Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro is a film star biography I wrote several years ago. The book tells the story of the first Latin American performer to become a major Hollywood star, Ramon Novarro.
Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro at Amazon.com.
Born Ramón Samaniego to a prominent Mexican family, Novarro arrived in Hollywood in 1916, a refugee from the civil wars that rocked Mexico in the early 20th century. A few years later, the young Mexican made a name for himself following the 1922 release of Rex Ingram’s period adventure-romance The Prisoner of Zenda. The handsome and wildly eccentric Ingram was Metro Pictures’ foremost director and the man who had helped to turn Rudolph Valentino into a star in the 1921 blockbuster The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the aftermath of an acrimonious split with Valentino, Ingram did his utmost to transform the inexperienced Ramón Samaniego into the charismatic heartthrob to rival the foremost Latin Lover – though, in truth, Novarro’s persona was quite different than Valentino’s.
Following leads in Ingram’s Trifling Women, Where the Pavement Ends, Scaramouche, and The Arab, by the mid-1920s Novarro had become one of the most important stars at the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He was then cast in a series of highly popular star vehicles, among them Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, with Norma Shearer; The Flying Fleet, a sort of “Top Gun of 1929”; The Pagan, which introduced the popular “Pagan Love Song”; the highly successful Mata Hari, opposite Greta Garbo; and the original version of Ben-Hur.
Released in late 1925,Ben-Hur was the most colossal – and problem-plagued – undertaking by any studio up to that time. As a result of that picture, one of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters ever, Novarro’s fame reached phenomenal heights the world over.
During that time, Novarro shared the screen with some of the era’s most important leading ladies. In addition to the aforementioned Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, Novarro got paired up with Myrna Loy (The Barbarian), Jeanette MacDonald (The Cat and the Fiddle), Helen Hayes (The Son-Daughter), and Joan Crawford (Across to Singapore).
Also, Rex Ingram’s wife Alice Terry (Scaramouche, Where the Pavement Ends, The Arab, Lovers?), screen siren Barbara La Marr (The Prisoner of Zenda, Trifling Women, Thy Name Is Woman), Lupe Velez (Laughing Boy), Renée Adorée (A Certain Young Man, Forbidden Hours, The Pagan, Call of the Flesh), May McAvoy (Ben-Hur), and Enid Bennett (The Red Lily).
In addition to Ingram and Lubitsch, Novarro collaborated with numerous other well-respected directors (even if the films themselves were oftentimes below par). Among those were Clarence Brown (The Son-Daughter), Sam Wood (Huddle, The Barbarian), Sidney Franklin (Devil-May-Care), John M. Stahl (Lovers?), W. S. Van Dyke (The Pagan, Laughing Boy), George W. Hill (The Flying Fleet), and Marcel L’Herbier (La Comédie du bonheur).
Also, Fred Niblo (Thy Name Is Woman, The Red Lily, Ben-Hur), Harry Beaumont (Forbidden Hours), William K. Howard (The Cat and the Fiddle), George Fitzmaurice (Mata Hari), Robert Z. Leonard (In Gay Madrid), Jacques Feyder (Daybreak, Son of India), and Charles Brabin (Call of the Flesh).
Later in his career, Novarro had supporting roles in lesser films directed by major names: John Huston (We Were Strangers), Richard Brooks (Crisis), Don Siegel (The Big Steal), and George Cukor (Heller in Pink Tights).
Yet, despite his professional accomplishments – film critics both liked and respected him – Ramon Novarro’s most enduring claim to fame is his violent death: His nude, bloodied corpse was found in his Hollywood Hills house on Halloween 1968, in what has become one of the most infamous Hollywood scandals.
An ardent Catholic who more than once considered becoming a priest, Novarro was a lifelong bachelor who had carefully cultivated his image as a man deeply devoted to his large family and to his religious convictions. His death shattered that image, as the public learned that the dashing screen hero of yore had not only been gay, but had been murdered by two young brothers invited into his home.
Since then, increasingly outlandish stories have become accepted as truth – including that of a dildo, purportedly given to him by fellow Latin Lover Rudolph Valentino, as the murder weapon; those have all but completely obscured Novarro’s professional legacy.
Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro chronicles Novarro’s life from its beginnings in the Durango of the early 1900s to its brutal end in the Los Angeles of the late 1960s. Besides movie production notes, personal letters, and extracts from Novarro’s unfinished autobiography, Beyond Paradise includes original quotes from a number of Novarro’s surviving friends, family members, co-workers, and Hollywood contemporaries. Among those interviewed or with whom the author corresponded were Jane Greer, Constance Cummings, Paula Raymond, Anita Page, Rose Hobart, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Charlton Heston, Marian Marsh, Lupita Tovar, and others, in addition to Paul Ferguson and Tom Ferguson, the two men convicted of killing Novarro.
Originally published by St. Martin’s Press, in spring 2010 Beyond Paradise will be out in paperback via the University of Mississippi Press.
Photos: Matias Bombal Collection