Rudolph Valentino died on August 23, 1926.
Projecting an image that captivated audiences, enthralled female fans, and defined how silent movie drama has been approached, Rudolph Valentino’s piercing eyes hypnotized moviegoers. Women wept during his death scenes on screen, and his 1926 death resulted in an orgy of worldwide mourning. Some women committed suicide, unable to survive in a world where he no longer existed. His films do as much to define 1920s cinema as any other.
Rudolph Valentino's stardom was at such an incredible level, even his early death has not prevented him from achieving legendary status across time and generations. Over the years, Valentino's image has represented everything from the romance and melodrama of the silent era, to the eye-bulging, nostril-flaring overacting stereotype that continues to unfairly be used as a reference checkpoint to this oft-maligned, terribly important period of filmmaking. As a result, Valentino's legend has overshadowed the depth of his contributions to cinema. Even the most learned film scholars will often limit their Valentino references to such staples as "The Sheik," "Blood and Sand," and "Son of the Sheik" while overlooking the many other films in which Valentino appeared throughout his unfortunately brief career. It would seem to many that Valentino was always the costumed Latin Lover, a bit too close to the melodramatic edge, and certainly too effete for the modern era, but worthy of a nodding recognition due to his being so tremendously popular during the 1920s.
To some extent, this reaction is understandable. The poor survival rate of pre-1930 cinema includes much of what made Valentino so popular. When less noted films are discovered, it will sometimes yield disappointing results. A recent restoration by Milestone Films of his only teaming with the famous actress Gloria Swanson, "Beyond The Rocks" (1921), was an exciting discovery for historical purposes, but it also turned out to be a less-than-satisfactory movie for either of its stars.
Was Valentino's popularity a mere fluke of the times? Is his unprecedented level of stardom and subsequent legendary status the only interesting thing about him?
Rudolph Valentino was actually a gifted performer with a tremendous screen presence. Limiting ourselves to Valentino's most famous and accessible films will allow us to see only a few examples of his best work. This is not enough to fully comprehend the reason Valentino was able to capture a generation and live on in immortality.
Initially playing villains at Metro, Valentino was soon cast in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1920) which is among the first films to gross a million dollars at the box office (amazing when one realizes movie ticket prices were anywhere from a dime to a quarter back then). However Valentino felt that Metro did not appear to capitalize on his success, so he left to join Famous Players-Lasky the following year. The studio managed to hire him for $500 per week.
Of the classics by which Valentino’s contribution to cinema has been defined, "The Sheik" (1921) is probably the most noted. Valentino had not yet reached full stardom. In fact the initial posters for the movie billed actress Agnes Ayers before him. But his performance rocketed Valentino to super stardom. His greatest admirers were women, as many men dismissively scoffed at the melodramatic romance depicted in the film.
Valentino was said to be annoyed that "The Sheik" had represented him as an actor, and wanted to branch out and exhibit more versatility. "Moran of the Lady Letty" (1922) was Valentino's first film after the success of "The Sheik." Capitalizing on his already massive stardom, but allowing the actor to stretch a bit, Paramount cast Valentino in a role that could conceivably attract both men and women. Retaining director George Medford, screenwriter Monte Katterjohn, cameraman William Marshall, and actor Walter Long from "The Sheik," "Moran of the Lady Letty" featured Valentino as Ramon Laredo, a subtle, calculating seaman, unafraid of the evil ship captain (Long). Letty Sternersen (Dorothy Dalton), the female character in the film, is not the h elpless damsel usually found in movies of this period (and in the stereotypical Valentino setting). Letty is a seasoned veteran of the seas, and with little interest in men. Of course Ramon wins her in the end, but not before each character is defined as more than a superficial caricature to sustain the established popularity of its stars. When Medford shoots the action sequences, he then cuts to a triumphant Ramon, with Valentino handily exhibiting his natural charisma to command the frame.
"Moran of the Lady Letty" remains a classic example of Valentino succeeding in a role unlike those by which he is always remembered. It surpasses the limitations of our memories and their reliance on fleeting clips of only a few of his roles. While supporting player Walter Long chews the scenery with gusto as the villain in this picture (making his eventual transition to roles as a comic heavy unsurprising), Valentino, by contrast, plays his part with great subtlety, allowing his natural charm to exude from the character's thoughtful, calculating eyes.
The bullfighting drama "Blood and Sand" (1922) was among the top box office hits of 1922. It’s impact was such that a parody by Stan Laurel entitled "Mud and Sand" in which he played the character Rhubarb Vaselino, became one of Stan’s best comedies. The action sequences appealed to male audiences who had exhibited a collective disdain for THE SHEIK.
Valentino, however, was unhappy. The film was to be shot in Spain, but ended up being filmed on a Hollywood backlot. His salary had risen to $1250 per week, but was told by Mary Pickford that she was making $7000 more than that per week as early as 1916. Impressed by Pickford’s strength in fighting for more money and creative control, Valentino went on strike against the studio, even refusing further paychecks that had been owed to him. They agreed to raise his salary to $7000 weekly, but Valentino told the press he was even more interested in creative control over his projects. The studio countered by telling the press Valentino’s diva-like behavior was more trouble than his box office status was worth. Valentino soon found himself $80,000 in debt, so he went on a dance tour that was a great success. He returned to films in 1924 with Ritz-Carlton Pictures, with a contract offering him $7500 weekly and creative control.
While filming "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1924), Valentino was approached by Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks about making films for their United Artists studios. He was offered $10,000 per week for only three movies per year, a percentage of the profits from each film, and continued creative control.
Valentino’s first film for UA was "The Eagle" (1925). While the critics applauded the picture, Valentino’s offscreen life of divorce, bigamy, trials, debts, and an alleged affair with co-star Vilma Banky (which both actors denied) had taken its toll, and the box office response to "The Eagle" was disappointing.
By 1926, Valentino agreed to do a sequel to "The Sheik." Sadly, "Son of the Sheik" was his final film. In August of 1926, while on tour promoting the film’s release, Rudolph Valentino fell ill and died at the Hotel Ambassador in New York.
Valentino's legendary status continues, but so do the myths surrounding him as a limited performer who never ventured outside of his typecast roles. Investigating a few of his lesser known films that are accessible will help one realize the depth of his acting capabilities and the real reason why he has maintained iconic status nearly 90 years after his passing.