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Icons of Romance
Rudolph Valentino & James Dean

Icons of Romance
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  • Day Dreams (by )
  • Photoplay (Volume 22) Jul-Dec 1922 (by )
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth (by )
  • L'Immoraliste, Roman (by )
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In February, the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, a holiday dedicated to romantic love. The sentiment that held little significance in centuries past, but now features as a major windfall for jewelers and chocolatiers. Publishers and Hollywood capitalize year-round on society’s insatiable appetite for romance, epitomized by two legendary heartthrobs: Rudolph Valentino and James Dean. They both died young, which contributes to their enduring fame and popularity.

Rudolph Valentino: Latin Lover
Rudolph Valentino: Latin Lover
Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaelo Pierre Filbert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella was born on May 6, 1895, in Castellaneta, Puglia in Italy to a French mother and Italian father. Charming, debonair, and a poor student, he emigrated to the USA in 1913, and never became an American citizen. His unsettled life in the USA led to a short stint in jail after which he hightailed it to Utah.

In 1917, Valentino joined an Al Jolson production of Robinson Crusoe, Jr. and traveled to San Francisco, California where he met actor Norman Kerry who persuaded him to jump from the stage to cinema, and the rest is Hollywood history.

Except for the gigolo part.

Charisma, charm, and exotic good looks contributed to his welfare as he supported himself by dancing and teaching dance to wealthy older women who allowed him the use of their luxury vehicles while he auditioned for stage and film roles. The roles he did manage to secure cast him as villain or gangster until his big break in a bit part in Eyes of Youth which caught the attention of screenwriter June Mathis. In 1919, he appeared as a second lead alongside star Mae Murray in The Delicious Little Devil.

But that wasn’t the really big break.

Cast as the brooding hero of Julio Desnoyers in the 1921 Metro Pictures production of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (based on a novel of the same name), Valentino shot to stardom with his most famous starring role in The Sheik, based on the book by Edith Maude Hull. He switched from Metro Productions to Famous Players-Lasky, the precursor of Paramount Pictures, which capitalized on Hollywood’s newest profitable star. Women swooned over him. Men who idolized Douglas Fairbanks as the epitome of American masculinity walked out of Valentino’s movies in disgust over Valentino’s slick good looks, even though they copied his style with pomaded hair, elegant clothing, and purported effeminate image.
The honeymoon didn’t last. By the end of 1922, Famous Players-Lasky cast him off, saying that Valentino was more trouble than he was worth due to a highly publicized divorce, bigamy trials, debt, his temperamental personality, and rumors of homosexuality. Other studios wanted him and his profit-generating star power.

In 1924, he joined Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks who helped found United Artists, and his first UA project was The Eagle (1925), followed by a second divorce and another film, The Son of the Sheik (based on Hull’s sequel of the same title) even though he loathed being typecast in that most popular role. That movie opened on July 9, 1926. It was his last film.

Between 1919 and 1926, Valentino did more than dance, act, and charm multitudes of adoring women. He trained with heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey who envied Valentino his sex appeal and masculinity. Author John Dos Passos immortalized him as the Adagio Dancer in The Big Money, a book in his U.S.A. trilogy (1937), and in popular music:
  • Oh Mister Rudolph Valentino
  • I know I’ve got the Valentino blues
  • And when you come up on the screen
  • Oh! You’re so romantic, I go frantic at the views (“Rudolph Valentino Blues” by Jack Frost, 1922)
Valentino published a book of poetry, Day Dreams, in 1923, wrote a physical fitness series, “How You Can Keep Fit,” and published serialized autobiographies--“My Life Story” and “My Private Diary”--in Photoplay and Movie Weekly magazines, respectively. He directed movies and craved authenticity. The Academy Awards named an award after him: the Rudolph Valentino Medal. It was presented once, in 1925, to John Barrymore for his performance in Beau Brummel (1924).
Valentino became ill and died on August 23, 1926, at the age of 31.
James Dean: Teenage Rebel
James Dean: Teenage Rebel
Born after Valentino’s death in Marion, Indiana on February 8, 1931, and raised a Quaker, James Bryon Dean shot to icon status in his most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). An indifferent student, he played in varsity sports, studied drama, and dreamed of Hollywood stardom even when enrolled in college. While attending the University of California at Los Angeles, he switched his major to drama and snagged the role of Malcolm in Macbeth. In 1951, he quit school to pursue acting full-time.

 Dean got his start in Hollywood via a television commercial for Pepsi Cola. That led to his first speaking role as the Apostle John in Hill Number One. That role led to walk-on bit parts in three other movies, but work didn’t come easily or readily. He supported himself working as a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios where he met Rogers Brackett, a radio director who offered him advice, guidance, and a place to stay.

Brackett and actor James Whitmore encouraged him to move to New York City, where he worked as a stunt tester for Beat the Clock, a game show, and appeared in CBS television series including The Web, Studio One, and Lux Video Theatre.
Dean’s career gathered momentum with appearances in Kraft Television Theatre, Robert Montgomery Presents, Danger, and General Electric Theater. His role in the CBS series Omnibus episode titled “Glory in the Flower” cast him in the role that would define him: the disaffected, angst-ridden youth he later immortalized in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He took a stage role as an pandering North African houseboy in an adaptation of André Gide's book L’Immoraliste (1902), which garnered positive reviews and secured his meteoric rise to stardom.

Playing the complex role of Cal Trask in East of Eden based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel of the same title, Dean defied directions and movie director Elia Kazan kept most of his unscripted performance. His popular role as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause led to Giant, in which he shared marquee space with Hollywood royalty Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. It was his last film.

Dean never married, although MGM Studios capitalized on his affairs and life in the fast lane racing cars. His fascination with auto racing led to his death. News of his fatal crash in a new Porsche 550 Spyder on October 11, 1955, spread via radio and newspapers. He was 24 years old.

By Karen M. Smith



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