Paul Ferguson, in a letter he wrote me at the time I was working on Beyond Paradise, blamed his Catholic background for Ramon Novarro’s death:
“When [Novarro] kissed me, I reacted like a Catholic, what they call homosexual panic. Some old guy in the desert says, ‘Kill homosexuals.’ It’s inbred. . . . I was too drunk to be civilized. Whatever my most primitive moral standings were, I reacted. It had nothing to do with Novarro, nothing to do with his being homosexual. It all had to do with how I saw myself. And the fact that my brother was there. And that he could see me in that homosexual act. It all had to do with my Catholic upbringing, with my five thousand years of Moses. And that’s the only reason why this whole thing happened. Because that’s what society teaches you. . . . I think after I hit Mr. Novarro . . . I turned around and sat down on the sofa. I got up and went to find [Novarro] in the bedroom. ‘This guy’s dead.’ . . . We didn’t go there to rob him. We had never heard of those $5,000. We didn’t steal anything … There was no robbery, no torture, no murder. The killing was manslaughter.”
As for me, I’ve often wondered: Who would Ramon Novarro have blamed for what happened?
Of course, though considerably more complex than a clear-cut case of intentional gay bashing as some have claimed, Novarro’s death was no less tragic. Only a deranged bigot – or a member of the rabid p.c. crowd – would consider it a fair comeuppance for an old pervert who had lured a minor to his house. Tom Ferguson, after all, was no child; as for Novarro’s “perversions” … Well, let’s just say that among those was the fact the he was a sexually active gay man prior to the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.
Luckily, Ramon Novarro is no longer remembered merely as the gay guy who died with Rudolph Valentino’s (non-existent) dildo shoved down his throat. (If you think tabloid journalism is something new, you clearly don’t know much about the history of the media and you’ve never read Hollywood Babylon or other such trash.) Anyhow, today Novarro’s work can often be seen on Turner Classic Movies and several of his movies have become available via the Warner Archive Collection.
Personally, I find Novarro at his best in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), light-heartedly and then heartbreakingly in love with Norma Shearer in one of the best silent movies ever made; W. S. Van Dyke’s The Pagan (1929), perhaps Novarro’s most relaxed, easy-going performance, introducing the hit “Pagan Love Song”; Robert Z. Leonard’s In Gay Madrid (1930), a poorly received musical comedy that I find quite charming thanks to Novarro’s comedy timing and light singing; and Sam Wood’s The Barbarian (1933), an unbridled mix of sex, romance, comedy, and drama, thankfully made before the full enforcement of the moralistic Production Code; in the film, Novarro is pitted against/with/on top of Myrna Loy.
Ultimately directed by Fred Niblo (after Charles Brabin was fired from the runaway production), the 1925 version of Ben-Hur was Novarro’s biggest hit. In fact, the pseudo-historical epic was to become the biggest worldwide hit of the silent era and the biggest blockbuster until Gone with the Wind. Yet, Ben-Hur was not Novarro’s greatest showcase, for his performance as the Jewish hero-turned-Christian convert is hardly what one would call subtle.
Now, I should add that despite Novarro’s silent movie mannerisms and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ (oftentimes bizarre) Oscar picks, Novarro is eons better than Charlton Heston in William Wyler’s bloated, ponderous 1959 remake – winner of 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Novarro looks much better than Heston, too, as can be attested by the photo on the right.
As for Mata Hari, George Fitzmaurice’s highly successful melodrama was chiefly a Greta Garbo vehicle; Novarro’s role as the lovestruck Russian aviator was thoroughly subordinated to that of Garbo’s sultry spy. Although the movie did boost his box office appeal, the effect waned rapidly. Novarro’s MGM career and de facto stardom would be over three years later.
[“Ramon Novarro Death Pt.2: Convicted Killer Blamed Anti-Gay Catholic Doctrine” continues on the next page. See link below.]