Ramon Novarro: Mexican-born actor was first Latin American Hollywood superstar
Mexican-born actor Ramon Novarro, the original Ben-Hur and one of MGM’s biggest stars of the late 1920s and early 1930s, has his Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” day on Thursday, Aug. 8. First, The Bad News: TCM will not be presenting any Ramon Novarro movie premieres.
There’ll be no The Midshipman (1925), the first time Novarro was billed above the title (back then the official recognition of True Stardom) and featuring one of Joan Crawford’s earliest film appearances, or Forbidden Hours (1928), a vapid but great-looking The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg redux, with the always charming Renée Adorée as the commoner loved by His Majesty, Michael IV – that’s Novarro. Excellent prints of The Midshipman and Forbidden Hours can be found in the Warner Bros. film library; I watched both while working on my Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise. Neither movie is great – not even close – but I can’t help lamenting a truly missed opportunity. (The recently repatriated The Arab is being restored. Hopefully it’ll be shown on TCM in the not-too-distant future.)
Also missing from TCM’s Ramon Novarro movie lineup are his two post-MGM films made at Republic Pictures in the late 1930s: The Sheik Steps Out (1937) and A Desperate Adventure (1938). Both are very, very poor – but again, they’re so hard to find it wouldn’t hurt to make them available for viewing, even if only as cinematic curiosities.
Novarro’s non-English-language efforts are also missing: The 1930 MGM release Call of the Flesh had two foreign-language versions: Spanish and French, both also starring Novarro. He himself directed the former, La Sevillana, featuring Conchita Montenegro and his own mother; the film’s negative is extant at Warner Bros., but last I heard there was no print. Le chanteur de Séville can be found at the Cinémathèque Française.
Additionally, Ramon Novarro starred in two non-English-language movies made outside the United States: the Italian-French co-production La comédie du bonheur (1940) and the Mexican-made La virgen que forjó una patria (1942). Directed by veteran Marcel L’Herbier, La comédie du bonheur also stars Michel Simon and Jacqueline Delubac, and features Micheline Presle and Louis Jourdan at the beginning of their movie careers. This troubled production – made right around the time Germany invaded Poland – is by far Novarro’s best non-MGM movie. Here’s wondering if it (directly or indirectly) inspired John Cassavetes to come up with Faces’ movie-within-a-movie framing device.
Julio Bracho’s La virgen que forjó una patria is chiefly notable as Ramon Novarro’s sole Mexican movie. In this simplistic flag-waver mixing religion, politics, and nativism, Novarro plays the 16th-century Aztec Juan Diego, who, as the story goes, saw a dark-skinned Virgin Mary, thus leading to the conversion of Mexican Indians to Catholicism. Despite its myriad dramatic shortcomings, it would’ve been great to watch a good print of La virgen que forjó una patria on TCM.
Ramon Novarro movies on TCM
Now, The Good News: a whole day dedicated to Ramon Novarro is something to celebrate. After all, Novarro never kissed Audrey Hepburn, never danced with Fred Astaire, never starred in a movie nominated for an Academy Award (in any category), never sang a duet with Judy Garland, and was never directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, this top star of the late ’20s and early ’30s is chiefly remembered – if remembered at all – for his brutal death on Halloween eve 1968 and for the vicious, scornful lies about that tragedy found in Hollywood Babylon. (See also: “Ramon Novarro Death.”)
Hopefully, Turner Classic Movies’ Ramon Novarro Day will help to make viewers become better acquainted with his movie work. Novarro wasn’t always a great actor, but he was usually a pleasant one. Having said that, in the right role and with the right guidance, he could be as good as the best of them.
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 & 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: “Revisiting 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: “Revisiting Ramon Novarro in The Red Lily.”)
Joan Crawford & 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.) (Check out: “‘Whitewashing’ in Hollywood Movies: Racism?”)
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.
‘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.
Turner Classic Movies’ Ramon Novarro Day continues with The Son-Daughter (1933), on TCM right now. Both Novarro and Helen Hayes play Chinese characters in San Francisco’s Chinatown – in the sort of story that had worked back in 1919, when D.W. Griffith made Broken Blossoms with Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. By 1933, however, the drab-looking, slow-moving The Son-Daughter felt all wrong. (Image: Naked Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur.)
Directed by the renowned Clarence Brown (who guided Greta Garbo in some of her biggest hits), The Son-Daughter turned out to be a well-intentioned mess, eventually bombing at the box office. And that goes to show that Louis B. Mayer and/or Irving G. Thalberg didn’t always know what the hell they were doing with their stars and properties. Stage actress Helen Hayes, by then a Best Actress Academy Award winner (for The Sin of Madelon Claudet), is all affected mannerisms in the title role, while Ramon Novarro, who became a major star chiefly because of his looks, mopes about under heavy East Asian make-up.
‘The Cat and the Fiddle’: Jeanette MacDonald MGM debut
The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), based on Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s 1931 operetta about romantic entanglements in the European music world, is chiefly notable as Jeanette MacDonald’s first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie. The following information about The Cat and the Fiddle is from my Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise:
Unlike the tight-budgeted 42nd Street, The Cat and the Fiddle would ultimately cost an extravagant $843,000. The excess indulged by MGM on this production – the third most expensive picture of Novarro’s career and the studio’s fifth-costliest production that season – is particularly curious, considering that Novarro had not had a single major hit since Mata Hari, MacDonald had come to the studio after several box office disappointments at Paramount and Fox, and MGM was having its worst year to date. The studio was clearly determined to lift the sagging fortunes of its former top male star, and, of even more importance to The Cat and the Fiddle, Mayer was intent on turning his protégée into a major star. (Mayer, who wanted MacDonald to see him as a “friend, counselor, and guide,” was probably the one who had MacDonald billed above the title, as Novarro’s original contract – later modified – had stipulated solo star billing.)
Directed by William K. Howard, the film itself starts out well as a light romantic comedy; about halfway through, however, it derails into heavy melodrama. Perhaps appropriately, Ramon Novarro acts like his old lively self in the film’s first half, but looks quite downbeat in the second half.
Also of note, The Cat and the Fiddle was the first live-action feature film to include a three-color Technicolor sequence: the musical finale. And in 1937, with World War II just around the corner, it was refused a rerelease certificate from the censors at the Hays Office – ever concerned about the Grave Dangers facing humankind – because its “two sympathetic leads” engage in an “illicit sex relationship without compensating moral values.”
‘Ben-Hur’: Biggest movie of the silent era
Credited to Fred Niblo, but also directed by an uncredited Christy Cabanne, in addition to Alfred L. Raboch and stunt director B. Reeves Eason, Ben-Hur (1925) was the most gigantic undertaking of any studio anywhere in the world up to that time. It’s also a movie that radically changed Hollywood history: initially a Goldwyn Pictures production, Ben-Hur‘s costs escalated to such a degree that the (by then Samuel Goldwyn-less) studio floundered, eventually coming under the umbrella of exhibitor Loews, Inc., thus becoming part of the newly founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – the other two entities being Loews-owned Metro Pictures and the independent Louis B. Mayer Productions. A Metro Pictures player, Ramon Novarro became one of the new company’s top assets.
At Goldwyn, Charles Brabin, best known perhaps as early vamp Theda Bara’s husband, had been the assigned director. George Walsh, brother of director Raoul Walsh (Humphrey Bogart’s High Sierra, James Cagney’s White Heat), was to have the title role. June Mathis, a former Metro Pictures producer-screenwriter who left the studio following a salary dispute between the top brass and her protégé, Rudolph Valentino, was to write Ben-Hur‘s screenplay and supervise its production in Italy.
By mid-1924, Charles Brabin, George Walsh, and June Mathis had all been fired. Fred Niblo and Ramon Novarro replaced, respectively, director and star, while Carey Wilson and Bess Meredyth were assigned to rewrite the film’s screenplay. But things remained so out of control that Louis B. Mayer himself traveled to Italy to check in on the production. Even so, all sorts of problems continued to beset Ben-Hur until cast and crew were finally shipped back to Culver City, where production on the film was resumed under the watchful eyes of Mayer and Irving Thalberg.
Costly blockbuster became first movie saved by international market
Finally budgeted at an unheard of $3.97 million (approx. $53 million today), Ramon Novarro’s Ben-Hur became the costliest movie ever, and would remain so until Gone with the Wind 14 years later. With a worldwide (probably net) take of $10.73 million (approx. $350 million today; including the 1931 reissue with sound effects – a flop in North America, but a huge hit overseas), Ben-Hur also became the biggest box office hit ever, and would remain so until Gone with the Wind.
Nowadays, big-budget movies such as Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, Bruce Willis’ A Good Day to Die Hard, Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Great Gatsby, Brad Pitt’s World War Z, and Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and the Huntsman, to name a few, are frequently saved by the international market. Even domestic blockbusters such as James Cameron’s Avatar, Chris Evanss’ The Avengers, Paul Walker’s Fast & Furious 6, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man 3, and Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel only manage to fully justify their outlandish price tags once international box office figures are tallied.
In truth, the international market has always been important to Hollywood movies, but Ben-Hur is probably the earliest case of a megabudgeted Hollywood production – and a major movie studio – quite literally saved by moviegoers outside the United States and Canada. Despite the 1925 World War I drama The Big Parade‘s hefty domestic profits, had Ramon Novarro’s Ben-Hur bombed internationally MGM might have gone the way of Goldwyn Pictures. (See also: “Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur: Fast & Furious Silent Epic.”)
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
Ben-Hur also solidified Ramon Novarro’s international superstardom. In fact, moviegoers outside North America helped to keep Novarro working steadily at MGM up to the mid-’30s, several years after his domestic popularity had markedly diminished – and several years after fellow male silent era stars John Gilbert and William Haines had been gone from the studio.
With the passing of the decades, especially since the release of William Wyler’s multiple Oscar-winning 1959 version of Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston, Ramon Novarro’s 1925 movie fell into oblivion. The following is from Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro:
As the years passed, Ben-Hur, the motion picture that would “remain, as the Bible remains” became but a distant memory of another era. Prior to the release of the 1959 Ben-Hur remake, MGM tried to ensure that no prints of the 1925 version were in circulation to avoid comparisons to the new product. Thus, Novarro’s Ben-Hur remained a shadow of its former self for another thirty years, until Turner Entertainment and Britain’s Thames Television sponsored the picture’s restoration under the aegis of film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. Missing footage was found, and the original color tints and the Technicolor sequences were restored with the help of a German collector and the Czechoslovakian Film Archive. With a new orchestral score by Carl Davis, the rejuvenated epic was shown to considerable acclaim at the 31st London Film Festival in 1988.
Ramon Novarro’s Ben-Hur would have been a shoo-in Academy Award nominee – and probably winner, despite strong competition from King Vidor’s The Big Parade – had the awards existed back then. Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur, which remains one of the biggest blockbusters in history, won a record total of 11 Oscars. To date, only James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) have matched the 1959 Ben-Hur‘s Oscar wins.
‘Ben-Hur’ 2013 remake?
Note: According to various online reports, the not-that-long-ago bankrupt Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, recently cushioned in some form or other by Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the latest James Bond blockbuster starring Daniel Craig, Skyfall, has announced another Ben-Hur remake. That was in early January 2013; not much has been said about the project since. So, who would be your pick to step into Ramon Novarro’s and Charlton Heston’s shoes as the early 21st century Ben-Hur? If this project ever comes to fruition, get ready for publicists to start firing off lists of potential candidates, from Brad Pitt and George Clooney (too old? CGI can accomplish just about anything these days) to Andrew Garfield and Robert Pattinson, not to mention Chris Evans, Garrett Hedlund, Chris Hemsworth, Liam Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Avatar‘s Sam Worthington – maybe even Jennifer Lawrence as Ben-Her. Whoever will bring in the cash – as was the case back in 1925, when Ramon Novarro replaced the much bulkier and Ben-Hur-ly but also much less box-office-friendly George Walsh.
Regarding Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, starring Ramon Novarro in the title role and Norma Shearer as the commoner the student prince loves, here’s a little more information from Beyond Paradise:
In spite of the story’s light touch, filming was at times tense. Old Heidelberg [the film’s initial title] was [former Warner Bros. contract director Ernst] Lubitsch’s first picture for MGM, Novarro’s first major production since Ben-Hur, and Shearer’s first prestige assignment personally supervised by [her husband-to-be and MGM’s second-in-command Irving G.] Thalberg since the beginning of their romantic involvement. It was crucial for director and stars that Old Heidelberg be a success.
One problem during shooting was that neither performer was used to the director’s methods. Novarro remembered that if the desired result was not achieved, Lubitsch would announce, “I’ll do it again – and again.” According to Novarro, Lubitsch once shot one take 102 times until he was completely satisfied. Other Lubitsch methods that disturbed the two leads included reducing rehearsal time to enhance spontaneity, and explaining scenes by acting them out in his thick German accent. (Mary Pickford, who felt an intense dislike for Lubitsch [who had directed Pickford in Rosita], called him a “frustrated actor.”)
Lubitsch also displeased MGM because of his [Erich von] Stroheim-like expenditures. Costume designer Ali Hubert arrived from Europe with thirty-two trunks of apparel and accessories to comply with the director’s demand for authenticity. Once the studio scenes were finished, Lubitsch traveled to Germany to shoot exteriors, though, according to [assistant director] Andrew Marton, none of that footage was used in the final edit. After 108 production days, costs had soared to $1,205,000, an amount well above the studio average even for a prestige picture. Retitled The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, Novarro’s latest became MGM’s costliest picture since Ben-Hur. (As a comparison, the 1924 release Three Women, Lubitsch’s most expensive Warners production, had cost a relatively paltry $329,000.)
Artistically, at least, Ernest Lubitsch’s meticulous efforts paid off. In my view, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is Ramon Novarro’s best silent movie, superior even to his extant collaborations with Rex Ingram. Besides, Novarro’s and Norma Shearer’s performances are among the most affecting of their careers. Very seldom did Novarro act in a dramatic role in such a naturalistic – and moving – fashion.
Ultimately, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg turned out to be a “prestige” release for MGM, but not a profitable one. Despite significant grosses worldwide, the costly film lost the studio $307,000.
George Fitzmaurice’s romantic spy melodrama Mata Hari (1931) was well received by critics and enthusiastically embraced by moviegoers. The Greta Garbo / Ramon Novarro combo – the first time Novarro took second billing since becoming a star – turned Mata Hari into a major worldwide blockbuster, with $2.22 million in worldwide rentals. The film became Garbo’s biggest international success to date, and Novarro’s highest-grossing picture after Ben-Hur.
Among MGM’s 1932 releases – Mata Hari opened on December 31, 1931 – only W.S. Van Dyke’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, featuring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, and Edmund Goulding’s all-star Best Picture Academy Award winner Grand Hotel (also with Garbo, in addition to Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore) surpassed Mata Hari‘s worldwide earnings.
‘Mata Hari’ and ‘The Night Is Young’ vs. The Censors
“When Mata Hari danced – brave men forgot honor, loyalty and country!” Prudish men and women, however, remembered their scissors. As mentioned in Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro, several state and local censors in the U.S. ordered cuts to the film, “including the elimination of a sequence that clearly implied a sexual relationship between the two unmarried leads. Upon giving Mata Hari a ‘not recommended’ rating, the representative of the Atlanta Better Film Committee stated, ‘I wish this picture could be destroyed. It is not fit to be shown anywhere.'”
By 1935, the moralistic Production Code had been placed into full effect. That’s one key reason Ramon Novarro’s last MGM release, The Night Is Young, failed to live up to its potential; what could have been a cleverly risque romantic melodrama was bowdlerized to appease the censors’ sensibilities. Compounding matters, the inexperienced Dudley Murphy was brought in to direct this Central European-set tale clearly inspired by Erik Charrell’s superior Congress Dances and made to order for someone like Ernst Lubitsch. A box office flop, The Night Is Young marked the official end of Ramon Novarro’s movie stardom.
Turner Classic Movies’ last Ramon Novarro offering is the 1950 release Crisis, Richard Brooks’ overwrought political melodrama starring a badly miscast Cary Grant as a doctor forced into attempting to save the life of a ruthless Latin American dictator. Paula Raymond, in a role coveted by Nancy Davis (later Nancy Reagan), and an absurdly over-the-top José Ferrer co-star.
Looking much older than his years, probably a result of his alcoholism, Novarro is featured in a small but effective supporting role in this MGM release: the vicious Colonel Adragon, displaying none of the gentleness intrinsic to his characters during his heyday at that studio. There were other changes as well, for instead of the red-carpet treatment, Novarro suffered indignities courtesy of the, at the time, widely despised Richard Brooks.
Following Crisis, Ramon Novarro would make only one more movie, the George Cukor-directed 1960 Paramount release Heller in Pink Tights, starring Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, and Steve Forrest. Throughout the ’60s, he was featured as a guest star in about a dozen television shows, most notably in a brilliant performance as Luise Rainer’s frail husband in Combat!.
A frequent patron of sex workers, Ramon Novarro was killed at his Hollywood Hills home on October 30, 1968; his mysterious death became front-page news the world over. The following two paragraphs are from Beyond Paradise:
Had Novarro died of natural causes, his death would have been relegated to the obituary pages of most newspapers, but the mysterious, bloody slaying of a once-internationally renowned film star became front-page news the world over. That same day, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner blazoned in huge letters, STAR RAMON NOVARRO MURDERED. The following morning, the New York Times announced on its front page, “Ramon Navarro [sic] Slain on Coast; Starred in Silent Film Ben-Hur.” Other newspapers across the country and overseas devoted lengthy articles to the brutal passing of the former MGM star at the hands of an unknown killer.
Those news reports recalled Novarro’s past achievements as Judah Ben-Hur and as Greta Garbo’s co-star. They remembered his profound [Roman Catholic] faith, his desire to become a priest, and his devotion to his family, as well as his frequent arrests for drunken driving – the Los Angeles Times quipped that two handicaps the star had failed to cure were “an unshakable accent and an unshakable thirst.” Some friends expressed horror and disbelief that so kind and distinguished a gentleman could have met such an appalling death. Others expressed positive memories of Novarro. “He never considered himself a ‘has-been’ because he had enough money to choose his roles,” [Ramon Novarro’s literary executor] Leonard Shannon told the [Hollywood] Citizen News. “He worked when he wanted and enjoyed his garden the rest of the time.”
Two brothers, Paul Ferguson, 22, and Tom Ferguson, 17, were later charged and convicted of his murder.
Note: TCM’s Ramon Novarro Day also features nine minutes from the mostly lost 1928 Greta Garbo star vehicle The Divine Woman (9:20 p.m PT).
Ramon Novarro movies: TCM schedule (PT) on August 8
3:00 AM THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1922). Director: Rex Ingram. Cast: Lewis Stone, Alice Terry, Robert Edeson, Stuart Holmes, Ramon Novarro, Barbara La Marr, Malcolm McGregor, Edward Connelly, Lois Lee, Snitz Edwards. Black and white. 113 min.
5:00 AM SCARAMOUCHE (1923). Director: Rex Ingram. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Alice Terry, Lewis Stone, Lloyd Ingraham, Julia Swayne Gordon, Edith Allen, William Humphrey, Otto Matieson, George Siegmann, James A. Marcus, Bowditch M. Turner, John George, Rose Dione, Willard Lee Hall, Edward Connelly, Snitz Edwards, Howard Gaye, Lydia Yeamans Titus, Slavko Vorkapich. Black and white. 124 min.
7:00 AM THE RED LILY (1924). Director: Fred Niblo. Cast: Enid Bennett, Ramon Novarro, Wallace Beery, Frank Currier, Mitchell Lewis, Rosita Marstini, Sidney Franklin, Emily Fitzroy, George Nichols, Rosemary Theby, Gibson Gowland, Dick Sutherland, Milla Davenport, George Periolat. Black and white. 81 min.
8:30 AM ACROSS TO SINGAPORE (1928). Director: William Nigh. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Joan Crawford, Ernest Torrence, Frank Currier, Dan Wolheim, Duke Martin, Edward Connelly, Jim Mason, Anna May Wong, Chris-Pin Martin. Black and white. 85 min.
10:15 AM THE PAGAN (1929). Director: W.S. Van Dyke. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Dorothy Janis, Renée Adorée, Donald Crisp. Black and white. 78 min.
11:45 AM DEVIL-MAY-CARE (1929). Director: Sidney Franklin. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Dorothy Jordan, Marion Harris, John Miljan, William Humphrey, George Davis, Clifford Bruce, Lionel Belmore, George Chandler, John Carroll, Ann Dvorak. Color. 97 min.
1:30 PM THE SON-DAUGHTER (1932). Director: Clarence Brown. Cast: Helen Hayes, Ramon Novarro, Lewis Stone, Warner Oland, Ralph Morgan, Louise Closser Hale, H.B. Warner, Dell Henderson. Black and white. 79 min.
3:15 PM THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE (1934). Director: William K. Howard. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Jeanette MacDonald, Frank Morgan, Jean Hersholt, Charles Butterworth, Vivienne Segal, Frank Conroy, Henry Armetta, Adrienne D’Ambricourt, Joseph Cawthorn, Herman Bing, Yola d’Avril, Max Davidson, Sterling Holloway, Arthur Hoyt, Leonid Kinskey, Henry Kolker, Paul Porcasi, Rolfe Sedan. Black and white. 89 min.
5:00 PM BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1925). Director: Fred Niblo. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Carmel Myers, Nigel De Brulier, Claire McDowell, Kathleen Key, Mitchell Lewis, Frank Currier, Leo White, Charles Belcher, Dale Fuller, Hunter Hall. Black and white. 143 min.
7:30 PM THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG (1927). Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, Jean Hersholt, Philippe De Lacy, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Edgar Norton, Bobby Mack, Edward Connelly, Otis Harlan, Hans Joby a.k.a. John S. Peters, George K. Arthur, Lionel Belmore, Edythe Chapman, André Mattoni, Lincoln Stedman. Black and white. 106 min.
9:30 PM MATA HARI (1931). Director: George Fitzmaurice. Cast: Greta Garbo, Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, C. Henry Gordon, Alec B. Francis, Karen Morley, Blanche Friderici, Edmund Breese, Helen Jerome Eddy, Frank Reicher, Mischa Auer, Cecil Cunningham, Maude Turner Gordon, Lennox Pawle. Black and white. 89 min.
11:15 PM THE NIGHT IS YOUNG (1935). Director: Dudley Murphy. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Evelyn Laye, Charles Butterworth, Rosalind Russell, Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Donald Cook, Henry Stephenson, Herman Bing, Mitzi, Albert Conti, Elspeth Dudgeon, Snub Pollard, Gustav von Seyffertitz. Black and white. 81 min.
1:00 AM CRISIS (1950). Director: Richard Brooks. Cast: Cary Grant, José Ferrer, Paula Raymond, Signe Hasso, Gilbert Roland, Ramon Novarro, Leon Ames, Antonio Moreno, Teresa Celli, Orlando Beltran, Pedro de Cordoba, Martin Garralaga. Black and white. 96 min.
Ramon Novarro and Greta Garbo Mata Hari photo: Matias Bombal Collection.
Ramon Novarro leapfrog publicity shot: Matias Bombal Collection.
Naked Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Ramon Novarro photo courtesy of the Matias Bombal Collection.
Ramon Novarro photo: Courtesy of the Matias Bombal Collection.
Ramon Novarro in ‘The Pagan’: Serenading Dorothy Janis
The Pagan, Ramon Novarro’s first sound vehicle – with a pre-recorded soundtrack but no dialogue – became one of the biggest hits at the U.S. box office in 1929, and a huge success overseas as well. In this fresh-as-an-ocean-breeze comedy-drama-romance, Novarro, at his most natural, is a half-native young man idling his life away in a tropical paradise in the South Pacific. Things change with the arrival of a devout (and hypocritical) Christian, played by future Oscar winner Donald Crisp, and his charge, a half-native girl played by newcomer Dorothy Janis in her first and only important film role.
(It should be noted that miscegenation used to be not only frowned upon but downright condemned in American movies. In fact, it’s still quite rare. That said, if a film’s lead characters were the offspring of sinful interethnic acts committed before the story began, then their mixed ethnicity was – or at least could be – perfectly ok.)
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, one of the most prolific MGM directors of the 1930s, The Pagan was adapted by Dorothy Farnum – actually, many other hands were also involved in the project – from a story by John Russell. John Howard Lawson, one of the future Hollywood Ten, wrote the natural-sounding (or rather, natural-reading) dialogue, which also offers bits of highly effective social commentary.
Clyde De Vinna was the man responsible for the film’s lush cinematography.
In The Pagan, Ramon Novarro – a trained singer with operatic aspirations – introduced Arthur Freed (the future producer of numerous MGM musicals) and Nacio Herb Brown’s “Pagan Love Song,” which became a worldwide hit. Dorothy Janis also got to sing the song in the film, though the voice we hear in the soundtrack actually belonged to somebody else.
Janis ended up not having much of a film career, but she did get to marry bandleader Wayne King. To the best of my knowledge, she is still alive, and will be turning 98 next February. (Check out a few 2004 photos of Dorothy Janis at the the Stevens Orchestra Project.)