Today marks 89 years since the death of Rudolph Valentino, one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars. His passing was a landmark moment in popular culture, as female fans were said to have killed themselves in despair, and 10,000 fans mobbed his funeral service, breaking windows and engaging in a full-scale riot that lasted for a day before it was shut down by mounted officers and the NYPD Police Reserve. Then, of course, there is the infamous scene made by Pola Negri at the side of his casket, which to this day elicits strong feelings amongst many fans of silent cinema. Dripping in thousands of dollars worth of diamonds and black dress, Ms. Negri wept and fainted under a giant self-commissioned funeral wreath bearing her own name. “My love for Valentino was the greatest love of my life,” she wrote in Memoirs of a Star (1970), “I loved him not as one artist loves another, but as a woman loves a man.”
Like so many of his contemporaries, Valentino’s life (and death) was marked by press scandals, romantic intrigue and a tempestuous relationship with the rumor mill upon which film careers of the day lived and died. In addition to his contributions to the history of Hollywood silent cinema — which were substantial — Valentino also challenged the way an entire generation of American men and women thought about sexuality, gender and seduction. His status as a sex symbol and gender rebel were constant sources of annoyance to him, given his work as a serious actor was often overshadowed by the histrionics of his female fans and the aspersions cast on his character by their male counterparts.
Born in Italy to a French mother and an Italian father, Rudy was, by all accounts, a very spoiled child. After receiving a degree in landscape gardening in Italy (a thing at which bigoted American newspapers would later poke fun), he moved to the United States, where he eked out a living as a taxi dancer at upscale New York City nightclubs. After running into a bit of trouble involving a married woman and her powerful but none-too-pleased husband, Rudy left for the West Coast. There he starred in small theatrical productions and taught dance lessons to the city’s upper crust, whose expensive gifts and lavish attention caused speculation as to the true nature of the services being rendered.
Eventually his hard work and carefully established connections paid off, and Valentino began picking up screen roles. However, due to his “exotic” looks, he was often cast as film “heavies,” tough guys and villains who served as the foil to the all-American (and all-white) male protagonist. It wasn’t until he starred in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that Valentino was able to break out of the tough-guy typecast and into more complex lead roles. The film was a major coup; it was one of the first films to ever draw over a million dollars at the box office, and to this day it is one of the highest-grossing silent films. In addition, it launched Valentino into superstardom.
In 1921, Valentino was cast as the lead in a screen adaption of Edith Maude Hill’s popular romance novel The Sheik. Casting Valentino was a calculated decision on the part of the film’s producers, who sought to capitalize on the actor’s emerging fame as the epitome of “foreign” grace and masculine beauty. Valentino performed admirably in the role, communicating all of the intelligence, intensity and sexual chemistry that had inflamed fans of the novel. Furthermore, the overwhelming success of the film solidified his position as the epitome of the “Latin Lover” archetype, which is still employed even in contemporary film. The Sheik follows the story of a precocious, independent Englishwoman named Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) who refuses marriage proposals, takes month-long desert trips without escort and refuses to be told no by any man. After being abducted by Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan (Valentino), Diana is spirited away to some far-off desert encampment, where the hard rock of her feminine obstinacy meets the immovable object of the Sheik’s royal command.
What ensues is a romance story that walks a very fine line between sexy power exchange and Stockholm Syndrome rape dynamic. The Sheik’s ultimate goal is to tame Lady Mayo, as though she were a wild stallion or exotic cat. She prefers riding breeches, and so he commands her to put on a dress for dinner. She is imperious and proud, and so he expects that she will dote on him, half like a lover and half like a valet. Eventually the audience is treated to a very ambiguous “love scene” that was decidedly less ambiguous in the novel. The Sheik forces sex on an unwilling Lady Mayo, who is, of course, a virgin. Far from being traumatized or disgusted, Diana falls in love with her abuser, who knew all along of her unspoken need to be conquered and tamed.
Various scenes are meant to drive home the tension between the film’s two primary thematic stereotypes: the emancipated, Western woman and the dominating, misogynist tendencies of Arab culture. The Sheik clearly participates in the 20th century tendency to construct plots that hinged on the hypersexualization of dark skinned men and the threat they pose to virginal white femininity. Its differential treatment of the white Lady Mayo and the Arab women being auctioned as brides is cringe-worthy and difficult to watch, especially today. For that, The Sheik shouldn’t be excused…but it should be given a thoughtful and thorough viewing, as the film also raises questions about the relationship of “masculine” control and female desire that are still being asked by today’s contemporary blockbusters (most notably, 50 Shades of Grey). The Sheik is not a total monster. It’s not just Diana’s submission that he wants but also her freely given love, and as he comes to see her unhappiness, there is real moral and emotional evolution in his character.
In the end, the conflation of the real Rudy with his on-screen persona did him just as many ills as it did favors, however, as he was eventually cast as the personification of white masculinity’s anxieties and sexual jealousy. His elegance of dress and manner, his use of jewelry and make-up all read as effeminate to an American audience who had enshrined Douglas Fairbanks as the epitome of masculine sexuality. Eventually, rumors swirled in the press about his homosexuality and sham “lavender marriages” to some of the silent era’s most beloved female stars.
The scandal eventually reached a fever pitch when a Chicago journalist published an article accusing Valentino of being the catalyst for the feminization of American men, signaled by the installation of talcum powder vending machines in men’s restrooms. Furious with the author and clearly desperate to prove his masculinity, Valentino challenged the journalist to a public boxing match. He was eventually taken up on his challenge, not by the author of the original article but by another of his antagonists in the press. However, Rudy had been trained by heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who warned the challenger, “Valentino’s no sissy. He packs a mean punch.” The actor downed his opponent in front of a bevy of cameras and journalists, and if Valentino proved something about his masculinity by knocking out Frank O’Neil that day, he further drove the point home when his next film The Son of the Sheik opened shortly thereafter. The Latin Lover was his usual smoldering self in his trademark eyeshadow, liner and lip rouge.
It’s difficult to write something like a retrospective about a star like Valentino, because the drama of his personal life often rivals the drama that he brought to the silver screen. However, his cinematic contributions deserve as much attention as the salacious details of his personal life. As a professional dancer, Valentino brought real physical elegance to the movements of his characters. In an era that was defined by physical rather than vocal emotion, grace likes his was a treat to see when physical acting tended toward the cartoonish. He was able to deliver a range of emotions convincingly, from good-natured joker to fiercely angry aggressor; so much so that one finds themselves sympathetically mimicking whichever mood he’s just put on screen.
Valentino is at his best, though, when he is wounded. His sensitive eyes slightly watery, a look of vulnerability that’s exaggerated by the kohl liner he was notorious for wearing. And perhaps this is because it wasn’t an emotion that he had to dig deeply to find. Set upon by a public hungry for scandal, questioned by the press and continuously entangled in financial disputes with studios, Valentino’s desire to produce a truly authentic picture seemed constantly at odds with his professional reality. Writing posthumously of the star, H.L. Mencken provides, even today, perhaps the best eulogy for our friend Rudy:
“Here was a young man who was living daily the dream of millions of other young men. Here was one who was catnip to women. Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was one who was very unhappy. In brief, Valentino’s agony was the agony of a man of relatively civilized feelings thrown into a situation of intolerable vulgarity, destructive alike to his peace and to his dignity.” (A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1982)
So today let’s celebrate the varied contributions that Valentino has made — to cinema history, to celebrity culture, to the mixed bag that is American popular culture. Come for The Sheik, stay for Blood and Sand. If you’re really feeling it, check out YouTube for a long-lost recording of him singing “Kashmiri Love Song” in a pleasurable, husky vibrato. If you’re in Los Angeles, stop by his crypt in the Hollywood Forever cemetery, and let him know that we’re still thinking of him, that we haven’t forgotten.
Desirae Embree (@zeesayre) is a freelance writer and PhD student at Texas A&M University, where she studies Film and Media. Her mother raised her right on a steady diet of classical Hollywood films, so she has some peculiar preoccupations. Desirae lives in Dallas, Texas, where she dotes on her two cats and spends too much time on the couch. You can keep up with at her personal site at www.desiraeembree.com.