On First Looking Into Screen Legends’ Valentino

20220412_164251

Sometimes Hollywood gossip ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Though that wasn’t my original thought when my brother and I, helping my parents to move, discovered in a pile of papers an October 1965 copy of the magazine Screen Legends­—The Great Stars Then and Now.  And not just any copy but a Collector’s Copy.  Volume One, No. 3.  To be had for a mere 50 cents.  With a full-color image of Rudolph Valentino on its cover and an all-caps caption in boldface type:  EXCLUSIVE!  RUDOLPH VALENTINO – THE MAN WHO COULDN’T ‘LOVE’

‘The Man Who Couldn’t ‘Love’—note the quote marks embracing the last word.  I mean, could any caption be more—well—captivating?  Or suggestive?  With all sorts of…suggestions?  I mean…isn’t that what we look for in gossip?  No doubt, the line was carefully worded to persuade the casual newsstand reader, gazing at its colorful cover, to unbelt her carefully pocketed 50 cents and shove it across the counter for an exclusive copy.  (Couldn’t love…how?  Don’t you need to know?)  My brother proposed I might want to use this magazine in a post.  Well, with such a narrative hook, why not?

Hollywood star gossip has been around nearly as long at the film capital itself—probably beginning with Carl Laemmle’s baldly fake 1909 publicity stunt about the supposed demise of Florence Lawrence, the ‘Biograph Girl,’ whose resurrection from a falsely reported fatal streetcar accident caused thrilled fans to “gra[b] at her and po[p] the buttons off her coat.”  Encyclopedia.com notes that film magazines focused on stars as early as 1912, with mainstream publications “overlook[ing] any sordid doings and plac[ing] their emphasis on family values” (“Shirley Temple’s Letter to Santa” is a typical example).  Less family-value-oriented tabloid newspapers, however, “thrived through titillating their readers with detailed reportage of [stars’] numerous scandals.”  But in the post-WWII environment, fan magazines “came increasingly to resemble the tabloids,” switching their focus to the stars’ “less savory antics”…

What a titillatingly bifurcated, Virgin/Whore image is conjured here:  Between a (heavily) sanitized hearth-and-home Madonna saintly beckoning to one side, while an enticing (if less savory) Sexpot, her slit-skirted gam coyly displayed to our ogling eyes, lures us toward the other.  Into which camp, I wondered, would Screen Legends land?

RVPG2

Screen Legends was a real magazine, one of several specialty film publications from the 1960s.  The copy I found is a bit worse for wear—the cover wrinkled with folds, the edges torn and gaping.  Pristine copies, however, are still available.  You can, if you’re a vintage collector, buy a bound five-issue edition on Etsy.  Or you can buy a single-issue copy on Ebay, of the edition my brother and I found in my parents’ apartment.  With the original Rudy cover, exclamation-pointed caption and all.

As it notes in its self-explanation, Screen Legends was a “specialized magazine” that “you will want to keep in your permanent home library.”  An ‘Ex Libris’ oval is even splayed on its first page “for your name,” to personalize the issue for your shelves.  The magazine presented “complete, factual and exciting accounts…of Hollywood’s greatest stars and events,” proclaiming that “no other screen magazine, anywhere in the world, offers so much entertainment for such a modest price.”  That price of 50 cents comes to $4.50 today (2022).  Not a bad cost for so much entertainment anywhere in the world on offer.

This edition presented three lengthy articles:  Along with the Valentino piece were essays on a then-young Ann-Margret (“Sex Legend on a Tightrope…”) and a then-middle-aged Robert Mitchum (“Big Tame Tough Guy”).  The total page count came to 68, mostly text and photos.  Surprisingly few ads appeared; the publication gave you heft for your half-buck.  The major ad, a full-page one right in front, was for Screen Legends itself, announcing “We’re Making News at the Newsstands!”  A few smaller ads were towards the back, such as one for “Larry Edmunds Bookshop” in Hollywood, holding “the world’s largest collection of books and related materials on motion pictures!”

Exclamation points did seem a feature here.

20220409_111240

And nothing like starting a piece with an (implied) exclamation.  The highlighted Valentino article queried in its opening whether the star was a “legend with feet of clay?”  Feet of Clay, eh?  Are we hooked yet?  The writer, Elton Crane, starts off with Valentino’s finale, the poor star dying in a hospital and speaking his last words:  “’Don’t pull down the blinds.  I feel fine.  I want the sunlight to greet me.’”  Although, Crane somberly notes, as Valentino spoke, “the sun had set.  Waiting now was only the specter of death—hovering in the wings to give this screen legend his final embrace.”  Did Valentino really die, as his 1926 death certificate attests, of the “dread peritonitis”?  Or could it have been from—“disappointment in love”?  Were “self-doubt and romantic failure” the true causes?  “Perhaps only a study of [Valentino’s] life,” writes Crane (in what comes across as the typeset equivalent of a hushed voice), “will he be separated from what fantasy, mixed with fact, made of him.”

I confess, the purple prose was not encouraging.  But it seemed somehow in the nature of the magazine’s dual mission, to present us with Hollywood’s greatest stars and events at a moderate price—Valentino’s brief, flashy career and sad demise undoubtedly fulfilling both.

RVPG

The article’s writing style weaves between the purple and prosaic, whether insinuating about those clayed feet (Crane assures us that Valentino’s romances “invariably had sad endings”), or blandly describing Valentino’s childhood and youth—though much of Crane’s writing is sprinkled with puzzlingly placed italics:  The future star’s parents acquired “a modest fund of wealth”; his father, “an Italian cavalry captain,” worked “as a veterinarian.”  Why Crane’s peculiar emphases?  What could shock about a moderate supply of money, or about a cavalry captain or a veterinarian—occupations that strike me as not only respectable but mundane?  Not even a teenaged episode of Valentino gambling away his vacation money in Monte Carlo, causing his family to banish him to America in 1913, coats Valentino’s lower digits in mud—maybe Valentino’s turn-of-the-century family was shocked, but would 1965 readers have been?

Once Valentino is exiled to New York, though, his legend’s familiar outlines start to emerge.  He learns ballroom dancing and, with the outbreak of war in 1914, supports himself with dancing in cafés:  “[W]ord spread like wildfire through Manhattan about the gorgeous young Italian down at Maxim’s who danced the tango so divinely.”  After turning professional, the gorgeous young Italian went on a not-too-gorgeous dance tour that eventually deposited him, in 1917, in the fabled land of Hollywood—broke, hungry, and eager for extra work at five bucks a day ($110 in today’s money, not a bad rate).

You could say the rest is history, but in 1917 “the Latin type was not in vogue” and Valentino scraped a living between extra work and exhibition dancing, his film parts big and small by turn.  Crane slips into one paragraph a mention of the actor’s extremely brief 1919 marriage to the actress Jean Acker; only a month after the ceremony, the prose breathlessly reveals, “the official announcement of their separation was printed in the Los Angeles papers!”  Then the (admittedly juicy) subject is dropped, which puzzled me.  Surely in this fleeting relationship—surely here was a proof of those clay-covered feet that would have fit right into that “EXCLUSIVE!” information promised on the magazine cover?  Italics, exclamation points, and all.

20220409_110809

Instead, Crane hurries us into an account of a discouraged Rudolph in 1921 reading the Vincente Blasco Ibanez novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and deciding that only he could play the lead.  MGM, which was producing the film and where Valentino presented himself, did not agree, but Valentino had an ally—screenwriter June Mathis, who also thought Valentino ideal for the role.  She got him the part and, two days later, the actor, a copy of the film’s script “clasped in his sensitive hands,” was bound, via a torrid onscreen tango, for cinematic super stardom.  And now the rest really was history.  Hollywood itself seemed to be scripting Valentino’s career, with the expected plot twists:  His humble start, his swift rise, his cresting of the stellar heights…before the expected fall.

Though what else emerges in this script is Valentino’s understated reliance, beginning with Mathis, on the influence of powerful, successful women.  Throughout his career Valentino would be helped or encouraged by such important film figures as Pauline Frederick, Alice Terry, Mae Murray, Dorothy Gish, and Geraldine Farrar.  Indeed, Valentino’s next big break came via the great Russian actress Alla Nazimova, who personally requested Valentino for her 1921 film of Camille—so long as he won the approval of her film’s art director.  This latter was a beautiful young woman who flamboyantly styled herself Natacha Rambova and who, on meeting Valentino, “surveyed the young man, slowly walking around him,” before nodding her silent approval.  Thus began what may have been the most significant—and notorious—relationship in Valentino’s career—and what may be behind the article’s heavy hinting about soiled feet…

RN

Crane doesn’t delve into Rambova’s own career, although she was a noted designer and artist in her field.  In his portrayal, she comes across as one seeking to create an exotic, ‘artistic’ persona—if not hers, then another’s.  Born Winifred Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City, and supported by a wealthy stepfather, the young Winifred grand-toured Europe, attended school in England, and studied ballet with a former Ballets Russes dancer.  Then, newly monikered, she moved to Hollywood, where she designed film sets in a style, says Crane, “extremely bizarre [and] ultra-modern.”  Per Crane, Rambova’s own interest in Valentino may have been her sense that he “might be the biggest male star in films if his career were properly guided.”  And, Crane speculates, Rambova’s “dream of being that guiding light must have…inflamed her.”

The inflaming began with Valentino romancing Rambova, becoming utterly devoted to her, whereas she was “cautious, but…fascinated.”  Despite her willingness to guide, however, Rambova had little say in Valentino’s next film, as the title character of The Sheik, which she regarded as “moronic trash.”  A heavy-breathing desert melodrama, highlighted by Valentino’s flashing eyes and flaring nostrils, the film today exudes an enjoyable campy aura.  Yet it “skyrocketed” Valentino “to a spot in the stellar heavens never before or since known to any male star.”  Trash or not, The Sheik was one of those films that marks a decade, creating, says Crane, “a whole new romantic image”—that of the ‘Latin Lover,’ a persona “handsome, masterful, romantic, and foreign.”  Thus, Crane solemnly notes, “the legend of Rudolph Valentino began.”

What followed, in a mere five-year span, was a compressed series of successes and setbacks in the Great Lover’s career—much of which revolved around Rambova’s battles with film studios, she determined not only to choose Valentino’s films but also his screen image.  Valentino moved from “two-fisted” action pics such as Moran of the Lady Letty (meant to attract a male public) to flamboyant, Rambova-chosen melodramas, like the matador-themed Blood and Sand (Valentino in pomaded hair and “tight-fitting trousers with flaring bottoms”).  His films became more outlandish and exotic, such as the (Rambova-designed) The Young Rajah, about a young American who discovers he’s an Indian Maharajah (and featuring, as David Shipman snarkily noted, “Rudy in little but a jeweled jock-strap and a turban”).  Disappointed in the film and disgruntled at not being allowed story approval, the risen star walked off the studio lot and into a two-year movie exile.

RV RAJAH

However, Valentino was not idle.  He and Rambova, now married, toured with a series of dance concerts sponsored by a beauty treatment product called Mineralava.  The concerts had the pair performing several dances, followed by Valentino giving “a short lecture for the ladies’ benefit on the [treatment’s] merits.”  Despite these product-boosting interludes, the tour was a success, especially with Valentino’s female fans, and studios now acceded to his story-approval demands—“even though [they] knew it would probably be the new Mrs. Valentino who would be doing the approving.”  The actor returned to movies with two lavish (Rambova-approved) films, Monsieur Beaucaire and The Sainted Devil—”Mrs. Valentino [having] at least one finger in every departmental pie.”  The latter at least was a hit, although, says Crane, “men grumbled about the expensive slave bracelet [Valentino] flourished on his wrist,” a present from Natacha.  The gift’s meaning was a little too much for the “American husband and lover,” who “had no intention of displaying his eternal enslavement to any wife or sweetheart by wearing” this perceived symbol of…male submission.

And thus Crane gets to the seething, volatile core of the Valentino persona.  Although adored by the ladies, the gorgeous young Italian was viewed by men as not measuring up to the red-blooded, testosterone-filled levels of American maleness.  The Great Lover, the Hot-Blooded Latin, the flashing-eyed Sheik, who loved and mastered beautiful women, was himself seen as—female-dominated.  This image persists even today (Valentino’s Wikipedia profile notes how friends disliked Rambova’s control over his career).  Aware, and resentful, of this perception, Valentino in his next film, Cobra, emphasized its he-man boxing sequences, the star taking much-publicized lessons from Jack Dempsey to prepare.  Yet he could not reach that much sought-after male audience; and Cobra was the first Valentino film that was not an immediate hit, as “even his fans knew his wife had too much power over his every move.”

It all culminated in 1925-26 with two blows to Valentino’s ego—Natacha leaving him after his making a film, The Eagle, in which she was allowed no hand, but which was a well-received success; and the infamous “Pink Powder Puffs” piece in The Chicago Tribune.  This last was an anonymous article decrying a powder-dispensing machine installed in a dancehall’s men’s washroom, for male dancers to “repair their make-ups.”  The unknown writer jeeringly implied that Valentino was responsible for such effeminate accoutrements to male hygiene, and the outraged actor publicly challenged the author to a boxing-match duel (never answered).  Meanwhile, the star’s last (1926) picture, The Son of the Sheik, in which he played father-and-son emirs, opened to boffo box office, Valentino attending the premiere with a glamorous Pola Negri clinging to his arm.  It was his biggest hit yet, and to his admirers Valentino must have seemed to reach a career pinnacle…

PPP

It all ended sadly, as we knew from the start…with Valentino quietly expiring, at age 31, in a sun-filled hospital room.  Though his death was quiet, public response to it was anything but.  In one of the more macabre, and infamous episodes of public mourning, “frenzied and completely mad” mobs reacted to the news with memorable hysteria.  Fifty thousand mourners screamed and rioted outside the funeral home where the actor lay in state, several grieving women committed suicide, and Pola Negri, posing in deep, dramatic black for newsreel cameras, graciously repeated one pose when a cameraman informed her the lighting was not quite right.  Crane runs through the familiar post-mortem legends, such as the annual visit to Valentino’s tomb by the Woman in Black—or maybe Women, Crane noting there were several; the supposed wax figure substituted for the star’s corpse; the various mediums at séances claiming to have contacted his departed spirit (at peace, per his ghostly communications, and doing quite well).

But throughout his piece, Crane doesn’t answer the one, exclusive question about Valentino blazed on the magazine’s cover—why was Valentino the man who couldn’t ‘love’?

Crane does hint that the collapse of his second marriage, “losing the only woman he loved,” devastated Valentino.  Yet, despite his two failed marriages, his exotic films, his ‘masculinity’ controversy, Crane doesn’t address directly what that cover caption means.  Obvious ideas might come to mind (homosexuality, impotence, emotional sterility?), but instead Crane offers a sentimental interpretation of the star—a man who, although reaching the top, found it all hollow and despairing, and thus succumbed to (possibly) heartbreak and disappointment.  And as for that caption—that “Man Who Couldn’t ‘Love’” blather—I’m guessing it was a bait-and-switch, promising much if delivering little in the sensation department; a means of separating all those 50-cent pieces out of readers’ hands and into the publication’s coffers.

As a fan-gossip type, Screen Legends’ Valentino article falls into the Madonna category.  It’s old-fashioned in its style—nice photos, digestible, if stolid text, a few tantalizing clues of what might be roiling beneath a star’s perfectly manicured-pedicured-scrubbed-styled surface, without disrupting the carefully Hollywood-glammed image.  Despite that evocative subtitle, Screen Legends in no way suggests that Valentino was anything but a hetero he-man through and through.  This, however, was not the view of another gossip article on Valentino that appeared (in America) the same year as his Screen Legends profile—that scurrilous, scandalous, and (possibly) slanderous piece of flaming reportage, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.

That one’s definitely in the Sexpot category.

HB

I can’t help but wonder if Crane’s Valentino profile was in answer to, or a deflection from, Anger’s.  Originally published in France (and in French) in 1959, Hollywood Babylon washed onto America’s shores in 1965 without, per The New York Times, “one single redeeming merit” (it was also “banned within ten days”).  Anger might be accused of numberless sins, but sentimentality wasn’t one of them.  His own theory of Valentino’s death is not via sorrow from failed love but “arsenic revenge” from a jilted lover (or maybe shot by an “irate husband,” or maybe “syphilitic” disease, or…).  Nor is Anger subtle; he sneeringly notes the star’s “Italianate coquetry” and attraction to “’butch’ ladies,” and states outright that neither of Valentino’s marriages was consummated, as both his wives were lesbians.  The implication is blatant, if unstated—Rudy was lacking where it counts…at least in the men’s department…

Hollywood Babylon is viewed now as “essentially a work of fiction,” albeit an entertaining one.  Undoubtedly its shock value is mild compared to today’s constant media scandal barrage, but consider when it first came out—around the time, as Encyclopedia.com noted above, when more tabloid-style fanzine coverage was starting, circa the 1950s (an era marked by such notorious scandal rags as Confidential).  It’s not only the shock produced, it’s how it’s conveyed.  Anger’s prose, while not elegant, is neither purplish nor prosaic, but punchy and to the point—it goads the eye from one spicy revelation to the next.  I admire his technique; he gives you just enough detail so that you grasp the sordid essence while your mind fills in the rest—letting the “imagination r[u]n riot,” as he wrote about another scandal.  However Hollywood Babylon may be labelled, boring does not apply.

In contrast, Screen Legends’ Valentino portrait is allusive, prolix, genteel.  The actor comes across as a modest, charming, and civilized man—“well-read, educated,” a “devout Roman Catholic” (who would have been appalled by the “Roman circus” of his funeral), who became “the sad-eyed idol of the world”:  Conscientious about his career, if a bit bewildered by his fame.  I’ve no doubt this was true about Valentino; he was probably, as with so many stars, caught between a contained private self and a marketed public persona.  Yet within his era he is a complex, fascinating figure—one who, single-handed, changed, and charged, the image of the romantic movie hero.  However dated that image may be, and however much, or little, Valentino was responsible for it, it was Valentino who created it, onscreen, with his own projection and presence—and that makes him important in both film and cultural history.

Today, though, the campy Hollywood Babylon image is the one that has inscribed Valentino’s persona in our collective consciousness.  Speculations about Valentino center on his wives, his exoticism, his sexuality, his masculinity (or lack of); per his Wikipedia profile, at least four books have suggested he was gay.  Curiously, the Wikipedia article notes that such speculations began in the 1960s—the decade when his Screen Legends profile was published and when Hollywood Babylon came slithering down the pike.  Yet surely Valentino was, as an artist and a human being, more than the sum of his inclinations, whatever those may have been.  At least Screen Legends, however much it clings to the hearth-and-home gossip image of Hollywood stardom, attempts to present us with that greater sum.  And I certainly won’t sneer at the publication for that.

Although, I confess, I do wonder…just what this magazine was doing in my parents’ possessions to begin with…

RVPROFILE


Bonus Clip:  Rudolph Valentino’s star-making moment, dancing a slinky, sexy tango in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (followed by a slow, sensuous kiss…) — Gorgeous, indeed.

%d bloggers like this: