The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 32: Rudolph Valentino

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The Independent Culture
He was born in Castellanata in Italy in 1895, the year the cinema, too, was born. And just as the medium in which he would make his reputation initially saddled itself with such top-heavy names as kinetoscope and praxinoscope and the next-to-unpronouncable phenakitoscope before it was finally agreed to call it the cinema, so he was actually christened Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaele Pierre Philibert Gugliemi. As the first and by far the sexiest of Hollywood's Latin lovers, however, he became famous - became, indeed, the most famous film star of his day - as Rudolph Valentino. Or just Valentino.

So languorously potent was his eroticism, that name began to be employed in a generic sense. "He's a real Valentino," people would say of some dapper ladies' man, exactly as they might have said "a real Don Juan". This, in spite of the fact that his performances were far from universally appreciated (his public was exclusively feminine) and his androgynous mannerisms attracted media comment of a kind that nowadays would have everyone hauled into court. He was once alliteratively anathematised thus by an editorial in the Chicago Tribune: "When will we be rid of all these effeminate youths, pomaded, powdered, bejewelled and bedizened in the image of Rudy - that painted pansy?"

Valentino's death in 1926 (from a perforated ulcer) was, as they say, the first day of the second half of his life. His funeral was as starry and spectacular as a Hollywood premiere, with thousands of flamboyantly grieving women lining the streets and vague, never-to-be-confirmed rumours of mass suicides. He was no longer a star, he was a cult, a myth, an archetype, and his name lived on posthumously, like a racehorse that has thrown its jockey.

His films are seldom screened today, even in an archivist context, partly because all of them are silent but mostly because he never worked with a director worthy of his personality and, yes, his talent. The most celebrated, Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an overlong and overwrought melodrama, deserves to be seen only for its leading man. As with the Cheshire Cat's smile, everything of Valentino has faded except the name - and, in a supreme indignity, even that has now had to yield to an Italian dress designer.