The noonday sun blazes down on the Algerian Sahara, and Lady Diana Mayo, the headstrong and beautiful young English aristocrat, is playing a dangerous game.
Defying her pompously protective brother and all the stuffy expats, devil-may-care Lady Diana has gone riding in the desert having only the night before caused outrage by disguising herself as a dancing girl to infiltrate the local casino off limits to white people. But now—disaster. She is deserted by her guide and a strangely compelling figure in flowing white robes rides up: the sensual, cruel, thrillingly muscular Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. With casual ease, he grabs Lady Diana, whisks her up onto his horse and takes her back to his tent where he intends to have his way with her. But might she, in this Beauty And The Beast scenario, induce the Sheik to fall tenderly in love and restrain his brutish, sweaty lusts?
This was The Sheik, in all its outrageous orientalism, the 1921 movie which sent America’s box-office tills into meltdown. All across the United States, vaudeville theatres were being closed and converted into venues for the new silent cinema, whose clientele was strongly female. And these women in the audience were reportedly squirming and swooning and sighing at The Sheik; something in them was seriously triggered by what the movie moguls were calling “the Latin lover”. (A few men were secretly excited too.) Lady Diana was demurely played by Agnes Ayres but the Sheikh himself was that extraordinary phenomenon who introduced America to passion and introduced passion to the cinema: the 26-year-old Rudolf Valentino, born Rodolfo Guglielmi in Italy, who began life as a tango dancer, exhibition dancer and also gigolo-style “taxi dancer” for hire to ladies at afternoon tea dances in Paris, then New York, and who then broke into the new silent movies in California.
Valentino, in all his histrionic strangeness and highly-strung tempestuous emotion, unlocked hysteria and pure delirious sexuality in America’s moviegoing audiences. When he died tragically early at just thirty-one of an untreated perforated ulcer, rumours that he had been murdered by a jealous husband caused riots at his funeral in New York. The term “sex god” is overused. But only that term will do for Valentino, or maybe “sex martyr”, like the Saint after whom he was named. He was the great ancestor of the teen idols and others: he was the 1920s equivalent of Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley or Timothee Chalamet—or Charles Manson.
He hardly looked like a romantic lead: he didn’t have the broad handsome openness of Douglas Fairbanks, or the doe-eyed adorability of Charlie Chaplin. He looked like a villain, and there was a touch of racism in the way he was marketed as the swarthy sensualist.
His eyes were narrow and brooding, his mouth sulky and pouting, his hair vividly black, his ears batlike. Valentino could sneer with predatory contempt, looking like a vampire or Gene Kelly’s evil twin. His eyes could bulge and swivel with lust, and the whites of his eyes would glisten with crazy desire in the movie theatre’s darkness or sometimes brim with tears. For all the hammy mannerisms, though, he had one tic which was entirely naturalistic: no-one smoked on screen with more casual insouciance: cigarettes, cigarillos, cigars. In many movies, you can see him casually extinguish his smoke before rising to dance, just as he would in real life. And sometimes he would look like a gentle, frightened little boy who needed a cuddle. It sent his fans wild. He was the epitome of pre-Code Hollywood romance, Hollywood before it was regulated and censored by the nervous authorities: unlicensed, violent, sensual and sacrificial.
In The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse in 1921, the anti-war epic whose genuine ambition and intelligence makes it Valentino’s best film, he plays the pampered and indulged grandson of an Argentinian plutocrat, who goes on to have a scandalous affair in Paris with a married woman but is redeemed by his gallant service for France in World War One. Valentino has a glorious tango scene in which he capriciously throws his female partner to the floor—he does much the same thing while dancing the mazurka in The Eagle (1925), where he plays a Russian army officer. In Blood And Sand (1922), he plays a smolderingly proud Spanish bullfighter who marries his childhood sweetheart but has an affair with a cynical and wealthy woman of the world who taunts him: “Someday you will beat me with those strong hands—I want to know what that feels like.” His fanbase may have indulged in just that steamy reverie. His cult-like charisma could be said to have a link to the fascist dictators who were becoming famous the same time as him and who understood the vast reach of the cinema and its intimate access to people’s hearts and minds—although Benito Mussolini loathed Valentino for wanting American citizenship.
Yet Valentino himself in private was a gentler and more self-questioning soul than he ever portrayed on screen, a man who never quite survived the emotional stress of two unhappy marriages, neither of which brought the fatherhood he yearned for, and who was passionately devoted to his mother, who was born in the French town of Lure, and with whom he spoke French at home. His great protector and patron, the screenwriter and executive June Mathis, was a mother figure to him. Valentino incidentally gave us the awards season: before the Academy Awards existed, he came up with the idea of an acting prize, the Rudolf Valentino Medal, which was awarded just once—to John Barrymore.
There was what audiences in 1921 and 2023 would with different resonances call a queer side to Valentino. There is a shiver of it, when he says to Lady Diana in The Sheik, referring to her riding outfit: ““You make a very charming boy, but it was not a boy I saw two nights ago in Biskra”—that is, the dancing girl in the casino. In the seafaring tale Moran Of The Lady Letty (1922), Valentino plays Ramon, a ladies-man who finds himself aboard a ship where he falls for a female sailor called Moran who is mannish in every particular and really wants to be a man. He says wonderingly to her: “I never knew a girl could be like you…you swear like a man and you dress like a man and you’re strong.”
Valentino wore clothes exquisitely well and had some of the proud attitudes of the prima donna; he had intense unapologetic vanity and he was often baited by the homophobic press. In a notorious article in the Chicago Tribune in 1926, the year of Valentino’s death, the anonymous author bewailed the state of American manhood, claiming a pink powder puff dispenser had been seen in a public men’s washroom, jeering: “Why didn’t someone drown Rudolph Guglielmo, alias Valentino, years ago?” Valentino was outraged, challenging the author to a boxing match (although it might have been a woman), threw himself into boxing workouts and sparring sessions and crucially ignored his growing stomach pains—because a real man doesn’t pamper himself with doctors and hospitals.
Did the press kill Valentino? Maybe. But his death was the mass-hysterical event which set the seal on his passionate legend, with hundreds of thousands of fans clamouring for a glimpse of the coffin and news stories of fans committing suicide. Kenneth Anger’s cult guide to the secrets of the golden age movie world, Hollywood Babylon, devotes a great deal of space to Rudy’s tempestuous life and death, claiming that the elevator boy of the Ritz in Paris was found dead, covered in Valentino photographs.
Valentino was Hollywood’s first master of desire, an actor with a strange, unwholesome, histrionic and very real talent for exploiting emotion, for unrepressing America’s desires. He was the inventor of passion on the movie screen.