Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926) became one of the great romantic idols of Hollywood's silent movie era. He helped to define what a star should be, and represented the screen's first "Latin lover." His early death, at the age of 31, only increased his legendary status, especially among his large female following.
Valentino was born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaelo Pierre Filibert di Valentina d'Antonguolla Guglielmi on May 6, 1895, in Castellaneta, Italy. He was one of three sons born to Giovanni Guglielmi and his wife, Beatrice Gabriella Barbin. Valentino's father served as a cavalry officer in the Royal Italian Army, and also worked as a veterinarian and mason. Though the family had an aristocratic background, Valentino grew up in a middle-class setting. He received much of his early education at the Venice Military Academy, in Venice, Italy, but flunked out of school at the age of 13. He later received a diploma in agriculture from the Royal Academy of Agriculture. At the age of 17, Valentino left Italy for Paris. He was not able to find employment and was forced to beg in order to survive.
Immigrated to United States
By 1913, after the death of his father, Valentino moved to New York, passing through Ellis Island. He worked at odd jobs after the military turned him down because of his inadequate physique. One of his first positions was working as a landscape gardener on the Long Island estate of Cornelius Bliss. After he lost this job, Valentino worked alternately as a dishwasher and waiter in a restaurant. He later worked as a taxi driver. Some have speculated that Valentino also supported himself by illegal or immoral means, perhaps as a sexual predator. At one point, the police accused him of petty theft and blackmail. It was only when he began working in dance halls that Valentino's future seemed clearer.
Valentino began working as a nightclub dancer and tango partner at a number of dance halls and cabarets. He soon acquired professional dance partners, replacing Clifton Webb as Bonnie Glass's partner at one point. Valentino began dancing in musical productions, eventually touring the country with a musical comedy troupe. When the tour ended in San Francisco, Valentino was again destitute. It was suggested that he try to get into the movies. Valentino was cast in his first film in 1914, making his screen debut in My Official Wife. After appearing in the serial Patricia in 1916, Valentino decided to try his luck in Hollywood.
Valentino's first years in Hollywood were inauspicious. After his arrival in 1917, he was only able to get small roles, often playing the dark villain. By 1920, he had appeared in 17 films, including Alimony (1918), A Rogue's Romance (1919), and Passion's Playground (1920). Valentino married an actress, Jean Acker, in November 1919. However, the couple only spent one night together. Acker claimed that the marriage was never consummated and that she left him for a woman. They were legally separated in 1921, and divorced soon after.
Became a Star
Despite his failed marriage and minor film roles, Valentino's potential did not go unnoticed. June Mathis, a screen-writer and executive at Metro film studio, suggested casting Valentino as Julio Desnoyers, in a film version of the epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The role made Valentino an instant star, and saved Metro from near bankruptcy. In the 1921 movie, Valentino's character is an artist and tango dancer who becomes the object of many women's desire. He falls in love with a woman who is already married, and only redeems himself by dying as a hero in World War I.
The reason for his success was simple: Valentino appealed to women by being one of the first sexually passionate film stars. As silent film expert Richard Koszarski wrote in The New York Times, "Here was an openly sexual icon designed to feed the most hidden fantasies of the cinema's largely female audience. Traditional values of home and family seemed wildly inappropriate when Valentino held the screen. Instead, his films offered hints of violent sexuality and miscegenation meant to tantalize viewers." Perhaps because his stardom was based on his sex appeal, many believed he had little to no acting ability. Caryn James of The New York Times wrote, "When he wasn't dancing or dueling, he acted by posing in elaborate costumes and popping open his eyes to show emotion. Love, hate, surprise, any emotion at all. Even considering that exaggerated gestures were standard in silent films, Valentino lacked subtlety."
Valentino continued to be cast in roles as a sexual being throughout 1921, in films such as Uncharted Seas, Camille, and The Conquering Power. After he signed a contract with the Famous-Players (later known as Paramount) film studio, Valentino played the title role in what is arguably his most important film, The Sheik (1921). Many critics saw the film as a rape fantasy designed to appeal to Valentino's female audience. In the film, his character, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, is a wild man who becomes domesticated by a British girl parading as an Arab slave girl. She accomplishes this by taking care of him after he suffers a severe wound. Her work shows him that marriage and morality are desirable. Such a role made Valentino seem dangerous but palatable to his audience.
In 1921, with his star still quite high, Valentino decided to break his contract with Famous-Players. He felt underpaid and did not like the scripts he was being offered. Because no other studio would talk to him while he was under a valid contract, Valentino made money (about $2500 per week) on a dance hall tour with his new wife, Natacha Rambova (also known by her birth name Winifred Hudnut). Valentino had married the talented dancer, actress, set and costume designer, in 1921, while still legally married to his first wife. He remarried Rambova in 1923, after his divorce was final. The tour was a publicity stunt for a facial cream, Mineralava. Rambova soon began taking an increased role in her husband's career.
Soon after the tour's end, Valentino decided to fulfill his contract with Famous-Players so that he would be free to pursue other offers. Among the movies was the starring role in Blood and Sand (1921). Valentino played a bullfighter named Juan Gallardo, who is seduced and controlled by a woman. In 1922, he appeared in a Mathis-penned film, The Young Rajah, which had several scenes in which he wore very little clothing. Other movies that played to his largely female audience included Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), where he played a manly hero named Ramon Laredo. To further cater to his fans, Valentino published a book of poetry in 1923, Day Dreams, as well as the nonfiction work, How You Can Keep Fit that same year.
A New Image
Valentino's next four projects were not big box office successes. Though Valentino's wife, Rambova, helped him get an increase in salary (to $7500 per week) as well as some creative input on his films, many believed that she ruined his career by picking noncommercial projects. As silent film expert Koszarski wrote in The New York Times, "Natacha Rambova was the most hated woman in silent pictures. She married Rudolph Valentino, took him away from his handlers, and put ideas in his head. In her hands, Valentino's image as America's first male sex symbol underwent a crucial makeover, and the sultry star of The Sheik emerged as the powdered, bewigged and highly esthetic Monsieur Beauclaire. "
Rambova chose the title role in Monsieur Beauclaire (1924) for him. But unlike his previous films, in which Valentino played characters with a dangerous edge, his Monsieur Beauclaire was a dandy in fancy clothes and painted face. Instead of looking masculine, Valentino seemed effeminate. While Rambova's abilities as a set and costume designer were never questioned, her aesthetic gifts were out of place in her handling of Valentino. The press began referring to Valentino as "the pink powderpuff." As Rambova exercised greater control over his life and image, Valentino's roles remained sissified in such films as The Sainted Devil (1925), in which he played Don Alonzo de Castro, and Cobra (1925), in which he played Count Torriani.
Valentino separated from Rambova in 1925, and later divorced her. He reasserted control over his image, selecting more masculine roles. Soon Valentino was receiving about 10,000 fan letters per week. Though he may not have been interested in making more films, Joseph M. Schenck of United Artists offered him $200,000 per picture. This was an unheard of sum in this era. Valentino promptly made what some consider his two best films. As Vladimir Dubrovsky in The Eagle (1925), Valentino portrayed a Cossack Robin Hood-type of character. He followed this by playing Ahmed in Son of the Sheik (1926).
An Untimely Death
Son of the Sheik was to be Valentino's last film. While on a promotional tour, he collapsed at a party in New York. He was promptly hospitalized at the Polyclinic Hospital and underwent surgery. Just as he appeared to be recuperating, Valentino took a turn for the worse. When his female fans got word of his impending death, the hospital received 2000 calls per hour. Valentino died on August 23, 1926, of peritonitis and a perforated ulcer. Upon news of his death, two or more women allegedly committed suicide. Valentino had requested a public funeral. Before his burial in a Los Angeles crypt, thousands of hysterical fans viewed his body over three days at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel. At one point there was a riot around the building in which 100 people were injured. His then-girlfriend (some sources say fiancee), actress Pola Negri, made a tour of the country in mourning.
After Valentino's death, a cult of personality formed around him. Scholars question whether he could have sustained a career in film during the sound era because of his acting style and thick accent. What he did accomplish sustained a legend for many years. Legend has it that a mysterious "lady in black" place flowers on his crypt each year on the anniversary of his death. His diaries were twice published: My Private Diary (1929) and The Intimate Journal of Rudolph Valentino (1931). Two film biographies were released in 1951 and 1977, both titled Valentino. A television movie, Legend of Valentino, was made in 1975. Sixty-five years after his death, a memorial service was held for him. One attendee, Michael Back, who owned a large collection of Valentino memorabilia, told Janet Rae-Dupree of the Los Angeles Times, "There will never be another like him. Not in 1,000 years and not in 10,000 years."
Further Reading on Rudolph Valentino
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Cassell Companion to Cinema, Cassell, 1994.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-3: Actors and Actresses, third edition, edited by Amy L. Unterburger, St. James Press.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, third edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Los Angeles Times, August 24, 1991.
The New York Times, October 27, 1991; November 8, 1991.
Variety, August 25, 1926.