Having noted the ongoing reign of Marilyn Monroe as filmdom’s Aphrodite 49 years after her death, I would be remiss not to take note of Eros as well. Next week is the 85th anniversary of Rudolph Valentino’s death on August 23, 1926, just two months after Marilyn was born. Hardly anyone remembers 1926 anymore. I meet few people other than classic film buffs who ever have seen a Valentino movie. Yet, we still know what it means to call someone a Valentino. His symbolic power still survives somehow. He was the first true pop-culture superstar, though the term had not yet been coined.
Rudolph arrived in the U.S. in 1913 at age at 18 with ambitions to perform on stage as a dancer. Instead, he took odd jobs in order to get by. A few miles from where I live is a Gilded Age mansion where he worked as gardener. He washed dishes in restaurants and worked as a taxi dancer in Maxim’s in New York. Following a scandal with a married Chilean heiress, he headed west. In Los Angeles he tested for the movies and won a few small parts. His big break was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921, which was a huge hit. Female audiences took especial notice of him; they flocked to The Sheik, released later in 1921, and his legend was made.
He became a symbol for the post-Victorian liberated sexuality of 1920s women; one rather articulate interviewee, cornered by a reporter on the street in 1922, remarked that Valentino “puts the love-making of the average husband or sweetheart into discard as tame, flat, and unimpassioned.” Men often were hostile to Valentino, yet many in the ‘20s copied his look anyway. One editorialist in a 1926 issue of the Chicago Tribune didn’t like this at all. He charged that Valentino’s influence was “feminizing” the American male. The editorial annoyed Valentino so much that called on H.L. Mencken, of all people, to grumble about it. Mencken urged him to shrug it off as a “farce.” Rudolph agreed in principle but obviously was still bothered by it; a part of him was still the dishwasher yearning for respect.
Valentino’s death was prosaic (peritonitis), poetic, and garishly theatrical all at once. There were more than 100,000 attendees at his funeral in New York City. A riot broke out. There was a rash of suicides around the world. Jean Acker, his first wife, penned the song There’s a New Star in Heaven which became a best-selling record.
In 1926, no one had seen anything like it before. 85 years later, we’re all too familiar with this sort of over-the-top reaction to the death of a pop-culture icon. We expect it. At bottom, we have changed little in the decades since then. We turn otherwise ordinary people who have a flair for entertainment or public presentation into symbols of our own desires and fears; we then revel in the presence of those symbols and mourn their inevitable loss. People always have done this, but the movies and other mass media (what we now call virtual entertainment) changed the scale of everything. Valentino was the first on the new scale, and “first” always counts for something.
To anyone who never has seen a Valentino film, by the way, I suggest passing on his trademark The Sheik (1921), which frankly is a bit of a bore. Try the 1926 sequel The Son of the Sheik which has action, romance, and campy humor. It’s also Valentino’s last movie; he died while on a promotion tour for it.