The 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon

Blogathon

Wonderful it is, to be invited to contribute to the April 3rd to 5th, 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon, hosted by Paul, from Silver Screen Classics. As His Fame Still Lives is focused monthly on Rudolph Valentino, it’ll come as no surprise that it’s one of his films that’s the subject. Which one? Well, read on and see!

It’s amazing, considering his on-screen persona, that Rudolph Valentino appeared in only two motion pictures that were adaptations of great classic works. After all, this was a Twenties Super Star that veritably dripped with: emotion, romance, tragedy and history. All of his post fame vehicles – there were fourteen in total – are seemingly crammed, at least in our minds, with everything that makes a written work eternally appealing; which, according to Esther Lombardi, is: “… love, hate, death, life, and faith…” In visual terms, we think of him classically — in fact, he was promoted thus. Astride a horse. On a throne. Brandishing a rapier. Masked. With Terry, Ayres, Swanson, Lee, Naldi, Daniels, D’Algy and Banky in his arms. Ageless, spine-tingling, resonant, reverberating imagery.

And yet, as I stated, just a pair. And from the same company and unleashed in the same year. Of these two productions, The Conquering Power (1921), based on Eugenie Grandet (1833) by Honore de Balzac, and Camille (1921), based on La Dame aux Camelias (1848) by Alexandre Dumas fils (both, incidentally, modern interpretations), I choose the latter. Not only is it, in my opinion, the better tale, it’s also the superior movie. And, as it has at it’s heart, as the Star and Anti-Heroine, the distinct, larger-than-life Silent Era personality, Alla Nazimova, it guarantees to be something of an information confetti bomb. (NOTE: while it’s true that the basis for, The Eagle (1925), Alexander Pushkin’s Dubrovsky (1841), is of the classic period, I don’t include it, due to it not only being an unfinished work, but also, because Pushkin wasn’t a novelist of the stature of either Balzac and Dumas fils. Also, it hasn’t reached the same heights, in terms of adaptation; as a ballet, an opera, or a play, for example.)

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It was on Page Six of their Saturday, December 18th, 1920 edition, that Camera! THE DIGEST OF THE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY revealed, in a brief sentence, that Alla Nazimova’s next vehicle for Metro Pictures Corp. was to be Camille. Her planned super-production, Aphrodite, based on the 1896 Pierre Louys novel, had been put to the side, and was expected to follow. According to the Star’s biographer, Gavin Lambert, this change was due to the Director General, Max Karger, being: “… shocked to discover just how perversely erotic and violent a movie…” had been outlined. Far more likely, in my opinion, is that it was shelved simply because Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount had secured “world rights” twelve months previously. Besides, a tale based on the brief life of a consumptive Prostitute, who’d died in Paris, in 1847, wasn’t exactly Sunday School territory. (Lynn Gardner’s excellent 2003 look at Dumas fils’ inspiration can be enjoyed here.)

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Rudolph Valentino’s second Wife Natacha Rambova.

Regardless of the reasons that La Dame aux Camelias was settled on – most likely at the suggestion of June Mathis – there’s little doubt the great Diva Nazzy sought to revive her flagging film career. To this end, it was seemingly decided, early in production, that the adaptation would break with previous picturizations (of which there had already been many), by being set in the then present day. And, that it would also, as Michael Morris points out in his biography of Natacha Rambova, Madam Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova (1991), “… reflect the latest developments in European architectural and fashion design.” Something which wouldn’t only assist with promoting the motion picture, but also: “… foster in American film audiences a greater appreciation for art itself.” Nazimova’s other means of refreshing herself, was to secure a Leading Man of note, namely: Rudolph Valentino.

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Valentino during the shooting of Uncharted Seas (1921).

Valentino, who’d already completed work on the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), the yet-to-be released Metro Pictures Corp. film that would make him a Star, was busy filming Uncharted Seas (1921), when he was brought to the attention of his future Wife. A moment she described in detail, exactly a decade later, in her serialized look at his life and career, and their life together: The Truth About Rudolph Valentino. ‘Mlle. Rambova’, who’d been been tasked, by Nazimova, with the design of both the costumes and the sets of Camille, hadn’t failed to notice her future Husband around the studio. Known to all as ‘The Wop’, he was an: “… aggressive, affable young man …. who, with his friend Paul, a young Serbian cameraman, was always under foot, determined to be seen.” (Natacha later heard from him that he’d bet Paul (Ivano) she would notice him one day. And that her chilliness and remoteness was a challenge.) Further:

“The introduction finally came while Mme. Nazimova, whose [Art Director] I was, was searching for a leading man. For weeks she had been combing Hollywood for the proper Armand for her “Camille.” Dozens of aspirants had applied, but something was wrong with each of them, until we had well nigh despaired of a hero. Then June Mathis, who had written the script of “Four Horsemen,” told us of the young Italian who had played Julio in that picture and whom she considered a genuine find. She suggested we give him a trial. Without much hope, we agreed to look him over.

One day, in Hollywood, the door of my office opened to admit Nazimova, followed by a bulky figure dressed in fur from head to foot. I had a glimpse of dark, slanting eyes between brows and lashes white with mica, the artifical snow of the camera world. Down his face perspiration was streaming in rivers, to complete the ruin of his makeup. The effect was not impressive. Here, I thought, is the very worst yet.”

Rambova goes on the explain how the “polar bear” shook her hand (a little too firmly), “apologized for his appearance”, and revealed that he’d been standing in the sun for two long hours “making close-ups of an Arctic scene”. Before dashing back, he asked her to: ‘Please say a good word for me to madame.’ Despite having noticed his “dazzling smile”, and having received, before his departure, a click of the heels and a polite bow, Natacha continued to be sceptical; that is, until they were forced together to see if anything could be done about his “patent-leather” hair. As she revealed later in the relevant installment: “The Armand of our script was an unsophisticated French boy from the provinces, who certainly had never seen hair pomade.” After much protestation, Rudy was persuaded to shampoo his locks, and then further persuaded to have his hair curled. “When finished the effect was not so bad.” Natacha explains. Adding: “Madame was delighted and even Rudy grew amenable when he saw the result of the screen tests. There was nothing he loved like characterization; to be all dressed up for a part fired his romantic imagination. It was agreed he should be our new leading man.”

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With June Mathis.

Rudolph Valentino certainly had before him a great opportunity to become a character and to be dressed up. Likewise, there’s no doubt, that despite her waning popularity, the chance to work with the legendary Nazimova was indeed a once-in-a-life-time one. One which would enable him to improve himself, as well as to rise up a level in the business. Did Alla – Peter or Mimi to her friends – communicate to him what she communicated to Gladys Hall and Adele Whitely Fletcher in late 1921? That she’d planned never to portray the Lady of the Camellias until she had: “… forgotten how she had seen ‘Camille’ played.”? It’s hard to say. Certainly, she knew in him, as we see when we view it, that she’d found the sort of Armand Duval that her persona, Marguerite Gautier, could love. Yet, if she thought that she could overshadow the rising Star, and make him secondary to her, she was very much mistaken.

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Camille (1921) commences with beautiful opening titles that immediately set the tone. The Camellia bordered text, after informing us METRO PRESENTS Nazimova, tells us, upfont, that it’s a modernized version. And, then, after revealing that it’s Directed by Ray Smallwood, give us, one-by-one, the names of the triumvirate of women responsible in reality for the film. The Writer, June Mathis; the Art Director, Natasha Rambova; and the Star Producer, Nazimova. Interestingly, the tight cast of nine is headed by Valentino, as his name appears first in the list, followed by the other principals. Portrayed by: Rex Cherryman, Arthur Hoyt, Zeffie Tilbury, Patsy Ruth Miller, Elinor Oliver, William Orlamond and Consuelo Flowerton. With Alla’s main character, strangely, at the very end. If this was purposefully done, due to Rudolph’s fame by the time of release, or, was because he’s the first of the two main players to appear, is hard to say. Either way, it’s symbolic of her coming tumble from the top. (It could be that the version accessed was the later re-issue.)

After explanatory and scene-setting titles, the camera iris opens on an astonishing and eye-catching, fluid, marbled theatre staircase, apparently partly inspired by the style of Hans Poelzig’s recently completed, The Great Playhouse, in Berlin. At least two hundred extras descend the staggering construction. And soon we’re zooming in on Armand Duval and his good friend, Gaston Rieux, played, respectively, by Rudolph Valentino and Rex Cherryman. The pair chit-chat part of the way down as their fellow theatregoers pass them by.

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Madame Alla, in a striking Fin de siecle, Beardsleyesque design, by Rambova.

We next see La Dame aux Camellias, Alla Nazimova, as she passes through an archway at the top of the steps, and pauses by the marbled parapet surrounded by men. An intertitle tells us: She was a useless ornament—a plaything—a bird of passage—a momentary aurora. This is an important moment already, as, when Camille is spotted by Gaston, and then by Armand, his friend, we see the instant fascination of the naive provincial with the decorative, and plainly worldly Marguerite. We also see Nazimova’s main character dressed in a striking, sheer, Aubrey Beardsleyesque, long-sleeved coat, covered in flowers, with a dramatic and over-long train that appears to be edged with fur at its end.

When introduced on the staircase, Marguerite is playfully dismissive of the – to her eyes and to ours – guileless new comer. As is her nature, she toys with him. And after hearing that he’s a Law Student utters her first discernible line: “A law student? He’d do better to study love!” Armand is visibly pained, and yet remains so irresistably drawn to her, that, when the next character introduced reveals that the departing Camille will be hosting a supper party, he requests they go, which they do.

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In a review, in the December edition of Motion Picture Magazine, Adele Whitely Fletcher declared, that she believed the settings: “… detracted from the characters and the action.” And it can be said, that the next scene, the party, is probably the best example of this competition between the decor and the players. The iris expands, this time, on the entry vestibule of Marguerite’s up-to-the-minute abode. And through a shimmery, see-through curtain, we see the Hostess and her animated guests arriving. After the curtain is parted, and they all pass through, we’re in the reception room; a space which forces the eye to move from the piano, to a pouf, to a rug, to an arch, to a day-bed, then back again, as the invitees enter before depositing themselves. (Rambova’s creativity hasn’t, however, yet run riot!)

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Alla’s Marguerite escapes her pursuer (Hoyt’s Count), after being framed, nicely, in the largest arch of all, the dramatic, glass-doored entrance to her boudoir. Once inside, she manages to have a brief rest – her Servant, Nanine, tells her she’s ill and needs to call a Doctor – before the arrival of Rudy’s Armand, Rex’s Gaston and Tilbury’s Prudence. She initially looks exhausted, as she surely is, however, her look into the mirror, suggests an individual trapped, and unable to escape the whirl and tired of it. Yet emerge she must, and she does so, ready to entertain those gathered — something she’s clearly done many times before. Here, I love how she casually flicks the switch that instantly brings to life all of the decorative lights that edge the third archway; which is how a seated area, immediately to be put to use, is accessed. For me, the switched-on lights echo the way in which she switches on her own inner illumination, before exiting her bedroom.

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The glassed-in alcove, with its food and drink laden tables, is where action is focused for the next few minutes. Armand, Gaston and Prudence arrive in a subdued manner, which contrasts nicely with the earlier, much more numerous arrivals. The party’s in full swing already as Marguerite rises to greet the trio. Then, learning that the muted and nervous Duval is crazy about her, she’s once more flippant. Saying to him, as she’d said already to her Lover, the Comte de Varville: “Not until you put a jewel in my hand.”

The supper party continues. Camille is frivolously solicitous of Armand, much to the distaste of the Count, who throws down his napkin angrily. Gaston, meanwhile, behaves like an expectant pet with Prudence, who denies him a forkfull of food at the last minute. To placate the unhappy Count, Marguerite Gautier rises from the seat she shares with the smitten youth, stands tall and breaks into a tributary, but unsatisfactory rhyme. Both the wording and her subsequent behaviour fail to alter the mood of her Sponsor. And, as she drains dry her glass, we see the fuming Count and the puzzled, confused Student Lawyer to her right. Two pathways: the current and the future.

An autobiographical song from the Hostess follows, which is interrupted by the arrival of Pasty Ruth Miller’s, Nichette; who, we discover, thanks to an intertitle: “… used to work in the dressmaking shop with Marguerite.” Alla and Patsy Ruth’s series of kisses on the lips are noteworthy here. As is her defending of her, against the really rather pathetic/sweet onslaught of Rex, as Gaston. Who, despite his drunken state, realises he needs to be more considerate and polite. (A look, here, between Cherryman and Miller, is all we need to see to know that something will develop between them.)

Next, both the intoxicated Gaston and the infatuated Armand are prevented, by Camille, from departing. The Hostess dances with Armand’s friend (much to the annoyance of the Count). The others occupy themselves. Then, the opening of a window, for air, induces a serious coughing fit, and Marguerite’s forced to retreat to her bedroom. Armand sees that she’s unwell and watches powerless. He approaches a drunken Prudence and says: “She is ill!” However, Prudence isn’t concerned, and tells him that: “She is always ill. Just when we are enjoying ourselves on comes that cough and our fun is spoiled!”

Feeling forced to act, Armand enters her sanctuary, and moves towards her once inside. It’s here, while outside the others distract the irate Count, by playing Blind Man’s Buff with him, that we have some of the most important exchanges between to two. Armand entreats her to allow him to call for help. Camille begs to differ. And warns him about who and what she is. Telling him to: “… forget that we have ever met.” At this he throws himself at her feet, saying, plaintively: “I wish I were a relative—your servant—a dog—that I might care for you—nurse you—make you well!” Again, Marguerite attempts to dissuade him, but fails. She accepts that he’s the key that unlocks the door to her prison cell.

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It all reaches a terrific, dramatic peak, when Count de Varville finally breaks free from captivity, and bursts into Marguerite Gautier’s room, to discover her entwined with the young Law Student. He rages. She rages. While Armand Duval looks on, clearly pleased that she’s found the courage to break her chains, and to take control of her destiny. In a trice the partygoers – she calls them a “sponging pack” – are leaving. Allowing them to be alone together. And to enjoy a somewhat awkward embrace and kiss on which the iris this time closes.

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The next, middle section of the film, is simpler, less artificial and almost dreamlike. We see the happy couple in an orchard in the countryside. (It’s plain that living away from the capital is agreeing with Camille.) Armand has bought and brought to Marguerite, the gift of a book; an antique leather-bound copy of Antoine Francois Prevost’s, Manon Lescaut, a story of doomed lovers. She asks him to inscribe it for her, and then to read it out loud, which he does. Which then leads to an extended imagining of action in the novel, almost a film within a film, with Alla Nazimova as Manon Lescaut, and Rudolph Valentino as Chevalier des Grieux. Except, that the imaginings are spoiled by Camille suffering a presentiment, where she sees herself and Armand as the cursed couple.

After being joined by the newly engaged Gaston and Nichette, who perhaps present to us an alternative, less unlucky union, the action moves from Spring to Summer. Marguerite is living quietly in a conventional house – in sin or not we can’t know – and preparing to sell her belongings, in Paris, to provide sufficient funds for her future. Prudence, who’s visiting her, presents a gift of fresh Camellias with the Comte de Varville’s card inside of the box. Yet Camille isn’t impressed. And tells her to: “Take them back to Paris, Prudence! They have no place in this house!” Prudence is then unsuccessful in trying to make her see sense, and return to her old, more certain if less free existence. An existence, for all its serious restraints, that will soon be seen to be more solid and dependable, than the one which has been hastily fashioned with her Student Lawyer Amour.

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William Orlamond as Monsieur Duval.

The arrival of William Orlamond’s Monsieur Duval, the Father of Armand Duval, is the point at which we see the bubble pricked with a pin. In a nutshell, the Parent requests that the Courtesan relinquish her hold over his son. Telling Marguerite: that the future happiness of both his children is at stake, due to the scandal created by her becoming involved with Armand. Learning, from him, that his daughter’s imminent marriage is in jeopardy, she seeks some way out, and suggests disappearing for a while. When this isn’t found to be acceptable, she falls to her knees, to beg that Armand not be taken from her. Yet she is answered by the Father with: “There is no future for your love—you must give him up!”

I’d say, that within the confines of this drawing room, constructed at the Metro Pictures Corp. plant, for the purposes of the movie, we get a very good idea of Nazimova’s style of performing on the stage; and see, I believe, her best acting in the entire film. How she moves about simply in her plain house dress, carefree, and focused on a new life. How she deals with the irritation of the Intruder Prudence. How she expects the arrival of Armand in the automobile and hides childishly and excitedly under a blanket. How she reacts when she sees that it’s not him but his Parent. And how she battles the inevitable, and finally accepts there’s no way forward, only the way back to who she was and is. We also see fine early acting on the part of Valentino; who arrives at the residence recently abandoned by Marguerite, and discovers her note, written in on the Count’s calling card in tiny but clear handwriting. (In a nice touch their cars pass on the road in the rain.)

In Part Three of her revelatory 1930 serialization, The Truth About Rudolph Valentino, By Natacha Rambova, His Wife, Natacha explained to her readers how Rudy prepared for an emotional scene, particularly during the creation of Camille (1921). As follows:

“I remember particularly one scene in ‘Camille,’ the high point of the picture. It is where Armand, grief-stricken by Camille’s death, rushes to her apartment, where an auction is being held of all her private things. Here he sees and bids on a book he had given her years ago and which she had kept until the last.

Before doing this scene Rudy asked if he might go away by himself for a moment; then he returned and the camera started clicking. It wasn’t interrupted once. When the scene was finished tears were streaming down the face of every one of us, from director to prop boy. As for Rudy, later, I found him in a chair behind the set, head buried in his arms weeping like a child. This wasn’t make believe grief but real emotion.”

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Consuelo Flowerton.

That a change is wrought in Armand Duval, is apparent immediately the camera iris expands on the Hazard d’Or; which an intertitle’s informed us, is: “… the smartest gaming place in Paris.” It’s now Autumn, and we see him gambling, immaculately dressed, his hair slicked, and with a beautiful girl on his arm. The female, named Olympe, brilliantly portrayed by Consuelo Flowerton (of the Ziegfeld Follies Spring Frolic of 1920), clings to him in a vampish manner. Another intertitle explains that she is: “… a new Daughter of Chance, whose golden beauty bade fair to rival ‘the Lady with the Camellias.'” And we believe it!

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Natacha Rambova’s interior of the Hazard d’Or casino.

It’s here that we should pause to consider what’s certainly Natacha Rambova’s most incredible interior. The dark, light-absorbing concave room, features, again, a series of arches that draw the eye. The central arch is a performance space, or mini stage, that’s covered by a cobweb scrim, behind which exotically dressed females perform strangely. Above, is another, smaller arch, where a group of African American musicians busily play their instruments, no doubt cranking-out Jazz. And the arches to the left and right are curtained with a gorgeous semi-sheer material that features iridescent woven leaves.

It’s through the right-hand curtained archway that the Count and Camille enter the space and pause. De Varville points out to Marguerite her former lover at the gaming table. And wickedly says to her: “Look at your broken hearted lover!” This first view of Duval for months is too much, particularly when Armand sees that she sees him, and lays his hand, sensually, on Olympe’s bared back. The close-up of Alla Nazimova is filtered and strongly lit. Yet we see her pain. And then she covers her face with her beautiful feather fan. While the Comte de Varville descends the steps into the sunken room, to place bets and gamble, she retires behind the curtain, just as she did, earlier, at her home.

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Sometime after, needing a break from the table (where he’s been enjoying a serious run of luck), Armand Duval parts the curtain behind which Marguerite Gautier is resting, and gets a shock, when he sees her alone and seated there. She, in turn, is startled, as she senses a presence and turns and sees him standing. What follows now is pure Silent Era acting. And from two of the greatest screen personalities of the period. The pair must convey, without words, what they think and feel, and they do. The few words spoken are provided as intertitles. But we barely need them, so perfectly do Nazimova and Valentino express themselves with movements, gestures and facial expressions alone.

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Despite toing and froing, and Armand’s desperate attempt to win her back, Camille can’t find the strength to go against her promise to his Father. When she says aloud that she promised she wouldn’t be with him, he believes her to be talking about a promise to the Count, and demands that she: “Say that you love him and I will leave Paris forever!” With deep regret and without feeling she says exactly that. He then drags her out of her hiding place and into the gaming room and denounces her. Humiliating her further by tossing his cash winnings in her face — a sensational moment, perhaps the most sensational in the entire picture. After a brief flicker of remorse he declares he’s through with her and with Paris and departs. Allowing the Comte de Varville to move-in, and to claim and kiss openly, and triumphantly, Olympe, Marguerite’s successor.

We’re now presented with the extended death, of Alla Nazimova’s Marguerite Gautier, known also, as Camille and the Lady of the Camellias. To modern eyes, certainly to mine, this is a somewhat static, and undoubtedly indulgent section. (And for some at the time it was as well.) The passing of nearly 100 years hasn’t made Nazimova’s preferred ending – going totally against the actual written conclusion – any more sympathetic or powerful. In fact, it’s done the exact opposite. And yet, it’s what it is, and must be accepted as it is, and seen in the context of the times. (For a lot of cinemagoers it would resonate a great deal, many of them having watched loved ones die, similarly, in the recent Flu epidemic. And tears were no doubt shed in that more sentimental time.)

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For ten minutes, prone, in her stylish bed, Camille approaches the end of her life. While Nanine, her faithful Servant, attempts to make that end as comfortable as she’s able. Yet, Nanine is powerless to keep at bay a group of bailiffs, who represent her creditors and have arrived to satisfy a Court Order. Thus Marguerite is subjected to a final humiliation when they arrive to look over, assess, catalogue and remove her earthly belongings, so that they can be sold to pay-off her debts. To make the interminable exit more palatable we’re given a flash-forward, rather than a flash-back, of Armand receiving from Camille a heart-felt final epistle. And, after the cruelty of the bailiffs entering her room and their attempt to take every last thing from her, including the copy of Manon Lescaut, given to her by Armand, she’s visited by a distraught but tender Gaston and Nichette, who’ve just married that day. Already in a state of delirium, The Lady of the Camellias utters some final, coherent words: “Do not weep, Gaston. The world will lose nothing. I was a useless ornament—a plaything—a momentary aurora.” Surrounded by the pair of newlyweds and Nanine she then expires; while gently calling out the name of Armand, and seeing himself and herself as they were during their affair.

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An ad. for the 1923 re-release that demonstrates Alla’s change of status.

It was, perhaps, the review in the September 24th, 1921 edition, of industry title, Motion Picture News, that best summed-up the starring vehicle at the time. Lawrence Reid, the reviewer, was forthright and upfront about the fact that the great Nazimova had: “… come into her own again with this modern version of Dumas’ tragedy of passion.” And had been given “a picture worthy of her expression” by June Mathis. An adaptation that was: “… intact except for the final ending.” Reid believed this to be a flaw and said so. In his review, he wonders about the reason; if it was “the shadow of censorship”, or maybe “recourse to a happier ending”, not knowing that it was, in fact, a conscious decision on the part of the Star, to diminish the impact of her co-Star and make herself the centre of attention. (Something others in the business heard of and communicated.) Yet, despite his powerful and moving performance being edited out, Lawrence Reid saw that Rudy had acted his heart out — and said so. As follows: “She is forced, however, to share honors in many of the scenes, with Rudolph Valentino, who demonstrates that the art he flashed in ‘The Four Horsemen’ was not a thing of the moment. He makes Armand a brooding, silent volcano of love who suppresses his desires until the supreme moment. His restraint is highly commendable.” (Watching it through it’s hard to argue.)

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I fail to agree with the assessment, in Episode Six of Hollywood (1980), that: “The most impressive thing about Camille was its sets.” Impressive though they most definitely were, and highly talented and ahead-of-her-time Rambova absolutely was, there’s so very much more to the production. Noteworthy, alone-and-by-itself, is the fact that this was a realization driven along by three ambitious women; and, in a period when very few females were able to steer anything at all in the film-making sphere. The acting of both Nazimova and Valentino, is, at many points, as already detailed, superb; and very representative of the skill of performing in a silent super feature at that time. And the supporting players – Rex Cherryman, Zeffie Tilbury, William Orlamond, and Consuelo Flowerton, particularly – are exemplary in my opinion. Of course it’s a period piece. Of course it’s not the greatest of the great silents. Of course it lacks not only the original tinting but also its original music. And yet it stands the test of time. Still entertains. Still moves us and makes us marvel. What bland, derivative, churned-out contemporary creations are going to be able to do that a century from now? Few!


First of all I want to thank you for reading this 5,000 word post through from start to finish. I hope that it’s been as enjoyable to read as it was to research and write. This contribution, to the April 3rd to 5th, 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon, will be followed by another diversionary piece, before I return, in May, to Jean Acker. I hope you’ll join me for that, later in the month, and I urge you, in the meantime, to check-out the other contributors to this marvellous exercise, at Silver Screen Classics, here: https://silverscreenclassicsblog.wordpress.com/

 

My 2019 Radio Interview

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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:

https://www.mixcloud.com/ANW_Radio/alan-barnes-scottie-road-writers-with-guest-simon-constable/listeners/

Daisy Chained (Part Two)

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The Hollywood Hotel. Where Jean Acker locked Rudolph Valentino out of her room.

In November 1919 Rudolph Valentino married his first wife Jean Acker. It wasn’t, we know, a match made in heaven; and questions continue, to this very day, about what exactly was going on that month. There are questions, too, about what, if anything, was to be gained from the union. Just as there’s curiosity about the aftermath. I hope to answer these queries, in a three part post, titled, not Questions, but Daisy Chained, for reasons that will eventually become clear. As far as I’m aware this is the first deep investigation of this important figure in Rudy’s life.

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A vintage postcard of the Ansley Hotel with an image of a Bridal Chamber top right.

While Jean may’ve vanished for some length of time, professionally, towards the end of 1915, she didn’t herself disappear. Far from it. In fact, several mentions in the press, in that year and the next, give us some idea of her movements. Her scene or scenes in Are You a Mason? (1915) had to have been completed by late January, for her to be reported about in a light-hearted manner early in February, in The Atlanta Constitution. It seems that Acker had arrived in town at the Hotel Ansley in need of a room. Asking for “the best” accomodation, she was informed, by the Assistant Manager, Charles G. Day, that their finest available was the Bridal Suite. When told it was the most expensive Jean apparently asked: “Has it a tiger skin, or fuzzy rug in it?” When told it did, she said she’d take it, as her $600 Pekingese puppy, ‘Peg’, liked something to play on when he was “lonesome”. The report, titled TAKES BRIDAL SUITE SO “PEG” CAN PLAY ON TIGERSKIN RUG, ended with the statement that she, and Miss Florenze Tempest, who she was there to visit: “… signed up the bridal chamber for a week.” Whether or not the famous Cross-Dresser Tempest, who shared “the bridal chamber” was another early Amour, or simply a Theatrical Buddy, the report, for me, is a wonderful glimpse into the life of Acker in her early twenties. She travels about freely. Behaves like a Star. Has the money for both an expensive pooch – it could’ve been a gift – and the priciest room at a stylish hotel. Has a tongue-in-cheek personality. And is newsworthy where she goes.

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Florenze Tempest in character.

(One possible reason for Jean Acker’s hiatus, and her travelling, is that she may’ve successfully sued Frank H. Platt for $10,000. Or, been awarded a lesser sum, or secured an out of court settlement. (Platt was the man driving the vehicle which hit Law, Phoner and herself, when they were on Law’s motorcycle, in New York, in the first half of 1913.) According to a report, on January the 6th, 1914, Jean’s damages suit was to be tried that day.)

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The Otesaga Hotel, Cooperstown, central New York State, before WW1.

At the start of August, on the 3rd (according to the August 8th edition of Cincinatti’s THE ENQUIRER), she was equally far-flung, when she was very definitely the “guest of honor” at Mrs. William C. Boyle’s “attractively appointed luncheon” at Boyle’s summer home, ‘Cairngorm Farm’, “on the lake shore east”. The Honoured Guest was, the newspaper explained, at the time visiting a Mrs. Charles H. Hopper. Whatever Mrs. Hopper meant to Miss Acker – let’s not draw the conclusion that her attachment to every established, older female, was a sexual or transactional one – they were, a year later, still friends and in one another’s company. Something proven by the paragraph, in a column titled, AT THE OTESAGA, in THE GLIMMERGLASS DAILY, on Monday August, 28th, 1916. As follows:

Mrs. Charles Hopper of Cleveland

and Miss Jean Acker, Mrs. J. R. Pri-

tchard, and Mrs. Asta Ash of New

York, are making a few days stay at

the Otesaga.

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‘Madame’ Yorska.

One whole year passes before we see Jean’s name again, when, right at the beginning of June 1917, she’s linked to Mme. Yorksa. Madame Yorska? Yes! That was my reaction too when I first saw the name! Who was she? Very much a subject in her own right, this isn’t really the time and place to delve into her; however, it’s pretty clear she was important to Acker, previous to her meeting the other Madame: Nazimova. A personality who’s now almost totally forgotten, and without even a Wikipedia page, she was, it seems, a rather important dramatic presence in the United States in the Teens. How and when Jean Acker met the Bernhardt-trained Actress fond of playing male parts is a mystery. Yet it’s obvious from a brief look at Yorska’s remarkable career, that Acker had impressed her sufficiently to be included in the cast of Jenny, a play presented on the afternoon of Monday, June 5th, 1917, at The Comedy Theatre, in New York. (THE NEW YORK CLIPPER reveals that the one-off presentation was for the benefit of The Actor’s Fund of America, and that Edmund (or ‘Eddie’) Goulding, later a significant Director, was also one of the performers.)

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Alla Nazimova in 1918.

Was it while she orbited Madame Yorska that Acker gravitated, inexorably, to Madame Nazimova? I believe so. (Actually, in the first week of December, in the previous year, Yorska and Nazimova had been two of the “Scores of prominent performers” that had performed at a Blue Cross Fund benefit, at the Hudson Theatre, suggesting they perhaps knew one another.) Alla, the greater Star of the pair, was almost certainly on the East Coast of the United States that Summer, alternately in New York and her home at Port Chester, to the North of the metropolis. Basking in the afterglow of having recently wowed audiences and critics alike – an initial skimpy outfit alone had left them open-mouthed – in H. Austin Adams’ play Ception Shoals between January and May. And readying herself to embark upon a movie career, after the conclusion of negotiations with pre M-G-M Metro Pictures Corp. (Four weeks of tough negotiating, finalised on Friday, July 27th, and announced on the 28th.)

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A Ception Shoals cartoon.

Nazimova, who the Theatre Critic, Charles Darnton, described, in an incredibly detailed review of the first night of Ception Shoals, as: “… an actress of intelligence, feeling and imagination…” was, with much success behind and ahead of her, utterly irresistable that year. Something Harriette Underhill underscored, in December 1917, in her piece titled: Alla Be Praised! Which began:

“One hundred years from now it may

be written in the books which record

historical events that Nazimova was

discovered in 1917…”

Naturally Underhill and her knowing readers were all too aware Madame Nazimova had already enjoyed a decade of stage triumphs — as was Acker. Yet it was in the year the USA entered The Great War she arguably reached her apogee. Harriette Underhill’s declaration that: “Nazimova is more than a person. She is a force.” is telling. And in her responses to the interviewer’s questions Alla’s more telling still. Particularly when she gives her Interrogator her opinion of films and film-making:”… the motion picture is the soul of drama in visible form… It is a triumph—and that’s what we all want, isn’t it?” (A favourite story of mine about Nazimova, Ception Shoals and 1917, that demonstrates the extent to which she was A Force, is the one about how Mrs. Marshall Field and her party were humiliated in a Washington theatre by the Star. It seems that due to comments overheard by her from Field’s box, Madame cried out “Curtain!”, before instructing the Stage Manager to turn out all of the house lights, bar those in the box. (At which, not surprisingly, Field and her friends fled.))

I’m almost certain, due to her later activities, that Alla’s triumph over Jean, her conquest of her, was achieved at this point in time: the Summer of 1917. With nobody alive to ask, and nothing, to my knowledge, ever found in writing, or recorded, we must make bold assumptions about the when, the where and the how. If the when was indeed 1917. And the where was New York. Then we’re left with the how. As already suggested Madame Yorska is one potential link. Yet I favour another candidate, named Herbert Brenon; a man who’d known Acker since 1913, and had successfully directed Nazimova, in her first, one-off motion picture, War Brides (1916). Easy indeed it is, to imagine Jean Acker seeing and saying hello to him at a party, a restaurant, the theatre, or even on the street, while in Alla Nazimova’s company.

I don’t see it as a problem that we wait twelve months to see the two women mentioned together in print. For me, their combination in the same sentence is so casual, it suggests, the unsaid being the clue, that the unknown journalist was aware they weren’t newly acquainted. The quickie marriage of Actor George R. Edeson to Actress Mary Newcomb that following Summer was a minor off-stage drama.  The hasty nuptials, which in a way oddly echo Acker’s own, were followed, a report in the New York Tribune reveals, by a dinner at the Hotel des Artists [sic]; at which the guests, including Mme. Nazimova and Miss Jean Acker, were sworn to secrecy as to the place and time of the ceremony, and, the couple’s later whereabouts. Secrecy was, of course, the theme, at least to outsiders, when it came to Alla and Jean. So much so, that at this distance, we know virtually nothing of their very serious and lengthy affair. Yet serious and lengthy it was. And, in time, rather consequential to them both — though they didn’t know it, in 1917 and 1918.

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Perusing the relevant pages of Gavin Lambert’s Alla Nazimova biography, Nazimova: A Biography (1997), we learn little about the commencement of their relationship. Just as he’s lacking in detail about Madame’s entry into Filmdom; failing to mention how she’d openly offered her services for $50,000 per production, and publicly floated the idea of working with D. W. Griffith (following his return to the USA from The Western Front), Lambert’s very noncommittal when it comes to any pathway. (A little odd when you consider his general hypothesizing elsewhere.) It’s clear, when we consider the evidence in the New York Tribune, that Nazimova didn’t discover Acker in the September of 1919. Jean had never been known as “Jeanne Mendoza”. Wasn’t 26. Hadn’t, at any time, been “a dancer in vaudeville” or a “small-part actress in summer stock”. And the less said about: “… hardly known to the world at all.” the better. Yet, it would be churlish to suggest that his yet-to-be-surpassed life gives nothing when it comes to Alla and Jean; as it absolutely doesn’t, as will be seen.

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It was at the end of 1918, on Friday, December 27th, that industry publication, Wid’s DAILY, reported on the return of Jean Acker to film-making. Small news items, in that month and the next, informed the business that Miss Acker had been engaged to support the popular Fox Film Corp. Star, George Walsh, in a production to be titled Tough Luck Jones. (The title had already altered from Jinx Jones and would end up being Never Say Quit.)

As we don’t know how Acker came to be teamed with Walsh – no report enlightens us – we’re forced to speculate. Her mixing in the right circles and being in New York was probably sufficient for her to cross the path of someone – an Agent, Director or Executive – that facilitated it all. Though it was very much the case that the majority of filming was conducted in the West by this time, business was still being concluded in the East, at the headquarters of the varied, significant studios. And this was obviously beneficial to her when it came to William Fox’s concern. (Fox, seldom, if ever, went to California.)

“It is typically a George Walsh concoc-

tion, a mass of complications furnishing

the star opportunities to display his

physical agility strung upon a story

thread a little stronger than customary.”

From REVIEWS, EXHIBITORS HERALD AND MOTOGRAPHY, March 22nd, 1919 (page 33).

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Looking at reviews of Never Say Quit (1919) (a good example, being Hanford C. Judson’s, in the March 29th issue of THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD), we can see how Jean adapted to the times by playing: “… a big-eyed vamp…” Her part, was, it’s true, minor. (She’s billed simply as: Vamp.) And her screentime limited. (Just one scene it appears.) Yet, she was to be featured, prominently, in advertisements. (See above.) And find her portrayal would lead, quite soon, to a better role, in a far, far bigger Fox Film Corp. production. A great part in a wholesome, feel-good film, which would introduce her to more of her country men and country women than ever before.

That the death and burial of her Grandmother and namesake, in February 1919, didn’t derail her, despite it being a blow, is proven by the fact that after she completed work opposite Walsh, Acker signed up for Edward A. Locke’s new play The Dancer. The story of Lola Kerinski, a Russian performer protected by a Manager and a brother, who falls for a wealthy American, who she marries, loses, then reunites with, opened at the Grand theatre, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on February 13th. VARIETY‘s anonymous reviewer, on the 19th, felt a week or two of rehearsals had been insufficient. “… players were …. [unsure] of their lines…” and “the play” required: “… blue-penciling, speeding up and more vitality.” Despite this, the producers, “The Shuberts”, had: “… staged the play well and surrounded the principals with capable players.” (Jean Acker was one of these.) By the time the cast reached Poli’s theatre, on the 23rd, at the capital city Washington, it flowed nicely. However, on March the 5th, at The Majestic theatre, Providence, Rhode Island, locals objected to the two main characters, the Wife and Husband, kissing in bed and appearing dressed in nightwear, and complained to the relevant authority. Sergeant Richard Gamble, “amusement inspector”, consequently requested serious alterations.

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Miss Jean Acker in the late Teens.

Was bedroom fun on Miss Jean Acker’s mind too? By March she’d found the time to seek out a new home for herself; eventually settling on a sub-let, handled by Pease&Ellman (for Trowbridge Calloway), at 662 Madison Avenue, in New York. To be a block away from Central Park, even in the Spring of 1919, wouldn’t have been cheap. So I wonder if Alla Nazimova was paying for the apartment. And if it was perhaps a place for the couple to rendezvous when Madame was East between films. Of course, being back in business, as she was, Jean might’ve been in a position to rent in a nice part of town. There’s no denying that she’s named as the new Tenant, in the RESIDENTIAL LEASES column, in THE SUN newspaper, on Monday, March 24th. I get the impression, even though it was standard practice at the time, that Jean publicized her move because it suited her for people to know. This was not a publicity-shy individual. Being in the press was enjoyable for her. And she wanted to look good, as people do, when they’re in a profession where looking good’s of the utmost importance.

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So good did Acker look that Spring, that as soon as the rights were secured (by William Fox) to film Checkers (a late 19th C. novel by Henry M. Blossom Jr. adapted for the stage and much revived), it was announced she was to star opposite Thomas J. Carrigan. With the Director, according to the first publication to announce it (Wid’s DAILY, on Friday, March 7th), to be Richard Stanton.

The picturization of Blossom Jr.’s Checkers was, it must be stated, on a whole different level to Never Say Quit. On March 15th industry title THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD was unequivocal: “One of the biggest casts ever assembled for a motion picture…”  was at work. (A cast of “nearly fifty principals”.) And “The racing scenes which helped make the play famous…” were to “… be photographed at one of the southern racetracks.” It was expected, the final sentence revealed, that the adaptation would be released that Spring. And would be: “… a big special feature.”

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Jean Acker’s role in the screen version was that of the Heroine Pert Barlow. As Pert, Jean appeals to Checkers, Thomas’s character, a Racing Tout, to help her to stop her society Fiancee drinking so heavily. (The Fiancee, who’s played by Robert Elliot, is called Arthur Kendall.) When Checkers tries and fails, he and Pert find themselves in love, and become engaged; something her Father is so unhappy about, he locks her in her room. A daring escape follows. Then an elopement. With Acker’s Barlow taking with her her horse — named Remorse. The two decide to enter Remorse in a big local race. However, the evil Fiancee seeks to stop them, in any way he can, so his own horse can triumph. The pair overcome several serious obstacles – the wrecking of their train, Pert’s abduction and imprisonment in China Town and rescue, and the blinding of their chosen jockey – before succeeding in winning the competition. A feat achieved by Jean’s Barlow riding the steed to victory. After which, Bertram Marburgh’s Judge Barlow forgives them, and welcomes them back to the family home. The End.

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If this re-phrased, contemporary synopsis doesn’t give the full picture, we can access an advertisement that perhaps fills in any blanks when it comes to action. (Above.) As we see Acker was back to her earlier self. Leaping from her room to a tree. Jumping from a “… speeding auto to a box car…” And riding “…. to victory on Remorse.” And once more, at the very end, anyway, cross-dressing and pretending to be a man. Not so common at the time. And in advance of the masquerading of both Dietrich and Garbo a decade later. (It’s only recently, too, that any female has been permitted to openly compete in a horse race.)

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Acker as Barlow ready to Save The Day.

By mid. March filming had commenced on the East Coast, at the company’s studio, at Fort Lee. Sometime in the third or fourth week of the month, a writer at Motion Picture News put together a look at progress so far, including details of what footage had been shot of Jean up to that point. (The piece was published in the March 29th edition.) “… the little Broadway beauty and daredevil of the movies…” was offering to “bet one year’s salary” that when the horse featured (owned by P. S. P. Randolph) started in The Kentucky Derby, she’d be: “… in the saddle wearing the Randolph colors.” Acker, already “one of the best woman riders in the country”, had been, we’re informed, coached as to how to ride in an actual race by “a well-known retired jockey”. And had already been captured with the thoroughbred at the private track at: “… the Randolph Estate at Lakewood, N. J.” (If the June 21st edition of THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD is believed then the information that Jean Acker would indeed ride in The Kentucky Derby was just good old-fashioned Hoo-Ha. According to the publication: “The racing scenes were filmed at the Belmont Park, Long Island, and on a New Jersey course.”)

Many reports mention the fact that Stanton was “a stickler for realism”. The entire set erected for the gambling scene, was authentic, down to the ivory inlaid chips each worth $1.50. Chinatown was faithfully recreated, with the assistance of Captain Hannon, of the Elizabeth Street police station. And Acker’s ten foot spring from the roof of a mansion into the branches of a tree, 38 feet from the ground, was all too genuine. Just as genuine, was the injury sustained by Ellen Cassity, portraying third-billed Alva Romaine, hurt in the filming of the ballroom scene by a broken goblet. (The reporting of this doesn’t state exactly how the Actress was injured.)

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There’s no doubting that Checkers (1919) was a hit. A quick word search on lantern, or at Chronicling America, or Fulton History and elsewhere, provides plenty of proof. On July 28th, more than a month before the tightly edited, 70 minute visual extravaganza was issued, Wid’s DAILY was singing its praises. The Director: “… handled his material in such a way as to get every ounce of punch possible out of the story’s bigger moments.” It was edge of the seat stuff. Particularly the climax: “… when the picture showed the race itself, there was to be had almost as much excitement as if you had a big bet on the race yourself.” Others – THE NEW YORK CLIPPER (September 3rd), EXHIBITORS HERALD AND MOTOGRAPHY (September 6th), and PHOTOPLAY Magazine (October), as well as many more – all gave Checkers (1919) favourable reviews. Yet it was the feedback to industry publications from exhibitors that showed the extent to which the film succeeded. (There are, unfortunately, just too many examples to reproduce here, other than the one above.)

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By the time Checkers (1919) premiered in St. Louis, the Author’s home town, with allsorts of publicity innovations – ten store windows devoted to publicity, a horse with a jockey parading in the streets, 500 paper strips with premiere details pasted to telephone poles, adverts accompanying 3,000 copies of the title tune, 5,000 windshield notifications, and even a preview advance Trailer playing in the “Wm. Fox Liberty Theatre” – employed, Jean Acker, “the little Broadway beauty and daredevil of the movies”, was firmly on the West Coast.

Why? And why was she no longer working for William Fox’s Fox Film Corp.? The only possible reason is that a jealous Nazimova had forbidden her to. And had forced Jean to relocate to California in order that she couldn’t soar higher. Acker’s wings needed to be clipped. And clipped they would be were she to be in the West. We know this, due to there being no customary announcement that Jean had left her current employer, or, unprecedented at the time, that she’d been signed by her new one. Madame, somehow strangely in control of the Miss, even managed to obliterate her recent achievements, when she was credited, by Cal York, in Plays and Players, in the September edition of PHOTOPLAY Magazine, as the person who’d discovered her.

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Madame.

Nazzy, recently returned from New York, had brought with her, in the following order: a collection of frogs and toads for her bathtub, a new brand of perfumed cigarettes, and Jeanne [sic] Acker, a Protege, who’d now be named Jeanne Mendoza. Jean’s humiliation was complete. Not only was she under the thumb of her older Lover, she’d failed to register, ahead of bathtoys and cigarettes, in one of Hollywood’s most prestigious publications. (And, most tragic of all, Lambert’s, Nazimova: A Biography, in reproducing this awful announcement, condemned her to a quarter of a century of derision.) Yet she at least at the time had a job (no doubt organized by Alla). As mentioned (at the very end of the sneering paragraph), she’d be playing opposite Bert Lytell, in a forthcoming Screen Classics Inc./Metro Pictures Corp. film, Lombardi, Ltd.

When I learned Jean Acker had been involved in the film version of Frederic and Fanny Hatton’s, three act, 1917 comedy, Lombardi, Ltd. (1919), I decided to seek it out. And I’m pleased I did – The British Library had a 1928 copy – as it gave me insight. Not only into what was going on in her life in terms of work, before she and Rudolph Valentino met in the Autumn of that year; but, the film being inaccessible to me, and no script copy being available, an excellent idea of what the adaptation was all about at its core. I suddenly had background. And suddenly a lot of what transpired made sense. (I later also accessed Dorothy Allison’s, scene-by-scene version, in the January 1920 issue of PHOTOPLAY.)

The play by the prolific Hattons, who’d previously scored hits with, Years of Discretion (1912), The Song Bird (1915), $2,000 A Night (1915) Upstairs and Down (1916)), and The Squab Farm (1916), was launched by Oliver Morosco, at his Morosco theatre, in Los Angeles, on July 1st, 1917; where it instantly succeeded, catapulting Leo Carrillo, who played the main character Tito Lombardi, to theatrical stardom. (NOTE: $2,000 A Night, was, interestingly, originally titled: The Great Lover.)

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The story, in essence, is that of a brilliant, Italian male Modiste/Fashion Designer, who’s talented at creating desirable clothing, but not so clever when it comes to running the business and making a profit. Additionally, he’s unlucky in love; and continues to be so throughout the play, until he discovers true happiness under his nose, in the form of his faithful, but not-so-glamorous store Manageress. Many characters revolve around Tito. Two, an important Model named Daisy, the Ingenue Lead, and a secretly wealthy youth, named Riccardo, the Juvenile Lead, ultimately being most important to the narrative. A tale, summarized by Guy Price, in his review in THE LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD, on Monday, July 2nd, 1917, as: “Real love [triumphing] over the selfish, for-gain-only, ‘surface love.'”

As it was Daisy that Jean portrayed in Lombardi, Ltd. (1919), I paid attention to her as a figure, and to her lines and interractions with Riccardo. In the DESCRIPTION OF CHARACTERS section, of the late ’20s reprint at The British Library, she’s described thus:

DAISY :  A mannequin in Lombardi’s establishment.

Ingenue LeadOf the ‘baby vampire’ type.

Played for comedy at all times.  In the [F]irst [A]ct

innocent and unsophisticated.  Commencing with

the Second Act she assumes the airs of the girls

about her, and thinks herself quite ‘wise.’  She

should be a young girl of about twenty-two,

rather small but possessed of a good figure and

very pretty.  In Act 1 wears her hair low and

simply ; thereafter puts it on the top of her head

in exaggerated manner, but not so that it will

spoil her attractiveness. ‘Kittenish’ best des-

cribes her habitual manner.

And I also reproduce, Riccardo’s, or Rickey’s description, which I think very interesting, when you have in mind another, real-life Italian, that the actual day-to-day Jean would be encountering. As follows:

RICCARDO TOSSELLO :  Juvenile and Light Comedy.

A young man of about twenty-fiveItalian de-

scentNot the swarthy type ; black or dark hair. 

Does not use the Italian dialect any time.  Is of

the manly type and easy to play if not ‘acted.’

Very wealthy, but does not seem to be aware of

the fact, and is never arrogant or important

because of his wealth.  Just a ‘hail fellow well

met’ at all times, never loud in action, speech

or dress. The diamond rings he wears are sup-

posed to have been inherited from his father and

worn for the sake of their association, rather

than their value.

As you can see, I’ve purposely highlighted/made bold parts of sentences, for both Daisy and Riccardo/Rickey, that I feel, strongly, particularly with Riccardo Tossello, eerily echo his off-screen counterpart Rudolph Valentino. He’s named Riccardo/Rickey and Rudolph was Rudolph/Rudy. He’s 25 and Valentino, was, likewise, in his mid. twenties. (24 at this point.) He’s not swarthy, has black or dark hair, and doesn’t use the Italian dialect any time. And Rudy wasn’t swarthy, had dark hair, and didn’t, at least by 1919, as far as I know, use the Italian dialect. And further, Rudolph was never arrogant or important; was a hail fellow well met; and, as we know, rather enjoyed wearing rings. But back to Daisy/Jean and Rickey/Rudy in a little bit. As I now throw June Mathis into the mix. It being “The recognized head of Metro’s scenario department” who was responsible for the adaptation.

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“Comedy is very necessary. But, after all, it doesn’t make the lasting impression that is made by the soul-searching story—the story that gets under the skins of all of us and reveals that mortals are weak, groping atoms in a cosmic wilderness and that into their brief span of existence is crowded infinitely more sorrow than happiness.”

June Mathis, quoted in Motion Picture News, August 9th, 1919.

The pre The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) Mathis had only recently been elevated to the enviable position of Metro Pictures Corp.’s Scenarist in Chief. And was being heralded as such, that Summer, in promotional pieces like the half page article, Woman to Adapt Screen Classics, that appeared in the August 9th edition of Motion Picture News. If the message wasn’t clear from the title, it was hammered home in the text, when it was stated that June was: “… grooming herself for a demonstration of her contention that the female of the species is more strenuous than the male…” in the scenario writing sphere. “Miss Mathis” had: “… established herself as a motion picture technician and one of the cleverest handlers of big situations, ranging from graceful comedy to heart-gripping drama.” The creation, by Metro Pictures Corp.’s production arm, Screen Classics, Inc., of ‘fewer, bigger and better’ productions, from September the 1st 1919, had her undivided attention. And she was quoted as saying: ‘Give me the human drama. Let it be a story about my fellow human beings—their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows. Let me cry with them, but let them be human.’

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The Screen Classics, Inc./Metro Pictures Corp. studios.

Unaware of the forthcoming human drama of two fellow human beings, Acker and Valentino, almost under her very nose; individuals, with hopes, fears, joys and definite sorrows, Mathis adapted Lombardi, Ltd. according to her instincts. To get an idea of any differences between the stage version and the screen version we’ve only to look at reviews. Such as the complimentary one we see, in THE WASHINGTON HERALD, on Monday, October 20th, 1919. Which begins with the sentence: “Seldom in picturizing a former stage success has the original acting version been so strictly adhered to…” And went on to explain that: “The logical sequence of scenes has been scrupulously observed with the result that the shadow drama …. preserves all of the directness and all of the dramatic power of the play…” This information helps me to be certain that the cinematic Daisy wasn’t, despite being reduced slightly in importance by June, too dissimilar to the theatrical Daisy. Which is significant, given my belief the actions of both her character, and those of the opposite character, were a real influence on events.

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In my post, December 1919, in December 2018, I looked in some detail at the run up to the meeting of Jean and Rudy — at least from his perspective. On a night in early September, Rudolph Valentino found himself at Venice nightspot, The Ship. Spotting friend Dagmar Godoswky, he approached her table, but met with rejection from Alla Nazimova — which triggered a rejection by all gathered. (Godowsky’s recollection was it was a celebration of the conclusion of shooting of Nazimova’s next spectacular.) Within days the humiliated Valentino became acquainted with a young woman present at the venue: Jean Acker. The location, this time, was the newly-bought home of the established stage and screen star Pauline Frederick. At this more congenial dinner party – Gavin Lambert’s claim that it marked the end of the filming of Madame X (1920) is incorrect as it began production the following Spring – Jean was alone.

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‘Polly’ Frederick’s new home in 1920.

Acker, I’m sure, instantly recognised the beautifully dressed, well-mannered Italian so horribly insulted by Madame Nazimova. After being introduced by ‘Polly’ he asked Jean to dance. She declined. Instead they sat under “a California moon” and talked, and talked — then, talked some more. The discussion is unrecorded. Yet we know that they found themselves understanding and liking one another. It was, after all, the collision of two rather similar people. Individuals who were somewhat battered and bruised by life and their profession. Victims, both, of the great Diva Nazzy. The Force. Someone that, as Dagmar Godowsky explains, in First Person Plural: The Lives of DAGMAR GODOWSKY, by Herself (1958), her autobiography, only: “… had to raise an eyebrow and everyone shook.” (Rudy was to call Dagmar a couple of days afterwards to tell her all about it and how he felt about Jean.)

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Rudolph Valentino and Clara Kimball Young in Eyes of Youth (1919).

Miss Acker probably spoke of her return to the profession the previous year, her arrival on the West Coast, and her most recent film. It would be strange – impossible – for her not to have told him all about Metro Pictures Corp. and the powerful people she knew there. And of her plans for the future. Mr. Valentino had his own tale to tell of course. How he’d got started in the business in 1916; had shifted West the following year; about his serious struggles; and how he’d recently completed working with Clara Kimball Young, in Eyes of Youth (1919). Likewise, it would be odd, odd and unlikely, for him not to ask questions about Metro Pictures Corp. About June Mathis. And about Maxwell Karger. And to see if they had mutual friends. (After all they’d both spent many years in New York and its environs.) If Jean, so recently Daisy, didn’t yet see in Rudy a Rickey, she certainly saw a young man that she felt she could trust. Someone she could enjoy being with and maybe see again. If not, then why did they see one another again? And then again? Was he, I wonder, employing his “credo”, as reproduced in a newspaper, in 1922? 1. Never play at love unless you feel the urge. Insincere lovemaking is cheating—and you cheat yourself most of all. 2. Never try cave-man tactics on the woman you love. That’s a sure way to lose her if she’s worth winning. 3. Be patient. Never try to kiss a woman the first or the second time you meet her. And never reveal your purpose, whatever it may be, until she is used to you and trusts you. Perhaps, like me, you picture her receiving a tender kiss on the hand as they said farewell — not a difficult thing to imagine!

Desmond

Over the next eight weeks they saw one another irregularly. Though Lombardi, Ltd. (1919) had been wrapped (at least for Jean and the principals), by the time of the Frederick soiree, it appears Acker was busy for some of the time working on The Blue Bandana (1919); a Robertson-Cole Productions film, the Star of which was William Desmond. (Having been considered “specially fitted for the part” of Ruth Yancy, she’d been loaned out, and the movie was released, quickly, on November 16th.) On his side, Rudolph’s latest role, as Cabaret Parasite, Clarence Morgan, in Eyes of Youth (1919), was very much In The Can. And he was at a loose end, not having yet secured the part of Prince Angelo Della Robbia, in Passion’s Playground (1920). Contractless, and without a studio, he would, between their dates, be looking for his next opportunity. (I begin to think it was at this time that he went to see Sessue Hayakawa, to ask about joining his company, at the facility at which Jean was at work. Something mentioned in Sessue’s autobiography, ZEN showed me the Way… to peace, happiness and tranquility and harmony (1960), on page 144. He also says Acker worked for him after they’d married.)

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A Bird’s Eye View of Hollywood Boulevard from Lookout Mountain in 1919.

No doubt they went on a short trip or two in Jean Acker’s auto. And enjoyed an evening here or there dancing. Being outdoor types, and accomplished riders, they absolutely rode in the Hollywood Hills — in fact, we know they did. And it would be surprising if they hadn’t seen at least one motion picture. Is it possible that they went to watch the September 16th evening preview of Lombardi, Ltd. (1919), at the Hollywood Theatre, at 6724 Hollywood Boulevard? I think so. And it’s quite likely, in the following month, the couple could’ve enjoyed an advance screening of Eyes of Youth (1919), as such private viewings were happening in October, in advance of a big trade preview in New York, on the 30th. Fun for them both, if so. Despite it emphasizing the real differences in their positions in the industry. Jean was, so far, more experienced and more successful; was better known and better connected; and, receiving a regular weekly salary of several hundred dollars.

RV (3)

A couple of years later, in Chapter Three of My Life Story, his life so far, as related to PHOTOPLAY Magazine, and published in their April 1923 edition, Valentino went into some detail. Firstly: “It was at a party at Miss Frederick’s that I met Miss Jean Acker. I thought her very attractive. But I did not see her again for some time.” After meeting her once more: “I fell in love with her. I think you might call it love at first sight.” Reminiscing about their horseride: “It was like an Italian day. Romance was shining everywhere, and the world looked beautiful. That day I proposed to Miss Acker. It seemed spontaneous and beautiful then. But as I look back, now, it seems more like a scene [from] a picture with me acting the leading part.”

Acker (2)
Jean Acker in 1921.

I feel, here, it’s worth looking at the conversations about matrimony between Daisy and Rickey, in Lombardi, Ltd. Though the dialogue would’ve been seriously pruned for intertitling, I’m certain the general tone was retained. Pages 106, 107 and 108, in Act II, as follows:

Page 106

RICKEY.  (At R. of DAISY and close to her)  Say, ducks, I must have you.  Just naturally must.  And you might just as well slip me that “Yes” now, because I’ll bother you to death till you do.  Come on, will you have me, lovey ?

DAISY.  Are you offering me marriage ?

RICKEY.  Surest thing you know.  Honourable marriage.  (Takes both hands in his and leads her so that she is just R. of lower end of the settee.)  Bride’s cake, veils, rice and that little gold band that your sex thinks so well of, and besides that, Daisy, l-o-v-e, and I’m full of it.

DAISY.  (Backing to corner of settee for support)  It’s my first !  (Sits on settee.) My !  It does give you a thrilling feeling, just like the books say.  Have you asked many other girls that ?

RICKEY.  What ?  To marry me ?  (Sits next to Daisy on settee above her.)

DAISY.  Uh, huh !

RICKEY.  Peaches, you are number one absolutely. Daisy, you’re the first little woman I ever saw that I wanted to make the Mrs.

DAISY.  Yes, I bet I am !

RICKEY.  (Laughing.)  You are.

DAISY.  Oh, yes.  Oh, yes.  Doubtless.  Doubtless.

RICKEY.  I’ve had some flirts, of course.  I don’t set up to be a Saint Anthony, but wedding rings; no, lovey lamb, just my little Daisy.  (Embraces her.)

Page 107

DAISY.  (Gives audible sign of content.)  Oh, I just wish you wasn’t a chauffeur, because I do like you—lots.  (Breaking away from his embrace.)  Only, I can’t—honest, I can’t.  (Rising and crossing to c.)

RICKEY.  (Rises and shows disappointment)  Why, Daisy ?

DAISY.  I’ve made up my mind I’m going to have things and money and lots of it.

RICKEY.  (Following DAISY)  But I love you, Daisy, and I’ll make you love me.  Won’t you take a chance ?

DAISY.  (Waving him off)  Now, please go away.  I don’t want to say, “Yes.”  I’m not going to marry a mechanic.   (Crossing to R. below table.)  I cannot do it.  (Continues around R. of table and above it.)

RICKEY.  (Disappointed, but still persisting, he crosses up L. of table and meets DAISY just above it)  Well, all right, if that’s the way you feel about it, but, Daisy, I want you to know that I would carry you around on my two hands.  (Extends his hands palms up, forgetting that he had previously turned the rings he is wearing.)

DAISY.  (About to take his hands, notices the diamonds in his rings; staggers)  My Gawd !  Are those stones gen-u-ine ?

RICKEY.  Eh?  Oh, yes.  Belonged to my father.  Want one?  (Taking off ring from left hand.) 

DAISY.  Oh, you mean it ?  (RICKEY puts ring on her finger.)  Ain’t it swell.  I never did see one bigger.  But it wouldn’t be right because I ain’t goin’ to swerve from my purpose—take it off, please.

(Pause.  DAISY  takes  off  the  ring,  handing  it  to  RICKEY,  who  replaces  it  on  his finger  as  she  continues  speech.)

RICKEY.  It’s yours; it’s for you.

DAISY.  I just wish I could see my way clear to…

Page 108

taking it, and you, too, Mr.—what’s that queer name you’ve got ?

RICKEY.  Never mind, Daisy.  Just call me Rickey.  My name is Italian and your dear little lips could never pronounce it.

DAISY.  (In astonishment)  Are you Eye-Talian ?  Oh, that’s grand.

RICKEY.  Wouldn’t you like to try some Italian hugs today ?

DAISY.  Oh, maybe—I might.

I find this exchange between Daisy and Rickey in the play quite startling. Of course this isn’t Jean and Rudy, yet, the similarites between the stage characters that became screen characters, and the actual people, who were screen performers and became a couple, albeit briefly, is remarkable. And the sequence I retype couldn’t be more aligned. Even though, as I say, it would’ve been seriously boiled down, in terms of explanatory text insertions between frames, in the Metro Pictures Corp. adaptation.

Daisy’s very uncertain. (As Jean obviously was.) Rickey subjects her to repeated requests and is persistent. (As Rudy reportedly did and was.) The pursued is clear his (apparent) lowly position is a serious obstacle. (Valentino wasn’t as notable as Acker.) Daisy remains resolved and won’t be swerved. (Jean was likewise resolute.) Rickey’s surname’s difficult to pronounce. (As was Rudy’s which was Guglielmi.) We can only wonder if the back and forth between Daisy and Rickey after the reproduced segment was similar in reality. And if, like her onstage self, the offstage Acker suggested that they should: … be pals and play around and not talk about getting married so soon? Yet, get married Acker and Valentino did after all, and soon. Around midnight, on Wednesday, the 5th of November, 1919.

There are, remarkably, two versions of what happened, and how it all came to pass. And while not dramatically different, they’re diferent enough to have us wondering which is correct. In the first, the pair had been riding on the 5th, probably in the morning, and Jean received her seventh proposal and was invited to elope to Santa Ana that day, but declined both the suggestion of marriage and the elopement. Mostly, this was due to the fact the pair, or one of them, had been invited to an important event that night; a party being thrown for Mr. and Mrs. Richard A. Rowland, President of Metro Pictures Corp., by Joseph W. Engel, the company Treasurer, at his home. It was at this gathering that the two sweethearts were encouraged by friends to wed. Resulting in a mad rush to secure a licence and a Minister/Priest by the end of the day. (The Officiator was the Rev. James I Myers of the Broadway Christian Church.) The second version begins in the same way, with a ride, except, on the previous day, the 4th. In this alternative account, Acker accepted the final matrimonial invitation, and later that day Valentino ran into Maxwell Karger (at an unknown Hollywood hotel (which was likely The Hollywood Hotel)). Mr. Karger, Jean’s Boss at her studio, having learned from Rudy about their plans, suggested they marry at the celebration for the Rowlands, the next evening, at the home of Engel. All leading to a great deal of driving around in Jean Acker’s car, on that day and the next, to arrange everything. And nuptials at the party by midnight on the 5th. The spectators, besides Mr. and Mrs. Engel, Mr. and Mrs. Rowland, and Mr. and Mrs. Karger, included Mr. and Mrs. Fred Warren, May Allison, Herbert Blache, [J.] Frank Brockliss and Charles Brown. (The latter version, corroborated by PHOTOPLAY Magazine, is from Natacha Rambova’s serialized, 1930 look, at her late former Husband’s life and career, The Truth About Rudolph Valentino.)

Whichever’s truest, after their respective I dos, champagne and many congratulations, they headed by themselves for the famous Hotel Hollywood (a place which had once sheltered Alla Nazimova), where Jean was then accommodated. On leaving the location of the ceremony they were unquestionably on a high. Happy. Smiling. And looking ahead with optimism to married life. Waved off by the Engels, the Rowlands, the Kargers and the others, and with perhaps a couple of tin cans tied to Acker’s auto., they drove off into matrimony, with every reason to expect that it was to be blissful. So, awful it was, when, in between the door of the Engel’s abode and the door to Acker’s hotel room, something unpleasant happened.

Several decades later, a young Patricia Neal, who’d befriended Jean Acker, and was renting an apartment from her (in a block she owned in Beverly Hills), was at some point informed by her Landlady that, soon after the exchanging of vows, Rudolph Valentino had told his Bride he’d once suffered from a sexually-transmitted disease: Gonhorrea. In her early 2000s biography, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino (2003), Emily W. Leider reveals (in the NOTES section), this was information supplied to her in a personal communication with the Actress in 1998. And, in MISALLIANCE, the chapter in question, advises the reader that it’s credible, due to it being: “confided in private to a friend…” At the time of writing, and before and after publication, Leider didn’t have at her disposal information later made available by Jeanine Therese Villalobos, in her dissertation, Rudolph Valentino: The Early Years, 1895-1920. That dissertation presents evidence that the fourteen-year-old Rodolfo actually contracted Syphilis, in a brothel, in Taranto. And that he spent a long time in bed recovering; and it was during this lengthy spell in his room, that he mentioned it to a friend in a letter.

HotelHoll

While he was, Jeanine proposes, potentially symptom free, in 1919, he felt duty bound to admit his former affliction. Whenever it happened – in the vehicle when they arrived, or, on a comfortable banquette inside of Hotel Hollywood – it was obviously a terrible blow for his Bride. This female, who’d been so cautious with males, and had had, I’m certain, previous unpleasant experiences, and who’d found herself trusting Rodolfo Guglielmi to the point of becoming his Wife, must’ve been very shocked. It appears that she somehow slipped away, got the key to her room, and went inside and locked the door.

Hollywood_Hotel_register

Following her a little later, and attempting to enter and finding he was unable to, the Bridegroom became angry and knocked loudly, and then began hammering. Inside, his Wife, tearfully told him to go away and leave her alone. Which he subsequently did, the noise having awoken guests, who probably remonstrated. He was it seems confused by her behaviour. Perplexed. At a loss. His retreat to his own rooms must’ve been a sad and sorry one. And it’s doubtful he slept unless out of sheer exhaustion. Not long afterwards Jean left her room and went to see Mrs. Anna Karger. Once in her presence she declared that getting married had been a terrible mistake. Sufficiently soothed, Acker then left the Kargers, and headed to her girlfriend Grace Darmond’s home.

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Almost immediately newspapers and trade publications reported the hasty union. One of the earliest, was Wid’s DAILY, on Saturday, November 8th, 1919. As follows:

Married at Midnight

Hollywood—Jean Acker who

played Daisy the model in Metro’s

“Lombardi, Ltd.,” married Rodolpho

Valentino, an actor, at midnight

Wednesday.

In Lombardi Miss Acker was in

love with a young Italian whom she

then marries.

Joseph Engel of Metro, had an af-

fair at his home at which Jean and

Valentino were present when they

decided to get married.

At midnight, then, they they searched

for a license clerk and a minister.

He and Mrs. Karger were

witnesses to the ceremony.

Incredibly the story kept being printed for about two months, long after it had all gone sour, and Rudy had nearly spent Christmas 1919 alone. After telling him, a day or two later, that they’d made a mistake and could neevr be happy, Jean successfully evaded Rudy for the rest of November; during which time he repeatedly telephoned, attempted, unsuccessfully, to see her (at Hotel Hollywood and at Darmond’s), and wrote to her. A letter from him that month on the 22nd ended: “Understand that you will make the trip to New York absolutely against my will and that I’m always ready to furnish you with a home and all the comforts to the best of my moderate means and ability, as well as all the love and care of a husband for his dear little wife. Please, Jean, darling, come to your senses and give me an opportunity to prove to you my sincere love and eternal devotion. Rudolph.”

HerWeddingDay
Douglas Gerrard, acting, in the Teens, in a film titled: Her Wedding Day.

It would seem that Valentino’s constant attempts to get through to Acker eventually paid off. According to the testimony of steadfast friend, Dougie Gerrard, at their divorce trial in December 1921, Jean Acker was brought to his flat/apartment by Rudolph Valentino sometime soon after the communication of the 22nd. (A week later, or, possibly longer.) “I suggested going to the Alexandria. This was agreeable.” he stated. “I said to myself: ‘That’s alright; they are together, thank God.’ ” Yet, the reunion was a temporary one, as he revealed. The next day Rudy was ecstatic. But the day after he appeared at Gerrard’s to tell him that Mrs. Guglielmi had once again left him. Amazed, Dougie took matters into his own hands, and telephoned Jean to see what the problem was. “I asked her why she and her husband could not live together. She said: ‘He is impossible, he is dictatorial and I’m not going to live with him any more.’ ”

Jean_and_Rudy

Looking at her communications afterwards makes it difficult to take her side. In a letter, dated December 15th, clearly composed after a ‘phone conversation, she wrote: “Rudolph Darling… Your voice did sound awfully good and cheerful tonight and last night it made me so lonesome for you. …. Dearest boy of mine I wish you were in my arms… When will I be there again? …. Heartful of love, sweetheart. JEAN.” And in a Telegram on December 29th: “Impossible to spend New Year’s with you. Leaving Tuesday afternoon for vacation. Will wire address when arrive. Awfuly disappointed. Can’t be helped. My love. Phone me at 10 tonight. JEAN.

What could account for Jean Acker being so physically distant yet so emotionally close? Putting aside his revelation, which he may again have mentioned and reassured her about, there’s a clue in his letter in late November, and her response to Dougie Gerrard’s question. Rudolph Valentino was telling her what she could and couldn’t do. Her trip to New York wasn’t acceptable to him. And being told this wasn’t acceptable to her. I think the phrase he employs, “dear little wife”, says a great deal about his general attitude. An attitude that the “dear little wife” highlighted in another Telegram from January 16th. “Wire and telephone calls very sweet, but letter entirely too sarcastic. Make your own plans for the East and advise strongly you do not come here as I am working much too hard to entertain anyone and hotel only have room for the company.” JEAN. The Bride was obviously bridling.

Acker was, of course, a person on the whole very used to making up her own mind. It’s plain to me, and hopefully to you, that since her start eight years earlier, at the end of 1911, she’d managed to find a way to be independent of a man, if not of men, in a male-dominated era. And to be expected to become dependent, be subservient, be his Little Wife, was next to impossible. Unthinkable, even.

Rudy_to_Jean

I strongly feel Jean Acker saw in Rudolph Valentino, if only fleetingly, and up to their nuptials, a person that she could unite with. A kindred spirit. I think that he engaged her in such a way and on such a level that he broke down her defences. I think, too, she saw, as I’m sure he did in her, somebody that could help her be more accepted. Someone that might make her look like everyone else in Hollywood. A place where many were united in marriage and enjoyed the resulting camaraderie.

Yet, it wasn’t, on both sides, to be. Jean didn’t receive a visit in Mojave in January from Rudolph. And he did make his own plans for the East. (A trip which would prove to be fateful.) However, despite their inability to make a go of it, they were, as we know, to remain married for another two years. And not only that, as will be seen in Part Three, connected, entwined, interwoven, call-it-what-you-will, not just until the dissolution of their marriage, but beyond. Even beyond the death of Rudolph Valentino. And, as this post demonstrates, beyond the death of Jean Acker. And even beyond this post. Chained for all eternity, down through time, forever.


Thank you for reading this post in its entirety — I appreciate it. As usual, any and all references and research is available to anybody who asks, if they’re not already provided in the text, as a link, or, as an image. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Jean Acker’s life and career as much as I enjoyed writing about it. The third installment, looking, in quick succession, at the divorce, her adoption of the name Jean Acker Valentino, her film career in the Twenties, the demise of her Husband, her ups and downs afterwards, her comeback, and the years of non-stardom, will be posted a month from now, in February. See you then!

 

 

 

Daisy Chained (Part One)

JA_Teens
Jean Acker at some point in the Teens.

100 years ago last month Rudolph Valentino married his first wife Jean Acker. It wasn’t, we know, a match made in heaven; and questions continue, to this very day, about what exactly was going on that November. There are questions, too, about what, if anything, was to be gained from the union. Just as there’s curiosity about the aftermath. I hope to answer these queries, in a three part post titled, not Questions, but Daisy Chained, for reasons that will eventually become clear. As far as I know this is the first ever deep investigation of this important figure in Rudy’s life.

Not long after I began looking properly at Rudolph Valentino, online and offline, in 2012, I thought about writing a book about him. But wait! Didn’t we already know all that there was to know? The biographies to date, particularly Emily W. Leider’s decade-old, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, had delivered to us a cornucopia of facts, so why – why? – go over the same ground? What could possibly be achieved? What angles were there on him that weren’t already exploited? For some time I thought about it. And thought some more. Then, late in 2013, I stumbled across The Sins of Hollywood, and everything changed.

TheSinsofHollywood1922

I have to say, I do see why The Sins of Hollywood: An Expose of Movie Vice! has been on the whole largely ignored; after all, the light that it casts on Valentino isn’t a flattering one. His story, which is titled A Wonderful Lover, and is the eighth of twelve that recount the past off-set behaviour of several film industry notables, mainly focuses on what was going on at the Hotel Maryland, in Pasadena, in late 1918, and later, in Los Angeles, at the start of 1919. Whatever we might think of A Wonderful Lover and the eleven other tales by the anonymous ‘A Hollywood Newspaper Man’ –  a person named Ed. Roberts – it’s the final few paragraphs that are important in this instance. As follows:

            “The Dolfy met a movie girl. She was just on the edge of stardom, just going over the top. She helped him. Then she married him. That was his entry into pictures. He had done a few bits but was comparatively unknown.

            “With the opportunities and the personal contact his marriage gave him, Adolfo moved fast. He met the right people. He had talent. Brains in both head and feet. His opportunity came and he took advantage of it. He could act. Had been acting all his life. That’s how he lived. His lessons in love-making stood him in good stead. All he had to do was be natural.

            “When he finally hit the high mark he didn’t need the movie girl any more. She was a liability now, not an asset. So he canned her. Her career is about ended. His is just beginning.”

From page 62.

These closing lines enabled me to see the association of Dolfy/Adolfo (Rudy), and “the movie  girl” (Jean), not from his perspective, but from hers. And it also helped me to find the way forward: I would write the biography of Jean Acker. It would be him through her eyes. Maybe I’d title it The First Mrs. Valentino — or something like that. It was a fresh viewpoint. One which would allow for closeups and medium and distance shots. The discoveries I made as I researched began to reveal to me a rather interesting person. Slowly but surely an individual emerged. No longer was she the derided and villified apendage. And I began to understand her a little, and, her motivations. I spent about six months writing and put it to the side. And what I wrote forms the backbone of this trio of posts.

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The 1900 Mercer County, Trenton Census, featuring Hattie Ackers, aged 8.

I started, of course, at the start, and looked into her beginnings. Nowhere, I was reliably informed by people on the ground, was there a registered birth of a Harriet Ackers – her true name – in the state of New Jersey, for the year 1893. Likewise for 1892 or 1891. What there definitely was, however, in the 1900 Census, was a Hattie Ackers, born in Oct. 1891, and aged 8, residing on Market Street, Trenton, with Gershorn and Harriet Ackers, her grandparents. Also living at the address, were her Aunt, Maud L., a Boarder, named John Bice, and her apparent Father, Joseph, who had given his profession as Barber. The lack of a Mother was of interest. That there was no Birth Certificate, and Jean was named Harriet, after her paternal Grandmother, raises the possibility of illegitimacy. Certainly all censuses – 1900, 1905 and 1910 – show that one of her parents had abandoned her. And the whereabouts of Margaret Ackers/Acker during this time is a definite mystery. (By 1920, according to the Census that year, her father had married a woman named Virginia D. and moved to Lewistown, in Pennsylvania, where he worked as a Shoe Merchant.)

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Her year of birth and family seemingly established – the 1910 Census does cast doubt on it and suggests it might’ve been 1892 – I sought evidence that she’d been born or raised on a farm. However in none of the three censuses did I find a rural location. In each instance – Trenton, Lambertville and Trenton – she was firmly in a city or a town. Yet, the fact that Lambertville bordered on open countryside, meant it was possible it had been there that she’d first experienced the outdoors, ran free and maybe learned to ride.

Three different homes in a decade didn’t suggest to me a particularly secure or stable upbringing. This was a family, for whatever reason, often on-the-move with little Harriet in tow. And considering this series of shifts, I began to see how they, and her lack of a mother, had probably shaped her. I imagined difficulties, strictness, dreariness. I saw a little girl desperate to escape. And I began to see that the life she sought for herself, and the person she eventually became, as she lived that life, was a direct result of all that she’d potentially endured during childhood. In fact, her earliest publicity when getting started in “the pictures”, suggests exactly that, filled as they are, with obvious invention and fantasy.

Hattie H. Ackers was no doubt still dreaming her dreams while working as a Milliner, or Hat Maker, in her late teens, in Trenton. (Employment we know about thanks to the 1910 Census.) I like to think that it was this position that led to her working alongside Howard Lee in the theatre “in a strong drama”. Something followed, according to her interview in The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine, in 1913, by a season with Louis L. Hall’s Stock Company. (The L., it seems, stood for Leon.) And additional to her involvement with Lee and Hall she also spent some time in Vaudeville. Despite investigation, Howard Lee, has, unfortunately, failed to surface. And, if he existed at all, was, perhaps, just a small-time, amateur Thespian that never registered outside his home town or County. Louis Leon Hall, meanwhile, most definitely did. And a brief but prominent paragraph, in VARIETY, in mid. January 1912, reveals he had formerly headed: “… his own company in various New Jersey towns…” A sentence that appears to add weight to Jean’s explanation of how she was artistically occupied just prior to becoming a Minor Star in “the pictures”.

Lubin_and_Co_1912
‘Pop Lubin’ and team in 1912.

Minor stardom was less than a year away when she got her start at the dawn of true film-making in the United States. How she found herself at Siegmund Lubin‘s ‘Lubinville’, in Philadelphia, at the close of 1911, is unknown; but find herself there she did. As none of her early interviews give any clues we’re left to speculate. Perhaps she answered an advert. for staff and was soon put in front of the camera. Maybe she was spotted on the stage in Trenton and offered work. The usual route, taken by the likes of Blanche Sweet, who heard that the Biograph Co. needed people, filled out a form, and was ignored, until she met and spoke to D. W. Griffith, seems the least likely, considering the great distance between her home and the rapidly expanding Pennsylvanian concern.

The first interview that Jean Acker ever gave – she was Jean by this time, and not Harriet or Hattie, and the s had been dropped from her surname – is informative despite the serious make-believe it includes. (It’s plain she wasn’t born or brought up in St. Louis, Missouri, or, that her parents were Spanish.) Just two thirds of a single page, in the May 1912 edition of The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine, we learn from it that: “She [loved] to act …. to pose, and …. to see upon the screen the pictures in which she [appeared].” Was, at that time, spending “three or four hours a day posing”. And would, in the evening: “… read, or write, or go to the theater… That she was “a talented writer”, with “many stories and scenarios to her credit”, is, if true, something of a surprise. Yet, what’s most apparent, in her exchange with Dorothy Harpur, for Harpur’s CHATS WITH THE PLAYERS, is Acker’s zest for life. And that, she’d at some point or other acquired a cute nickname, which was Billie.

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‘Lubinville’.

Her spell at ‘Lubinville’, then America’s most up-to-date complex, would’ve been a great experience and definitely educational. Even today, more than 100 years later, the images of the structures in Eugene Dengler’s, five page, image-filled article, in the October 1911 issue of MOTOGRAPHY, impress. A bird’s eye view illustration, shows the extent of the operation, and its situation at the corner of 20th Street and Indiana Avenue. The three main structures forming an enclosure: an impressive glass and steel studio, a processing building, and, at the bend of the U, the administrative office. The studio itself, boasted enormous glazed doors, that could be opened when necessary; on hot days, water was made to cascade over the many glass roof panels, to keep them cool; actors were given the option of emerging from, or descending into, the floor (as if from a lower or higher level); ground-breaking, artifical lighting was in use; and there was sufficient floor space for several films to be created simultaneously. The plant also had a prop-making area, a costume department, various laboratories and drying rooms, and even a subsidised canteen.

After a year with Lubin we can imagine a very different Acker to the one who’d begun there. Films were in her blood now. By the end of 1912 she was a ‘Pro.’; a veteran of perhaps 20 or so varied shorts. Along with her often anonymous cohorts, she’d worked hard, back-to-back, in quickie westerns, comedies and dramas. Films such as: A Village Romance, The Surgeon’s Heroism, A Noble Enemy, A Poor Excuse That Worked. And also: The Heart of a Boss, The Office Favorite, Through the Drifts and The Poor Relation. (All early 1912.)

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Is that Jean in a promotional image for The Substitute (1911)? Quite possibly. Of course we can’t be sure, but, considering her inclinations and abilities – later roles and love of danger – and the likeness of the Star pictured, it’s conceivable. (Interestingly this wasn’t the only Lubin cross-dressing story at the time, as, late in 1911, and not too long before she joined the studio, the organisation released My Brother, Agostino (1911), a curious tale of a woman forced to take the place at work of her husband, disguised as a male sibling. The ensuing romance, between Rosiana, masquerading as a man, and Rosa, another female, gave the production an interesting flavour that caused one reviewer to describe it as: “A really unusual story very cleverly and absorbingly told.”)

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‘Billie’. (Note the beauty mark.)

Zesty Billie Acker, the girl who’d gone from millinery to the stage to the Kliegls, was soon moving again. After approximately twelve months at ‘Pop’ Lubin’s state-of-the-art Lubin Manufacturing Co., we see that she’d been taken on by Carl Laemmle‘s IMP — an acronym for The Independent Moving Pictures Co., soon to become Universal Film Manufacturing Co. (and today, known simply, as Universal Pictures). Her girlie, late Summer Long Island break, with Catherine Tower, had been reported in the trade press. And the brief profile of her had appeared in The MOTION PICTURE Story Magazine. And yet it wasn’t enough for her. She wanted more — much more.

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Nothing else can explain the move, which immediately paid-off, when she was featured, albeit incorrectly named but noticeably androgynous, on the cover of the February issue of MOTOGRAPHY. (Above.) That she was being treated differently by her new employer is clear, when we see the report inside the same issue, about how she was present at an exclusive theatre and supper party of sixteen, who were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Brenon. Her Boss, Mr. Laemmle, his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. King Baggot being four of the others present. March then saw her reported about again, when a newspaper declared:

“The Imp’s Ingenue, Little

Miss Acker, Delights in

Undertaking Danger-

ous Feats.”

From The Evening Standard, Ogden City, Utah, March 29th, 1913 (page 2).

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The paragraph, accompanied by a reproduced press photograph, alongside similar images of two equally active, contemporary female personalities, Mary Charleson (at Vitagraph), and Ruth Roland (at Kalem), concentrated on the fact ‘Little Miss Acker’ was someone that loved: “… real, genuine excitement.” She claimed, the unknown writer said: “… she would rather jump from a moving train, ride a motorcycle at a fifty-mile clip, or ride in an aeroplane than eat.” The breaking of her leg at the time, while not sustained performing a stunt, was connected to one, due to her being on the back of future Leading Man (Frederic) Rodman Law’s motorcycle, when it was hit by a seven-passenger Touring Car, at the junction of Broadway and 42nd Street in New York. According to a report, Law was driving, with Acker and a Rosabella Phoner also on the ‘bike. (Law and Phoner had apparently jumped from an aeroplane earlier that day, at Coytesville, New Jersey.) Jean’s leg fracture was so bad that she was rushed to Long Island Hospital. Rodman, despite being thrown 30 feet, and fracturing his arm, made sure that she was taken care of first. Along with Rosabella. Who was lucky to escape with bruising of her face and arms.

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Jean as Marcelle, to the right, in a scene in the two reel drama, A Woman’s Power (1913).

At the time of this upset, Jean Acker had completed the two reel, 20 minute film In a Woman’s Power (1913). This, even by the standards of the day, flimsy, corny melodrama, with Jean playing a virtuous and forgiving wife, named Marcelle, who decides to hold onto her husband, despite his criminal past and the lure of a pre-Bara Vampish former love, was simultaneous to the single reel, ten minute comedy The Man Outside (1913). (A production, not to be confused with the similarly titled The Man From Outside, by Reliance, or the picture released that Autumn with the exact same name, by Essanay.)

TOMORROW FROM 2:00 P. M. to 11:00 P. M.

NIHILIST VENGEANCE……………………………………………………………Victor

Bureaucratic tyranny in photo. Portrays the Muscovite

terror system, in two big reels.

An ad. for The PALACE, in The Bryan Daily Eagle and Pilot, Bryan, Texas, August 20th, 1913 (page 2)

It would only be after recovering, wherever that was, that Jean would be showcased in the sort of vehicle the public was being primed to expect to see her. Nihilist Vengeance (1913) is, we see from reviews and reports, exactly that sort of production; featuring, as it did, a bridge destroyed by three explosions, as ‘Little Miss Acker’, as the sweetheart of a wrongly condemned hero, thunderered across it in an open carriage, in an ultimately successful attempt to save him from an unjust death. An anonymous reviewer, writing for the Daily East Oregonian that September, praised the costumes but felt that the plot was: “… conventional.” More conventional still, and not as exciting, was another film at this time, titled Bob’s Baby. In the Gem comedy, unleashed that August, Acker dutifully acted as the cousin of Bob, played by Glen White. Surely wishing, as she did so, for another, far more exciting role. Eventually it would come.

I have to say I wondered at this point – 1913/1914 – about Acker’s sexuality. And also what effect being mainly attracted to women might’ve had on her, and her career chances, in what was an extremely male-dominated business. In later life she lived quietly with her Long-Term Partner, Lillian Chloe Carter; but nothing is known of her relationship, or relationships, before World War One. What, for example, did the person in the Winter road traffic accident, Rosabella Phoner, mean to her? And should anything be read into her 1912 vacation with Catherine Tower? Also, what was life like for Lesbians, at this time in the States?

Magnus Hirschfield, in the footsteps of the 19th Century pyschologist, Karoly Maria Hertbeny (or Karl-Maria Benkert), inventor of the term Homosexuality, was only just beginning work on The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1922), in which he delved into the mental, emotional and physical spheres. As well as how new technology, such as communications and transportation, were affecting their lives. The few specialists there were remained at odds about even the reasons for same-sex relationships. Prior to The Great War the conversation had barely started. In America, in 1915, before the United States entered the conflict, only the recently bailed Agitator, Emma Goldman, dared lecture on the subject of The Intermediate Sex — and not everywhere, either.

I consulted Leila J. Rupp’s 2009 publication, Sapphistries: A Global History Of Love Between Women, to get an idea of how Lesbians and Lesbianism were perceived. It was, I must say, of little assistance when it came to the years that I was interested in. Yet I did learn how, in 1919, an unnamed Sexologist suggested passive Lesbians were the result of social factors, and aggressive ones due to biology.  1913/1914 was, of course, a whole half decade behind this opinion. Many years before Berlin became a Sapphist paradise. And a decade and a half earlier, than either Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), or G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929). (The Well of Loneliness, by-the-way, was banned in the USA.)

Rupp’s book did yield the late Nineteenth Century Alice Mitchell/Freda (or Fred) Ward case in Memphis however. Proving that, from time-to-time, the general public was made aware of women who loved other women. It’s a saga so filled with incident – love letters, cross-dressing, marriage plans, a ring, a murder, press coverage, a trial and an asylym – that I’m frankly amazed it wasn’t made into a Blockbuster years ago.

Despite the lack of context, and few clues as to her partners, it strikes me as plain that while Jean managed to escape her unpleasant origins, she remained caught between convention and liberation, her public self and her real self. Forced, I’m sure, to behave one way, while yearning at times to act in another. It was a double life. And interview hints are too heavy in my opinion for it to have been anything else. Inner turmoil was virtually guaranteed. In the largely male-dominated industry in which she found herself she could accept, even encourage, advances from men, if she kept her involvement with Phoner, Tower, and others, such as it was, a secret. And she did — she had to. Her career completely depended on it. Plus, if she acted like one of the guys, then they might, perhaps, see her more as a Pal, or little sister, than a sex object. It was a perpetual high wire act and a tumble was inevitable.

Girl in a Daring

Leap for Movies

Column headline, page 1 of The Seattle Star, October 25th, 1913

In October, the young woman reported that March, as preferring to jump from a moving train, ride a fast motorcycle, or soar in aeroplane, than eat a meal, was to be seen across the nation, in the IMP two-reeler The Daredevil Mountaineer (1913). Several newspapers reviewed the film ahead of, and after, release. And many waxed lyrical about the main characters and an exciting stunt. The Seattle Star was so impressed, that Jean Acker and her co-Star were featured in a large, reproduced photo. on the front page. The write-up, describing Acker, as: “… as gritty a little girl as ever took her life in her hands to amuse ‘movie’ patrons.” Though The North Platte Semi Weekly Tribune perhaps summed it up best on November 21st: “The Dare-Devil Mountaineer” …. shows Rodman Law and Jean Acker as his sweetheart. Her mother takes her from mountain country to the city in order to marry her to a title, but the mountaineer elopes with her on a motorcycle. This daring escape makes a very thrilling scene.” The scene mentioned – Rodman and Jean pursued, while speeding along on a bike at 85 mph, with the chase culminating in a spectacular and all-too-real, forty foot fall from an open draw-bridge – was as daredevil as the title promised. And six months before The Perils of Pauline made an international Star of Pearl White, in 1914, we see that Jean Acker was already endangering her life for action addicted filmgoers.

Rodman Law – brother of a younger Aviatrix sister, and also known as Frank R. Law, but born Frederic Rodman Law – was the perfect screen partner for thrill-seeking Jean Acker. By now she had surely forgiven ‘The Human Fly’ (as he was nicknamed) for her ending up in hospital when his ‘bike collided with an automobile earlier that year. Had she willed the film to be? Or was it fate? Whatever, she’d placed herself, quite literally, in his hands. After all, this was a death-defier who’d successfully plunged over Stillwater Falls, Maine, in an open boat, for a Reliance film a few months earlier. And the previous year had managed to successfully parachute from both the Brooklyn Bridge and the torch of the Statue of Liberty.

TheTimesDispatch_Richmond_Va_310813

If her film career was going well, we might wonder why it was that Acker was listed as a cast member of a play, Within the Law, at the end of the year. Her mention, buried in dense text, in the November 29th edition of The New York Clipper, is actually a retrospective look at the production, at the New York Lyric Theater — now, apparently, Foxwoods Theater. Further investigation revealed that Jean had in fact been attached to the hit play since mid. Summer, when a July issue of VARIETY gently trumpeted how the notable Producer, A. H. Woods, had engaged her for the part of Helen Morris. The short paragraph, also reminded those paying attention, that Miss Acker was familiar to film viewers; demonstrating that she had some pulling power, and was sufficiently known to be considered a good choice for such an important attraction.

WtL

The Within the Law storyline, of a woman wrongly accused of theft, imprisoned for three years, and then forced, on her release, to turn to criminality to survive, was a resonant one with audiences. Partly, because the playwright, Bayard Veiller, had once been a Police Reporter. And also due to the unsubtle, Suffragist subtext, which grounded it very much in the present. The advertised endorsement of Harriet Stanton Blatch, prominent Suffragette, in an April 1913 edition of The Sun newspaper, highlights this. The character, Mary Turner, played by Helen Ware and others, was patently the victim of a cruel and repressive male-dominated system. The play’s path to success – a rewrite, the departure of the original Producer, a disastrous 1911 Chicago opening, serious trading of interests and shares, and final success, in September 1912, at the newly-opened 42nd Street Eltinge Theater – was just as interesting. Afterwards followed no less than eight duplicate productions – Jean’s probable Amour Catherine Tower headed one – across the country. Several printed newpaper serialisations. And many months of popularity in London’s ‘West End’.

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That December Jean Acker could look back on a year filled with incident and success. While not exactly a Superstar – MOTOGRAPHY magazine felt it important to advise readers that she was now on the stage and not in films which wasn’t strictly speaking correct – she had, nevertheless, carved herself something of a niche. Her work for ‘Pop Lubin’ and then Laemmle’s Universal (at IMP, Gem and Victor), had been of value, and established her, along with others, as an early, pioneering, Film Personality.

Might the early, pioneering Film Personality, enjoying the festive atmosphere of New York, have swept up or down Broadway, on the day the newly arrived, slightly rained-soaked Rodolfo Guglielmi, wide-eyed at all he saw, walked it? Or passed him on another day in her car, loudly honking her horn, as he failed to cross her path with sufficient speed? It’s not pointless speculation. These two young people were very much in Gotham at the same time. Simultaneously seeing identical sights. Breathing the same air. In America’s most vibrant city at one of the most exciting times in its history: the cusp of 1913/1914.

GCP

My research indicated 1914 wasn’t the year of progress that Jean had perhaps hoped for. She’s seldom mentioned in trade publications, or news titles; and when she is, it’s briefly. Like when she’s highlighted in Vesta Powell’s coverage of the The Screen Club’s second annual ball, in her ALL FOR THE LADIES About Women—Mostly column, in VARIETY, on February the 6th, 1914. Powell, who wrote under the name of PLAIN MARY, witnessed the gathering of early screen stars and their devoted public, at the impressive Grand Central Palace, on the night of January the 31st, and wrote about the event with an honesty that refreshes and amuses, even today. Her general observations aside we learn that the cream of East Coast Filmdom were in attendance. King Baggot, Mary Fuller and John Bunny. Leah Baird, Mrs. Maurice Costello, Pearl White, Florence La Badie and Jane Fearnley. Claire Whitney and Fannie Burke. PLAIN MARY’s attention was, unsurprisingly, drawn to the pretty outfits worn by the actresses. Jean Acker’s, she told her readers, was: “… a white taffeta gown with [a] yellow girdle and [a] small white lace cap.”

If anything, Acker managed to maintain her position but nothing more. Of course, at the time, it might not have seemed this way to her. We, now, down-the-line, have the ability to look back and see the peaks and the troughs. I do wonder about the switch from film-making to board-treading. Was her orientation the reason? Had she, perhaps, rejected the advances of a powerful Executive? Nowhere did I see any mention of a Boyfriend, or Fiancee, in 1912, 1913 and 1914. Or, for that matter, see her linked in any way with any man, young or old. And the absence of a male in her life spoke volumes. Though there were indeed many successful single females – Frances Benjamin Johnston for example – the majority of women could only go so far alone. A Husband, while not essential, absolutely gave a woman a different standing in society. Performers in large numbers were often married while remaining a Miss. (Mary Pickford being perhaps one of the most obvious.) Issues with any man or men along the way could’ve led to her being overlooked for parts. And we can’t discount the very real chance that she’d already been forced to submit, to secure at least one, or more, of her previous roles. As so many, male as much as female, did.

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Catherine Tower.

I feel strongly that Catherine Tower was important to her emotionally. And I don’t think it a coincidence they knew one another and that Tower preceded Acker as Helen Morris in Within the Law. The announcement of Catherine leaving was followed just a month later with the news of Jean’s arrival. It could have been a friendly favour, with the established actress putting her forward, or, simply the promotion of her Understudy. However, Jean Acker’s future entanglement with an even greater theatrical personality, Alla Nazimova, suggests a pattern, and so the possibility shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s also important – essential – to point out that this was a person with no mother’s wing under which to crawl. The Pickford’s, the Gishes, the Talmadges, and others, all had a steely parent to defend them, and to battle the studios and studio bosses on their behalf. Her Father being disengaged she naturally sought out a substitute. And substitutes no doubt sought her out. In the case of Nazimova most definitely.

How long Acker’s agreement with Woods was is unknown. The available information doesn’t make it easy to deduce when she ceased to be a cast member. Signed up in the Summer of 1913, we see that she’s still Morris at the end of the year. As for Spring and Summer 1914, if Tower remained engaged (which she did), then it’s safe to assume that Acker did too, and that it was a one year deal.

The assumption is given weight by the fact her next film, The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot (1914), was, as The New-York Tribune details, premiered at the New York Theatre, on Monday, August 10th, 1914. Being a social creature, Jean was probably present to hear the central character, William J. Burns, an actual Detective who played himself in the six part Dramascope Co. serial, talk on the subject of crime. (Before or after the screening.) Based on actual, recent events, the production was unusual in that it was a 6 reel/six part feature. In 1914 the majority of films that were created were just one or two reels in length – ten or twenty minutes – and so an hour long presentation was very experimental. Only the great D. W. Griffith had so far dared to challenge the belief Americans wouldn’t sit through anything longer than thirty minutes. His Judith of Bethulia (1914) had had a delayed release by his previous employers that March. Yet to create the game-changing Birth of a Nation (1915) he, himself, released six reeler The Avenging Conscience (1914) that same month. All Star, Eclectic, World and Pasquali each nervously issued their own five reelers.

THE MOTION PICTURE WORLD gave The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot a three quarter page in-depth review. And the reviewer, Hanford C. Judson, singled Jean Acker out for praise. Stating that her portrayal of another Helen, this time Helen Long, daughter of a villain, James Long, a Counterfeiter, gave: “… by its simplicity a strong-heart interest to the whole that tells mightily.” (Not bad!) However, it would seem the fresh, documentary-style production, filled with actual people, events and locations, not-to-mention superb acting, was just a bit ahead of its time. Too clever and overlong. Had it been shot a year or so later, like The Italian (1915), it may’ve fared better. Despite the re-enactment of the Philadelphia-Lancaster counterfeiting case being skilful, and advertisements featuring Burns having impact, the US wasn’t ready for a crime epic. It played here and there and was soon forgotten.

Then, as much as now, a poor career decision could be fatal. And I suspect Jean suffered a little due to The Dramascope Co. spectacular’s lack of success. Something which would explain why she fails to be mentioned in the press as starring in anything for several months. That her standing in the film community wasn’t affected by her lack of work is proven by her appearance in the same paragraph as Edwin August of Kinetophote, Mary Pickford of Famous Players Film Co. (soon to be Famous Players-Lasky Corp.), Pickford’s Mother, Ormi Lawley of the Lubin Manufacturing Co., and fellow daring female, Pearl White. The occasion, being another Screen Club Ball, this time on Thanksgiving eve, at the Hotel Astor, to raise money for the Belgian Relief Fund. Jean being very much a part of the efforts that night; as well as, perhaps, beforehand and afterwards, along with her contemporaries.

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Her other mention, in the Saturday, December 5th, 1914, issue of VARIETY, on page 23, is about her inclusion as a cast member in the forthcoming Famous Players Film Co. John Barrymore vehicle, Are You a Mason? (1915). (See above.) Based, by Eve Unsell (writer of the screenplay), on Leo Ditrichstein’s turn of the centrury farce of the same title, the film was to be the illustrious Barrymore’s third cinematic venture. His first outing being An American Citizen (1914). And the second The Man From Mexico (1914). Releases that were also stage hits translated to celluloid by Zukor’s concern. (In fact, so confident was Famous Players Film Co., that a fourth theatrical adaptation, The Dictator, awaited him.)

From advance publicity, we know that Acker was carefully selected for her part in the story of a feisty young man, who pretends to his ambitious wife, in accordance with her wishes, that he’s become a Mason. THE NEW YORK CLIPPER, on December 6th, 1914, declared in CURRENT FILM EVENTS BY RIK, that it was: “An unusually important cast of Broadway favourites…” that had been collected to support ‘Jack’ Barrymore. And further, Famous Players Film Co., had: “… deemed it advisable to entrust the parts to the able talents of this unusual coterie of stage artists.” (Jean Acker’s fellow performers were: Alfred Hickman, Charles Dixon, Charles Butler, Ida Waterman, Lorraine Hulling, Harold Lockwood and Kitty Baldwin.)

Filming took place in and around New York in January and February. However, time spent studying the comedic enterprise, doesn’t reveal Jean’s role, or, indeed, the parts played by some of the others. And due to the fact that the film, along with his two earlier efforts, is lost, it’s impossible to have much of an idea. The few stills there are that exist mainly feature the Star alone in exaggerated poses.

800px-Areyouamason-movieposter-1915-famousplayers-bw
No mention of any supporting player in this promotional poster.

If the majority of pre-release promotion praised the production to the heavens, then ‘Wynn’, reviewing for VARIETY, aimed to return it firmly to earth, as screenings commenced, at New York’s Strand Theatre, on March 22nd, 1915. More of an attack than a critique, from the start the writer described Are You a Mason? as: “A decidely mild comedy…” And it didn’t get better. Monotonous, conventional and poorly directed, ‘Wynn’ felt it failed to exploit the many obvious opportunities for humour in the play. And in its original form perhaps it did. As it appears that Adolph Zukor took note, and a re-edited, shorter version was soon released.

Yet, audiences in the middle of the Teens were less demanding than crtics, and Are You a Mason? was successfully and no doubt profitably screened for many months. What flaws there were didn’t affect Barrymore. And ‘Wynn’ didn’t blame him for them anyway. Jean, though, was overshadowed. As with the The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot a big production had failed to take her anywhere. She was, it seems, on the slide; and probably had a slipping feeling as the year progressed.

Does this explain her professional disappearance for almost 36 months? It’s hard to say for certain. And yet she mysteriously vanishes from the business as far as I can see for that length of time. Four years of irregular mentions and images suddenly end and the reason isn’t clear. Had her lack of a contract hampered her? Did her choices over time spoil things? It’s seldom that a single decision ruins things; yet, a series of mistakes most definitely can. There’s little doubt that between 1914 and 1915 she moves with some difficulty from project to project. And that, despite the size and scale, they turned out not to be the opportunities she’d thought they’d be. Jean’s faltering at this time, would, I imagine, make her future success all the sweeter. And in Part Two I’ll be looking at those successes and the sweetness in the same detail that I have in Part One.


Thank you for reading this post in its entirety — I appreciate it. As usual, any and all references and research is available to anybody who asks, if they’re not already provided in the text, as a link, or, as an image. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Jean Acker’s early life and career as much as I enjoyed writing about it. The second installment, looking at her years of stardom, and her meeting and marriage to Rudolph Valentino, will be posted a month from now, at the start of 2020. See you then!

 

 

A Q & A With Tracy Terhune

Getty2002

There are few people more dedicated to preserving the memory of Rudolph Valentino, or promoting him and championing him and his career, than Mr. Tracy Terhune. As well as being a Preservationist, a Promoter and a Champion, he’s also a serious Collector; and thus an important Custodian, when it comes to Valentino-related artifacts and ephemera. His knowledge is immense. His generosity, kindness and openness even greater. He’s an Administrator of the long-established We Never Forget Valentino group on Facebook. And importantly, organises the annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service, which takes place each August 23rd, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Los Angeles, at 12:10 p. m., the time of the passing of the Great Lover in 1926.

Tracy has kindly taken time out from his busy schedule to engage in a Q & A session with His Fame Still Lives. (Questions are in British English and answers are in American English.)

Memorial Entrance

1. Tracy, hello, and thank you for agreeing to speak with HFSL. Two months ago, once again, you organised and hosted the Rudolph Valentino Memorial, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Los Angeles. It must’ve been quite a task to pull it all together. Can you take us through the process? What exactly does it take to organise such an event?

The Valentino Memorial is such a time-honoured Hollywood event and I am so proud to be a part of it. The main part is to plan in advance, and I try to line up at least two speakers. That is the hardest part of putting on the event. People who have written books or recent projects are always considered. Some people even reach out with an idea. Some are declined, such as one year, a person wanted to hold a seance in the middle of the Memorial. Once the speakers are confirmed, I reach out to fill the rest of the program, which includes reading a selection of poems from Day Dreams, and the reading of the ending of the 23rd Psalm. If the Memorial is on a certain year, we may theme it accordingly, such as the 90th anniversary of the Memorial. The short videos that are shown are all custom-made specifically for the event, and contribute greatly to the Memorial itself. Some pay tribute to past participants, or to refresh the memory of a person who has a Rudy connection, such as Mae Murray or Ann Harding. Also, every year we have a short video, which I call the “Valentino Tribute Video” and it is done solely to stop and remember Rudolph Valentino. It changes each year.

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I design and order the banners and also I design and print the programs. Sometimes additional ‘hand outs’ are given to those who attend, for example, this year, a hand-held fan with Rudy’s image and the date on it was given out. Other times it was  recreation of the Mineralava ticket or a pin-back button for the 90th anniversary. The Cemetery provides the podium, the chairs and microphone. This year is the third year the Memorial has been broadcast on Facebook Live. That has proven to be very popular. All this comes together and makes what we all know as the Valentino Memorial Service.

BeforeStart

2. I know that you’ve been organising and hosting the Memorial for quite some time now. For those who don’t know as much as I and others do, can you tell us how you got started, and maybe some of the highlights for you over the years??

I got a call from the Cemetery saying Tyler Cassity (the owner of the Cemetery) wanted me to be on the committee of organzing the Memorial. Bud Testa, who had done it on his own for nearly 50 years was in ill health, and Tyler wanted to bring a group together to plan the annual event. That is how I got started and this would be 2001. My first Memorial I attended was in 1996 and I have been at every one since then. The first time I spoke was 2002 to close the service with reading the prayer card that was handed out at the Valentino funeral in 1926. In 2004 my book came out which chronicled the entire history of the Valentino Memorial and I was the main speaker that year.

Testa
Bud Testa.

In those days there was a lot of turnover at the Cemetery and it wasn’t uncommon to come back the next year and it would be all new people running the place. In 2006 they had no one for the Emcee, and I said I would be willing, and I have continued since then. One thing is the guiding force in everything I do for the Memorial; that it is not about me, it is about honouring and remembering Valentino. Nor do I invite anyone who I feel would bring disrespect to him or to the Service itself. No speakers appear in “costumes”. Ask anyone who’s attended in the past few years and I am confident that they will tell you it is fun and interesting, but that it is a dignified, respectful event.

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3. And going back further into time, I’m interested to learn of your very first inkling of Rudy. In other words: at what point in your life did you become aware of him?

I was first aware of Rudy because of the Brownlow Hollywood Series that I saw on public television. In the early 1980s I used to go to local revival houses to see silent films. My first silent film was Wings. At Universal around this time Mary MacLaren came in to visit and she told us about her dressing room being next to Rudolph Valentino’s on the Universal lot. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles was showing the Brownlow restoration of the The Four Horsemen.

TFHotA
Rudy and co-stars in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).

I went in and saw that, and thought he had amazing screen chemistry and presence. I sought out books to learn more about him, and the only ones were at used bookstores, most of them highly fictionalized however. I came across the Irving Shulman bio and it was the first I read. It is still my favourite Valentino bio.

4. After you’d become aware of him and his career what were your thoughts? Before you knew as much as you do now? How did he strike you as a person early on?

My first impression of him was how sad, and lonely a person he was. He was used by everyone, I mean everyone. He was un-valued by the studios. (He left Metro, because they declined his request for a $50 a week raise, and they let him go! This after The Four Horsemen!) He was horribly used by his two wives. One had a sagging career and started using his name, yet, she had no qualms about dragging that name through the mud in the divorce trial. The other had an insatiable desire to be a power to reckon with within the movie industry and he was the means to obtain it. He was used by his Business Manager. The fact he wrote to his brother asking him to please write to him because he needed to know somebody still loved him. That’s very sad.

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5. And what would you say was your biggest misconception — if you had any??

I only knew the standard legend that Rudolph Valentino was the Great Lover. I went into it assuming he was a big chaser of women, living up to his screen reputation. Nothing could be further from the truth. In private he was a quiet, homebody type, who enjoyed the company of those he trusted, a small circle of select friends within his social circle. That is who the true Rudolph Valentino was.

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6. You have a vast collection of Rudy-related items which has grown over time. I’d like to ask you which was the very first thing you acquired and when??

The very first items I obtained were the Luther Mahoney items. They are pictured in the 1975 book about Valentino by Jack Scagnetti. I had recently read the book and saw those items pictured, and remember thinking: ‘I wonder who owns those now’. Two weeks later I attended a local memorabilia show and there they were, all in plastic bags and marked: “Personal Property of Rudolph Valentino”.

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‘Lou’ Mahoney with one item from his collection.

It turns out after Luther Mahoney’s death his daughter Madeleine Mohoney Reid inherited them, but she had recently died and they were sold off to a dealer, who in turn was selling them off piece by piece. I thought it was sad these were all kept together, and now this was happening. I bought several of the items and that is how I got started. That would be about 1997.

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7. Having been lucky enough to see your Valentino collection three years ago I know that it’s very varied. I wonder if you could give us a quick overview of what it contains?

I have a good selection of photos, some quite rare. I enjoy lobby cards, and the one six-sheet from Society Sensation. It takes up a whole wall. What I enjoy most are items from the estate and personal documents. I have put most of my collecting efforts towards that area.

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8. What’s the most unusual item that you have?

The 1920s mirror from the master bathroom in Falcon Lair which would have reflected Rudy’s face daily. The mirror was built into the wall and was original to the house which was built in 1923. It was given to me by the then owner of Falcon Lair as he had planned to remodel the bathroom and it would not be retained. True to his word, on my next visit, it was protected in bubble wrap waiting for me. Truly a one of a kind piece!

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9. What’s the item that you cherish the most?

Three things. The Demi Tasse silver cup and saucer that is listed in the estate catalog as “This was Mr. Valentino’s personal set”. Also, the famed Eagle ring that he wore in three films: ‘A Sainted Devil’, ‘Cobra’, and of course ‘The Eagle’, where the ring actually became part of the plot line. I plan to donate this to the Academy for their new museum and I hope this happens. Lastly, his United Artists contract signed by Rudy.

10. Was there ever anything that you wanted that you couldn’t acquire?

Sometimes in auctions there are several items and I have to pick my battles. I have missed out on some items I would have liked to have but that is fine.

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11. And if you don’t mind to share it with us which was your most recent acquisition?

Two Rudolph Valentino signed ocean liner farewell dinner menus, both from different voyages, that have the dates of the trip. One was signed by him and Nita Naldi. The other was signed by him to Louise, his personal Cook at home. He talks about how the food on this menu may sound good, but Oh! for Louise’s cooking! Very funny and heart-felt.

12. Looking back over Valentino’s all-too-brief life and career, what, in your opinion, was his greatest achievement? (If you feel there was more than one please tell us!)

I think his greatest achievement was something he did not live to see and that would be his enduring legacy. I would like to think he would be pleased to know that a Memorial would continue to be held 93 years after his passing. That people still care, each in their own way. That is an achievement and honor that none of his contemporaries in the movie industry are afforded.

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13. And which, in your opinion, is his greatest performance and/or greatest film?

He was superb in The Four Horsemen. I think Moran of the Lady Letty is an often overlooked performance. I liked his pairing with Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks. But I think his best film by far is The Son of the Sheik.

14. Why do you think people were so drawn to Rudolph Valentino, and why were women, particularly, so enamoured of him?

For females of his day it was the escapism that movies offered women and Rudy was the embodiment of that escape, the forbidden love that would whisk you away from the dishes and laundry, to passion and romance. For men, it was that he himself wanted to be like Valentino, to have that alluring charm for use on women.

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15. I’m sending you back in a time machine to the Twenties. You’re in Rudy’s presence for a short while, maybe disguised as a Reporter, what do you ask him?

I’d ask him for his spaghetti recipe we’ve heard so much about.

16. If you could’ve given him one piece of advice what would it have been?

I’d have suggested he not marry Jean Acker nor Natacha Rambova; both were huge mistakes in completely different ways. Then I would kindly suggest he not take the negative articles too personally, to grow a thicker skin towards that.

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17. If we know what his appeal was in the past, what is it about Valentino today, do you think, that continues to attract people to him?

His charisma still leaps from the screen. He still resonates with an audience. Valentino is forever. Long after we’re gone, someone, somewhere, will be watching ‘The Son of the Sheik’.

18. Valentino stirs up controversy, now, as much as he did in his lifetime. What do you think about this?

This is so true. I think it’s sad as well as unfortunate. So much hate has been unfurled in the name of Valentino. In my opinion there is pure fiction being published about Rudy even today by people; some, who call themselves ‘scholarly’! I believe fiction, hearsay, innuendo, and guesswork is being touted as fact. For the most part they are very much ignored within the Valentino Community.

19. Finally, what’s next for you, when it comes to Rudolph Valentino? Do you have any burning ambitions? Anything you’d like to do, or see happen, with regard to him?

I do have a couple of projects I am toying with. I’d like to update my book Valentino Forever, and also, I’d like to put together a photo. book of the history of the East coast and West coast funerals and the aftermath, using photos I have in my collection.

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I would love to see the Brownlow ‘The Eagle’ released to Blu-ray. They are releasing a Blu-ray of the movie but it is not from that print source. Only two original camera negatives exist for Valentino films. ‘Cobra’ is one and ‘The Eagle’ is the other. A print was struck a decade ago and shown at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. It was razor-sharp and crystal clear on the big screen; you could see the gleam in his eye. It is a shame that print is locked away.

Tracy Terhune, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, about yourself, and about Rudolph Valentino. I really appreciate it.


Thank you, all, for taking the time to read through Mr. Terhune’s fascinating interview with HFSL about himself and Rudy. This is the first, of what’s planned to be, an irregular series over time. If anyone who enjoys this Valentino-focused Blog thinks that a person is deserving of being interviewed I’d love to hear your suggestion/s. Anyone respectful of Rudolph Valentino and his work and legacy will be considered. See you in November!

 

 

 

Cellini

Salt-Cellar-by-Benvenuto-Cellini

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.

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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.

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Joseph Schildkraut

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.

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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.

Estelle

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.

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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.

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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.

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Joseph M. Schenck

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.

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Barrymore as he appeared in Don Juan (1926).

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.

Bennett

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.

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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.

The Mysterious Party

Dodges

My recent deep digging into the contemporary press coverage of Rudolph Valentino’s hospitalisation, treatment, and subsequent death, yielded several stories. Some I shared. Others I plan to. One, as yet undisclosed, and of which I already had an inkling, refuses to wait — I’m calling it: The Mysterious Party.

Barclay H. Warburton Jr. is familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in The Great Lover’s tragic demise. The eye-catching name aside – the H. stood for Harding – he’s a conspicuous component. At the centre of events. Hard to miss. One reason he stands out further, at least for me, is that despite his importance on that fateful eve., even in the very best accounts, he’s barely more than a Homicide Squad chalk outline. A second, is how in the aftermath of the late-night-early-morning party he hosted, and at which his celebrated guest collapsed in agony, he, also, was operated upon. Time to fill in the blank and to look at why.

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Buzzy, as he was known to friends and associates, was born in 1898 in Philadelphia, and was the middle offspring (of three), of Major Barclay H. Warburton Sr., and Mary Brown Wanamaker. After a comfortable childhood – both parents were wealthy and connected – and good schooling, he enlisted with the Signal Corps, when the United States of America entered WW1. Service on the European Continent followed. And he rose to the rank of Lieutenant while part of the Occupational Force. Late in 1919, following his discharge, he married Rosamond Lancaster. In 1922, a son, predictably named Barclay H. Warburton the Third, was born. And some years later a daughter followed.

From the early to the middle Twenties Warburton worked for a Philadelphia morning newspaper. (Unsurprising, considering that his maternal grandfather established The Evening Telegraph there, and his father oversaw the title from 1896.) Then, at the age of just 26, in 1924, he was installed as the President of The New York Daily Mirror, a new tabloid, apparently the brainchild of William Randolph Hearst. And though he moved on, the appointment and shift to New York were what brought him into contact with Valentino, and chained him to him for all time.

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Their first meeting seems clear cut. In her early 2000s biography, Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, Emily W. Leider indicates they were introduced by Schuyler L. Parsons Jr. (pictured above left), in 1926. Consulting Valentino As I Knew Him, S. George Ullman’s book the same year, we see Rudy “revived” the acquaintance of Warburton and Parsons, as well as others. Consequently he already knew him. Some light is thrown on the length of his acquaintance with Schuyler by a brief 2009 article, that states they had known each other since 1914. As Barclay arrived in New York a decade later, it’s obvious Parsons was in a position to introduce them, probably around the time that the TNYDM launched, or, in the following 12 months. (A recently unearthed, incomplete piece, from a Forties publication, hints at Valentino also being on very good terms with Mrs. Warburton.)

Whenever and wherever, they hit it off. And why not? After all, they were generational contemporaries; sophisticates, with a taste for the finer things; and moved in the same, elevated circles. The enthusiastic, boyish pair also had common ground in respective, hasty first marriages (in the same year and at about the same time), a mutual interest in flight, and, that they both regularly dabbled in amateur filmmaking. They had recently even been through similar, public Paris divorces. (In both instances the grounds were abandonment.)

The similarities ended there. While they had each had a busy year up to August, their activity and notoriety levels were not comparable. Warburton began 1926 preparing for a leisurely if lengthy scientific cruise to the Galapagos Islands, and Ecuador, with W. K. Vanderbilt, the future husband of his first wife. By Spring he was back in The States. And, after a spell in society, he headed to Paris for his divorce, returning from there as late as the end of July. Valentino, meanwhile, had been driven along mercilessly by his celebrity. His divorce from second wife, Natacha Rambova, became final in January. And after a near death experience the following month (when his vehicle collided with a pole), he leapt, literally, into the making of his final film, The Son of the Sheik. Before, during and after which, he was dogged by questions about his will-they-won’t-they affair with Pola Negri. While he did manage to enjoy himself a little with his family, during their stay at Falcon Lair, his home, as soon as TSotS had premiered (in L. A.) he set off on a gruelling promotional tour. And it was during this he was affronted by the infamous Pink Powder Puff article.

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Valentino photographed that Summer by Edward Steichen

Though advised against reacting to the insulting piece – it appeared on the 18th of July in the Chicago Tribune – Valentino felt he must. His subsequent scornful letter and its public challenge to the anonymous writer to meet to fight failed to bear fruit adding to his fury. Reporters who asked him for a quote received pithy statements. And he was seen to walk in a different, more aggressive manner, with his chest out and chin a little higher. So it was against this backdrop, that Buzzy born-into-money Warburton, who didn’t really work, and had plenty of it, met to socialise, with Rudy not-born-into-money Valentino, who did, and never had enough. Material wealth and an appetite for distraction teamed with celebrity wealth and an appetite for distraction.

In a strange, emotional, and not wholly reliable interview, published immediately after Valentino passed, one of the distractions, eye-witness and “Follies girl” Marion Benda, revealed this particular round of socialising had begun on the 12th of August. Marion, who had known him for three weeks, after an intro. by Ali Ben [sic] Haggin, explained Rudolph had been the host that night of a party, at which: Greta Nissen, Sigrid Holmquist, Harry Richman, Malcolm Sinclair, Barclay Warburton  jr., Frances Williams, Ann Pennington, herself and several others were present. (Malcolm Sinclair was more likely Mal. St. Clair.) Was it at this Thursday night gathering of screen and stage performers that he was invited to repeat the experience just 48 hours later? Or was it during his stay, the next night, at Schuyler L. Parsons Jr.’s three bedroom Islip home ‘Pleasure Island’? Regardless, he accepted; despite being aware that a punishing week lay ahead, starting at Philadelphia on the Monday.

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Times Square in the middle to late Twenties

The enjoyment at the weekend commenced under a cloud. According to longtime friend and former co-star, Dagmar Godowsky, when she saw him in the early evening of the 14th at the Colony Restaurant, Rudolph Valentino wasn’t on speaking terms with his manager, S. George Ullman. Because of this, and because she had joined Ullman at his table, Godowsky was unable to talk to Valentino (with a gentleman and two ladies), at his, nearby. What was the reason for the fallout between Star and Manager? It was a mystery at the time and afterwards to his friend. And we are no wiser 92 years later. Had they quarrelled about Rudy’s partying (as hinted at in Valentino As I Knew Him)? Or was it something else? A more serious matter? There are, oddly for a person who otherwise goes into great detail, few clues in Ullman’s recollections. No mention at all of the meal, or of Godowsky, or where R. V. went that night and who he was with. Just as there’s no mention, either, of the fact reported by the press, that Rudy altered his plans to return West, in order to meet with Hiram Abrams, then President of United Artists Corp. What transpired at the meeting is a mystery. And Abrams’ own unexpected death in November meant he never penned a memoir.

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What we do know, for a fact, is that after his early meal, Rudolph Valentino headed for the Apollo Theater with Barclay H Warburton Jr., to again see George White’s Scandals of 1926. Advertised widely as the “World’s Greatest Show” with the “World’s Greatest Cast”, the attraction, White’s eighth in a row, was then in its second month and doing excellent business; even though the prime seats were $55 (or $783.07 in today’s money). (Weekly takings in the November would reach half a million in today’s money.)

After “… settings as gorgeous and costly as ever, costumes as lovely and minute as ever, sketches and burlesques as funny as ever …. Tom Patricola …. the Fairbanks Twins …. Eugene and Willie Howard …. and Ann Pennington…” Rudy ventured backstage with his companion and met and spoke with cast members. On his HOLLYWOODLAND site, in 2014, the biographer Allan R. Ellenberger, uploaded a series of posts titled: The last days of Rudolph Valentino. In Part One he explains how Rudy and Buzzy were first invited to a party at the home of Lenore Ulric, but that he declined the offer, preferring instead the option of Warburton’s apartment, at 925 Park Avenue. (The building in 1922 and more recently is below.)

Why was Buzzy’s abode preferable to Lenore’s? The distance? Number of guests? The decor.? If RV wanted a quiet, comfortable night it wasn’t to be. A report, published the day after his death, detailed how, when the party commenced, there were “fourteen or sixteen persons present”. As the investigation promised by friends never happened only a handful were ever named. Warburton, Benda, and Richman being three, with Frances Williams and “a girl named Hayes” another two. The rest were known either to them or to Valentino. Yet there had to be a smattering of friends of friends seeking proximity to the Megastar. At least a few were Scandals cast members. Marion Benda probably brought along a pal or two from her own show. And there were certainly some other men — but who we don’t know.

Immediately suspect is the time it began. 10 p. m.? Hard to accept if they’d first been at the Scandals spectacular with the curtain going up at 8:15 p. m. A two hour long show, with Rudy backstage, and then a journey uptown, makes even 11 p. m. look rather improbable. The next improbability, is the fourteen to sixteen guests reducing to five, and the main attraction, by about 1:00 a. m. Obviously begging the question: if the get-together commenced after eleven/close to twelve, would there be hardly anyone there that early? It’s just inconceivable that theatre types or performers working in the evening, and the idle rich, with no job to go the next day, would be scurrying home to bed “in little pairings” between midnight and an hour after midnight.

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Harry Richman retrospectively told reporters that it was at about 1:30 a. m., “after some drinks, music and dancing”, that Rudolph Valentino suddenly became ill. And it was soon after that he was rushed to his apartment at the Ambassador. Yet, in other reports, a time of 8:30 a. m. was given. With him being taken directly to the New York Polyclinic Hospital rather than to his accommodation. Both stories cannot be correct. For me the second is the more sensical, especially if we take into consideration the cover story – yes there was a cover story – concocted for the consumption of clamouring newsmen, by Ullman, the former publicist, and Warburton, the former newsman.

In that false account, at least the first version of it, Rudy was in his suite at his hotel in the late morning, when, according to a nameless Valet, he: “… put his hand to his body and fell unconscious in a faint.” In this concocted, cinematic tale (embellished by S. George Ullman later), the Valet called on Ullman and his wife, who, strangely, notified Warburton, who in turn was in touch with a Dr. Paul E. Durham. (The involvement of BHW Jr. in the earliest story, is clearly due to the fact he was seen to be involved on the 15th, and thus needed to be mentioned.) In the later, more believable, and undoubtedly true version, Rudolph Valentino collapses before 9 a. m. at 925 Park Avenue, is seen there by Durham, Barclay H. Warburton Jr.’s physician. And is then taken, at some point in the late morning, either to the Ambassador Hotel, or, more probably, to the Polyclinic. (We are not assisted by the ambulance paperwork which mentioned no departure point.)

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Personally I’m troubled by this initial deception. Duplicity on the part of Rudy’s Manager and Friend is hard to comprehend if, as we are led to believe, the stricken man was simply afflicted by appendicitis and a ruptured gastric ulcer. Telling lies about where he had been, and involving in the deception a servant, a spouse, a professional physician and probably others, rings serious alarm bells to use a hackneyed phrase. It makes no sense at all. Just as it would make no sense to lie if he’d broken his arm, or been in a fight and been knocked out. And if that’s not strange enough it gets stranger still.

Few know that on the 15th of August, while Rudolph Valentino awaited a Surgeon, or actively resisted any procedure (the accounts differ), his employee, S. George Ullman, was busy preparing a bland press statement bereft of detail. What happened to that original bulletin is anybody’s guess; but, as reported, the pressmen didn’t buy it. Their ability to smell a rat was triggered. They pushed hard for a proper explanation and got one. Then, having received tip offs, they turned their collective attention to Barclay H. Warburton Jr., and a serious game of cat and mouse commenced.

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When they tracked him down on the 16th Warburton stuck to the script, declaring, flatly, that there had been no party at his apartment on the 14th and 15th. However, when this denial was contradicted by Richman, he was back under the spotlight. Feeling the heat he appeared to make himself scarce. In reality, however, he had been checked into another exclusive medical establishment, this time The Harbor Sanitarium, at 667 Madison Avenue. (Where, incidentally, Valentino’s good friend and fellow star of Monsieur Beaucaire, Bebe Daniels, had recuperated in the Spring after a fall from her horse.)

The reason for his entry? Nervous collapse? A hangover? No. Neither. His admittance was for an operation. Exactly when isn’t really known. A report on the 21st of August indicates it was carried out on the 20th — but was it? It’s difficult to trust anything issued, or, to believe it was a minor procedure, unrelated to his party, as was claimed. His unavailability after the 16th could mean that his own procedure was quite soon after Rudy’s, as early as that day, or the 17th. In fact it looks more and more likely the more we look. And the most amazing thing is that the specialists who attended to Rudolph also attended to Barclay.

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While across town Valentino fought for his very existence, physically cut-off – Ullman being the exception – from concerned friends and associates, Warburton was engaged in his own battle, likewise removed, at least from the eyes of the intrigued and the curious. So long as Rudolph Valentino was the main story Barclay H. Warburton Jr. could breathe easy. However, after rallying, the Screen Idol began to fade and fast. By the morning of the 23rd he was in a coma. Just after midday he expired. The official cause of death was: Septic Endocarditis.

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If there were reports of BHW Jr.’s minor op. in advance of Rudy’s death then it means several newspapers believed there was a story. And that’s because there was. On the 23rd and 24th of August, the front and inside pages of local, citywide and regional titles were naturally devoted to deceased Star. Yet, in amongst the heartbreaking details of his final hours, the tributes from the great and the good, and the illuminating back story, again and again we see questions asked, questions that were far from easy to answer. About what had really happened eight days earlier on the 15th. And why there was any mystery about any of it. The one person who could clear it all up wasn’t talking. In fact, he continued to stay silent, secluded at his expensive, private sanctuary, on Madison Avenue.

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Then, suddenly, in the late afternoon of the 27th, a few days after the death of his party guest, Barclay H. Warburton Jr. emerged. Intrepid and tenacious scoop-hungry newsmen had stayed on his case. And they even managed to snap him as he departed. Yet, despite reappearing, he still wasn’t talking. At least not to the press — and if anybody knew what the press were like it was Buzzy.

This was a person who was good at keeping quiet. Good at revealing as little as possible when it mattered. And of course it mattered now more than ever after Rudy’s expiry. To read the vivid reports on the 27th and the 28th, and look closely at the accompanying exclusive picture, is to be there in the moment. Jack O’Brien’s piece in The New York Daily News, Barclay’s own former title, is one of the best:

“At 5:35 p. m. yesterday a tall, slim, stooping figure in a turn-down college boy hat slipped out of the rear door of the Harbour sanitarium at 667 Madison ave. The figure held animated converse in the alley with a person who later turned out to be his valet. Then the figure darted nervously into a 15 and 5 taxicab and was whirled away.”

O’Brien went on to explain how everybody – “from superintendant to doorman” – at the facility had worked hard to keep his impending exit a secret. Again, we might wonder why, if the stay was simply for a minor operation. And we might wonder why he did not, at the very least, wish to say something about the passing of Valentino. Who, as he had remained holed up at his exclusive sanitarium, had been lying in state at Campbell’s.

Most interesting of all is the sentence ending the second paragraph: “The young society man plainly looked ill as he left.” And if we ourselves look closely at the shot of BHW Jr. walking towards the waiting vehicle, we see a stooped, undeniably thin individual under the clothing. The suit actually looks far too big, almost as if it had been borrowed, from a more substantial individual. And in a way it had been borrowed — from the man he had been before the 15th and could never ever be again.

After the 28th of August there’s silence. Why? We’re forced to speculate. Plainly ill he needed to continue to recuperate. A lengthy recuperation, out of sight, in Manhattan, or with a friend, or at his parents’, would’ve meant the story fizzled. Something he wanted. And something others wanted too. Or perhaps phone calls were made and the story was killed. We must remind ourselves that the atmosphere immediately after the death of Rudolph Valentino was feverish. And the air was thick with speculation. Had Rudy been poisoned? Was it murder? The phrase Foul Play was much bandied about. And S. George Ullman, Rudy’s Manager, and Joe Schenck, his Employer at United Artists, weren’t slow to pour cold water on all theories and rumours.

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Despite attempting to return to normality BHW Jr. never really did. In the months after Valentino’s death, the New York funeral and eventual interment, Warburton was once again seen on the town. People whispered behind their hands when he appeared. And thought things behind their eyes when they said hello. A syndicated, society columnist enjoyed reminding their readers his name was forever connected with the death of the Star, who had fallen ill, at his party; and that many believed it was due to bad liquor.

Barclay H. Warburton Jr. lived for another decade, but was unable to stick at or make a success of anything. Interestingly, like three of the other five witnesses (Richman, Benda and Williams), he became involved in the film industry. (In his case he was employed by William Fox’s Fox Film Corp.) As the decade hurtled towards its inevitable conclusion he was frequently referred to in the press in negative terms. If he was affected in any way by The Wall Street Crash, it didn’t prevent him preparing for a solo World flight, which he promptly cancelled in order to marry for the second time. Death, by his own hand, came five years later, when his shotgun discharged itself into his stomach, while he was out hunting alone. At the time – the 26th of November 1936 – it was reported as having been an accident.


I would like to conclude this lengthy initial post by saying I’m truly amazed by what I’ve found and read. I now struggle to believe in its entirety the official version. Frankly, I’m shocked there was no investigation, as was hoped for, by Valentino’s friends; and it goes without saying that today there would be one. There were, in my opinion, grounds for at least some sort of basic, limited inquest. Alone the repeated consistent inconsistencies were a basis. Cleverly those in control played on his passing being sufficiently tragic. The placing of the body on public display,  24 hours after death, was the true masterstroke, as it meant it was put beyond the reach of the authorities. Of course, before all that, the fact that S. George Ullman (with Barclay H. Warburton Jr.’s say-so/permission), began, without delay, to deflect attention from the location of Rudy’s collapse, and why he was even in the Polyclinic, is extremely concerning. People more generous than me may say it was simply the desire to protect his employer that prompted the manager to act this way. But I was brought up to believe that a lie is a lie. And the bigger the lie gets the worse it is. And, as I pointed out, if this was indeed, as was repeatedly stated, just an appendicitis and a ruptured gastric ulcer, there was absolutely no need for anyone to hide anything. (An appendicitis was then and is now a very common occurrence.)

So why did they? The other guests are of interest. Of sixteen – potentially there were more – present that night/morning only six are known. What was being drunk and who supplied it is also something to be considered. And I think that the two are connected. The mystery guests at the mystery party are the key to understanding what is not understandable if you fail to focus on them. The fact that the Superstar Guest and the Socialite Host were both hospitalised at about the same time and for the same reason – they even had the same people operate on them – points in no other direction for me. The only difference is that one died and the other lived — even if his decade of existence was a sort of living death. I don’t think this is wild speculation by any stretch of the imagination. Particularly when we know that people often died, or were blinded, or brain damaged, by Bootleg Booze.

As for Valentino being seriously unwell for many many months I’m sceptical. I searched and searched for the word bicarbonate in Valentino As I Knew Him and drew a blank. As I also drew a blank when I looked for any mention of pains, stomach trouble, or anything of a similar nature. Ullman says simply that “his color was bad” on the 14th. And that it was normally “marvellous”. Wouldn’t he of noticed something in the months leading up to August? On hearing of his hospitalisation two of those closest to him, Pola, his ‘fiancee’, and Alberto, his brother, who had been with him that Spring and Summer, expressed total amazement. And there are other examples. Why would friends suggest the need for an investigation if they thought it was historic? Nothing was a secret in Hollywood! All that said I’m prepared to believe – in fact do firmly believe – that he was tired, depressed and very run down. All of this contributed to his inability to be able to survive the double op. And an appendicitis is something that would explain any abdominal discomfort he was supposedly seen to be suffering from. His indigestion, much mentioned after he was no longer around, may simply have been just that: indigestion. Stress brings it on. And he was extremely stressed and upset, was he not?

I was, after reading them very carefully, forced to dismiss almost entirely the varied interviews of Marion Benda. With the exception of her detailing of the party on the 12th none of it really added up. Here and there there was evidence that she had been at the Park Avenue apartment and I discounted the rest. By the 24th she was, as she admitted herself to reporters, in the middle of a breakdown. (It’s ominous that Benda was also attended to by the Polyclinic team.) Like Warburton she would never be the same. After claiming to have been secretly married to Valentino, and having conceived his child, she attempted several times to kill herself after WW2. At the start of the Fifties she finally succeeded.

It only remains for me to say that I have not listed, individually, any sources. Anybody with questions about them, or wishing to receive copies, is more than welcome to ask me and I’ll endeavour to supply them. Thank you for reading this in its entirety.

His Fame Still Lives

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!