Bits and Bites: The Dark Lover Returns
Note: In conjunction with the publication of Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently screened several of Valentino's films. Below are quick reviews of two of them.
(image from posteritati.com.)
Monsieur Beaucaire: There's a really funny, very charming Ernst Lubitsch movie named Monte Carlo. Its climax revolves around an opera named Monsieur Beaucaire, about a prince masquerading as a barber. When I found out that a movie named Monsieur Beaucaire, starring Rudolph Valentino, was showing, I dropped everything and went.
Valentino plays the Duke de Chartres, a prince of France. He is quite the ladies man, so much so that the convent-raised Princess Henriette refuses the king's command to marry him. They, of course, start to fall for each other. His growing admiration for her leads him to insult the king's mistress, and he is forced to flee to England and "become" a barber.
The movie has serious flaws. It's theoretically a comedy, but it's too long and moves too slowly - nowhere near as light-hearted and funny as the Lubitsch version. There were technical bloopers as well: in one scene of Valentino in a medium shot, wearing a light-colored coat, the studio lighting throws the camera's shadow on Valentino's torso. For 1926 and the kind of star Valentino was at that point (post-Sheik / Blood and Sand / Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), that's pretty inexcusable.
One interesting sidebar to the movie: this film fed into the press controversy over Valentino's sexual orientation (AKA the "pink powder puff" scandal). While women swooned, some men were jealous and the press questioned Valentino's manliness. With respect to the movie, what they may have clued into is not Valentino's personal life, but his inconsistent depiction of a prince. Valentino just doesn't look up to snuff. There are movies where he is quite the eye candy, but this isn't one of them. The man bounces on the balls of his feet when he crosses the set! In one scene he stands shirtless - but he's too skinny to be a reckless sword-dueling prince. (Buster Keaton, very physically fit despite usually playing a weakling, was much more bulked up than Valentino.) All in all, a disappointment - although it does point out the genius of the later Lubitsch work.
Cobra: A much better outing. Valentino plays Rodrigo Torriani, an Italian count / ladies' man persuaded to move to New York and work for Jack Dorning, an American antiques dealer. Because of his friendship for Jack, Rodrigo passes on two women who could have potentially turned him around. The first woman ends up marrying Jack; Rodrigo, in a momentary lapse which he rights, ends up involved in her death. Rodrigo has to deal with feelings of lust and guilt mixed in with his friendship for Jack. Because of these feelings, he ends up passing on the second woman, Mary, the only "pure" woman that he ever loved.
Valentino is closer to form in this movie. His portrayal of a well-meaning philanderer is much more convincing, and the movie's backstory (Italian migrating to the US) reflects Valentino's own history. The technical issues are now virtues; in fact, there is one shot, after he decides to give up on Mary for Jack's sake, of Rodrigo leaving a room by pulling the door shut. As his head turns, you see the gleam of a tear in his eye. Without crying, without wiping his eyes, without much more than a hung head, Valentino's whole gesture belies the bluster he has just put up. Poetry, people, poetry. And the amazing thing is: this is Valentino at the height of his popularity, and he doesn't get the girl. He makes his sacrifice; the next shot, he's on the deck of a ship headed back to Italy, and then "The End" appears on the sceen. Wow.