Ramon Novarro’s extant films for Rex Ingram, The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), in which he plays the sly villain Rupert of Hentzau, and Scaramouche (1923), in the heroic title role, are also well worth a look. I haven’t watched The Arab (1924), which has been recently brought back to the United States from foreign archives. My understanding is that the print is incomplete; even so, here’s hoping The Arab will soon be restored and shown on TCM.
The now lost Ingram-Novarro collaboration Trifling Women (1922) would probably have been a sumptuous treat – cinematographer John F. Seitz’s work in that Gothic melodrama seems to have inspired his later chiaroscuro lighting for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. The same goes for the idyllic Where the Pavement Ends (1923), a tale of interethnic romance set on a South Pacific island (but filmed in Cuba and Florida). Ingram’s wife Alice Terry was the leading lady in all of the above, except for Trifling Women; Barbara La Marr, whose last name inspired Hedy Kiesler to become Hedy Lamarr, was the femme fatale in that one.
And let me add here that at this time, rumors about Rex Ingram and Ramon Novarro – and Novarro and Rudolph Valentino – having been lovers are just that: unfounded rumors with no basis on fact or even circumstantial evidence; the mere product of fertile imaginations and wishful thinking gone amok. Needless to say, just as untrue is the viciously anti-gay “dildo of death” tale (which, strangely, a number of gay guys seem to enjoy).
Wrapping up this look back at Ramon Novarro, I refer (via Beyond Paradise) to brilliant columnist Herbert Howe, for several years Novarro’s publicist and lover:
In one of the “On the Road with Ramon” installments for Motion Picture [magazine], Howe recalled that shortly after their return to the United States from location shooting of The Arab [in Tunisia] in the spring of 1924, Novarro presented him with a rare copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in which he had inscribed, “This is the book that I wrote in one of my past incarnations. … I dare you to make me out a liar.” Howe recalled with guilt my superior air toward [Novarro’s] childish philosophy recurrently expressed in “All’s for the best” … but as phrased by Ramon in a previous incarnation, it is a staff for life.
When the sovereign power within is true to nature, it stands to adjust itself to every possibility and every chance that may befall. … All that happens, happens aright. Watch closely, you will find it so. Not merely in the order of events, but by scale of right, as tho some power apportions all according to worth. …
“True to the god within,” Howe concluded, “not caring what others may say. Ramon Novarro today is the living line of the Emperor Antoninus.”
Publicity b.s. aside, Novarro was an ambitious go-getter who, at least partly thanks to his boundless determination, managed to survive the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s and to thrive in the burgeoning film industry north of the border. Notwithstanding his inner turmoil later in life – among other issues, to be both gay and a devout Catholic wasn’t a good combination – as I explain at the end of Beyond Paradise Novarro kept on striving to free himself of his demons. The routes he took to attain that goal were quite diverse: religious retreats, his isolated ranch near San Diego, the company of friends, and even the young men he frequently hired for sex.
And here’s a confession: My initial epilogue for Beyond Paradise was quite downbeat; I believed my last words on my subject had to be a hard-hitting lesson for all, i.e., what happens when you let religious/cultural dogmas rule your life. Fellow author T. Gene Hatcher urged me to change my last chapter and so did Keith Kahla, my editor at St. Martin’s Press. I’m glad I completely rewrote it; though no longer a “hard-hitting lesson,” it became an honest and heartfelt assessment of Ramon Novarro the man – someone so different and at the same time so similar to me.
All quotes via Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro
Trifling Women photo: Courtesy Matias Bombal Collection