From the archives: Rudolph Valentino still attracts

July 14, 2012

Rudolph Valentino was one of the biggest celebrities of the Jazz Age. His films, like The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and The Sheik, were not only blockbusters – they helped change the culture. Valentino was an immensely popular actor, as well as an even more popular sex symbol. His sudden death at age 31 in 1926 made news around the world.

Believe it or not, an estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of New York City to pay their respects at his funeral. There was hysteria among female fans. Suicides spurred by grief were reported in Europe. New York mourners rioted. And Hollywood studios briefly shut down.

It’s not surprising then that more than 80 years after his death, Valentino still attracts new fans to his films and larger-than-life personality. One of those fans is San Francisco resident Donna Hill.

Hill, the author of Rudolph Valentino The Silent Idol (2010) and the webmaster behind the Falcon Lair website, will introduce a special screening of the actor’s last film on Sunday, July 10th at 2 pm. The Son of the Sheik (1926) will be shown in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library. It the first local showing of the film – a silent era classic – in some time.

Recently, Hill spoke about her interest in Valentino, her book, and the actor’s enduring legacy.

Donna Hill’s “Rudolph Valentino The Silent Idol” was published in 2010.

Thomas Gladysz: There have been a number of books on Rudolph Valentino. How does your book compare with those? What makes your’s different?

Donna Hill: Most of the previous books on Valentino have been straightforward biographies. A good number of them used the same photos or movie stills. I always found that frustrating. Like Pickford, Fairbanks, and even Louise Brooks, Valentino was photographed quiet often: there are publicity shots, stills from films, and news photos. Pick up the average book and you will usually see a shot from The Sheik or The Son of the Sheik, though very few of Valentino as himself, off screen. The difference from the other thirty or so biographies is that my book consists primarily of candid shots, behind the scenes images taken at the studio, and portraits. This is a side of Valentino that has never before been explored, at least not in this fashion.

Thomas Gladysz: What is it about Valentino as a movie star, or as a person, that you find appealing?

“The Son of the Sheik” (1926) screens July 10th at the San Francisco Public Library.

Donna Hill: As I explain in my introduction, Valentino captivated me the first time I saw him. It was in Blood and Sand. He had such charm and magnetism, and I wished to learn more about him. I read the books available at my library. After all these years, and after having seen all of Valentino’s extant films in some form or another, my opinion has not changed. On screen he has a magnetic personality, and the camera loved him. Like so many actors on the silent screen, he had a distinct talent for communicating thought and emotion in a way the audience could translate. Valentino was a fascinating human being. What I mean is that the private Valentino contrasted sharply with his public persona; that is, he was not really the “Latin Lover” in his private life.

As much as I love the films, it was a single photograph that really got me interested in finding out who this man called Rudolph Valentino was – who he was off screen.

Thomas Gladysz: What got you started on the book? How long did it take? Did you find out anything new in the course of your research?

Donna Hill: I’ve been a collector for more than 30 years. Two things got me started as a collector and eventually led to this book. As I mentioned, it was a single photo that got me going. As I started collecting memorabilia, I looked for portraits or off-screen candids. I did not ignore film stills, but finding a nice candid shot was like peering into King Tut’s tomb. It added another piece to the puzzle.

The second impetus was the result of a conversation that took place in 1980. My best friend mentioned off hand how nice it would be to do a book on Valentino using only candid photos and, if possible, photos that had not been previously published. That stuck with me. While this book originally was intended as more of a standard biography, it evolved. After Emily Leider’s 2003 biography, I decided to go back to my original idea.

My book was to be the book no one had done before – and one I thought Valentino fans would enjoy the most. It’s taken a long time. I’ve been working on this book for the last ten years. Happily, since it took so long – and since I took so long – I had the benefit of acquiring or adding some really wonderful images that only recently came to light. In fact, about 3 days prior to the final edit, I acquired a new photo which became a last minute addition. It’s a great photo and I was happy to be able to add it. I discovered a few previously unknown bits about Valentino that made it into the final manuscript. The one wonderful thing about the research for this book is that I learned a lot more about Valentino.

Thomas Gladysz: Your book is beautiful. The print quality is high – especially for a self published work. Why did you take that route?

Donna Hill: I chose to self publish because the publishing industry is vastly different today than from when this project began. I pitched the book five years ago through regular channels and came up empty. I was close to a contract with a university press but the editor I was working with moved on to another publisher in the middle of the process. That, combined with the sheer cost of producing a photo book, ended that particular deal. At that point, the thought of starting again at square one was not very appealing and somewhat discouraging. This process can take years.

I began to look into self publishing. There are not a lot of options when it comes to a graphic heavy book, at least not one that would make it affordable and allow me 100% control. After looking at all the options, I opted to use the services of I won’t lie and say that the entire process has been simple – there were headaches and hiccups along the way. Many in fact! In the end, the product is what matters and I am extremely happy with the quality Blurb gave me. The cost of the book is higher than I’d like, but, in the end the quality is there. And it’s what counts.

Speaking of a higher price and quality. I’m presently working on a limited, deluxe hardback edition of the book. It will be a true “coffee table” book, measuring 11×13: it’s going to be lovely. This was done in response to the many inquiries from people who had already purchased a copy of the softcover and who really felt this was a book that needed to be seen in a larger format. Additionally, I wanted a large copy for my own collection of books on Rudolph Valentino, some of which are on display in “Reading the Stars.” The details about the limited edition will be announced shortly on my website. For the record, it’s also going to be produced by Blurb; I should also mention that it won’t be inexpensive given the format and size. However, for the collector of books on Valentino, it will be worth it!

Rudolph Valentino (far right) in San Francisco during the making of “Moran of the Lady Letty” (1922).

Thomas Gladysz: Valentino spent time here in San Francisco. Does your book cover that period in his life?

Donna Hill: Yes. I was born in the Bay Area and have been a San Francisco resident for many years. That’s why I took a special pride in making sure to include photos taken in The City. Unfortunately, I was unable to find anything specific to his short time in San Francisco in 1917, but I do have some that cover visits Valentino made in 1921, 1922, and 1926. Valentino made some good friends during his short stay as a resident in 1917, and he often visited San Francisco after he became famous in Hollywood.

Thomas Gladysz: What can we expect from Sunday’s screening of The Son of the Sheik?

Donna Hill: Well, first off, be prepared to be thoroughly entertained. The Son of the Sheik is a really good film. It’s a late silent, as sound came in a little over a year later. As you know, it is a sequel to the 1921 smash hit film The Sheik. This film far surpasses the original in the quality of the production and the story. E.M. Hull’s sequel to her salacious original novel was adapted by Frances Marion (later an Academy Award winner), and she added some really wonderful comedy and light tongue-in-cheek moments. That said, Valentino’s reputation as a screen lover does not suffer. Valentino shines under the direction of George Fitzmaurice, and he had a wonderful onscreen rapport with Vilma Banky. Their love scenes sizzle even for 1926. The film has plenty of dash and action, more than a little romance, and Hollywood Arabian fantasy to satisfy any audience. Valentino plays a dual role in this film, reprising the elder Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan as well as the son. It’s enormously fun.

Some of the Rudolph Valentino books on display at the San Francisco Public Library exhibit, “Reading the Stars.”

The Son of the Sheik will be shown on Sunday, July 10th at 2 pm in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library. Donna Hill will introduce the film and give an introductory talk and slide show. A booksigning will follow. This special screening is part of a SFPL celebration of the silent era called “Shhhhh! Silents in the Library.”

Among the exhibits on display is “Reading the Stars,” which looks at some of the many books about the movie published during the silent film era. An entire case in this exhibit is devoted to Valentino, who after Charlie Chaplin can likely claim the largest bibliography of any silent film star. The Valentino books on display in “Reading the Stars” come from Hill’s collection.

Also on display are exhibits devoted to the “Downtown Movie Palaces of the 1920s,” “The Music of Silent Films,” and “The Silent Screen in the City.” The latter exhibit looks at some of the many movie stars who visited San Francisco or made films in the Bay Area, including Valentino who filmed Moran of the Lady Letty here in 1922.


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