The son of a widowed mother who did poorly in school but was blessed with good looks leaves Italy at the age of 18 in search of a better life – and ended up creating the blueprint for the “rags-to-riches” legend of which Hollywood is so fond. Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla worked as a busboy and a gardener in New York in between bouts of homelessness until he was hired as a taxi-dancer, where he used his physical prowess on the dance floor and his “interpersonal skills” off, buffeting him from opportunity to scandal and back again before he joined a musical troupe and headed west, to Hollywood and unrivaled fame.
At the time, the movie ideal of masculinity was very white and refined, the established and reliable gentleman, so when (now) Rudolph Valentino arrived on the scene, his dark complexion and piercing expression nearly locked him into playing heavies. Then along came The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, an anti-war flick that became one of the first films to make over a million dollars at the box office – in 1921. The superstar was born.
Action hero and romantic lead, Valentino combined a mix of energy, physical good looks and penetrating charm that was referred to as catnip by some. The Sheik was a huge hit and established his brand as the original “Latin lover”, a phrase coined by his handlers.
He quickly followed-up with Blood and Sand, Valentino’s personal favorite, as producers scrambled to cash in on this new phenomena. His exotic persona and mannerisms exuded a raw sexuality that proved to be a sensation on screen and off. He battled with studios as he churned out hits for them, landed in court a few times, which kept him in the news, and faced-down male critics who accused him of effeminizing the male image, even going so far as to question his sexual orientation.
Fed up and all but blackballed because of his legal battles with studios, Valentino, along with his wife Natacha Rambova, hit the road to hawk beauty products for Mineralava Beauty Clay Company and host beauty pageants. The opportunity for his fans to see him in person proved a resounding PR success.
Valentino returned to Hollywood and begrudgingly competed his disputed contract with Famous Players with Monsieur Beaucaire and was eventually released from other outstanding contractual roadblocks. Chaplin and Doug Fairbanks wooed him to join the new studio they had created with Mary Pickford – United Artists – with a hefty paycheck and relaxed shooting schedule. The result was the critically praised The Eagle and what I consider his best work, his dual roles in The Son of the Sheik.
Few remember that Valentino matched his physicality with other skills. He published a book of poetry and wrote series for magazines. He also created a film award for artistic achievement – the Rudolph Valentino Medal – that became the precursor for today’s Academy Award.
While promoting the release of The Son of the Sheik, Rudolph Valentino collapsed in New York City and died following surgery for a perforated ulcer. He was only 31 years old. The frenzy surrounding public reaction and his well-documented funeral is unmatched by anything before or since.
Watching his films today one can still see the animal magnetism, despite the somewhat heavy handedness of silent film acting that was fashionable in the Twenties. His massive success, despite a never-ending succession of barricades that he broke through, one by one, never really went to his head. He remained the ambitious peasant boy, always on the hunt, and is quoted as saying, “I really believe I was happier when I slept on a park bench in Central Park than during all the years of the ‘perfect lover’ stuff.”
So on the 123rd anniversary of his birth, we say:
“Quando la partita è finita il re e la pedina andare nella stessa scatola”
“when the game is over, the king and pawn go into the same box”