Perhaps my favourite story about Rudolph Valentino is the one related by Viola Dana, in the 1970s, when Dana contributed to Episode Six of Hollywood. As the bitter-sweet tale is about Christmas, and Christmas is approaching, I felt it would be an appropriate final post before the end of 2018. So here goes!
Dana begins to tell her tale right after we learn that it’s 1919, and Rudy’s wife, actress Jean Acker, has left him. It’s Christmas and he’s depressed and lonely. As follows:
I said: What are you doing for Christmas?
He said: Well, nothing.
I said: Haven’t you any place to go?
He said: Well, no, I don’t.
I said: Well you sure do. I said: You’re going to come home with me. This is our Big Night. My mother and father will be there. And the presents. And you’re going to be right with us.
He said: Oh that’ll be marvellous.
So we made him Santa Claus. I had a red cape. And we put a red hat on him. And we got cotton and put a white beard on him. And he… handed out the presents.
A lot of people have… it’s made me laugh… a lot of people, you know, said, oh how well they knew Rudy… and what they did for him and all that sort of thing. And I think, hmm, well, there was one Christmas they forgot about Rudy, before he was anything. After he did The Four Horsemen that was… different.
Viola’s vivid, compact account is crammed with detail. The two friends encountered each other somewhere in LA (seemingly on Christmas Eve.), and after hellos and small talk the conversation naturally switched to the subject of Christmas. It appears she sensed he wasn’t just alone on the street but was also alone full stop. And once her suspicion was confirmed, told him, in no uncertain terms, he wasn’t going to stay alone. That night – maybe the next morning – they dressed him up as Saint Nicholas, and got him to hand out all of the gifts. When she reflects on how things were after he became a Star (as Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) the umbrage is noticeable. Before he achieved fame nobody had any time for him; after, many claimed to have been there to assist.
Dana gives us a wonderful festive gift herself when she delivers her recollection. It’s a package filled with insight into her life and his. And yet it leaves us seriously wondering on two fronts. First of all, how could he possibly be so solitary, at a time of year that’s all about joining together with friends and family? And, secondly, who were the people that weren’t there and later claimed to have been so helpful to him for so long?
At the end of 1919 Viola Dana had much to celebrate. The year had seen the release of no less than eight of her starring vehicles. One in January, two in March, another in April, two more in June and July, a further one in the November, all followed by one more in the December. (The actual total was nine if we include the re-release of a 1917 film Blue Jeans.) As the issuing of the last of the eight, The Willow Tree, was just days away, on the 29th of the month, The Teens were unquestionably ending on a high. And with a new decade ahead who knew what she might yet achieve.
Professional success was, perhaps, all the more satisfying due to her having lost her first husband, John Hancock Collins, in the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. His sudden demise, that October, robbed her not only of her partner, but also the person responsible for writing and directing her films. (The first of 1919, The Gold Cure, was their last as a Star Writer/Director team.) Despite this terrible blow – perhaps because of it – she continued working, managing to actually strengthen her position at Metro Pictures Corporation, her studio; thanks in large part to June Mathis; fully, or jointly responsible, for no less than four scenarios: The Parisian Tigress, Some Bride, The Microbe and The Willow Tree.
If we get the impression from her Hollywood interview that Dana wasn’t a personality with airs and graces, it’s confirmed by a laudatory Motion Picture Magazine profile, late in 1920, titled: Peter Pan Dana. The writer, Hazel Shelley, states early (in paragraph one) that: “… Miss Dana doesn’t exercise her queenly prerogative and sit commandingly on her throne, she mingles democratically with her subjects and does her share of the work and a bit more.” That she was a person who snatched “every bit of joy and fun” that she was able to out of the hour. And that the green-eyed, long-lashed Actress was a jolly comrade: “… a fearless child, demanding and getting out of life—everything.” With an omnipresent mood that was: “… a combination of pep and jazz and giggles.” Such, then, was the person who rescued Rudolfo Valentino. An individual who was never above anyone. That lived her life to the fullest. And that was a lot of fun to be with. Exactly the sort of company he required at such a low point.
1919 had for Viola Dana been a year of steady solid progress. The exact opposite was the case for Rudolph Valentino. If his name changes – Rudolpho De Valintine, Rudolphe De Valentina, Rudolph Valentino, Rodolph Valentine, Rudolfo Valentino – aren’t, all by themselves, indicative of instability, then the varying quality of his roles certainly is. Going, as he did, from a minor cast member; to a bit part player; to a key cast member; to again a minor cast member; to an uncredited extra; to a minor cast member; and lastly, once again, to a minor cast member. Without the security of any kind of contract at a studio he was adrift, anchorless, at the mercy of the turbulent waves of the sea that was the industry at the time.
Working alongside Mae Murray, in The Delicious Little Devil and The Big Little Person, two Universal Special Attractions directed by her husband Robert Z. Leonard, appeared to be a progression, yet, cruelly, took him nowhere. Interestingly, who exactly threw the lifeline is questionable, due to the recent discovery of an interview, with Leonard, in which he takes credit for adding Rudy to Murray’s films. The hopeful approached him one evening at an establishment asking him if he could be her dance partner. So impressed was ‘Bob’ that he added him, first to one film, and then to a second. (The fact he confuses the productions with Princess Virtue and Face Value isn’t necessarily of consequence.)
In Virtuous Sinners, in which friend Norman Kerry starred as a Society Crook, he barely registered. (A blessing as it was a ‘picture’ so terrible that Wid’s DAILY suggested it would be suitable only for: “… a single day’s showing …. in a theatre catering mainly to transients.”) In A Rogue’s Romance he fared a little better (clearly making the most of his role as an uncredited Apache Dancer), but was far from a significant participant. And in his next, The Homebreaker, he again wasn’t credited. Several stories at this time underscore his quiet desperation as he bounced from one project to another. One, related by Sessue Hayakawa, in his 1960 autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way, features Valentino going to see the Japanese Actor and almost pleading to be included in any future production. Hayakawa explains to his reader it was an impossibility, however, due to them being far too similar to one another.
According to Emily W. Leider, on page 92 of Dark Lover: the Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, it was at this point that Dorothy Gish requested Rudy be included in the cast of her next vehicle Out of Luck. Though he wasn’t exactly a main character, it was, without question, a significant step up from everything he’d done since working with Mae. And it was to also inexorably lead him to the role of Clarence Morgan in Eyes of Youth; the role understood to be the singular reason Mathis cast him as Julio, in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).
One evening in early September, following his contribution to Eyes of Youth, at Harry Garson’s Garson Studios, Inc., at Edendale, Rudy found himself at a popular nightspot at Venice, called the Ship Cafe. After a while he spotted a New York acquaintance, Dagmar Godowsky, and went over to her in order to speak. According to Dagmar, in her lengthy interview in Rosenberg and Silverstein’s The Real Tinsel, when she introduced him to everyone at her table the temperature plunged. Everybody gathered – there to celebrate the conclusion of Alla Nazimova’s next spectacular – followed the furious Star’s lead and gave him the cold shoulder. Once the humiliated Rudy had withdrawn Nazimova berated Godowsky for daring to present a such a figure to her and her guests; a man notoriously caught up in the shocking de Saulles scandal two years earlier. “What in the world is all this? Why would she be so annoyed?” Miss Godowsky thought to herself at home. Why indeed!
Within a week Valentino became seriously acquainted with one of the young women at the Ship Cafe just days earlier. It was to be a meeting of two rather similar individuals. People somewhat battered and bruised by their recent experiences in life, and, during their time as performers on film. A little insecure. Lonely. Victims, both, of the great Diva Nazzy. Two unconnected souls needing connection, about to connect, without even the faintest inkling of the far-reaching consequences. But then, in the moment, who can see too far ahead?
Miss Jean Acker had also been invited to the home of Pauline Frederick that night, and instantly recognised the beautifully dressed, well-mannered European man so horribly insulted by ‘Madame Nazimova’. He asked her to dance. She declined. And instead they sat under “a California moon” and talked, and talked — and then talked some more. The discussion is unrecorded – the terrible Ship Cafe incident and the film-making business are two obvious topics – but we know they found themselves understanding and liking one another very much indeed.
Jean, more than three years his senior, perhaps spoke of her successful return to motion pictures twelve months earlier. How she’d occupied herself prior to that; her early career up to about 1915-1916; her beginnings at ‘Lubinville’ in 1911: and previously her early days employed as a Milliner. Rudy had his own tale to tell of course. How he’d recently worked with Clara Kimball Young, and, in reverse order, Dorothy Gish, Earle Williams, and Mae Murray. That before all of this he had been a dancer (on both coasts); had arrived from Italy almost six years ago; had emigrated at the age of eighteen; and was trained as an Agriculturalist.
A two month long courtship commenced, culminating in marriage, just before or after midnight on November the 4th, or 5th. (The Tuesday or the Wednesday.) It would seem Rudy had proposed several times – no less than seven according to one source – and on each occasion was gently rebuffed. On the Tuesday, while out riding, he suggested an elopement to Santa Ana, which was, once more, refused, as that evening they were to attend an important party at the home of Maxwell Karger, Director General of Metro Pictures. At the bash – a farewell celebration for the studio President, Richard Rowland and his wife – friends of the pair dared them to get married that night. After checking with Mr. Karger that it would be alright, they hurtled into Los Angeles in Acker’s car, secured a special ‘after hours’ license, located a willing minister (who was Rev. James I. Myers of the Broadway Christian Church), and returned to the Karger residence and were wed.
Considering the nuptials were spontaneous, and happened so late at night without any real warning, it’s surprising there was so much press coverage in the newspapers and in trade magazines. (Even VARIETY mentions it — twice.) We can of course assume that due to the fact it was a significant studio affair there would have been at least two or three journalists present. However, the fact it continued to be a story as late as December 20th – in Motion Picture News – is difficult to understand, when we consider the turn of events. Of course we don’t complain as the varied reports help us to piece it all together. And my favourite, due to its prophetic quality, is coverage in the November 22nd issue of Camera! In which Rudy’s recent, breath-taking fall from a balcony, in Ambition, later titled Once to Every Woman, and released in 1920, is compared to his dive into the arms of his first wife. The difference obviously being that in the 1920 Universal-Jewel Production de Luxe there was a soft landing.
As I plan, in the not-too-distant-future, a serious and in-depth look at the life and career of Jean Acker based on previous research, I won’t go into too much detail now about the events in the early hours of the next day and the next morning. It’s no secret that Acker slammed the door of her Hollywood Hotel room in the face of Valentino. Or that there was subsequently an odd series of encounters and incidents involving the couple in the four weeks between mid. November and mid. December. Suffice to say, that by the time Valentino reached Christmas Eve. 1919, he was a different man to the one that had been cheered and had his back patted at the start of the previous month.
The individual who accidentally met with Viola, on that Wednesday in the penultimate week of the year, was wondering if he would ever have a sustained run of luck. 1919 had been a roller coaster of ups and downs, yet he had clung to the handrail no-matter-what, and was as hopeful as he could be under the circumstances. After a two week break – the fortnight was supposed to have been his Honeymoon – he had commenced work under the banner of First National with Katherine MacDonald’s company, on her next vehicle Passion’s Playground. As far as I know, after this engagement, he was without a serious opportunity, until ‘Max’ Karger awarded him what turned out to be another small role, in the May Allison film The Cheater. (Hopefully, one day, the subject of another post.)
He did not, like his Hostess on Christmas Day, have the support of his family. This was a person who had long ago lost his father, and less than two years before, at the very start of 1918, had been deprived of his mother. His two siblings, Alberto, his older brother, and Maria, his younger sister, were alive but many thousands of miles away. Of course instead of actual family he naturally had friends that he could turn to — right? A person so busy in Hollywood over the course of a year surely wasn’t wanting in any respect in that department was he? He wouldn’t be left high and dry at a time of year that’s about family and friends?
There’s obviously a great deal of truth in what Viola Dana says at the very end of her contribution. Where was Mae Murray? Trying desperately all day to reach him on the telephone? No. She wasn’t. We might begin to seriously question if their walks together under the stars in Central Park in New York years earlier ever happened. If she ever knew him at all, in fact, before he spoke to ‘Bob’ at the Vernon Country Club in 1918. How about Emmett J. Flynn? His director twice. So eager in later years to broadcast how he’d given Rodolfo his start. He just had to be searching around for him didn’t he? No. Absolutely not. And the others? Norman Kaiser now Norman Kerry? And Dorothy Gish? How about ‘Dougie’ Gerrard his friend since 1917? And of course there were others — people like Frank A. Mennillo. Why was his Sponsor and Benefactor so absent? Could it be that he, too, wasn’t the friend he later claimed to be in the early days?
We wonder – I’m convinced I’m not alone in thinking this! – what would’ve happened to Rudolph Valentino 99 Christmasses ago had his and Viola’s paths not crossed. Where would the struggling Actor without prospects, without his wife, and without family or friends have ended up? I shudder at the thought. A chill comes over me just picturing him alone again as he was in December 1913. And I think, too, about young people just like him today. Without prospects. Without a partner. With no family to turn to or any friends on hand. Actually, let’s not think about that, as it’s just too awful to think about!
Instead let’s see Rudolph Valentino as he was on December 25th. In a busy, happy home. Part of the fun. Laughing. Enjoying delicious food. For 48 hours or so forgetting his many troubles. And maybe getting some good advice from Viola, or one of her famous sisters, or from their mother. Perhaps we’ve pinpointed a turning point. Perhaps spending time with them was just the tonic that he needed. As we know 1920 would be the year that he secured the role of Julio Desnoyers in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A belated festive gift, maybe? What fame did certainly ensure was no more lonely Christmasses.
First of all I want to say thank you so much for reading this post all the way through — I really appreciate it. As usual I’m not adding sources here, but those not mentioned in the text, partially, or fully, are available to anyone who takes the time to ask. May I wish all of you a very enjoyable and memorable Festive Period. And if you are able why not think about including someone who has nowhere to go. After all, it might just transform them, and their lives, you never know. See you in 2019!