The sound of silence

How can you make a radio programme about a film star who never said a word on screen? Bob Sinfield reports on the search for Valentino's voice
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Why not just put out 60 minutes of blank tape? That was my initial and, I think, rather helpful suggestion when the BBC asked for an hour- long tribute to mark what would have been Rudolph Valentino's 100th birthday. After all, he really was the strong, silent type. Latter-day screen idols like Brando and Eastwood might be men of few words, but Valentino was a man of no words. He died a year before the first talking picture was made.

So, presumably, what attracted the female population of America so strongly (and incidentally repelled their male counterparts in equal measure) was "The Look". Hard to see now; examine the stills of such epics as The Sheik and you'll find yourself making instant comparisons with the work of Kenneth Williams. The shot in which he sweeps the swooning Agnes Ayres off to his tent looks for all the world like one of the saucier moments from Carry On up the Harem.

But, as Granny will tell you, things were different then. The abundance of war widows and their understandable thirst for escapism provided young Rudy with far more of a captive audience than even his boyhood dreams of adulation could have dared entertain. The opportunity to achieve all this was provided by screenwriter June Mathis, one of the very few women in the boy's life who wasn't after his body. Not that she was blind to his charms: it was Mathis who spotted Valentino's erotic potential amid the display of lounge lizardry he was obliged to give in his early roles. She cast him as Julio the playboy in MGM's fiscally ambitious Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, thereby prompting sighs of relief from the money men, who could smell the pulling power of a romantic element in what had previously been thought of as a war film.

Rudy didn't disappoint. In fact, his contribution was deemed so valuable that Mathis found herself re-writing the script in order to make Julio the central character. It was 1920 and he had attained stardom, a mere two years after his cinematic debut in a piece ironically entitled Alimony. Marital tangles and convoluted divorce settlements were soon to attract as much press interest as his upwardly spiralling career.

It might have helped if he hadn't married a lesbian, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Jean Acker was a young starlet whose rapport with the Italian immigrant appeared to be endless but, as it turned out, stopped short of the bedroom. A marriage based on such an unfortunate misunderstanding seems unthinkable outside the plot of a very bad farce, but worse was to come. Thinking he was free to remarry soon after the divorce, Valentino found himself on trial for bigamy. Californian law had it that a year must elapse between one marriage and the next, and Rudy's only defence option was to tell the court that his second marriage was, as yet, unconsummated. The Judge believed him and the incident stands as the one recorded example of Valentino giving a convincing verbal performance.

The second Mrs V was a woman of strong views who not only regarded her husband as an intellectual inferior but dismissed the entire acting profession as a bunch of vacuous pretenders. But Valentino was totally under her spell, and together they made life impossible for the studio heads, ever demanding bigger budgets, greater creative control and more "artistically suitable" projects for the boy than such sure-fire crowd-pleasers as The Sheik. Even his appearance as a matador in the comparatively upmarket Blood and Sand failed to impress her, as funds dictated it should be made in Hollywood and not on location in Spain. Finally, Ratacha caught a train that took her out of Valentino's life. Unlike his first wife, she didn't even bother to attend the memorial service.

In August 1926, Rudy was rushed to hospital suffering from a ruptured appendix. Complications ensued, he contracted peritonitis and died. Over 300,000 worshippers filed past his body as it lay in state in the window of a New York funeral parlour. His allure remained silent to the last. June Mathis was convinced that he would have gone on to greater heights, but there was a significant school of thought which held that Valentino's death coincided rather neatly with that of the silent era and that he was a specialist in non-speaking parts whose phenomenal appeal would have been drastically diminished by the need to match his actions with words. Just as a radio performance is, by necessity, all in the voice, perhaps it was the lack of speech imposed on the films of the 1920s that made Valentino's work all the more visually compelling. That's another thing Granny could have told you: it's the quiet ones you've got to watch.

Bob Sinfield's dramatised biography 'Valentino' is broadcast 6pm R2 Sat