Romancing Repose is my new ongoing blog series highlighting instances in history where romance and death converge. Thank you for joining me! -AV
I first learned of silent film era star Rudolph Valentino not in the context of old Hollywood history or in readings about the Roaring Twenties, but in a book about fan culture that recounted the event of a fan frenzy in which tens of thousands of people had a riot… at his funeral. I was immediately smitten.
If you don’t know about Rudolph Valentino, here is a quick summary:
Rudolph Valentino was born in Italy and came to the United States when he was 18. After working odd jobs and getting into odd scandals he made his way to L.A. and started working in cinema, mostly cast as villains in bit roles. Eventually he was cast in leads and became a known sex symbol and celebrity of his day.
Valentino died at the age of 31 from peritonitis following a surgery for stomach ulcers. At that time he was known as “The Great Lover” and was a proper movie star with hits, flops, scandals, divorces, and one book of poetry written while he couldn’t work due to a contract dispute. Perhaps you could say he invented the proper movie star.
Those interested in death and pop culture likely already know about Valentino. His death in 1926 caused not only a riot at his funeral, but also generated glitzy drama when an ex-girlfriend fainted (repeatedly) in a very public display of questionable grief. Sadly, there were also reports at the time of suicides among his fans at the news of his death. Photos and a video from his funeral can be found here in this blog post: content warning for a post-mortem Valentino as the first photo.
After the New York funeral, Valentino was interred in what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery in a mausoleum crypt that was donated to him at the time by screenwriter and executive June Mathis. Mathis is credited with “discovering” Valentino, using her influence to cast him in a lead for the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (More on that later, as it is the reason we are here!) June Mathis is interred next to Valentino as she passed away a year after Valentino in 1927 at the age of 40 (though sources have conflicting birth dates that could change her age). To this day Valentino is one of the most visited memorials in Hollywood Forever (still on my bucket list, at the very top), and the cemetery does annual memorial services for the star every August. There is also the legend of the Lady in Black, as a mysterious, unidentified woman would visit the crypt on the anniversary of his death and leave a rose. The media took hold of this and since then there have been numerous ladies in black keeping the legend alive.
You can see why I chose to cover Valentino to kick off my series on Romancing Repose. Death and romance don’t just mingle in Valentino’s story, they collide fervently. The embers of the aftermath are still thrumming with intense heat in wild hearts nearly one hundred years later. (I can’t be the only one thrumming over here.)
Some would argue that the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is where the story of Valentino as we know him in history truly began. The film was a commercial success, one of the first ever to make a million dollars at the box office. June Mathis had adopted the story to screen and after its release she became the second highest paid and influential woman in Hollywood, second to Mary Pickford. The film launched Valentino into the spotlight as a convincing and desired lead actor. Mathis went on to write several more screenplays with Valentino for the lead.
Horsemen is an epic war film, but it is a tango scene at the beginning of the film that is remembered–and that I personally find particularly beguiling.
The romantically searing dance lasts only 2 minutes and 45 seconds (I started timing when Valentino cuts in and bludgeons the other guy with an object I couldn’t quite make out… you know, romantic). When I watched the scene for the first time I was struck by how the performer’s faces are so serene, how they seem steady as they emerge from the flickering black and white film. And even though shots of drunk background characters are spliced in through the dance, as a viewer I was not distracted. I was captivated by the movements of the dance, eagerly anticipating each new sway or dip. The dancers move in a way that is focused and natural against the background, busy with bar smoke and the crowd moving in a jerky, jumpy manner familiar in silent-era films. It’s like the pair are already ghosts immersed in their own purpose as the world keeps spinning, oblivious, around them. (Video of the tango scene is embedded at the bottom of this post.)
I don’t know how many heart beats passed between the performers, and later the viewers, in those three minutes, but the life that radiated from the screen in that time had a big impact. Allegedly this scene caused a new wave of interest in the tango. It also sparked a desire for the seductive essence of Valentino that “put the lovemaking of the average husband or sweetheart into discard as tame, flat, and unimpassioned” (This according to a Valentino biography that captured the sentiment at the time). Also, young male fans of the film started a fad of wearing gaucho pants. Couldn’t forget to mention that.
I can see what fans at the time were switched onto. I can only imagine the gift that cinema offered people during this era. We take for granted the many outlets we have for nurturing our fantasies, particularly our sensual ones, in ways that are enchanting but private, fantastic but personal, as fragile as star dust but deeper and more textured than we may ever truly realize.
As such, I became curious as to who Valentino’s dance partner was in this performance. After all, they had worked together to create this moment that 100 years later I felt within my own body.
Sadly, romancing repose struck again.
The woman in the tango scene was Beatrice Dominguez and she died one week before Horsemen premiered.
This article is an excellent one to read more about her, but briefly here she started performing as a dancer. She became known at age 17 when she danced in the Panama-California International Exhibition, billed as “La Bella Sevilla” and danced to traditional Spanish music. She appeared in 11 silent films between 1914 and 1921.
Her death was caused by an infection after she had surgery for a ruptured appendix. She had collapsed while shooting a film. She was 24 years old.
She has a lovely angel looking over her in Cavalry Cemetery in L.A., that you can see on Beatrice’s findagrave memorial.
There is also this short video that shows her grave, and the details of the statue are beautiful. The broken hand that had pointed toward heaven seems particularly symbolic of the fortunes that had been within her reach at the time of her death.
Some might take the dark opinion that perhaps their dance was cursed. Something about sin and temptation and lust of the flesh and all that. I am not of that opinion. I see tragedy, but not a curse.
I see, preserved on film, shimmering people, in a shimmering time, taking ahold of all the opportunities in their lives with all the passion of their spirits and their bodies. I see a reminder that life can end suddenly, sometimes even when it is the most magnificent. I see a promise we can make to one another, to honor our lives as well as those that passed before us: whenever there is an invitation… let’s dance.