Saturday Feb 26, 2022
Saturday Feb 26, 2022
Saturday Feb 26, 2022
Rudolph Valentino nee Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguella (1895 - 1926)
- The Eagle
- The Sheik/Son of the Sheik
- Blood and Sand
- Moran of the Lady Letty
Patria (1917) - Fragments only exist; He shows up briefly in the background of a nightclub in episode 2. Movie stars Irene Castle.
A Society Sensation (1918 short) - romantic male lead opposite the star Carmel Myers. Star power is evident already. But the movie is fragmented and not funny, except for Zazu Pitts. Skip it unless you are a Rudi completist.
All Night (1918) - This silly bedroom farce is actually funny once it gets going. Rudi is just as funny as he is romantic.
The Married Virgin (1918) - Rudi’s sneer is the best thing about this drama where he plays a manipulative, conniving nobleman. The revelation in this film is Kathleen Kirkham. She must have supplied her own costumes because she presents a parade of beautiful clothes that even pop in scratchy black and white. Kirkham is quite marvelous. She started her own production company but like so many women in early Hollywood was trampled under the boot heels of misogyny.
The Delicious Little Devil (1919) - a new blu-ray was released in 2021. A real delight if you like silliness. Mae Murray is the star and she is full-on, full-blown slapstick. This is the first film where Rudi is featured with some close-ups and a solid amount of screen time. He plays his romantic role with a sprightly lightness and admirable attention to character detail. And he engages in some punch-ups and door smashing.
Eyes of Youth (1920) - Clunky and excruciatingly boring with a paucity of Rudi. But he so impressed June Mathis that she got him his break out part in 4 Horsemen
Stolen Moments (1920) - Skip the first ⅔ and get to the hand-kissing lollapalooza. Rudi’s 15 minutes or so are the only portion worth watching.
The Wonderful Chance (1920) - barely 3 minutes existing on YouTube. But worth watching. Rudi plays a believable Hollywood style gangster sporting a fake moustache. Was filming this movie in NYC when he got the part of Julio in Four Horsemen.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) - Often credited as the film where Rudolph was discovered by the public. It was his first collaboration with June Mathis, who claims to have discovered him. Valentino had been making his way up the chain to bigger parts since the beginning of his film career but Mathis certainly spring-loaded his ascent with this co-starring role. But it’s function was really more of a beta test for the movie that really shot Rudi to fame - The Sheik.
Rex Ingram was not much of an editor/director and this film suffers for it. Yes, it was intended as an epic about a European family torn apart by WWI. But it is too long, lacks style, and has too little Rudi. Its great value is the showcase it offers for Rudi’s dancing and his sensuality - something the American was gasping for. The gaucho/whip dance sequence is in during the 1st third of the film. Don’t fail to see what captured the hearts and libidos of filmgoers the world over.
Uncharted Seas (1921) - Lost film produced by Alla Nazimova that looks awesome in the stills that remain. You can see a nice compilation set to music here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASNeXq7pHbU. He met future wife Natasha Rambova on this film set.
The Conquering Power (1921) - A turgid adaptation filmed by Rex Ingram of Honore de Balzac’s short story Eugenie Graudet. Turgid except for Rudi. This is where you can see his skillful depiction of a character through small gestures and thoughtful acting choices. Most of his acting is pretty modern and authentic. Plus he wears spats and a monocle.
Camille (1921) - The film is dominated by Alla Nazimova displaying her grandeur rather than the emotional life of Camille. Rudi does his best but he is hardly in it. The whole thing is stiff and only for the Rudi completists. During this film Rudi and Natasha Rambova started an affair and ended up moving in together.
The Sheik (1921)
Moran of Lady Letty (1922) - Nice piratical thriller. Rudi engages in lots of fisticuffs and action.
Beyond the Rocks (1922) - Until 2003, this was a lost film. A copy was found in The Netherlands when a collector (hoarder) died and his collection of 2,000 silent films in rusty old cans made its way to the Filmmuseum. It was the Dutch version of the film entitled Golden Chains, with all the credits and intertitles in Dutch. It has been restored and a version with English intertitles is available.
Well, thank goodness! Beyond the Rocks is a little gem. In it, Rudi stars opposite Gloria Swanson, both of them at the peak of their beauty and at the apex of their stardom. They have stellar romantic chemistry as lovers kept apart by the heroine’s scruples about betraying her unattractive much older, yet decent, husband. Swanson’s presence is commanding and lovely. Rudi is winsome and manly. There are only 2 hand kisses but I relished them both.
The story, adapted from an Elinor Glynn novel, is simple. There is a meet-cute, talisman of their love (in this case a narcissus blossom), the barrier (marriage vows), ultimate sacrifice, and happy ending. All the elements we see reused and recombined endlessly. In 1922, was it still fresh? For me, it doesn’t matter because the movie made me sigh even a hundred years later.
Blood and Sand (1922) - This is Rudi’s last movie before he walked away from his contract with Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount Pictures). Blood and Sand was a huge hit and put him at the pinnacle of international stardom. But like so many actors after him, he resented the lack of control over his own career and that his salary was not commensurate with his value. So he became the first star to try to break the stranglehold of the Hollywood moguls over his life and work, as James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Olivia deHavilland did in the 1930’s and 40’s. While his case was being settled, he became the spokesperson for Mineralava beauty products and toured the country dancing with his wife, Natash Rambova.
Blood and Sand (1922) - This is Rudolph Valentino's last movie before he walked away from his contract with Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount Pictures). Blood and Sand was a huge hit and put him at the pinnacle of international stardom. But like so many actors after him, he resented the lack of control over his own career and that his salary was not commensurate with his value. So he became the first star to try to break the stranglehold of the Hollywood moguls over his life and work, as James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Olivia deHavilland did in the 1930’s and 40’s. While his case was being settled, he became the spokesperson for Mineralava beauty products and toured the country dancing with his wife, Natasha Rambova.
Blood and Sand contains his most varied performance. He’s athletic, arrogant, jaunty, impish, tender, nonplussed, and best of all supremely passionate as a poor, working-class lad who becomes the greatest bullfighter in all of Spain. His passion for fighting the bulls is equal only to his love for his pretty, but boring wife (Lila Lee) and to his lust for the mercurial, smoky-eyed, hip-swaying Vamp, played by the redoubtable Nita Naldi.
Valentino's acting is timeless. This timelessness comes from the inner stillness he brings to every motion, look, and gesture. This stillness is most evident in the love scenes, where he emits a magnetic force that is thrilling even today. His power of attention and grounded characterization would translate to modern screens - after a few updates.
On the other hand, Naldi is pure time-old theatricality. Her Vamp (the silent film version of the femme fatale) is as hot-blooded as she is cold-hearted. Her debauchery, carelessness with the hearts of men, and gleeful depravity reach an apex when she sinks her teeth into Valentino. She really perks up the the proceedings.
Carlos Saura's Carmen (1983) would be a great double feature.
The Young Rajah (1922) - The only memorable aspect of this movie about the heir to an Indian throne are the costumes designed for Rudi by his wife Natasha Rambova. Rambova really knows how to design clothes to highlight her husband’s attributes. Rudi can really wear a turban! Unfortunately, this film is only partially intact and the best costume of all exists only in a still photograph. You can see it here: https://m.imdb.com/name/nm0884388/mediaviewer/rm2996167680/
Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) - Rudi’s 1st movie after his contract dispute with Famous Player-Lasky. It is also the 1st picture where he and his wife had creative control. The critics panned it and rightly so. The film is very poorly directed and requires as much reading as a novel. The long, numerous intertitles are interspersed with scenes of people talking a great deal. There is a witty sword duel and a couple fights that enliven the dullness. But ultimately, the only thing to watch this for is shirtless Rudi in a powdered wig. Chef’s kiss!
The Eagle (1925) - The Eagle is one Valentino's top 5 films and one of my top 20 silent films. It succeeds so well because the film does not rely solely on Rudolph Valentino's charisma and talent to carry it. The film is directed by Clarence Brown, one of the great, and little known, early directors. Though Brown is not as well-remembered as innovators like DW Griffith or Cecil B DeMille, he was a gifted, clear-eyed director who helmed such films as Greta Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie.
The Eagle takes off at a run and doesn't look back until the final frame. The intertitles are kept to a minimum and Brown tells the delightful story, based on a novel by Alexander Pushkin, clearly with gestures, expressions, and editing. He uses the close-up extensively and effectively to convey the interplay of characters' motivations and intentions.
Valentino, a young Cossack, is on the run from the ire of Catherine the Great, who has marked him for death out of vindictive pique for her spurned sexual advances. Valentino's impoverished nobleman becomes the Robin Hood-like Black Eagle, wearing one of the coolest masks ever. In the course of his adventures, he falls for the virginal Vilma Banky, who is the daughter of his arch-enemy.
Delights abound when the Eagle disguises himself as a French tutor to infiltrate his enemy's abode, ala Zorro - the effete dandy hiding the rapier wit and the slashing blade of The Black Eagle. The film serves up Valentino's world-class hand kissing, several dashing costumes, complete with majestic hats, impish humor, derring-do, and love eternal.
Matching Valentino's expansive on-screen talents is Louise Dresser (not to be confused with Louise Dressler) playing Catherine the Great. Dresser is a middle-aged beauty who the daffy Black Eagle was foolish to reject in favor of the tepid Vilma Banky, who has a name for the ages but is merely pretty and competent as compared to Dresser's commanding womanhood.
Gary Cooper makes an early screen appearance as an uncredited masked Cossack.
It would be interesting to watch The Eagle with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1935). This Errol Flynn vehicle seems to have scenes inspired by The Eagle such as the forest scene where The Black Eagle captures his lady love.
Cobra (1925) - Oh my, Rudi’s penultimate film. We are nearing the end. This is a top-notch vehicle for Rudi’s signature louche, elegant wolf who turns into a solid gold mensch.
Son of the Sheik (1925)
Rudolph Valentino's final film, released only 2 weeks after his death at the age of 31 of peritonitis. He suffered the same fate as Harry Houdini another icon of the early 20th century, who also died of peritonitis 5 weeks later. They are a visible reminder of the days when otherwise healthy people died from simple infections.
Valentino died on cusp of the talkie revolution. Could he have made it through the approaching upheaval with his Italian accent, in the same way Greta Garbo did with her Swedish accent? Or would he have succumbed to the new technology the way his contemporary John "The Great Lover" Gilbert did? I think his talent and intelligence would have seen him through. But am less certain if he had the financial acumen to ultimately survive the whirlwind of this life. In a nutshell, Valentino had no concept of fiscal responsibility. And it was catching up to him.
The estate he left, by various reports, had no money or owed money. Valentino said, "I have everything—and I have nothing. It’s all too terribly fast for me. A man should control his life. Mine is controlling me.” He passed away before he fell; and, perhaps, that is a blessing.
His last film is a great film. He plays a double role as both The Sheik and Son of the Sheik. For such early cinematic days, the technology and make-up convincingly show father and son interacting in the same shot.
The heat initially generated by The Sheik in 1922, flares and sizzles in this sequel. The story is better. The cinematography is better. And the female is better. The ethereal Vilma Banky (her real name) is cast as the kidnapped beauty in this love/hate/love story, while the object of desire in The Sheik, Agnes Ayers, plays Son of the Sheik's mother. Despite her function as the McGuffin of love, Banky manages to make us believe that she is a person and that the trials that the vengeful Son of TS put her through have impact, which is another element that makes this even better and more thrilling than the original.
Son of TS is vengeful because he believes that Banky's dancing girl betrayed him to bandits, who tortured him in a rather sadomasochistic way - arms tied above his head, bare-chested whipping, and nipple pinching. Whoa! But she didn't. She is innocent. A comedy of errors, if you will, but more hot than humorous. This movie is a febrile stew of hinted at sexual deviation and violence. It's like wrestling with sweat-soaked sheets during a fever dream.
Valentino did not want to do this sequel but he gave it his all, nonetheless. He brought back authentic Arab dress from his travels and used them in the film. He worked manfully without showing the pain he was suffering from stomach ulcers. Pola Negri, whom he was dating, said he would double over from the pain.
Even though he was not there to see it, Son of the Sheik was a massive hit and pushed his stardom into the stratosphere.
Ken Russell did a good, though at times surreal, biopic - Valentino (1977) - starring the ballet legend Rudolph Nureyev.