Today marks the 84th anniversary of Valentino's passing and though I can't profess to be his biggest or most fervent fan, I've always had a certain fascination for the man in both life and in death. While he wasn't the first big movie star to die before his time, the sudden nature of his death provided the burgeoning movie fan scene with an icon to mourn over in a scale not seen since the days of the romantic poets. The chaos that his death provoked alone should have been enough to make him a legendary figure but with an already fully cultivated air of mystery around him Hollywood, not surprisingly went into fan meltdown. If it had existed then, today in 1926 the internet would have ground to a halt.
That his mystique has endured despite the advancement of film technology and our short attention span culture is a credit to his appeal and to the magnetism he exudes on the screen. He is one of a select group of cultural figures that only require to be known by a one word name and for which that name has become a byword for a whole set of behaviours and characteristics.
Like most people I grew up as a film fan fully aware who Rudolph Valentino was, but it wasn't until I saw him on the big screen in Blood and Sand that I realised what all the fuss was about. Of course with hindsight it is easy to ascribe his posthumous mystique and cult to his screen performances but I have to admit that there is an indefinable spark of magic in the way he interacts with the camera (the male equivalent of the "Garbo stare" perhaps). I even find it difficult to describe, but he exhibits at his best a sort of supremely animal like charisma that few have ever replicated. I greatly enjoy the work of his contemporaries such as Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Reid or Ramon Navarro but while many were better actors, none matched him for innate cinematic sparkle. As I said, a lot of this must be due to hindsight, as it is when judging any celebrity that dies young. With Valentino the cult is strong and at times difficult to overcome. Sadly, his death is just such an important part of his story.
I remember when I was a bit younger I was at a book sale and bought an almost complete run of Anthony Slide's silent movie fanzine of the late '60s and early '70s, The Silent Picture. It was a great magazine as he tracked down all sorts of still living silent artistes for correspondence and short interviews. He also received communications from the still running silent star fan clubs such as the one for Valentino, proudly proclaiming 40 plus years of service to his memory. I imagined a group of elderly women with tear stained photographs of the late star, determined to keep going through their eternal grief. I'd like to hope that somewhere the fan club is still running despite the lack of people still around who saw him in his prime.
If not, I can guarantee that there will be a veritable swarm of Women in Black today tripping over each other to place a rose on his crypt in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Despite the circus that the ceremony has descended into, it shows that he continues to remain a living part of our film culture and memory. The first time I visited Los Angeles, the first thing I wanted to do was to see Valentino's grave. I don't really know why but I felt a compulsive urge to see it. Eighty years after his death I travelled half way round the world to see some engraved marble. I guess that's the sort of pull he has on people.