Recommended Reading

"Rudolph Valentino The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs

by Donna L. Hill (Blurb Books, 2010, 240 pages)

contributed by Dean Thompson

Fans of Rudolph Valentino have their own favorites among his films; The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) is mine, but I especially enjoy seeking out the newsreels and home movies that focus on the man, not the Great Lover persona. In the space of minutes and even seconds, shorn of the often absurd direction and gloppy makeup that could pin him down, Valentino lights up the screen with the dazzling smile, magnetism, and extra something that signal a cinematic legend. Returning to the features themselves, one can brush aside the giggle-inducing moments (the pop-eyed leering that he's forced to throw at Agnes Ayres in The Sheik (1922), for example, makes him look like Harpo Marx without the wig) and note the charm and lightness of touch that lift his best performances. One notes, too, a palpable melancholy often present, revealing a sensitivity and depth beyond the modest demands of his roles. Here, one thinks, is an appealing human being whom one would like to have known.

We can know him better now, thanks to Donna L. Hill, whose Rudolph Valentino-The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs is a beautiful complement to Emily Leider's magisterial 2003 biography. Hill, well known to silent aficionados for her website ( - and "aw heck, here's the blog too" ( - has spent decades collecting candid and unpublished snapshots of Valentino, and they're present, more than 400 of them, to illuminate the canvas of his brief life.

Leider's thoughtful Foreward is followed by Hill's admission in her Introduction that

My real quest to learn about Valentino . . . was not sparked by seeing him on film or in reading books. It was a single, unassuming photograph that caught my attention and fired my interest. Contrary to what I had read, the photograph seemed to encapsulate the real Valentino. I asked myself, "Who is this young man who seems so serious, so unexotic, so normal?"

Hill adds that while most of the photographs in the book are taken from her collection sparked by that quest, others have come from fellow collectors, friends, and archives-and the resulting bounty (for that is the word) is ours to enjoy. A list of the primary chapters will give you an idea of the layout:

Rodolfo -1895-1913
Bon Vivant - 1913-1917
Hollywood - 1917-1920
A Star is Born - 1921
Wedded and Parted - 1922
Mineralava Tour - 1923
Europe - 1923
Artistic Freedom - 1924
Breakup - 1925
Last Farewell - 1926

Each chapter holds its share of revelation, for chances are that you've never seen 80-90% of these photographs. Among the treats and surprises:

*Beautiful hand-tinted pictures in which Valentino poses as Cheng Huan in hopes of winning that role in Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919).

*Nita Naldi's lovely legs. Alliteration aside, who knew?

*Every photograph by James Abbe. In the teens and twenties, before he later switched to news photography, did the man ever take less than a superbly composed and lighted picture?

*Valentino happily floating in the Great Salt Lake during a stop on the Mineralava tour. Arms and feet poking out of the water, he looks like a ten-year-old kid.

*Nearly every photograph, posed and candid, of Valentino and Natacha Rambova. Whatever one might think of her micromanaging his career, she was a gorgeous woman, and they made a stunning couple. While she appears glacial in the posed pictures, look at the candids of Valentino relaxing with his head on her breast and of their smiling over their Pekingnese "Chuckie": these are true and loving images.

*Each picture of Valentino with a child, especially his nephew Jean. He adored children, and they returned the adoration.

*Valentino, in cowboy garb, caught totally off guard by the camera's premature click. One just doesn't imagine Valentino doing a "Duh?", but there it is, and it's endearing.

*A group shot of silent legends (Arbuckle, Valentino, Hart, Fairbanks, &c) welcoming Norma Talmadge and Joseph Schenck on their return to Los Angeles. Nice shot, innocuous enough, until you notice that Fairbanks, not to be overshadowed by the towering Hart, is perched on tiptoe.

*How happy Valentino looks in any countryside setting; around family, animals, cars, cameras, and food; and especially when he's clowning with friends. One carries away the impression, both here and in Leider's book, of a warm-hearted, impulsive man who never quite grew up; and if, as Hill concedes, it led him to make poor choices in his life and career, it also gave him an immediacy and joie de vivre that the camera recorded time and again. This book is a warm and glowing testament to that life force.

It is also, inevitably, a sad book as well in its delineating a man increasingly unable to control the professional and personal storms that accompanied his stardom. Valentino was only thirty-one when he died, but as Leider notes in her Introduction, "the last images are not portraits of a young man." He could flash the smile, seize moments of joy, right up to the end, and Hill gracefully winds down her "living" portraits with two charming, evocative photos: a smiling candid (perhaps a newspaper shot?) made only weeks before his passing, and the other a lovely shot of Valentino with brother Alberto's family, his hand resting on his beloved nephew's shoulder. But the youthful eagerness in the early photographs rapidly begins to flicker and fade after the Mineralava tour and especially following the dissolution of his marriage to Rambova. By 1925 and 1926, his face in some snapshots appears tight and empty, and the last portrait by Mabel Sykes, his favorite photographer, is painful to behold: the freshness of the early days is gone, and he registers weary disillusionment, his eyes withdrawn and sad. One remembers F. Scott Fitzgerald's words to Gerald Murphy-"The golden bowl is broken indeed, but at least it was golden"-before remembering too, and with gratitude, that the radiance of the early days did have a final resurgence in Son of the Sheik (1926), a moving coda to his career.

But this book, a labor of love many years in the making, is in itself a moving testament to Donna Hill's dedication and meticulous planning . The production values are first rate: thick semi-gloss pages; clear photographs tinted a light sepia; easily readable green text (a most appropriate color since Valentino often signed his photographs in green ink) for Hill's engaging captions to the photographs; and attractively designed front and back covers. It's a good, heavy book that has the feel of quality. One might wish only for slightly larger pictures (that, or stronger glasses), but a good reading light brings all into focus, literally. You can order your copy by clicking here -, and you should click there as soon as you can. You money will be well spent for the simple reason that this book, like its subject, is in a class of its own.

Review copyright 2010 by Dean Thompson. All rights reserved.

Purchase this book from

Just click on the link above and type in the author's name

or the book title in Amazon's search field.

Return to "Recommended Reading" page