Revisiting Valentino's mystique


Rudolpho Alfonzo Rafaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla was once the most talked-about movie star in America. Even today, 76 years after his death, people who have never seen his silent films know the word Valentino is cultural shorthand for a lover of considerable promiscuity and mystery.

Thursday on Turner Classic Movies, the cable channel celebrates Valentine's Day by once again introducing audiences to Rudolph Valentino's sensual magic. Five of his films are on the schedule, beginning with a newly scored version of Camille at 8 p.m., and ending at 3 a.m. with his final appearance, Son of the Shiek.

Even if his style has aged badly - he was never a great actor, and the broad pantomime on which he depended appears hopelessly outdated to modern eyes - his smoldering charm and charisma are still there.

Born in 1895 in Castellaneta, Italy, Valentino came to America in 1913 - not the poor immigrant of popular legend, but a son of the middle class who wanted more than his hometown could offer. Arriving in New York with no prospects, he lived off the largesse of friends and occasional jobs as a gardener, busboy and - most prophetically - a dancer. Restless, he took a friend's advice and moved to Hollywood. His first film role came in 1917, as an extra in a ballroom scene in Alimony.

Bit parts in more than a dozen films followed. By 1921, Valentino had become a favorite of June Mathis, a screenwriter at Metro studios (later part of MGM) who pushed to have him star in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (9:30 p.m. Thursday). As the son of a French father and Argentine mother, the favored grandson of an Argentine land baron and an unwilling war hero, the 26-year-old unknown caused quite the stir.

If the term Latin lover existed before, Valentino made it part of the vernacular. His eyes narrowed, his lips locked into something more than a sneer but less than an outright snarl, he drifted smarmily through his opening scenes, evoking an air of the forbidden, which audiences couldn't resist.

And then he danced the tango. Say what you will about his acting, but Valentino knew how to move.

Camille (1921), a "modern" interpretation of Bizet's opera, with Russian siren Alla Nazimova as a reformed Parisian courtesan unable to escape her past, features Valentino as her pure-hearted love interest. The film is an interesting relic. But Valentino is pretty much wasted; his take on silent-screen naivete is to keep his lips pursed and his eyes cast downward.

Other films airing Thursday are The Conquering Power (1921, midnight), with Valentino as a playboy whose struggle for true love is thwarted by an ambitious uncle; and The Eagle (1925, 1:45 a.m.), where he gets to play a Russian version of Robin Hood.

As popular as Valentino was with women, his own romantic life proved a mess. His first marriage, to actress June Acker, was never consummated; she locked him out of their honeymoon suite. He later became infatuated with and married avant-garde Metro set designer Natacha Rambova. She became something like his Svengali, wielding influence over his choice of projects, which didn't sit well with the studio.

In protest, Valentino refused to work in films, opting instead to tour with Rambova and dance the tango before adoring audiences.

But the Valentinos needed money, and the studio bosses needed Valentino. In 1926, he reluctantly agreed to revisit his most famous role. With Valentino reprising a character he created five years earlier, Son of the Sheik proved a monster hit, but it would be his last film.

By August of that year, Rambova had left him and his manhood had been questioned in a notorious editorial. He fell ill while in New York City and died thereof a perforated ulcer. He was 31.

In many ways, Valentino set the precedent for generations of actors who would follow him, people whose talent, no matter how great, was never fully recognized, thanks to the beautiful package in which it came wrapped.

"He was essentially a highly respectable young man; his predicament touched me," H.L. Mencken wrote. "Here was one who was catnip to women ... he had youth and fame ... and yet he was very unhappy."

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