At the website Falcon Lair, Donna Hill’s website devoted to Rudolph Valentino, the 1920s film icon is described as “one of the most magnetic and charismatic stars of the silent era.”
Indeed, the Italian-born Rudolph Valentino remains one of a handful of movie celebrities of the pre-sound years whose names are still recognized around the globe. Why such long-lasting popularity? Surely, it didn’t hinder matters any that Valentino died at the height of his fame – in 1926, at the age of 31, shortly before the release of the highly successful The Son of the Sheik. The actor’s film career, in fact, was hardly sensational.
After several years playing mostly supporting roles – including some oily villains – Valentino unexpectedly skyrocketed to superstardom on the heels of the 1921 blockbusters The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheik. The former, directed by Rex Ingram, is a quality production; the latter is the sort of trash that then (and, with the appropriate updates, now) brings in millions to studio coffers. The films that followed tended to be vehicles created just to cash in on the actor’s increasing popularity.
But if his films were mostly second-rate, Valentino’s charisma – for better or for worse – was anything but. He-Men publicly derided his mannerisms, his leer, his “exoticism.” (In private, where He-Men can let their guard down, who knows what they did and said?) She-Women, however, couldn’t get enough of those lips, those eyes, those flaring nostrils.
Although I’m not a Valentino fan, I realize that more than eight decades after his death the actor still exudes an undeniable appeal. Indeed, crowds still flock to the Hollywood Forever cemetery for the annual Valentino memorial, held every Aug. 23.
Donna Hill, who’s currently working on a Valentino photo book, has agreed to answer a few questions about the silent film idol. Several of the photos in this q&a come from her collection. Donna, by the way, does regular podcasts at Falcon Lair, including interviews with film historian Kevin Brownlow and Valentino biographer Emily Leider, in addition to a Ramon Novarro podcast featuring biographer Allan Ellenberger and none other than yours truly.
You have a Rudolph Valentino photo book scheduled to come out in the first half of 2008. Why Valentino? Why a photo book? And do you have any particular criteria for the photos being used?
Why Valentino? I’ve been interested in and I’ve been researching Rudolph Valentino’s life as well as collecting photographs and other memorabilia for over 25 years. All of that research and collecting has contributed over the last ten years to the Valentino website, the now-retired Rudolph Valentino Newsletter, and the ongoing Stolen Moments podcast.
A photo book has been a project that has long been in the back of my mind. In fact, I’ve been talking about it for years. People might call me a procrastinator by nature; the project took a long time to incubate and a surprisingly long time to be formulated in my head. I’m never truly happy unless I have several things going on at once. With the retirement of the newsletter, now seemed to be the right time to really hunker down and get the book going. It’s time to share some of these wonderful photographs. I think I am safe in stating that with Valentino, the book will be rather easy on the eye.
As you may know, in the 80+ years since Valentino died, over 30 books have gone into print about him in several languages. There is no question that there is room for much more research on Valentino. However, at this time I also felt there really is not a need for another biography; especially one coming so close on the heels of Emily Leider’s 2003 book Dark Lover. Besides, there are two other biographical manuscripts that are in the works by other authors. So, there was no need for me to reinvent the wheel and do a biography proper.
Why a photo book? Of the earlier books, not one was exclusively what you would call a photo book. Only the 1975 book The Intimate Life of Rudolph Valentino by Jack Scagnetti had a large number of images. Unfortunately, it was cheaply printed and the photo reproductions were not of the highest quality. Frankly, as biased as my opinion might be, this is something that has needed doing for decades. Now seems to be the ideal time. After all, I’ve been collecting for so long, how better to share some of these wonderful photos? Items are sitting in a binder or in an archive, what pleasure is there in them for the fans? Very little; the pleasure I feel is that it would be best to share them.
Happily, things are jelling for me as never before. I’ve got commitments from various other collectors who have been most generous to make material available to me, including many photographs not readily available elsewhere. It’s so gratifying to me that my fellow collectors and friends feel the same compulsion I do – that this is a project worth doing and doing it right.
The criteria I am using for the selection of photographs reflect my intention to stick to unpublished private and candid photos, or photos not published since the 1920s, such as those found in fan magazines and newspapers. I plan on using just that, whenever possible. In so many of the books and articles printed on Valentino, you see the same images from The Sheik, The Son of the Sheik, etc. Now, even though in the age of the Internet you can find hundreds of photos online, there are still many that have – literally – not seen the light of day for decades.
The only exceptions will be, I think, the reproduction of some of the iconic shots of Valentino in the best possible format, from the fine originals, not a third or fourth generation dupe. It’s sad to see some of the dupe shots, so washed out and contrasty, then you see a vintage original and the difference is absolutely amazing. Much like seeing a badly duped third generation 16mm film on your bedroom wall and then seeing the same film derived from a 35mm camera negative on the big screen, with some photographs it is just as dramatic a difference.
As an aside, many people do not realize the massive number of photographs taken of Valentino during his lifetime. I’m not merely referring to Valentino, naturally. It was the same for Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, any of the big stars of the 1920s. Each of them were stars of such magnitude; they were “news” wherever they went. True, the news photographers of the 1920s were not quite as cutthroat as the paparazzi of today, but they were close. An example of a modern celebrity with the same popularity as Valentino would be someone like Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt. Rudolph Valentino created this kind of excitement. He was photographed every place he went.
How and when did you become acquainted with Rudolph Valentino’s work? What sparked your interest in him?
I was already a movie buff at an early age. My parents loved old movies; the films I was watching, well, they were not old to my parents. Fortunately, television, in the dark ages before VHS and DVD and TCM, actually did show many great classic films. I saw my first Valentino film when I was about 12; it was Blood and Sand (1922) on my local PBS station. I guess it is safe to say that after Valentino I was never quite the same. (Image: Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi in Cobra.)
What sparked my interest? Well, it was Valentino’s easy charm and mysterious appeal and his astonishing good looks. One thing I clearly remember from that viewing was a sequence early in the film: Valentino is a young ruffian [named Juan Gallardo], bullfighting in a small, local ring, and there is a shot of Valentino teasing the bull, running behind one of the protective barriers, and then peering from behind it, smiling and coaxing the bull to come forward and play the game. It’s hard to describe, but it is totally irresistible. It was in that instant I was captivated. By the end of the film, when the poor disillusioned Gallardo dies, beaten not only by the bull but by his wasted passion for Doña Sol (played with great wit and style by the delicious Nita Naldi), I was completely hooked. I had to know more about this actor. Who was this man?
I went to the library soon after and read Irving Shulman’s 1967 biography Valentino. I devoured it. That, so they say, is how it all began. After the 50th anniversary of Valentino’s passing [in 1976], there was more material to read and see to quench my thirst for information. Alexander Walker’s excellent book, Rudolph Valentino was a perennial favorite, as was Norman A. McKenzie’s The Magic of Rudolph Valentino, and the previously mentioned book by Jack Scagnetti.
Valentino remains well-known today, more than eight decades after his death. Other matinee idols of the 1910s and 1920s – John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, Rod La Rocque, Ricardo Cortez – are all but forgotten. Would you say there’s more to Valentino’s decades-long appeal than his early death while at the height of his fame? In other words, do you believe – and I know this is all supposition – that Valentino would have remained a celebrity at the beginning of the 21st century had he died in, say, his 60s or 70s?
Valentino’s continuing popularity is really quite an amazing thing. In the 1920s, there were throngs of fans. Today, the numbers may be drastically reduced, but today’s Valentino fans are fierce and steadfast in their loyalty. Believe me, the [amount of] email I get at the website tells me his popularity is not waning; it’s still growing.
I think his enduring fame can be attributed to several things: his early death at the height of his fame, the mystery surrounding his death (in reality, no mystery at all), the enduring questions about his sexuality, and, more importantly, the general availability of his films. That he was good-looking and the camera loved him, well, that is icing on the cake. His aquiline features and eyes do make for a good combination; he’s not hard on the eyes.
A modern movie audience, whether at home or at a festival can see a film such as The Son of the Sheik  or The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse  and see for themselves what a magnetic personality he was, as well as what a good actor he was. Gilbert, Novarro, La Rocque, and Cortez do not have the instant name recognition as Valentino; certainly nowhere close to what they each had in the 1920s and 1930s.
Each of them was very different from Valentino, [though] they were marketed as exotic types (faux Latin Lovers, particularly in the case of Ricardo Cortez [né Jacob Krantz, most likely in Vienna]). It can truthfully be stated that there was only one Valentino. He created and broke the mold. Like Marilyn Monroe, like James Dean, he had that incalculable “something” as Elinor Glyn would say; Valentino had “it.”
Would Valentino have remained as popular [had he died in his 60s or 70s]? I’d like to think that he would have remained, much as he is today in popularity. Regardless of his early death, the Valentino Mystique is still there, on screen, for all to see and be captivated by again and again.
Valentino’s last film, The Son of the Sheik, was released in 1926. The first feature film with dialogue sequences, The Jazz Singer, came out the following year. Do you know if Valentino was afraid of the fast-approaching sound revolution? Did he have a very strong Italian accent?
Valentino’s opinion on the coming of sound was not recorded (no pun intended). He did make two recordings in 1923. His reported response when he heard them was pretty much a shrug and to say “There goes my opera career.” That said, Valentino had no real cause to fear the microphone. By 1926, he was a veteran of several radio appearances, many of which took place in different cities in 1923 during the famed Mineralava Dance Tour. [At that time, Valentino and his studio, Famous Players-Lasky – a.k.a. Paramount – were at odds with one another.]
Valentino might not have been as comfortable initially, [but] who was in the dawn of sound? Valentino was a fan of modern technology and loved tinkering and I would hazard a guess that the science behind recorded sound would have fascinated him and he would have learned all he could about it.
There are various reports on the sound of Valentino’s voice. He did have an accent, some say thick, others such as Doris Kenyon and Lois Wilson (two of his co-stars in Monsieur Beaucaire ) remarked he had a “continental accent.” If you listen to Valentino’s recordings of “El Relicario” and the “Kashmiri Song,” you can certainly hear [that] he did have a pronounced accent. This is particularly evident in the “Kashmiri Song,” which is sung in a rather thick accent with a rather charming vocal inflection.
The next logical question – which you did not ask me, but I will answer in any case – would Valentino have survived the sound revolution?
I think he would have, but not in the romantic parts he was best known for. Valentino knew all too well his days as the premier romantic idol of the screen were not going to last forever. At the time of his passing he was already planning to make a move behind the camera to direct. If he had remained on screen in the talkies, I can definitely see him in character roles such as Paul Lukas was doing by the mid-1930s.
Valentino also would have made one heck of a Dracula. Had he lived to make it, it would have had to be a real pre-code Dracula, to boot. I state this with my apologies to Bela Lugosi fans (and I Love Lugosi). Valentino would have taken the whole “dangerous sex” thing to a new level with a part like that.
Rudolph Valentino’s (son of the) sheik takes his woman, Vilma Banky. The Son of the Sheik turned out to be the actor’s last film.
When people think of Rudolph Valentino today, they almost invariably think of Valentino as The Sheik – exotic, over-the-top, and perhaps more than a little (unintentionally) humorous. Would that be a fair assessment of Valentino’s screen persona – or is that image a distortion of who Valentino, the actor, was?
If you are only going to see The Sheik , I’d say yes. In this film, you would unfairly judge Valentino to be a little over the top. Not quite so much as his co-star Agnes Ayres, but Valentino often rose or sank to the level of the material and the direction he was given. [The Sheik was directed by George Melford.]
Valentino was exotic, certainly by 1920 standards. One has only to look at Valentino’s work that pre-dates The Sheik to see that the talent and ability were already there, almost fully formed. In The Married Virgin (1918), or Stolen Moments , or Eyes of Youth , there is a subtlety to his performances; he communicates more with a simple gesture or look than his contemporaries.
It was Valentino’s blessing and his curse to be associated with The Sheik, and other films like it. It was a blessing because it brought him so much fame and a curse because it typecast him. Viewed by a more sophisticated, a more jaded audience of today The Sheik looks antiquated. That is one point which makes The Son of the Sheik such a delight; it is not antiquated at all. It is a film that never quite takes itself too seriously. It is that tongue-in-cheek humor, that sly wink from Valentino, which beckons the viewer to relax and enjoy the film. It is my favorite film to initiate the uninitiated – it’s got everything, a little romance, a little comedy, a little action, and adventure and a happy ending.
To the second part of the curse, the Valentino fans in his day could not separate the image from the real person. Much like Mary Pickford as the girl with the curls well into her 30s, Valentino was viewed as a “sheik” in real life, no matter how much he denied it. It pained him greatly to be [perceived that way]. The fans of today are much more interested in Valentino, the real person, than they are in the image of The Sheik.
And finally, which Valentino vehicles would you say best showcase his talents?
Other film scholars and fans might disagree with me, if anyone were to choose [something other than] The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse [above] or The Eagle  or The Son of the Sheik. [In those films] you can see what the magic of Valentino is all about. In viewing any of these three films you can see the full range of Valentino’s ability as an actor, as well as the magnetism, or star quality, that is still associated with his name. Each one of these three films showcases Valentino in a different light.
In The Four Horsemen you can see the birth of a star. For someone with so little experience, he gives a remarkably restrained and sensitive portrayal. More importantly, you can really see in this film that a star is born right before your eyes. The whole film performance is complete, but watch the famed tango scene and there it is, the Valentino Mystique leaping off the screen.
In The Eagle, you can see Valentino play three roles, each of which has a deft touch, and there is almost a [Ernst] Lubitsch-like quality in his comedy. The Eagle is very tongue-in-cheek, which is all the more remarkable since Valentino was enduring one of his most difficult times personally while filming The Eagle. [Valentino’s marriage to Natacha Rambova was crumbling at that time.] Watching him, you’d hardly know it.
In The Son of the Sheik, you get everything that the earlier film, The Sheik, should have been. There is a light touch, but there is also the romantic ideal, that with which Valentino is so closely identified, and [it’s] so well done in this film. It is almost fortunate that Valentino left this as his final film; it’s still quite enjoyable to today’s jaded modern audience. In this film Valentino smolders as only he could, he is vulnerable, there are lots of action, [in addition to] the unbeatable chemistry between Valentino and Vilma Banky [whose thick Hungarian accent ended her career not long thereafter]. Their loves scenes positively sizzle.
Any of those three films will pique your interest in Valentino and in silent films in general.