Valentino: Rediscovering an Icon of Silent Film
Reviewed by James L. Neibaur
A two-disc DVD compilation including The Young Rajah (1922), Stolen Moments (1920), A Society Sensation (1918), and Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), plus five vintage bonus films, additional rare footage, slide-show presentations, virtual scrapbooks, and much more. 226 mins, B&W, tinted and color. Distributed by Flicker Alley.
Rudolph Valentino's stardom was at such an incredible level, even his early death in 1926 did not prevent him from achieving legendary status across time and generations. Over the years, Valentino's image has represented everything from the romance and melodrama of the silent era, to the eye-bulging, nostril-flaring overacting stereotype that continues to unfairly be used as a reference checkpoint to this oft-maligned, terribly important period of filmmaking.
As a result, Valentino's legend has overshadowed the depth of his contributions to cinema. Even the most learned film scholars will often limit their Valentino references to such staples as The Sheik, Son of the Sheik, and Blood and Sand, while overlooking the many other films in which Valentino appeared throughout his unfortunately brief career. It would seem to many that Valentino was always the costumed Latin Lover, a bit too close to the melodramatic edge, and certainly too effete for the modern era, but worthy of a nodding recognition due to his being so tremendously popular during the 1920s.
To some extent, this reaction is understandable. The poor survival rate of pre-1930 cinema includes much of what made Valentino so popular. When less noted films are discovered, it will sometimes yield disappointing results. A recent restoration by Milestone Films of his only teaming with the famous actress Gloria Swanson, Beyond The Rocks, was an exciting discovery for historical purposes, but it also turned out to be a less-than-satisfactory movie for either of its stars.
Was Valentino's popularity a mere fluke of the times? Is his unprecedented level of stardom and subsequent legendary status the only interesting thing about him?
Rudolph Valentino was actually a gifted performer with a tremendous screen presence. Limiting ourselves to Valentino's most famous and accessible films will allow us to see only a few examples of his best work. This is not enough to fully comprehend the reason Valentino was able to capture a generation and live on in immortality. For an actor whose stardom was so massive and whose iconic status is so firmly established, a DVD set concentrating on the cinematic bypaths in Valentino's career is essential.
Valentino: Rediscovering an Icon of Silent Film, a welcome new DVD set from Flicker Alley, gathers a great deal of Valentino's lesser known work, some of it existing only in fragmented form, on two discs. It provides us with several good examples as to why Rudolph Valentino cannot be summarily dismissed as an empty legend.
There are four Valentino features collected on this set, each of them significant in the actor's filmography, and none of them among his most well-known works. One such film is Moran of the Lady Letty (Paramount, 1922), which was Valentino's first film after the success of The Sheik . Capitalizing on his already massive stardom, but allowing the actor to stretch a bit, Paramount cast Valentino in a role that could conceivably attract both men and women. Retaining director George Medford, screenwriter Monte Katterjohn, cameraman William Marshall, and actor Walter Long from The Sheik, Moran of the Lady Letty featured Valentino as Ramon Laredo, a subtle, calculating seaman, unafraid of the evil ship captain (Long). Letty Sternersen (Dorothy Dalton), the female character in the film, is not the helpless damsel usually found in movies of this period (and in the stereotypical Valentino setting). Letty is a seasoned veteran of the seas, and with little interest in men. Of course Ramon wins her in the end, but not before each character is defined as more than a superficial caricature to sustain the established popularity of its stars. When Medford shoots the action sequences, he then cuts to a triumphant Ramon, with Valentino handily exhibiting his natural charisma to command the frame.
Moran of the Lady Letty is a classic example of Valentino succeeding in a role unlike those by which he is always remembered. It surpasses the limitations of our memories and their reliance on fleeting clips of only a few of his roles. While supporting player Walter Long chews the scenery with gusto as the villain in this picture (making his eventual transition to roles as a comic heavy unsurprising), Valentino, by contrast, plays his part with great subtlety, allowing his natural charm to exude from the character's thoughtful, calculating eyes.
The staging of the action sequences owe something to D.W. Griffith in their attempts to include a great deal of movement from all sides by shooting from overhead. It is an effective method, allowing the pacing of the film to maintain a solid rhythm from action to exposition. Valentino's presence is at the forefront, anchoring each sequence effectively. Moran of the Lady Letty is strong evidence as to why Rudolph Valentino remains a silent-era icon as late as the twenty-first century.
As for the other features on this set, Stolen Moments (1920) is every bit the overplayed melodrama by which silent cinema is too often represented. But this is nevertheless another very important piece of Valentino's filmography. Released just before Valentino achieved stardom (which occurred the following year with his performance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), Stolen Moments was reedited to three reels from its original six, and rereleased by a small company in 1922 to capitalize on Valentino's popularity. Originally a supporting player (as a delightfully wicked cad), the edit concentrates on Valentino's footage and gives him star billing. It is the only representation we have of Stolen Moments, the original six-reel edit having been lost.
The same procedure was followed with the 1924 rerelease of the 1918 film A Society Sensation, which is also included in this set. Featuring a prestardom Valentino commanding each scene in which he appears, offering the sort of performance that caused producers to take notice, the film was edited down from feature length to two reels upon its rerelease. The edit favors Valentino's small role, and offers a new ending.
With the inclusion of these reedited films, one gets an understanding of how the motion picture industry worked with the relatively new phenomenon of movie stardom. A film would later be edited for rerelease in order to bolster the appearance of a supporting player who achieved stardom, with no thought given to preserving the original movie. Even without the availability of the original source material, it is fascinating to see how carefully the films were edited. Valentino is clearly in support, yet he gets the lion's share of the existing footage, with the understanding that it is he who will bring in box-office receipts, not whichever former star enjoyed top billing when the film was first released.
The fourth feature on this disc, also existing only in fragments, is The Young Rajah (Paramount, 1922). Following Moran of the Lady Letty, Valentino made Beyond the Rocks with Swanson, and his classic Blood and Sand, all of which were big hits for Paramount Pictures. He then went to work on The Young Rajah, which plays up his exotic image from The Sheik. Problems in his personal life and dissatisfaction with the director and supporting cast caused Valentino to look upon this film as one of his worst. He felt his stress was evident in every close-up. Its fragmented form gives us little opportunity to see for ourselves, but the version in this set is from Turner Classic Movies' restoration, adding stills to the existing footage in an attempt to offer some idea as to how the complete film once played.
While A Society Sensation shows Valentino before stardom, Stolen Moments presents him on the verge of stardom, and Moran of the Lady Letty features him at the height of his stardom; The Young Rajah shows the actor on the brink of a downhill slide that would be exacerbated by his personal strike against Paramount and a subsequent lawsuit that almost ruined his career. It would rebound withMonsieur Beaucaire (1924), The Eagle (1925), and Son of the Sheik (1926). At the time of his death on August 23, 1926, Valentino was engaged in a lawsuit against a Chicago newspaper that attacked the actor's masculinity in print, calling him a "pink powder puff" whose popularity contributed to the "femininity of the American male." This negative publicity notwithstanding, Valentino's death (at the age of thirty-one, from peritonitis, after an operation for a perforated ulcer) resulted in an orgy of nationwide mourning. Over 80,000 fans showed up at his funeral in New York. Another was then held in Los Angeles, with similar results. Newsreel footage of both funerals does exist, the one in L.A. prominently featuring fellow silent-movie icons Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford among the mourners.
Along with the four features on the Flicker Alley DVD set, there are several fascinating extras. The most interesting of these may be the several short films, including a Screen Snapshots entry from 1921 featuring Valentino just as he achieved massive stardom, and some rare footage taken during his peak years of 1924 and 1925. The two-reel curio Character Studies, featuring Carter DeHaven, was originally made as a party film for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in 1925, but was released to the public in 1927. In this film, DeHaven does a series of impressions, applying makeup and allowing himself to suddenly become Valentino, Buster Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle, etc. This bizarre short shows DeHaven bending his head, messing with his own hair, ducking down a bit, and emerging as a famous star. The stars play themselves, so with these impressions, DeHaven actually does become each player. This surreal item is interesting for its inclusion of Arbuckle in a rare postscandal appearance, as well as another offbeat appearance by Valentino.
There are also documentaries among the short films on the disc, a Who's Who containing capsule bios of Valentino associates, slide-show presentations, some rare footage, and virtual scrapbooks of lobby cards, poster art, advertisements, and other promotional materials.
Valentino: Rediscovering an Icon of Silent Film celebrates this actor's contribution to cinema, allowing silent-film historians and admirers to see facets of Valentino's performance abilities other than the handful of established classics by which he is usually measured. The further information offered among the DVD extras presents a greater understanding as to why Rudolph Valentino remains one of the most important actors in American film history.
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James L. Neibaur is a film historian and professional educator who has written seven film books and hundreds of articles including over forty essays in The Encyclopaedia Brittanica.
Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1