The intense media interest in the death of Rudolph Valentino finally reached its end on September 7, 1926 when his 2nd funeral was held in Los Angeles and he was finally interred in the crypt at Hollywood Cemetery (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery).
The day was in marked contrast to the out-of-control days in New York City when his public viewing was held. Originally planned to continue until Friday, August 27, it was cut short after the viewing deteriorated into an uncontrolled, mob-like event.
In an article under the headline “Premonition of Early Death,” John W. Considine, Jr., who produced Valentino’s pictures, revealed that “Valentino several times remarked to me, “I shall die young. I know it, and I shall not be sorry. I would hate to live to be an old man.” (The Tribune, Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 24, 1926, Page 2 (Dateline: Los Angeles, August 23, Associated Press).
He got his wish, but much sooner than he would have anticipated. And one of his wishes as he fought for his life was that he would have a public viewing in the event he died.
Valentino had suffered greatly and had wasted to a shadow of the image he projected on the screen. The morticians who received his body at Campbell’s Funeral Church had a difficult job to do. A “secret embalming process” supervised by W. H. Hull, claimed Valentino’s body would stay in it’s final state “practically forever.” It was the same process used to embalm Enrico Caruso, who had died in August 1921 in Italy.
The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) Tuesday, August 24, 1926, Page 8
In The Times Union (Brooklyn, New York) dated Wednesday, August 25, 1926 (Page 15), reporter Ted Le Berthon recounted what had transpired the day before (August 24) in an evocative piece entitled “VALENTINO RIOTS A MORBID ORGY.”
...Rudolph Valentino's cold, lifeless image, waxen and unreal, laying like a flat, smashed thing, beneath a glass cover, on the second floor of Campbell's Funeral Church, was the goal of this stubborn, screaming crowd....[About P.M.] By now, reporters and cameramen had been permitted to view the dead Rudy in his last personal appearance. Peering through the glass coffin cover was like looking through a glass case in a museum.
“He only weighed 102 when he died,” one employe of the undertaking firm whispered.
His nose was sharply defined, a little ridged; he face, pitifully small, and inclined, for some reason, to one side. Those eyes, that had “burned to the cores of women’s beings,” were closed. That face, that wore make-up so often in the bustling multi-colored cinema studios, was delicately powdered. The thin, sunken lips were thinly rouged, the brows penciled. It did not seem possible that this was Rudolph Valentino. From the eyes of those standing about, one sensed a sickening desire to be away, quickly.
The heavy smell of flowers suggested great fields of death. One wondered if some substitution had not been made. Surely this mashed body, with claw-like hands was not the ardent lover, in whose veins had coursed fiery blood, consuming a romance-hungry world in its glow, made ubiquitous by the universal markets of the cinema.
Le Berthon describes how at “About 3 o’clock [on Tuesday, August 24], it was decided to admit the first line of the city’s mourners.” It was raining and the line went up a winding staircase to the room where Valentino lay. Le Berthon relates the mood of the visitors:
…disappointment about his burial clothes, giggling, and surprise over his thin hair…
The following day, on Wednesday, August 25, the body had been relocated to the ground floor to help keep the lines moving more efficiently. The reporting by United Press described how the bier was placed in the center of the room and how the crowd circled and exited through a side door through a florist shop adjacent to the Campbell’s Funeral Chapel. Although there were still “giggling girls of high school age” waiting to enter when the doors opened at 9 A.M., the United Press story commented that “While yesterday the throng was perhaps a bit inclined to be unexpectedly gay, today the attitude seemed change. There was more showing of reverence…The scene was more somber–an atmosphere heightened by dull, drizzling fog” (The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, August 25, 1926, Page 2).
When the doors opened at 9 A.M., the first two people on line were two tourists from Terre Haute, Indiana, who had arrived at 6 A.M. Margaret Kenley and Josephine Attman had planned to leave the day before but “We couldn’t return without seeing Valentino…We were going home yesterday but we simply had to stay” (The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wednesday, August 25, 1926, Page 2).
Another visitor was a woman who said she had seen Valentino two years before:
The early reports of “more reverence” on Wednesday were soon revised in late editions of papers like The Brooklyn Daily Times:
The Dayton Herald in Dayton, Ohio came to this conclusion in their Wednesday edition (Page 4):
“excited curiosity…laughing and chatting…”
George Ullman’s full comments were reported by the Associated Press:
"This has gone far enough," Ullman said. The lack of reverence shown by the crowds, the disorder and rioting since the body was first shown, have forced me to this decision. Tonight at midnight the doors will be closed to the public and the body placed in a vault here in the funeral church until Monday. It will be viewed only by friends and associates." (A.P. syndicated report from the Fort Worth-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, August 16, 1926, Page 4.)
Ullman was still shaken by what he had seen. On Thursday, August 26, he was quoted in a United Press report: “I loved Valentino so,” he said, “that I thought the whole world would reverence him” (Courier-Post, Camden, New Jersey, Thursday, August 26, 1 926, Page 14). From the same newspaper:
“normal decorum and dignity now prevails…”
At the end Valentino’s animals mourned him, without judgment...
Yaqui and Valentino in The Son of the Sheik
Kabar and Valentino, returning from Europe on the Leviathan, January 1926
In 1926 Hiram Abrams was the managing director of United Artists, the company that had Rudolph Valentino under contract. On May 22, Valentino signed a new three-picture deal with John W. Considine, Jr. head of the producing unit which made the Valentino pictures; his next film, based on the life of Benvenuto Cellini, was already being developed. Also in May, Abrams made a publicity hire, Victor Mansfield Shapiro, to assist in the buildup to the release of Valentino’s next picture, The Son of the Sheik.
According to the U.S., College Student Lists, 1763-1924 at Ancestry.com, Shapiro graduated from New York University with a B.S. degree in 1913. The 1916 entry for New York University reveals that after graduation, Shapiro worked for The New Yorker in the art-editorial areas and as a cartoonist and Advertising Manager for a publication named Violet.
The information included in the student list was apparently collected before Shapiro’s next career move. By 1916, Shapiro was working for V-L-S-E, Incorporated. V-L-S-E was a partnership between four film distribution companies–Vitagraph, Lubin, Selig, and Essanay–which had been formed in 1915, with Albert Smith named as president.
We know this because Shapiro was among those who participated in the formation of the Associated Motion Picture Advertisers. Prominent members during the first year of the Associated Motion Picture Advertisers (AMPA) in 1916 included men who would later be involved with Rudolph Valentino: Executive Board members Jesse Lasky of the Photoplay Company and Harry Reichenbach of the Frohman Amusement Company. Included in the list of general members was “V. Mansfield Shapiro , V.S.L.E.”
But just after AMPA was formed, there were changes involving the V-L-S-E organization. According to Wikipedia, a “proposed a merger of the distribution companies Paramount Pictures and V-L-S-E with Famous Players Film Company and Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, … was foiled by Adolph Zukor. When Vitagraph purchased a controlling interest in Lubin, Selig, and Essanay. V-S-L-E was dissolved on August 17, 1916, V-L-S-E head Albert Smith finally sold the remaining part of the company to Warner Brothers on April 20, 1925. (See Note 1 below for an interesting reference to Smith’s autobiography in which he refers to hiring a 17-year-old Rudolph Valentino.)
We don’t know exactly when Victor Mansfield Shapiro became an independent publicity man, but by 1926 he was a big enough player in the business to be hired by Hiram Abrams to devise a publicity campaign to help boost Valentino’s appeal; his last film, The Eagle, had received good reviews but yield only modest returns at the box office. Valentino needed “a hit” because his star power was perceived as being on the wane as Ramon Navarro and John Gilbert gained popularity. (See the headline below.) Previews of The Son of the Sheik in Santa Monica and Burbank went well and on July 9 the Los Angeles premiere filled Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre to capacity with one of the largest and most brilliant gathering of film stars at the time. The reaction pleased both the studio and Valentino and it looked like they were on the way to the hit they wanted.
Valentino left his home for what would be his last time to start his publicity tour, arriving on July 15 at his first stop in San Francisco for a press event, where he met Mayor “Sunny” Jim Rolph before heading to Chicago en route to New York. Still complaining of stomach pains which had plagued him since February when he was shooting The Son of the Sheik, he carried a large supply of sodium bicarbonate with him on the train. (His brother Alberto had departed California the day before with his wife and son Jean, also heading to New York where they would depart on July 24 for the return trip to Italy.)
Just before Valentino arrived in Chicago for a layover of a few hours before connecting with the train to New York, the editorial “Pink Powder Puffs” appeared on Page 10 of The Chicago Tribune on Sunday, July 18, 1926. With that editorial, Shapiro saw the opening he needed to power his publicity campaign.
Valentino had already been the target of innuendo, racist comments and mockery well before this piece was published. As early as 1922, Photoplay‘s Dick Dorgan called Valentino a “bum Arab” and invoked the term “wop” in a satire of The Sheik; a few months later, in the July edition which featured Valentino on the cover, Dorgan produced the “Song of Hate.” Valentino was so angered that he demanded that the studio bar Dorgan from the studio lot.
The “Pink Powder Puff” editorial that appeared in The Chicago Tribune on Sunday, July 18, 1926 (Page 10)
“…Better a rule by masculine women than by effeminate men.”
When The LosAngeles Times reprinted the editorial, it added an earlier, even more caustic editorial (the Five-Yard McCarty piece) that had been published on November 19, 1925, as well as an “exclusive” report about the reaction delivered by Valentino when he arrived in New York on July 20. At the same time the cartoon by Harry Haenigsen which appeared in The New York Evening World on July 21 clearly expressed the view that a boxing match would become a major public relations event even though Valentino insisted his challenge was “real” and “not for the purpose of publicity.”
Reprint in the Los Angeles Times (July 21, 1926) with the earlier “Five-Yard McCarty” piece published in November 1925, alongside a story about the “challenge” letter in response
(Scroll down to see the original draft of the “challenge” letter)
“Isn’t Life Complicated?” Cartoon The New York Evening World, July 21, 1926, Page 16
Note the depiction of Valentino at the top left of the cartoon
…Needing a “hit”… New York Daily News, Sunday, January 4, 1925
Note, by contrast, the article about the Barthelmess household which ran next to the story about Valentino’s waning drawing power. His previous film, The Eagle, while well-reviewed, had only been a modest box office success.
The Associated Press interview conducted in New York on July 20 added more color to the “Exclusive” carried by the LosAngeles Times:
"I'm mad," Valentino rasped out to reporters. "I'll make whoever wrote that foul stuff look like a full moon. This is no publicity stunt. I'm really mad. I can't understand how the editor of the Chicago Tribune let that editorial get into the paper."
"I'm am not angered by the reference to my being the son of a gardener. What made me mad is the whole tone of the insulting thing. In Italy in the absence of the name of the writer of an article the editor may be challenged. I regret that system is not in vogue here." (AP story as printed in the Waco-News Tribune, [Waco, Texas] Wednesday, July 21, 1926, Page 5)
Before the Shapiro papers came to light, Alan Elllenberger quoted a press agent named Oscar Doob in The Valentino Mystique who claimed that “he was the one who suggested that Valentino challenge the “Pink Powder Puffs” editorial writer to a duel” and that he “needed a publicity stunt because we were getting ready to open one of his latest pictures” (Page 17) (SeeNote 2). And Simon Constable, in ablog piece describing the incident, speculates that Valentino’s business manager George Ullman actually was the one who “stirred things up” and goes so far to wonder Ullman could have protected Valentino more if he hadn’t shown him the newspaper that day.
However, material uncovered by Giorgio Bertellini brings a new perspective to the whole incident. Bertellini is Professor/Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Film, Television, and Media at the University of Michigan. His latest work, entitled The Divo and the Duce: Promoting Film Stardom and Political Leadership in 1920’s America,… “won the 2019 American Association of Italian Studies book award, for the category ‘Film/Media.'”
And it is the archival material belonging to Victor Mansfield Shapiro that Bertellini has examined which sheds new light on what may have transpired during the latter half of July 1926. (The description of the contents of the archive is below.)
The entire work is available at JSTOR, a site that “provides access to more than 12 million academic journal articles, books, and primary sources in 75 disciplines.” The direct link to the book is here. Of particular interest is Chapter 6 entitled Stunts and Plebiscites (Pages 145-162). Also, quite by accident, I found that anyone with a Kindle can download the entire book for free.
(I originally had embedded the PDF available at JSTOR into this post but decided to clarify the Terms and Conditions with JSTOR and was advised that doing so would breach their terms…so, I need to take a different route, which follows below.)
A short summary of the ground covered by Bertellini was included in a review in The Sydney MorningHerald, which to date is the only discussion of the book and the Valentino-related information that I have found in the general press. The article entitled Macho men: The links between Valentino and Mussolini by Desmond O’Grady was published on June 14, 2019.
[The image]the Italian-born Valentino also was distorted. Bertellini illustrates this with a discovery about the 1926 Pink Powder Puff scandal in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune published an anonymous editorial lamenting Valentino’s encouragement of the installation of powder puffs in men’s toilets. Valentino responded indignantly to this slur and offered to prove his virility by boxing a bigger and more athletic man "Buck" O’Neal. Valentino knocked him out. (Editor's Note: the correct spelling is "O'Neil".)
Bertellini has found proof that it was all a publicity stunt arranged by a PR man, Victor Shapiro, because Valentino’s sequel to his most successful film, The Sheik, had not aroused much interest in Chicago. The fake scandal changed that.
The following section presents the key points revealed by the Shapiro material as discussed in The Divo and the Duce.
Shapiro already had a major career as an independent publicity man and had actually met Valentino on the set of The Eagle in 1925. He became UA’s publicity man for Valentino and it seems he may have ghostwritten a number of Valentino’s articles near the end of his life. “Shapiro at first expressed the sort of conventional thinking that emerged out of brainstorming sessions in UA’s Publicity and Still Photography Departments. The sessions centered on ‘how to make Rudolph Valentino more acceptable to men customers.'” The usual tactics would involve photos of Valentino sparring with Jack Dempsey, riding horses, polo with Douglas Fairbanks, or perhaps photographing him as female reporters were invited to watch Valentino engaging in exercise while “nude from the waist up.” This was the “play the Sheik card” strategy and would carry the tagline “Men, why be jealous of Rudy Valentino? You, too, can make love like he does. See ‘Son of the Sheik.'” But there were doubts that this approach would make enough of a splash to “revive Valentino’s career” (Page 149).
Shapiro followed the conventional approach, sending profiles which emphasized Valentino as “sensual with animal grace,” photographs, etc. to the press, first-run theaters, and picture outlets but this “only caused a ripple with the males.” “Shapiro recounted how the “Pink Powder Puff” editorial fell outside the scope of conventional thinking and achieved the ultimate goal of any publicity campaign: ‘get the opening'” (Page 150).
Shapiro’s transcripts reveal that his boss Abrams had started negotiations for the distribution of The Son of the Sheik with the largest theater chain in Chicago, Balaban and Katz. They rejected his offer of exhibition rights, and wanted to lower the price, claiming that “Valentino didn’t mean a thing in Chicago.” This is what set things in motion, as Abrams asked Shapiro to created a “publicity campaign unmatched in [Valentino’s] career” (Page 150).
On July 10, Shapiro said he was instructed by Abrams to send “the livest wire” on his staff “to do something about Valentino” when he stopped in Chicago between trains. Jimmy Ashcroft* was the pick; he was told to leave New York and get to Chicago and get “‘something on the front page, something–anything, provocative and entertaining.”‘ Shapiro met on July 12 as Ashcroft left for Chicago to give final instructions; both were on the same page (Page 150). (*Elsewhere referred to as “John” Ashcroft.)
The “opening” came when TheChicago Tribune published the “Pink Powder Puff” editorial on Sunday, July 18, 1926. Shapiro spotted it, as he called it, as a potential “Valentine to Valentino.” Valentino arrived in Chicago on July 19. Ashcroft showed him the piece (which Shapiro designates as “A”) and began “stoking up [his] indignation.” Then, Ashcroft gave a prepared reply (referred to as “B”) to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Herald-Examiner, TheChicago Tribune‘s arch competitor. Within hours, Hearst had the prepared reply over the newswires and his papers across the country. The speed of the response further encouraged other editorial managers around the country to take the “Pink Powder Puff” piece seriously even though some recent academic analysis suggests the piece was really an ironic tone, not to be taken literally (Page 150) and was simply written in the typically sarcastic style of the day.
The response/”challenge” letter signed by Valentino (described as “B” by Shapiro)…
Note the misspelling of the word “defy” as “defi” in two places.
Note the scribbled addition to the third paragraph…which bears no likeness to the handwriting of Valentino as seen in original letters.
The note reads:
“Didn’t know who you are or how big you are but this challenge stands if you are as big as Jack Dempsey.”
Source: Worthpoint.com auction lot
Shapiro then instructed Ashcroft to “keep [Valentino] fired up” on the way to New York as Ashcroft and Shapiro and his assistant, Warren Knowland were pulling together what to do next before Valentino and Ashcroft arrived in New York (Page 150-151).
Give him some printable catch lines, have him carry a copy of the novel Cellini, his next picture. We'll have photos at the station, a press conference at the hotel, with Prohibition's best handing out copies of, of Chicago editorial and Rudy's answer. Then it's up to ye gods, and ye gods it was (laughter).
Shapiro contacted his friend Lloyd “Red” Stratton of the Associated Press on the morning of July 20, told him where Valentino would be staying and “suggested” the AP would have first access, although not exclusive access, to Valentino. Everything was ready in advance. The welcome would include a police escort for Valentino from Grand Central Station to the Ambassador Hotel. (George Ullman would recall that “the sight of motorcycle traffic officers clearing the way for his triumphal car always thrilled him” (The S. George Ullman Memoir, Page 215). At the station, the crowd needed to be controlled, with the station guards managing to get Valentino into his car without having his clothes ripped off. Shapiro finally met George Ullman and they discussed who would be handling what: Shapiro would handle the “picture end” of the publicity, while Ullman would stick to the “personal matters.” However, according to Shapiro, in reality, he was handling everything. (This included his idea that “‘Rudy was to receive the press in his blue and green silk robe and purple pajama, for the benefit of the lady reporters [laughter].'”)
By that afternoon the Associated Press and the Hearst papers were carrying the story and from that point on, the phones rang non-stop with requests for interviews–“every news outlet in town, fan and general magazines, foreign press, film critics, males and females, sport writers” called and they all received personal interviews. More than 100 members of the media filed in and out of Valentino’s suite (Page 151).
Bertellini goes on to relate Shapiro’s descriptions of the staged match between Valentino and Frank “Buck” O’Neil on the hotel rooftop in front of a Pathe’ cameraman, which the author describes “as the promotional equivalent, as a staged event, of Valentino’s prepared response to the press.” Satirical cartoons, like the one pictured above, considered the “challenge” to fight an anonymous editorial writer as nothing other than a stunt. But, it was an effective stunt, because Shapiro received a report from Ashcroft in Chicago that the papers were breaking stories about how “‘the Balaban and Katz crowd never, never again would say Valentino doesn’t mean a thing there.'” Ashcroft also told Shapiro that when Valentino returned to Chicago for The Son of the Sheik‘s premiere, another statement (referred to as “C” by Shapiro) to the anonymous author of the Pink Powder Puff editorial would be ready.
The premiere of The Son of the Sheik at the Strand in New York was greeted with “mobs of spectators,” long lines and big ticket sales; a few days later the scene would be repeated at the premiere in Chicago. Valentino arrived at the train station to an enthusiastic crowd and shouted, “Mr. Editor, I am here. I am ready. Where are you?” He posed with flexed muscles and boxed with a welterweight named “Kid” Hogan at a gym in the Loop (Leider, Dark Lover, Page 375). Valentino’s second prepared statement ( “C” ) in which Valentino stated that he felt “vindicated” was issued and went national in a few hours.
"The heroic silence of the writer who chose to attack me with any provocation in The Chicago Tribune leaves no doubt as to the total absence of manliness in his whole makeup. I feel that I have been vindicated."
When Valentino went back East and appeared in Atlantic City on August 3rd, the crowds were there, too, and after his appearance at that premiere, he went to the Gus Edwards revue. There, where Valentino would dance his last tango, he was given a pair of boxing gloves just in case he got a chance to use them on the author of the “powder puffs” editorial. When The Son of the Sheik opened in Brooklyn a few days later the crowds came out again to fill the theater. Bertellini relates how Shapiro thought the entire effort was “‘the most extensive and intensive publicity break in Rudy’s short life,”‘ described himself and Valentino as “‘more than passable actors”…and recalled that Valentino “‘was acting his resentment'” (Pages 151 and 153).
Shapiro’s remarks seem to be a true recollection of the situation, namely, that Valentino willingly participated in the scheme. In the context of his stressful physical condition as well as the pressure of needing The Son of the Sheik to be a hit to not only enhance his career but also to help relieve his worrying financial predicament (large debts), Valentino played his role to the hilt, not only in print, but in speaking with reporters. In the “challenge” letter shown above and in the subsequent interview in the Los Angeles Times report, he made a point of saying that this was “not for the purpose of publicity” which sounds disingenuous. While claiming that he had written the letter, he told the Associated Press in New York on July 20 “…I handed it to my publicity agent and let him do the rest.” And Ellenberger writes that “Valentino later alluded to the act that someone else may have suggested or at least helped with the challenge when, in Chicago ten days later, he said: ‘I’m not boasting about my physical strength. I never should have allowed my press agent to make such a point of fact'” (The Valentino Mystique, Page 17).
But, was he really “[acting] his resentment” as Shapiro states? Shapiro wasn’t an intimate of Valentino, so he most likely didn’t have the deepest insight into Valentino’s emotional states. His job was to churn out publicity. There is very little doubt that Valentino did find the editorial insulting and that it took a toll on him. Unfortunately, Valentino’s words and actions provided a field day for the cartoonists and writers who scented blood and ratcheted up the pressure. (I’ve found a number of articles from papers all over the country whose tone mocked his statements and dress, even as they delivered the facts of the story.) Valentino had become a running joke.
Valentino was genuinely disturbed by what he felt was as an assault on his image as a man as well as the racist overtones of the piece. The “slave bracelet” became a point of contention regarding Valentino’s “manliness.” His manager George Ullman recounts how as they were traveling from Chicago to New York after the anonymous editorial was published, Valentino’s “whole being was disorganized” and that the words “stuck in Rudy’s craw….Rudy repeated the words more times than I heard him utter any other phrase in all the years I knew him” (The S. George Ullman Memoir, Page 78).
After nearly two weeks of publicity generated by the “Pink Powder Puffs” editorial and with only one more scheduled appearance in Philadelphia, Valentino was free to enjoy himself…and he did with a whirlwind of socializing at New York City venues, attending shows, and visiting Long Island’s Pleasure Island on weekends to escape the city heat. One weekend he went out to Long Island with his old friend George Raft; Raft recalled that “He looked pretty bad and …as we pulled up to to this fabulous home he told me ‘…It’s all been great, but I am a lonely man'” (George Raft, Lewis Yablonsky, Page 43). He took up with showgirl Marian Benda, while dealing with Pola Negri who was left behind working in Los Angeles. He mended fences with his first wife Jean Acker, Adolph Zukor and his old friend June Mathis. He discussed his next film project based on the life of the Benvenuto Cellini with his future co-star Estelle Taylor, the wife of his friend Jack Dempsey, four days before he was stricken.
He indulged in excessive drinking and eating and taking copious amounts of sodium bicarbonate for what he called his “nervous indigestion.” Adela Rogers St. Johns, also staying at the Ambassador Hotel in New York, recalls how just before being stricken with his fatal illness, he rummaged through her bathroom medicine cabinet in search of sodium bicarbonate after indulging in a heavy lunch of snails and told her how the fling with Pola wasn’t real, bemoaning how “Pola always drives me to the bicarbonate of soda.” And, he was still not over his divorce, telling St. Johns that “In the courts, she divorces me. Can you divorce in the heart?” (Love, Laughter and Tears: My Hollywood Story, Pages 177-178).
Even though he felt “vindicated” and was indulging in non-stop partying, Valentino remained preoccupied with anguish over the Pink Powder Puffs sneer and the effects of the publicity campaign. About a week to ten days before he was stricken, Valentino sought a meeting with H. L. Mencken, the famous critic and essayist. Mencken, who wrote for The Baltimore Sun, was known as the “Sage of Baltimore” and described the meeting after Valentino died.
...So he sought counsel from the neutral, aloof and aged. Unluckily, I could only name the disease, and confess frankly that there was no remedy...He should have passed over the give of he Chicago journalist, I suggested, with a lofty snort--perhaps, better still, with a counter gibe He should have kept away from the reporters in New York. But now, alas, the mischief was done. He was both insulted and ridiculous, but there was nothing to do about it. I advised him to let the dreadful farce foll along to exhaustion. He protested that it was infamous...Sentimental or not, I confess that the predicament of poor Valentino touched me. It provided grist for my mill, but I couldn't quite enjoy it...Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was one who was very unhappy (Prejudices, Sixth Series, Pages 308,311).
(“Prejudices” is available at Archive.org. The short, poignant film “Goodnight Valentino” which depicts the meeting is available here.)
In the April 15, 1922 issue of Pantomime magazine, Valentino was the subject of a column entitled “Read ‘Em and Know ‘Em“– “A ‘Mental’ Photograph of Rodolfo Valentino“. Asked what his favorite motto was, he replied “Live and Let Live!” When the slave bracelet that his then wife Natacha Rambova gave him started garnering attention, George Ullman noted that Valentino ignored “their jibes and insults” (The S. George Ullman Memoir, Page 117). Luther Mahoney, who became Valentino’s handyman, also stated that Valentino “never paid any attention to such comments from such people. He was not used to making bad remarks about people so they just rolled off him, like water off a duck’s back” (The Intimate Life of Rudolph Valentino, Page 71). But the Pink Powder Puffs attack was harder to deal with that July. As Adela Rogers St. Johns commented “Although all of us, Herb Howe, Jimmy Quirk, me bugged him to, Valentino couldn’t let it alone….It was the last straw, somehow” (Love, Laughter and Tears, Page 176).
Valentino was rushed to the Polyclinic Hospital on Sunday, August 15. When he awoke after surgery from the ether his first words were “Did I behave like a pink powder puff or like a man?”
Victor Mansfield Shapiro was still on the job when , although he was out of town and first read the newspapers reports of Valentino’s hospitalization on August 16. According to his recollections, “‘I didn’t believe it. Nonsense!’ So he called his assistant, Knowland, fearing that Knowland had been ‘pulling a stunt without [his] knowledge'” (Bertellini, Page 153).
Although Shapiro, Ullman and UA hoped it would quickly pass, in the meantime they saw it as another publicity opportunity. Shapiro and Knowland went to the "press room at the hospital" and even though Ullman was in charge of "personal publicity," the crisis called again for a breach of contractual protocol: "Biographies and pictures of Valentino were passed out by Knowland."...He died on August 23, 1926, to the apparent surprise of everyone--his fans, the studio, and his publicists. The latter group was to react to it in ways that would frame both his passing and afterlife. (Bertellini, Pages 153-154)
…and that reaction would be seen in a funeral, unlike any funeral 1920’s New York had ever seen before…
NOTE 1: “Founder Albert E. Smith, in collaboration with coauthor Phil A. Koury, wrote an autobiography, Two Reels and a Crank, in 1952. It includes a very detailed history of Vitagraph and a lengthy list of people who had been in the Vitagraph Family. In the text of the book he also refers to hiring a 17-year-old Rudolph Valentino into the set-decorating department, but within a week he was being used by directors as an extra in foreign parts, mainly as a Russian Cossack.” –Wikipedia
NOTE 2: Ellenberger also states that the studio and Valentino’s manager George Ullman would hire “forty press agents to handle and publicize the funeral” to keep Valentino’s name in the public eye (page 62).
The Victor Mansfield Shapiro Archive
Title: Victor Mansfield Shapiro Papers , Date (inclusive): 1915-1967 Repository: University of California, Los Angeles. Library. Department of Special Collections. Los Angeles, California 90095-1575 Abstract: Victor Mansfield Shapiro was a independent publicity man for the Hollywood film industry. The collection consists of public relations and promotional materials relating to the motion picture industry, including questionnaires, codes, biographies, scrapbooks, clippings, photographs, and tapes of interviews with transcripts.
7. Harry L. Reichenbach – greatest movie press agent
8. Experiences publicizing Rudolph Valentino
Bertellini, Giorgio. The Divo and the Duce:Promoting Film Stardom and Political Leadership in 1920s America. 1st ed., vol. 1, University of California Press, 2019. JSTOR
Ellenberger, Allan R. The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2005.
Editors of Fourth Estate: A Weekly Newspaper for Publishers, Advertisers, Advertising Agents and Allied Interests. United States: Fourth Estate Publishing Company, 1916.
Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The LIfe and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
Mencken, H. L. Prejudices, Sixth Series. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927. (Available for free download at Archive.org.)
Scagnetti, Jack. The Intimate Life of Rudolph Valentino. Middle Village, New York: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1975.
St. Johns, Adela Rogers. Love, Laughter and Tears: My Hollywood Story. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1978.
Ullman, George. The S. George Ullman Memoir: The Real Rudolph Valentino By the Man Who Knew Him Best. Torino, Italy: Viale Industria Publicazionio, 2014.
Yablonsky, Lewis. George Raft. New York: A Signet Book, New American Library, 1974.
The filming of Camille had been completed in February 1921 and Rudolph Valentino’s next film, The Conquering Power began production one week later, with filming completed a few weeks later by the end of March 1921, with some work in April for retakes. In the meantime, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse premiered on March 6, 1921.
The Conquering Power was released a few days after Valentino began work on The Sheik on July 5, 1921. Valentino hadn’t worked from the end of March after filming The Conquering Power ended until the start of production on the film that would make his career explode later that year.
Tumult surrounded the production of “The Conquering Power.” The team that had produced The Four Horsemen included June Mathis, who wrote the script, and Rex Ingram, who would direct. Tensions with Metro arose over money almost immediately and conflict between Valentino and Ingram hung over the production.
The script was based on Honore’ de Balzac’s novel “Eugenie Grandet” which was part of Balzac’s series of novels about post-Revolutionary France under the title “The Human Comedy” (La Comedie Humaine) published between 1829-1950. It was written in 1833. The story opens in 1819 after the country has settled down after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. While Balzac was writing the story he developed his idea for “The Human Comedy” and quickly released a second edition, “revising the names of some of the characters so that Eugénie Grandet then fitted into the section: Scenes from provincial life (Scènes de la vie de province) in the Comédie.” (Wikiwand.com)
The novel was drastically truncated and story elements altered. The opening scene of Charles Grandet’s wild birthday party does not exist in the novel, for example. June Mathis’ script tried to shift the focus to Valentino and elevate the character of Charles into a romantic hero (Leider, page 144). And while he goes Martinique secretly engaged to Eugenie and returns years later and reunites with her in the film, the book is dramatically different. He does go to the West Indies among other places while making a fortune as a slave trader, which is not mentioned in the film; he asks Eugenie for his freedom to marry a woman from a noble family to enhance his status when he is back in Paris (saying he does not love her); and after Eugenie releases him she marries an old family friend without love, with the understanding that the marriage will never be consummated. After her husband dies, Eugenie lives frugally as she always has and gives her wealth to charity. The romantic reunion with Charles in the film after years apart never happens in the novel.
Against the advice of June Mathis, during the announcement of the film to the press, Valentino approached Ingram to ask him to talk to Metro’s Maxwell Karger about an increase in salary over the $350 a week that he was making. Ingram refused and Natacha Rambova thought Valentino should talk to Karger directly, which he did. Karger at that point was unwilling to raise his salary which didn’t satisfy Valentino.
Meanwhile, Natacha coached Valentino on how to enhance his importance for his future in pictures. She emphasized the importance of the people who lit the set, called juicers, and what he should tell the makeup people. He picked over the width of the lapels on coats. Valentino also groused about his lack of camera time but the reality was that his character was absent from long stretches of the book. When he displayed his new attitude on the set, the real friction between himself and Ingram began even as Ingram was already wary as Valentino’s performance in The Four Horsemen had gained so much attention at the expense of Ingram’s masterful direction.
Gag shot which belies the stress on the set….
Publicity portrait of, from left, director Rex Ingram, Rudolph Valentino, and Alice Terry from THE CONQUERING POWER, 1921. 7×9 b&w photographic print.
Source: Publicity portrait from the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Ingram focused on the visual effects of the film. He would film his fiancee Alice Terry, who played Eugenie, with gauze in front of the camera to emphasize her fragility and ethereal nature (Shulman, page 153). Valentino became increasingly temperamental to the point where Ingram one day left the set to go to Karger to demand a replacement and start the picture all over again with a young actor named Ramon Samaniegas, the future Ramon Navarro. Valentino, knowing that the studio considered Ingram to be the more important asset at this point, went to Karger and tried to explain that he simply wanted to do his best and hoped for a better situation with Ingram…Karger said the studio had decided to give him a $50 a week raise for the last few weeks of filming which didn’t make Valentino completely happy (Shulman, page 152). June Mathis would act as a buffer between him and the director, assuring him that Ingram would not deliberately sabotage Valentino with poor lighting or shooting angles and the film was finally completed. Although the situation had been patched up, when asked if he would make another picture with Alice Terry and Valentino, Ingram replied with a firm “No.” And he would not deny that he had wanted to scrap the picture and start over again with another actor.
By the time the picture opened on July 8, 1921, Valentino had left Metro to sign a contract with Jesse Lasky at Famous Players-Lasky. Ingram was praised for his direction and photographic effects and innovative lighting (Leider, page 144), while Valentino was praised in The New York Times for “his finished performance as Charles Grandet. He is a pantomimist of marked ability.” (The New York Times, July 10, 1921). However, the film didn’t achieve the box office success that had greeted The Four Horsemen. Some critics did not like the shift to modern dress from what would have been worn in the early 1800’s. But polling had been done which showed that at the time, the public wasn’t interested in costume drama and June Mathis in the opening title acknowledges that “commercialism tells us that you, Great Public, do not like the costume play.”
But tastes would shift, at least among the women in the audience. The Sheik opened in two theaters in New York, the Rialto on October 30, 1921, then moving to the Rivoli the next week, smashing attendance records. According to Emily Leider, after Valentino became identified as the Sheik, when his pre-Sheik films were circulated, including The Conquering Power, “female patrons left the theater disappointed if the revived picture scanted” on love scenes.
A theater manager in Wisconsin complained that after seeing The Conquering Power his lady patrons gave him "a terrible razz...as they expected to see Valentino float through five or six reels of lovemaking."
On May 11, 1921 Rudolph Valentino wrote check No. 10008 in green ink payable to Walter M. Murphy Motors Co. for the sum of $200.00, drawn on his account at the Hollywood Branch of the Citizens Trust and Savings Bank, Los Angeles. It was signed “R. Valentino.” I have touched it only one time. It is extremely thin and the paper almost feels like fabric…so different from the stiff paper we see in our modern day checks. Perhaps time has taken its toll…100 years is such a long time ago, yet this check is part of my life now.
Interior of the Citizens Trust and Savings Bank, Hollywood Boulevard & North McCadden Place, Los Angeles, Ca, 1928
Quickly begins work on Uncharted Seas, filming during December 1920 (see this prior post for details). Meets Natacha Rambova. First formal date Christmas week, 1920 at a costume ball, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles.
Filming of Camille underway January-February 1921. First wife Jean Acker files for divorce, January 17, 1921. Valentino fully smitten with Rambova during this time and relationship develops. They soon begin to co-habit at Rambova’s Sunset Boulevard bungalow.
The Conquering Power begins production one week after filming of Camille is completed.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse premieres March 6, 1921.
Filming of The Conquering Power completed in a few weeks by the end of March 1921. After this film, Valentino will have no work until July 1921. Money is very tight during this time.(Valentino is in debt, paying off his New York tailors for all the suits he had made to use in The Four Horsemen. During especially lean times, he hunts and eats mussels found at the beach.)
Also in March, the American edition of The Sheik, by E.M. Hull, appears and becomes an immediate success.
Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation has been negotiating the rights for Hull’s The Sheik, finally purchasing the rights for $12,500.
Valentino leaves Metro Pictures after the completion of filming The Conquering Power, following friction during filming and money issues. Valentino offered the lead role in The Sheik. Signs a 2 picture deal with an option for an extension with Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. In a letter to Adolph Zukor dated July 2, 1921, Lasky writes that he is “fortunate in getting Valentino, the remarkable boy who played the lead in The Four Horsemen” and that casting the film has just finished.
July 5, 1921…The Sheik begins production and filming ends by late August.
The Conquering Power released July 8, 1921.
Camille released September 26, 1921.
The Sheik released October 30, 1921.
What would make Rudolph spend $200.00 (about $2960.00 in 2021) at Murphy Motors while not working, paying off debts and hunting for dinner during months without income? It seems to have been the NEED FOR SPEED.
As a youth in Taranto, Italy following his stint in agricultural school, cars were a way to pass the time. He was already attracted to speed. From Emily Leider’s Dark Lover, page 36:
In her book, Rudy: An Intimate Portrait of Rudolph Valentino By His Wife Natacha Rambova, Rambova spends quite a bit of time recounting Valentino’s preoccupation with cars, commenting how “Automobiles from the first were Rudy’s downfall.” He purchased a Mercer, which was considered to be the first sports car, on installment. The Mercer Series 5 was produced between 1919 and 1922 with prices over these years ranging from $3,675 – $5,650 making it on the high end of automobile prices. (Rounding off to $5,000, for example, a Mercer bought for that price in 1921 would cost $73,988 in 2021!) There were 6 body types including sedans, with the “sports car” version often called a “Speedster” in ads. It could reach speeds of 70-80 mph. (Rambova commented that “Rudy always had expensive tastes”….)
This ad for a 1920 Sport Model shows the appeal this car would have had for Valentino.
Chicago Tribune, Sun., September 4, 1921, Pg. 82.
When his acting jobs stopped at the end of March 1921, Valentino eventually lost the car and about half of what he had put into it. So, without a car of his own, he borrowed Rambova’s Buick “runabout” which she acquired when she started working at Metro Studios sometime in 1919. The term “runabout” was going out of use by 1915 when it was replaced by the term “roadster”. The original runabouts were very light cars usually without doors, windows or roofs usually seating 2 passengers and they eventually became virtually indistinguishable from roadsters. Roadsters were more refined with concave “hoods” over the dashboard which would deflect moving air away from the front passengers. (Hooded dashboards were also found on speed cars.) We don’t know if she bought a used “runabout” or newer model “roadster” but they were quite similar in appearance although seats in the runabout were further to the rear of the vehicle than they were in the roadster. Rambova fitted her car out with extras–“mirrors, spotlights, canteens, etc.”
Whichever car Rambova owned, it lacked enough “pick-up” to suit Valentino. He scoured ads and had his connections at the studio on the lookout for a second-hand car that would meet his standards. He finally found a 1914 Cadillac, according to Rambova, which still had remnants of blue paint on the body and then campaigned to convince Rambova to allow him to trade in her runabout for the Cadillac. He even pocketed $400 on the trade. For Valentino, it was all about the motor; it had good speed even though it was not a racer–it could hit 70 mph–and it had “marvelous pick-up.” As for the body…no problem, it could be brought up to like new condition “in a week.”
And so the deal was done!
Valentino already had some experience with Cadillacs because while filming The Four Horsemen, he was ferried to the set in a Cadillac studio limousine.
The model year of the Cadillac he bought varies, with most sources, including Leider, saying the car was a 1914 model, while Donna Hill in Rudolph Valentino-The Silent Idol says it was the 1915 version. While Cadillac made models that looked very similar from year to year, there is one critical difference between these two production years. Part of the discrepancy may be due to the fact that Cadillac introduced a new engine in late 1914 for the 1915 production year.
Introduced in 1914 as the standard engine for all 1915 models, Cadillac’s first V8, the Type 51, used a 90-degree layout with three main bearings, L-head combustion chambers and water cooling...Cadillac’s initial design was a true high speed engine...the first use of a thermostatically controlled cooling system that was eventually adopted by all car manufacturers...soon earned world-wide praise for unprecedented smoothness and performance. The L-Head was on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines of the 20th century list.
1914: The last of the 4-cylinder Cadillac models. The motor was rated 40HP.
1915: New Cadillac V8 model dubbed "The sweetest running car in the world". "The ultimate in motor car engines" was the verdict of the industry's representative engineers. ...Top speed was a conservative 55-65 mph...
Trivia: On August 29, 1915, a stock Cadillac V8 drove a distance of 72 miles in 77 minutes and beat by 12 minutes the express Vandalia passenger train between Indianapolis and Terre-Haute, Indiana. On some stretches the car reached a speed of 75 mph. Remember this is 1915 and the car is a stock Cadillac!
Dropping down a body during the assembly of a 1914 Cadillac touring model which was nearly identical to the 1915 version.
A restored 1914 Cadillac…looking very similar to Valentino’s car.
But, note some of the differences in the photo below which are found on Valentino’s car: the custom trim, the glass windscreen in front of the passengers, and the location of the small “spots” located over the front fenders.
According to Evelyn Zamaya in her book Affairs Valentino (page 78), Valentino would work on the car during lunch hours during the final days of filming The Sheik. Rambova relates in her memoir that “he worked untiringly on the transformation of this ugly duckling, fitting it out with two strong “spots” on either side of the windshields, a cigarette lighter on the driving board, and many other improvements all installed by himself.” These other improvements included mirrors, a custom trim and, as Rambova comments, “After a good coat of black paint–egg-shell finish–and much polishing of the nickel trimmings, it really didn’t look so bad.” However, she reported that the car would break down at “the most inopportune moments,” which Valentino brushed off as being something that happened with powerful motors. And and it also guzzled oil and gas. But…for Valentino, it was a REAL car…
And here is something truly amazing: We can actually hear what Valentino heard when he started the engine! Watch these videos on Youtube:
It’s quite something to hear this engine running and imagining Valentino working on it, 100 years ago.
This brings us back to the check written to Walter M. Murphy Motors. Murphy Motors was founded in 1920 in Pasadena, California as a dealer for Simplex automobiles. It added Leland Lincolns to its roster and then Duesenbergs. The “coach building” aspect of Murphy’s Motors began as an unplanned aside. Basically, the company started to change the top and paint on the Leland Lincolns because Murphy’s clientele thought the original designs were not modern or flashy enough and because he thought the engineering of the Lincolns was poor. Murphy bought equipment and brought in staff from the New Jersey-based Healey and Company and by 1922 began making a name among wealthy clients, which included industrialists, movie stars and car aficionados, by building custom bodies on top of the basic chassis of many brands.
Murphy is known to have built on Bentley, Bugatti, Buick, Cadillac, Cord, Crane-Simplex, Doble, Dorris, Essex, Ford, Hispano-Suiza, Hudson, Isotta- Fraschini, Lincoln, Locomobile, Marmon, Mercedes-Benz, Mercer, Minerva, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Rolls-Royce and Simplex chassis, but they are most famous for their work on the Duesenberg Model J. Source: Coachbuild.com, The Coachbuilders Encyclopedia
It seems logical to assume that Valentino wrote this check on May 11, 1921 for $200.00 to buy parts from the Walter M. Murphy Motors Company that he needed for his restoration work. It is quite likely that he would have asked for advice and perhaps would have some work like the new paint job and custom trim done by the company itself.
So, today marks the 100 year anniversary of the day Rudolph Valentino went over to Pasadena to an auto business, bought parts, chatted about his treasured second-hand Cadillac, and then went home to work on it…
And the proof of how he spent that day is in the check…
NOTE: An image of the check is now posted in the My Memorablilia/Book Collection section of this blog.
1. Valentino’s used Cadillac was apparently gone by the time of his death in August 1926. In the list of estate items in auctioned off only the following vehicles are listed: the 1925 Isotta Fraschini; the 1925 Avion Voisin; a 1926 Franklin Coupe; a 1925 Chevrolet Roadster, and a 1922 Ford Truck. Source: Allan R. Ellenberg, The Valentino Mystique. page 182.
2. A photo of the showroom of Walter M. Murphy Motors which was relocated in to West Colorado Avenue, Pasadena in 1920. Photo ca. 1927.
Walter M. Murphy Motors, 285 West Colorado, Pasadena, ca. 1927.
Listing for Early Auto-Related Properties in Pasadena, California
American companies (which came to be concentrated in southern Michigan) along with their European counterparts would often ship their high performance chassis to New York and Los Angeles were there was a strong market for luxury cars.6 Local custom coach builders would then complete the automobile according to the individual taste of the patron. One such company was the Walter M. Murphy Motor Company of Pasadena.Walter M. Murphy came from a Detroit family that had made its fortune in lumbering. An uncle, William H. Murphy was a stockholder in Henry M. Leland’s Cadillac as well as a backer of Henry Ford’s early automotive ventures. Before entering the custom body5 Peter Ling, America and the Automobile: Technology. Reform and Social Change. p. 127.6 Duesenberg, Lincoln, and Cadillac were the first American made luxury cars able to compete with the European imports such as Mercedes and Rolls Royce. business, Murphy sold Simplex and Locomobile cars. In 1920, he moved into new facilities at 275-85 West Colorado Boulevard and became the California distributor for the new Lincoln luxury car. He expanded into the body business as a result of the Lincoln’s poor engineering and conservative styling. After Lincoln was acquired by Ford in 1922, Murphy turned to building custom bodies for a variety of luxury car chassis at his Pasadena plant at 37-55 North Vernon Avenue (now St. John Street); however, Murphy built more bodies on Duesenberg chassis than any other coach builder in the United States. Murphy’s forte was in designing convertibles and roadsters.
Section F: Associated Property Types Page 18-19 Automobile showrooms are significant under criterion B if they are associated with individuals who pioneered and/or innovated the automobile sales business in Pasadena. Walter Murphy, for example, was one of the most significant figures in the history of automobiles in the United States. He was a nationally recognized leader in the sale and manufacturing of luxury automobiles, including Lincolns and Duesenbergs.
Rambova, Natacha. “Rudy: An Intimate Portrait of Rudolph Valentino by His Wife Natacha Rambova.” News Clippings of the Life of Natacha Rambova & Rudy Valentino with Complete Transcript of her Book. Middletown, Delaware: Self-published, 2021. (book available at Ebay, ISBN 9798565516371)
Although Uncharted Seas (released 1921; filmed at Metro Studios, late 1920) is truly a lost film, with absolutely no footage surviving, there is a great deal of fascinating history surrounding what would be the first film Rudolph Valentino made after completing his breakout role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (See my previous post on that film here.)
In a postcard written from Palm Springs, California on November 13, 1920 to his sister Maria in Italy, Valentino told her that he had finished work on The Four Horsemen.
By December he was back at work on Uncharted Seas
Emily Leider in her biography Dark Lover remarks that Valentino was “shoved into a supporting part in a standard-issue production.” (page 127) To be realistic about it, Valentino was a contract player at the time and the studio had taken a huge risk with him in the expensive Four Horsemen, which had taken 6 months to complete. While the film and Valentino were getting a lot of buzz in the industry, the fact is the public would not see the film until late March of 1921. The studio was not going to elevate him to superstar status just yet. And Uncharted Seas wasn’t meant to be a bottom of the barrel production just because it was a “standard-issue production.” The director was Wesley Ruggles, who already had wide directing experience and who would later win the Oscar for Best Director in 1931 for Cimarron, and John Seitz, who was the favorite cameraman of The Four Horsemen’s director Rex Ingram, was on board to shoot the film. And, any film, unless there had been another blockbuster suited to Valentino available to start filming, would have been a step down at that point from the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! Furthermore, Uncharted Seas was based on a short story by a writer whose work had already been turned into plays and films.
Meet John Fleming Wilson
John Fleming Wilson was born in 1877 in Erie, Pennsylvania and passed away in Venice, California in 1922. He was a prolific writer of short stories and adventure novels, some which take place in the Pacific Northwest and the California desert. Even with very little biographical information available, one can get a sense of who he was was from the dedications and forewards from a few of his books. (Many of his books and a short story are available for free download at The Internet Archive at archive.org. Just search the author’s name.)
For example, in Across the Latitudes (1911), a seafaring story, he dedicates the book “To My Friends of the S.S. Hanalei.” The Land Claimers, also published in 1911, is dedicated “To United States Senator George E. Chamberlain of Oregon” and includes a loving “Foreward: To My Wife”(below). Then, in his dedication to one of his best known works, The Man Who Came Back (1912), he muses about his sailing adventures and “the Unknown Woman.” The Man Who Came Back was adapted as a Broadway play which, according to IMDB “was considered a smash hit by the standards of pre-WWI Broadway…Filmed by Fox Film Corp. twice, The Man Who Came Back (1924) starring George O’Brien and as The Man Who Came Back (1931), starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.”
The Master Key, one of Fleming’s best known books, is set in the California desert:
Here’s a tidbit…Robert Leonard, who starred in the film of The Master Key (now lost) would marry Mae Murray, Rudolph Valentino’s long time friend/sometime lover (?) in 1918. She would divorce him in 1925 to marry fortune hunter (Prince?) David Mdivani with Valentino in attendance as best man. Leonard would move on to directing and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
John Wilson Fleming earned some notice in Moving Picture Magazine in October 1920 (“John Fleming Wilson Enters the Moving Picture Field”) and October 1921 (October 1 1921, pg. 560, “John Fleming Wilson Has Signed with Ince”). Thomas H. Ince revolutionized the movie industry and was the first film mogul to build his own studio…read about him here. It is not clear what John Wilson Fleming’s role working for Ince would have been. Perhaps he would have done his own adaptations of his stories or would have started writing original scripts. However, John Wilson Fleming died only a few months later in March 1922…but at least he saw his short story, The Uncharted Sea, produced for the screen by Metro in late 1920.
Here are the illustrations from the story as they appeared in Munsey’s Magazine:
The first thing you will notice if you read the full story is that the name of the hero has been changed from Ralph Underwood to Frank Underwood in the film. Wise move…can you imagine Rudolph Valentino being named “Ralph” let alone “Frank”? From the 3rd and last illustration you can also see that the “Frank” character has a very chiseled, all-American look. Now, there are some stills which depict rugged action and some images in which Rudolph has “natural” hair and looks fairly “chiseled”…but, then there are the stills where he looks almost angelic. That juxtaposition is emblematic of the “mystique of Valentino”!
Follow the slideshow to see the on location action, the All-American Rudolph, and the angelic Rudolph:
Where did all the snow come from? According to Strictly Vintage Hollywood, the film was “filmed on the Metro Pictures Corporation lot located on Cahuenga Blvd. and also on location in the Northern California town of Truckee for some of the exterior snow scenes.” (NOTE: Donna Hill in her book Rudolph Valentino: The Silent Idol places the location in Flagstaff, Arizona.) Here is the picture of the back lot snow pile:
The star of the movie, of course, was Alice Lake, who played Lucretia Eastman…
…which may have been a good thing for Valentino because at least one film review was not overly enthusiastic. The May 7, 1921 Exhibitors Herald review digest liked Alice Lake and the photography but thought the tale was “drawn out.” … with no mention of Valentino.
The full review in the same issue of the Exhbitors Herald was even more pointed: “Familiar triangle plot. Makes a poor vehicle for Metro star.” The star referred to was NOT Valentino…ironically, the only mention he received was in a mistake in the caption of the accompanying picture! That’s not Rudolph Valentino with Alice Lake–that’s Carl Gerard who played the errant husband Tim Eastman!
Uncharted Seas may not have been a stellar film, but from all the information I have found, it’s still a film of interest that is sadly lost to time. Hopefully, this post will help bring it alive again on the 100th anniversary of its release…
Many of John Wilson Fleming’s books are available as original or reprint editions from Amazon, EBay, and many used book sites. Scouts of the Desert and Across the Latitudes are available in Kindle editions.