The Great Lover, The Latin Lover….Even today, 94 years after his untimely death, the name Valentino still evokes images of passionate romance. In 1977 he was mentioned in the lyrics of the song Right Before Your Eyes by the group America. He truly is one of Hollywood`s legends.
Life in Italy
The 1920`s heart throb Rudy Valentino was auspiciously born on May 6th, 1895, in the very year of the birth of cinema, under the name Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla.
He hailed from Castellaneta, Puglia, Italy and immigrated to America at the tender year of 18. He was the son of an upper middle class family. His father, Giovanni D`Antonguolla, a veterinarian and dentist died when Rudolfo was just 11. He was the middle child of three and always maintained a very close relationship to his French mother, Beatrice Gabriel Barbina D`Antonguolla. who doted on him.
Although a bright child, he never did well in school. He was very athletic and enjoyed sports and dancing. He applied to the Naval Academy at the age of 16 but he did not pass the physical examination and was therefore rejected.
Because of his love of gardening, his mother suggested he enroll in agriculture classes and he obtained his landscape architect in two years. Since the economy was bad in Italy at that time, he tried working in Paris, France but it didn`t last so he boarded a ship to America on September 12th 1913.
East Coast America
Upon arrival in New York, he met with his godfather Frank Mennillo who helped get him started as a taxi dancer. He danced with women in dance halls for 10 cents a dance and due to his talents became very popular, rising in the ranks and dancing for society elite.
It was at this point that he fell for and had an affair with a married socialite by the name of Blanca de Saulles and testified on her behalf during her divorce proceedings. Her husband was not amused and had him arrested on vice charges, though what those charges were we don`t know as those records were wiped clean in the 1920s. He ended up in San Francisco on the west coast hoping to avoid another scandal after the now ex-Mrs de Saulles shot her husband.
The Latin Lover
Following his godfather to San Francisco, Rodolfo met Norman Kerry who suggested he try his luck in the silent film industry. Since he was foreign, he had a lot of difficulty getting good roles and was often typecast as a villain or a gigolo.
It was at this time that Rudy`s mother died and becoming despondent , he met and fell in love with a fellow actress, Jean Acker. Unbeknownst to him, Jean was gay and stuck in a love triangle with two other actresses, Grace Darmond and Alla Nazimova. In hopes of escaping this situation, she accepted Valentinos proposal but the marriage was never consummated. Confused and thinking the that he was responsible for his wife`s refusal for intimacy, he finally moved on.
His carreer finally improved in 1921 when he was cast as Julio Desnoyers by June Mathis of the Metro studio in the film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Metro cast him in by a couple of B rated pictures, Unchartered Seas and Camille.
He was catapulted to international stardom later that same year, however, in his most well-known role in Famous Players-Lasky`s movie The Sheik. Having signed with this studio without consulting anyone, he was not well paid and had to borrow money from the studio to help pay legal fees due to bigamy charges incurred after his second marriage to Natasha Rambova. He had not waited for a year to pass following his divorce to Jean Acker before he wed Natasha.
Rudy had developed a good friendship with June Mathis and she eventually followed him to Famous Players. she wrote several more movies for him there, notably The Conquering Power, Blood and Sand and The Young Rajah.
Although Blood and Sand was a major hit, The Young Rajah was not. Valentino was quite upset as his wife was forced to move to New York during the making of this film, even though she still worked on the costumes for the film. He refused to work on any other films and went on a one-man strike despite his debt to the studio. Despite a court order obtained by Famous Players forbidding him to work on any film and even offered him a much improved salary of $7,000 a week, Valentino insisted that the strike was not about money.
During this time he wrote a book of poetry, did a dance tour promoting Minervala Beauty Clay and gave interviews followed by a tour of Europe with his wife. Upon his return, he signed a contract with Ritz Carlton although he still had 2 films owing to Famous Players which he concluded with Monsieur Beaucaire and A Sainted Devil, both of which were flops.
Now that he was free from his contract with Famous Players, he and Natasha were finally able to work on their dream project, a film entitled The Hooded Cobra. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a huge disaster and was scrapped, Mathis declining to write the script and costumes costing more than double the advanced budget. They concluded their contract with Ritz with a short film entitled Cobra which didn`t do any better.
For reasons unknown, maybe because Rudy wanted children and Natasha did not, maybe because of blame put on Natasha for Rudy`s failures, the marriage started to crumble. Natasha had an affair with a cameraman and fled to New York. Rudy was furious and only through the convincing arguments of advertising man S. George Ullman was the matter settled. Natasha filed for and received her divorce while in France. Suicidal, Valentino became reckless and almost killed himself several times in car accidents.
Thankfully, a friendship with fellow actress Vilma Banky helped when he co-starred with her in the 1925 film The Eagle. It turned out to be a successful film as well as his next and last film The Son of The Sheik.
Sadly, Valentino would not be a witness to the success of The Son of the Sheik. He had not been feeling well for the last few months and it was determined that he suffered from an acute stomach ulcer. He refused to see a doctor but in August of 1926, the pain was too intense and he was admitted to hospital for an operation. Several days later however, he passed away from peritonitis after his lungs filled with fluid and infection. He was only 31 years old.
Fans were shocked and pandemonium ensued when S. George Ullman as executor of the estate allowed a public viewing in New York where the actor passed away. Mass hysteria and riots broke out as you can attest to in the following short film.
He was later transported to Los Angeles where another funeral was held.
He was laid to rest at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in a crypt lent by June Mathis. Since she died in 1927, he was moved into what would have been her husband`s crypt and he lies there still today.
Many actors and actresses of the silent era would not go on into the talkies as their voice did not have the quality needed. No doubt had Valentino survived that would not have been an issue. In closing, I include a video recording of the song Kashmini performed by Valentino on May 14th 1923. Enjoy!