar success with Blood and Sand. This time around, he played bullfighter Juan Gallardo who falls under the spell of a charming seductress Dona Sol (Nita Naldi). Valentino was typecast as these mysterious men, dangerous and thrilling to love.

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Valentino’s reputation as a Lothario was probably enhanced with his arrest for bigamy in 1922. Divorced from Acker in 1921, he failed to wait a full year before remarrying. He was taken into custody and forced to pay a fine after his 1922 wedding to actress and set designer Natasha Rambova in Mexico. Rambova took a dominant role in managing her husband’s career, much to Valentino’s detriment. Some male critics and movie-goers were already put off by his somewhat androgynous style, and Valentino’s next few films accentuated this quality. His wife picked parts for him that made him seem more effeminate, as seen in 1924’s Monsieur Beaucaire. While still a box office success, Valentino suffered a backlash for this change in his screen persona.

The following year, Valentino made the sequel, The Son of the Sheik. This silent classic proved to be his last work. While he was still a popular draw at the box office, Valentino struggled with the public and media perceptions of him. He challenged one newspaper writer to a fight after he was criticized in an editorial called “Pink Powder Puffs.” In response to the piece, Valentino wrote: “You slur my Italian ancestry; you ridicule upon my Italian name; you cast doubt upon my manhood.” Valentino also suffered from commonly held prejudices about immigrants, having been denied roles for being “too foreign.” His heritage and cultural background may have helped him secure certain roles, but it held him back from obtaining those ”All American” leading roles.

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His reputation as the silent screen’s “Great Lover” haunted him after death. Some people claimed that he had been poisoned or shot by a jealous husband. Valentino was given a grand send-off. For three days, thousands crowded a funeral home to view his body and say good-bye to the romantic idol. Then two funerals were held — one in New York and one in California. Actresses Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson were among the mourners. This was the first ‘celebrity’ death, and the reaction was something never seen before, but something that has been repeated time after time since.

Whether or not he was a good actor isn’t really the topic of discussion here. It is the impact of his legacy which is the thing we should be taking away here. There’s no doubt that Valentino had a magical and elusive quality that made him a legend. He possessed a tremendous charisma that shined through his appearances on the big screen. And his early death has only fueled his status as a revered pop icon.

The fact that even in 2018, he is still talked about and is known, is a testament to his legacy. Valentino went from being a meer actor, to icon status and that’s something that very few actors have ever experienced. There will never be another Rudolph Valentino.

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