Had Rudolph Valentino not become seriously ill and died 92 years ago, he would, right about now, have been busy filming his third spectacular for United Artists Corp., at the Fairbanks-Pickford Lot, in California. Cellini, the tentative title, we know. But what was it about? Who was to star in it? Which director had been selected? These questions and others need answering.
What got me really interested in this unmade project – I already was a bit by-the-way – was something “motion picture magnate” Joseph M. Schenck said to reporters on the 17th of August 1926. Having failed, along with Screenstar wife Norma Talmadge, to gain entry to Valentino’s Polyclinic suite, the Chairman of the Board of Directors was pressed for a statement. Surprisingly, he revealed how the death of ‘The Great Lover’, should it occur, could cost United Artists $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. (Four million dollars then being $57,000,000 now.) His blunt pronouncement woke me up to the scale of the pact between Joe and Rudy. There was a great deal riding on each of the five productions (two of which had been completed). Nothing had been uncovered yet. The more I looked the more I found. With perhaps the most fascinating item being a tiny, blink-and-you’d-miss-it report, about how seriously unhappy Rudolph was, and that he was planning to cancel his contract and leave the studio. But more about that later.
The origins of the vehicle that was never to be? Perhaps the credit for the idea should be handed to Robert G. Lisman, who, in his The Play, From The Picture Angle column, in the November 15th 1924 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, wrote:
“THE FIREBRAND,” a comedy by Justus Mayer, presented by Schwab, Liveright and Mandel, at the Morosco Theatre on October the 15th, 1924.
The hero is Cellini, the famous Italian sculptor of the fifteenth [sic] century. At a glance the play appears to be a dramatization of a “Decameron Night.” [sic] The lines are salacious but nothing very censorable happens. Romance and action are always good picture material and with slight changes this play should make a good vehicle for Valentino.”
If Rudy didn’t see this suggestion – he probably would’ve – it proved to be a prophetic one. And a quick look at the play shows why Lisman reached the conclusion he did. And also why others (including Valentino) did too.
Edwin Justus Mayer‘s play, his first, was, as VARIETY stated that month: “… rattling good entertainment…” In the title’s review by Edba, the central character is Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine Creative Genius whose many transgressions have, so far at least, been overlooked due to his value as an artist. Recent lawlessness can’t be condoned, however, and Allesandro Duke of Florence is on his way to pass sentence of death. When the Duke sees Angela, Benvenuto’s love interest, he’s distracted and fails to order the execution. After inviting Cellini to the palace he departs with the girl; before the arrival of the Duchess, who, likewise, invites the craftsman. (To regain Angela he agrees.) At the ducal seat, after more killing with his sword, Benvenuto has to find a way to retrieve his girl, while placating the Duke’s amorous wife. Following hilarity on the balcony he escapes to his studio for one last night of bliss before he dies. Attempting to complete his art there before dying, and tired of love, he dispatches Angela to Duke Allesandro. Cheats death, again, at the hands of Ottaviano, Allesandro’s cousin. And soothes the wrathful Duchess with an artful explanation as to why he never arrived in her boudoir. The play concludes with them making fresh plans for that evening.
The Firebrand was aided by two things: Mayer’s talent and the Male Lead. Having been employed on the East and West coasts by Goldwyn Pictures Corp., from 1919 to 1922, Edwin Justus Mayer had, as his still amusing and insightful syndicated column for the concern in those years testifies, learned all about film-making. Meanwhile, the Star, Joseph Schildkraut, a stage actor, had already performed successfully in front of the camera; most notably under the direction of D. W. Griffith in Orphans of the Storm. And, interestingly in this context, had, the previous year, portrayed a Valentino-like character opposite Norma Talmadge, in The Song of Love. (No wonder then that Robert G. Lisman saw Rudy in the part!)
Though his clever work was ripe for the Silver Sheet and one of its icons its pathway was far from smooth. Firstly there had already been two films with the same title. One, with Virginia Pearson, in 1918, produced by Fox Film Corp. And another, with Franklyn Farnum, in 1922, released by Phil Goldstone. Yet the true obstacle was that in the Spring of 1925 the office of Will H. Hays announced that the play was banned from ever being adapted for the screen. Why wasn’t made clear. But banned it was. Alongside They Knew What They Wanted, and two novels, The Green Hat and The Constant Nymph.
A year later, and before a solution to the problem was revealed, a small piece in the May 26th 1926 edition of VARIETY, demonstrated, to anyone taking notice, that Rudy’s issues went way beyond questionable scenes and dialogue. The single column, three paragraph report, on page 15, headed: Valentino, Needing Money, May Switch to Get It, is one I never encountered before. And, for me, it’s another reason RV was suffering so much that August. In essence, he was considering switching from United Artists to P. D. C.: the Producers Distributing Corporation. The reason? Money!
The report reveals that Joe Schenck was contractually obliged to fund only two of the five films the concern would distribute. By the Summer he had. So it was now S. George Ullman’s responsibility to secure cash from Wall Street to cover the further productions. Had he? Did he have clout in the finance district? Perhaps not. Could it be why Rudolph met with the United Artists’ President instead of returning West? Was it why he and his Business Manager weren’t speaking? We don’t know. Regardless, the article gives us a tantalising glimpse into the financial turmoil that year; as well as hinting at the distinct possibility that, without the funding or a successful shift to DeMille, his career was at a standstill once again, and potentially over for good.
Despite money troubles, in the June and July announcements came thick and fast. The Firebrand would be the basis for Rudolph Valentino’s next “starring vehicle”. Edwin Justus Mayer would prepare the scenario from his own work minus offending segments. John Emerson had sold the property to Joseph M. Schenck for $20,000 (which was then denied by Schenck). Estelle Taylor was to be Rudy’s co-Star. And Fred Niblo would be the film’s director.
Taylor, despite her obvious charms, stood in stark contrast to Vilma Banky, RV’s Female Lead in The Eagle (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). However, though the narrative was largely comedic, the role (of the Duchess of Florence) required someone with a hint of wickedness. And as this was something she’d already demonstrated by the truck load, as Lucrezia Borgia, in John Barrymore’s 1926 epic Don Juan, it meant she was ideal.
The fact they were well acquainted – Estelle was married to Rudy’s Pal ‘Jack’ Dempsey – was a bonus. Had it influenced the decision? Hard to say. But as Valentino was known to enjoy working with friends it wouldn’t be a surprise. How comfortable they were in each other’s company is clear in the press image of them, breakfasting, reproduced in Donna L. Hill’s 2010 publication: Rudolph Valentino the Silent Idol.
Fred Niblo, another friend, had already directed Rudolph Valentino four years earlier in Blood and Sand. Previous to that he’d been Doug. Fairbanks Sr.’s director twice. (The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921).) And, after, the chief director of Ben-Hur (1925). His affinity with both the Star and United Artists meant that he was an excellent choice.
We can only imagine the conversations between these two reunited individuals had it been possible for them to again collaborate. Rudy had, as we know, been June Mathis’ favourite to portray Judah. Were it not for the ‘One Man Strike’ his studio – on good terms with Mathis – might’ve considered loaning him. He would then have been in Italy with Niblo, in 1924 and 1925, after the Metro-Goldwyn merger. Sadly it wasn’t to be.
Not much more is known about the planned film. Certainly players were lined up to fill the other key roles — yet who they were isn’t apparent. Perhaps somewhere in the United Artists’ archives, or elsewhere (with Mayer’s papers for example), there are notes and memoranda that relate to it. And possibly sketches for sets were stored and saved. I saw no mention, anywhere, of the person responsible for the look of the film; though it was, almost certainly, William Cameron Menzies. As for the costumes? Gilbert Adrian is, in my opinion, the most likely person. Though it could easily have been another.
When it comes to his dress, we are able to picture Rudy as his fellow countryman, when we view him in the imaginary Sixteenth Century sequence in Cobra (see above top). And we can likewise get a rough idea, looking at him in the image I discovered two years ago (see above bottom), in which he’s attired in costume of the same era. (And in which, by some strange twist of fate, he portrays Benvenuto Cellini.) If he could sport a beard in 1925 and 1926 (in TSotS) then past issues with facial hair – his modest growth in 1924 for the doomed The Hooded Falcon had elicited comment – were probably behind him. Not a bad thing, as Cellini was seriously bearded.
I saw nothing anywhere about what Rudolph Valentino was feeling about the planned blockbuster. And this is understandable as he was busy promoting The Son of the Sheik. It’s hard to imagine his attitude towards depicting Benvenuto Cellini as being anything but enthusiastic in principal. He had, according to reports, here and there, longed to portray a famous Italian. (Cesare Borgia being an example). And he was never more at home than when he embodied a Rebellious Lover. The film based on the play offered the opportunity to be both. As well as to engage in lengthy sword fights, and dispatch or outwit opponents; to inhabit wonderful, palatial interiors; be at the heart of an amusing if infuriating love triangle; and to employ his underused comedic skills. I like to think his copy of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini was tucked into his luggage in the final weeks. It was certainly in the auction of his belongings at the close of the year.
The barrage of reports about RV’s next project was soon replaced by a blitz of headlines relating to his untimely death. Schenck’s nightmare had come to pass: there would be no Cellini. The careful preparations since May – probably earlier – were of no use. Much time and effort had been wasted. And his anger and frustration in the interviews he agreed to in the aftermath was palpable. Almost instantly, and without hesitating, he laid bare, before Americans and the World, the most private information of the dead Icon. All Rudy had in his bank account was a few hundred dollars. He had, he said, recently earned over a million dollars and spent every cent. He was a gullible man easily parted from his cash. Had no investments to speak of and only a little property. A personal insurance policy that was just $50,000. A weekly salary that was $6,500 and totalled $338.000 per annum. And a profit share (of the net profits) of The Eagle and The Son of the Sheik amounting to 50%.
I find the hard frankness of JMS astonishing. Hadn’t the barely cold Valentino suffered enough already? Did he need to be subjected to further humiliation? Exposed on the 23rd of August, and on subsequent days, as a reckless thoughtless simpleton, who had no common sense, and never thought about the future? Even if it was partly, or wholly true, was it necessary to reveal such particulars? And to tip revelations on the corpse like the contents of an emptied waste paper basket?
To my mind, the only explanation is that Schenck, Ullman, and any others, needed to prepare the groundwork. And sure enough I discovered that, inside a fortnight, it was announced nothing would prevent a pay out on the policies held by United Artists. (According to VARIETY the total was $425,000.) The deceased Screen Star had been an extremely unwell individual who foolishly failed to seek medical attention. And he had also lived beyond his means and run up serious debts. These two derogatory halves of the story combined to form a compelling, advantageous whole; one that to this very day weighs heavy. When it was disclosed he had received an advance of $100,000, as well as a payment against his expected future profits, nobody batted an eyelid. Soon it was further explained that the profits on other pictures easily covered his borrowing. And the $90,000 expended on Cellini would be deducted from his insurance payout.
That Joe was an unsentimental, hard-nosed business man is clear. Undeniable. Plain as it could be. And such was his lack of sentiment that he soon began attempting to rescue Cellini. Signed to a two year contract, with Feature Productions Inc., the production side, Estelle Taylor was going nowhere. The status of Fred Niblo in the months immediately after Rudolph’s death isn’t so obvious. However, we know that by the 2nd of November it had been announced he would direct Norma Talmadge, in Camille. As for a replacement for Rudolph Valentino, it appears several established personalities were considered; with ‘The Great Profile’ John Barrymore (above) being the favourite.
Yet despite Schenck’s best efforts to inject life into the project it seemed doomed. Did the people optioned find the notion a little tasteless? Likely. Would the legendary Barrymore have wanted to step into the dead man’s shoes? Doubtful. The word went out that there were serious problems resuscitating the production. A fervent fan of Joseph Schildkraut, Jackie Cathewe, wrote into Picture-Play in early 1927. In the letter, headed Why Not Joseph Schildkraut?, in the What Fans Think section, Cathewe explained that instead of making The Firebrand heavy and historical, he had turned it into a show of tempestuous love and subtle and exquisite comedy. He should be “borrowed from DeMille” as he was “the perfect choice”. “Schildkraut and Estelle Taylor—marvelous!” was the enthusiastic final declaration. High and dry since the passing of Rudy, forced to go public about being jobless and worried about her career prospects, I suspect the Actress would’ve agreed. But it never happened.
So the story ends there? There never was a film about Cellini based on The Firebrand? Well actually, no, there was. And in my opinion, having viewed it twice, it comes pretty close to what was planned in the Autumn of 1926. In fact in all honestly it’s difficult not to see Rudolph Valentino as the main character; so filled is it, with history, opulence, pretty women, action, romance and more. For me, in watching it, we see what might’ve been had what occurred not occurred.
It was at the end of 1933 that Ralph Wilk revealed, in his A LITTLE from “LOTS” column, in THE Film DAILY, that popular actor Fredric March would be starred in The Affairs of Cellini (instead of Les Miserables). The picture, Wilk detailed, would be Fredric’s first for Joseph M. Schenck’s and Darryl Zanuck’s recently formed 20th Century Pictures. A conflation of Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, and Edwin Justus Mayer’s play, it was to be directed by Gregory LaCava, and adapted by Bess Meredyth. With the 1st of February set as the start date.
In Estelle Taylor’s place was cast Constance Bennett. With the Duke and Angela, the two other central roles, awarded to Frank Morgan and Fay Wray. (Morgan, incidentally, had a decade earlier been Duke Allesandro onstage, in the original theatrical production.) For some reason the title changed a few times before completion. Switching from The Affairs of Cellini – Meredyth’s idea? – to The Firebrand and then back again. Unusually for the times little was leaked about the actual process of filming. (For instance I saw no reports from the set.) And there was absolutely nothing anywhere about the fact that it had once been intended for Valentino.
Following the pre-merger 20th Century Pictures logo, the original, briefer fanfare, and the credits (with Bennett billed above March), the film opens on Morgan’s Allesandro de’ Medici, listening to a lengthy list of imminent executions. Despite being absent from the scene, Cellini is still part of the proceedings, as his recent, outrageous acts are discussed at length. (And he’s also listed.) The Duchess, whose interest in the Artist was limited to the fact he’s creating golden plates for her imminent dinner, is suddenly intrigued when she hears how a Venetian female victim was seduced. Because of this she persuades the Duke to hang him after the tableware is completed.
In the next segment we’re in Benvenuto’s workshop. A knocking sound is responded to by an assistant; and the genius craftsman descends, like Fairbanks Sr., through a secret ceiling entrance. Thinking himself safe, he wakes the sleeping Angela and attempts to make love to her, then buys her from her grotesque mother (brilliantly played by Jessie Ralph). Duke Allesandro arrives. And after a lengthy exchange he takes the love interest away. Ottaviano, his mortal foe, then unleashes a bunch of heavies/roughs who Cellini must overcome. (Which he does in Valentinoesque fashion). Next arrives the Duchess in disguise. And while gentle music plays she uses her own persuasive powers to get what she wants. Cellini will create and bring to her a golden key that night at 9 p. m.
The Duke – at the Summer Palace not the Winter as the Duchess thinks – wines and dines Angela. So when the Duchess arrives the young beauty is sent out onto the balcony until she’s gone. Benvenuto appears on the top of a high wall. Jumps to a large tree branch. And then makes his way to the ground before scaling the palace and climbing onto the now empty balcony. On the stroke of nine he unlocks the door, and enters the Duchess’s quarters, where he finds her in a vampish, seductive mood. Things don’t go well at first and Bennett’s character utters what I thought was an interesting line:
“Well it’s just as well I found you out. The tragedy of all great ladies is to discover that the men with the most exaggerated reputations make the poorest lovers.”
March’s Cellini then menaces Bennett’s Duchess. Slaps her (which makes her faint). And begins to carry her to a low couch. However, a crash in Morgan’s character’s quarters wakes her, and alerts her to something odd. Angela is sent to the balcony again. Where Benvenuto finds her. And while he carries her off to his secret mountain hideaway, we are much entertained by the Duke and Duchess, repeatedly encountering each other on the balcony, while looking for their respective absent lovers.
Fay Wray’s Angela is unimpressed by the mountains. And her pining for the Duke and the luxury of the palace make Fredric March’s Benvenuto decide to leave her there and return to Florence. Due to there being a reward for his capture he goes to the Duchess and skilfully lies. Eventually melting her heart by reading aloud the poetry that won over the girl in Venice. (As The Affairs of Cellini is a post Code motion picture we don’t see any of the lovemaking between the pair.)
The palace and its grounds are being searched after the discovery of Cellini’s disguise in the gardens. And so the Duchess sends him to the Duke’s apartment thinking it the safest place. However, he’s discovered there by Ottaviano, and taken to the dungeons, where it appears he will finally die. The Duke arrives keen for him to be hung. Closely followed by the Duchess keen for him not to be hung. Thanks to Constance’s Duchess his life is spared once more. And he reveals to Frank’s Duke the whereabouts of Angela.
The film now builds to a conclusion. As requested Benvenuto has brought Angela to the banquet for which he created the tableware. This poses a problem, of course, as Cellini knows that the Duchess will be unhappy to see him with such an attractive female. (She never set eyes on her before.) The Duke, pleased to see his bit-on-the-side again, tells his wife that Angela is the Artist’s Muse and Model and that they’ll be married. So angry is the Duchess that she arranges for Benvenuto Cellini’s wine to be poisoned and suggests he propose a toast. Then, when his toast is to her, not his supposed future wife, and he drinks the wine and dies, she’s distraught. However, a goblet tumbles, and we become aware that Ottaviano has succumbed, and Cellini switched their vessels, and pretended to be dead. The ending is a happy one with both couples – the Artist and his Duchess and the Duke and his Angela – together in harmony.
Contrasting the play in 1924 with the movie in 1934 we see few serious discrepancies in the first half. The majority – the palace, the workshop and the balcony – is the same. Only when the action shifts to the lair in the mountains do we start to notice differences – the hideaway, the return to the palace, the dungeon and the banquet – to what VARIETY‘s Edba reviewed. Clearly the attack by Ottaviano’s henchmen was moved from late in the play to early. And the additions in the second half were thought necessary to balance out the previous fast-paced action.
For me, Cellini’s dramatic arrival at his studio, his time with Angela, and the fracas there are all pure Valentino. As is the athleticism (on both occasions) when he arrives at the Summer Palace. It’s more than easy to envisage him romancing the rival females. And being as comedic as he had been in The Eagle when it was called for. (With his Muse and her mother, the repeated sentences of death, on the balcony, reading from the book and doing a balancing act between the Duke and the Duchess at the dinner.)
Naturally a silent film would’ve been a little different. And yet so visual is The Affairs of Cellini that it appears to be a silent with dialogue. This makes me suspect much of the original was left untouched. And a good, if minor example, is the moment that Bennett’s Duchess purposely drops a purse for March’s Cellini to pick up. Something that would’ve been beautifully done in the pre Talkie days, but which seems pretty incongruous five or so years later. Thinking about that exchange I visualise cutting between Estelle Taylor and Rudolph Valentino. Her hand in the air. His eyes watching the purse fall. Back to her and an intertitle. Back to him and an intertitle. Back to her. And then him stooping down to the floor to pick it up with a smile.
Does Fredric March measure up? Is he a good replacement? No. Not for me. Great as he was he’s obviously not Rudy. This was Valentino’s project and he’s a tough act to follow. I understand from researching that his wife purchased The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini for him; however, for all his prep., there’s something lacking in his performance. A dearth, perhaps, of what Rudolph Valentino had and nobody else did — or ever would. With all this in mind it doesn’t surprise me The Affairs of Cellini was a box office failure. Maybe Joseph M. Schenck should’ve let well alone as they say. I suppose he couldn’t.
It’s a pity Rudolph Valentino was denied the opportunity to add a notable Italian to his previous international characterisations of: an Argentine (Julio), an Arab (Ahmed), a Spaniard (Gallardo), and a Russian (Dubrovsky). I think he would’ve been excellent in the role. Unfortunately he was to really die, as himself, before he could pretend to die, as Benvenuto Cellini. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing that his passing in reality had been like his passing in the story. And that, like the character, he could’ve reawakened, to the consternation of all those gathered around.
As with The Mysterious Party I’m not listing my sources. However, once more, should anybody want to know what they were I’m only too happy to supply. My thanks for reading this lengthy piece in its entirety — I appreciate it.