Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antoguolla was born in Southern Italy on this day in 1895, and he arrived in New York City in 1913, just 18 years old. He became a taxi dancer, a ballroom dancer, and boy for hire. In 1917, he took a train to Hollywood to try and find work in the new film industry.
He was cast right away in small roles in silent films. He was a featured dancer in the movie Alimony (1920), but then he smartly changed his name to Rudolph Valentino. He was impressive enough that he was cast as the leading man in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (1921), directed by the fascinating Rex Ingram for Metro Pictures. That film, which features a memorable scene of Valentino dancing the tango, made the rakishly handsome Italian a sensation. Later the same year, The Sheik made him a screen legend and his flickering image on the screen actually caused women to faint. He was a reliable exotic type, and romantic melodramas like Blood And Sand (1922) and The Eagle (1925) were his specialty.
Yet, he never could win over America’s macho male mainstream audience. He was turned down for many roles because he looked too foreign, too dark, or too pretty. Most male audiences were made nervous by Valentino’s extravagant dress, makeup, and his willingness to show his hot body on screen. Still, Valentino disregarded the era’s rigid rules about sex and gender.
His legendary star status is now firmly part of Film History, but the impact of his work died with the silent film era. Because we have studio stills, Valentino will always retain his extraordinary beauty and his star wattage, but his work in the remaining films we can still see show he had less skill compared with other silent film greats. Because of film restoration, his acting style 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, Valentino’s legend is confusing now. Whether his voice would have killed his career in talkies is a subject of speculation. Some film historians say his accent was too thick, but others who knew him say his rich, masculine baritone would only have helped him reach even greater heights of fame. Yet in our era, Valentino 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 he danced the tango in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse that reads:
“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 queerness 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 seems silly in the 21st century.
There were claims that he was murdered by a jealous husband. But the truth is, after wrapping up filming, Valentino traveled across the USA promoting The Son Of The Sheik (1926) ahead of its release. He arrived in New York City 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?”
Photoplaywrote 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 his coffin were four brown shirted Fascists who were said to have been 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 back to Hollywood, where another funeral was held for him at the Church of the Good Shepherd. He 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 the 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 film. His early death cemented his place as a forever Pop Culture Icon. In life, he received more grief than acclaim, and I think he must he lived with more sadness than joy.