May 6, 1895– Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antoguolla:
“A man should control his life. Mine is controlling me.”
He was born in sunny Southern Italy and arrived in NYC in 1913. He became a taxi dancer, an ballroom dancer and boy for hire. In 1917, he took a train to Hollywood to try his luck in the new film industry. He played a number of small roles in silent movies, appearing as a featured dancer in the film Alimony (1920). He smartly changed his name to Rudolph Valentino and he was impressive enough to be cast as the lead in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (1921) directed by the fascinating Rex Ingram for Metro Pictures. The film, which features a memorable scene of Valentino dancing the tango, made the rakishly handsome Italian stud a sensation and it made him a star. Later the same year, The Sheik made him a screen legend and his flickering image on the screen actually caused women to faint. Valentino became known to casting directors as a reliable exotic type, and his popularity soared with romantic melodramas like Blood And Sand (1922) and The Eagle (1925).
He earned a fortune in the film business and he lived lavishly but died in debt. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams but never could win the approval of America’s macho male mainstream audience. He was turned down for many parts because he looked too foreign, too dark, too pretty. Most male audiences were offended by Valentino’s extravagant dress, makeup, and willingness to show his body on screen. Still, Valentino disregarded the era’s rigid codes of sex and gender.
His legendary star status is set in film history, but the legacy of his work died with the silent film era. Because of studio stills, Valentino will always retain his extraordinary beauty, star quality and charisma, but his work on screen shows no real real skill compared with other silent film greats. Thanks to film restoration, his style of acting is frozen forever, but it is almost incomprehensible to modern viewers with his heavy makeup and exaggerated emoting. Disparaged during his time for denigrating masculinity with his perceived effeminacy, time has not been kind to Valentino’s legend. Whether his voice would have killed his career in talkies is a subject of much speculation. Some film historians say his accent was too thick, others who knew him say his rich, masculine baritone would only have helped him reach even greater heights of fame. Yet now, Valentino on silent film comes off as camp as a Carmen Miranda musical number.
Photoplay Magazine published a piece that described Valentino’s influence on other leading men after his tango in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse that read:
“The movie boys haven’t been the same. They’re all racing around wearing spit curls, bobbed hair and silk panties. This can’t keep up. The public can stand just so many ruffles and no more.”
Valentino’s gayness was a badly kept secret in Hollywood, despite his marriages to and divorces from Jean Acker and Natasha Rambova, both lesbians. His reputation as “The Great Lover” from silent films haunts him decades later.
There were claims that he had been murdered by a jealous husband. But the truth is simpler. Shortly after wrapping up filming, Valentino traveled across the country promoting The Son Of The Sheik (1926) before its general release. He arrived in NYC during a heat wave. He was hospitalized because he was bleeding internally of a ruptured ulcer. Sadly, he had spent his final days engaged in a feud in the papers with an anonymous reporter who had questioned his masculinity and blamed him for America’s “degeneration into effeminacy”. The reporter railed against Valentino’s “Roman face”, his “patent leather hair”, and his ability to make females dizzy.
Valentino’s fans stood in a vigil outside the hospital for a week, before his final credits rolled. In severe pain, his final words were:
“Am I still a pink powder puff?”
Photoplay wrote In Memoriam:
“Although his eyes glimpsed bitterness and sadness, they saw a dream that few folk ever see…”
He lay in state for several days at Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home, the preferred send-off spot of actors. Women tore at their own clothes, clutched their chests and collapsed in the heat. Thousand of fans gathered outside Campbell’s. Mourners rioted, smashed windows, and fought with police to get a glimpse of the deceased star. Standing guard at the coffin were four brown shirted Fascists, supposedly sent by Italian leader Benito Mussolini, but in fact, hired by press agents.
At the funeral, many Hollywood notables showed up, including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Gloria Swanson. Polish actor Pola Negri obligingly fainted for photographers several times between the train station and the chapel. She collapsed at his casket, where she had installed a massive flower arrangement that spelled out the word POLA.
Valentino’s body was taken by train to Hollywood, where another funeral was held for him at the Church Of the Good Shepherd. He then was finally laid to rest at Hollywood Memorial Park. For decades, on the anniversary of his death, a veiled woman in black arrived at Valentino’s tomb and placed a dozen red roses and one white one on his grave. Eventually, competing women in black began to show up at the tomb, knocking roses to the ground as they scuffled for position in front of newspaper photograph.
Valentino had an elusive quality that made him a screen legend even if he wasn’t a good actor. Always talented as a dancer, Valentino once performed for President Woodrow Wilson at the White House.
He possessed a tremendous charisma that allowed him to shine on the silver screen. His early death cemented his place as a forever Pop Culture Icon. In life, he received more grief than acclaim, and he lived with more sadness than joy.