Valentino: The Latin Lover of Silent Cinema

The mere mention of his name today conjures up images of elegance and romance. Rudolph Valentino is identified as the “Latin Lover” and the “Great Lover” because of his huge success as a romantic movie idol in popular silent movies as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Sheik (1921), Blood and Sand (1922), The Eagle (1925), and The Son of the Sheik (1926).

Born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella, Rudolph Valentino was born in Castellaneta, Apulia, the Kingdom of Italy in 1895. His mother was from Franche-Comté in France and his father, an army veterinarian (and former captain) was from Italy, who died when Rodolfo was only 11 years of age.

Although he would attend the Royal School of Agriculture in Genoa, Valentino was not remembered as being particularly academic in school. When he was 17 years old, Valentino moved to Paris but in the following year, Valentino emigrated to the United States, arriving at Ellis Island on December 23, 1913. Despite the fame and success in America, Rudolph Valentino had never filed all the documents for American citizenship.

In New York, Valentino worked as a landscape gardener, dishwasher, and many other jobs. There were also tales of getting into trouble for petty theft.

Restaurateur Joe Pani, who owned The Colony, Castles-by-the-Sea, and the Woodmansten, hired Valentino as a tango dancer for 50 dollars a week.

After performing with an operetta company in 1917, he joined an Al Jolson production of Robinson Crusoe, Jr.  While performing in San Francisco, he became friends with movie actor Norman Kerry, who helped him get into the movies in minor roles.  It has been mentioned that Valentino’s film debut was as an extra in My Official Wife (1914), but the film is now lost and that cannot be clarified.

Valentino was a struggling actor when met actress Jean Acker at a party. They married in 1919 but Acker locked Valentino out of the hotel bedroom because she regretted the marriage.

1921 was a big year for Valentino. Screenwriter June Mathis recognized Valentino’s star quality and pushed director Rex Ingram to cast him as Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for Metro Pictures Corporation. Valentino was hugely successful with cinemagoers who were won over by his sexual charisma and unique screen presence.

Famous Players-Sasky (later called Paramount Pictures) hired Valentino to play opposite Agnes Ayres for his next movie The Sheik (1922). Adapted from E.M. Hull’s novel, The Sheik has been closely identified with the Valentino image despite receiving mixed responses from the critics at the time. Although The Sheik is often regarded as vulgar, Valentino tried to distance himself from the stereotypical portrayal of an Arab. He was asked by his love interest, Lady Diana would have fallen for a “savage” in real life, Valentino replied: “People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world… the Arabs are dignified and keen-brained”

Valentino did not think much of The Sheik, but the role consolidated his “Latin lover” image and movie star status.

Valentino’s box success appeal was enhanced by his star performances in films like The Conquering Power (1921) and Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), but Camille (1921), which was under artistic control by Natacha Rambova and Alla Nazimova, was regarded as too avant-garde by critics and audiences alike.  

Beyond the Rocks was released in 1922 but was considered lost, except for a single one-minute portion. Gloria Swanson, who plays gold-digger Theodora Fitzgerald in the film, had expressed her desire to watch the film in the years before she died in 1983. The entire film was found in 2002 at the Nederlands Filmmuseum and Haghefilm Conservation in Amsterdam. 

Valentino had agreed to play bullfighter Juan Gallardo in his next film Blood and Sand (with Nita Naldi as Doña Sol and Lila Lee as Carmen) but he was upset to learn about the change in the production which meant that it was filmed in the Hollywood backlot in 1922 and not in Spain, as was agreed. Valentino had hoped to be working in a country close to his home country of Italy. He was also not happy with the choice of Fred Niblo as director.

Blood and Sand was a critical success and a triumph at the box office with takings of $1,250,000 in the US and Canada alone. Following the film’s completion, Valentino married costume and set designer Natacha Rambova but had to have their marriage annulled because of the bigamy trial. They had to spend almost a year apart, although they worked separately on The Young Rajah, which again was written by June Mathis and was a commercial failure. The film is mostly lost with only a few fragments now in existence.

Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova

Unhappy with the studio, Valentino would soon go on strike for financial reasons. He tried to move to another studio, but Famous Players-Lasky extended his contract and therefore exercising their ability to prevent Valentino from accepting employment with any other studio. He was able to gain other types of employment such as working as a spokesman on the Mineralava Dance Tour, which brought lots of attention from fans.

Valentino returned to films after receiving an offer from Ritz-Carlton Pictures, with a two-picture deal agreement with Famous Players, which enabled him to have creative control and receiving a salary of $7,500 a week. His first film under the deal was Monsieur Beaucaire, but it was poorly received by the audiences and the critics who thought that his mannerisms and heavy makeup were overly feminized. Many of Valentino’s colleagues blamed Valentino’s wife Natacha Rambova for having an adverse influence on his costuming.

Valentino starred in another critical and commercial disappointment A Sainted Devil (1924), which is now a lost film. After relinquishing his ties with Famous Players, Valentino starred in problematic costume drama The Hooded Falcon (1924) which would have based on the story of El Cid. Valentino would have played the Spanish nobleman who falls in love with a Moorish princess. Valentino demanded that June Mathis’ script be re-written, but Mathis was so insulted by Valentino that she refused to speak to him for two years. The huge pre-production costs meant that the project had to be axed as Valentino’s deal with Ritz-Carlton was terminated.

Following a previous private meeting with board members Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Valentino signed with United Artists for $10,000 a week for three movies per year, but the agreement excluded Valentino’s wife Natacha Rambova from the production. Barring her from this and future film productions put their marriage under great strain.

Valentino’s first film under United artists was The Eagle in 1925, which opened to decent reviews but still did not do that well in the box office.

It was hoped that a return to the sheik persona, an image which Valentino despised, would propel him to top box office material again. The Son of the Sheik was adapted from Edith Hull’s novel by Frances Marion and Fred de Gresac and would co-star talented Hungarian-American actress Vilma Bánky (who co-starred with Valentino in The Eagle). The sequel also would include Agnes Ayres reprising her original role as Diana and Valentino also playing the original Sheik. It was obvious to many that Valentino’s acting had matured in the four years since the original film in 1921 and most critics, then and now, rank his performance in The Son of the Sheik as the best of his career.

The film premiered on July 9, 1926, to huge public attention. Valentino made his peace with June Mathis at a promotional event before a planned nationwide tour to promote the film.

Valentino collapsed in his hotel room at Hotel Ambassador in New York on August 15. He was rushed to the New York Polyclinic hospital where the doctors discovered a perforated ulcer. After emergency surgery, Valentino developed peritonitis and died on August 23, 1926. He was 31 years old.

Valentino’s death brought a huge outpouring of grief and hysteria from distraught fans. Over 100,000 people lined the streets of Manhattan to pay their respects, suicides were reported, and a riot took place on August 24, when over 100 mounted police officers and NYPD Police Reserve was sent in to restore order. Film star Pola Negri, who had claimed to be engaged to Valentino, collapsed by the coffin, even though many would dispute her sincerity and regard her actions as an over-the-top public relations gimmick.

Rudolph Valentino’s funeral mass was held in Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church on Monday, August 30, and his remains were taken by train from New York to Beverly Hills, where a second funeral was conducted at the Church of the Good Shepherd. Since Valentino had no burial arrangements, June Mathis offered a temporary space in a crypt that she had purchased for her then-husband. Mathis and her husband divorced shortly afterward, and so she was buried next to Valentino where they are still interred to this very day at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (originally called Hollywood Memorial Cemetery) in California.

The Son of the Sheik was a huge box office success, grossing more than $1,000,000 in the first year of release and doubling that in the next. The film would almost certainly have been a massive comeback for the improved Rudolph Valentino and would only have enhanced his legendary reputation as the silver screen’s Latin Lover, as well as cementing his place as a cultural film icon.

Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Bánky relaxing between takes during filming of The Eagle (1925)
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2 thoughts on “Valentino: The Latin Lover of Silent Cinema

  1. Wilda Bisesi Hahn June 24, 2021 — 8:38 pm

    Thank you for writing this interesting article! Rudolph Valentino died way to soon. He was not appreciated as the fine actor that he truly was.
    Please print more articles on Valentino!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Wilda! You are very kind.


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