When recalled the top echelon of top male stars of the twenties, Ramon Novarro most likely is not included in the list; however, he certainly starred in some of the most outstanding films of the era, most notably "Ben Hur" (1925). Several of his films for director Rex Ingram are a must for the silent movie fan, and Novarro's performances are outstanding in them - for example, "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1922) and "Scaramouche" (1923). He became one of MGM's top stars in films such as the aforementioned "Ben Hur," "A Student Prince in Old Heidelberg" (1928) with Norma Shearer, "Across to Singapore" (1928) with Joan Crawford, "The Flying Fleet" (1929) with Anita Page - and on into the silent era with such credits such as "Mata Hari" (1934) with Greta Garbo. For a time, Novarro was MGM's top male star, and, unlike many silent movie stars, made an easy transition into sound film. What is all the more amazing is he did it with a Mexican accent, too! Soares gives Novarro credit where credit is due, because, certainly, he had an outstanding career in films, most significantly in the silent era; however, Soares is honest about Novarro's limited success in the sound era and how his personal demons - such as alcoholism - led to his decline. Novarro's singing abilities are well-documented, which may come as a surprise to many, beginning with the hit "Pagan Love Song" from his movie "The Pagan" (1929) and certainly continuing to aid his transition to the sound era as he appeared in musicals with such stars as Jeannette McDonald. What is also amazing about the man is the variety of parts he was able to play - certainly not the physique and build we would expect for Ben Hur, yet he does an admirable job in the part. From a Ruritanian villain, to swashbucker, Naval cadet, Pacific Islander, a Russian flier, Spanish priest and more, Novarro pulled them all off well. On the personal side, Soares does not ignore Novarro's homosexuality; however, he has written about a movie star and addressed his homnesexuality only in the context of its impact on his career and personal life. The book, to Soares' credit, focuses on Novarro's career first and foremost, and his research is impeccable, as well as his telling of the tale. Not onlly has he drawn from Metro and MGM records, viewing of Novarro's films and publications from the era, he has also provided us insight through Novarro's unfinished and unpublished autobiography, interviews with Novarro's family and costars - and, surprisingly, correspondence with Novarro's convicted killers. Novarro's story is an engrossing one, from a poor Mexican family, to their move to California and his entry into film, his close realtionship with Rex Ingram and Alice Terry (he remained close to Terry until the end of his life) and Ingram's tutelage and faith in the young actor, his rise to the top of the ladder at MGM, his slow but steady fall in the sound era and an honest assessment of how he contributed to his own downfall, a later life filled with uncertainty, constant seeking for a purpose in life (although acting was what he wanted to do most), his religious devotion, his kindness, the alcoholism that ruined his health, and his sad and gruesome death. (Those wishing to remember Novarro as the youthful, top-notch star that he was in films such as "Ben Hur," "A Student Prince in Old Heidelberg" or "The Pagan" may wish to skip the last several chapters.) Nevertheless, a dependable and well-researched biography about one of the silent era's top stars that is highly recommended.
Copyright 2011 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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