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Valentino, Rudolph (1895–1926)

Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926)

Rudolph Valentino was one of the premier movie stars of the 1920s. His smoldering good looks and exotic screen roles made him irresistible to female audience members, while many male viewers saw him as little more than an unmanly "powder puff." Nonetheless, for women of the Roaring Twenties, Valentino was a true sex symbol, a figure who represented danger, allure, and forbidden passion. His immense popularity spawned a parade of Valentino imitators—handsome young actors whose dark-featured good looks and aggressive sensuality earned them the title "Latin lovers."

Valentino was born Rodolpho Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla in Castellaneta, Italy. He came to the United States in 1913, where he struggled to make a living. He eventually was hired as a dancer and worked in vaudeville (see entry under 1900s—Film and Theater in volume 1) until making his acting debut in a touring play. Valentino then gravitated to Hollywood. He was an extra in a film titled Alimony (1917) and had small roles in several others. While appearing in The Eyes of Youth (1919), Valentino impressed screenwriter June Mathis (1892–1927), who recommended him for her upcoming project, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Valentino landed a role in the movie and he won instant stardom as he seductively danced the tango, a Latin American ballroom dance that includes exaggerated pauses and close eye-contact with one's partner. As a result, the tango became a popular dance (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1) craze throughout the United States and Europe.

Several hits followed for Valentino, who reached his high point playing exotic and highly romantic characters in The Sheik (1921)—the film that cemented his stardom—and Blood and Sand (1922). Meanwhile, his career was taken over by Natasha Rambova (1897–1969), his second wife. Under her guidance, Valentino's screen persona was in danger of becoming increasingly effeminate (more womanly than masculine), but he returned to his previous heroic form in The Eagle (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926).

Valentino became seriously ill with a perforated ulcer while in New York in 1926 and died suddenly on August 23. He was just thirty-one years old. His death resulted in mass hysteria among his female fans, thousands of whom lined the streets outside New York's St. Malachi's Church, the site of his funeral.

—Audrey Kupferberg

For More Information

Bothan, Noel. Valentino: The Love God. New York: Ace Books, 1977.

Tajiri, Vincent. Valentino. New York: Bantam Books, 1977.

Walker, Alexander. Rudolph Valentino. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.

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