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Monday, October 12, 2020

A Screen Idol Takes It To His Audience


The Eagle (1925) Lets Rudy Get Everything Right

Rudy speaks!, except he never did, at least into microphones (wireless transmissions, yes, but who has them?). He sang, and not badly, albeit for primitive recording. He barely missed sound for exit on 8/23/26 at age thirty-one. Don Juan and Vitaphone had opened but weeks before (suppose he got a glimpse?). Long wish of mine was to hear Valentino, knowing chance of that to be same as most any nineteenth century notable leaving behind a voice (and yet, surprising numbers did, including names you’d not imagine … check You Tube for samples). More than one interviewer asked silent era survivors what Rudy sounded like, figuring his foreignness might mean an impenetrable accent. Not so, said one, Carmel Myers, “his voice was just beautiful.” Everything about Valentino seemed beautiful over years after he left, a halo hung by those who treasured an era he so strongly defined. Couple of movies were made about his life that were really some fictional guy’s story who had little to do with Rudy. There would never be a star like him again (would-be’s, yes, none to approach him), but what if Rudy had stayed, stayed long enough for talkies to reject him for any number of “sound” reasons. We know the casualty list of silent favorites far exceeds those who made the grade. Suppose John Gilbert had died that August day instead of Valentino. Would their endgames be simply reversed, history telling the sad decline of a once supreme Latin Lover, while lionizing a greatest of voiceless heartthrobs that was premature passed Gilbert? None of rivals along Latin line prospered on that basis with talk, most bent toward character work (and excelling at it --- Gilbert Roland, Antonio Moreno, Ramon Novarro). Valentino was most luckless for not living longer, something he obviously would have preferred even if the career had tailed off.

Indications are that Rudy was slipping as his close neared. A final two features, arguably the best of work he left, did less than hoped. The Eagle, a bolt off Fairbanks cloth, had dash, humor, Valentino less torrid, more sincere, in short putting over tops of his line, but was his a product near expiration? I compared figures for The Eagle beside other United Artists output of the time, was surprised it did not do better than $841K in domestic rentals (Little Annie Rooney took $1.1 million, The Black Pirate $1.5 million). Son of the Sheik would be an improvement with $1.3 million, some, if not much, of that attributable to morbid interest following Valentino’s unexpected death. For a vehicle so calibrated to public taste, The Eagle should have been the spike Rudy needed, or was he done in by a string of clucks Paramount earlier handed him? Very self-aware were remarks Valentino made when he appeared on stage for the Mark Strand premiere of The Eagle on Broadway. Part of what myself and doubtless much of his public liked about Valentino was that he did not kid himself as to who he was and what he had to sell. Even serrated-edge H.L. Mencken wrote a sympathetic profile when Rudy came to him for advice in managing press criticism gone lately to personal attacks. Valentino understood the value of a high-profile supporter in Mencken and so flattered him by seeking the help. Was this a calculated move? If so, it was a clever one, for Mencken was solidly in Rudy’s corner, a rare thing for rude indifference the columnist generally showed to screen personalities.

Original Caption Says Rudy Studies Hungarian and Vilma Banky English So They Can Talk to One Another

It was known by trade and public that Valentino was done with Paramount, fault shared by both quarreling sides. Interloping independent Joseph Schenck advanced Rudy what it took to complete dream home that was Falcon Lair, paying him $10K per week besides. Money for Valentino was like water through a sieve. You could give twice as much and he’d find ways to squander it. His union with Natascha Rambova was also in collapse. They posed kissy-bye as she entrained East, both aware the marital deal was done, but not realizing they were seeing a last of one another here. A nasty scribe called Rudy a sissy and bad influence on men as a whole, to which Italian hot-blood demanded a duel, at least a punch-up should RV come across the loudmouth. Here was what primarily led to the Mencken summit. Most saw The Eagle as needed tonic to virilize Valentino. Director Clarence Brown (seen above introducing his daughter to Valentino on the set) and once-writer-for Lubitsch Hans Kraly were assets Paramount had not, would not, expend on talent they took for granted. Rudy said frankly to trade press, “I have no desire to try to change public taste, even if that were possible.” He knew and said that Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheik were so-far highlights of a brief starring career. “The fans seem to want to see me in colorful, romantic roles and situations,” exotic costumes a necessary component to that. Valentino had sense enough to recognize what worked best for him after taking some frankly bad and contrary advise. He would listen now to those with ears closest to turnstiles. Rudy crossed country for New York’s Strand premiere to watch and hear for himself how a public would react to The Eagle.

Jack Dempsey Schools Valentino On How To Handle Those Who Would Impugn His Manhood

November 8, 1925 was the rainy day, 3000 jamming streets to fill 2,989 available seats inside. Word got out that Valentino was there, but he wanted to see The Eagle and gauge response, so did not alight the stage until a finish. Meantime there was a live prologue, the 1812 Overture, followed by “festive singing and dancing, to Russian melodies.” Trades would review live portions from B’way presentation houses in often hair-split detail, down to lighting effects, where spots landed, color of gels applied, these a most critical aspect of programs, for here is how theatres were truly judged. The full-up Strand, plus standing room close-in, heard Rudolph Valentino speak, a first time for virtually all listeners. Hordes stood vigil at the stage door Rudy would later exit, nothing left to chance for this unique occasion. Wonder what letters, diaries, or scrapbooks survive to give us their impressions. Fortunately, there is Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review to quote Rudy’s words from the stage: “Mr. Valentino … thanked the audience for its reception of the picture, adding that he felt sure that by it he would regain that popularity that he had enjoyed a few years ago.” Rudy admitted to the audience “that his preceding photoplay, The Sainted Devil, was a poor picture.” Clearly he had washed his hands of Paramount. How often did any star stand before thousands and acknowledge his/her last effort as unworthy? I’m betting the crowd took Valentino very much to bosoms for his candor. And to think many of these would overflow streets less than a year later to view the actor’s funeral cortege. Trades was meanwhile watchful: “It is no secret that much of Rudolph’s future hinges on this picture. A smashing success right now would doubtless bring him back with a bang --- which explains why he wants to be right on the ground when it (The Eagle) opens in New York.”

Clarence Brown Directs Bears That Will Menace Rudy at High Points of The Eagle

The Eagle
had a terrific opener week, near $50K in receipts, and was held for a second. What with disguises he assumes, you could say the star has three roles here, none played heavy, all laced for laughs a fresh direction for Valentino, intent on giving his public fun for their money. A next, and fated to be last, Son of the Sheik, kept levity with the mix. These final two play best of the actor’s output. Of silent stars, Valentino had a largest post-sound surge thanks to nationwide bookings of The Sheik, with an added score, that proved an unexpected hit for Paramount in 1938, a year well into audience impulse to jeer, or be mystified, by mute performing, ten years a lifetime or close for youth in attendance. And yes, they rollicked at The Sheik as it answered yes to all they guessed about old time movies better left to old times, save for chuckles an odd specimen might supply. Emil Jensen of independent Artcinema Associates was versed in retread of tires flat or with air enough to earn at least small house dates. He leased Son of the Sheik, and some months later, The Eagle, to eventual play singly, or as a pair. Whereas 1938-39 viewers could laugh at The Sheik, chances were better they would laugh with these. Critics noted polish few expected. Turns out Valentino delivered entertainment goods as efficiently as modern Hollywood. How different was The Eagle, after all, from present-day melodramas cast from same essential mold? To be more frank, what modern releases were so handsome as what The Eagle put on display? Here were audiences confronted by a silent movie they could not ridicule. Was there disappointment for that?

The Eagle
was early to television. ABC saw ratings success with it in 1948, a novelty, and free besides. The Eagle and Son of the Sheik went into the Public Domain, prints sold to those with 8 and 16mm projectors to home-show them. Blackhawk Films had The Eagle in an abridged version. What remained of it came largely from Paul Killiam material. Raymond Rohauer was said to have elements used for a laser disc release of some years back. Neither did The Eagle full justice. Silent films truly rise or fall on print quality. Without it, you’ve got no show, or a substandard one. Kino lately put out a Blu-Ray to best-we’re-likely-to-get response. It will do because it will have to do. Older I get, the easier it is to adjust to such reality, maybe for finally knowing perfection is never attainable (but look at The Big Parade, The General, Wings, a few others that come close). The Eagle pleases withal, brief enough not to tire at 73 minutes, the film designed from a start for dawdle-free pace. 1938-39 observers were right to note how modern The Eagle played. To a large extent, it still does, and that is thanks to Valentino, who understood by this point what was needed to freshen his persona and hold a changing audience. Problem was times changing out from under him, which he could barely see coming thanks to departure at eve of an industry’s biggest so-far convulsion. Do Valentino’s admirers like him best for such ideal, if not deliberate, timing?


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Ricardo Cortez was promoted as a Latin lover (thanks to a name change). Sound converted him into an edgy leading man. Perhaps the same would have happened to Rudy.

It's remarkable how long Valentine's aura lasted. 40 years after he died, I was hearing references to him on TV and radio. How many of today's stars will have the same long-lasting effect?

9:13 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Good excuse to revisit your piece on "Dreamboat", which mocked silents for being silly and mocked television for mocking silents, and incidentally speculated on the fate of silent stars (Ginger Rogers feigns washed-up poverty to get Clifton Webb on board with her TV show). Random bloviations on silent star destinies:

Baby Peggy, who died this year, went through rough years (but not nearly so lurid as some) before making peace and a life for herself. I recall a documentary where she recalled watching her little son play and feeling inexplicable resentment. Eventually she realized it was the fact he wasn't hard at work, the way she was at that age. That made an impression.

American Heritage -- back when it was a hardbound magazine rather than a respected brand of dictionary -- had a piece about Valentino's death and funeral titled "The Overloved One". I wasn't old enough to get the joke of the title, but I was fascinated by the tales of exploitation. To wit: There was an early run of the funeral procession for the press, so papers with front-page photos were hitting the street before the actual event began. At the time I only knew Valentino as an icon and gag.

Dick Van Dyke starred in Carl Reiner's "The Comic", following the anti-hero Billy Bright through what could be Buster Keaton's life, if Keaton was an unaware SOB and didn't have a happy last act (note Van Dyke's old age makeup). The movie begins with Bright narrating his 1960s funeral and recalling his rise and fall. At one point he fantasizes dying at his peak like Valentino: A nation grieves, and his distraught ex-wife tries to drag his coffin from the grave. An uneven film, ultimately playing out the cliche of the washed-up old-time star. Nominally "true" biopics often try to contrive a happy ending; a favorite gimmick is asserting that a big comeback and/or reconciliation with partners/loved ones was about to happen when the biographee died.

A couple of silent stars who fell interestingly between the extremes of glamorous comeback and pitiful fadeout:

Recently viewed the Reginald Denny Collection, a triple feature of light romantic comedies. He joined the other idols who transitioned to character parts, unable to play all-American boys with a very proper English accent. "The Parade's Gone By" gives Denny a chapter, noting that he'd largely dismissed his silent stardom and was a bit skittish about viewing "Skinner's Dress Suit" after decades (It's good, but I preferred the more farcical "What Happened to Jones?"). He and his family were relieved and then surprised it held up.

A while ago I found "Vamp", an affectionate biography of Theda Bara by Eve Gordon. An intelligent young stage actress, Bara gamely played the exotic femme offscreen for the press and public, telling whoppers invented by Fox publicity men. Then she'd retreat to her bland real life. She outlived her brief vogue by decades, well off, contentedly married, a master chef and fun lady. But she was forever p*ssed off that she never got to show her range after vamps abruptly became jokes (yet raged when a 50s magazine called Pola Negri the FIRST vamp).

4:59 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I first began showing silent films in the late 1960s I ran BLOOD AND SAND (1922) with a powerful Spanish guitar soundtrack created by a friend. I had created a more conventional score but this one broke all the rules I imagined existed (they don't exist). It never attempted to match the music to the action (as conventional scores do). You could turn off the movie and listen to the music.

What it did was to quietly allow the picture to tell its story without attempting to manipulate the emotions of the audience. I ran the program every night for several months. All the women young and old walked out with rivers of tears running down their faces often to the consternation of their male companions.

It was a real lesson in presentation and in film scoring.

When I score a silent film I watch it several times silently. Gradually I begin to hear a score in my imagination. Then I begin the process of making the imaginary concrete. I want the audience to move slightly forward in their sets as the story grips them. Often when people walk out who have seen the same film elsewhere they say, "That's how I always imagined the film should sound."

I hated the score created for Abel Gance's NAPOLEON by Carmine Coppola who described the picture as an "antique." If it is so is the music of Beethoven, Mozart, are the plays of Shakespeare and others.

THE EAGLE is one of my favorites. Thanks for this piece. You're right about Valentino and money. He died broke. June Mathis paid for his crypt at Hollywood Cemetery.

Another friend who liked my work with music and silent film accepted my invitation to score Lillian Gish in LA BOHEME. He edited a publication on classical music.His score is synchronized to the picture which was projected at silent speed unlike the Warner Archive dvd version. Again the impact of a great film with great music resulted in women and, this time men, walking out with tear streamed faces.

For THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) I created a score that presents the girl as a gold digger and the Phantom as the hero. Again people walk out saying, "That is how I always imagined the film should sound."

My most radical score was putting RADIOHEAD to NOSFERATU (1922). Suddenly the film becomes timeless. One reviewer wrote, "Reg Hartt has a way of making the old suddenly seem new and the new seem everlasting."

If silent films are not to be relegated to the dust bins they need to move beyond being seen as antiques, they need to become "suddenly new."

The theaters in which those films were first seen sat thousands. Those thousands, beginning with THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) paid top Broadway prices. They did that because the movies delivered.

Today's theaters seat hundreds and often have trouble getting that.

The movie going experience is not what it once was.

When I did my programs in huge theaters people said afterwards, "You make this theater feel like your living room."

Today, since 1992, I have used my living room. People now say, "You make your living room feel like a theater."

The University of Toronto VARSITY newspaper stated, "We rarely feel a film's greatness in film class. We often feel it at Reg Hartt's CineForum."

If this seems like self promotion let it. In an episode of THE HONEYMOONERS Jackie Gleason's character Ralph wrote a song everyone (including we the audience) laughed at as terrible. The show ended with the song we had laughed at sung straight by an A list singer. It went on to become a hit.

I was in my early teens when I saw that show. It was a huge lesson in the importance of presentation.

D. W. Griffith with THE BIRTH OF A NATION raised the movies from a five and dime business to equal footing with "Legitimate Theater."

The movies themselves took it back to being "cheap entertainment," back to its five and dime Nickleodeon origins. Doing so the movies made themselves irrelevant.

9:04 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers THE EAGLE from early-60's TV:

“Silents Please” came on well after my bedtime as a boy. I would ask my mother to be sure to wake me up so that I could watch it and, always, she promised that she would. As often as not, however, I would wake up in my bed in the gray light of early morning, realizing that I had not seen my show. I would remonstrate with her, but she would assure me that she had tried to wake me up, but that I just wanted to stay asleep. I could not quite believe that, though in retrospect, there might have been some truth to it. I remember the first time I tried to watch “The Big Sleep,” about five years later, only to wake up on the living room floor with a test pattern playing on the television.

When “Silents Please” showed “The Eagle,” however, this was one of the occasions when my mother did succeed in awakening me, so that I was able to watch it. Of course, this was only a condensation of the film, made for a half-hour show, but it remains the only time I ever saw it or any part of it. The impression I formed then was of a horseman galloping over sun-lit meadows, a beautiful lady in a coach courted by him with dash and swagger, and a queen looking on in envy and admiration. I liked it. No doubt these were only the aspects that would have touched the consciousness of little boy and not the film as it is, and doubtless even what I recall has been affected by the filter of the years. After reading this piece, however, I have an idea that I should like to revisit it, and to see it again as though for the first time.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

THE EAGLE was one of the earliest silent movies shown on TV, with the first documented showing 12/12/48 on WJZ, the ABC flagship in New York City.

11:47 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers Rudy's potential as a pugilist:

You've probably read about Rudolf Valentino being derided as a "pink powderpuff," after a Chicago reporter supposedly saw a face powder dispenser in the men's room of a local saloon. I tend to regard the story as something concocted with a deadline approaching. Possibly he recalled that a cosmetic called Mineralava Beauty Clay sponsored the dance tour of Valentino and Natasha Rambova and went to town with it. Rudy took offense, of course, and decided to reupholster his manhood. There were pictures of Jack Dempsey supposedly lending his expertise to him, when he called out the reporter. Unfortunately, there were also some films made of him sparring. He had a great physique and was, of course, a very graceful dancer, so it was surprising how awkward and unfamiliar with basic boxing technique he was. He would take a couple of rocking steps towards his sparring partner and shove out his left, as though he was pushing a door open. His right was very low and his chin was tilted upwards, in a "go on and hit me" position. Even a scribe whose training was limited to lifting a foot on to the bar rail wouldn't have had any problems with that. Rudy was fortunate that the fight never came off, or he would have had more than a receding hair line to worry about.

2:51 PM  

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