In the mid. 1970’s, the Italian magazine, STOP, decided to commemorate half a century since the passing of Rudolph Valentino, with a thoughtful article, featuring a lengthy interview with one of his closest childhood friends; a man named: Guiseppe/Joseph Nico. In the month he passed, 95 years ago, it seems appropriate to post that translated interview here; an interview, which I can say is one of the most interesting items I’ve found, during the course of my research into the earliest years of this remarkable, endlessly fascinating man. I hope you’ll enjoy what I’m titling: The Childhood Friend.
The place where I was born is called Rudolph Valentino’s Castellaneta. It is a small town located at almost the very tip of Italy, on a hill, overlooking the sea. Castellaneta is a famous city. And every year there’s a pilgrimage of thousands of women who still remember him, who cried and suffered for him, and that carry the handkerchiefs soaked with tears, on August 23rd, 1926, in boxes, the day their Lover left them forever.
Valentino, Star, was their Idol. For years he filled their lives and their dreams. The magnetic gaze of Rudy. His almond-shaped eyes. His smile. The way he kissed the women, and held them in his strong arms, caused guilty, sinful shivers.
Life was a little less harsh in those five years when their “Forbidden Lover” intoxicated with perverse fascination. In theatres, in cities large and small, and in modest provincial towns, where a muted piano translated, musically, the images flickering on the screen, so many sins were eaten, and husbands and boyfriends were betrayed with thoughts. Rudolph Valentino really had an almost magical power to bring down many virtues… his memory at a distance of fifty years has remained intact.
In France, the U. S., Australia and Japan, all over the [W]orld you can say, there are specialised travel agencies. And the place where the tourists stop is in Castellaneta, the city of Valentino.
In this week’s newspapers and magazines, from all corners of the [E]arth, there are long articles about Rudolph Valentino, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Here in Castellaneta his memory is still alive. Visitors who travel the road that leads to the town, can see, to the left, the monument that the city has erected. It’s a two metre high statue, ceramic and blue, which embodies the [A]ctor in the role of the Protagonist in his most famous – [final] – film The Son of the Sheik [(1926)]. Just nearby you see the house where the Star was born, on May 6th, 1895. A beautiful Baroque-style building with balconies.
We had the good fortune to meet with Mr. Joseph Nico, who is 81 years old, the same age [Valentino] would be if he were alive today. Joseph Nico has always lived in Castellaneta and was a Schoolfriend of Rodolfo. With him he also spent his early teens. Until Rudy moved to Sant’Illario.
The old man remembers a great deal about the childhood of Rudolph, who he knew well. Being his Playmate he received his confidences. His story is new and surprising in many respects. And also demonstrates the precocity of the sentimental youth who would become the greatest Seducer of the 20th Century.
“My childhood,” Mr. Nico begins, “was spent entirely with Rodolfo. My friend was a cute boy and breezy. He always had new ideas in his head and was also ready to implement them. Rodolfo came from a solid family. Borghese. (Bourgeois.) The father was a man of authority here in Castellaneta, and was the Veterinarian of the area. Dr. Giovanni/John Guglielmi had married a French Woman of noble birth, Maria/Marie [Berthe] Gabrielle Barbin. And at birth the child was baptized with the names: Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaello.
“To be honest, I found it odd that a guy of his position came to play with us, the children of poor people, but Rodolfo preferred ordinary people to the rich. Even when he returned from Hollywood to Castellaneta, and was here with his Isotta Fraschini, a kilometre long, he embraced us.
“Rudolph, as I said, was a smart one — and very early. The girls made him turn his head and he ran to them. I remember one episode, when we were about 10, to dismiss a lively compliment, a girl gave him a slap. Yet he, in response, just stroked her blonde braids. Everyone spoke of what had happened between the Son of the Veterinarian and small Luciana.
“On the rare occasions there arrived in the countryside a travelling show, he was always in the front row, and devouring, with his eyes, the actresses. The Chanteuse especially polarising his attention. To see them better Rodolfo would sneak behind the scenes. And then return and tell us all what he saw, with such a liveliness and seductive colour, that we were spellbound for days.
“The Parish Priest, when he learned of this behaviour, scolded him in front of everyone, and didn’t allow him even Confession. However, he charmed the older man and moved him and was allowed both Confession and Communion. The two remained good friends. And when he was famous and rich, and came back to his home town, he gave many dollars to the Parish.
Joseph Nico fails to tire of telling stories. His elderly memory is lively. And wakes up when he rummages through the distant memories of early youth.
“Only at school,” he continues, “my friend didn’t do well. He didn’t like to be bent over books, and preferred games and entertainment. Bravado with friends. In that time women used to fill skins with oil for sale. In the morning a cart passed to collect oil for a cooperative. Rudolph was hiding behind a door, and, before the man could pick up the skin full of oil, he broke the skin with a large stone, that then flooded the road with the slimy liquid. Rudolph’s Father, who the Cart Driver had gone to to complain, raised his hands to Heaven, and compensated the poor man for the damage. Rodolfo was then put in the corner. Then double-locked in his bedroom. But the room had a small balcony which was near to the gutter pipe. So, without a second thought, Rodolfo opened the window and slid down the pipe to the street, where I was waiting for him.
“For beautiful clothing Rudy had a real fanaticism, and his Mother sent him around looking like a [P]rince; yet, his clothes didn’t last long due to the violent games in which he indulged. On Sunday, however, at Mass, my friend was really dapper. I still have in front of my eyes his blue sailor suit with white spats, hair combed and parted, and smooth and shining with grease.
“At the parties of rich friends he was always present because all vied to invite him. But it was the girls who often pressured their brothers to make sure he wasn’t missing. His charm and conversation had an effect on them. And they were all in love with him. In Castellaneta there were many handsome boys, yet none was like him, no one had his eyes, his magnetism. The most beautiful girls were his friends.
“Yet one was able to resist and her name was Felicity Sasserego. She lived in Saint Hillary where Rudy went to complete his agricultural studies. He confided in me that he was in love with her. Yet she wouldn’t have anything to do with him. And didn’t trust that ‘Rooster’ that was behind all the skirts. Rodolfo for the first time in his life wept for love. He who would later be able of reach for millions of women tasted the bitterness of defeat. And perhaps it was this disappointment that ripened his resolve to seek his fortune far from his Homeland.”
The memories of the elderly friend of Rodolfo stopped here. Tears forming in his eyes and running down his cheeks. Mr. Nico can’t help but think that if Valentino had stayed there in Castellaneta he wouldn’t have become one of the most famous men in the World, but would, perhaps, still be alive; and be there beside him, to drink a good glass of wine.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading this translation, of an enlightening, yet all-too-brief interview, with Mr. Joseph Nico, the childhood friend of Rudolph Valentino. And I hope that you’ll return to read the next post about the greatest Seducer of the 20th Century. Do like this post and comment if you have the time. Thank you!
The post here this month, is my contribution to the 2021 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon, hosted by Paul, from Silver Screen Classics. As His Fame Still Lives is focused monthly on Rudolph Valentino, it’s natural it’ll be one of his films that’s the subject. For the Blogathon last year I wrote at length about Camille (1921). This year I’m writing about The Conquering Power (1921); which, it just-so-happens, is 100-years-old this coming July.
In the October 1921 issue of THE PHOTODRAMATIST, in an essay, entitled, The Eternal Esperanto, Rex Ingram, one of the most innovative and talented film directors of The Silent Era, had the following to say:
“Great art belongs to the ages, and to the Universe; in it time and place are of secondary importance, for its message and its story are not of yesterday, today nor tomorrow, but of all time.”
That Ingram saw himself as an Artist is clear. In The Eternal Esperanto he presents himself as exactly this. Enjoying, immensely, his comparison of the creation of a sculpture with a group of figures, to the setting-up of a scene with a collection of actors. That he was considered one by his contemporaries, is proven by the fact that he’d recently been awarded an honorary Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree, by Yale University. (“… the first recognition of the photoplay as one of the fine arts.”) His Mentor there, Professor Lee O. Lawrie, who he’d assisted when younger, even going so far as to create (as a gift for him) an actual physical representation of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; for a period of time, openly displayed in a store window in New York. Yet, as much as seeing himself as an Artist and wanting his work to be seen to be Art, it’s obvious he sought to place himself on the same level as the artistic greats. And to raise the relatively new medium to that level. The question is: did he?
Having reached the vertex of artistic achievement with The Four Horsemen Ingram wasn’t about the slacken. Far from it. Neither was he going to tinker with the team which had helped him to deliver a masterpiece. So, with this winning formula, early in 1921, he embarked upon his next project, titled, The Conquering Power; a film again about France, but this time based on an older literary work: the Nineteenth Century novel, Eugenie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac. And a work, according to the writer of an article about him, in THE HERALD AND NEWS, he’d “long desired to film”.
In terms of audience Eugenie Grandet was a book with which North Americans were already generationally familiar. It had reached the shores of the USA, properly translated, by the late 1850s, when it sold for just 25 cents a copy. And, a decade later, was successfully serialized in The Chicago Tribune, between September 29th and December 29th, 1872. In the subsequent decade, in 1886, the New-York [Daily] Tribune, while minutely examining the tale, sincerely lauded it, stating it was: “… high tragedy in humble life; an epic of passion, as Taine styles it, but framed upon the simplest lines.” In 1899 the country’s press marked the Author’s centennial; the WATERTOWN REPUBLICAN trumpeting him as having been: “… the greatest writer of fictitious narrative of the past century, if not of all the centuries, and the greatest of all French writers…”
Curious it is, then, given his popularity and the richness of the narrative, that there were few attempts to translate this great work for the Silver Sheet, in the early years of U. S. cinema. Research has uncovered just two quite unambitious efforts: Eclair’s 961 foot Eugenie Grandet, issued on June 20th, 1910; and, a lengthier, seemingly independently created, three reel production, titled The Miser’s Daughter, shot in 1915, and advertised as for sale or rent, in the January 15th, 1916 edition of THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD. (The Miser’s Daughter was what a widely printed newspaper serialization had been called in 1904.) Was Rex aware of the mid. decade three reeler? Quite possibly. After all, he’d already moved on from acting and writing, to directing by that time, and was ever watchful, as he shifted at speed from one company to another, of the work of contemporaries. As they, likewise, observed him. Also, the piece, in THE HERALD AND NEWS, does emphasize the long-held wish to breathe life into the source material. And we can believe it to be true, if he’d known of, or even seen, either one or both of the earlier celluloid translations.
When we read Eugenie Grandet it’s easy to see the appeal. The simple, yet compelling central female character, and the refined and tragic central male character, were ideal parts for his established stars Terry and Valentino. (A pair of lovers already well-fixed in the minds of the cinema-going public.) Once again the story was about two sides of a family. Enormous sums of money – negative and positive – were also a theme. And, despite the rather static, one-location nature of the story, it included an array of interesting supporting personalities.
June Mathis, who’d expertly adapted the work of Vicente Blasco Ibanez the previous year, was tasked with creating the continuity. It being she, in her capacity as Head of the Scenario Department at Metro Pictures Corp., who’d pushed, hard, not only for Rex Ingram to direct The Four Horsemen, but for Rudolph Valentino to portray Julio, it was no doubt felt she was the safest pair of hands. (Which she was, though her past choices, while paying serious dividends, did sow the seeds of future issues; not only for herself, but also the two talented men she championed.) Her bold decision to root the action in the then present day, a full hundred years after the time in which it was set, and a move mirroring her concurrent interpretation of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame Aux Camelias, was perhaps the most significant feature of her adaptation. And is explained in the opening of at least one surviving version, as being due to the “Great Public” not then being too fond of “the costume play”.
The first report we see about the planned sequel to The Four Horsemen, is in Wid’s DAILY, on April 29th, 1921. This basic paragraph, communicating the name, that it was to be Ingram’s follow-up to his Blockbuster, and that Cleo Madison had been added to the principals of that previous production, was superseded by a series of bulletins. Yet these weekly reports don’t give too much away with regards to progress. Something, it has to be said, that stands in stark contrast to its predecessor. What we do know, is that by the end of April, it was imminently about to commence. And, that by June 29th, eight weeks later, the Director was on his way East with the negative. Proving the whole project had been turned around in two months. Again, a serious difference to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), which was a six month endeavour.
As studio records were long ago largely disposed of, we must look to later accounts for shoot information; accounts, often years and decades in the future. Alas, the picture they paint isn’t a pretty one, with discord being the dominant tone. The impression we get being there was, for one reason or another, or three, or four, a general breakdown in the bonhomie that had assisted prior success. The warmth and enjoyment, much in evidence in the many group publicity images in 1920, evaporated. To the extent there are almost no such photographs in existence from the following year. We get a good idea of how bad things got, when we look at a one page profile of Ramon Novarro, entitled, The Man from the Mob: How Rex Ingram Picked Ramon Novarro for Fame, which appears in the February 1924 issue of PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE. As follows:
“In spite of what the director was doing for him temperaments clashed and arguments arose between Mr. Ingram and Rudie. In the course of one of these arguments Mr. Ingram remarked one day: ‘You think I can’t get along without you, don’t you?’ Well, I’ll show you. I can go out onto the set, pick a man out of the mob of extras, and make him just as big a star as you are.”
Another version of this story is that Rudolph Valentino refused to work and Rex Ingram said he’d find an Extra and put him in his place.
Reasons for such outbursts do exist. One, from a reliable source, his Second Wife, Natacha Rambova, appeared six years after the PHOTOPLAY page, in her widely distributed The Truth About Rudolph Valentino By NATACHA RAMBOVA, HIS WIFE. In the FOURTH INSTALLMENT, Poverty-Stricken Days Prove Unhappy for Two Unknowns, in the Washington Evening Star newspaper, she explains:
“Many amusing incidents happened during the filming of this picture. I was not on the lot myself, but I heard all about them at luncheon or dinner, for Rudy continued to take most of his meals at my bungalow near the studio.
“One evening he stamped in in fury, eyes flashing, trembling with rage. Rex had insulted him! What should he do? Challenge him to a duel? In anger his thoughts always flew to a duel; his Italian ancestry cropped out with the force of a dozen Borgias: it was the only way to settle a quarrel.
“‘But, Rudy, how did Rex insult you?’ I asked when I could get in a word. At last the story came out.
“Rudy had been dressed in evening clothes for the midnight entertainment scene (he loved to wear his full dress clothes; he was so proud of them) when, just as they were about to start shooting, Rex suddenly stopped the cameras and bawled Rudy out before all the extras. He was wearing a white vest when it should’ve been a black one, or vice versa, I have forgotten. Anyway, it was not correct—Rudy the model of the well dressed man whose effects were always impeccable! Words flew.
“Rudy should know better, Rex declared, whereupon Rudy asked Rex what he knew about clothes—a trench coat was all he ever wore. More words, loud and angry. The question was finally decided by calling in Frank Elliot, an English actor, acknowledged to be the last word in gentleman’s attire. Mr Elliot, to Rudy’s delight, pronounced him perfectly turned out.
But this was not all. From that moment on Rex ignored his leading man completely. During the most important close-ups Rex sat cleaning his fingernails with a penknife. How could an artist act under such conditions? The matter called for a duel.”
In his autobiography, It Took Nine Tailors, written with M. M. Musselman and published in 1949, Adolphe Menjou gives us a little more insight, when he relates how it was that he came to work opposite Rudolph in The Sheik (1921). An opportunity which presented itself to him after Valentino had quit Metro Pictures Corp. According the Menjou, this was because:
“Rex Ingram, director of The Four Horsemen, convinced Richard Rowland, president of Metro, that Valentino was just a flash in the pan, that he was impossible to direct, and that he would never be successful in anything else. This, at least, is what Valentino told me. As a result, despite the tremendous success of The Four Horsemen, the star of the picture found himself out of a job and $4,000 in debt. It could only happen in Hollywood.”
That June Mathis was also a victim of Rex Ingram’s manoeuvrings, was put forth a few years afterwards, by Valentino Biographer Alan Arnold. Who, on Page 66 of his biography, Valentino (1954), stated:
“It was deplorable that his employers did not reward him for his fine work in terms of a much better salary. Furthermore, when he began work on a fourth film, The Conquering Power, he found that much of the original script prepared by June Mathis had changed, and he felt that this new version was inferior to the original.”
How true this is, is hard to say, without seeing the original script and any subsequent rewrites. However, it seems highly likely, when we consider that Mathis too would leave for pastures new. And that, ahead of his eventual departure for the South of France, the Metro studio was very much considered, by the industry, to be Ingram’s Private Kingdom. One likelihood, which is backed up as a theory when we view The Conquering Power (1921), is that there was initially far more of Charles Grandet, Valentino’s character, in the earlier scenario. In Balzac’s novel Eugenie Grandet is the more important of the two lovers. Yet, we see that there’s a serious effort on someone’s part to elevate Charles to the same level, and to achieve this by giving him more screen time — even placing him at the start of the story, when he’s not introduced until a later point by the Author. Which couldn’t be Rex given the antagonism between him and Rudolph. Antagonism, perhaps given life, when the Director saw that his Male Lead’s share of the motion picture was going to impact on his Female Lead’s share? And the closeups? Well, when we compare those of Rudolph Valentino’s and Alice Terry’s, there’s a definite difference. Valentino’s simply aren’t as stunning, or as lengthy, as Terry’s.
After incorrect credits – Rex Ingram would’ve been front and centre with Alice Terry placed before Rudolph Valentino in importance – the version I viewed on YouTube presents three frames of text. Text establishing who the story’s originally by; what it’s about; the dominant theme (all-conquering love); and where it’s located, in the present. (Though this will be tested at the conclusion.)
Present day France, an intertitle tells us:
As we picture her, with her
sparkling gaiety and irrepressible
spirit of youth.”
Following some surprisingly poor stock footage, of what seems to be a provincial street carnival, we launch into the story, and are introduced not to the Protagonist, but to the object of her affection: her Cousin, Charles Grandet. Who’s leading a: “… carefree life in the French capital.”
We fade in on an extraordinary scene. A Cecil-B.-DeMille-style party, crammed with beautifully-dressed celebrants, seen through almost frame-like parted, heavy drapery. The guests at the gathering are seated casually around a central indoor fountain and are obviously enjoying themselves. “Lavishly celebrating the twenty-seventh year of a pampered existence.” as the third intertitle reveals. (In the novel Charles is in his early twenties.)
Next we see Valentino, left, in full evening dress as Charles, talking to a woman, right, in a fantastic headdress. This is Annette. And he toasts her: “To Annette, the prettiest woman in Paris!” However we soon see that this prettiest woman isn’t faithful to the Banker’s Son who feels so strongly for her.
The party continues. (Though a little truncated if we’re to believe surviving stills.) An exotically dressed, half naked woman, carried into the crowded room on a massive platter, by muscular men, proceeds to dance on it. We see North African musicians. And we view Charles inviting his Birthday guests to pull on the ribbons in front of them, to see what gifts they’ll find inside of little boats and water craft, tucked into the base of the water feature. Faithless Annette receives a delicate, jewelled wristwatch. This is indeed a pampered existence!
Meanwhile, Charles’s Father, Victor Grandet, has returned home looking weary, and requested that a Servant ask his Son to come to talk with him. The Banker is then seen reading a dire telegram, that tells him that he can’t be rescued from his fatal financial situation, with an advance of the size he requires. As Rudolph Valentino apologizes to the partygoers, we finally see, in full, the white waistcoat that caused Rex Ingram to explode, during the shooting of this opening scene.
Tenderness between the stern and troubled Father and the frivolous and careless Son ensues. Showing the viewer, that that while the relationship might be fraught, there’s much love between widowed Husband and Motherless Child. (For me, this is beautifully played by Valentino, a person who lost his Father when young and had already lost his Mother by this point in time.) The Father gives his offspring his most precious possession: two gem encrusted portraits of himself and his late Wife. The parent next instructs his only child to travel to see and stay with his Uncle outside of the capital. Charles must depart the next morning for Noyant. (Saumur in Balzac’s original tale.)
The sleepy village of Noyant
basked in the sunshine of the
The action now shifts to the film’s main location, Noyant, nicely realized by Ingram’s team, headed by Ralph Barton. We see the inhabitants going about their day to day life. And then are shown the exterior of the home of the Grandets. A property, which is promisingly imposing from the outside, yet spartan and uncomfortable within. Inside we see the Father, Pere Grandet, the Mother, Madame Grandet, and a Villager. Pere Grandet is treating the Tenant poorly. (Which isn’t something that happens in the novel.)
And Eugenie? Rex makes us wait. Finally presenting Alice’s young Daughter in the garden of the home, basket over her arm, and surrounded by a hedge archway. After passing through the kitchen she’s again framed in yet another entrance way. This time the doorway to the main room on the ground floor. And this is a big close up that gives value not only to her as a character but also as the Star. Here she receives a gold coin on the occasion of her own Birthday — it seems the cousins were born just one day apart.
After affection between between Father and Daughter, which mirrors that between Father and Son, we have a light comedic moment, when the trusted family Maid, Nanon, almost drops a Birthday bottle of wine when she slips down a ladder. (The Birthday party that follows, is also a mirroring of the previous, far more extravagant and gathering.) Then the guests arrive with their gifts and alterior motives; namely: to marry the pretty Heiress. The rival factions being first The Cruchots, consisting of the Abbe, the Notary, and their rather unappealing Nephew. And second the des Grassins, Father, Mother and less slightly less unappealing Child. Both factions have brought gifts that reveal their differing personalities.
For dramatic purposes, and in contrast once more with the original material, we also see the arrival, in Noyant, of the Cousin, Rudolph’s Charles. An entrance that’s on another level entirely, in that he appears in a chauffeured vehicle, and is dressed in light, summery attire. On stepping out of the dusty auto. he’s greeted by locals and a deaf old citizen who attempts to assist him. The astonished Dandy, like a visitor from another planet, mistakenly imagines that his Cousin lives in the imposing castle, Chateau Froidfond. And absent-mindedly tips his cigarette ash into the man’s ear trumpet.
The Nephew’s Driver knocks at the Grandet’s front door and announces his Employer. And here, for the first time we have the amusing popping of the monocle, when Charles is confronted by not only his untidy and old-fashioned Uncle, but also the tatty decor of the house. After passing a letter from his Father to his Uncle, he enters this alien abode with his black French Poodle, and is introduced to those gathered. With another funny moment being his passing of his dog to the Son of Monsieur and Madame des Grassins. The introduction to Terry’s Eugenie is a significant moment. While this is all happening Pere Grandet’s reading the letter and we see that Victor Grandet has killed himself and placed his Son, Chares, in the care of his Uncle.
The preparation of Charles Grandet’s room’s faithful to that particular passage in Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet. Even to the use of a bed warmer, and over usage, in the Uncle’s eyes, of candles. (The second one is relit by his Nephew after he extinguishes it.) The lighting here, as in other sections so far, is gorgeous. And we have the second popping of the monocle; where Charles astonishes Nanon, when he allows it to fall from his eye to his breast pocket, just before he begins to undress. A trick for which Rudolph Valentino deserves some serious praise.
The next morning the terrible news of his Father’s death’s broken to the Son in the picturesque garden. Fine acting, in my opinion, from Valentino and from Terry, here, as one reacts and the other reacts to the reaction. Eugenie comforts her Cousin after her Father’s departure. And we next learn that Charles has gone to Paris. In his absence, while finding a way to secure his late Brother’s debts to his ow advantage, Pere Grandet tells the Notary and his Nephew:
“I would rather see my daughter
dead than married to Charles
Rudy’s character returns from Paris, and, we must presume, his Father’s funeral, more sober in dress and mood than when he arrived days before. The plan of his Uncle to restore honour to the family name is communicated to him, but fails to change his mood. And he retires to his room, to write letters, where he cries himself to sleep. This is faithful to Balzac’s original. And the move of Eugenie from her bedroom to his, is exactly as it happens on the novel; even down to her begging his forgiveness for reading his private correspondence, and her desire to help him to travel safely with her small hoard of gold. Gold she begs him to accept on her knees after he wakes up and sees her.
This scene is beautifully done, beautifully composed, and the exquisite lighting drew comment from contemporaries, who were mystified as to how the effect had been achieved, by John F. Seitz, the Chief Cameraman/Cinematographer. Alice Terry is saintly and almost ethereal, in a loose blonde wig, and hooded cloak. And Rudolph Valentino is equally stunning, positioned as an exhausted and worn out, grief-stricken young man, who’s cried himself to sleep. (We see the tears on his cheeks.) The luxurious, silken patterned dressing gown he wears, is as described by Honore de Balzac. And the exchange of the gold for the glittering box, that contains the portraits of the Aunt and Uncle of the selfless Niece, is also it happens in the book.
The next day, we presume, the pair have a tender scene in the garden. They view together a nest with eggs. And bill and coo. Attentions that are noticed from a window by Pere Grandet. He seethes. And is quick, before his Nephew’s leaving for a new and hard life in Martinique, to get him to sign over to him his dead Father’s estate. Something done with a certain amount of flourish by Rudy’s character, with a very smart fountain pen. As Charles readies himself to leave he notices, through her open bedroom door, his Cousin crying. He enters the room quietly and they embrace and kiss. A final kiss, so they imagine, nether knowing their eventual fates. She has placed the key to his spangled box on a chain and show it to him. Then she passes him her cross which he takes. And there’s a gradual fade out to black.
Time passes in a subtle manner. Life at the Grandet’s residence is the same but changed. At least Eugenie is changed. And we see this when Terry’s character visits the garden in Winter clothing, alone, clearly pining for her Cousin. The nest they saw together is now empty of course. We then cut to the equally lonely Valentino character, who’s writing her a letter, from a ramshackle hut thousands of miles away. The arrival of a letter from his Uncle telling him that his Cousin has been married results in a pained and bitter expression. He tears up the letter he just wrote. And we see that his hair’s roughened up. And he’s got Stubbly face. (Cue swooning.)
The change in her Father is manifested when he requests to see her gold and she tells him she no longer has it. His rage is enormous when he realizes, correctly, that she’s passed it to her Cousin. (In the novel he discovers that she’s received a box in return.) Naturally she must be punished for her betrayal and so he imprisons her in her room. A move which causes the death of his Wife, her Mother, Madame Grandet. (This almost instantaneous, quite violent death, is a long and drawn-out affair, in Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet.)
From this point Pere Grandet begins to go mad. A slowish descent that suddenly speeds up. He becomes even more obsessed by his money; yet, runs into an issue when the Notary arrives to inform him the village is gossiping about his treatment of his Daughter. Cruchot tells him he knows that she’s not his biological child, and, that she’s Heir to her late Mother’s considerable fortune. A fortune Grandet secured when he married her Mother. If, Notary Cruchot tells him, he gets her to sign a release, then she can’t divide the property in his lifetime. And this is what happens. (The idea that Eugenie isn’t the natural offspring of Pere Grandet isn’t once mentioned in the novel. So it’s a mystery as to why this was considered necessary.)
Grandet, who’s just tricked his Daughter, leaves the secret room to escort the Notary to the front door. This slip allows Eugenie to notice letters from Charles to her, when she replaces the inkwell and quill pen to the desk, and tries to move a spider from the papers collected there. On his return her Father sees her with the correspondence and angrily lunges at her. He then pushes her out of the room. And closes the door so violently, that he locks himself inside, when the safety lock falls on the other side falls into place. Neither his Daughter nor his Maid know he’s trapped there, and so can’t help him in his moment of extreme need. And while Eugenie reeds the communications that were denied her, and Nanon busies herself washing clothing in the stream, Pere Grandet expires, as a result of the exertion of trying to free himself from the room in which he’s trapped. A really remarkable and still eerie, almost Dickensian demise, that springs from either June Mathis’s, or, Rex Ingram’s imaginations. And isn’t to be found anywhere in Balzac’s original tale. In sequence the wronged Tenant, his late Brother, Victor, and his recently deceased Wife all return as apparitions to haunt him. The creepy embodiment of gold is played by the Actor who portrayed one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the earlier film.
The death of her Father leaves Eugenie Grandet a wealthy and much sought-after woman. Yet she prefers to stay true to the memory of Charles Grandet. That is, until she receives a letter back un-opened that she’s sent to him. This final humiliation makes her decide to marry one of the suitors. However, while the paperwork is being drawn up, and she takes the air in the garden, a figure emerges that she soon realizes is Charles Grandet, returned, one last time, to take a look at the garden where they enjoyed each other’s company, so many years before. When she tells him that she’s not married as he thought they have their happy ending. However, for the Notary, whose Nephew was to be married to the Heiress, it’s all too much, and he suffers a hilarious collapse, much to the amusement of rival family, the des Grassins.
Is The Conquering Power (1921) “Great art” that “belongs to the ages”? In my opinion, yes, it is. The majority of it remains a delight. There are standout performances. Though, we might wonder how much better it might’ve been, if it hadn’t been tinkered with. Certainly, even the altered version doesn’t exist to be viewed, today, online. (Is there a better one? In an archive?) And that’s a great shame. The Conquering Power I accessed is clearly a bit of a jumble. It’s also not particularly faithful to Balzac’s great story of suffering and redemption — though this didn’t seem to upset too many at the time, as far as I can see. The general consensus, in the Autumn of 1921, was that Rex Ingram had surpassed himself. And that’s quite possible for me, if that print, before the removal of certain portions by state censors, was a more fluid and flowing movie. One that had just a bit more to it. That wasn’t missing its initial intertitling and credits. And which was presented with the original score, rather than floaty flutes, which don’t suit a lot of the action. I hope that my look at it has piqued your interest. If so my time wasn’t wasted. And if you enjoy reading about Valentino, please follow this Blog, to be notified of future posts. Happy Easter!
The 100th anniversary of the release of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) next month calls for further celebration — so here’s a contemporary synopsis and analysis I discovered last year while researching the Silent Era spectacular. For those who never saw the film it’s a really great intro. And for those who did, a sweet refresher, as to the main features of this main of all main features. For anyone interested, it was located on pages 63 and 64 of the Photoplay Plot Encyclopaedia, written by Frederick Palmer, and published by his Palmer Photoplay Corp., in 1922.
“THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE.”
(Metro production; all-star cast; adapted from the novel of Vicente Blasco-Ibanzez, by June Mathis; directed by Rex Ingram.)
While in no sense a prologue, the opening scenes of the story in South America prepare the way for the tragic drama which is enacted later in Paris and on the Marne. Madariaga, the Centaur, the enormously rich old cattle herder of Argentina, lusty and lustful, whose daughters have married outside of their own nationality, is the undisputed ruler of his broad acres and army of servants. He hates his German son-in-law. Toward his younger daughter’s French husband he has an entirely different feeling. But the German is the father of three sturdy sons, while the Frenchman’s wife has only presented him with a daughter. Madariaga does not relish leaving his vast estate to Karl Von Hartrrott’s sons. When Julio Desnoyers is born, the old Argentinian is so overjoyed that he embraces Marcelo, the boy’s father. Until the hour of his death, the old Centaur lavishes all his affection upon Julio and takes him with him on wild debauches in the towns, as soon as he is old enough to accompany his grandfather.
At the old Madariaga’s death, the estate is divided and all of his family go to Europe to live, the Von Hartrott’s in Germany and the Desnoyers in Paris. Here Julio’s father sets up an expensive establishment and buys a castle on the Marne, and becomes a collector of costly antiques. Julio, true to his training by his grandfather, begins a gay life and opens a studio where he paints pictures and entertains his friends and his models.
One of his guests is Marguerite Laurier, the youthful wife of the elderly Monsieur Laurier. Julio falls desperately in love with her and Marguerite returns his passion. Her husband discovers what is going on, and drives his wife from his home. Then comes the outbreak of the war and Laurier enlists at once, but Julio still continues his painting and his gay life. The sight of Marguerite putting on the garb of a Red Cross nurse does not arouse him, but when he sees her attending a blind soldier and recognizes the man as he husband, he commences to feel the call of war. Enlisting at last, he is sent to the front.
Meantime his father, learning of the advance of the Germans toward Paris, goes to his estate on the Marne, only to be captured by German soldiers and have his castle
turned into the headquarters of the officer in command, Von Hartrott being one of the lieutenant-colonel’s staff.
Julio and his cousin meet at night in a ditch between the lines. Both have been sent on dangerous missions. They recognize each other, but the game of war must be played to the bitter end. Both fire at close range and fall dead, side by side. Marguerite determines to stay with her husband before she learns of Julio’s death, the blind man having forgiven her. Later the father and mother of Julio meet a stranger in the graveyard who leads them to their boy’s grave. “You knew him?” they ask? “I knew them all,” replies the stranger, pointing to the thousands of graves. The symbolism is unmistakable.
As compelling, sincere, beautiful, as Blasco-Ibanez’ literary classic, this screen classic stands out,—a splendid exponent of the cinematic art. It is a powerful story, powerfully delineated. The action runs the whole gamut of the human emotions from bitterest tragedy to lightest satire and most fantastic humor.
The story’s dramatic quality makes itself felt early,—in the initial situations of the plot, where the seeds of hatred and of potential conflict are sown between the two sons-in-law of Madariaga. Steadily throughout the action, this dramatic force increases its momentum until it culminates in the soul-stirring encounter of the two youths—the son of the German, and the son of the Frenchman, on the field of battle. This racial antagonism, which is developed in a sound psychological way, is what gives the story its epic impact.
The theme: the upward struggle of humanity, is vivified and made concrete through the symbolism. The four horsemen, enemies of mankind,—Pestilence, Famine, War and Death, on their gigantic chargers, trample over the trivial concerns of mortals, strewing disaster and destruction in their wake. The idealism of a suffering world is symbolized in the character of the quiet, thoughtful Russian, the philosopher who speaks of peace and brother-love. He is “the stranger” that comes forth to meet the bereaved parents, the Christ who “knew them all.”
The tremendous situation VI (“Disaster”), is, patently, the foundation of this plot. VII (“Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune” is used with great pathos when the bewildered Desnoyers is made a prisoner at his own castle. ix (“Daring Enterprise”) enters at several points in connection with the war incidents. Upon XIII (“Enmity of Kinsmen”) is based the climax. XX (“Self-sacrifice for an Ideal”) motivates the action of several of the characters. The love element brings XXII (“All Sacrificed for a Passion”) into play. The tragedy of the story is expressed through XXIII (“Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones”). The action is dramatic from beginning to end.
“The Four Horsemen” is a screen play that deserves study and re-study. The structure is not weakened but rather strengthened by the lapse of time, for it would be impossible to show the onward sweep of a world cataclysm more briefly, and, at the same time, as convincingly. The dramatic construction is good: the plot progresses logically to a logical termination. The characterizations cannot be improved upon. The characters, while typifying certain racial proclivities, are distinct individuals, with personalities of their own. Such material as the infidelity of the heroine, Marguerite, might be condemned because of censorship regulations, in a story less strong than this. Here, the sin of the young lovers is purified through suffering, and idealistic sacrifice. The boy turns bravely to face his death, the girl as bravely to face duty. The ending is tragic, and rightly so: it is an ending that grows out of the story itself. The terrible devastation is unforgettable. But there is hope and optimism too,—in the wistful, loving face of “the stranger.”
As long as the World War is remembered, it is safe to prophesy that this faithful screen version of it will endure.
And endure it has! I want to thank you for taking the time to read this intelligent 1922 synopsis and analysis of The Four Horsemen… Personally I like it very much. I hope you did too. At the time of writing I’m busy with completing my look at Rudy, Joan, Jack and Blanca, which will now be the March post. Swiftly followed by my entry for a Blogathon. There’s much to say about Valentino in 2021; and as the months pass I’ll be saying it. Do join me!
As the year 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the initial release of the Silent Era classic, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), I felt it would be a nice exercise to look into its inception and progression, and create a detailed Timeline. Something attempted only once before, I believe, by Leonard H. Gmuer.
As can be seen, the process by which this ambitious screen spectacular reached fruition, was a lengthy, yet straightforward one. And included are all the significant contributors, the many steps taken to make it possible, and, as much daily production information as was available to me.
Respected British Film Historian, Kevin Brownlow, has labelled it: “the first modern film”. And, though this might not, as he suggests in his Intro. to Gmeur’s Ingram biography, exactly be a compliment, it is a production that, despite the quality of others in 1920, stands alone. So plainly being: “… dazzling technically as it was aesthetically.” Here, then, is that Timeline:
Vicente Blasco Ibanez, prolific Spanish Author, and Creator of the novel, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, later transformed into the silent cinematic masterpiece, is born, in Valencia, Valencia Province, Spain, on January the 29th.
June Mathis, Stage Actress, turned Scenarist, turned early, pioneering, female Film Executive, who will be the Scenario Writer of the first true screen adaptation, is born, June Beulah Hughes, in Leadville, Colorado, USA, on June the 30th.
Rex Ingram, Silent Era film Actor, turned Story Writer, turned pioneering Silent Era film Director, who will direct and supervise the first true screen adaptation, is born, Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock, in Dublin, Ireland, on January the 15th.
Rudolph Valentino, Exhibition Dancer, turned Silent Era Film Actor, turned International Screen Heart-Throb, who will portray Julio Desnoyers, in the first true screen adaptation, is born, Rodulphus Petrus Philibertus Raphael Guglielmi, in Castellaneta, Puglia, Italy, on May the 6th.
Alice Terry, Silent Era Film Actress, and future Wife of Rex Ingram, who will portray Marguerite Laurier in the first true screen adaptation, is born, Alice Frances Taaffe, in Vincennes, Indiana, USA, on July the 24th.
Ibanez travels to South America, to lecture for a few months, but remains several years. While there, he plans a series of fifteen novels about all the individual nations, including Argentina. (Only one, Los Argonautas, was published.) During the half decade he spends some time living as a Cowboy. Establishes a small town, Cervantes, in Patagonia. And enjoys several experiences he will later use when writing The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
On the 2nd of July, ambitious, eighteen-year-old Irishman,Mr. Reginald I. M. Hitchcock, later Rex Ingram, an Artist, arrives in the U. S. A., as an ordinary passenger, on board the RMS Celtic. He will work that year at a freight yard, then, in 1912, study for a period at Yale. In 1913 and 1914 he will commence his acting career, shifting from Vitagraph to Edison, and then back to Vitagraph.
On the 23rd of December, aspirational, eighteen-year-old Italian,Signor Rodolfo Guglielmi, later Rudolph Valentino, masquerading as a Marchese, arrives in the U. S. A., as a First Class passenger, on board the S. S. Cleveland. He will quickly spend all his money, struggle for sixth months, then, secure a position as a Dancer For Hire, at Cafe Maxim, in New York. Working all of 1915 and half of 1916 as an Exhibition Dancer.
World War One commences, on the 28th, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia; following the assassination, the previous month, of its Imperial Heir, by a Serbian at Sarajevo.
By the 4th, the declaration has led, one by one, to the involvement of Russia, Germany, France and Britain. (With Italy initially remaining neutral. And the Ottoman Empire joining in October.)
From the 6th to the 12th, Germany, on the one side, and France and Britain on the other, fight the First Battle of the Marne, to the East of Paris. This important early conflict will feature in the yet-to-be-written The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Ibanez will later lecture in North America about the writing of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. How, thanks to his friendship with the French President, he was allowed to visit the trenches at the front, with the General commanding the Fifth Army. And how he was the first civilian to visit where the battle he was to write about occurred.
According to a later interview (with a Reporter for THE RICHMOND PALLADIUM, printed on Thursday, October 30th, 1919), Ibanez first thinks of writing The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in this month.
Vicente Blasco Ibanez spends the entire year formulating the planned novel in his head.
Metro Pictures Corporation, the organisation that will eventually produce and distribute the silent film version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is founded, by: Richard A. Rowland, George A. Grumbacher, James B. Clarke, Joseph W. Engel, Louis B. Mayer, Otto N. Davies and James A. Fitzgerald.
By the Spring of 1915, 23-year-old Rex Ingram, previously an Actor (as Rex Hitchcock), and more recently a Photo Play Writer, has begun to assist established Fox Film Corporation Director, J. Gordon Edwards. (In the Autumn he will be employed as a Director (with his own Assistant) by World Film Corporation.)
By late 1915, June Mathis, former Actress, has begun working as a Scenarist for Metro Pictures Corp. in New York, under Department Head, Arthur James. (Mathis will, with each passing year, become more and more important and influential. Eventually becoming the Scenario Department Head herself.)
According to a later interview (with a Reporter for THE RICHMOND PALLADIUM, printed on Thursday, October 30th, 1919), it will take Ibanez just four months to complete The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (Apparently writing 18 hours a day.)
In the Summer, 21-year-old Rudolph Valentino, still Rodolfo Guglielmi, gets his first taste of film-making, when, in return for a few dollars a day, he works as an Extra, in The Quest of Life (1916). He will repeat the experience three further times this year, in Seventeen (1916), The Foolish Virgin (1916), and Patria (1917).
Debout les Morts!
At some point late in the year, a short film based on Ibanez’s recently completed work is issued in France, with the title: Debout les Morts! (Which translates, approximately, as Standing Dead.)
In the June 23rd edition of MOVING PICTURE WORLD, Arthur W. Courtney reviews The Blood of the Arena (1917), a Spanish film (by Cosmos-Kinema), that interprets, for the screen, Ibanez’s same titled 1908 novel.
P. Malaver and J. Sobrado de Onega, the creators, have some success with it in Mexico. And it perhaps indicates, to anyone paying attention, that the Author’s work has cinematic potential. (The Blood of the Arena will be re-interpreted by June Mathis, for Famous Players-Lasky, in five years, with Rudolph Valentino starring as the Toreador Juan Gallardo.)
In the Autumn, Alice Terry, currently known as Alice Taffe, works, in return for a few dollars a day, as an Extra, in Alimony (1917). And, according to legend, encounters Rodolfo Guglielmi, who is also an Extra. By 1919 she will emerge as a player of small parts — for example, in Wally Reid’s The Love Burglar (1919).
It is announced, that E. P. Dutton & Co., publishers, are preparing the publication, in America, of an English translation of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a new work by Ibanez. (The novel has already been released in Europe – Spain, Italy, France, etc. – the previous Summer.)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is published in the United States and unleashed on the public. The authorised translation is by a woman named Charlotte Brewster Jordan. And the novel is priced at $1.90 (which is equivalent to $32.70 in 2020/2021.)
Reviews of the late August U. S. publication of the Book of Revelation inspired novel are universally laudatory. In the BOOKS AND THE BOOK WORLD section, of The Sun on Sunday, on September 1st, 1918, a full page review is headed: “‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ Is a Work of Genius From the Hands of the Greatest Iberian Novelist.”
By the close of the year The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a history-making Best Seller. With the first edition triumphing, despite its lengthy title, North Americans not knowing the Author, the price, the phrasing and the number of pages. According to The Sun on Sunday, on December 29th, 1918, over 70,000 copies had so far been sold.
After issuing an English translation of his new novel, The Shadow of the Cathedral, Ibanez’s American publishers re-publishThe Blood of the Arena as Blood and Sand, and prepare Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) and La Bodega (The Saloon) for publication. As a consequence his standing in the country improves further still.
It is reported that Joe Weber is negotiating with E. P. Dutton & Co., Ibanez’s U. S. publisher, with the hope of securing the dramatic rights to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (These talks come to nothing.)
NOTE: it is later revealed, in Motion Picture News, that multiple negotiations had been occurring.
Such is Ibanez’s notoriety, that a Reviewer of La Bodega, in The Sun on Sunday, states: “We used to think Spain was Carmen. This was wrong. It is—now, at any rate—Vicente Blasco Ibanez.” Further:
“Colossol and sinister shapes shadow the pages of his novels. The air is hallucinated. Unlikely persons talk with passionate vision of social utopias. …. It is, nearly always, transcendent art. The novelist paints what he sees; no man could do more and none should do less.”
It is reported Vicente Blasco Ibanez will travel to the States to lecture at Columbia University.
In an interview, conducted with a Journalist in France, Ibanez reveals his plans to write a novel about the U. S. A. Also, that the themes of his lectures, during his tour, will be: how he came to write The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; how Europe regards the United States; and how to write a novel.
Late in the month, on the 27th, according to a report on the following day, Vicente Blasco Ibanez arrives in the country.
On Friday, October 31st, Ibanez visits the New York offices of the Fox Film Corporation, and views there a copy of Evangeline (1919), directed by Raoul Walsh. (Any negotiations entered into with William Fox are ultimately unsuccessful.)
In the evening, on Monday the 3rd, Senor Blasco Ibanez makes his first public appearance in the States, when he lectures in the auditorium of the Horace Mann School, at Broadway and 120th Street, New York. The theme is Spain’s role in World progress. According to a report in THE EVENING WORLD, the following day, he informed his audience that his books were the product of Spain. Also saying: “… that the future of the world lies in the Americas, where the sons of Spain and England will be supreme.”
On the 5th, it is reported that Ibanez dismisses both the typewriter and dictation, as useful when writing a novel.
On the 7th, VARIETY reviews Clara Kimball Young’s comeback vehicle, Eyes of Youth (1919). Though he fails to be listed as a cast member, and is overshadowed by Gareth Hughes, Rudolph Valentino’s performance will convince June Mathis of his suitability to portray key Horsemen character, Julio Desnoyers.
On the 9th, an interview in The Sun on Sunday, Vicente Blasco Ibanez throws light on the German characters in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Revealing how, before WW1, many Spanish-speaking Germans had made a life for themselves in Argentina; learning Spanish in the Fatherland, in preparation for their move to South America.
During the afternoon of Monday the 10th, Senor Blasco Ibanez makes his second public appearance, when he speaks about The Spirit of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, at Aeolian Hall, in New York. This second talk, to a mainly Spanish-speaking audience, is reported about, as follows, in the NEW YORK TRIBUNE, on Tuesday, November 11th, 1919:
“He spoke of the early days of the war in Paris, when it seemed as if the world was about to pass away: the deserted boulevards; the closed shops. He felt as if he were in Pompeii, or some other city of the dead, he asserted. Then he went to the battlefield of the Marne. It was there that he had the vision of his four horsemen, and many of the characters of the book he subsequently wrote were drawn from life.” (From Page Three.)
NOTE: in an interview, printed on December 3rd, the Writer reveals that Marcelo Desnoyers (the Father of Julio) is based on someone he had known in Argentina.
On the 16th, an interview conducted with a Spanish-speaking Journalist is published, in which Senor Ibanez reveals that Blood and Sand will be transformed into a play, and that the stage and film star, Lionel Barrymore, will probably portray Gallardo in a filmed version. He also explains to the Reporter that a number of (un-named) film concerns are already interested in adapting his works. That he is currently negotiating with them. That if the screen versions of his novels are a success, he will return, annually, with cinema-ready projects. And that his next work is about a Spanish woman who travels to the United States to go into Motion Pictures.
On the 17th it is announced that Metro Pictures Corp. has secured the rights to the novel. (Showing that Ibanez was keeping very quiet about it on the 15th.) The conclusion of the negotiations allows the company to adapt The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for the screen in the U. S. A., and, to distribute it nationally and internationally. Metro Pictures has also optioned: Mare Nostrum, Blood and Sand, and La Bodega.
In their 29th of the month issue, Motion Picture News reports, that pressure from hundreds of American exhibitors, for a picturization of Ibanez’s novel, forced the company’s hand.
At the start of the month of December 1919, June Mathis arrives in New York, for a month-long working vacation. Her plan, is to rendezvous with Vicente Blasco Ibanez somewhere – Chicago or Cleveland – convenient to him, as he’s embarked on his lecture tour.
Maxwell Karger, the Metro Pictures Director-General, announces that The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will be a Screen Classics production. (In other words: no expense will be spared.)
In their 27th of the month issue EXHIBITORS HERALD announce that Karger has begun to make “selections for the cast”.
So popular has The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse book been with Americans, during the past twelve months, that it is now, according toTHE NEW YORK CLIPPER, in its 125th edition.
On January the 2nd, VARIETY reveals that Marcus Loew, of Loew’s, Inc., is imminently about to purchase, outright, Metro Pictures Corp. The deal is publicly stated as being the result of a fallout between the Director-General, Maxwell Karger, and the Treasurer, Joseph (W.) Engel. The rumours will prove true. And have far-reaching consequences for all those involved in the creation of The Four Horsemen…
On January the 3rd, it’s reported, in Camera!, that Mathis has just arrived back in Los Angeles, after having met with Ibanez in Chicago, very late in December, while on her way West. Following a bad start – her lack of Spanish or French disappointed him – they had warmed to one another. And, during their 90 minutes together, reached an understanding about the way forward. June explaining she had read the novel and made a mental outline; so there was, as yet, no anticipated script. Vicente making some “wonderfully inspirational suggestions” and demonstrating his “knowledge of the making of motion pictures”. Miss Mathis listening to Senor Blasco Ibanez speak of Argentina and the pre-War Paris Tango Craze. Ibanez also telling her, through his interpreter, that he knew of her having “picturized” Out of the Fog (1919) and To Hell With the Kaiser (1918), and that he could see them collaborating on other novels. And that he would see her in California later in the month. (It would be February before they saw one another.)
NOTE: Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s unknown “suggestions” are noteworthy. And his stressing of the Tango Craze suggests he and he alone originated the idea of a dance sequence.
On January the 10th, in the first of several contradictory announcements, it’s reported that the company Director-General, Maxwell Karger, will depart from L. A. on the 19th, and travel to New York, where he will commence preparations for the filming there of The Four Horsemen… (after a six week break in Florida). Accompanying him will be George McGuire, M. P. Staulcup and June Mathis.
NOTE: the flurry of announcements this month regarding Karger, hint strongly, between the lines, at serious issues between the top executives at Metro Pictures Corp. Issues previously confirmed.
Marcus Loewofficially acquires Metro
On January the 12th, Marcus Loew, of Loew’s, Inc., signs an agreement to purchase Metro Pictures Corp. Snapping-up the financially troubled company outright. And promising to be the international distributor of 25 motion pictures annually.
NOTE: this takeover, and the ensuing cash injection, is what makes the creation of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) a possibility.
On January the 20th it’s announced that Maxwell Karger will head East with Marcus Loew and Richard A. Rowland in order to prepare the shooting of the film there.
On January the 22nd, on his way to Los Angeles, Vicente Blasco Ibanez lectures (on the Spirit of the Four Horsemen) at the University of Arizona at Tucson. As the Author speaks no English, as before, his words are first spoken by an Interpreter.
On January the 31st, (THE) MOVING PICTURE WORLD, reveals that the new Owner of Metro Pictures Corp., Marcus Loew, of Loew’s Inc., is heading West with Richard A. Rowland and Joseph W. Engel, to confer there, with William E. Atkinson and Maxwell Karger. It is then expected, as previously stated elsewhere, that Karger will head East to prepare the supervision of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which it’s planned will be shot on the Atlantic Coast.
On February the 7th, Motion Picture News, reports that Senor Ibanez is expected within days at the Metro Pictures Corp. studio, in Hollywood, to look over the work, thus far, of Miss Mathis. At about the same time, Richard A. Rowland will be present, due to the absence of Max Karger, who was not yet returned to the West Coast. The trade publication states that production would commence that month — which it didn’t.
NOTE: Karger did return West before again heading East.
At some point soon after his arrival, Vicente Blasco Ibanez is filmed in a short scene on a set recently used for The Cheater (1920), for a pre-release promotional trailer, for the eventual The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse film. Alongside VBI in the short promo., are: Mathis, Karger, Rowland, Loew and Viola Dana (good friend of Valentino). Source: (THE) MOVING PICTURE WORLD.
NOTE: the survival status of this promo is unknown and it’s presumed lost.
In their February 21st edition EXHIBITORS HERALD reveals that the recent illness of Ibanez has slowed script progress.
In the February 28th edition of (THE) MOVING PICTURE WORLD, a whole page (1447), is devoted to the news that Metro Pictures Corp. has serious expansion plans. (Metro to Build Big Studios in East; To Get More Stars and Scenarists.)
The February 28th issue of Motion Picture News indicates that The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was originally projected to be completed and released by May 1920. (This was clearly not just wishful thinking, but also, poor projection on someone’s part.)
NOTE: the same edition states that the motion picture will be filmed on the East Coast.
Late in the month, it’s announced that Scenario Department Head, June Mathis, has completed the script for the filming of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (This is the first draft.) Vicente Blasco Ibanez having personally assisted her while in California.
NOTE: what this first draft looked like and contained is unknown. Certainly the scenario altered a great deal as the months passed.
On the heels of the (THE) MOVING PICTURE WORLD piece, Marcus Loew, the new Owner of Metro Pictures Corp., trumpets his intentions in an announcement that’s widely reported in the trade press. He will invest $15,000,000 in the company. , $2,000,000 of which, will be spent on a new production facility, at Long Island.
NOTE: the death knell is sounded at the studio, for Mathis (and also Nazimova), when he states, that due to the rising cost of plays and books, original material will, in the future, be created by Bayard Veiller.
Following a summons, Rudolph Valentino arrives in New York, ready to answer questions about his detention in September 1916; and, to discuss his suing (in 1917) of the publications that reported it. No doubt aware of the filming of Ibanez on The Cheater (1920) set, and the fact that the production is moving along swiftly and no Male Lead has yet been cast, while there, he approaches Maxwell Karger, who had been present at his wedding to Jean Acker, in early November 1919.
NOTE: according to Liam O’Leary, Ingram’s original Biographer, the project was briefly shelved.
Rod La Rocque, Antonio Moreno, Francis McDonald and Carlyle Blackwell.The men that Valentino beat to the part of Desnoyers. See below:
While at a loose end Valentino secures roles in two productions. The Thug, later retitled The Wonderful Chance (1920). And Stolen Moments (1920). These will be his final pre-fame films.
At the start of the month June Mathis arrives in New York to discuss her script and the production at the Metro Pictures Corp. offices. Her return to the city is expected to be a lengthy one. “It’s like being home again!” she’s reported as having said. Just an hour after her return she’s at work at her desk. (Source: (THE) MOVING PICTURE WORLD 05/06/20.)
NOTE: it’s during this two week stay that she meets with Rudolph Valentino and offers him the role of Julio Desnoyers. His salary is initially fixed at $100 per week, but, will climb during the shoot to $350 per week. (Source: REX INGRAM Master of the Silent Cinema, Liam O’Leary, The Academy Press (1980.)
On June the 10th, it is revealed that The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is to be shot on the West Coast, rather than the East. (Source: Wid’s DAILY, 10/06/20.)
On June the 16th Mathis departs New York and heads West to oversee the filming of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Karger remains firmly in the East.
NOTE: we don’t know when Rudolph Valentino eventually followed her; but it would’ve been by late June/early July at the very latest.
Research has revealed that June Mathis employed what was termed: the shooting on paper method. In essence, planning with her team, far in advance, how the picture would be shot. And while this was not her invention, she was certainly a pioneer of the technique; which required: technical knowledge, clear thinking, the power of visualization, and a rounded conception of the film prior to camera work. (Source: A HISTORY OF THE MOVIES, by Benjamin B. Hampton, Covici Friede 1931.)
Filming finally commences towards the end of the month. (The 20th.) It will be a four month/16 week long shoot. July to August to September to October to November 1920.
On July the 4th it’s reported that the commencement of filming is imminent. It has already been decided that it will be: “… a Rex Ingram production.” Production and story issues are acknowledged. Mathis will be advising Ingram. And the casting is almost complete. Thus far some of those cast are: Maurice Costello, Stuart Holmes, Alice Terry, Frank Losee, Rudolfo Valentino, Brindsley Shaw and Nigel de Brullier.
NOTE: Costello and Losee didn’t remain part of the large cast.
The Director is quoted as having said: “… if you make your human angle interesting it doesn’t matter where or when you lay the scenes of your story.” The Scenarist is quoted as having said: “… incidents, both dramatic and along comedy lines, growing naturally out of situations, are to be created…”
On July the 5th, the Los Angeles EVENING HERALD reveals that John B. Seitz [sic] will be in “command” of ten camera men and their cameras during the duration of the shoot.
NOTE: Seitz’s middle initial was F. And it would actually be 14 cameras.
On July the 7th, Wid’s DAILY announces that Alice Terry has been selected as the Female Lead, Marguerite Laurier. (Valentino is mentioned but not his part.)
On July the 10th The Four Horsemen… is projected to be completed and ready to screen by October. (More wishful thinking.) (Source: (THE) MOVING PICTURE WORLD.)
Also on July 10th, in the same trade publication, June is quoted extensively. She praises Rex, calling him “one of the greatest directors”; reveals that her adaptation is faithful; that Julio will be a “society tango dancer”; and the most important scenes are to be: “…those depicting the Battle of the Marne.”
Also on July the 10th, JuneMathis is likewise quoted in Motion Picture News, in a piece that’s a part of a six page look at Metro Pictures Corp. and the near future for the company. She reveals that Maxwell Karger was originally meant to be in charge in New York but already has several productions underway. And that it was he that hired Rex Ingram (undoubtedly as a result of her pressing him to do so).
NOTE: the July announcement that Bayard Veiller is to be made Metro’s Western Chief of Production, and in charge of supervising “all literary material considered for screen translation”, will’ve been a body blow for June Mathis. She will eventually exit as a result.
On July the 17th it’s reported that Pomeroy Cannon has been signed to play Madariaga.
Also, on July the 17th, Motion Picture News reveals that Rex Ingram is completing filming of Hearts Are Trumps (1920), with “eighteen cast members”, at the old San Juan Mission at San Juan Capistrano, California.
NOTE: it appears, that Ingram went straight from directing Hearts Are Trumps (1920), to directing The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).
On July the 19th it’s revealed that 10,000 sheep at a Bakersfield ranch will be utilised for an outdoor Argentine scene.
On July the 24th, it’s reported that the experienced C. S. Widom, formerly at Goldwyn Pictures Corp., has been employed as special Costumier for the film.
On July the 27th, Wid’s DAILY reports the fact that Rudolph Valentino has been cast as the Male Lead, Julio Desnoyers.
On August the 1st, it’s reported that Great War Veteran, Captain Robert de Couedic, of the Blue Devils, a recipient of the Croix de Guerre, has been engaged by Rex Ingram to: “… drill the French battalions that will participate in ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.'” The article suggests that Ingram, formerly of the Royal Flying Corps, may direct by flying over the giant set in a plane. (The engagement of Couedic was previously reported, in July, in the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD.)
NOTE: this report, doesn’t mention the fact, that the German extras were trained by a German army Veteran, Curt Rehfeld. (Source: REX INGRAM Master of the Silent Cinema, by Liam O’Leary, The Academy Press (1980)). This was something that Paul Ivano, good friend of Rudolph Valentino, pointed out in his interview for the Thames Television series Hollywood (1980). Ivano was himself drafted-in (on Valentino’s recommendation) to advise those constructing the French village.
On August the 7th it’s announced that Walter Mayo has been secured to be the Art Director. (Source: EXHIBITORS HERALD, 07/08/20.)
On August the 14th Motion Picture News announces that production is: “… going forward without delays.”
By mid. August the interior scenes in Argentina are almost complete. And part of the crew and cast are at Bakersfield shooting exterior scenes. While construction continues on the Desnoyers’ chateau, and nearby small village (created to be destroyed), the art studio scene will be shot. By this point “A miniature army of carpenters has been working in double shifts for weeks…” to prepare the castle and the habitation. (Source: the STOCKTON, DAILY INDEPENDENT, 18/08/20.)
That accuracy is of the utmost importance, is underscored by a report that Rex Ingram, June Mathis and their military advisors, are consulting actual French war communications and a battle map.
On August the 21st, (THE) MOTION PICTURE NEWS reports, under the heading Strong Cast for Ibanez Film, on how Rudolph Valentino has been “summoned from New York”, to portray key character Julio Desnoyers. As follows:
“Rudolph Valentino has been summoned from New York, to play the part of the hero, Julio Desnoyers, who develops into a tango king in Paris in the dance frenzy that preceded the opening of the war in 1914. Mr. Valentino was selected from Miss Mathis’s recollection of his playing with Marjorie Rambeau [sic] in ‘The Eyes of Youth’ [sic]; he realized her ideal of the youthful Julio—a poetic, dreamy type of twenty-three years.”
NOTE 1: this is seemingly the first mention of the fact that Mathis recalled his brief appearance, as Clarence Morgan, opposite Clara Kimball Young in Eyes of Youth (1919), and that because of this he was selected, as he “realized her ideal”. It definitely precedes any reports about Ingram’s control of casting. And, his own claims (such as the one in Behind the Screen (1923)), that it was he that was responsible for his inclusion. (Though obviously Rex had seen Rudy around over the years and remembered him.)
NOTE 2: Valentino will prove himself to be: “a hard-working conscientious actor.” From: REX INGRAM Master of the Silent Cinema, by Liam O’Leary, The Academy Press (1980).
It is later reported, that for the scene set in a port cafe/dive bar, shot at some point in August 1920, 500 men were gathered from San Francisco and Lower California to add colour and atmosphere. Few were willing to discuss their pasts. And Mathis apparently dubbed the studio: “The Port of Missing Men.”
On August the 28th, Carroll H. Dunning, V. P. of Prizma, Inc., makes a public pitch to Metro Pictures Corp. in the pages of Motion Picture News, for the inclusion of a colour sequence/sequences in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Specifically the apocalyptic four horsemen scene.
NOTE: they were successful in their overture.
Also on August the 28th, Motion Picture News reports, that all of the exterior Argentine work is completed and that interiors, “which require almost all members of the cast.” are next to be captured.
Some time in late August, dailies/rushes are screened of the impressive dance scene, in the Argentine cafe/dive bar. A taste of this scene, which isn’t in the original novel, is then sent to the Author, Ibanez, for approval. (Source: (THE) MOVING PICTURE WORLD.)
On the subject of the cafe/dive bar scene Rex Ingram a little later said the following:
“Of course it was obvious that he was the exact type for the young tango-hero of the story. Even after I started with him, though, I had no idea how far he would go — not at the very first. But, when he came to rehearsing the tango, Rudy did so well that I made up my mind to expand this phase of the story.”
On September 11th, while shooting continues, the film, as would be anticipated in line with industry norms, is announced as being a Fall release. This was obviously not to be.
In the same edition the following appears:
“Rudolph Valentino is a familiar figure to the early rising residents of Hollywood, California. Not that Mr. Valentino arrives home when others are preparing to greet the rising sun. But the handsome Metro player, who is enacting the leading role in the colossal picturization of ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, by Vicente Blasco Ibanez[,] goes for a horseback ride every morning before starting work.
“Mr. Valentino, who is an expert horseman, has a handsome mount which he will use for many scenes of this sensational Ibanez story. He has been rising at five o’clock each morning to beat the rising thermometer.”
NOTE: by this point in the filming of The Four Horsemen…, it’s been realised, for some time, how amazing the cafe/bar scene is, and, Valentino’s performance in it. And from August/September he begins to be built up as a Star.
On September the 18th, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is listed with other releases, as due to be issued on October 1st, 1920. (This is not to be.)
On September the 25th, the Battle of the Marne scenes are yet to be shot, according to the issue of (THE) MOTION PICTURE NEWS published on that day.
In the same issue it’s reported that Alice Terry has worked almost every day in front of the cameras. Her few days off have been spent with: “… her tailor or her dancing instructor.”
Also in the same issue, it’s revealed that Vicente Blasco Ibanez is pleased with the still shots and footage, sent to him for approval. The material in question is of a diseased Argentine port and the interior of a cabaret. The piece suggests there was originally more to the segment. And that the dance between Julio and his partner ended in a kiss which lasted for 75 feet of film.
NOTE: in Rex Ingram: Hollywood’s Rebel of the Silver Screen, by Leonhard H. Gmuer, epubli (2013), there’s a story of the kiss, between Rudolph Valentino and Beatrice Dominguez. As follows:
“Rudolph Valentino, playing in Metro’s production of ‘The Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, [sic] was told by Director Rex Ingram to kiss the Castilian beauty until he said halt. Valentino started in and kept it up while the cameraman turned 75 feet. When it was over Valentino said: ‘Now don’t you think we ought to rehearse it and get it a little more nearly perfect?’ [To which] Rex Ingram said: ‘You’re excused.'” (Source: Ray Davidson, Little Trips to Los Angeles Studios, The New York Dramatic Mirror, August 14th, 1920.)
Early in the month, the November issue of MOTION PICTURE CLASSIC hits newsstands, and inside, Rudolph Valentino is the subject of a lavishly illustrated two and a bit pages. (Pages 18, 19 and 75.) Titled, Enter Julio!, with photographs by Shirley Blanc of L. A., the C. Blythe Sherwood profile/interview, is a light-hearted, yet informative look at the Hero of the yet-to-be completed The Four Horsemen…
On October the 9th, it’s reported that Wallace/Wally Beery has been added to the cast, and that he will portray Lieut.-Col. Von Richtofen. (Source: Motion Picture News.)
On October the 16th Motion Picture News announces that Rex Ingram has concluded filming of The Four Horsemen… This seems unlikely considering other reports. (See above and below.)
Curiously, the same issue reveals, that a “portable power plant” is to be used for night-time shooting in about three weeks.
The week beginning Monday, October the 25th, the Battle of the Marne scenes are shot in the Hollywood Foothills. (Source: (THE) MOVING PICTURE WORLD, 30/10/20.)
In a report, by GIEBLER, the following month, in MOVING PICTURE WORLD, the filming of the German invasion of the French village is described. The Director had organised a switchboard with lines running to 100 points. And from it, Ingram could request the collapse of a roof, the falling of the church steeple, or the explosion of a shop front with ease. A siren being used to call a halt to the firing, from a nearby battery, so that the smoke could clear, ready for further destruction.
Preparations for the four horsemen sequence are reported on in Motion Picture News. As mentioned, previously, by June Mathis, the inspiration is a rare Albrecht Durer etching. This rarity has been supplied, by Arthur Denison, a Collector.
At the close of October, Alice Terry manages to finally secure a short break, and travels to Big Bear Valley for a few days. (Five according to EXHIBITORS HERALD.)
Late in the month Marcus Loew witnesses some important scenes being shot during his stay in the West. (Source: Motion Picture News, 06/11/20.)
According to the same edition, by this point (the end of October/start of November), Rex Ingram has been directing the Battle of the Marne scenes for a fortnight.
NOTE: according to MOVING PICTURE WORLD, in their issue on the 30th, Ingram himself expected to take just one week to film the battle scenes. With 5,000 people correctly dressed. And with all of the necessary equipment.
On November the 13th, it’s announced that Metro are planning to work with Composer Louis [F.] Gottschalk. (Source: EXHIBITORS HERALD.)
On November the 15th The Los Angeles Times reveals that filming of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has finally concluded. And that all that remains is for the allegorical scene to be shot.
On November the 20th, more details emerge about the collaboration between Metro and Louis Ferdinand Gottschalk, the Great Nephew of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Gottschalk, already experienced at creating music for films (with D. W. Griffith and others), will compose totally original music, to accompany the action from start to finish.
It’s likely that well before the end of the month of November cutting (or editing) has begun. If the cafe/dive bar scene was viewed as early as August, no doubt this was an ongoing process; and, for speed, selections were made as the shooting rolled along.
The 14 individual cameras, shooting from varied angles, sometimes all at the same time, have captured approximately 500,000 feet of film; an amount which would obviously take a long time to view. 18 or so days, it’s estimated, or 2/3rds of a whole month, at the rate of 8 hours per day
At the start of the month, Metro Pictures Corp. reveal, in a press statement, some interesting facts about the production. As follows:
Rex Ingram is reported as having stated, that producing The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the West Coast, has meant that it cost half what it would, had it been produced on the East Coast. An announcement which was expected to encourage producers to remain in California. (Source: the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD, 20/12/20.)
NOTE: Ingram doesn’t appear to credit Mathis and her shooting on paper method with helping to keep costs lower than they may’ve been. ($800,000.)
On December the 22nd a film poster design competition is announced. The first prize is $500. And the closing date is January the 15th, 1921.
In their December 25th edition EXHIBITORS HERALD profiles 27-year-old Rex Ingram. The tone he strikes is a modest one. And he alludes to seeking one day to give up directing to be a Sculptor.
On December the 31st a large advert. appears in VARIETY that puts Ingram front and centre. (See above.)
For the entire month the film has been in the hands of the cutters and editors. Exactly when cutting commenced is unknown. Likewise when it concluded. Yet commence and conclude it did.
Across the United States and the World publicity begins to appear for what will be promoted as A Million-Dollar Screen Production. Meanwhile cutting continues.
NOTE: the Editor, Grant Whytock, will produce three negatives; from which the prints will be created.
At some point, either late in December, or, at the start of the month, June Mathis and Bayard Veiller “clash” at the West Coast studio. A clash that’s been brewing since his instalment as Western Chief of Production the previous year. (Source: VARIETY.)
On January the 12th, Mathis and Ingram depart for New York, with “the first completed print” of the film. (They will spend approximately six weeks in the city.)
On January the 16th Wid’s DAILY devotes it’s front page to The Four Horsemen… and to Ibanez. Stating the novel has so far sold about one and a half million copies in the USA. And that an estimated four and a half million citizens have read it.
Rudolph Valentino is featured with Alice Terry,and what appears to be Virgina Warwick, in an advert. for Victrola, in PICTURE-PLAY MAGAZINE. (See above.) Charles Carter’s text makes much of his dancing in the film and provides a thumb nail sketch of his life up to that point.
On January the 29th Camera! reports that The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is expected to be ready by February.
On February the 5th it’s revealed that The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will be presented at the Astor Theatre from February the 20th. This doesn’t happen. (Source: Motion Picture News.)
The same report details how a print is being sent to Vicente Blasco Ibanez, in Southern France, via London; where it will first be viewed by Metro’s British Distributor, Sir William Jury, of Jury Imperial Pictures.
On Monday, February the 7th, it’s reported that there will be a private screening of the film, at the Ritz Carlton hotel in New York, on Thursday, February the 10th. This preview is to present it to the East Coast executives and to detect any issues that require fixing. (The presentation is staged by Hugo Riesenfeld.)
On February the 17th, it’s announced in Wid’s DAILY, that The Four Horsemen… will begin an indefinite run at the Lyric Theater, on March 7th, 1920.
“Ingram’s ‘Four Horsemen’ A Pictorial Triumph“
On February the 20th Wid’s DAILY reviews the film. On the whole the review is favourable, with just a couple of intelligent criticisms. About the dance scene the Reviewer says the following:
“… the tango dance in the slums of Buenos Aires; possibly the best dance ever put in pictures…”
The New York Premiereand the L. A. premiere
On Friday, March the 4th, Wid’s DAILY reports that the opening of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has been brought forward, to Sunday, March the 6th, 1921. And that the top priced tickets for the premiere are $10 each. ($145.00 or so in 2020/2021.)
On Sunday March the 6th, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse premieres at the Lyric Theater, New York. According to VARIETY, on the 11th, “the house was jammed.” (Once more the presentation is managed by Hugo Riesenfeld, who, according to VARIETY, clothes it: “… with artistic musical and vocal features.”)
NOTE 1: it would seem that compositions created under contract by Louis F. Gottschalk were framed/arranged by Riesenfeld. (Oddly Gottschalk’s name isn’t mentioned.)
NOTE 2: June Mathis cables Rudolph Valentino to tell him of the success of the film on the East Coast. (Source: Natacha Rambova.)
$4,500 – $65,000 currently – is taken on both the Monday and the Tuesday. And $10,000 – $145,000 currently – in advance bookings on the Wednesday.
On March the 7th and 8th, the first proper screenings, approximately 1,500 people are turned away on both days, as the theatre fills to capacity.
However, on March the 7th, an anonymous Reviewer, writing for the New York Tribune, is matter-of-fact. The “long heralded film” was more or less literally translated and lacked the smoothness of the magic story-telling in the original. The best moments, while worthwhile, were isolated and sporadic. And it was the Beast and the quartet of horsemen that were the “outstanding feature”. The musical accompaniment heightening their effectiveness. Further:
“It is a spectacle first and foremost. The human interest is secondary.”
On the same day, in the THE NEW YORK HERALD, another unknown Writer present is more laudatory. For them the money spent had delivered a: “… memorably successful picture.” With: “… the shimmer of actual life …. and the pulse of battle…” The attention to detail was noted. And the audience reaction – regular applause – recorded. The Reviewer particularly enjoyed Valentino’s portrayal of Julio. (Finding him a natural and forceful actor who looked Argentinian.) And felt the direction of the many cast members by Ingram to be masterful. Further:
“Though somewhat protracted toward the end, it meets the threefold demands on a picture—dramatically, scenically and pictorially—keeping the emotions strung up until the final rush from the theatre.”
On Wednesday, March the 9th, at 8:30 p. m., The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) has its West Coast premiere, at the Mission Theater, at Broadway, Los Angeles. For the entire day the medium-sized venue is closed, to prepare for what would be termed, a “gala performance”, by the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD on March the 8th.
As well as “the 32 principals appearing in the picture”, the gala performance is attended by “stars, directors and officials of the film industry”, and members of the general public. Rudolph Valentino is accompanied by Natacha Rambova who later recalled the following:
“When that evening came, every star in the Hollywood firmament gathered at the theater, an impressive audience, yet many, I knew, had come to scoff and say, ‘I told you so!’ The picture colony was sceptical. The film had been made at unheard-of expense by a new, almost unknown director. With a woman at the head of it and an unknown actor in the lead, what could one expect of it. It would be the ruination of the Metro Co.
“During the running of the film not a sound could be heard in the theater, except here and there a stifled sob as the story unfolded. About the middle of the picture Rudy reached out and took hold of my hand, which he held tightly in his own until the end. I knew he wanted to feel that there was just some one who cared and understood. We were both weeping from mingled emotions—joy at success, which was now assured, and sorrow from the tragedy of the story.
“It was finished. A moment of hushed silence was followed by a thunder of applause. Rudy was almost swept off his feet by the crowd, who thronged to congratulate him, many of whom he did not know. It was spontaneous appreciation of a thing well done.
“But his one aim was to reach the door. He wanted to be alone. I understood. During the ride to my bungalow I don’t think a word was spoken—just a brief ‘Good night’—and he left me for his own bleak little apartment.”
I want to thank you for reading this Timeline through to its conclusion — no small feet, it must be said. I hope that it’s been as enjoyable to peruse as it was to compile; filled, as it is, with interesting nuggets, some old, some new, but all throwing light on one of the greatest films ever created. Most sources are included in the text or added as a link. However, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them and I’ll do my best to answer. See you again in February!
Wonderful it is, to be invited to contribute to the April 3rd to 5th, 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon, hosted by Paul, from Silver Screen Classics. As His Fame Still Lives is focused monthly on Rudolph Valentino, it’ll come as no surprise that it’s one of his films that’s the subject. Which one? Well, read on and see!
It’s amazing, considering his on-screen persona, that Rudolph Valentino appeared in only two motion pictures that were adaptations of great classic works. After all, this was a Twenties Super Star that veritably dripped with: emotion, romance, tragedy and history. All of his post fame vehicles – there were fourteen in total – are seemingly crammed, at least in our minds, with everything that makes a written work eternally appealing; which, according to Esther Lombardi, is: “… love, hate, death, life, and faith…” In visual terms, we think of him classically — in fact, he was promoted thus. Astride a horse. On a throne. Brandishing a rapier. Masked. With Terry, Ayres, Swanson, Lee, Naldi, Daniels, D’Algy and Banky in his arms. Ageless, spine-tingling, resonant, reverberating imagery.
And yet, as I stated, just a pair. And from the same company and unleashed in the same year. Of these two productions, The Conquering Power (1921), based on Eugenie Grandet (1833) by Honore de Balzac, and Camille (1921), based on La Dame aux Camelias (1848) by Alexandre Dumas fils (both, incidentally, modern interpretations), I choose the latter. Not only is it, in my opinion, the better tale, it’s also the superior movie. And, as it has at it’s heart, as the Star and Anti-Heroine, the distinct, larger-than-life Silent Era personality, Alla Nazimova, it guarantees to be something of an information confetti bomb. (NOTE: while it’s true that the basis for, The Eagle (1925), Alexander Pushkin’s Dubrovsky (1841), is of the classic period, I don’t include it, due to it not only being an unfinished work, but also, because Pushkin wasn’t a novelist of the stature of either Balzac and Dumas fils. Also, it hasn’t reached the same heights, in terms of adaptation; as a ballet, an opera, or a play, for example.)
It was on Page Six of their Saturday, December 18th, 1920 edition, that Camera! THE DIGEST OF THE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY revealed, in a brief sentence, that Alla Nazimova’s next vehicle for Metro Pictures Corp. was to be Camille. Her planned super-production, Aphrodite, based on the 1896 Pierre Louys novel, had been put to the side, and was expected to follow. According to the Star’s Biographer, Gavin Lambert, this change was due to the Director-General, Max Karger, being: “… shocked to discover just how perversely erotic and violent a movie…” had been outlined. Far more likely in my opinion is that it was shelved simply because Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount had secured “world rights” twelve months previously. Besides, a tale based on the brief life of a consumptive Prostitute, who’d died in Paris, in 1847, wasn’t exactly Sunday School territory. (Lynn Gardner’s excellent 2003 look at Dumas fils’ inspiration can be enjoyed here.)
Regardless of the reasons that La Dame aux Camelias was settled on – most likely at the suggestion of June Mathis – there’s little doubt the great Diva Nazzy sought to revive her flagging film career. To this end, it was seemingly decided, early in production, that the adaptation would break with previous picturizations (of which there had already been many), by being set in the then present day. And, that it would also, as Michael Morris points out in his biography of Natacha Rambova, Madam Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova (1991), “… reflect the latest developments in European architectural and fashion design.” Something which wouldn’t only assist with promoting the motion picture, but also: “… foster in American film audiences a greater appreciation for art itself.” Nazimova’s other means of refreshing herself, was to secure a Leading Man of note, namely: Rudolph Valentino.
Valentino, who’d already completed work on the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), the yet-to-be released Metro Pictures Corp. film that would make him a Star, was busy filming Uncharted Seas (1921), when he was brought to the attention of his future Wife. A moment she described in detail, exactly a decade later, in her serialized look at his life and career, and their life together: The Truth About Rudolph Valentino. ‘Mlle. Rambova’, who’d been been tasked, by Nazimova, with the design of both the costumes and the sets of Camille, hadn’t failed to notice her future Husband around the studio. Known to all as ‘The Wop’, he was an: “… aggressive, affable young man …. who, with his friend Paul, a young Serbian cameraman, was always under foot, determined to be seen.” (Natacha later heard from him that he’d bet Paul (Ivano) she would notice him one day. And that her chilliness and remoteness was a challenge.) Further:
“The introduction finally came while Mme. Nazimova, whose [Art Director] I was, was searching for a leading man. For weeks she had been combing Hollywood for the proper Armand for her “Camille.” Dozens of aspirants had applied, but something was wrong with each of them, until we had well nigh despaired of a hero. Then June Mathis, who had written the script of “Four Horsemen,” told us of the young Italian who had played Julio in that picture and whom she considered a genuine find. She suggested we give him a trial. Without much hope, we agreed to look him over.
One day, in Hollywood, the door of my office opened to admit Nazimova, followed by a bulky figure dressed in fur from head to foot. I had a glimpse of dark, slanting eyes between brows and lashes white with mica, the artificial snow of the camera world. Down his face perspiration was streaming in rivers, to complete the ruin of his makeup. The effect was not impressive. Here, I thought, is the very worst yet.”
Rambova goes on the explain how the “polar bear” shook her hand (a little too firmly), “apologized for his appearance”, and revealed that he’d been standing in the sun for two long hours “making close-ups of an Arctic scene”. Before dashing back, he asked her to: ‘Please say a good word for me to madame.’ Despite having noticed his “dazzling smile”, and having received, before his departure, a click of the heels and a polite bow, Natacha continued to be sceptical; that is, until they were forced together to see if anything could be done about his “patent-leather” hair. As she revealed later in the relevant installment: “The Armand of our script was an unsophisticated French boy from the provinces, who certainly had never seen hair pomade.” After much protestation, Rudy was persuaded to shampoo his locks, and then further persuaded to have his hair curled. “When finished the effect was not so bad.” Natacha explains. Adding: “Madame was delighted and even Rudy grew amenable when he saw the result of the screen tests. There was nothing he loved like characterization; to be all dressed up for a part fired his romantic imagination. It was agreed he should be our new leading man.”
Rudolph Valentino certainly had before him a great opportunity to become a character and to be dressed up. Likewise, there’s no doubt that, despite her waning popularity, the chance to work with the legendary Nazimova was indeed a once-in-a-life-time one. One which would enable him to improve himself, as well as to rise up a level in the business. Did Alla – Peter or Mimi to her friends – communicate to him what she communicated to Gladys Hall and Adele Whitely Fletcher in late 1921? That she’d planned never to portray the Lady of the Camellias until she had: “… forgotten how she had seen ‘Camille’ played.”? It’s hard to say. Certainly, she knew in him, as we see when we view it, that she’d found the sort of Armand Duval that her persona, Marguerite Gautier, could love. Yet, if she thought that she could overshadow the rising Star, and make him secondary to her, she was very much mistaken.
Camille (1921) commences with beautiful opening titles that immediately set the tone. The Camellia bordered text, after informing us METRO PRESENTS Nazimova, tells us, upfont, that it’s a modernized version. And then, after revealing that it’s Directed by Ray Smallwood, give us, one-by-one, the names of the triumvirate of women in reality responsible for the film. The Writer, June Mathis; the Art Director, Natasha Rambova; and the Star Producer, Nazimova. Interestingly, the tight cast of nine is headed by Valentino, as his name appears first in the list, followed by the other principals. Portrayed by: Rex Cherryman, Arthur Hoyt, Zeffie Tilbury, Patsy Ruth Miller, Elinor Oliver, William Orlamond and Consuelo Flowerton. With Alla’s main character, strangely, at the very end. If this was purposefully done, due to Rudolph’s fame by the time of release, or, was because he’s the first of the two main players to appear, is hard to say. Either way, it’s symbolic of her coming tumble from the top. (It could be that the version accessed was the later re-issue.)
After explanatory and scene-setting titles, the camera iris opens on an astonishing and eye-catching, fluid, marbled theatre staircase, apparently partly inspired by the style of Hans Poelzig’s recently completed, The Great Playhouse, in Berlin. At least two hundred extras descend the staggering construction. And soon we’re zooming in on Armand Duval and his good friend, Gaston Rieux; played, respectively, by Rudolph Valentino and Rex Cherryman. The pair chit-chat part of the way down as their fellow theatregoers pass them by.
We next see La Dame aux Camellias, Alla Nazimova, as she passes through an archway at the top of the steps, and pauses by the marbled parapet surrounded by men. An intertitle tells us: She was a useless ornament—a plaything—a bird of passage—a momentary aurora. This is an important moment already, as, when Camille is spotted by Gaston, and then by Armand, his friend, we see the instant fascination of the naive provincial with the decorative, and plainly worldly Marguerite. We also see Nazimova’s main character dressed in a striking, sheer, Aubrey Beardsleyesque, long-sleeved coat, covered in flowers, with a dramatic and over-long train, that appears to be edged with fur at its end.
When introduced on the staircase Marguerite is playfully dismissive of the – to her eyes and to ours – guileless new comer. As is her nature, she toys with him. And, after hearing that he’s a Law Student utters her first discernible line: “A law student? He’d do better to study love!” Armand is visibly pained, and yet remains so irresistably drawn to her, that, when the next character introduced reveals that the departing Camille will be hosting a supper party, he requests they go, which they do.
In a review, in the December edition of Motion Picture Magazine, Adele Whitely Fletcher declared, that she believed the settings: “… detracted from the characters and the action.” And it can be said, that the next scene, the party, is probably the best example of this competition between the decor and the players. The iris expands, this time, on the entry vestibule of Marguerite’s up-to-the-minute abode. And through a shimmery, see-through curtain, we see the Hostess and her animated guests arriving. After the curtain is parted, and they all pass through, we’re in the reception room; a space which forces the eye to move from the piano, to a pouf, to a rug, to an arch, to a day-bed, then back again, as the invitees enter before depositing themselves. (Rambova’s creativity hasn’t, however, yet run riot!)
Alla’s Marguerite escapes her pursuer (Hoyt’s Count), after being framed, nicely, in the largest arch of all, the dramatic, glass-doored entrance to her boudoir. Once inside, she manages to have a brief rest – her Servant, Nanine, tells her she’s ill and needs to call a Doctor – before the arrival of Rudy’s Armand, Rex’s Gaston and Tilbury’s Prudence. She initially looks exhausted, as she surely is, however, her look into the mirror, suggests an individual trapped, and unable to escape the whirl and tired of it. Yet emerge she must, and she does so, ready to entertain those gathered — something she’s clearly done many times before. Here, I love how she casually flicks the switch that instantly brings to life all of the decorative lights that edge the third archway; which is how a seated area, immediately to be put to use, is accessed. For me, the switched-on lights echo the way in which she switches on her own inner illumination, before exiting her bedroom.
The glassed-in alcove, with its food and drink laden tables, is where action is focused for the next few minutes. Armand, Gaston and Prudence arrive in a subdued manner, which contrasts nicely with the earlier, much more numerous arrivals. The party’s in full swing already as Marguerite rises to greet the trio. Then, learning that the muted and nervous Duval is crazy about her, she’s once more flippant. Saying to him, as she’d said already to her Lover, the Comte de Varville: “Not until you put a jewel in my hand.”
The supper party continues. Camille is frivolously solicitous of Armand, much to the distaste of the Count, who throws down his napkin angrily. Gaston, meanwhile, behaves like an expectant pet with Prudence, who denies him a forkfull of food at the last minute. To placate the unhappy Count, Marguerite Gautier rises from the seat she shares with the smitten youth, stands tall and breaks into a tributary, but unsatisfactory rhyme. Both the wording and her subsequent behaviour fail to alter the mood of her Sponsor. And, as she drains dry her glass, we see the fuming Count and the puzzled, confused Student Lawyer to her right. Two pathways: the current and the future.
An autobiographical song from the Hostess follows, which is interrupted by the arrival of Pasty Ruth Miller’s, Nichette; who, we discover, thanks to an intertitle: “… used to work in the dressmaking shop with Marguerite.” Alla and Patsy Ruth’s series of kisses on the lips are noteworthy here. As is her defending of her, against the really rather pathetic/sweet onslaught of Rex, as Gaston. Who, despite his drunken state, realises he needs to be more considerate and polite. (A look, here, between Cherryman and Miller, is all we need to see to know that something will develop between them.)
Next, both the intoxicated Gaston and the infatuated Armand are prevented, by Camille, from departing. The Hostess dances with Armand’s friend (much to the annoyance of the Count). The others occupy themselves. Then, the opening of a window, for air, induces a serious coughing fit, and Marguerite’s forced to retreat to her bedroom. Armand sees that she’s unwell and watches powerless. He approaches a drunken Prudence and says: “She is ill!” However, Prudence isn’t concerned, and tells him that: “She is always ill. Just when we are enjoying ourselves on comes that cough and our fun is spoiled!”
Feeling forced to act, Armand enters her sanctuary, and moves towards her once inside. It’s here, while outside the others distract the irate Count, by playing Blind Man’s Buff with him, that we have some of the most important exchanges between to two. Armand entreats her to allow him to call for help. Camille begs to differ. And warns him about who and what she is. Telling him to: “… forget that we have ever met.” At this he throws himself at her feet, saying, plaintively: “I wish I were a relative—your servant—a dog—that I might care for you—nurse you—make you well!” Again, Marguerite attempts to dissuade him, but fails. She accepts that he’s the key that unlocks the door to her prison cell.
It all reaches a terrific, dramatic peak, when Count de Varville finally breaks free from captivity, and bursts into Marguerite Gautier’s room, to discover her entwined with the young Law Student. He rages. She rages. While Armand Duval looks on, clearly pleased that she’s found the courage to break her chains, and to take control of her destiny. In a trice the partygoers – she calls them a “sponging pack” – are leaving. Allowing them to be alone together. And to enjoy a somewhat awkward embrace and kiss on which the iris this time closes.
The next, middle section of the film, is simpler, less artificial and almost dreamlike. We see the happy couple in an orchard in the countryside. (It’s plain that living away from the capital is agreeing with Camille.) Armand has bought and brought to Marguerite, the gift of a book; an antique leather-bound copy of Antoine Francois Prevost’s, Manon Lescaut, a story of doomed lovers. She asks him to inscribe it for her, and then to read it out loud, which he does. Which then leads to an extended imagining of action in the novel, almost a film within a film, with Alla Nazimova as Manon Lescaut, and Rudolph Valentino as Chevalier des Grieux. Except, that the imaginings are spoiled by Camille suffering a presentiment, where she sees herself and Armand as the cursed couple.
After being joined by the newly engaged Gaston and Nichette, who perhaps present to us an alternative, less unlucky union, the action moves from Spring to Summer. Marguerite is living quietly in a conventional house – in sin or not we can’t know – and preparing to sell her belongings, in Paris, to provide sufficient funds for her future. Prudence, who’s visiting her, presents a gift of fresh Camellias with the Comte de Varville’s card inside of the box. Yet Camille isn’t impressed. And tells her to: “Take them back to Paris, Prudence! They have no place in this house!” Prudence is then unsuccessful in trying to make her see sense, and return to her old, more certain if less free existence. An existence, for all its serious restraints, that will soon be seen to be more solid and dependable, than the one which has been hastily fashioned with her Student Lawyer Amour.
The arrival of William Orlamond’s Monsieur Duval, the Father of Armand Duval, is the point at which we see the bubble pricked with a pin. In a nutshell, the Parent requests that the Courtesan relinquish her hold over his son. Telling Marguerite: that the future happiness of both his children is at stake, due to the scandal created by her becoming involved with Armand. Learning, from him, that his daughter’s imminent marriage is in jeopardy, she seeks some way out, and suggests disappearing for a while. When this isn’t found to be acceptable, she falls to her knees, to beg that Armand not be taken from her. Yet she is answered by the Father with: “There is no future for your love—you must give him up!”
I’d say, that within the confines of this drawing room, constructed at the Metro Pictures Corp. plant, for the purposes of the movie, we get a very good idea of Nazimova’s style of performing on the stage; and see, I believe, her best acting in the entire film. How she moves about simply in her plain house dress, carefree, and focused on a new life. How she deals with the irritation of the Intruder Prudence. How she expects the arrival of Armand in the automobile and hides childishly and excitedly under a blanket. How she reacts when she sees that it’s not him but his Parent. And how she battles the inevitable, and finally accepts there’s no way forward, only the way back to who she was and is. We also see fine early acting on the part of Valentino; who arrives at the residence recently abandoned by Marguerite, and discovers her note, written in on the Count’s calling card in tiny but clear handwriting. (In a nice touch their cars pass on the road in the rain.)
In Part Three of her revelatory 1930 serialization, The Truth About Rudolph Valentino, By Natacha Rambova, His Wife, Natacha explained to her readers how Rudy prepared for an emotional scene, particularly during the creation of Camille (1921). As follows:
“I remember particularly one scene in ‘Camille,’ the high point of the picture. It is where Armand, grief-stricken by Camille’s death, rushes to her apartment, where an auction is being held of all her private things. Here he sees and bids on a book he had given her years ago and which she had kept until the last.
Before doing this scene Rudy asked if he might go away by himself for a moment; then he returned and the camera started clicking. It wasn’t interrupted once. When the scene was finished tears were streaming down the face of every one of us, from director to prop boy. As for Rudy, later, I found him in a chair behind the set, head buried in his arms weeping like a child. This wasn’t make believe grief but real emotion.”
That a change is wrought in Armand Duval, is apparent immediately the camera iris expands on the Hazard d’Or; which an intertitle’s informed us, is: “… the smartest gaming place in Paris.” It’s now Autumn, and we see him gambling, immaculately dressed, his hair slicked, and with a beautiful girl on his arm. The female, named Olympe, brilliantly portrayed by Consuelo Flowerton (of the Ziegfeld Follies Spring Frolic of 1920), clings to him in a vampish manner. Another intertitle explains that she is: “… a new Daughter of Chance, whose golden beauty bade fair to rival ‘the Lady with the Camellias.'” And we believe it!
It’s here that we should pause to consider what’s certainly Natacha Rambova’s most incredible interior. The dark, light-absorbing concave room, features, again, a series of arches that draw the eye. The central arch is a performance space, or mini stage, that’s covered by a cobweb scrim, behind which exotically dressed females perform strangely. Above, is another, smaller arch, where a group of African American musicians busily play their instruments; no doubt cranking-out Jazz. And the arches to the left and right are curtained with a gorgeous semi-sheer material that features iridescent woven leaves.
It’s through the right-hand curtained archway, that the Count and Camille enter the space and pause. De Varville points out to Marguerite her former lover at the gaming table. And wickedly says to her: “Look at your broken hearted lover!” This first view of Duval for months is too much, particularly when Armand sees that she sees him, and lays his hand, sensually, on Olympe’s bared back. The close-up of Alla Nazimova is filtered and strongly lit. Yet we see her pain. And then she covers her face with her beautiful feather fan. While the Comte de Varville descends the steps into the sunken room, to place bets and gamble, she retires behind the curtain, just as she did, earlier, at her home.
Sometime after, needing a break from the table (where he’s been enjoying a serious run of luck), Armand Duval parts the curtain behind which Marguerite Gautier is resting, and gets a shock, when he sees her alone and seated there. She, in turn, is startled, as she senses a presence and turns and sees him standing. What follows now is pure Silent Era acting. And from two of the greatest screen personalities of the period. The pair must convey, without words, what they think and feel, and they do. The few words spoken are provided as intertitles. But we barely need them, so perfectly do Nazimova and Valentino express themselves with movements, gestures and facial expressions alone.
Despite toing and froing, and Armand’s desperate attempt to win her back, Camille can’t find the strength to go against her promise to his Father. When she says aloud that she promised she wouldn’t be with him, he believes her to be talking about a promise to the Count, and demands that she: “Say that you love him and I will leave Paris forever!” With deep regret and without feeling she says exactly that. He then drags her out of her hiding place and into the gaming room and denounces her. Humiliating her further by tossing his winnings in her face — a sensational moment, perhaps the most sensational in the entire picture. After a brief flicker of remorse he declares he’s through with her and with Paris and departs. Allowing the Comte de Varville to move-in, and to claim and kiss openly, and triumphantly, Olympe, Marguerite’s successor.
We’re now presented with the extended death of Alla Nazimova’s Marguerite Gautier, known also, as Camille and the Lady of the Camellias. To modern eyes, certainly to mine, this is a somewhat static, and undoubtedly indulgent section. (And for some at the time it was as well.) The passing of nearly 100 years hasn’t made Nazimova’s preferred ending – going totally against the actual written conclusion – any more sympathetic or powerful. In fact, it’s done the exact opposite. And yet, it’s what it is, and must be accepted as it is, and seen in the context of the times. (For a lot of cinemagoers it would resonate a great deal, many of them having watched loved ones die, similarly, in the recent Flu epidemic. And tears were no doubt shed in that more sentimental time.)
For ten minutes, prone, in her stylish bed, Camille approaches the end of her life. While Nanine, her faithful Servant, attempts to make that end as comfortable as she’s able. Yet, Nanine is powerless to keep at bay a group of bailiffs, who represent her creditors and have arrived to satisfy a Court Order. Thus Marguerite is subjected to a final humiliation when they arrive to look over, assess, catalogue and remove her earthly belongings, so that they can be sold to pay-off her debts. To make the interminable exit more palatable we’re given a flash-forward, rather than a flash-back, of Armand receiving from Camille a heart-felt final epistle. And, after the cruelty of the bailiffs entering her room and their attempt to take every last thing from her, including the copy of Manon Lescaut, given to her by Armand, she’s visited by a distraught but tender Gaston and Nichette, who’ve just married that day. Already in a state of delirium, The Lady of the Camellias utters some final, coherent words: “Do not weep, Gaston. The world will lose nothing. I was a useless ornament—a plaything—a momentary aurora.” Surrounded by the pair of newlyweds and Nanine she then expires; while gently calling out the name of Armand, and seeing himself and herself as they were during their affair.
It was, perhaps, the review in the September 24th, 1921 edition, of industry title, Motion Picture News, that best summed-up the starring vehicle at the time. Lawrence Reid, the reviewer, was forthright and upfront about the fact that the great Nazimova had: “… come into her own again with this modern version of Dumas’ tragedy of passion.” And had been given “a picture worthy of her expression” by June Mathis. An adaptation that was: “… intact except for the final ending.” Reid believed this to be a flaw and said so. In his review, he wonders about the reason; if it was “the shadow of censorship”, or maybe “recourse to a happier ending”, not knowing that it was, in fact, a conscious decision on the part of the Star, to diminish the impact of her co-Star and make herself the centre of attention. (Something others in the business heard of and communicated.) Yet, despite his powerful and moving performance being edited out, Lawrence Reid saw that Rudy had acted his heart out — and said so. As follows: “She is forced, however, to share honors in many of the scenes, with Rudolph Valentino, who demonstrates that the art he flashed in ‘The Four Horsemen’ was not a thing of the moment. He makes Armand a brooding, silent volcano of love who suppresses his desires until the supreme moment. His restraint is highly commendable.” (Watching it through it’s hard to argue.)
I fail to agree with the assessment, in Episode Six of Hollywood (1980), that: “The most impressive thing about Camille was its sets.” Impressive though they most definitely were, and highly talented and ahead-of-her-time Rambova absolutely was, there’s so very much more to the production. Noteworthy, alone-and-by-itself, is the fact that this was a realization driven along by three ambitious women, and in a period when very few females were able to steer anything at all in the film-making sphere. The acting of both Nazimova and Valentino, is, at many points, as already detailed, superb, and very representative of the skill of performing in a silent super feature at that time. And the supporting players – Rex Cherryman, Zeffie Tilbury, William Orlamond, and Consuelo Flowerton, particularly – are exemplary in my opinion. Of course it’s a period piece. Of course it’s not the greatest of the great silents. Of course it lacks not only the original tinting but also its original music. And yet it stands the test of time. Still entertains. Still moves us and makes us marvel. What bland, derivative, churned-out contemporary creations are going to be able to do that a century from now? Very few!
First of all I want to thank you for reading this 5,000 word post through from start to finish. I hope that it’s been as enjoyable to read as it was to research and write. This contribution, to the April 3rd to 5th, 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon, will be followed by another diversionary piece, before I return, in May, to Jean Acker. I hope you’ll join me for that, later in the month, and I urge you, in the meantime, to check-out the other contributors to this marvellous exercise, at Silver Screen Classics, here: https://silverscreenclassicsblog.wordpress.com/
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 interactions 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 never 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!