Rudolph Valentino's Alleged "Otherness"

March 22, 2015

There are a lot of annoying things in the new PBS documentary "The Italian Americans", like the claim that Sacco and Vanzetti faced anti-Italian prejudice, which I've argued against before. Another is this similar claim that silent movie icon Rudolph Valentino faced prejudice in Hollywood because there were no Italian roles and he was too much of a dark "other" to get any "mainstream" roles, so he was forced to play only "exotic" non-European characters.

To make this questionable argument, the writers and "experts" get a lot of information wrong — maybe on purpose. First of all, Valentino was only half Italian. He had a French mother, so his looks were not only Italian. And he didn't play an Arab in The Sheik either. It was revealed at the end of the movie that the sheik was in fact a European of British and Spanish descent, which was meant to erase the character's exotic "otherness" so that his forbidden romance with the English heiress would become socially acceptable. It's true he was supposed to "pass" for Arab until that reveal, but the other Arabs in the film were played by American actors of Northern European descent. That wasn't at all unusual.

If you look at his filmography, contrary to what the documentary implies, he played mostly Europeans like himself: Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, a Russian Cossack, and even several "all-American" characters with Anglo/Celtic names. He also played some Latin Americans, but they can be fully Spanish. As far as I can tell, the only clearly non-European he ever played was an Indian Rajah, but in that movie, as in The Sheik and its sequel, as well as the movies with Latinos, the other "exotic" characters were also played by white actors, mostly of Northern European descent.

The fact that Rudolph Valentino was openly loved by women all over America, and imitated by a lot of jealous men, argues against any kind of extreme "otherness" or anti-Italian prejudice. That could never have happened if he was really considered so dark and foreign, or if there was such a stigma to being Italian. He was "exotic" as an ethnic non-British European and a "Latin Lover", which American audiences weren't used to seeing, but not so exotic that he wasn't still seen simply as a white man.


Crimson Guard said...

I didnt watch the show, perhaps they're overly exaggerating. But from what I read Valentino had faced some smears from mainly idiot critics based around his background,looks and characters.

Was primarily because he was good looking ,a good dresser off the camera, the type casted roles he got(costumes ect) and because they resented this Italian influencing the American male which was largely of Anglo-German descent - or rather they blamed him for any negatives of the contemporary male .

One attack, many of these types use for character assassination, is accusations of being gay. Valentino stood up for himself against slurs against his heritage and his sexuality which they didnt like either.

He was accused of being gay because he was successful with the women and a good dresser ect ect. Valentino challenged those who made fun of him as he was actually well fit and a fighter not a sissy as some in the press made him out to be.

Good read:

Italianthro said...

I guess he was the first metrosexual and America wasn't ready yet. But that was because of prejudice against gay/feminine men, not against Italians who mostly weren't like that.

Seems he was a lot more worried about being seen as a "pink powder puff" than about looking too "dark", "exotic" or "foreign". And it probably had a bigger impact on the roles he got too.

Crimson Guard said...

Sinatra decked Lee Mortimer for calling him a guinea at Ciro's. Mortimer was renown for writing a lot of racist articles and anti-communist red scare articles.

Some hated Sinatra cause he was a hit with the ladies and for pretty much the same things as Valentino cept with Frank they tried attaching him the Mafia and Commies. They tried claiming he dogded the war so he can make out with all the wives and girlfriends of the servicemen overseas, I mean really some crazy stuff but its documented,lol. You should watch this:

I watched much of it last night, seemed pretty alright.

Anonymous said...

What difference does it make if Valentino was perceived as "other"? He was who he was, no? and you are an insecure freak. Have you noticed how "Nordics" tend to sport a gut and sweat rather like pigs? What say you of drunkards = Nordics,eh?