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the silent screen's most famous "Latin lover"
Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla was born in Castellaneta, Puglia, Italy, on May 6, 1895. His Italian father died while he was young, and his French mother spoiled him. A poor student in school, he applied to the Government Naval Academy but was rejected when he failed the physical examination. He then attended the Royal School of Agriculture before emigrating to the United States in 1913.
Settling in New York City, Valentino was taken in by his godfather, Frank Mennillo, who helped him secure a job and a place to live. After a string of odd jobs, he found his calling as a taxi dancer (someone who danced with various women 10 cents a dance) at Maxim's. Quickly earning a reputation as a gifted dancer, with bonus good looks, by 1916 he was performing on the vaudeville circuit.
Valentino was enjoying popularity among New York City's social elite when in 1916 he testified as a witness in the divorce trial of Bianca de Saulles. After the trial, Valentino was arrested and charged with "vice crimes." Although it was generally believed that the charges had been trumped up at the behest of de de Saulles' ex-husband, the scandal made it virtually impossible for Valentino to find employment. It became even harder after de Saulles shot and killed her ex-husband during a custody dispute, and Valentino decided to leave New York City and join a traveling musical.
By 1917 Valentino was in Los Angeles, and by 1918 he was ekeing out a living as a bit player in silent films. Although he had worked his way up to co-starring roles by 1919, the vast majority of those roles were in B-rated movies. On November 5, 1919, Valentino married fellow small-time actress Jean Acker. The marriage proved exceptionally brief, however, as Acker locked Valentino out of their hotel room that same night, before the marriage could be consummated. The couple went their separate ways the next day, and were finally divorced in 1922. Eventually Valentino learned that Acker had married him in order to extricate herself from a potentially career ending lesbian love triangle.
Valentino was still toiling away in minor movies when he was spotted by Metro Pictures executive June Mathis. Mathis was in charge of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a World War I melodrama based on the best-selling novel by Vicente Blasco-Ibanez, and she thought that Valentino would be perfect for the role of Latin lover Julio Desnoyers. Released in 1921, the movie was one of the first films to make $1,000,000 at the box office and made Valentino a superstar. Metro Pictures refused to recognize Valentino as a superstar, however, and refused to give him a raise reflecting his status. As if to add further insult, Valentino was forced to play a bit part in Uncharted Seas (1921), a minor film. Next came Camille (1921), which was panned by both critics and public, and The Conqering Power (1921), which did well at the box office.
With Mutual still refusing to give him the respect and pay he deserved, Valentino moved to Famous Players-Lasky. The move proved immediately successful, as his very first film for Famous Players was The Sheik (1921), which became an instant cultural phenomena. The success did have a major drawback, however, as Valentino was from that time on seen as being synonymous with the film's title character and it became difficult for him to get notice when playing a different type of character. His next two films, Moran of the Lady Letty and Beyond the Rocks (both 1922), were forgettable, but acclaim returned with the Jean Mathis-penned Blood and Sand (1922), which paired him for the first time with Nita Naldi and was a major hit.
On May 13, 1922, Valentino eloped to Mexico with Natacha Rambova, with whom he had been living since Camille, for which she was the artistic director. Soon after the newlyweds got back to Los Angeles, Valentino was arrested for bigamy. At the time the law stipulated one must wait 1 year between divorce and a new marriage, and one year had not passed since his divorce was finalized from Jean Acker. Valentino spent a weekend in jail before being bailed out by Mathis, George Fitzmaurice, and Thomas Meighan. The subsequent trial was a sensation, and the pair was forced to have their marriage annulled and be separated for a year. Valentino and Rambova were legally married on March 17, 1923.
Rather than help Valentino defend himself in court and in the press, Famous Players ordered him to work on his next film, The Young Rajah. Released in 1922, the movie flopped at the box office. Angered that the studio had refused to shoot the film in Spain as promised, despondent over his forced separation from Rambova, and still making far less money than many of his fellow stars, Valentino refused to begin work on his next film. What followed was a very public battle between Valentino and Famous Players, during which Valentino refused to accept a salary from the studio, which in turn obtained a court order forbidding him to work at all, though this was eventually reduced to just work in film.
While the dispute between Valentino and Famous Players dragged on, Valentino wrote a book of poetry titled Day Dreams, that was well received when published in 1923. Barred from working in movies, he became a spokesman for Minervala Beauty Clay, in which capacity he starred in a hugely successful dance tour of the United States and Canada.
When Valentino finally returned to movies, it was with a contract with Ritz-Carlton Pictures (working through Famous Players, to whom Valentino still owed two films) that included $7,500 a week, creative control, and filming in New York. His first film under the contract was Monsieur Beaucaure (1924), a French action comedy that ended up disappointing his audiences. His next film, an artistic Latin Lover feature called A Sainted Devil, also flopped with audiences.
Having fulfilled his contract with Famous Players, Valentino was now free to begin work on a pet project titled The Hooded Falcon. The production was beset with problems from the start, beginning with disagreements over the script written by June Mathis. While Valentino, Rambova, and Mathis tried to work out their differences, Valentino agreed to film the "quickie film" Cobra, on condition that it not be released until after The Hooded Falcon debuted. After filming Cobra, the entire cast of The Hooded Falcon went to France, where it spent three months being fitted for costumes. The Hooded Falcon was finally released in 1924, but box office sales failed to come close to covering production costs. Cobra (1925) likewise flopped, and Ritz-Carlton decided to terminate its contract with Valentino, despite the fact that he still owed them two films.
From Ritz-Carlton, Valentino moved to United Artists. Because Rambova had been blamed by many for the failures of Valentino's last several films, his contract with United specifically excluded her from having anything to do with roduction of his films and the film set. Valentino's acceptance of the terms caused a major rift in his marriage, and the couple divorced in 1926. Despite his personal difficulties, Valentino was able to complete The Eagle (1925), which opened to positive reviews but moderate box offices. Following The Eagle's release, Valentino went to Europe, where he spent several months spending money with reckless abandon. By the time he returned to the United States, Valentino was so far in debt that he agreed to reprise his most famous role for The Son of the Sheik. The film opened to great fanfare on July 8, 1926.
Valentino was ill during most of the filming for The Son of a Sheik, but consistently refused to see a doctor. He was in New York City when, on August 15, 1926, he was rushed to the hospital after collapsing in his hotel room. He subsequently underwent surgery to repair ulcers, and his doctors expected him to make a full recovery. Infection set in a few days later, however, and Rudolph Valentino died on August 23rd.
An estimated 100,000 fans jammed the streets of New York City to pay their respects as Valentino's body was conveyed to Saint Malachy's Roman Catholic Church, where a public funeral Mass was held. From New York City, the body was taken by train to Los Angeles, and a second service was held at the Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Because no one in Valentino's family was available to make final arrangements, June Mathis agreed to have him interred in a crypt originally intended for her ex-husband. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, as everyone expected that his estate (and/or fans) would build a monument in which to bury him. Valentino's estate proved to be $3 million in debt, however, and any chance that fans would donate money for a monument was dashed by onset of the Great Depression, and Valentino still lies in the "borrowed" crypt to this day, next to June Mathis.
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This page was last updated on 04/25/2017.