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The Mystique Lives On
by drednm on July 10, 2007More than 80 years after his death, the name of Rudolph Valentino is still instantly recognizable to most movie fans--even those who have never seen one of his films.
Emily Leider does an excellent job in showing us the man behind the legend, the man behind the mask. The story of his youth in Italy strikes a chord with readers even now because of his restlessness, his searching for something. Valentino was not a good student and not cut out for the military career he thought he wanted. Finally, after failing at both, the 18 year year old bravely sailed for America. He sailed alone; he knew no one in the New World. Neither did he speak English.
He landed in New York City, the center of immigrant life and quickly made connections with other Italians who could show him the ropes. He groped around with menial jobs, anything he could get, until he discovered dancing. Dancing in pre-World War I New York was a specialty Valentino was made for. The "tea rooms" where he danced attracted lonely women who paid for the pleasure of learning the latest ballroom dances. Was Valentino a gigolo? Maybe.
With his dark good looks, smouldering eyes, and ability to learn the dance steps quickly, Valentino became a well-paid and sought after dancer. He made connections with wealthy women, broke into films (shot on Long Island) in small roles, and made a lot of enemies. After a scandal broke concerning a dead husband and a messy trial, Valentino headed west. He landed in San Francisco but soon migrated to Hollywood to try his luck in pictures again.
He ingratiated himself with picture people, landed some small roles, and was doing ok with the help of actors like Norman Kerry and Alla Nazimova. But it was his friendship with writer June Mathis that would land him his first major role in a film that would catapult him to stardom. The film was "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."
Leider carries us through the heady period of Valentino's movie stardom, his failed marriages to Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova, his maybe affair with Pola Negri, and the rumors of his affairs with men. We learn of the hideous legal entanglements (bigamy) and fights with studios (over money) that got him banished from films for more than a year. We learn of Valentino's national tour in a dance act with Rambova and his triumphant return to films.
We get a lot of information about Valentino's big films like "Blood and Sand," "The Sheik," "Cobra," "Beyond the Rocks," "The Eagle," and his final film, "Son of the Sheik." Leider also fills us in on Rudy's interest in the occult and his poetry writing (a 1923 best seller titled "Day Dreams").
Ultimately, Leider's story must end with the sad and shocking death of this great star and icon. She details and blazing headlines that followed the daily hospital reports of Valentino's illness (peritonitis?), his seeming recovery, and swift relapse into a coma and death. The media frenzy surrounding Valentino's illness and death is still unsurpassed. I have seen the newsreel footage of the hordes of people who swarmed the city streets in hopes of seeing Valentino's coffin. Leider shows newspaper accounts of the riots that ensued as tens of thousands of people tried to get one last glimpse of their idol. There were suicides in reaction to Valentino's death. There was the mysterious "woman in black" who followed his coffin west by train as it made its way across country. And of course there was Pola Negri screaming out her love for Valentino, stories of their impending marriage, and accusations of murder..
Leider balances this frenzy with the thoughtful remembrances of Valentino's friends and co-stars like Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, Alice Terry, Vilma Banky, Constance Talmadge, Agnes Ayres, Bebe Daniels, and his big rival, Ramon Novarro.
A must for film buffs. A must for anyone who ever wondered who Rudolph Valentino really was.
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