In 1921, screenwriter June Mathis befriended a young man and secured him a role in Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Moviegoers and critics were pretty much unanimous in praising Rudolph Valentino for his performance as Julio. His tango scene in particular caused a sensation.
After another few pictures, including Camille with Alla Nazimova, Valentino signed a contract with Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount). During the filming of Camille, he met a designer named Winifred Hudnut. Her art deco costumes and set designs for this film would become as famous as the film itself. Hudnut would soon change her name to the more exotic Natacha Rambova. She would also marry Valentino, causing a legal nightmare for the star (he was jailed for bigamy and fined $10,000) because his divorce from Jean Acker was not finalized.
For Famous Players-Lasky (FP-L), Valentino happily launched into The Conquering Power, re-teaming with Rex Ingram and Apocalypse co-star Alice Terry. However, it was his next film, The Sheik that would catapult Valentino to superstardom (although Agnes Ayres received top billing). But FP-L gave its new star the routine Moran of the Lady Letty and a leading-man role in Gloria Swanson’s Beyond the Rocks as his next assignments. The latter was a hit and so was his next film, Blood and Sand. Rambova was becoming more involved in her husband’s career and his next film, The Young Rajah. This film was not a big hit but did earn a profit. Valentino was getting frustrated, and FP-L took a stand in dissuading Rambova from having a say in his films. Because of Valentino’s dissatisfaction with his roles and his salary, he (likely at his wife’s urging) walked out of his contract in early 1923.
The biggest male star in films was suddenly out of work. FP-L suspended him without pay and won an injunction that prevented him from working for another studio. Valentino was famous for being a big spender and still had massive legal bills and no money coming in. The studio prepared to re-issue several old films in which Valentino had played supporting roles and re-package them as “Valentino films.”
The Mineralava Tour
Desperate for money, Valentino and Rambova decided to create a dance act and tour the country for Mineralava Beauty Clay cosmetics. Starting in New York City’s Century Theatre at a benefit for the Actors Fund on a bill with Will Rogers and Jeanne Eagels, the couple caused a sensation and received 20 curtain calls. Valentino was stampeded by 300 fans as he left the theater. A Boston headline claimed “10,000 Girls Mob World’s Greatest Kisser.” The mobs became so predictable that Valentino and Rambova often escaped theaters over rooftops. The couple performed in 88 cities in the United States and Canada during a grueling 17-week tour. The hysteria followed them wherever they performed.
The dance tour garnered a tremendous amount of publicity and earned the couple a big weekly salary plus a percentage of the gate. They broke house records in several theaters. But while Valentino was mobbed by hordes of fans in every city, local newspaper coverage often sniped at his romantic movie image and professional dancing as being “unmanly.” Plus, Valentino was hawking beauty products that he claimed to use himself.
Following the example of dance idols Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, the Valentinos created exotic dances and sumptuous costumes to the accompaniment of their own traveling orchestra. They performed a number of dances, but the tango routines were the ones that always brought down the house.
The beauty contest (the Miss America contest started in 1921) was another publicity angle of the tour. Mineralava sponsored a contest in each of the tour’s 88 cities and Valentino “judged” all the contestants. Then all 88 beauties descended on New York City, where they were paraded up Fifth Avenue to the Madison Square Garden. A young David O. Selznick made a short film of the contest called Rudolph Valentino and His 88 American Beauties; the film survives and is a fascinating glimpse at a “natural” Rudolph Valentino as well as the beauty contest styles of the day. Selznick shows the terrifying hordes of people who mobbed the streets outside Madison Square Garden, hoping for a glimpse of Valentino. Inside the Garden, the 88 girls come out onto a stage that is surrounded by crowds. Each girl (most with bobbed hair and bee-stung lips) parades in a gown and sash proclaiming her city and carrying (for some unknown reason) a ribboned Bo-Peep staff.
Vancouver, we are told, “played it safe” and sent a 12-year old. The girl they show is at least 20 even though she’s done up like Mary Pickford. There are many shots of a relaxed and smiling Valentino (Rambova apparently is absent) as he emcees the program. After narrowing the field to semi-finalists, the chosen winner was Norma Niblock of Toronto, although Eugenia Gilbert of Los Angeles seems to have been the favorite. Gilbert was a minor actress in films of the 1920s. Beauties from New York, Baltimore, and Wichita rounded out the winners. The final shots reveal a beaming Valentino surrounded by the winners. There is also a candid (and bizarre) shot of Eugenia Gilbert accepting a business card from a man and quickly stowing it in her gown. Niblock looks as if she is in total shock throughout the contest. Oddly, the entire contest, the closing gesture of the Mineralava Tour, shows no hint of Mineralava as sponsor or product.
By the end of 1923, Valentino was ready to return to Hollywood and finish off his contract. The Mineralava Tour and his 1923 book of poetry Day Dreams had been huge financial successes for Valentino. They kept his name in the headlines while he was on “hiatus” from his film work. It also gave him the clout he needed to wrest a star’s salary from FP-L. The newspaper headlines and long line of fans were certainly not unnoticed in Hollywood; nor were the grosses for the re-issued Valentino films.
Valentino returned to the studio (amazingly, the studio conceded a $7,500/week salary) and was assigned The Hooded Falcon, but the project was never completed. Valentino next tackled one of Rambova’s pet projects titled Monsieur Beaucaire. Although today the film is very interesting, as a follow-up to the Mineralava tour, it was a disaster. This film started the widespread backlash in the newspapers that labeled Valentino “the pink powder puff.” The scenes of Valentino posing shirtless in satin breeches and powdered wigs seemed to outrage critics. Of course taken in the context of the film, the “posings” made perfect sense. Valentino’s final four films all did well but only The Son of the Sheik was a smash hit when it was released nationally just a few weeks after Valentino’s death on August 23, 1926.
Valentino’s legacy is a complex one. Although his name is widely remembered, few have actually seen any of his films. The photographs that exist can’t evoke the personality of the man. His fame as a movie star is a double-edged sword: on the one side he is the soul of exotic romance; on the other he is a hammy actor with flaring nostrils and bulging eyeballs. He was probably the first male sex symbol of the movies, but because of his sexual objectivism by women (and gays); his own sexual orientation has always been questioned. His taste in women (or in the women he married) was legendarily bad, yet he was worshiped to such a degree that his myth has outlived most other silent movie stars.