Tuesday, August 30, 2011

This Day in Film History (Valentino Funeral Sparks Mass Hysteria)

August 30, 1926—A week after his sudden death from peritonis, an invitation-only funeral mass was held in midtown Manhattan for Rudolph Valentino—but thousands more lined up outside St. Malachy’s Church to gawk, whisper or wail over the silent-screen romantic idol, dead at age 31, gone seemingly before he had barely appeared onscreen.

For the last decade, I have walked a couple of blocks from where I work to attend masses on Holy Days of Obligation at St. Malachy’s. I’ve come to have almost a proprietary feeling for the so-called “Actor’s Chapel” located in the heart of the Broadway theater district.

I can’t begin to imagine, though, what it must have been like to be in the church on this late summer day 75 years ago. Today, critics of the Archdiocese of New York and the Roman Catholic Church complain about its unwillingness to bend in any way, but the Church was even more disinclined to do so back then.

In a way, though, the Church’s insistence on maintaining old norms would have appealed to the deceased, an immigrant with Old World values struggling to hold onto his dignity and to make sense of the new medium he had conquered and the celebrity culture it had spawned. This High Solemn mass, to be followed a week later by a second one out in California, where Valentino would be laid to rest, stood in absolutely stark contrast to the hysteria occurring in the two weeks since the news broke that the star was gravely ill.

Some modern viewers have felt that, without dialogue, Valentino looks melodramatic in the films that made him a star: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik. But his acting style was nothing compared with the over-the-top behavior of his fans at his wake the prior week at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan.

Estimates are that as many as 100,000 people lined up outside the funeral parlor for a chance to pay tribute--no, in so many cases, simply to see--in the flesh the celluloid fantasy projected several times his size onto big screens in movie palaces. It became more than a matter of crowd management--it was more like riot avoidance.

Four thousand red roses were sent to the home at the behest of Pola Negri, who claimed that she had been engaged to the star at the time of his death. Outsized reactions such as this seemed, in turn, to spark outsized rumors, the most persistent of which was that the body on view in the bronze casket on a raised pedestal was not Valentino himself, but a wax likeness meant to save his corpse from the final indignity of being viewed in a hothouse atmosphere by thousands.

The atmosphere surrounding Valentino’s death represented a kind of dividing line in American popular culture. Before, mass outpourings of extreme grief were expressed over the deaths of Presidents or great soldiers. Valentino’s wake marked the first time that the public burst out in such grief over the departure of a celebrity.

Before his death, the actor had been engaged in a media-management campaign--not just promoting The Son of the Sheik, but figuring out how to tamp down the criticism now beginning to come his way. The catalyst: a Chicago newspaper that printed a story that the person who installed powder puffs in the men’s room of a ballroom had been inspired by what we would now call the “metrosexual” look of the actor.

Valentino hadn’t reacted well to the “Pink Powderpuff” story at all. The action he would have taken in his native Italy--challenge the anonymous author to a duel--was regarded as preposterous and hilarious when he suggested it, in all seriousness, to reporters.

Over the years, as with many Hollywood stars, it has become difficult to discern the real reason for Valentino's anger. Some, pointing to the actor's two very short marriages, have suggested that he might have been terrified at exposure of his bisexuality.

But whispers about homosexuality or bisexuality have been spread about nearly every major male star over the years. Valentino might simply have been annoyed at the simple aspersion on his masculinity.

It was in this confusing atmosphere that another unusual incident in the last days of Valentino occurred: a dinner with journalist H.L. Mencken. What was curious about this was that the cynical Mencken, then at the zenith of his influence on American intellectuals and the cultural scene, did not count moviegoing among his hobbies.

But in 1926 he was conducting a brief, secret affair with a female Hollywood screenwriter, and it was the latter who helped Valentino--impressed by one of Mencken’s essays--reach out to the journalist for advice on how to handle the media beast.

Mencken’s advice was blunt: ignore whatever they write about you. But at dinner, Valentino began to explain why he couldn’t do that.

Against all odds--not just his lack of identification with the stars of a new medium that downplayed the written word at the expense of the image, but also his lack of sympathy with immigrants--Mencken began to like the young man for his simple dignity. And so it was that, on the day of the star’s New York funeral (a second would be held on the West Coast, prior to burial), Mencken’s column on the matinee idol appeared.

The piece became one of the classics of Mencken’s five-decade career, but was among the most atypical of the bunch. It relied less on observation than on a frank participation in an event surrounding his subject (his dinner with Valentino). And, rather than dispatch his subject with not just irreverence but savagery, as he had done with William Jennings Bryan the year before, Mencken extended deep understanding and sympathy with someone caught in the American star-making machinery, and utterly unable to extricate himself:

“Here was a young man who was living daily the dream of millions of other young men. “Here was one who was catnip to women. Here was one who had wealth and fame. And here was one who was very unhappy.”

Valentino was one of the first movie stars to try to figure out how to keep the ravenous entertainment industry from destroying his privacy and his image. Since then, others have become shrewd about doing so. But, as seen in the recent Newsweek story on jailed private-investigator-to-the-stars Anthony Pellicano, others will resort to far more desperate attempts at keeping their image pristine than Hollywood’s prototypical romantic idol did.

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