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Rodolfo Valentino: Remembering America’s First Film Heart Throb

by Borderstan.com February 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm 0

Roldolfo Valentino, Wikimedia Commons

Roldolfo Valentino may have been America’s first male heart throb and sex symbol on the big screen. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

From Candida Mannozzi. She writes a biweekly column for Bordertan, “Borderstan Candids.” You can reach her at [email protected].

Borderstan, given the “season,” how about a brief reminiscence about one of the most famous of Valentines? I’m thinking of the paradigmatic Latin Lover and silent movie heart throb Rodolfo Valentino or Rudolph Valentino.

Born in May 1895 in Southern Italy’s province of Taranto, Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla (try whispering that in the heat of passion!) was the youngest child of a veterinarian and a Marquise’s Lady in Waiting.

After the untimely death of his father, the family moved to Perugia in Central Italy. Rodolfo’s rebellious and headstrong character manifested early on: he was expelled from school for bad conduct. It probably didn’t help that his classmates had been mocking him for his funny looks, especially his pointy ears.

His attempt to enroll in the Naval Academy in Venice also failed, for the young Rodolfo was declared physically unfit and weak of eyesight. Rumors (likely of the malicious kind!) say he was shortsighted, and that was the supposed reason the star reverted to those world-famous close-ups to his acting partners and his penetrating, unflinching gaze into their eyes.

The young Rodolfo eventually left Italy for Paris, where he studied dance and is rumored to have worked as an escort for gay men. At the age of 18 he came into his inheritance ($4,000) and booked a passage to America.  He arrived in New York City just before Christmas Eve of 1913 and, his funds having depleted fairly quickly, started making ends meet working as a gardener and waiter.

Thanks to a friend, he began working as a dancer at Club Maxim, earning generous tips from the female patrons. He eventually moved to San Francisco and on to Hollywood, where he was initially typecast in minor movies as the “dark and threatening stranger,” the outsider or villain scheming to elope with or otherwise compromise the film’s main female character.

Finally, in 1921, his luck changed thanks to his role as one of the leads in Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The electrifying tango he danced in that movie made an instant sex symbol and star of him and from then on Rudolph Valentino, instead of playing the despicable foreign outcast, became the other side of that fickle coin: the dark and handsome stranger, the Latin Lover, the irresistible, fiery, exotic seducer and heartbreaker. His filmography is vast and is not the object of this piece, but some iconic films stand out such as The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik, (the latter included a controversial rape scene).

Valentino is not considered one of the most gifted actors or interpreters, but his convinced, authoritative gestures, his sleek, pomaded hair, his way of seizing actresses by their elbows and staring at them in a mix of ardent desire and mischievous intent, as if exposing their concealed hopes and fears, made him an iconic male lead.

He masterfully played the adventurer, the ardent seducer, the irresistible charmer, or the hopelessly enamored lover. Valentino’s success was in part thanks to his gift in conveying an ever so faint hint of danger, mischief or rakishness, no matter the role. Women the world over swooned.

Valentino’s life was apparently equally extravagant and sentimentally complex off the screen, peppered with two wives (the first marriage to actress Jean Acker was apparently never consummated and de facto lasted a mere six hours!), numerous lovers, jealous husbands, scandals, and an untold number of smitten fans, men and women alike.

Valentino lived up to his role as movie star and sex symbol, rarely appearing in public unless he donned a fur-lined coat, or his favorite style of bracelet, or thigh-high boots, and always the signature slicked-back hair and a hint of smoky makeup around his eyes. Men imitated his hairstyle, even though they tended to prefer movies with stars like Douglas Fairbanks, who represented a very different male prototype.

Interestingly, Valentino’s birth (1895) and death (1926) coincide with the beginnings and end of silent film. News of the star’s demise was accompanied by worldwide expressions of abject grief and despair: fans attempted (and succeeded) in suicide, his funeral cortege in Los Angeles was a mob scene, with over one hundred thousand people present. Valentino died at the age of 31, leaving us with images unblemished by age — all the more likely to fuel the mythical status he had achieved.

So, Borderstan, if a memorable adventure with a tall, dark stranger is what you’ve secretly been pining for, I wish you someone as irresistible and charismatic as Rodolfo Valentino. Viva l’avventura!

Sources: www.mymovies.it, Wikipedia, and http://biografieonline.it

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