Rudolph Valentino: Iconic "Latin Lover" Became Hollywood Activist

Rudolph Valentino

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One of Hollywood's most legendary silent era stars, Rudolph Valentino, was also a significant industry trailblazer. Born Rodolfo Alfonso Rafaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla in 1895 in Castellaneta, Italy, the man who would eventually be known as Rudolph Valentino immigrated to the United States in 1913 and made a living as a "taxi dancer" (a dance partner for hire) and playing bit-parts as a dancer in films before arriving in Hollywood in 1918.

Valentino was one of the first actors whose image became a sensation in pop culture, and also one of the first Hollywood stars to successfully demand for better pay and creative control over his projects.

Fast Facts: Rudolph Valentino

  • Full Name: Rodolfo Alfonso Rafaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla
  • Occupation: Actor
  • Born: May 6, 1895 in Castellaneta, Puglia, Italy
  • Died: August 23, 1926 in New York City, United States
  • Notable Films: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Sheik (1921), Blood and Sand (1922), The Son of the Sheik (1926)
  • Spouse(s): Jean Acker (1919-1923), Natacha Rambova (1923-1925)

Initial Fame

Valentino was the breakout star of the epic war movie The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, released in March 1921. He portrayed an Argentine playboy who joins the French Army to fight in World War I after an idle life of pursuing pleasure. Valentino demonstrated his ability as a dancer in a famous tango sequence. Metro Pictures executives were hesitant to cast Valentino not only because he was relatively unknown, but also because his physical appearance didn’t match that of leading men of the day, such as Douglas Fairbanks, Richard Bathelmess, and Wallace Reid. However, screenwriter June Mathis insisted that Valentino was perfect for the part (Mathis would become close friends with Valentino). She was right—The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was the biggest box office hit of 1921.

Portrait of Rudolph Valentino
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Despite praise for Valentino in reviews and the glowing coverage of him in fan magazines, Metro Pictures did not seek to fully capitalize on Valentino’s growing stardom and did not raise his $350 a week salary. Other box office stars at that time were earning weekly salaries that exceeded ten times that amount. Instead, Metro underutilized Valentino in his next three films despite his increasing stardom. Believing that Metro would not use him to his full potential, Valentino quit and signed with Famous Players-Lasky (which would later become Paramount Pictures) for a weekly salary nearly triple what Metro had been paying him. Almost immediately, Famous Players-Lasky cast him in the title role of The Sheik, released in October 1921.

Valentino's Image

The Sheik, which took full advantage of Valentino’s sex appeal by featuring him as a mysterious, seductive Arabian sheik, was another huge box office hit and it solidified Valentino’s “Latin lover” image. Valentino's reputation as the irresistible "Great Lover of the Silver Screen" influenced fashion and culture in a way that few movie stars had done before, making him arguably the first male sex symbol of the silver screen. Men began copying his slicked-back hairstyle, dubbed the "Vaselino," and when he grew a Van Dyke beard for one of his films that was widely copied as well. His on-screen dancing popularized the tango. Valentino's image was so familiar in pop culture that comedian Stan Laurel (before gaining worldwide fame as part of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team) appeared in two parody films as "Rhubarb Vaselino," Mud and Sand (1922) and Monsieur Don't Care (1924).

While that image won Valentino legions of female fans, it led the predominantly male media to question Valentino’s manhood. Infamously, the Chicago Tribune blamed Valentino for promoting "effeminacy" in men (Valentino challenged the unidentified writer to a boxing match to prove his masculinity, but the challenge went unanswered). Valentino was also the subject of innuendo in the press regarding his sexuality, though there is little evidence that he was anything other than heterosexual. Valentino was often irate by the beating his image took in the press.

'Blood and Sand' Film Still
Actor Rudolph Valentino in a scene from the movie 'Blood and Sand'. Donaldson Collection / Getty Images

Later Career

Valentino was now a sensation, appearing in one of the highest-grossing films of 1922, Blood and Sand, and also appeared in a troubled production, The Young Rajah. Part of the latter film's problems were of Valentino's own doing—in between the productions of Blood and Sand and The Young Rajah, he was arrested for bigamy for marrying costume designer Natacha Rambova before the end of a one-year waiting period required by California law after a divorce (Valentino had divorced his first wife, Jean Acker, several months earlier). The scandal did not hurt Valentino's popularity with audiences much, as evidenced by the huge success of Blood and Sand, and he again felt he was not being paid what he was truly worth.

Valentino declared a "one man strike" against Famous Players-Lansky. Not only did Valentino demand a higher salary, but he also insisted on more control over his projects. The two sides battled it out in the press, and Famous Players-Lasky blocked any other studio from hiring him. Unable to work in film, Valentino went on a hugely successful 88-city dance tour that brought him close to his adoring fans. During the tour, Valentino struck a new deal with Famous Players-Lansky that increased his weekly salary and gave him and his wife a measure of creative control over Valentino's films. It was a groundbreaking deal for an actor, which unfortunately for Valentino ended when his next few films were expensive and financially unsuccessful, with many in the industry blaming Rambova's expensive costume and set designs on the escalating costs of his movies. His final project for Famous Players-Lansky, The Hooded Falcon, was cancelled mid-production.

Vilma Banky and Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Sheik
Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky are shown in 'Son of the Sheik,' 1926. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Valentino's career was salvaged by United Artists, the studio established just five years earlier by D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, with a lucrative contract with the condition that his wife would no longer be involved with his film projects (the pair would divorce in 1925). When his first UA film, The Eagle, continued Valentino's lukewarm box office streak, he (reportedly reluctantly) agreed to star in a sequel to one of his most famous films, The Son of the Sheik. While on a promotional tour for the film, Valentino died in New York City at age 31 due to peritonitis after surgery for stomach ulcers.

Legacy

While Valentino was not the first movie star to die young, his death resulted in an outpouring of grief. His public funeral became a media event, and stories of his exploits and circumstances surrounding his death appeared in tabloids for months afterwards. His premature death, subsequent public response, and iconic status—all of which helped make The Son of the Sheik a huge hit—established a pattern that other stars who died prematurely would experience.

Valentino's image has remained iconic in Hollywood history, and his "Latin lover" image lived on with actors who took on similar roles. Though ridiculed for his appearance throughout his career and criticized for his stance on compensation and creative control, Valentino established a path that many Hollywood stars would follow.