While I busy myself turning my mammoth look at Jean Acker’s life and career, and her life-long association with Rudolph Valentino, from a three part post to a four part post, an opporunity presents itself for me to reshare my hour long chat about Rudy on local radio last year. The interviewer, Alan Porter Barnes, quizzes me during the sixty minutes, about how I first became interested in Valentino, allows me to talk about my travels, my Blog, Rudolph’s amazing career and some of his most important films, and asks me about my planned book about the Immortal Superstar. Along the way we play no less than four related tunes: Rudy singing Kashmiri Song (Pale Hands I Loved), The Beatles singing The Sheik of Araby, The Bangles singing Manic Monday, and Years and Years and MNEK singing Valentino.
The interview and the four tracks can be heard in full here:
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!
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.
Benvenuto Cellini, orfévre, médailleur, sculpteur: recherches sur sa vie, sur son œuvre et sur les pièces qui lui sont attribuées by Plon, Eugène (Text by); Paul Le Rat (Etchings by)
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.
So, today, just 24 hours after the 92nd anniversary of his demise, I begin this modest Blog about Rudolph Valentino. Quietly. Without fuss. But with the intention of it being, first a sort of stop-off point, and then, steadily, post by post, a useful and informative resource for anyone who, like me, is genuinely fascinated by one of the most fascinating of all the fascinating Silent Era personalities. (Let’s face it there were a few.) His Fame Still Lives will be a monthly exercise, a post every four weeks, delving into a performance, or the making of one of his many films, a photograph, a person he knew, or a place he went, or something he owned. Along the way it will be a space to share my thoughts, my past research, my likes and dislikes, my experiences generally and my Rudy-related travels. Thank you for reading and see you in September!