In my previous post I detailed the dueling Los Angeles premieres Rudolph Valentino enjoyed on October 30, 1921–the “Western” premiere of Camille and the “pre-release” debut of The Sheik. The Sheik then premiered in New York in two theaters–on November 6 at the Rialto at Times Square in Manhattan and in Brooklyn at the Rivoli.
The day after the premiere, the ad for The Sheik in The New York Tribune heralded first day attendance–20,000 on the opening day–although it shared the ad space with another Paramount Film, Peter Ibbetson. The following week, the ad for The Sheik on November 13 was far bigger and featured exciting descriptions of the film as the picture entered its second week at the Times Square Rialto.
Like her Los Angeles counterpart a week earlier, New York Tribune critic Harriet Underhill panned the story line of The Sheik in her review the day after the film opened.
Harriet Underhill writing in
The New York Tribune
Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 8.
…Kindly play “Hearts and Flowers.“
But Harriet Underhill’s critical appraisal seemed to soften as she commented, “…The Sheik, almost got us at certain moments in the performance yesterday at the Rivoli Theater. It is probably that this was so because the title role is played by Rudolph Valentino, and most any woman would try to bear it with equanimity if he carried her away on his Arabian steed to be the queen of the caravan.” While commenting that Agnes Ayres “doesn’t do anything in particular with Diana Mayo, the young lady who was the object of Ahmed’s desire,” she had much more to say about Valentino. She noted the “very wide eyes” that reminded her of Theda Bara but overall she was impressed by his screen presence as a “fine young animal, with a sense of humor and a predilection for vamping” instead of what she feared might be a portrayal as a “conservative and dignified person.”
The New York Times critic (name unknown) wrote a review that could be described as “tepid.” After discussing how the novel offered “no little amusement for the book reviewers,” he continued:
Again the writer must confess that he has not read the novel from which the photoplay under review has been derived. He knew he would have to see the picture sooner or later. Isn’t that enough?” ….Agnes Ayres is the girl and Rudolph Valentino is the sheik. Both of them can make the characters they impersonate seem real in a picture, which gives any character a chance to seem real.
(The New York Times, Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 20)
The New York Daily News critic, writing under the name “McElliott” was unhappy over the fact that the picture had been “denatured.” (“The Sheik” Has Been Denatured for the Movies, Daily News, Tuesday, November 8, 1921. Page 21.)
Daily News, New York, New York
Tuesday, November 8, 1921. Page 17
McElliott the critic finished with an attempt at humor about Valentino:
“The picture is beautiful as to photography and as to Agnes Ayres, playing the trapped Diana. She and Mr. Valentino are worth looking at, whatever the story. However, I like Rodolfo not so much in one of his turbans. The other is becoming.”
On November 20, 1921 The Sheik was released at over 250 theaters across the country and newspapers like the Arkansas Democrat announced “Sheik Week” to the public and noted the New York opening box office success. A month later, revised box office numbers confirmed the initial reports.
Where did the numbers come from? They were provided in a press release produced by Paramount Pictures that would become part of ads and picked up as “news” stories by papers across the nation.
Below is a “news” article from the Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi (actually the Paramount publicity release) which shows the text in readable form:
Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi
Sunday, December 25, 1921. Page 4
Headlines from newspapers across the country reflected the excitement and anticipation as The Sheik opening rolled out:
“Arabian Romance Makes Thrilling Drama for Screen..Spectacular Settings a Feature of ‘The Sheik’, Plot One of Interest“–South Bend News-Times, South Bend, Indiana. Monday, November 28, 1921
“The Sheik, Tremendous in Power, Wildly Exciting, at the Opera House“–Bangor Daily News, Bangor, Maine. Tuesday, December 13, 1921
“‘Sheik’s’ Story of Man Breaking Girl’s Strong Will, Many Stirring and Thrilling Scenes in Great Photodrama“–Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana. Sunday, December 25, 1921
“At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentinoat the Regentand That’s That!“–The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1927. Page 31
The headline from the Wichita Eagle set the stage to let readers know what the Wichita public could expect to see. And although a New York critic felt the film was “denatured” the Wichita columnist was careful about telling readers how the film had survived the state board while letting parents know that, even so, the film “wasn’t for children.” The accompanying ad heightened the public’s eagerness to join the anticipated crowds at the theater.
“At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentino at the Regentand That’s That!“
The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1921. Page 31
While The WitchitaEagle writer was concerned about children, a professor in Chicago had a different reaction…
We probably will never know exactly what that psychology professor discussed with his students after they saw The Sheik, but one hundred years later, we know that the arrival of The Sheik not only thrust Rudolph Valentino to a new level of fame, but also triggered a wave of reaction that turned the spotlight onto the shifting relationships between women and men. It played right into the spirit of the newly-liberated 1920’s and the beginning of “the Jazz Age.” But society hadn’t moved THAT far as the story had to work around the subject of interracial relationships/marriage. One hundred years later, we are still talking about The Sheik and although it may seem like a relic from a distant age, the echoes of the themes are still with us today.
1. Emily Leider, in her biography Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, mistakenly states that the film premiered in New York on October 30, page 167.
2. Agnes Ayres also appeared in The Affairs of Anatol. See my previous post for more details on the overlap of cast members who appeared in this film and The Sheik.
This post has been updated as of 10/3/2021. I am including a new photo from a copy of the New York Daily News that I have obtained. The paper is dated August 24, 1926 and is one of several editions published that day. The new photo shows another view of the removal of Valentino's body from the hospital
Once again, my interest has been piqued by differences in the “lore” about Rudolph Valentino.
Following his passing at the New York Polyclinic Hospital, the body of Rudolph Valentino made the journey to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church, which at the time, was located at Broadway and 66th Street. (The Polyclinic was located at 341-351 West 50th Street, New York, New York. The current address of the clinic building, now converted into condominiums, is 345-349 W. 50th Street as indicated in a picture taken by Allan Ellenberger on a visit to the site and also confirmed using Google Earth.)
The question is how and when did Valentino’s body leave the Polyclinic Hospital?
Polyclinic Hospital building in the foreground showing a courtyard and the alley out to 51st Street (visible at the right).
Google Earth, 5/24/2019
The clinic at a different angle and time of day showing increased shadows around the building and one wall of the interior courtyard (faintly visible on the right side of the courtyard.) The courtyard will be discussed further, below.
Google Earth, 6/22/2021
See NOTE 1 below for a detailed description of the hospital plant at the time it was designated as “Embarkation Hospital No. 4, New York City” by the Government in 1918 during World War I. Although officially designated as an “Embarkation Hospital” it actually functioned as a “Debarkation Hospital” for the most part, used by patients returning from overseas. The description gives a great deal of information about theoriginal, basicdesign of the hospital.
There are multiple descriptions of how the body of Valentino exited the hospital…and when. According to Emily Leider (Dark Lover, Page 387), the exit was by “a side door.” Jeanne De Recqueville (Rudolph Valentino, Page 126) describes how the body, in a “wicker basket,” was “brought an interior courtyard…loaded onto a truck [which would] slip away through a back alley,” which is clearly visible in the above photo.
Allan R. Ellenberger (The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol) describes how crowds outside the clinic had become so large that it was impossible for the hearse to approach from the rear of the building on West 51st Street. So the police spread the rumor that the removal would be from the front entrance: “Remarkably, the ruse worked, and the majority of the crowd moved slowly back to 50th Street just long enough for the hearse to circle the block and pull up in a spot cleared by the police ” (Page 56).
Ellenberger then goes on to quote–indirectly–a reporter from The New York World. Ellenberger must have had trouble finding the original source and my efforts have failed as well. (The paper had several incarnations and there are gaps in what editions are available, even at the Library of Congress.) Ellenberger’s source is derived from an article entitled “Legend of Valentino, Part 1” in Movie Classics, June 1973, Page 13. I’ve managed to track down this issue as well as the issue including Part 2, so it will be interesting to see the actual article. So, with a bit of caution about sourcing, here is what this unidentified reporter claims to have witnessed:
As two-forty (2:40) that afternoon the stillness was interrupted by the sound of the elevator descending from the floors above... As the elevator doors opened, the reporter witnessed the undertaker's basket being wheeled out and rolled down the corridor toward the back door..."There waited Campbell's 'wagon.'...Rudolph Valentino beloved idol of millions going out the back door of Polyclinic Hospital in a wicker basket! That was dramatic enough. But to add to the drama, someone had thrown a piece of gold cloth over the top of the basket!'"
UPDATE: I received a copy of the Movie Classics magazine cited above the day after I posted this blog article. The reporter says he worked for the New York American (very few, scattered holdings in libraries, what might be a full collection is on microfilm at the New York Public Library). He apparently sent a letter years later to the Hollywood Citizen, signing it as” E.B., Landsdale Street, North Hollywood, California.” He actually first refers to the basket as a “casket” then later calls it a “wicker basket.” So, he may have seen the type of wicker “corpse” basket picture below. More notable is the fact that there is NO mention of any specific time of the body being moved.
Looking at the lower picture, apparently taken after the transfer of the body to the hearse, there does appear to be a light-colored surface visible…most likely the “gold cloth.” But it’s hard to discern a basket if one looks at the two picture showing the actual transfer. Wouldn’t a “wicker basket” have been a light color?
Another view of the removal of the body from the hospital from a different edition of the New York Daily News, August 24, 1926.
From my collection
Baskets were used by undertakers to receive bodies. Here is an example from 1882…
Jesse James’ wicker “corpse” basket used to take his body to a funeral parlor in 1882. Located at Heaton-Bowman-Smith and Sidenfaden Chapel Funeral Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri.
(Interestingly, one hundred years after Valentino’s passing, wicker baskets are becoming available for those wanting a more natural or eco-friendly burial . Manufacturers seem to most prevalent in Britain and Australia. The selection is quite extensive at a site called Thinkwillow.com. Most are light colored or a light brown; if they are painted, the integrity of the coffin* can be compromised. [See NOTE 2 below]. )
But looking at the the top photographs, although they are grainy, nothing looking like a wicker basket is visible. In fact, a close look seems to show something solid and dark colored.
Frank Mallen’s Story as Related in His Book “Sauce for the Gander”
From my collection
None of the authors mentioned have referenced a source written well before they wrote their books about Valentino. In 1954 Frank Mallen published Sauce for the Gander: The Amazing Story of a Fabulous Newspaper. This book is the story of The New York Evening Graphic, known for its notorious “composographs”–a name created by the founding editor Emile Gauvreau–but which the public and Graphic staffers continued to call “composites.” Not a new technique, the overlaying of pictures into patterns or designs was already used in magazines and newspaper layouts. The Graphic pushed the method of to the limit to increase circulation and keep their readers once they had them. The composites were montages, cut and pasted together to create pictures of events when actual pictures were not available, for example, the front-page picture of Valentino, “lying on the operating tables with arms folded, surrounded by doctors and nurses standing around, apparently waiting for the signal to plunge into his interior organs” (Pages 72-73).
Composite from the “Composite Gallery” in Sauce for the Gander. Description by Frank Mallen:
“This composite was dreamed up to show Rudy Valentino just before the fatal operation in Polyclinic Hospital. To carry out the romantic theme a nurse is depicted caressing his head, while another used the occasion to smile at her prettiest.” (10 photographs)
In her earlier book, Affairs Valentino: A Special Edition (2015, first and second editions, 2011 and 2013, respectively), Zumaya included a description of the body’s removal from a manuscript by George Ullman, Valentino’s business manager. According to this manuscript, “two workmen heft their load into the back of a waiting truck strategically parked in a back alley” (Page 11). But in her most recent work published in June 2021, entitled The Rudolph Valentino Case Files: The Research Discoveries of Evelyn Zumaya & Renato Floris, Zumaya does include the account by Frank Mallen, summarizing his story in a chapter named “Frank Mallen’s Composographs” Pages 194-198) of how Rudolph Valentino arrived at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church. (See Note 3.)
In his book, Mallen tells the story in several sections: “Death of a Movie Star” (the section of interest for this discussion); Pageant of Tribute”; “Behind the Valentino Curtain”; “The Last Picture”; “The Journalistic Miracle of the Ages”; “Izzy Kaplan”; “Funeral Train”; and “The Lady in Black” (Pages 72-100).
Mallen actually had planned to resign from the paper after he had been assigned to the “picture desk” as Picture Editor. With no interest or experience in the post, he was ready to quit…but before he could do so, Valentino had slipped into a coma and he suddenly was in the middle of shepherding photographers and artists through this news bonanza.
I grabbed my phone and called Frank Campbell, the undertaker..."Valentino just died. Are you getting the body?" I yelled into the transmitter. For a moment there was deep throbbing silence, and then I heard sobs. He was crying. I kept shouting at him...With impatience I kept asking if he would get the body. For exasperating moments he made no reply. Then his voice returned, strong and vibrant. As though I had offended him by my implication that Valentino could possibly go to any other undertaking establishment he said: "Why of course we are getting the body." He bit off every word.
Mallen then relates that a short time later, he learned that Campbell had made a deal with United Artists, when death hadn’t even been deemed imminent. The deal was “if they would let him handle the funeral, in the event of death, he (Campbell) would make Valentino’s pictures more popular and profitable than ever…an amazing and startling proposition” because before this moment pictures died with their stars (Page 74). Campbell employed a publicity man, Harry Klemfuss, who would mastermind the funeral events right up to the final services in Los Angeles on September 7th, 1926.
Mallen describes how, soon after talking to Campbell, The Graphic “scooped” the reporters from other news outlets by producing a composite of Valentino lying in state with Campbell agreeing to keep the secret (Page 74):
Soon two Graphic reporters were speeding in a taxi to the Campbell Funeral Church at Broadway and 66th Street. One photographed the other lying on a catafalque and then both took pictures of the Gold Room from various angles. They rushed the them back to the office, I had [Harry] Grogin, the composite genius, superimpose Valentino's face over that of the prone lensman and transfer the result onto the Gold Room. He did a masterful job in record time. Within an hour we had Valentino lying in state on our front page. We forgot to say it was a composite. Then I called Campbell and asked him to keep our secret.
It is at this point in the story that Mallen has an entirely different account about the timing and removal of the body from the Polyclinic Hospital:
Although Valentino's body actually was still at Polyclinic Hospital and was not removed until that evening, even the sharpest of newsmen believed it had been photographed by us at Campbell's. They were sure Campbell had performed some sleight-of-hand magic in transferring the body, probably to thwart competing undertakers, despite the fact they had watched all the hospital exits and had not seen it come out. When the casket finally emerged they were certain it contained somebody else's body to cover up a fast one Campbell had put over them in favor of the Graphic.
Mallen then recounts how “angry newspapermen descended on the funeral parlor along with some of the throngs who had seen The Graphic. Harry Klemfuss defused the situation by inviting the reporters and photographers in to look around; they even inspected every corpse that was there.” After satisfying them that they had not been double-crossed he took them to a nearby speakeasy where their anger was quickly submerged in liquids and they shook their heads over the gall of The Graphic” (Page 75).
SO…we find that we have Mallen’s mention of a “casket” versus a wicker basket/undertaker’s basket; the removal from the Polyclinic Hospital in a hearse versus a truck, although the vehicle does look like a hearse rather than a truck, in my opinion; and a very specific time of transfer of two-forty (2:40) in the afternoon versus “that evening.” The Update above which discusses the quotation from Movie Classics magazine raises a question about this specific 2:40 time, but an earlier afternoon removal time still can’t be ruled out.
Looking at the pictures of the removal at the hospital, the transfer appears to be occurring in daylight. But what is meant by “evening”? It’s a subjective term with many definitions! Broadly speaking, it can mean the time between afternoon and nightfall, beginning a few hours before sunset; or sometimes defined as being between 4 and 9 o’clock. In August 1926, New York was on Daylight Savings Time, as it is now; “civil twilight,” also known as “dusk,” the period when the Sun sets and dips just below the horizon, would end about 8 PM. Regardless, as clearly shown in the pictures of the clinic at the top of this page, the courtyard of the hospital would be in shadows at least part of the day which makes it even hard to discern on which side of the courtyard the exit was located. Since it’s hard to find pictures of how the sun hits the building in real time, could the photographs of the transfer, particularly the large photograph from TheNew York Daily News, been taken with a flash, either in the early afternoon, possibly at 2:40 P.M. or later that day?
As I continue researching the life of Rudolph Valentino, I will be on the lookout for any information about that fateful day of August 23rd, 1926 that can provide a more definitive answer to my original question:
How (and When) Was Rudolph Valentino’s Body Removed to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church?
The hospital of the New York Polyclinic Medical School and Hospital was leased by the Government on October 20, 1918. The hospital was located at 345 West Fiftieth Street, New York City, 3 miles from the center of activities of the port of embarkation, three blocks from Pier 90 at Fiftieth Street and Hudson River, and one-half block from the electric car lines on Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The building was an 11-story, fireproof structure of steel and concrete, and contained a basement, a cellar, and a subcellar. It had been designed for use as a hospital, and had been completed in 1912. Its ground area was 100 feet square and its gross floor space was 110,000 square feet. Within it there were 94 private rooms and wards, 4 operating rooms, and a number of rooms which had been used for clinical and didactic purposes, and which were readily convertible into wards. These rooms and wards gave a bed capacity of approximately 450. The building contained a kitchen of sufficient capacity to feed 800 persons at one meal; a bakery adequate to prepare all the bread needed for the hospital; a laundry equipped to meet all needs; and a heating plant that not only heated the building in which it was located but five dwellings adjoining the hospital. All stairways were of steel and concrete construction, and they were equipped with fire doors. There were three large elevators ample in size to accommodate stretcher cases. The institution was lighted by both gas and electricity; and, to guard against a temporary failure of the city water supply, had reserve tanks for water on its roof.
From October 20, 1918, the day it was taken over for Medical Department use, until December 18, the building was cleaned, and preparations were made for the reception of patients. During much of this period of time the main hospital building was used as quarters for nurses who were being mobilized for duty overseas. There were a few patients in hospitals representing members of the command, nurses from overseas, etc.; but on December 19, 1918, the hospital was formally opened by the admission of 176 patients from overseas.
aThe statements of fact appearing herein are based on the “History, Embarkation Hospital No. 4, New York City,” by Lieut. Col. J. L. Robinson, M. C., U. S. A., while on duty as a member of the staff of that hospital. The material used by him in the compilation of the history comprised official reports from the various divisions of the hospital. The history is on file in the Historical Division, Surgeon General’s Office, Washington, D. C.-Ed.
Thereafter, the hospital, though designated an embarkation hospital, functioned principally as a debarkation hospital. On August 15, 1919, the hospital was abandoned.
NOTE 2 There IS a difference between a “coffin” and a “casket.” A coffin is shaped more closely to that of a human body, wider at the shoulders, tapered toward the feet, while a casket is rectangular (oblong) with right angles and without tapering toward the base.
NOTE 3 Zumaya includes the “surgery” composite in her discussion and also includes a picture that is described as a “Composograph of Rudolph Valentino in the Gold Room at Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home.” However, this picture actually shows the front page of the Daily Mirror under the headline “Many Hurt at Bier of Valentino” and is actually a cropped version of a picture that is a part of series showing “ardent fan Eva Miller” praying at the bier. A full picture also appeared on the front page of The New York Daily News; the Bettmann Archive states the originals were taken on August 25, 1926. Other versions of this picture are also sourced from the Hulton Archive. Various angles of this Eva Miller picture can be seen at Bing.com Images.
De Recqueville, Jeanne.Rudolph Valentino. Translated by Renato Floris, Edited and Annotated by Evelyn Zumaya. French Edition, 1978. Torino, Italy: Viale Industria Pubblilicazioni, Translation Edition, 2020.
Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
Mallen, Frank. Sauce for the Gander: The Amazing Story of a Fabulous Newspaper. White Plains, New York: Baldwin Books, 1954.