Rudolph Valentino, Elvis Presley, And The Gilded Box Of Fame

Fame–just the word itself has a strange fascination. When you spend a lot of time learning about the rise and fall of old Hollywood stars, it’s a word you can’t help pondering. It was, after all, the magnet that kept pulling performers to Hollywood, the summit every performer kept struggling towards. It’s quite literally something one in a million people will ever experience, and yet how many of us have fantasized about it, if only to amuse ourselves?

“Where would my star be on Hollywood Boulevard?”

And then there’s that great mystery of extreme fame, or the tragedy of it, if you will. The grim and ever-lengthening list of those wildly beloved performers who reached that glorious summit and found themselves slipping. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince–to name a few major names–all pulled into that same terrible story. Extreme glory, extreme stress, unimaginable ups and downs–and pills. That’s not counting the legendary names who died in sudden accidents, or for other unexpected reasons…but there’s something uniquely heartbreaking about those pills.

How is it that someone can achieve unfathomable success doing what they genuinely love to do–what they were born to do–and still have their story end so miserably? How can your passion affect millions of people’s lives for the better, only to lose yourself so young? Various answers seem obvious, of course: worldwide fame is extremely stressful; drug addiction destroys many people’s lives no matter who they are; maybe human beings simply aren’t built to handle extreme fame, especially in the modern era. No doubt lots of people would say it’s not such a big mystery, and maybe it isn’t. But perhaps, in some cases, there’s a little more to it–something deeper and more fundamental to all of us. What if you reached that glorious summit and found that at the top, waiting for you to climb in, was a box?

These topics have been on my mind lately after taking in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a movie that’s been a highlight of my summer (yes, this is a brand-new movie that I can’t recommend enough). Proving that you can tie anything back to the silent era–the gift that keeps on giving–there were times when Presley’s famous life couldn’t help reminding me of another celebrity who experienced similar levels of hysteria: Rudolph Valentino.

Note the similar camera smolders, too.

The unwieldy type of fan frenzy that Valentino experienced was practically unequalled for a long time. There were numerous public appearances where he was besieged by excited fans, getting the buttons torn from his coat and his tie ripped off his neck. This would be topped by the infamous hysteria around his funeral, where no less than tens of thousands of jostling onlookers caused a riot in front of Frank E. Campbell’s Memorial Church where the actor lay in state. It’s practically become the stuff of legend. Many stars before Valentino and after Valentino would experience overeager seas of fans, but the funeral scenes of shrieking, pushing crowds and police on horseback would leave a troubling exclamation point in the history books.

Whatever it was Valentino had released would surge at times in the following decades. Frank Sinatra concerts famously attracted thousands of screaming bobby soxers, leading to one event the press called the “Columbus Day riot.” But “whatever it was” seemed to be fully unleashed when Elvis Presley came along. Arguably, what Valentino went through at public appearances Presley would experience on steroids. After his performances hit the T.V. airwaves, riots at his concerts practically became a regular feature. Fans started swarming him wherever he went, even parking themselves outside his home. Hal B. Wallis, the producer of some of Presley’s movies in the ’50s and ’60s, recalled: “Elvis…had no privacy, no life of his own. He belonged to the public in a way even the great stars I had worked with in earlier years could not have imagined. He told me he used to rent an entire amusement park after hours because it was the only way he could entertain his friends without being mobbed by crowds.”

At times there are hints of calmness in Valentino’s story: he could go to dinner at restaurants (exclusive ones, that is) or enjoy a night at the theater, doubtless while keeping a low profile. Here’s Wallis’s memories from the filming of Presley’s King Creole (1958), which shot on location in New Orleans:

“…The crowds were so huge that we had to arrange for top security…At the end of the day, it was a major ordeal for Elvis to get to his hotel room, the crowds in the lobby and in the front of the hotel so tremendous that he avoided them by going up to a room in an adjoining building, crossing the room, and entering his hotel by the fire escape. Pinkerton guards patrolled the elevators, the exits, every inch of the floor he was on, even his suite. One night he wanted to go to dinner at Antoine’s. Colonel Parker bitterly disappointed him by telling him he couldn’t. When I saw the expression on his face, I realized the price he paid for being a superstar.”

Both shooting to stardom in their twenties–both idolized with a startling intensity–and both at significant times in the 20th century. Strange as it sounds today, Valentino’s fresh-from-Italy heritage made him “foreign” in the silent era, his famous “sheik” roles toying with the taboo topic of miscegenation. His success in the Roaring Twenties gently opened the door to other young “foreign” actors down the line, and brought a new type of sensuality and romance to the cinema. Presley’s influence would again be on steroids, introducing black music to white audiences right at the starting gate of the civil rights era, not to mention thrilling fans with those dance moves. Arguably, he gave the youth culture of the time an unprecedented sense of unity and identity. This time the door wasn’t pushed gently–it was kicked wide open.

Police presence at a 1956 Elvis concert (image credit: Elvis Daily).

There are other similarities as well. Presley lost his beloved mother when he was 23; Valentino lost his mother when he was just a few months shy of 23. Both would pass away at young ages after suffering from untreated health problems. Valentino died at 31 of infections caused by a perforated stomach ulcer, while Presley’s death from heart disease at 42 was caused by his years of prescription drug abuse. But both men towards the end, for whatever reasons, seemed to have been in denial about their health issues or simply let them go on for far too long. They watched the writing appear on the wall, but looked away, unable to bring themselves to read what it said.

Journalist H.L. Mencken, who Valentino evidently admired, recalled having a meeting with the actor not long before his death. Valentino had been smarting from the infamous Chicago “Pink powder puff” editorial that had sarcastically blamed him for a supposed dearth of masculinity. In Mencken’s view, “Valentino’s agony was the agony of a man of relatively civilized feelings thrown into a situation of intolerable vulgarity, destructive alike to his peace and dignity. It was not that trifling Chicago episode that was riding him; it was the whole grotesque futility of his life. Had he achieved, out of nothing, a vast and dizzy success? Then that success was hollow as well as vast–a colossal and preposterous nothing.”

Mencken’s assessment is a powerful one, but there’s room for critique. Actor John Rothman, who studied Mencken’s life and writings, thought: “I agree that Valentino was very unhappy; clearly, the level of fame and hysteria that he caused probably frightened him. But I don’t agree that it was a colossal preposterous nothing. I think it was an extremely powerful something, whatever it was.”

“An extremely powerful something”–perhaps that’s what kept driving Valentino forward. He himself might’ve agreed more with Mencken than Rothman, for pleased as he was by his success in hit films like The Son of the Sheik (1926), he seemed to sense that he was being boxed in by his career. A truly “extremely powerful something” was eternally hovering above him and just out of reach. In one of his late interviews he talked about his idea of true success: artistic achievement, not just popularity. “Artistic achievement can come only through economic independence,” he said. “Don’t look so surprised–I don’t have it yet.”

As far as film careers went, Presley could’ve easily sympathized with Valentino. While he starred in 31 profitable films from 1956-1968, only a few of them gave him real opportunities for dramatic acting. That coveted James Dean-style role that would’ve fit his rock ‘n’ roll image to a “T” never quite materialized; studios preferred him in light, frothy flicks with plenty of musical numbers. Valentino at least had more regular opportunities to try out his acting range. Presley did have the sanctuary of his music, but he never got that ideal script that could’ve taken his acting to the next level.

In the dismal Harum Scarum (1965)–clearly the Valentino comparisons abounded back then, too.

As a musician, of course, Presley had more than enough to be proud of: defining rock ‘n’ roll for a generation, making hundreds of incomparable recordings, giving countless sold-out performances all over the country, year after year. But even while performing he eventually found himself boxed in again–gilded though that box was. There were dreams of a world tour, of visiting Europe, Asia, the Middle East–Presley had only been overseas once for a two-year stint in the army. But as we all know, it wasn’t to be.

Actor Martin Sheen once spoke about being an Elvis fan in an interview, and had some thoughtful musings about “the King’s” movie career:

“When he started, I think he really had serious aspirations about becoming a serious actor. And they just wouldn’t let him out of the box, because they had a jewel there, they had the golden egg. They knew they could count on him where he was, so they left him there. And he couldn’t get out of the box. And I think that had a lot to do with what happened to him later. He was unfulfilled, despite the fact that he was worshipped worldwide as the king of rock ‘n’ roll…but his own personal development, his own spiritual development, was hampered because he made it so fast, so big. There wasn’t anything that he had to model on…nobody had ever been there before. He was getting sunburned from his climb…

“…There wasn’t anyone close enough to him that said, ‘You know what, you have another way we’re going to go now…it’s gonna cost you, it’s going to be painful, but it’s the one thing you’re going to later be glad you did. You’re gonna grow.’…Success is a sometimes thing, but growth is forever.”

A sense of fulfillment–a sense of growth–is surely something that all of us crave. For many people, “growth” could be something small: creating a piece of art, overcoming a bad habit, being able to pay all the bills on time. For others, maybe it’s something a little bigger: a better job, a better relationship, moving somewhere new. For artistic-minded types like Valentino, it would have to be something impressive: making a high-minded classic film we’d all still admire today, being able to direct a film and be proud that it bears your name. For immensely creative types like Presley, it would’ve been something unfathomable to most of us. Making an epic tour around the world, delivering a magnificent acting performance that will be talked about for decades to come. Climbing out of that box at last, and realizing that there are other summits in front of you to be climbed–and to your joy, you don’t even feel tired.

Valentino and Presley, in their own times and in their own ways, experienced some of the most exhilarating and yet unsettling parts of fame. It might sound trite to say that the struggles they went through–especially the ones they couldn’t overcome–can serve as profound lessons for us today. But perhaps those struggles point to something very deep in all of our souls that cannot be ignored.

Sources:

Ellenberger, Allan R. The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005.

Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.

Higham, Charles and Wallis, Hal B. Starmaker: The Autobiography of Hal Wallis. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1980.

Here’s the link to the Martin Sheen interview–it had a big effect on this essay, as you no doubt can tell!

11 thoughts on “Rudolph Valentino, Elvis Presley, And The Gilded Box Of Fame

  1. Wow. This has to be one of the most inspired posts you’ve ever put up.

    I didn’t see the new Elvis movie, but my grandmother has been a huge Elvis fan since she was a teen in the 1950s and just hearing from her, it’s true that the scale of his fame was INSANE. I don’t envy it to be honest. I think many people covet fame because they see it as a form of immortality.

    I am saddened that neither Valentino nor Elvis got to experience that large amount of artistic growth they longed for. There’s a reason certain artists have “periods”– these represent an artistry that is allowed to evolve over time. This can often alienate fans who prefer the artist’s earlier work– no doubt, Valentino and Elvis would have experienced this had they been allowed to change up what they were doing– but it’s necessary. It’s like the old saying goes, if you aren’t growing, you’re decaying. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry is terrified of risk.

    I also admit this piece struck a chord with me because I’m going through my own growing pains in several different areas– more complicated fiction writing projects, attempts at my first audio commentary, new lifestyle choices, evolving relationships. Growth is hard, but so worth it.

    Thank you so much for this post. Truly it made my morning.

    PS Are you going to run a second Silent Movie Day blogathon this year? It was a lot of fun last September.

    • Thank you so much, truly. This one took more time and care than I expected, so I’m really glad I got my thoughts across clearly.

      Funny as this may sound, I get a little nervous sometimes when writing about more “recent” figures, since they’re a little out of my wheelhouse. I keep checking everything to make sure no obvious facts gets overlooked! In this case, though, this was an essay that just had to be written.

      I definitely have felt the need for growth myself, especially as Silent-ology inches closer to ten years. This might be partly why Rudy and Elvis’s stories have been affecting me so deeply lately. It’s high time to also start working on my great dream– hint: books!

      Yes I daresay the Silent Movie Blogathon should come back, funny you should mention it, someone else was asking the same thing!

      I really can’t recommend Luhrmann’s movie enough, it was 10x better than I thought it would be and I’ve been recommending to people right and left. It definitely deserves the theater experience!

  2. This is a superb article, worthy of being published in a book collection of Lea’s best blog articles.

    Valentino vis-a-vis Elvis. One known to millions by his last name, the other by his first. Neither sought FAME as a goal. They both wanted FREEDOM to bring to fulfillment their creative gifts. Fame is fleeting – unless you die young. Had Valentino flopped in the talkie transition, and had he then returned to Italy, bought a large estate, grew grapes and olives, and died at age 75, attended by an adoring wife and 16 grandchildren, he would be no more remembered today than is Antonio Moreno.

    Valentino’s funeral hysteria, the epitome of THE MADNESS OF CROWDS, is odd. His popularity had slipped due to recent films in which he attempted to move outside the stereotype that had him boxed into a role he didn’t want to portray. Odd too that the best remembered and beloved of his films are the 2 Sheik films he himself dismissed as unworthy of his talents and ambitions.

    • It is odd, although SON OF THE SHEIK was pretty stellar. I thought Rudy was magnificent in that one. Maybe the suddenness of his death, after being in his prime in that film, was just that shocking.

      Hmm, a book collection of blog articles… always thought that would be a nice way to preserve some of them! 😉

    • IIRC the majority of them were light comedies, pretty formulaic too. Some of his earlier films were pretty good, like KING CREOLE. I don’t mind the comedies, silly as they were, but you wish they could’ve mixed in some more serious roles too.

      I heard he was almost Tony in WEST SIDE STORY– talk about a “what might have been”!!

      • Richard Beymer – a film newcomer – was chosen instead of Elvis?! Why?
        My guesses: 1) Elvis salary demand 2) The film didn’t need 2 stars in the cast 3) Col. Parker insisted Elvis would sing some songs 4) Producers refused to let Elvis sing some songs 5) Elvis refused to share the limelight with Natalie 5) Producers decided WSS was not going to be a run-of-the-mill Elvis musical 6) Producers didn’t need Elvis fans to make WSS a financial bonanza

        • It sounds like Parker thought being in a film about gangs would be bad for Elvis’s image. Even though KING CREOLE had hoodlums too–maybe he thought it might become a trend, or that Elvis’s stint in the army had already cleaned up his image and they shouldn’t take chances. In any case it’s tempting to imagine the whole film with him in it, ha ha. He at least had more of a “bad boy” look to him than Beymer!

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