(See previous post: "Ramon Novarro: Mexican-Born Actor Was First Latin American Hollywood Superstar.") On Ramon Novarro Day, Turner Classic Movies' first Novarro movie is Rex Ingram's The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), a stately version of Edward Rose's play, itself based on Anthony Hope's 1897 novel: in the Central European kingdom of Ruritania, a traveling Englishman takes the place of the kidnapped local king-to-be-crowned. A pre-Judge Hardy Lewis Stone has the double role, while Novarro plays the scheming Rupert of Hentzau. (Image: Ramon Novarro ca. 1922.)
Despite his stage training, Stone is as interesting to watch as a beach pebble; Novarro, for his part, has a good time hamming it up in his first major break – courtesy of director Rex Ingram, then looking for a replacement for Rudolph Valentino, with whom he'd had a serious falling out during the making of The Conquering Power. Now, Ingram was a great pictorialist, but he wasn't the most exciting of filmmakers; starring Ronald Colman, the John Cromwell-directed 1937 The Prisoner of Zenda is much superior in every regard, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s performance as Rupert, which easily overshadows Novarro's.
'Scaramouche' and 'The Red Lily'
Rex Ingram's two follow-up movies starring Ramon Novarro, Trifling Women (1922) and Where the Pavement Ends (1923) are unfortunately lost, while their last collaboration, The Arab (1924) – with shades of Valentino's The Sheik – is currently being (or waiting to be) restored. But their most important movie, Scaramouche (1923), is available and to be shown on TCM after The Prisoner of Zenda.
Novarro has the title role in the film, as a Frenchman out to avenge the death of his loyal friend at the hands of a merciless marquis – Lewis Stone, surprisingly effective as a villain with a surprising past. Meanwhile, the French Revolution is raging. Based on Rafael Sabatini's novel, Rex Ingram's elegant version of Scaramouche is much closer to the original than George Sidney's more buoyant 1952 remake, starring a less appealing Stewart Granger in the old Novarro role. (See also: "Ramon Novarro in Scaramouche.")
Rex Ingram directed his wife Alice Terry in both The Prisoner of Zenda and Scaramouche (in addition to Where the Pavement Ends and The Arab). In The Red Lily, Fred Niblo is the one directing his wife, Enid Bennett – who steals the show in this melodrama about the perils of the big city, in this case, Paris. Ramon Novarro looks very handsome as a hoodlum, but his acting is all over the place. (See also: "Ramon Novarro in The Red Lily.")
Ramon Novarro in the late '20s: Joan Crawford and two major hits
Next in line is Across to Singapore (1928), an adventure melodrama about two English brothers – Novarro and Ernest Torrence – in love with the same woman, up-and-coming MGM contract player Joan Crawford. Whoever thought that relatively small, delicately featured Novarro and the huge, brutish-looking Torrence could play brothers must have been tripping, but at least it goes to show that the Mexican-born Novarro could play roles of just about any nationality during his years as a star, except, ironically, that of a Mexican. (During her Hollywood career, Novarro's cousin, Dolores del Rio, also played all sorts of ethnicities, from Pacific Islander to French-Canadian.) (See also: "Ramon Novarro and Ethnicity in Film.")
W.S. Van Dyke's simple but delightful – and quite subversive – The Pagan (1929) was one of Ramon Novarro's biggest box office hits, while Sidney Franklin's lighthearted musical Devil-May-Care (1929) has Novarro back in France, this time during Napoleon's rule. The actor's first talkie, Devil-May-Care was a major hit for MGM, proving that Novarro, an aspiring opera singer, had a future in both talking pictures and in musicals, at the time a highly popular genre. Now, much like the overwhelming majority of early talkies, Devil-May-Care feels pretty creaky today; yet it still offers quite a few enjoyable moments, in good part because of Novarro's boundless enthusiasm. (See also: "Ramon Novarro in The Pagan" and "Recent Dorothy Janis photo.")
Ramon Novarro: 'The Best Actor'
As quoted in Beyond Paradise, in later years Alice Terry would say that her frequent co-star Ramon Novarro was
the best actor of all. I think there was no picture that you could've put him in that he couldn't have reached to every scene and I think the others couldn't have. I think that Valentino was so much a type that he couldn't have played certain scenes ... Stone was an actor ... He played every scene well, but there was never any height to it. [Antonio] Moreno was a good actor, but ... I couldn't have seen him in certain parts. Ramon I could have seen in almost any part outside of an American boy. And I think he had more ham in him – I don't like to use the other ham. Maybe it's nerve or maybe confidence ... to get up and try something where someone like Colman, for instance, wouldn't try because he'd feel silly. But Ramon would attempt anything – comedy, drama, crazy scenes, anything, and he could do it. I always thought he was capable of doing better than almost anyone possibly besides [John] Barrymore, who I think had the same thing.
["Ramon Novarro: Silent Movie Star Proves He Can Talk and Sing" continues on the next page. See link below.]
Ramon Novarro photo courtesy of the Matias Bombal Collection.