Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro discusses the tragic gay actor best remembered for the silent Ben-Hur & for his brutal death
The tragic story of gay actor Ramon Novarro is told in Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro. A top Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, Novarro is best remembered as the star of the mammoth silent blockbuster Ben-Hur and for his brutal death on Halloween eve 1968.
Ramon Novarro movies
Among Ramon Novarro’s best-known movies are three in which he played the title role: Fred Niblo’s mammoth, problem-plagued Ben-Hur (1925), the most expensive and ultimately most successful worldwide blockbuster until Gone with the Wind; Ernst Lubitsch’s bittersweet romance The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), co-starring future Best Actress Academy Award winner and Queen of MGM Norma Shearer; and W.S. Van Dyke’s The Pagan (1929), a major international box office hit in which Novarro introduced the immensely popular “Pagan Love Song.”
Check out: Ramon Novarro ‘The Pagan’ clip.
Also worth noting are five major productions featuring Ramon Novarro under the guidance of Rex Ingram, one of the silent era’s most prestigious and most influential filmmakers: The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), which provided Novarro – billed as “Ramon Samaniegos” – with his breakthrough movie role; Trifling Women (1922), a Gothic tale with several elements in common with Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Blvd.; the blockbuster Scaramouche (1923), the epic tale of the French Revolution that solidified Novarro’s Hollywood stardom; the interethnic love story Where the Pavement Ends (1923); and the Rudolph Valentino-esque The Arab (1924).
See also: Samuel-Novarro house.
Success in early talking pictures
Despite stories to the contrary, Ramon Novarro made an easy transition to sound. An aspiring opera singer, he was particularly successful in early MGM musicals such as Sidney Franklin’s Devil-May-Care (1929), Robert Z. Leonard’s In Gay Madrid (1930), and Charles Brabin’s Call of the Flesh (1930), all three featuring Dorothy Jordan as Novarro’s romantic interest.*
Among Ramon Novarro’s most popular talking pictures are George Fitzmaurice’s romantic spy melodrama Mata Hari (1931), one of Greta Garbo’s most spectacular box office hits; Sam Wood’s pre-Code – and outrageously politically incorrect – romp The Barbarian (1933), in which Novarro seduces, rapes, and makes love to up-and-coming MGM contract player Myrna Loy; and William K. Howard’s romantic musical The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), opposite another MGM newcomer, Jeanette MacDonald – which actually lost money because of its bloated production budget.
In the mid-1930s, MGM declined to renew Novarro’s contract following the costly box office flop The Night Is Young (1935). From then on, he made sporadic film and television appearances until his death in 1968. Novarro’s last movie role was that of a suave villain in George Cukor’s unusual Western Heller in Pink Tights (1960), starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn.
Gay actor at odds with himself: Catholicism vs. homosexuality
Ramon Novarro’s personal life was a troubled one. While as a young man the gay actor seemed to have been at peace with both his Catholic faith and his sexual orientation, as the years went by he became increasingly torn between the two. Heavy drinking was a means of escape – and the cause of several near-fatal car accidents.
As an older man, Novarro consistently sought the company of young men for hire. Two of those, brothers Paul Ferguson and Tom Ferguson, were eventually convicted of his death. (Years later, Paul Ferguson blamed the Catholic Church’s anti-gay stance for his own anti-gay bias in his youth. See also: “Ramon Novarro alleged gay love affair with Rudolph Valentino.”)
Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro in paperback
“Beyond Paradise: The Life of Gay Actor Ramon Novarro” update: The hardcover edition of Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro was published by St. Martin’s Press. The paperback edition was published by the University Press of Mississippi in Spring 2010.
* Dorothy Jordan is probably better known as the wife of King Kong co-director Merian C. Cooper, and for helping to launch the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie partnership. Adele Astaire’s understudy in the Broadway production of Funny Face, in 1933 Jordan dropped out of RKO’s musical comedy Flying Down to Rio to marry Cooper. Rogers was her replacement.