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:
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.
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.
(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.)
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:
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.
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.)
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 Lead. Of 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
shouldbe 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-five. Italian de-
scent. Not 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.
“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.’
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.
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.
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.)
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!
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.)
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.
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.”
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:
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.)
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…
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.
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.
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.
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
In Lombardi Miss Acker was in
love with a young Italian whom she
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.”
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.’ ”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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”.
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.
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.)
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.”)
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.
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
From The Evening Standard, Ogden City, Utah, March 29th, 1913 (page 2).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
On His Fame Still Lives this October I’ll be posting about A Sainted Devil (1924). Writing about this lost Valentino spectacular, for Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount, has required me to research very deeply. And, naturally, that research involved reading, in its entirety, the basis for the film: the Rex Beach short story Rope’s End. A tale the like of which I’ve never read before; featuring, at its heart, a personality like none I’ve ever encountered. However, before we tackle not just the sensational story, but also the equally sensational protagonist that lives and breathes on the pages, we need to pause, briefly, and see what was going on in the life of Rudolph Valentino.
By the Summer of 1921, after less than twelve months, Valentino had moved on from the pre M-G-M Metro Pictures Corp., the studio that had made him a Star, to Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount. At his new studio, where he became a Superstar, in The Sheik (1921), and was then utilised, in quick succession, in Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), Beyond the Rocks (1922), Blood and Sand (1922), and The Young Rajah (1922), he became seriously dissatisfied. His dissatisfaction arising from a combination of: low salary, several broken promises, and a general lack of control and poor material.
What followed was his extended One Man Strike; which lasted a whole year, from 1922 to 1923. A twelve month spell, when, prevented from appearing in any motion picture, he danced his way across the US with his second wife, promoting Mineralava beauty products; published an exercise book and a collection of poems; and even attempted, unsuccessfully, to become a singer. By the Summer of 1923, however, he’d reached a settlement with his employer. And, after a lengthy trip to Europe, followed by another, briefer one, he returned to work at the start of the next year, in an ambitious adaptation of Monsieur Beaucaire. (A short 1900 novel by Booth Tarkington.)
The question of what would follow the expected Smash Hit of Beaucaire – in the end it wasn’t the massive success they thought – wasn’t answered quickly. Much time passed and many possibilities were rejected before the Beach story was settled on. Thanks to Natacha Rambova, his former wife, who, in 1930, published The Truth About Rudolph Valentino, her version of their life together, we know a great deal about the making of what was to become A Sainted Devil. And what we aren’t told by her we can discover from other sources. However, let’s return to the production later, after we’ve enjoyed looking at the inspiration. (Actual text is in bold.)
Beach’s brilliant yarn opens with the following paragraph:
A round moon flooded the thickets with gold and inky shadows. The night was hot, poisonous with the scent of blossoms and of rotting tropic vegetation. It was that breathless, overpowering period between the seasons when the trades were fitful, before the rains had come. From the Caribbean rose the whisper of a dying surf, slower and fainter than the respirations of a sick man; in the north the bearded, wrinkled Haytian hills lifted their scowling faces. They were trackless, mysterious, darker even than the history of the island.
After this great opening, the atmosphere established to the point where we can almost smell it, we now survey the scene. A thatched roof, on four posts, food spread upon a table, and a candle, undisturbed by even a whisper of a breeze, burning quite steadily. Close by another “thatched shed” under which soldiers are gathered ’round a fire. And about, in the “jungle clearing”, huts that have seen better days in which men can be heard talking.
We’re next introduced to the Villain: “Petithomme Laguerre, colonel of tirailleurs, in the army of the Republic…” Seated at the table, in his blue and gold uniform, disappointed with the food he just ate even more than the lack of plunder in the village. He mulls over the day from the comfort of a grass hammock that, like the property, belongs to a Julien Rameau.
We then receive some context:
On three sides of the clearing were thickets of guava and coffee trees, long since gone wild. A ruined wall along the beach road, a pair of bleaching gate-posts, a moldering house foundation, showed that this had once been the site of a considerable estate.
These mute testimonials to the glories of the French occupation are common in Hayti, but since the blacks rose under Toussaint l’Ouverture they have been steadily disappearing; the greedy fingers of the jungle have destroyed them bit by bit; what were once farms and gardens are now thickets and groves; in place of stately houses there are now nothing but miserable hovels. Cities of brick and stone have been replaced by squalid villages of board and corrugated iron, peopled by a shrill-voiced, quarreling race over which, in grim mockery, floats the banner of the Black Republic inscribed with the motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Once Hayti was called the “Jewel of the Antilles” and boasted its “Little Paris of the West,” but when the black men rose to power it became a place of evil reputation, a land behind a veil, where all things are possible and most things come to pass. In place of monastery bells there sounds the midnight mutter of voodoo drums; the priest has been succeeded by the “papaloi,” the worship of the Virgin has changed to that of the serpent. Instead of the sacramental bread and wine men drink the blood of the white cock, and, so it is whispered, eat the flesh of “the goat without horns.”
But where is Julien Rameau? Hanging by his wrists from a nearby tamarind tree! Soon Petithomme Laguerre speaks to him. Saying:
“So! Now that Monsieur Rameau has had time to think, perhaps he will speak,” said the colonel.
Yet Rameau’s reply is the same one he’d been giving since the beginning of his torment: that he has no riches. Growing increasingly bored, the colonel tells a subordinate, named Congo, to: “… bring the boy!” And also “a girl”. And we subsequently learn they are man and wife. And that the man is named Floreal.
Congo “and another tirailleur” duly appear with young Floreal Rameau and his equally youthful wife. Both have their hands tied behind their backs. The husband is silent. His wife is in tears.
Now we’re supplied with a good description of the Anti Hero:
Floréal Rameau was a slim mulatto, perhaps twenty years old; his lips were thin and sensitive, his nose prominent, his eyes brilliant and fearless. They gleamed now with all the vindictiveness of a serpent, until that hanging figure in the shadows just outside turned slowly and a straying moonbeam lit the face of his father; then a new expression leaped into them. Floréal’s chin fell, he swayed uncertainly upon his legs.
“Monsieur–what is this?” he asks Colonel Petihomme Laguerre. And then commences a conversation between the Captor and the Captive. The Aggressor wants their money. And the Victim reiterates that there’s none.
When his wife agrees with him Laguerre notices her beauty:
Her arms, bound as they were, threw the outlines of her ripe young bosom into prominent relief and showed her to be round and supple; she was lighter in color even than Floréal. A little scar just below her left eye stood out, dull brown, upon her yellow cheek.
Floreal’s young wife is disgusted by Laguerre, but is forced to reveal her name, which is Pierrine. When he asks her to tell him where their riches are hidden she replies:
“I know nothing,” she stammered. “Floréal speaks the truth, monsieur. What does it mean–all this? We are good people; we harm nobody. Every one here was happy until the–blacks rose. Then there was fighting and–this morning you came. It was terrible! Mamma Cleomélie is dead–the soldiers shot her. Why do you hang Papa Julien?”
Then her young husband becomes hysterical and begs on his knees for mercy. Telling the Colonel to take what they have: “fields, cattle, a schooner”. However their evil Tormentor hasn’t been listening. And, instead, has been eyeing Pierrine. Which makes Floreal even more desperate:
Floréal strained until the rawhide thongs cut into his wrists, his bare, yellow toes gripping the hard earth like the claws of a cat until he seemed about to spring. Once he turned his head, curiously, fearfully, toward his young wife, then his blazing glance swung back to his captor.
Now Floreal Rameau’s worst fears become reality. Despite his attempt to appeal to their Tormentor, Petihomme Laguerre, Laguerre orders orders his men to beat Floreal’s poor father, while he takes the son’s wife into his personal custody, to perhaps suffer a fate worse than death. Floreal Rameau flings himself in front of the Colonel but fails to stop him. And now watches, helplessly as his wife is led away and his father is brutalized:
Floréal shrank away. Retreating until his back was against the table, he clutched its edge with his numb fingers for support. He was young, he had seen little of the ferocious cruelty which characterized his countrymen; this was the first uprising against his color that he had witnessed. Every blow, which seemed directed at his own body, made him suffer until he became almost as senseless as the figure of his father.
His groping fingers finally touched the candle at his back; it was burning low, and the blaze bit at them. With the pain there came a thought, wild, fantastic; he shifted his position slightly until the flame licked at his bonds.
Colonel Laguerre returns to see if the torturing of Julien Rameau is effective. Not noticing that the son, Floreal Rameau, is burning his restraints with the candle on the table. After telling Floreal that he’ll be guarded during the night, and then dealt with the next day, he departs; having: “… an appetite for pleasanter things than this.”
Floreal then cries out to no avail:
“Laguerre! She is my wife–by the Church! My wife.”
Congo and Maximilien, the two subordinates of the Colonel, talk between themselves about the fact that they believe there’s no money. They then decide they’ll kill Floreal’s father, take “the boy back to his prison”, and get some rest. While Congo attends to the old man – who’s not surprisingly expired – Maximilien approaches the son in order to lead him to where he’ll be kept prisoner. Telling him, as he does so, that he’ll be shot tomorrow.
Yet, the desperate, ingenious Floreal, who has by now freed his hands, deftly removes Maximilien’s machete from its sheath. After mortally wounding the unsuspecting owner he then pursues his fellow trooper/’tirailleur’, Congo, who’s head he cracks open, like: “… a green cocoanut, with one stroke.”
Floreal Rameau has time to cut down the body of his dead father but is soon aware that the other men are seeking out their weapons. Thus, as they begin to shoot at him, he quickly disappears into the jungle, as they continue to fire blindly. Laguerre almost fails to subdue them and the first part of the tale ends thus:
The road to the Dominican frontier was rough and wild. All Hayti was aflame; every village was peopled by raging blacks who had risen against their lighter-hued brethren. Among the fugitives who slunk along the winding bridle-paths that once had been roads there was a mulatto youth of scarcely twenty, who carried a machete beneath his arm. In his eyes there was a lurking horror; his wrists were bound with rags torn from his cotton shirt; he spoke but seldom, and when he did it was to curse the name of Petithomme Laguerre.
After the horrifying, blood-soaked opening, Rex Beach tells us what happened to Floreal in the aftermath. How he became resident in the neighbouring country. Gave himself a new name. Learned the language. And became a Seaman. (He had, it seems, been “born of the sea”.) Furthermore:
But he could not bring himself to utterly forsake the island of his birth, for twice a year, when the seasons changed, when the trades died and the hot lands sent their odors reeking through the night, he felt a hungry yearning for Hayti. During these periods of lifeless heat his impulses ran wild; at these times his habits changed and he became violent, nocturnal.
Inocencio Ruiz, as he’s now known, is shunned by women and by men. And people talk of him suspiciously. The suspicious talk is wonderful:
“This Inocencio is a person of uncertain temper. He has a bad eye.”
“Whence did he come?” others inquired. “He is not one of us.”
“From Jamaica, or the Barbadoes, perhaps. He has much evil in him.”
“And yet he makes no enemies.”
“Um-m! A peculiar fellow. A man of passion–one can see it in his face.”
Our Anti Hero’s homeland, Hayti, has, we discover, become peaceful again. And the man that he hates is now ‘General Petithomme Laguerre, Commandant of the Arrondissement of the South’. Inocencio hears of this and departs in a shady Barkentine. He cruises the Caribbean “seeing something of the world and tasting of its wickedness.” After twelve months, at Trinidad, he acquainted himself with a “Portuguese half-breed”, the Captain of a Schooner. Inocencio was eventually promoted to Mate. And then, after a gambling session, won the ship from the “half-breed”.
We’re next in Colon (Panama). During what the author terms ” the French fiasco” of “De Lesseps”. (This information means the story is set in the 1860s and 1870s.) There in “the wickedest, sickest city of the Western Hemisphere”, he:
… heard the echo of tremendous undertakings; there he learned new rascalities, and met men from other lands who were homeless, like himself; there he tasted of the white man’s wickedness, and beheld forms of corruption that were strange to him. The nights were ribald and the days were drear, for fever stalked the streets, but Inocencio was immune, and for the first time he enjoyed himself.
Solitary Inocencio thinks of Hayti and Pierrine. And we’re informed that:
In time the mulatto acquired a reputation and gathered a crew of ruffians over whom he tyrannized. There were women in his camp, too, ‘Bajans, Sant’ Lucians, and wenches from the other isles, but neither they nor their powdered sisters along the back streets of Colon appealed to Inocencio very long, for sooner or later there always came to him the memory of a yellow girl with a scar beneath her eye, and thoughts of her brought pictures of a blue-and-gold negro colonel and an old man hanging by the wrists. Then it was that he felt a slow flame licking at his tendons, and his hatred blazed up so suddenly that the women fled from him, bearing marks of his fingers on their flesh.
Inocencio Ruiz sails for weeks with his Motley Crew. Often visiting the Haytian coast for no reason. He hears gossip about Petithomme Laguerre who has plans one day to be the President. This stirs him to action. And, with the help of “a French clerk in the Canal offices”, he composes an extremely clever letter to His Excellency, General Petihomme Laguerre, Commandant of the Arrondissement of the South, Jacmel, Republic of Hayti. In the communication the Clerk recommends Ruiz. And tells the ambitious Laguerre that there are 200 rifles available at a good price. And that Inocencio is prepared to meet him and discuss the sale.
Antoine Leblanc, the letter writer, expresses doubts about the scheme. But Inocencio Ruiz, the former Floreal Rameau, is adamant. And says, dramatically:
“When I die I shall have no enemies to forgive, for I shall have killed them all,” he said, simply.
We now move to conclusion. Inocencio’s ship, the Stella, arrives at Jacmel, Hayti, and drops anchor. An anchored “Haytian gunboat” worries him, as he hadn’t counted on it being present.
A band was playing in the square, and there were many soldiers. Inocencio did not go ashore. Instead he sent the letter by a member of his crew, a giant ‘Bajan’ whom he trusted, and with it he sent word that he hoped to meet His Excellency, General Laguerre, that evening at a certain drinking-place near the water-front.
We then are told by Beach:
The sailor returned at dusk with news that set his captain’s eyes aglow. Jacmel was alive with troops; there had been a review that very afternoon and the populace had hailed the commandant as President. On all sides there was talk of revolution; the whole south country had enrolled beneath the banner of revolt. The gunboat was Laguerre’s; all Hayti craved a change; the old familiar race cry had been raised and the mulattoes were in terror of another massacre. But the regular troops were badly armed and the perusal of Inocencio’s letter had filled the general with joy.
Captain Ruiz goes to the rendezvous early and sits drinking rum while waiting. (Due to “his threatening eyes” he’s unmolested.) An “older and infinitely prouder” Laguerre finally arrives in a “parrot-green” uniform. “With age and power he had coarsened, but his eyes were still bloodshot and domineering.” They greet each other:
“Captain Ruiz?” he inquired, pausing before the yellow man.
“Your Excellency!” Inocencio rose and saluted.
Ruiz isn’t recognised by Laguerre and a discussion ensues. Eventually the Captain persuades the General to accompany him alone to view the merchandise. They then depart for the Stella:
The moon was round and brilliant as they walked out upon the rotting wharf-all wharves in Hayti are decayed-the night had grown still, and through it came the gentle whisper of the tide, mingled with the babel from the town. Land odors combined with the pungent stench of the harbor in a scent which caused Inocencio’s nostrils to quiver and memory to gnaw at him. He cast a worried look skyward, and in his ungodly soul prayed for wind, for a breeze, for a gentle zephyr which would put his vengeance in his hands.
Inocencio rows the unsuspecting Petihomme out to the Stella:
… as they neared the Stella a breath came out of the open. It was hot, stifling, as if a furnace door had opened, and the yellow man smiled grimly into the night.
The crew of the Stella are amazed to see the General. But their Captain reveals nothing to them of his plan. The ‘Monsieur le General’ is guided towards the cabin. And this is then followed by: “… the sound of a blow, of a heavy fall, then a loud, ferocious cry, and a subdued scuffling, during which the crew stared at one another.”
Afterwards Inocencio emerges and gives orders for them to set sail. A faint breeze means the ship moves slowly, but surely, and Inocencio seats himself upon the deck-house, and drums “his naked heels upon the cabin wall.” Furthermore:
He lit one cigarette after another, and the helmsman saw that he was laughing silently.
Dawn broke in an explosion of many colors. The sun rushed up out of the sea as if pursued; night fled, and in its place was a blistering day, full grown. The breeze had died, however, and the Stella wallowed in a glassy calm, her sails slatting, her booms creaking, her gear complaining to the drunken roll. The slow swells heeled her first to one side, then to the other, the decks grew burning hot; no faintest ripple stirred the undulating surface of the Caribbean. Afar, the Haytian hills wavered and danced through a veil of heat. The slender topmast described long measured arcs across the sky, like a schoolmaster’s pointer; from its peak the halyards whipped and bellied.
“Captain!” The ‘Bajan waited for recognition. “Captain!” Inocencio looked up finally. “There–toward Jacmel–there is smoke. See! We have been watching it.”
Their Captain nods. He knows that the ship approaching them is the “Haytian gunboat” that he saw at Jacmel. His crew are uneasy and demand to know who the man is that was brought aboard the night before. When they discover his identity they’re aghast. But Inocencio is unfazed and tells “the Bajan” to locate a new rope, make it: “… fast to the end of this halyard and run it through yonder block.”
Captain Ruiz then returns to General Laguerre in the cabin:
Laguerre was sitting in a chair with his arms and legs securely bound, but he had succeeded in working considerable havoc with the furnishings of the place as well as with his splendid uniform. His lips foamed, his eyes protruded at sight of his captor; a trickle of blood from his scalp lent him a ferocious appearance.
Gradually Inocencio reveals to Petihomme not only who he is but also what his captive’s fate will be. The conversation goes as follows:
“All Hayti could not buy your life, Laguerre!”
Some tone of voice, some haunting familiarity of feature, set the prisoner’s memory to groping blindly. At last he inquired, “Who are you?”
“I am Floréal.”
The name meant nothing. Laguerre’s life was black; many Floréals had figured in it.
“You do not remember me?”
“N-no, and yet—”
“Perhaps you will remember another–a woman. She had a scar, just here.” The speaker laid a tobacco-stained finger upon his left cheek-bone, and Laguerre noticed for the first time that the wrist beneath it was maimed as from a burn. “It was a little scar and it was brown, in the candle-light. She was young and round and her body was soft–” The mulatto’s lean face was suddenly distorted in a horrible grimace which he intended for a smile. “She was my wife, Laguerre, by the Church, and you took her. She died, but she had a child—your child.”
The huge black figure shrank into its green-and-gold panoply, the bloodshot eyes rested upon Inocencio with a look of terrified recognition.
Inocencio Ruiz, now Floreal Rameau once more, further torments his former Tormentor. And then takes him on deck. Petihomme Laguerre is briefly hopeful when he sees the smoke rising from the gunboat in the distance. But before he can finish what he’s saying his Captor slips the new rope around his wrists. Then a dramatic moment:
“Give way!” he ordered.
The crew held back, at which he turned upon them so savagely that they hastened to obey. They put their weight upon the line; Laguerre’s arms were whisked above his head, he felt his feet leave the deck. He was dumb with surprise, choked with rage at this indignity, but he did not understand its significance.
The sailors haul Laguerre higher and higher into the air until: “… his feet had cleared the crosstree.” Then:
“Make fast!” Inocencio ordered.
Laguerre was hanging like a huge plumbob now, and as the schooner heeled to starboard he swung out, farther and farther, until there was nothing beneath him but the glassy sea. He screamed at this, and kicked and capered; the slender topmast sprung to his antics. Then the vessel righted herself, and as she did so the man at the rope’s end began a swift and fearful journey. Not until that instant did his fate become apparent to him, but when he saw what was in store for him he ceased to cry out. He fixed his eyes upon the mast toward which the weight of his body propelled him, he drew himself upward by his arms, he flung out his legs to break the impact. The Stella lifted by the bow and he cleared the spar by a few inches. Onward he rushed, to the pause that marked the limit of his flight to port, then slowly, but with increasing swiftness, he began his return journey. Again he resisted furiously and again his body missed the mast, all but one shoulder, which brushed lightly in passing and served to spin him like a top. The measured slowness of that oscillation added to its horror; with every escape the victim’s strength decreased, his fear grew, and the end approached. It was a game of chance played by the hand of the sea. Under him the deck appeared and disappeared at regular intervals, the rope cut into his wrists, the slim spar sprung to his efforts. In the distance was a charcoal smear which grew blacker.
As Laguerre nears destruction Inocencio counts. Taunts him from below. And reminds him of his past victims. And then:
A cry of horror arose from the crew who had gathered forward, for Petithomme Laguerre, dizzied with spinning, had finally fetched up with a crash against the mast. He ricocheted, the swing of the pendulum became irregular for a time or two, then the roll of the vessel set it going again. Time after time he missed destruction by a hair’s-breadth, while the voice from below gibed at him, then once more there came the sound of a blow, dull, yet loud, and of a character to make the hearers shudder. The victim struggled less violently; he no longer drew his weight upward like a gymnast. But he was a man of great vitality; his bones were heavy and thickly padded with flesh, therefore they broke one by one, and death came to him slowly. The sea played with him maliciously, saving him repeatedly, only to thresh him the harder when it had tired of its sport. It was a long time before the restless Caribbean had reduced him to pulp, a spineless, boneless thing of putty which danced to the spring of the resilient spruce.
Once dead, Laguerre is lowered, and slipped into the still sea. We then have a beautiful sentence:
The sky was glittering, the pitch was oozing from the deck, in the distance the Haytian mountains scowled through the shimmer.
And the story ends thus:
Inocencio turned toward the approaching gunboat, which was very close by now, a rusty, ill-painted, ill-manned tub. Her blunt nose broke the swells into foam, from her peak depended the banner of the Black Republic, symbolic of the motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The captain of the Stella rolled and lit a cigarette, then seated himself upon the cabin roof to wait. And as he waited he drummed with his naked heels and smiled, for he was satisfied.
Reading through Rope’s End, which I’ve obviously abbreviated, without removing vital components, there’s no doubt it was a superb tale. And it’s easy to see why Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino felt it would be an exciting vehicle for him. Featuring, as it does, an exotic central figure, in a foreign, tropical location; plenty of tension, with many opportunities for serious dramatic acting, and emoting; changes of scene and also changes of costume; a cast of interesting supporting characters; and the triumph, if in a dark, very twisted way, of good over evil.
Naturally there were several obstacles to be overcome. It was unthinkable, at that time, due to racial prejudice, that Rudy could portray a ‘Mulatto’. While he’d certainly already embodied a desert Sheik, a coarse Spaniard, and an Indian Prince, each time this had been made acceptable in some way. (Usually by revealing he wasn’t, in fact, completely ethnic.) Also, for the same reasons, there was no way any African American could play opposite him, as a foe. And, lastly, there would need to be an adjustment when it came to the wife that dies. Possibly by showing a happy life before the arrival of the soldiers and giving the audience flashbacks throughout. Or by reuniting them at the conclusion. (In the original she dies giving birth to Petihomme Laguerre’s child.)
In The Truth About Rudolph Valentino, in 1930, Rambova was clear, that before Valentino departed for a short break in Florida, in May 1924, he’d been very happy with the script. According to Natacha, that submitted and approved narrative, was: “… centered about a revolution in South America, full of the color, fire and dramatic situations that had characterized ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, the plot was motivated by war…”
This all shows, that while Forrest Halsey, who’d already adapted Tarkington’s Beaucaire, had shifted the action from the Caribbean Islands to Latin America, and at the same time most likely dumped the sea going sections, he’d very much preserved the uprising that was the reason Floreal/Inocencio becomes vengeful. What the “color, fire and dramatic situations” exactly were is a mystery. No doubt the adapted character was a wandering, rootless individual (on dry land rather than at sea), that found himself in a series of compromising situations. Natacha Rambova’s mentioning of TFHotA (1921) suggests this.
Having undergone significant, yet satisfactory alteration, it was therefore a shock when the script was further altered during Valentino’s absence. Rambova explains that: “… after the story had been accepted, bought and paid for, the powers behind the throne suddenly decided that for the sake of international policy (or expense) all traces of war must be eliminated. In other words, the very reason for the story, the spinal column of the beast, was amputated. What remained were a few fragmentary incidents strung together by a threadbare plot and given the title ‘A Sainted Devil’.”
Moreover: “I objected loudly to this mutilation of a fine story; it took all of the pep from the picture. I predicted it would be a failure. But my objections were promptly overruled and, rather than cause more trouble, I sank into quiescence. It was the last picture of our contract with Famous Players and we didn’t want more litigation. Anything for peace!”
If we accept her version – I do by-the-way – Rope’s End had gone from being an extremely exciting, if vicious, work, with a simple to understand central character, shifting against a series of visually exciting, exotic backdrops. To a still relatively exciting, perhaps less bloodthirsty storyline, with, again, a simple to understand central character, operating in a colourful, fiery and dramatic world. To, finally, a lacklustre story, devoid of meaning, with a motiveless, certainly unchallenged central character, moving from scene to scene in an environment that was unexceptional.
Personally, with the necessary changes mentioned earlier, I visualise, without difficulty, Rudolph Valentino as Floreal Rameau. I see him as the unworldly, virginal, defiant young Husband. I see him, on his knees, helpless and begging for mercy. I see him transforming and becoming, when given no alternative, instinctive, animal and a murderer. I see him as the forever-changed, lonely unsatisfied drifter; as a fugitive who broods about the past and lives in the moment. I see him as the Master of the Stella with his ugly crewmen. And lastly, I see him, face to face with his wicked adversary, fully prepared to punish him, for the deaths of his mother, and, his father and wife.
It’s a great shame that Famous Players Lasky/Paramount couldn’t or wouldn’t see him as Rameau too. That they made the decision to drastically alter the “accepted, bought and paid for” adaptation. That they put production costs and expediency before great art and good storytelling. That they decided, after all, not to let bygones be bygones. For me, it’s obvious Rudy was denied the opportunity to surpass himself, in The Four Horsemen…, The Sheik and Blood and Sand. Yes, the times were against him, yet that was as nothing compared to having his employers not fully on his side. Immediately afterwards, though they didn’t know it for about another year, the Valentino’s were no longer a Hollywood Power Couple. Backing down over A Sainted Devil (1924), would lead to them being given the run around about The Hooded Falcon, which was never realised. Cobra (1925), which was to follow A Sainted Devil, was Valentino’s second – third in the opinion of some – flop in a row.
The issues that surrounded the adaptation of Rex Beach’s Rope’s End, 95 years ago this year, are of interest to me, and I hope they’ve interested you. If not, at the very least, I’m sure you enjoyed, at least a little, getting to know the story on which it was based. If, like me, you’ve come to appreciate the main character, then my time hasn’t been wasted. It’s possible you may even feel, as I do, that there was a great opportunity for Valentino to excel that he was denied. As explained at the very start I’ll be looking fully at the film A Sainted Devil (1924) this Autumn. Maybe you’ll join me for that? I do hope so! Enjoy the the Reel Infatuation Blogathon, today, tomorrow and Sunday. It’s wonderful to be given the opportunity to be part of it!
Debtor. Bankrupt. Business Failure. Wife-Beater. Child Kidnapper. Wanted Man. Fraudster. Not individually pretty labels, are they? How about collectively? Applied to one person? A person at times close – very close indeed – to Rudolph Valentino. A person, we’re led to believe, who was his loyal Sponsor and Protector in the United States. The unsavoury character in question? Frank A. Mennillo. A man apparently erased from the narrative. Purposely pushed aside and diminished. Not given his due. My findings indicate he never was the Godfather it’s claimed he was. That he was a Hanger On. And that he might very well have been a reason Rudolph Valentino never had any money. This post is titled simply: Frank.
Thanks to modern tech. it’s very easy to get to know the subject of the post this month on His Fame Still Lives. It’s all online. And it makes for interesting reading. Born April 10th, 1882, in Naples, Italy, like countless numbers of his contemporaries (including of course his future friend), he emigrated to America when young; though, unlike Valentino, he didn’t travel there in style.
Francesco Mennillo – his middle initial wasn’t used at this time – was just 22 years old when he boarded the S. S. Perugia, a vessel known for transporting marble, pumice, soap, olive oil and macaroni, etc., at Naples, on June 11th, 1904. The ship’s Steerage paperwork reveals that he travelled alone; his occupation was Merchant; that he was able to write; was a Southern Italian; had paid for his own passage; was carrying just $20; would be living with his cousin (on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn); that he’d never been in prison, wasn’t a Polygamist, an Anarchist, or a Trouble Causer; that his health was good; and that he wasn’t deformed, or crippled.
Proof he spent the twelve months after arrival (on June 26th), living and working in the USA, is found in his 1905 petition for naturalization documents. (It was necessary to remain within a state for a year, and be resident in the country for five years, to be able to apply for citizenship.) That he was on his way to citizenship is the reason he declares, in 1906, on his return to America on the S. S. Italia, that he’s a Non-Immigrant Alien. And in that Manifest we see he’s still a Merchant; is single; brings $50 into the country; and is living with his brother, at Hester Street, Lower Manhattan.
This journey from the United States to Italy and back again was one he made practically every year between 1906 and 1911. (He failed to cross and recross the Atlantic only in 1907.) In 1909, by which time he was married, and was calling himself Frank, he returns on the S. S. Roma in the September. That his brothers, Ciro and Giovanni (respectively 22 and 12 at the time), followed him, on the S. S. Virginia, that December, suggests he’d been helping them to get ready eight weeks previously. (That the elder, Ciro, was at the time a Farmer, indicates a move which would significantly improve his prospects.)
His trip out and back, on the S. S. Madonna in 1910, was followed by a more impressive one the next year. In the Spring of 1911, he returned from Liverpool, Great Britain, on the Cunard Line Liner, RMS Lusitania — the ship famously torpedoed and sunk by the Germans just four years later. Though this was apparently a Second Class voyage, it’s safe-to-say, that with the assistance of immediate family, and contacts made in both New York and Naples, he was doing well. And had progressed, in a few short years, from Merchant or Trader, to Importer, had been married, and seen the birth of his son. (The petition for naturalization includes later info. about Arnaldo, who was born on March 7th, 1910.)
So, a surprise it is, to see in THE BROOKLYN DAILY EAGLE, on May 16th, 1912, that he’s listed the previous day, as a Debtor, owing $241.55 to a C. Frankel, with a judgement against him in favour of the Claimant. What had gone wrong, we might wonder, that he’d been unable to pay an amount today equivalent to more than six thousand dollars? Clearly things weren’t so great for Mr. Mennillo just one year on.
While Frank had been busying himself in the US, and travelling to and from Italy, young Rodolfo Guglielmi had also been on the move. In the year Mennillo emigrated alone the Guglielmi family shifted as a unit from Castellaneta to Taranto. In 1906, when the then, Francesco, headed back to America on the S. S. Italia, Rudy lost his father, and was sent away to a distant school in Perugia, where he spent several unhappy years; the serious unhappiness continuing until he found himself at agricultural college, at Nervi. After an ill thought-out trip to Paris, and many wasted months back at Taranto, at the very end of 1913 he climbed aboard the S. S. Cleveland, hoping for a fresh start in New York.
Was Frank A. Mennillo waiting to meet him when he arrived? In my opinion no. Having looked in great depth at the available evidence, I see nothing, anywhere, that gives even the vaguest hint that Mennillo had advance knowledge of his arrival, or, was at Brooklyn to greet him. (It’s actually claimed they met at Ellis Island, which First Class passengers were spared.) Consequently my March post (New York Timeline (1913)) didn’t mention it. The fact Valentino doesn’t allude to him once in his letter to his mother would be the first reason to doubt the assertion. After all, who would travel such a distance, getting ready to meet with a good friend of the family, which we’re told Frank was, and fail to devote even one sentence to them? There’s nothing. And here’s a second reason. Why, when he went into detail about his earliest weeks in the USA, with friends and family, two wives, a Manager, and journalists by the score, did he opt to leave out any Padrone? None of his intimates, between 1913 and 1926, ever recalled him telling them he’d been met, taken care of, or assisted in any way by anybody. Because he wasn’t. He was, as all – all – the material shows, alone, and finding his own way for the best part of three to six months. (And all confirmed by his older brother Alberto, when he was interviewed, in depth, in 1977, for the series HOLLYWOOD, broadcast in 1980.)
Yet the reason that Mennillo wasn’t Rudy’s Guide/Sponsor/Patron/Benefactor, has less to do with the lack of verification and more to do with his personal circumstances. This was a man who wasn’t in a position to help himself, let alone an eighteen-year-old who’d just arrived and had never left Europe. On May 14th, 1914, on page 16 of the New York Tribune, we see, once again, that “Frank Mennillo” owes a large amount of money (this time to L. Afeltra), and the judgement has gone against him. However this was merely a prelude to the total collapse of his business dealings in the November. As can be seen, on November 23rd, 1914, on page 14 of The New York Times – the Court Calendars column – Frank was expected to appear at the District Court, at 10:30 a.m. that day, for bankruptcy proceedings. Almost immediately the extent of his indebtedness was made public:
FRANK MENNILLO, salesman, of 367 [sic]
Broome [Street], filed petition individually and
as a partner [in] the former firm of Mennillo &
Lignanti, importers, with liabilities of $20,378
and no assets. Among the creditors are P. &
D. Samengo, Naples, Italy, $18,000, goods sold
in 1911; Bank of Rome, Naples, $1,200; and P.
Ballentine & Sons, Newark, $500.
From the New York Tribune.
Breaking down the information, we see that Mennillo was, in today’s money, a cool half million dollars in debt — not, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, something to be sniffed at. And that he also had no properties, no vehicles, nothing he could sell. We further learn that he was partnered in his endeavours by a Mr. Lignanti. And the partners owed money mainly to their fellow countrymen. (Lignanti and P. & D. Samengo have eluded me but P. Ballentine and Sons were manufacturers of strong beer.) We can see, as well, that the sum of $18,000 had been owed for several years, since 1911. And if we add together in our heads the three larger totals we understand a further $678 was owed to others. All of them, whoever they were, just as upset as the main creditors.
A person declared bankrupt in the Winter of 1914 had undoubtedly struggled for a good year. Perhaps even eighteen months. (In 1912 he was already a Debtor.) So the idea that Frank A. Mennillo could have been providing significant support to Rudolph Valentino at the time is nonsense. And if he was, then why do witnesses, such as ‘Dickie’ Warner, later say Valentino wasn’t living in great accommodation? And a wealthy, successful and well-connected fellow countryman, would’ve found a Dependant a good position somewhere. A really great one. And yet Rudolph was forced to go about looking for work. Went from menial job to menial job. Had, at one point, no job. Before finding a position as a Taxi Dancer. Obviously this isn’t a person with someone looking after them. Nothing suggests it.
It was late 1914. New York was booming. But Frank A. Mennillo was bust. Washed up. The following Spring things went from bad to worse. On March 24th, 1915, it was widely reported that Frank and wife, Zelinda, both now living at Bay Twenty-Ninth Street, in Brooklyn, had appeared in front of Supreme Court Justice Kelly. The reason: “… a suit for separation…” The reports laid bare that the marriage was on the rocks. Mr. Mennillo objected to his partner working as a School Teacher (at an Italian school conducted by the Children’s Aid Society). She preferred teaching to performing “domestic duties”. For her part Mrs. Mennillo claimed she’d been subjected to: “… cruel and inhuman treatment.” Not surprisingly Zelinda Mennillo was awarded custody of the five-year-old boy. (The report was wrong about the child’s age.)
I’ve no idea how you might feel about Frank abusing – perhaps physically hurting – his wife Zelinda. Perhaps you’ll think that it was just between the two of them and nothing to do with anybody else. However, I know for certain you’ll be as shocked as I was, that, soon after the judgement, he went to his son Arnaldo’s school (St. Hyacinth’s Academy, at Hawthorne, NY), kidnapped him, and told all who asked he’d packed him off to Italy. We know this to be a fact, due to newspaper reports, like the one in THE BROOKLYN DAILY EAGLE, on May 20th, 1916. Titled FATHER SURRENDERS SON, and subtitled Keeps Away Himself–Now Deputie [sic] Seek Him, the two paragraph column details how “Frank Mennillo” was at that time being sought by: “A squad of deputies of Sheriff Riegelman…” Having previously ignored a court order – maybe more than one? – to produce his son Arnold, now six, the small child had been suddenly and mysteriously produced (by a relation).
The brief, info.-packed TBDE article, concludes with the following: “Justice Blackmar …. instructed that Mennillo be brought into court to answer the charges against him.” That no further report was forthcoming doesn’t of course mean that he wasn’t. The issuing of “A warrant for contempt” as well as “a writ of attachment” was very serious indeed. His disappearance until 1917 suggests to me that he was given jail time and a fine. Certainly his assets, such as they were, would’ve frozen; making it impossible for him to do much in the short-to-medium term.
At the point Frank and Zelinda were at odds, in May 1916, and throwing verbal punches at one another in court, the now twenty-one-year-old Rodolfo Guglielmi (using the name Signor Rudolph), was engaged in his own ‘pas de deux’ in another arena. Having, from March to September 1914, endured six long months of terrible ups and downs, he had, quite literally, landed on his feet, when he secured work as a dancer-for-hire, at Cafe Maxim (or Maxim’s), at 110 West 38th Street, in Manhattan. This was followed by a year of exhibition dancing with Bonnie Glass. And then, when she retired, a switch to a rival female dancer extraordinaire, named Joan Sawyer.
However, his naming of Sawyer as the Other Woman, during the divorce of his on-off dancing partner – unbalanced Heiress Mrs. de Saulles – from her philandering husband, two months later, proved disastrous. And his options fell to zero when he was arrested in the September and the arrest was front page news. After laying low for half a year (due to acute embarrassment and being required to remain available for further questioning), he left the East Coast, in the Spring of 1917; heading West with a show: The Masked Model. (Appropriately titled considering his desire to disappear.) This mode of escape, once again, alerts us to the unlikelihood he had any serious support. A Godfather would simply have sent him the funds.
There’s no doubt that Frank – now using his middle initial – and Rudy were West, and at San Francisco, in the same year. Did their paths cross? I don’t believe so. We know that Mennillo was in the company of the Maffeis – D. V. Maffei, President of the Association of Italian Employees, and his son, William – in the October. (He travelled from East to West with William Maffei that month.) Yet, by the Autumn, Guglielmi was very firmly in L. A. He had been in S. F. in the June. And this is clear from his Draft Registration Card (on which he requested and received exemption (due to being an Alien)). So for them to have connected Frank would have had to have been there earlier too. If so, why was Rodolfo enjoying the company of Mr. and Mrs. Spreckles, and in and out of employment, and, on his way South after encountering Norman Kerry, formerly Norman Kaiser? And why are there no photographs of the two of them together at this point when there are several of him with others?
After a difficult 1918, when he lost his mother, had little film work, contracted influenza, and was tormented by a whole host of other problems, Rodolfo Guglielmi, now going by the name of Rodolphe De Valentina, and variants, was, in 1919, beginning to succeed in Moviedom. And though fame was still some way off, it was ahead, even if he didn’t know it. For Frank A. Mennillo the year began with his being linked to the already established American Olive Co. It not being difficult to search for the concern, on the internet, I’m curious to know where the idea Mennillo established it comes from. A relatively quick check revealed the American Olive Co. was in fact set-up before he ever placed a foot on Californian soil. For example, on August 27th, 1905, in the LOS ANGELES HERALD, at a time, you’ll recall, when the then Francesco Mennillo was concerning himself with getting settled on the East Coast, we see that the company was busy altering a factory building, at 1701 East Adams Street, to the tune of $5,000. Likewise, I wonder how he introduced the olive to the country, when, as early as 1907, the American Olive Co. was supplying “finest Ripe Olives in pint and quart cans” to retailers in Oregon. Cans! Which demonstrates a canning process in advance of Mr. Mennillo introducing one. It’s also a mystery how he was put out of business by any food poisoning scandal if the business wasn’t actually his. (A search for this disastrous breakout proved fruitless.)
That he did indeed own a share of the producers is proven by a March 7th, 1919, news item about Corporation Permits. (Shares issued were also issued to him.) As the extent of his holdings aren’t revealed, it’s possible that his interest was significant, and he was a driving force behind their expansion at the time; evidenced by a series of advertisements for label machine operators, and 50 women to peel tomatoes, etc. Yet was the expansion a good idea? And was Frank the person to mastermind it? Or, in any way, oversee it, if he did, in any way, oversee it? Perhaps not. After all his business dealings in the East had collapsed spectacularly.
That September/early October we see he went up the coast for ten days. Stopping: “… a day or two at the Belvedere in Santa Barbara …. from there [motoring] north [to visit] various olive ranches and other property…” that he owned. Of course this sounds good. Until we think about how a former bankrupt had managed to secure the necessary funds to acquire it. I think it’s safe for us to assume he borrowed heavily and was unable to keep up the repayments. And that at some point or another his disastrous past caught up with him. That he’s moved on entirely by the following year is emphasised by a report in THE MORNING PRESS, in July 1920, where we see he’s at the Ambassador Hotel, in L. A., in the company of Christian Demutopolos, a Greek Consul in the USA, Mr. Panagspolos the Consul General, and a Prosper Letternich.
That same month, twenty-five-year-old Rudolphe De Valentino/Rudolphe Valentine, was East, in his own sphere: Motion Pictures. The trip, necessitated by him being summoned to an interview, in April, about his arrest in 1916 and subsequent suing of the publishers of the varied titles that reported it, had led to two parts. First, as Joe Klingsby, in The Wonderful Chance (1920). Then, as Jose Dalmarez, in Stolen Moments (1920). However, there was a third part awaiting him, one that would finally secure him Stardom. The role of Julio Desnoyers in Metro Pictures Corp.’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).
Anyone who ever read a biography about the life of Rudolph Valentino will know that The Four Horsemen (1921) was a huge hit. And he himself was a hit, nationally and internationally — particularly with females. No decent, well-researched biography fails to disclose his success, later that year, in The Sheik (1921); or, how The Sheik transformed him from a Star into a Superstar. His struggle to disassociate himself from the character that made him a Household Name – a battle he would ultimately lose – would begin in earnest the very next year. However, the role he hoped would lift him artistically, that of Juan Gallardo, in Blood and Sand (1922), didn’t reach the Valentino-hungry public until after he’d been arrested for Bigamy, and had embarked upon his One Man Strike. (To secure better working conditions and greater freedom at Famous Players-Lasky Corp.)
The sudden disappearance of the American Olive Co. in the national press in 1919/1920 does suggest it went out of business. Nowhere did I find a short piece, or a report of any length, that provided a reason (which you’d expect if the shut down had been notable). Whatever happened it’s clear that Frank A. Mennillo had turned his back on produce by the start of the new decade. In 1920, as we saw, he was associating with Greek diplomats on the West Coast. Later that year, in the September, his very definite involvement with The Italian American Republican League, would’ve seen him present at their convention in New York; the purpose of which, was, to: “… solidify the sentiment of voters of Italian origin in favor of Senator Harding and Gov. Coolidge in the November election.” At the gathering, at which representatives from 23 states were present, Frank was a witness to: the setting up of committees to organise women voters; Judge Pallotti’s resolution to repudiate the League of Nations; the endorsement of the Republican platform in full; the elevation of F. H. La Guardia to permanent Chairman; and the reading out of letters, to attendees, from Harding, Coolidge and Cabot, none of whom were able to be present.
Was it due to Frank being busy in the political arena that he failed to assist Rudy when he was accused of Bigamy? And was it his obligations in that sphere that prevented him from helping while he was out of work for six months? Wouldn’t a Padrino have put all responsibilities aside and stepped in? You’d think so. Unless he wasn’t a Padrino in the first place? That Frank A. Mennillo was indeed busy making the most of his connections at the time, is thrown into sharp relief, by a fascinating report on the front page of The New York Times, on Thursday, October 18th, 1923.
Titled, in capital letters, FRANK OF CONGRESS USED IN STOCK DEAL, the news item exposed a serious breach of Congressional rules by Mennillo. Specifically, that he’d sent out letters inviting ‘brother Republicans’ to invest in the [Auto Rim Lever Lock Corp.], not only on Congressional headed paper, and inside of Congressional envelopes, but also using the franking system of the Congress — an improper act and an illegal one. We read how one recipient (“a Republican of standing in New York”), who’d tipped off several newspapers, had described it as “one of the most extraordinary documents” he’d ever received. And how, when quizzed by telegram, the Congressman concerned, M. O. McLaughlin, of Newbraska, President of the company mentioned, denied knowledge of any letters, despite his signature being on them. (The entire letter was, to everyone’s embarrassment, reproduced by TNYT.)
According to the reporter “F. A. Mennillo” was quick to admit, under extreme pressure no doubt, that it was he, not the Congressman, who’d been at fault. How, without the knowledge of M. O. McLaughlin, he’d sent out the 150 invitations; 50 of which, maybe to the most important people, he admitted, had been franked in Washington. The lengthy explanation sounds concocted. And is full of excuses. Obviously it brought to a close his political career — not that it really was, ever, a political career as such.
His position as General Manager at the Auto Rim Lever Lock Corp. – their product, in case you’re wondering, was a patented device that made it easier to change automobile tyres – seems to have continued, however. In the following year he gave both Rudolph Valentino and Valentino’s Business Manager, S. George Ullman, the opportunity to purchase shares in the operation. And we have proof of this, in an image of the share certificate, given to Rudy by Frank, after he’d bought $1,000 worth of shares, on June 28th, 1924. (See above.)
By that Summer Valentino had put his differences with FP-L/ Paramount to the side and commenced filming of his second and final film for them: A Sainted Devil (1924). He was, he thought, secure. Back on top. He looked forward to working with J. D. Williams’ Ritz-Carlton Pictures; a lengthy break in Europe; and realising Natacha’s The Hooded Falcon. He also, after building up nothing but debt during his never-ending strike, had money. Something Mennillo would’ve known.
Of course it’s all part of the story that Rudy was a terrible spendthrift. And he was. As so many many witnesses, including Natacha, testified. He could easily spend more than he was earning, and did, however he was also what’s called A Soft Touch. And it’s my firm belief, based on a later incident, at which I’ll be looking here, that Frank tapped his super-famous fellow Italian for cash. Possibly large sums. Call it a hunch, or whatever you like, but he’s demonstrably hanging about in the later, more successful years, rather than the earlier period of uncertainty and struggle.
The comeback of Monsieur Beaucaire and A Sainted Devil wasn’t the plateau Rudolph Valentino thought it would be. And, though he couldn’t see it at that time, the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire move to Ritz-Carlton Pictures, was to drag him down to a place he hadn’t been to since before The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. So, marvellous it appeared to be, when he was rescued by United Artists, and his first outing, The Eagle (1925), was a Smash. That he was tied into a highly dubious contract, once more largely brokered by the inept Ullman, which required him to locate the funds for the final three of five productions, mattered little in 1925. All that would sort itself when the time came. Yet it didn’t. Consequently, after his second spectacular, The Son of the Sheik (1926) had been completed, and he was on the road promoting it, he began to feel the heat about Vehicle Three.
Whatever was going on behind the scenes that Summer – we know a tired and stressed Rudy stayed East for longer than planned, and talked with the President of UA, Hiram Abrams – it was all to end in tragedy in the August. His collapse, at a private, early hours party in Manhattan, and subsequent hospitalisation and tragic death, led to one of the greatest outpourings of grief ever seen in the United States. And right there – yes you’ve guessed it! – was Frank A. Mennillo.
Frank had been in Rudy’s company on and off during the previous twelve months. We see them, for example, with Mae (Murray) and another gent., in a photograph taken in New York, before Rudy and then Mae sailed for Europe, in late 1925. That they saw one another on his return in the January is highly plausible. However, as Frank A. Mennillo was seemingly East and Rudolph Valentino was very definitely West, from February to June, they next saw each other late in July at New York. And it’s likely they spent some time together from the beginning of the following month, until the 15th, the day that Valentino was taken to hospital.
On page 216 of his book, Valentino as I Knew Him, S. George Ullman states, very clearly, that when he realised, on Sunday the 22nd, that Rudolph Valentino was weakening, he contacted: “… Frank Mennillo, one of Rudy’s dearest Italian friends.” Mennillo, Ullman recalls, arrived in the early evening. And, after being informed of how serious things really were, they went in to see Valentino in his room. Frank, we learn, spoke to Rudy in Italian, but Rudy responded in English, saying: “Thank you, Frank. I’m going to be well soon.” (That’s all we get.) Then we’re informed that: “All during the night the doctors, Frank Mennillo and I kept watch.” S. George Ullman going into the room every hour to see how he was faring. According to Ullman “At about six o’clock” they chatted. Then Valentino began to fade. There were some final words. A Priest was called. There was a single unintelligible word in Italian. And he passed away.
As I plan to write in the future about S. George Ullman, I’ll leave aside my issues with the account, and focus on the fact that Frank A. Mennillo was conspicuously involved before and after Rudolph Valentino was dead. And available, when Rudy’s brother, Alberto, arrived in the USA at the start of September. It was of course the case that many persons offered their assistance, as anybody would, in such a situation, yet was it simply this that led to him being at the centre of things? It strikes me Mennillo would’ve been extremely useful to Ullman when it came to dealing with the Guglielmi family. Helpful, when it came to persuading Valentino’s vulnerable, distraught older brother that an autopsy was unnecessary. And that his remains should definitely be interred in California, rather than returned to Puglia. Was it just this? I wonder. Is it possible that Frank knew what had really happened at The Mysterious Party? And was it sensible to keep Mr. Mennillo inside of the tent rather than outside of it?
I speculate in this way due to the fact that, in the following year, Frank A. Mennillo paid S. George Ullman a visit. The reason? To borrow $40,000 from the estate of his recently deceased Dear Friend. Yes still a lot of money! And the equivalent of over half a million today. Why, we might ask, would such a supposedly prudent man as Ullman grant such an incredible request — and he did grant it. What was in the background of Mennillo that would inspire such confidence? I haven’t seen a thing. (And use of the frank of Congress was in 1923 quite some time after he’d become Valentino’s Manager.) So I seriously wonder – really, I do – what it was he saw that I can’t. Perhaps someone can point out to me how a serial business failure could merit such an enormous monetary award? And if you imagine that late in the game he was a success? He wasn’t. And just how much of a disaster he continued to be, can be seen by looking, one last time, at what’s out there for all to view.
How badly things were going after the establishment of California Tomato Juice, Inc. is apparent when we inspect the Fifteenth Census of the United States in 1930. Being just three short years since Mennillo secured tens of thousand of dollars from a dead man, we might expect to see him doing well, prospering, living off the fat of the land, as they say. What we see instead, is that he’s living alone, without any wife or family, at a place called the Carlton Hotel, South Figueroa, Los Angeles. A hotel, occupied, not by people doing well, prospering, or living off the fat of the land, but by office workers, waitresses, salesmen and saleswomen, secretaries, soda fountain operators, cashiers, milliners, and musicians. Ordinary people. Getting by. Surviving. Hoping for a better life. And Frank’s occupation? He’s one of fifteen living there that have no occupation, are unemployed, and without prospects.
Frank A. Mennillo had tumbled far and fast without anybody to milk for money. Once he’d stood beside his friend Rudolph Valentino and basked in the reflected glory. Now, just a few years on, he stood alone and in the shadows, a nobody, without a job. I searched for mentions of him in the early to mid. Thirties and found none. His last few years were probably rather depressing — they certainly look it. And California Tomato Juice, Inc. was so obscure and low key, that it only gets highlighted in the state press, in 1935, when it finally goes out of business.
In November 1936, Associated Press informed Americans that Frank A. Mennillo, ‘the Olive King’, was dead. The short, three paragraph obituary framed him as a pioneering genius, trumpeting his connection to President Warren G. Harding, and claimed he’d been the Chairman of the Italian American Republican League. He was, the report said, born in Naples, Italy, had been at University there, and arrived in the USA in 1904. He had got his start in importing in New York, moved West, and then, in 1915, started the American Olive Co.
While there had been several Olive Oil Kings – Elwood Cooper and Charles Phillip Grogan are two examples – I saw no evidence Frank had been crowned thus in his lifetime. And while the connection to President Harding was genuine, in that he’d helped him in his bid to be elected, Mennillo had never been Chairman, as far as I’m aware. (That honour having been bestowed upon La Guardia.) Born in Naples, Italy, was correct; though I’d question his ability to study at Naples University and commence work as a Merchant by the age of 21/22. (I accept I may be wrong about that.) And he was not the person who established the American Olive Co., which was very much up and running before 1915.
The write up is plainly an attempt to present Frank as something other than he was. It looks good. And I can see that it was taken at face value when he was written about in the recent past. Which is a bit of a shame, because behind the white wash is a much more fascinating tale; but either you scrub off that white wash or you don’t. Francesco Mennillo/Frank Mennillo/Frank A. Mennillo/F. A. Mennillo had an interesting life. That said it really wasn’t any more interesting than a lot of others in his day. And it certainly wasn’t the life that’s been out there up until now.
And that’s why I wrote this post: to put the record straight. I’m not happy about people being misled for personal gain about Rudolph Valentino’s life. And they’re being totally misled in the case of Frank A. Mennillo. Of course they were friends, good friends, and as all good friends are they were there for each other. And yet these were not equals in any sense. I believe I’ve shown, with many examples, that the idea Mennillo was in a position to really help Valentino is a baseless one. It was Rudy who was useful to Frank, not the other way around.
I found no evidence that the two ever met before 1918/1919. And I didn’t see it presented in concrete terms by anyone anywhere that they did. No photographs. No letters. And no witness testimony. Nothing. Second or third hand memory recalled and passed along isn’t satisfactory. When people have been dead seventy or eighty years you really need to see something solid. For me their being in New York at the same time is a coincidence. They may, possibly, have encountered each other, but I don’t see how, when these are people moving in very different circles in 1914, 1915 and 1916. When we look at San Francisco we see the months don’t match. As well, once more, there are no photographs, letters or witnesses. And when Rudy is East, in 1920, it isn’t due to Frank, as Frank’s not East at that time. However, with the pair in the L. A. area, in the late Teens, we do have the right conditions for a first meeting. Perhaps one day I’ll find something that confirms it. I’ll be looking for it as-and-when-I-can I promise you.
I want to thank you for reading this post all the way through. It’s a long one, but there was no way to make it any shorter, without omitting vital information. I welcome any feedback. And if you have a question, or wish to see anything presented here, then please just ask me. I’ll be back next month, when the post will be: New York Timeline (1914).
Had Rudolph Valentino not become seriously ill and died 92 years ago, he would, right about now, have been busy filming his third spectacular for United Artists Corp., at the Fairbanks-Pickford Lot, in California. Cellini, the tentative title, we know. But what was it about? Who was to star in it? Which director had been selected? These questions and others need answering.
What got me really interested in this unmade project – I already was a bit by-the-way – was something “motion picture magnate” Joseph M. Schenck said to reporters on the 17th of August 1926. Having failed, along with Screenstar wife Norma Talmadge, to gain entry to Valentino’s Polyclinic suite, the Chairman of the Board of Directors was pressed for a statement. Surprisingly, he revealed how the death of ‘The Great Lover’, should it occur, could cost United Artists $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. (Four million dollars then being $57,000,000 now.) His blunt pronouncement woke me up to the scale of the pact between Joe and Rudy. There was a great deal riding on each of the five productions (two of which had been completed). Nothing had been uncovered yet. The more I looked the more I found. With perhaps the most fascinating item being a tiny, blink-and-you’d-miss-it report, about how seriously unhappy Rudolph was, and that he was planning to cancel his contract and leave the studio. But more about that later.
The origins of the vehicle that was never to be? Perhaps the credit for the idea should be handed to Robert G. Lisman, who, in his The Play, From The Picture Angle column, in the November 15th 1924 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, wrote:
“THE FIREBRAND,” a comedy by Justus Mayer, presented by Schwab, Liveright and Mandel, at the Morosco Theatre on October the 15th, 1924.
The hero is Cellini, the famous Italian sculptor of the fifteenth [sic] century. At a glance the play appears to be a dramatization of a “Decameron Night.” [sic] The lines are salacious but nothing very censorable happens. Romance and action are always good picture material and with slight changes this play should make a good vehicle for Valentino.”
If Rudy didn’t see this suggestion – he probably would’ve – it proved to be a prophetic one. And a quick look at the play shows why Lisman reached the conclusion he did. And also why others (including Valentino) did too.
Edwin Justus Mayer‘s play, his first, was, as VARIETY stated that month: “… rattling good entertainment…” In the title’s review by Edba, the central character is Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine Creative Genius whose many transgressions have, so far at least, been overlooked due to his value as an artist. Recent lawlessness can’t be condoned, however, and Allesandro Duke of Florence is on his way to pass sentence of death. When the Duke sees Angela, Benvenuto’s love interest, he’s distracted and fails to order the execution. After inviting Cellini to the palace he departs with the girl; before the arrival of the Duchess, who, likewise, invites the craftsman. (To regain Angela he agrees.) At the ducal seat, after more killing with his sword, Benvenuto has to find a way to retrieve his girl, while placating the Duke’s amorous wife. Following hilarity on the balcony he escapes to his studio for one last night of bliss before he dies. Attempting to complete his art there before dying, and tired of love, he dispatches Angela to Duke Allesandro. Cheats death, again, at the hands of Ottaviano, Allesandro’s cousin. And soothes the wrathful Duchess with an artful explanation as to why he never arrived in her boudoir. The play concludes with them making fresh plans for that evening.
The Firebrand was aided by two things: Mayer’s talent and the Male Lead. Having been employed on the East and West coasts by Goldwyn Pictures Corp., from 1919 to 1922, Edwin Justus Mayer had, as his still amusing and insightful syndicated column for the concern in those years testifies, learned all about film-making. Meanwhile, the Star, Joseph Schildkraut, a stage actor, had already performed successfully in front of the camera; most notably under the direction of D. W. Griffith in Orphans of the Storm. And, interestingly in this context, had, the previous year, portrayed a Valentino-like character opposite Norma Talmadge, in The Song of Love. (No wonder then that Robert G. Lisman saw Rudy in the part!)
Though his clever work was ripe for the Silver Sheet and one of its icons its pathway was far from smooth. Firstly there had already been two films with the same title. One, with Virginia Pearson, in 1918, produced by Fox Film Corp. And another, with Franklyn Farnum, in 1922, released by Phil Goldstone. Yet the true obstacle was that in the Spring of 1925 the office of Will H. Hays announced that the play was banned from ever being adapted for the screen. Why wasn’t made clear. But banned it was. Alongside They Knew What They Wanted, and two novels, The Green Hat and The Constant Nymph.
A year later, and before a solution to the problem was revealed, a small piece in the May 26th 1926 edition of VARIETY, demonstrated, to anyone taking notice, that Rudy’s issues went way beyond questionable scenes and dialogue. The single column, three paragraph report, on page 15, headed: Valentino, Needing Money, May Switch to Get It, is one I never encountered before. And, for me, it’s another reason RV was suffering so much that August. In essence, he was considering switching from United Artists to P. D. C.: the Producers Distributing Corporation. The reason? Money!
The report reveals that Joe Schenck was contractually obliged to fund only two of the five films the concern would distribute. By the Summer he had. So it was now S. George Ullman’s responsibility to secure cash from Wall Street to cover the further productions. Had he? Did he have clout in the finance district? Perhaps not. Could it be why Rudolph met with the United Artists’ President instead of returning West? Was it why he and his Business Manager weren’t speaking? We don’t know. Regardless, the article gives us a tantalising glimpse into the financial turmoil that year; as well as hinting at the distinct possibility that, without the funding or a successful shift to DeMille, his career was at a standstill once again, and potentially over for good.
Despite money troubles, in the June and July announcements came thick and fast. The Firebrand would be the basis for Rudolph Valentino’s next “starring vehicle”. Edwin Justus Mayer would prepare the scenario from his own work minus offending segments. John Emerson had sold the property to Joseph M. Schenck for $20,000 (which was then denied by Schenck). Estelle Taylor was to be Rudy’s co-Star. And Fred Niblo would be the film’s director.
Taylor, despite her obvious charms, stood in stark contrast to Vilma Banky, RV’s Female Lead in The Eagle (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). However, though the narrative was largely comedic, the role (of the Duchess of Florence) required someone with a hint of wickedness. And as this was something she’d already demonstrated by the truck load, as Lucrezia Borgia, in John Barrymore’s 1926 epic Don Juan, it meant she was ideal.
The fact they were well acquainted – Estelle was married to Rudy’s Pal ‘Jack’ Dempsey – was a bonus. Had it influenced the decision? Hard to say. But as Valentino was known to enjoy working with friends it wouldn’t be a surprise. How comfortable they were in each other’s company is clear in the press image of them, breakfasting, reproduced in Donna L. Hill’s 2010 publication: Rudolph Valentino the Silent Idol.
Fred Niblo, another friend, had already directed Rudolph Valentino four years earlier in Blood and Sand. Previous to that he’d been Doug. Fairbanks Sr.’s director twice. (The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921).) And, after, the chief director of Ben-Hur (1925). His affinity with both the Star and United Artists meant that he was an excellent choice.
We can only imagine the conversations between these two reunited individuals had it been possible for them to again collaborate. Rudy had, as we know, been June Mathis’ favourite to portray Judah. Were it not for the ‘One Man Strike’ his studio – on good terms with Mathis – might’ve considered loaning him. He would then have been in Italy with Niblo, in 1924 and 1925, after the Metro-Goldwyn merger. Sadly it wasn’t to be.
Not much more is known about the planned film. Certainly players were lined up to fill the other key roles — yet who they were isn’t apparent. Perhaps somewhere in the United Artists’ archives, or elsewhere (with Mayer’s papers for example), there are notes and memoranda that relate to it. And possibly sketches for sets were stored and saved. I saw no mention, anywhere, of the person responsible for the look of the film; though it was, almost certainly, William Cameron Menzies. As for the costumes? Gilbert Adrian is, in my opinion, the most likely person. Though it could easily have been another.
When it comes to his dress, we are able to picture Rudy as his fellow countryman, when we view him in the imaginary Sixteenth Century sequence in Cobra (see above top). And we can likewise get a rough idea, looking at him in the image I discovered two years ago (see above bottom), in which he’s attired in costume of the same era. (And in which, by some strange twist of fate, he portrays Benvenuto Cellini.) If he could sport a beard in 1925 and 1926 (in TSotS) then past issues with facial hair – his modest growth in 1924 for the doomed The Hooded Falcon had elicited comment – were probably behind him. Not a bad thing, as Cellini was seriously bearded.
I saw nothing anywhere about what Rudolph Valentino was feeling about the planned blockbuster. And this is understandable as he was busy promoting The Son of the Sheik. It’s hard to imagine his attitude towards depicting Benvenuto Cellini as being anything but enthusiastic in principal. He had, according to reports, here and there, longed to portray a famous Italian. (Cesare Borgia being an example). And he was never more at home than when he embodied a Rebellious Lover. The film based on the play offered the opportunity to be both. As well as to engage in lengthy sword fights, and dispatch or outwit opponents; to inhabit wonderful, palatial interiors; be at the heart of an amusing if infuriating love triangle; and to employ his underused comedic skills. I like to think his copy of The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini was tucked into his luggage in the final weeks. It was certainly in the auction of his belongings at the close of the year.
The barrage of reports about RV’s next project was soon replaced by a blitz of headlines relating to his untimely death. Schenck’s nightmare had come to pass: there would be no Cellini. The careful preparations since May – probably earlier – were of no use. Much time and effort had been wasted. And his anger and frustration in the interviews he agreed to in the aftermath was palpable. Almost instantly, and without hesitating, he laid bare, before Americans and the World, the most private information of the dead Icon. All Rudy had in his bank account was a few hundred dollars. He had, he said, recently earned over a million dollars and spent every cent. He was a gullible man easily parted from his cash. Had no investments to speak of and only a little property. A personal insurance policy that was just $50,000. A weekly salary that was $6,500 and totalled $338.000 per annum. And a profit share (of the net profits) of The Eagle and The Son of the Sheik amounting to 50%.
I find the hard frankness of JMS astonishing. Hadn’t the barely cold Valentino suffered enough already? Did he need to be subjected to further humiliation? Exposed on the 23rd of August, and on subsequent days, as a reckless thoughtless simpleton, who had no common sense, and never thought about the future? Even if it was partly, or wholly true, was it necessary to reveal such particulars? And to tip revelations on the corpse like the contents of an emptied waste paper basket?
To my mind, the only explanation is that Schenck, Ullman, and any others, needed to prepare the groundwork. And sure enough I discovered that, inside a fortnight, it was announced nothing would prevent a pay out on the policies held by United Artists. (According to VARIETY the total was $425,000.) The deceased Screen Star had been an extremely unwell individual who foolishly failed to seek medical attention. And he had also lived beyond his means and run up serious debts. These two derogatory halves of the story combined to form a compelling, advantageous whole; one that to this very day weighs heavy. When it was disclosed he had received an advance of $100,000, as well as a payment against his expected future profits, nobody batted an eyelid. Soon it was further explained that the profits on other pictures easily covered his borrowing. And the $90,000 expended on Cellini would be deducted from his insurance payout.
That Joe was an unsentimental, hard-nosed business man is clear. Undeniable. Plain as it could be. And such was his lack of sentiment that he soon began attempting to rescue Cellini. Signed to a two year contract, with Feature Productions Inc., the production side, Estelle Taylor was going nowhere. The status of Fred Niblo in the months immediately after Rudolph’s death isn’t so obvious. However, we know that by the 2nd of November it had been announced he would direct Norma Talmadge, in Camille. As for a replacement for Rudolph Valentino, it appears several established personalities were considered; with ‘The Great Profile’ John Barrymore (above) being the favourite.
Yet despite Schenck’s best efforts to inject life into the project it seemed doomed. Did the people optioned find the notion a little tasteless? Likely. Would the legendary Barrymore have wanted to step into the dead man’s shoes? Doubtful. The word went out that there were serious problems resuscitating the production. A fervent fan of Joseph Schildkraut, Jackie Cathewe, wrote into Picture-Play in early 1927. In the letter, headed Why Not Joseph Schildkraut?, in the What Fans Think section, Cathewe explained that instead of making The Firebrand heavy and historical, he had turned it into a show of tempestuous love and subtle and exquisite comedy. He should be “borrowed from DeMille” as he was “the perfect choice”. “Schildkraut and Estelle Taylor—marvelous!” was the enthusiastic final declaration. High and dry since the passing of Rudy, forced to go public about being jobless and worried about her career prospects, I suspect the Actress would’ve agreed. But it never happened.
Benvenuto Cellini, orfévre, médailleur, sculpteur: recherches sur sa vie, sur son œuvre et sur les pièces qui lui sont attribuées by Plon, Eugène (Text by); Paul Le Rat (Etchings by)
So the story ends there? There never was a film about Cellini based on The Firebrand? Well actually, no, there was. And in my opinion, having viewed it twice, it comes pretty close to what was planned in the Autumn of 1926. In fact in all honestly it’s difficult not to see Rudolph Valentino as the main character; so filled is it, with history, opulence, pretty women, action, romance and more. For me, in watching it, we see what might’ve been had what occurred not occurred.
It was at the end of 1933 that Ralph Wilk revealed, in his A LITTLE from “LOTS” column, in THE Film DAILY, that popular actor Fredric March would be starred in The Affairs of Cellini (instead of Les Miserables). The picture, Wilk detailed, would be Fredric’s first for Joseph M. Schenck’s and Darryl Zanuck’s recently formed 20th Century Pictures. A conflation of Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, and Edwin Justus Mayer’s play, it was to be directed by Gregory LaCava, and adapted by Bess Meredyth. With the 1st of February set as the start date.
In Estelle Taylor’s place was cast Constance Bennett. With the Duke and Angela, the two other central roles, awarded to Frank Morgan and Fay Wray. (Morgan, incidentally, had a decade earlier been Duke Allesandro onstage, in the original theatrical production.) For some reason the title changed a few times before completion. Switching from The Affairs of Cellini – Meredyth’s idea? – to The Firebrand and then back again. Unusually for the times little was leaked about the actual process of filming. (For instance I saw no reports from the set.) And there was absolutely nothing anywhere about the fact that it had once been intended for Valentino.
Following the pre-merger 20th Century Pictures logo, the original, briefer fanfare, and the credits (with Bennett billed above March), the film opens on Morgan’s Allesandro de’ Medici, listening to a lengthy list of imminent executions. Despite being absent from the scene, Cellini is still part of the proceedings, as his recent, outrageous acts are discussed at length. (And he’s also listed.) The Duchess, whose interest in the Artist was limited to the fact he’s creating golden plates for her imminent dinner, is suddenly intrigued when she hears how a Venetian female victim was seduced. Because of this she persuades the Duke to hang him after the tableware is completed.
In the next segment we’re in Benvenuto’s workshop. A knocking sound is responded to by an assistant; and the genius craftsman descends, like Fairbanks Sr., through a secret ceiling entrance. Thinking himself safe, he wakes the sleeping Angela and attempts to make love to her, then buys her from her grotesque mother (brilliantly played by Jessie Ralph). Duke Allesandro arrives. And after a lengthy exchange he takes the love interest away. Ottaviano, his mortal foe, then unleashes a bunch of heavies/roughs who Cellini must overcome. (Which he does in Valentinoesque fashion). Next arrives the Duchess in disguise. And while gentle music plays she uses her own persuasive powers to get what she wants. Cellini will create and bring to her a golden key that night at 9 p. m.
The Duke – at the Summer Palace not the Winter as the Duchess thinks – wines and dines Angela. So when the Duchess arrives the young beauty is sent out onto the balcony until she’s gone. Benvenuto appears on the top of a high wall. Jumps to a large tree branch. And then makes his way to the ground before scaling the palace and climbing onto the now empty balcony. On the stroke of nine he unlocks the door, and enters the Duchess’s quarters, where he finds her in a vampish, seductive mood. Things don’t go well at first and Bennett’s character utters what I thought was an interesting line:
“Well it’s just as well I found you out. The tragedy of all great ladies is to discover that the men with the most exaggerated reputations make the poorest lovers.”
March’s Cellini then menaces Bennett’s Duchess. Slaps her (which makes her faint). And begins to carry her to a low couch. However, a crash in Morgan’s character’s quarters wakes her, and alerts her to something odd. Angela is sent to the balcony again. Where Benvenuto finds her. And while he carries her off to his secret mountain hideaway, we are much entertained by the Duke and Duchess, repeatedly encountering each other on the balcony, while looking for their respective absent lovers.
Fay Wray’s Angela is unimpressed by the mountains. And her pining for the Duke and the luxury of the palace make Fredric March’s Benvenuto decide to leave her there and return to Florence. Due to there being a reward for his capture he goes to the Duchess and skilfully lies. Eventually melting her heart by reading aloud the poetry that won over the girl in Venice. (As The Affairs of Cellini is a post Code motion picture we don’t see any of the lovemaking between the pair.)
The palace and its grounds are being searched after the discovery of Cellini’s disguise in the gardens. And so the Duchess sends him to the Duke’s apartment thinking it the safest place. However, he’s discovered there by Ottaviano, and taken to the dungeons, where it appears he will finally die. The Duke arrives keen for him to be hung. Closely followed by the Duchess keen for him not to be hung. Thanks to Constance’s Duchess his life is spared once more. And he reveals to Frank’s Duke the whereabouts of Angela.
The film now builds to a conclusion. As requested Benvenuto has brought Angela to the banquet for which he created the tableware. This poses a problem, of course, as Cellini knows that the Duchess will be unhappy to see him with such an attractive female. (She never set eyes on her before.) The Duke, pleased to see his bit-on-the-side again, tells his wife that Angela is the Artist’s Muse and Model and that they’ll be married. So angry is the Duchess that she arranges for Benvenuto Cellini’s wine to be poisoned and suggests he propose a toast. Then, when his toast is to her, not his supposed future wife, and he drinks the wine and dies, she’s distraught. However, a goblet tumbles, and we become aware that Ottaviano has succumbed, and Cellini switched their vessels, and pretended to be dead. The ending is a happy one with both couples – the Artist and his Duchess and the Duke and his Angela – together in harmony.
Contrasting the play in 1924 with the movie in 1934 we see few serious discrepancies in the first half. The majority – the palace, the workshop and the balcony – is the same. Only when the action shifts to the lair in the mountains do we start to notice differences – the hideaway, the return to the palace, the dungeon and the banquet – to what VARIETY‘s Edba reviewed. Clearly the attack by Ottaviano’s henchmen was moved from late in the play to early. And the additions in the second half were thought necessary to balance out the previous fast-paced action.
For me, Cellini’s dramatic arrival at his studio, his time with Angela, and the fracas there are all pure Valentino. As is the athleticism (on both occasions) when he arrives at the Summer Palace. It’s more than easy to envisage him romancing the rival females. And being as comedic as he had been in The Eagle when it was called for. (With his Muse and her mother, the repeated sentences of death, on the balcony, reading from the book and doing a balancing act between the Duke and the Duchess at the dinner.)
Naturally a silent film would’ve been a little different. And yet so visual is The Affairs of Cellini that it appears to be a silent with dialogue. This makes me suspect much of the original was left untouched. And a good, if minor example, is the moment that Bennett’s Duchess purposely drops a purse for March’s Cellini to pick up. Something that would’ve been beautifully done in the pre Talkie days, but which seems pretty incongruous five or so years later. Thinking about that exchange I visualise cutting between Estelle Taylor and Rudolph Valentino. Her hand in the air. His eyes watching the purse fall. Back to her and an intertitle. Back to him and an intertitle. Back to her. And then him stooping down to the floor to pick it up with a smile.
Does Fredric March measure up? Is he a good replacement? No. Not for me. Great as he was he’s obviously not Rudy. This was Valentino’s project and he’s a tough act to follow. I understand from researching that his wife purchased The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini for him; however, for all his prep., there’s something lacking in his performance. A dearth, perhaps, of what Rudolph Valentino had and nobody else did — or ever would. With all this in mind it doesn’t surprise me The Affairs of Cellini was a box office failure. Maybe Joseph M. Schenck should’ve let well alone as they say. I suppose he couldn’t.
It’s a pity Rudolph Valentino was denied the opportunity to add a notable Italian to his previous international characterisations of: an Argentine (Julio), an Arab (Ahmed), a Spaniard (Gallardo), and a Russian (Dubrovsky). I think he would’ve been excellent in the role. Unfortunately he was to really die, as himself, before he could pretend to die, as Benvenuto Cellini. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing that his passing in reality had been like his passing in the story. And that, like the character, he could’ve reawakened, to the consternation of all those gathered around.
As with The Mysterious Party I’m not listing my sources. However, once more, should anybody want to know what they were I’m only too happy to supply. My thanks for reading this lengthy piece in its entirety — I appreciate it.