In Pursuit of Valentino

One of the things I do when I become fixated on something is to write about it. I suppose the theory goes that if I just write and write and write and write, I might in some way get it out of my system. It rarely works, but I don’t stop trying, just in case.

In the latest case, I’ve been using my shiny new computer (not this one, long story) to begin composing a long old post about Rudolph Valentino. It made reference to the old ‘we had faces then’ Norma Desmond chestnut, and to a number of ultimately pointless things.

However, that hasn’t stopped this post beginning, and it won’t stop it continuing. I finally acquired Son of the Sheik on VHS video tape, which made it feel very 20th Century indeed, and in a number of ways, it shone a few lights upon the subject.

First and most important, it turns out he’s already joined the list of People Who Can Do No Wrong In My Eyes and Probably Don’t Deserve Such An Accolade But They’re Dead So Does It Really matter? The lofty list includes Jim Morrison (see: Certainly Doesn’t Deserve), Philip Lynott, Dean Martin, Errol Flynn, Ronnie Barker, Richard Burton, George Harrison (latest nugget: went a-wife-swapping with Ronnie Wood), John Lennon, Robert Plant (not dead, but Can Do No Wrong Except Steal Off Steve Marriott), Steve Marriott, Ava Gardner, Bobby Kennedy and probably some other people I can’t think of because I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks.

Where was I? Yes, Valentino. In less than a month, a man who’s been dead since the same year one of my grandmothers was born has leapfrogged his way onto a list that other people can’t even get near. Do you know how long it took Philip to get onto the list? It actually took him years to get onto The List, but that’s cos I was distracted by Zeppelin. It’s gotta be about a decade since the list first got formulated in my head, and there’s nobody on it who slid their way in so bloody quickly or effortlessly as Valentino.

Know how I know he’s on the list? I heard the song he recorded, Kashmiri Love Song, which he ‘sings’ in The Sheik. At first it reminded me of the recordings of the great Enrico Caruso, and then I realised it only had the primitive, poor recording in common. Valentino’s voice was not unpleasant and I’m sure as a speaking voice it was lovely to listen to… but the man could not sing. I mean, if he were to go on X-Factor or whatever, he’d be the guy being laughed at. Maybe with lessons… but probably not. He might have transitioned to sound movies, but not to musicals. And yet, there he is, On The List. Look at those names and look at what they did. Bobby Kennedy wasn’t a singer but he was a very good orator. Ava Gardner’s voice was silky and she could sing (though pointlessly dubbed in Showboat). I’d listen to Richard Burton read out the Port Talbot phone directory. Errol Flynn’s voice was part of his charm. The rest? Fucking singers. Great ones. For me to admit a non-singer onto The List is strange indeed- to admit a bad one is unprecedented and I’m not over the shock.

Oh yeah, and in Son of the Sheik, he rapes Vilma Banky. I mean, it’s not shown, but it couldn’t be implied more heavily if you saw clothes get ripped off. Not only does he rape the heroine, he gets away with it, gets the girl and lives happily ever after. I mean sure, he just got tortured and thinks she was part of the gang who did it, but still… Rape is rape, man! And you know what, there I was in spite of it, willing him on, willing him towards his happy ending. Sure, haven’t I watched it another four times so far?

Only someone on The List gets that kind of treatment. Almost anyone else in that film would’ve been screeched at and if not turned off, never watched again. Yet here I am, writing a post about it, about him. Of course, there’s a way of getting round it: “It’s the character, not the real man!”

Which would be nice and easy, but I’m not so far gone as to realise something very important: It’s the idea of Valentino, the dream of Valentino, that matters. And the idea is derived more from the motion pictures than the man himself. I suspect that Valentino and ‘Rudy’ were two different creatures, unable to exist without the other, but quite separate just the same. After all, the Sheik would never allow Natacha Rambova to shove a slave bracelet around his wrist. Actually, I very much doubt that Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan would allow the self-serving, self-created Rambova much of anything.

So you see, the rape scene does matter, because it’s the idea that’s important. At first, my idea of Valentino was just of another silent star, a relic of a bygone age that I was glad to be over. Then I saw The Sheik and discovered that the idea was something of its own. The Eagle and Blood and Sand added more to the idea, just like Cobra, which I’m still in the process of watching on YouTube (trust me, if I could get it on DVD, I would). I have bought books about Valentino, but have not read them yet- the idea of Valentino is based only on the movies. So therefore to have Valentino remain on The List even after the rape scene is somewhat worrying…

It’s a good film by the way. It shows just how far Valentino had come in the five years between the eye-popping histrionic Sheik to this one. He plays, after all, the old Sheik and the son, and in split screen! I LOVE the fact that they got split screen technology working (and quite well too) before they managed sound! There’s TWO Valentinos for the price of one on the screen at the same time. And you know what? He’d got good enough as an actor to understand how to play the two different. The old Sheik is all quiet, confident dignity now, complete with a little beard and some ageing make-up, while the son is all coiled up boyish aggression. From that point of view it really is a wonder to behold, to see this man go from being essentially just very charismatic and beautiful to really quite good. It’s that which makes me think he might’ve made it in sound pictures after all…

Then again, I wonder if we weren’t given Valentino on the understanding he wouldn’t speak? That if God Himself is bountiful, He’s also a bit stingy. That we were given Valentino to fall in love with, but that it couldn’t ever be complete. Perhaps it would be more than mere womanhood could handle. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

By the way, if I were involved in his career, I would’ve had him in elocution lessons. Sound didn’t come out of nowhere, no matter what the legends say. It wasn’t an overnight thing- there were movies being shown with sort of semi-sound gimmicks in his lifetime. I would’ve put him in elocution lessons, in singing lessons, in acting lessons, knowing that the minute sound comes in, the acting changes. It had to. Still, it’s bitterly obvious to me that such a course is not open to me, so whatever dude.

My next point is about to insult several generations of half of America, but I don’t care: American men are so terrifically insecure about sexuality and masculinity, aren’t they? They were back then, they are today and they were in between. The chasm between what American men consider masculine and what women consider masculine couldn’t be breached by the Golden Gate Bridge. I mean, I’m not unaware of why someone like Valentino would be tagged with the homosexuality card- marrying a card-carrying lesbian would do that, being well-groomed, handsome and charming would make it worse… but America is also the country where Clark Gable had to go off on a publicised hunting trip or six to look more manly for audiences. CLARK GABLE!  Quite aside from anyone’s own personal sexuality, CLARK GABLE? That man was 99% testosterone and 1% scotch whiskey! Guys, guys, guys: instead of mocking the Valentinos, why not pause and take a look to see why we adore them so much? 

I get that people were caught unaware by Cary Grant (and ergo Randolph Scott) and Rock Hudson, but honestly. Aside from the fact it doesn’t really matter…. it always says more about the people accusing that the accused. Rudolph Valentino might have been as gay as the day is long, he might have been bisexual, he might have done any number of things. I don’t care, personally. The point is, it’s the idea of Valentino that scared America’s manhood, and it’s because the idea is, as far as I can tell, masculine enough to stop a generation of women in its tracks. It wasn’t that they believed him effeminate (ie, he washed more than once a week, combed his hair, wore clean clothes that fit and didn’t spend his time cleaning, er, rifles), it was that the stupid fools were jealous. So they should’ve been. Just because they believed a woman’s ideal man should be an athletic, all-American huntin’, fishin’ tobacco-chewin’ Howard Keel cowboy cariacture, does not mean that women agreed with them. Oh, and it’s just an eensy weensy bit racist, but if I delve into that, this post gets even longer.

Me? I’m not in love with Rudolph Valentino. I adore the dream of Valentino, the idea. I think he was beautiful and shouldn’t have died so young. I think his second wife should’ve been told to sod off before they got so far as Mexicali, and at least been told that feminism doesn’t equate dominance or emasculation, but things were very different then and I certainly don’t know the whole story, even if slave bracelets say a thousand words. I don’t think anyone’s come close in terms of equalling what he had on screen, but then again, he was the first. Nobody had to do it the same. There’s a thousand male movie stars now for us to choose from to fall in love with, all different shapes, sizes, colours, types, flavours, whatever. None of them could exist in the same way without Valentino, for he was the first movie star one could fall in love with. Before, what was there? Nobody could accuse Douglas Fairbanks of being a heartthrob, nor Chaplin, Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle. Think of the last movie star you had yourself a crush on, and thank whichever deity you choose that Valentino lived to put romance and sex into the movies.

Yes, I adore the idea of Valentino and for better or for worse, all male creatures are now subject to the Valentino Test in my eyes. Most will come up severely lacking, but you know, that’s only the reaction they’d have got two months ago, but now it has a name. It feels as if a veil has either fallen or been lifted, but I see them all in a different way now. Not necessarily a bad new light, but a different one. For me now, they must all stand up next to Valentino. Some can do so quite easily- someone like Errol Flynn bypasses the Test, but he couldn’t have existed without Valentino… Has anyone in the 21st Century passed the test? We wait with baited breath, no doubt…. And no doubt this won’t be the last time you see that name here.

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