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Rudolph Valentino, born RODOLFO ALFONSO RAFFAELLO FILIBERT GUGLIELMI DI VALENTINA D'ANTONGUELLA, was a silent screen actor and one of the first high-profiled sex symbols of the nineteen-twenties. He was called the LATIN LOVER or better put, simply VALENTINO. His name conjures thoughts of a tragic life cut short, female hysteria, and silent films; the soft-lighting and the perfect tailored-suits. And his death at the age of thirty-one sparked a domino-effect of public outcries and worldwide grieve, sending him into cultural film icon status. He was dropped into myth when he died and the dream-like escapade that was his life seems to have disappeared from rational thought, as if his life and the man himself, was a creation built for the silver screen and not a living-breathing-talking human being. 

Known as the GREAT LOVER of the silent screen, it would be hard to imagine a time when Valentino wasn't successful in his endeavors. He was born in Castellaneta, Italy to a "brave, black-haired, black-eyed little woman," his mother Marie Berthe Gabrielle Barbin, and his father "a romantic figure in the uniform of captain of Italian cavalry", Giovanni Guglielmi. He was born at three o'clock in the morning on May sixth, 1895.

When his father passed when he was eleven, he would grow even closer to his mother, who doted on her youngest son and who he feared to disappointment. And although his childhood was comfortable and he learned to speak a handful of languages, it was becoming clear by his teenage years that Rodolfo was not destined for academics. After heading to an Agricultural Insitute, he decided, in the end, that "Italy is too small for me."

At the age of eighteen, in nineteen-thirteen, Valentino immigrated to the United States. The biographies that are written will have you understand that he came to American as a poor immigrant, looking for wealth or power, his older brother started sometime later that his young brother came because of a pull, a need for adventure, a change from his life back home. On the boat over he would pay extra for a first-class cabin. But, this type of spending wouldn't last in New York. Straight off the ship, the S.S. Cleveland, he rented a comfortable apartment, but soon spent all his savings that he arrived with. Work was becoming hard to find and this even prompted him to take a photograph, like other immigrants, in rented clothes that gave the impression he was doing well financially, and to send back to his worried mother. And according to his older brother, he also wrote letters using stationery from high-end hotels. After odd jobs and sleeping on park benches, he noticed the popularity for dancing and was hired off his good looks and natural grace as a New York cafe, where he danced with customers, became a dance instructor and worked as a "taxi" dancer, a "for hire" partner.

After a string of dancing jobs and other side-occupations, and trouble with a woman named Blanca de Saulles, who while friends with Valentino, shot her ex-husband over the custody of their son. After the divorce, her husband used connections to have Valentino arrested. And after the shooting, he became fearful of being called a witness in another scandal, he left town and joined an operetta company that would eventually unfold. This unfolding found himself in Los Angeles, it was this trip that he would meet Norman Kerry, who was said to have convinced him into a career in cinema. With his dancing career, Valentino was able to find a room of his own on Sunset Boulevard. He spent most of his time looking for screen parts. He hung around the studios and dressed in loud clothes. Soon, he was cast in his first part, as an extra and then to small parts in a string of films.

Rudolph was cast in more and more films, though his fame was not exactly growing as one might think with that first statement. He was cast a gangster, a heavy (villain) and would be the opposite to more fail complexioned and lighter-eyed hero, he would become the "exotic" male lead. Rudolph wasn't thrilled with this string of castings and his career was not soaring like he would have hoped.

By 1919, he had a part that would land the attention of screenwriter, June Mathis, the third most powerful woman in Hollywood and someone who made his career. June Mathis saw the actor behind the tango dancer and cast him in the lead role of Julio Desnoyers, in the film THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE, a role in which Valentino had wanted since reading the novel of the same name. "Many people said she was crazy to give me the part," Rudy recalled. "I was a heavy, they said, and would never be anything else." Mathis went with her instinct and Rudy's charisma, she thought with his allure and dancing, she discovered something entirely new. Constance Talmadge remembered, “Everywhere I went, I seemed to hear the buzz of girls wishing to each other that they would be lucky enough to dance a tango with that hero.”

At this point in his life, a story was spreading around the studio and public, his first wife Jean Acker had left him, and the story goes that on the night of their wedding locked Valentino out of their room, as she regretted the marriage. Supposedly, she married Valentino to remove herself from a lesbian love triangle. This story spread far and wide over the studio, making the night in question seem that it was because Valentino was "unable to perform". This was a constant worry for Valentino, who ever since his theater days in New York, was sensitive about how the public responded to him, his image, which had been questioned in print countless times. Douglas Fairbanks was the image of manhood, the swashbuckler, while Valentino, a man to the women who saw his pictures, was less than to the men that walked out theaters in disgust.

In 1922 - a street interview was conducted about Rudolph.
The interviewer asked men and women what they thought of Valentino.
"Many other men desire to be another Douglas Fairbanks. But Valentino? I wonder ..."
The women said they found him, "triumphantly seductive. Puts the love-making of the average husband or sweetheart into discard as tame, flat, and unimpassioned."
Though men wanted to be Fairbanks, heroic and stern, they dressed more like Valentino and slicked their hair back like him, which coined the term "Vaselino", a man with greased-back hair.

In 1921 THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE was released. It was a critical and commercial success, becoming one of the films to make a million dollars at the box office. It is the sixth-highest grossing silent film, to this day. In the film, he dances the tango, a dance that was regarded as an indecent dance, the director used the dance as a symbol of open eroticism. The film created a new kind of lover, in the form of Valentino.

Though Metro Pictures had a hit on their hands and a new star to go along with it, they seemed unwilling to acknowledge that the film had created a star and refused to give him a raise. This would the first of many studio problems that Valentino would be subject to. The studio then made him play a bit part in a B-film called UNCHARTED SEAS (1921). It would be on this film that he would meet his second wife, Natacha Rambova, a silent film set designer ad protegee of Alla Nazimova. By the time the couple worked on Nazimove's film CAMILLE, the two were romantically involved. The couple married in Mexico soon after, which resulted in an arrest on Valentino for bigamy, as in the state of California, you must be divorced for a full year before remarrying. His studio, now Famous Players-Lasky, refused to pay his bail. A handful of friends came together to post the cash bail.

When Valentino made the bold move from studio to studio, landing with the Famous Players-Lasky, his first film would be a "before and after" film, a desert romance, THE SHEIK. Before the film, there was Valentino, after the film, there was the GREAT LOVER. His role as the Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, who captures a young Englishwoman, is the role he is most identified with. The film was a hit, with over 112,000 flocking to see it over one week in New York alone. As a Picture-Play article put it, “He does not resemble the man your mother thinks you ought to marry.”

He had become the personified the image of forbidden love and in the twenties, this was box-office gold. Women flocked in large groups to see his pictures, with tilted heads and soft, almost hypnotized gazes, pinned on the screen, and each of them sighing in unison.

Post-THE SHEIK, his favorite role was the red-blooded toreador in BLOOD AND SAND (1922), who he felt he strongly identified with. Natacha recalled him going quite “method,” “leering at me the way he looked at Dona Sol or else gazing at me with the great beseeching eyes he used in the film toward his little wife…He never dropped the part for a moment.”

Offscreen, he was a gentleman, who enjoyed physical fitness, horseback riding, collecting antique weaponry, and taking home movies. Actor Stuart Holmes would joke about the “truth” behind Rudy’s Great Lover image: “All he thought about was Italian food. He’d turn those big slumberous eyes on some woman and she’d just about swoon with delight, but he couldn’t have cared less. He was usually thinking about the spaghetti and meatballs he was going to have for dinner that evening.”

Once he hit movie star statue, he began to ask for a higher salary and more artistic control. Though most people believe this was put in his head by his strong-willed partner in crime, Natacha, who was eager to do all behind the scenes work herself and through that becoming a problem with studio heads and directors. The studio laughed at his request. Valentino walked and declared his famous, "one man strike" from all films. Problems occurred when the income stopped flowing and the Valentinos would embark on their famous Mineralava Dance Tour, which was sponsored by Mineralava beauty clay.

The tour was a success, with the Valentinos dancing the tango, which were attended by massive crowds in eighty-eight cities in the United States. Women followed from town to town, throwing themselves at the dancer, sometimes ripping the buttons off his coat. At one over-packed theater in Chicago, a young woman fainted and was carried to the Valentinos’ dressing room to recover. She came to, beheld Rudolph Valentino himself standing nearby in all his gaucho-costumed glory, and promptly fainted again. In addition to the tour, Valentino also sponsored Mineralava beauty products and judged Mineralava-sponsored beauty contests, one of these contests was filmed and titled RUDOLPH VALENTINO AND HIS 88 BEAUTIES. 


He would return to films with 1924's MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE, a different kind of role, featuring lace-wigs and a setting in 18th century France. Then came the action film THE EAGLE in 1925, which seemed to have boosted his popularity. “The best Rudolph Valentino picture I have seen since The Four Horsemen,” one Minnesota exhibitor reported. “It pleased the men besides the women.”

Bebe Daniels and Rudolph Valentino in “Monsieur Beaucaire” (1924) a sumptuous film which flopped upon release, is considered a classic today. After several “manly” roles, the audiences were disappointed to see Valentino all made up, in high-heels and wearing platinum blonde wigs. He was beautifully photographed nevertheless.

In 1926, his marriage to Natacha fell apart, leaving him devastated. While he had worked his way to immense fame and fortune, his life began to feel empty. In one interview he would deny the idea of marrying again, and in another, he would confess to wanting a "domestic" wife and children. 

“It’s all too terribly fast for me,” he told one reporter. “A man should control his life. My life is controlling me.”
Around this time, he starred in a sequel to THE SHEIK, called THE SON OF THE SHEIK. The sets and costumes were more lavish than the previous film and it holds some of Valentino's best performances. The menace and sexual allure just hinted at in The Sheik were more fully displayed in its sequel. Though five years had passed between films, his love scenes were just steamy, perhaps even more so than the first. 

While promoting SON OF THE SHEIK, an editorial in the Chicago Tribune was printed. It was about "Pink Powder Puffs." Written with sarcasm of the era, it talked about the appearance of talcum powder machines in a men's restroom–containing pink powder. The article that followed used this story o protest the feminization of American men and mostly all blamed the powder on Valentino and his films. The writer jokingly groaned, “Why didn’t someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo [sic], alias, Valentino, years ago?” Even with his sense of humor, Rudy couldn't let it go. He wrote a fiery response to the editorial and even challenged the journalist to a boxing match. Studying the distraught actor before him, Mencken realized: “It was not that trifling Chicago episode that was riding him; it was the whole grotesque futility of his life…Valentino’s agony was the agony of a man of relatively civilized feelings thrown into a situation of intolerable vulgarity…” Though most of his friends told him to let the matter die down, Valentino insisted this would become "infamous."


Rudolph was also interested in the technical side of filmmaking, as he craved for real acting in real locations and that of writing. During a strike from studio work, he published a book of poetry and was also an avid fencer. He even wrote articles in various magazines, talking about his life and ways to keep fit.

Mid-August rolled around and so did the news that shocked the world. Valentino had fallen ill and was taken to a New York hospital for stomach pains. The cause was a perforated stomach ulcer the size of a dime. An operation was performed and it seemed to have eased his pain, but soon, peritonitis set in, making every breath he took, agonizing. Doctors were seemingly optimistic and Valentino also thought he would recover in no time at all. It wasn't until his condition worsened and he was stuck with a severe relapse of pleuritis and targeted his left lung. During the morning of August 23, Valentino was conscious and chatting with doctors, but soon fell into a coma. On August 23, 1926, Rudolph Valentino passed away at 12:10 p.m. His last words from that morning were thought to be: “Don’t pull the blinds! I feel fine. I want the sunlight to greet me.”

It also should be noted that between entering the hospital and operation there was a long wait, a wait that could have saved his life. As a doctor became nervous and wanted a better surgeon to perform the operation, because of who Valentino was. It wasn't until hours later that the operation was underway. 

That August of 1926; the crowds lined and mobbed through the streets, all adorning faces that one would see with a crowd who was pleased to be going to see a picture. The cameramen that showed up within the crowds, took shots of smiles and somber tears. Some of the crowd looked as if, inside the funeral home, there would be a three-ring circus and the open casket with a pale red-cheeked Valentino would be the main event. Over a hundred or so flowers had been delivered and a glass window had been broken. The crowd shouted as the owners of the funeral home paced around the coffin, listening to the chants and the overwhelming amount of cries. Suicides of fans were reported. And over one-hundred mounted officers were out to restore order on the street. Few people knew that the corpse was a wax dummy, in case of any problems with the crowd. This was the first of it's kind. We think now, all these decades later, of the deaths of celebrities that we have watched pass in our lifetime, the social media paragraphs and the shrines in the streets, crowds of fans and admirers, photographers clicking at every moment. It seems as if this is normal now, but in the mid-twenties, it was not. It was mass chaos, an event that was talked about for decades.