Brian Viner's Icons of The 20th Century: Rudolph Valentino, Film Star

  • @vinerbrian
THE MOST potent icons of the cinema are those who made the shrewd if drastic career move of dying young - among them Marilyn Monroe and James Dean and, perhaps above all, Rudolf Valentino. The appearance of Valentino's brother Alberto, who survived into old age, suggests that, had he lived, the Great Lover might have ended his days looking rather like Coronation Street's Albert Tatlock. As it was, Valentino's death in 1926 at the age of 31, from peritonitis brought on by a perforated ulcer, immortalised him as rakishly handsome.

To millions of American women Valentino was also a sexual predator, irresistibly selfish and domineering. But he was not much like his screen alter ego. In reality he was gentle and weak-willed, possibly bisexual, and certainly dominated by his second wife Natacha Rambova (whose real name was the marginally less exotic Winifred Hudnut).

Valentino's real name was Rodolfo Guglielmi, and although the myth persists that his family were illiterate Italian peasants, the more prosaic truth is that they were middle class; his father was a veterinary surgeon. Nevertheless, Rodolfo emigrated to America when he was 18, and worked as a night-club dancer in New York. Here he became embroiled in the scandalous De Saulles case, which erupted when a celebrated society beauty shot her estranged husband. Sensibly, he then moved to Hollywood, changed his name, and landed some minor film roles, before his powerful performance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) turned him into a star to rival the arch-swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks.

Valentino's rolling eyes and quivering nostrils, which rolled and quivered even more spectacularly in his second major film, The Sheik (also 1921), look absurd by today's standards of acting. But he took America - and, in particular, American women - by storm. The Sheik, though an inferior film to Four Horsemen, was a box-office sensation, and "Sheik-mania" swept the country, inspiring the hit song, "The Sheik of Araby", and even influencing interior design.

Men, meanwhile, were less enamoured of Valentino. They didn't mind their wives and girlfriends falling for the all-American Fairbanks, but Valentino, darn it, was a foreigner. When powder-dispensing machines started appearing in men's washrooms, the blame fell squarely on Valentino, who was promptly nicknamed "The Pink Powder Puff" and felt obliged to defend his reputation by staging an exhibition boxing match refereed by Jack Dempsey. But criticism of him gathered ferocity. "Why didn't someone quietly drown Rudolf Guglielmi, alias Valentino, years ago?" wondered the Chicago Tribune.

By the mid-Twenties, Valentino's career, like his marriage to Rambova, was on the rocks. But cynical sequels are by no means a modern phenomenon, and the success of The Son of the Sheik (1925) revived some of his flagging appeal. It took his death, however, to restore the star to the heights of his former popularity. And then some. The death of Valentino made headlines all over the world, and the mass hysteria at his funeral was crowned by the melodramatic performance of his lover, the actress Pola Negri, whose convulsions of grief would not have disgraced The Sheik.

Behind the anguish, there seems little doubt that Negri spotted a great PR opportunity. She asked for Valentino's coffin to be covered with a blanket of white roses, with red roses in the centre spelling out the name POLA in foot-high letters. To her barely concealed fury, the funeral organisers refused. And so she had to settle for collapsing in what appeared to be a dead faint as Rudolf Valentino, icon, was laid to rest.