- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

The young immigrant destined to achieve fame in Hollywood as Rudolph Valentino was born with an abundance of name — Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaele Pierre Philibert Guglielmi — in Castellaneta, Italy, in 1895. It’s fun to imagine that friends might have called him Fonzie as well as Rudy.

The son of an army veterinarian, Rodolfo washed out of a military academy while still in his teens and then failed to discover a professional niche in Paris, circa 1912. He arrived in New York City a year later and eventually caught on as a professional dancer, acquiring associations off stage that landed him in jail at one point and allowed him to be caricatured later as a professional gigolo.

He also made some influential friends, notably the famous theatrical actress Alla Nazimova, who vouched for him during a low point in New York and later cast him as Armand in her 1920 movie version of “Camille.” Seeking a fresh start in the West, the future Valentino resumed work as a dancer in San Francisco and then gravitated to Los Angeles, where he hoped to ingratiate himself in the film industry and began playing bit roles in 1918.

The Valentino starring career was a five-year whirlwind, commencing in 1921 with “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and ending suddenly with his death in August of 1926 from a perforated ulcer. This calamity triggered a wave of public grief from demonstrative fans, some of whom had made fainting fits a recurrent public spectacle when his movies were big attractions.

After the untimely death a morbid cult of Valentino was sustained for decades, anticipating a phenomenon of mass culture that was duplicated in the wake of James Dean’s fatal car crash in 1955. It may or may not be echoed in the case of Heath Ledger.

Rudolph Valentino was not the first major star of the pioneering movie industry to die young. Robert Harron, the boyish lead in several D.W. Griffith classics, died in 1920 of an accidental gunshot wound. He was 25. Wallace Reid had perished notoriously of morphine addiction and alcoholism in 1922, age 32. The new medium revealed a double-edged capacity to facilitate immortality in one respect while hastening oblivion in another.

Two recent DVD editions make it easier to evaluate the Valentino career: a double-bill of “The Sheik” and “The Son of the Sheik” from Image Entertainment and a two-disc anthology called “Valentino” from Flicker Alley. The latter restores fragments of three “lost” films made between 1918 and 1922 (“A Society Sensation,” “Stolen Moments” and “The Young Rajah”), showcases a largely intact feature of 1922 (“Moran of the Lady Letty”) and appends some irresistible tidbits, notably promotional shorts of the period called “A Trip to Paramountown” and “Screen Snapshots.”

There were five Valentino pictures released in 1921, the year of his breakthrough. The craze got in full preposterous swing with “The Sheik,” an eminently hootable period piece that casts him as a romantically impetuous Bedouin. The hero abducts aristocrat Agnes Ayres on horseback and then redeems himself as captivity drags on by revealing a gallant and solicitous nature. It’s difficult to account for the movie’s popularity at this late date, since it appears to run out of melodramatic or erotic fuel very prematurely.

The upside: The creakiness of the original enhances the virtues of “Son of the Sheik,” the last Valentino movie, a breezy and stylish demonstration that some sequels have always been emphatically superior to the prototypes.

Among other improvements “Son” permits the star to enact scenes with himself, as father and son. These trick-shot interludes bring out a playful enthusiasm that flatters the star’s essentially genial personality. One brainstorm: Dad angrily bends an iron bar, prompting junior to unbend it.

Although lionized as an ultimate seductive presence, Valentino retains more credibility as a gentlemanly sort than a devastating sort. For example, he’s appealing on sight in “A Society Sensation” when cast as a nice young man of the upper classes, emerging along the seashore in admirably fit condition. He’s a joke as the heavy in “Stolen Moments” - a Brazilian snake-in-the-grass who trafficks in blackmail while kissing hands incessantly.

“Lady Letty” built on the nice society youth image. Shanghaied onto the crew of a smuggling ship in San Francisco (there’s a somewhat disorienting vista of the Golden Gate, which still lacks the bridge built a decade later), the well-born Valentino character proves his mettle as a sailor. But he remains too decent a fellow to permit the heroine, rescued at sea, to be sacrificed to either the lust or greed of an unsavory captain, Walter Long, a reliable hard case in Valentino vehicles.

The actor’s sense of fun is so palpable in “Son of the Sheik” that his early loss remains poignant generations later. There’s no telling what the transition to talkies might have portended for Rudolph Valentino’s career, but it’s gratifying to think that his accent and the humorously civilized, engaging qualities in his personality would have demonstrated staying power.

TITLE: “Valentino: Rediscoveriing an Icon of Silent Film”

CONTENTS: Partial versions of three early Rudolph Valentino films, plus a complete version of the 1922 “Moran of the Lady Letty” and assorted shorts, documents and recordings

RUNNING TIME: 226 minutes

DISTRIBUTOR: Flicker Alley

WEB SITE: www.flickeralley.com

TITLE: “The Sheik” (1921) and “The Son of the Sheik” (1926)

CONTENTS: The original features and a trio of vintage shorts

RUNNING TIME: 155 minutes

DISTRIBUTOR: Image Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.image entertainment.com

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