Rudolph Valentino, Hollywood’s first pop icon

The legendary actor was born 128 years ago today

Rudolph Valentino, Hollywood’s first pop icon

He was Hollywood’s first Pop icon, a prototype for dozens of actors to come reflected in the way he managed his stylish image and career. His premature death at the age of 31, solidified his icon status, that remain to this day, something very few silent era movie actors accomplished.

Rudolph Valentino was born with the very long name of Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella in Castellaneta, Apulia, Kingdom of Italy on May 6, 1895. After immigrating to the United States, Valentino found several different jobs that, due to his good looks, included being a “taxi dancer”, which consisted in being paid by women to dance (and sometimes more). Valentino started to pursue the acting career in 1917, joining an operetta company that traveled to Utah. By fall, he was in San Francisco with a bit part in a theatrical production of “Nobody Home”; there he met actor Norman Kerry who convinced him to try a career in cinema, a rising industry at the time. Both moved to Los Angeles becoming roomates at the famous Alexandria Hotel where Valentino continued dancing and also teaching dance. His good looks and charms were noticed by the female population, specially the rich older and married women. Struggling for a “place at the sun” in Hollywood, Valentino quickly got along with the right persons and by the early 1920’s he was holding in his hands a contract from Metro. His first big role was in the movie “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, released in 1921, becoming a huge commercial and critical success, earning $1,000,000 at the box office, the sixth-highest grossing silent film ever. The studios soon noticed that they could capitalize on Valentino’s image, and Valentino also understood that. It was a new thing, “star power”. They started calling him the “Latin lover”, and, still in 1921 he stars on what is perhaps his most memorable role, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan in “The Sheik”. The movie was again a big success and defined not only his career but his image and legacy.

His fast climbing in Hollywood led him to co-star alongside Gloria Swanson in the big production “Beyond the Rocks”, a film that contained lavish sets and extravagant costumes. In 1922, he starred in what he considered to be his best movie, “Blood and Sand”, playing the lead—bullfighter Juan Gallardo. “Blood and Sand” became one of the four top-grossing movies of 1922, breaking attendance records, and grossing $37,400 at the Rivoli Theatre alone. Rudolph Valentino, then, one of the best payed actors in Hollywood, shocked the industry when he went o strike, complaining about his salary. He sued Famous Players-Lasky, forerunner of the present-day Paramount Pictures, arguing he was earning $1,250 per week, with an increase to $3,000 after three years, $7,000 per week less than Mary Pickford made in 1916. The studio tried to settle by upping his salary from $1,250 to $7,000 a week, but in a move that back then was rarely seen by actors, Valentino angrily rejected the offer and went on to claim that artistic control was more of an issue than the money. During the rest of his career, Valentino remained one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood, but other things started to bother him as his popularity started to rise at a worldwide level. His sometimes androgynous look, effeminate yet, masculine, were causing controversy among not only male actors in general but also the “all American man”. Some journalists were calling his masculinity into question, going on at length about his pomaded hair, his dandyish clothing, his treatment of women, his views on women, and whether he was effeminate or not which angered Valentino. Rumors about his sexuality always had been around back then, and still to this day, his sexuality is much debatable among biographers and Hollywood historians. Valentino hated these stories and was known to carry the clippings of the newspaper articles around with him and criticize them. In July 1926, the Chicago Tribune reported that a vending machine dispensing pink talcum powder had appeared in an upscale hotel’s men’s washroom, and an editorial that followed used the story to protest the feminization of American men, blaming the talcum powder on Valentino and his films To prove his virility, Valentino and he challenged the writer to a boxing match, since dueling was illegal. The journalist refused and the New York Evening Journal boxing writer, Frank O’Neill, volunteered to fight in his place. Valentino won the famous bout, which took place on the roof of New York’s Ambassador Hotel.

On August 15, 1926, Valentino collapsed at the Hotel Ambassador on Park Avenue in Manhattan. He was hospitalized at the New York Polyclinic Hospital and diagnosed with appendicitis and gastric ulcers, and surgery was performed immediately, a condition that was referred to as “Valentino’s syndrome”. His boxing match earlier in July, was one of the causes for the sudden condition. During the early hours of Monday, August 23 Rudolph Valentino lapsed into a coma and died a few hours later at the age of 31. It was the end of a short, but influential and intense career. From that day, Valentino solidified his icon status. His death and funeral was as nothing ever seen for an actor, causing mass hysteria among his fans. There aren’t many people today that don’t recognize the name Rudolph Valentino, ironically, his acting “rival” back then Douglas Fairbanks, which was the opposite of the effeminate Valentino, remains almost buried in the past despite his amazing career, while the “Latin lover”, keeps finding an audience every generation.

Watch Rudolph Valentino’s iconic movie “The Sheik”, 1921

Watch Rudolph Valentino’s impressive funeral in New York, 1926

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