Sons (and daughters) of ‘The Sheik’

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The phrase “hot tomato” may have applied to the crimson-lipped flappers who raised their hemlines and lowered their guard in the Roaring ’20s. But few were hotter than the Latin lovers who steamed up the silver screen.

In a sense, the flapper and the Latin lover went hand in hand or, rather, cheek to cheek: Though names like Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro, Antonio Moreno, Gilbert Roland and Ricardo Cortez may mean nothing to Facebook Nation, they conjured a dark beauty and barely contained passion that ignited womanhood at a time when our nation was struggling with issues of race, sex, gender equality and national identity – issues that remain unresolved to this day.

It’s easy to make fun of the Latin lover with his eyes blazing and nostrils flaring in ardor, anger, anguish and, well, that was pretty much it. Many of us, after all, are old enough to remember Marlon Brando, who ushered in a more naturalistic style of acting. (Then, too, Brando didn’t have to act in an age without sound when you had to convey everything with your face.) And many of us still chuckle at clips of Billy Crystal on “Saturday Night Live” as Fernando, a character who was a pastiche of such ardent mid-20th century Latin lovers as Fernando Lamas, Ricardo Montalbán and Cesar Romero and whose catchphrase, “You look mahvelous,” implied an oily charm worthy of parody.

But the truth is that from the beginning, the Latin lovers were the objects of prejudice and ridicule by white-bread American males who feared both women’s awakening sexuality and a rivalry with dark, foreign-born types.

“The first official Latin Lover, Madrid-born Antonio Moreno, came to the fore in a string of serials in the late 1910s,” André Soares writes in his absorbing biography “Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro” (St. Martin’s Press), “but in those days, despite Moreno’s popularity, men with darker looks were relegated to playing villains devoid of sensuality.”

Enter Valentino. At first, it seemed that the Italian-born dancer would go the way of Moreno – if he were lucky. Director D.W. Griffith, who once ran a film studio in Mamaroneck, turned down a chance to cast him even as a Mexican bandit in the movie “Scarlet Days,” because he thought women would be put off by his foreign looks.

Women were not. When writer-producer June Mathis was casting the male lead in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921) – based on a popular novel of family and war that stretched from the tango clubs of Argentina to the battlefields of World War I France – she knew whom she wanted. As the self-centered, tangoing Julio – who changes lovers as if they were dance partners but finds redemption amid the bloody French trenches – Valentino was a sensation. Like most of the great male stars in any era, he was macho enough to entice women with his sexual heat but vulnerable enough to let them explore their sexuality safely, Michael Malone writes in “Heroes of Eros” (E.P. Dutton):

“Valentino’s ‘rape’ of Vilma Banky in ‘Son of the Sheik’ is much discussed as the epitome of machismo; what is almost never mentioned is that Valentino is stripped to the waist, tied up, and flogged by a real brute just before the infamous assault on Banky in the tent. The second action is made possible (and acceptable) only by the first: Only because women could ‘rape’ Valentino did they allow him to ‘rape’ them.”

The ravisher offered something else – a sleeker style that had a host of imitators. As Novarro biographer Soares notes, Ricardo Cortez had actually been born Jacob Krantz. Englishman Ronald Colman and Americans Warner Baxter and John Gilbert also capitalized on the craze for darkly handsome leading men. And few probably realize that Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula on Broadway in 1927 – in white tie and patent-leather hair – owed more to Valentino than to Bram Stoker’s novel.

Valentino’s chief rival in Latin lover-land was Mexican-born Ramon Novarro, and like most rivals, they were a study in contrasts. While Valentino smoldered, Novarro sported. Valentino had the mystique; Novarro, the range, which he put to good use in the 1925 “Ben-Hur,” a film that more than holds its own against the 1959 juggernaut, right down to the sea battle and the oft-imitated chariot race. As Judah Ben-Hur, the proud Jew who’s spurred to revenge against the Romans for his family’s sufferings yet yearns for a transcendent peace, Novarro is in some ways far more believable than the fairer, clench-jawed Charlton Heston.

Success, however, didn’t necessarily bring the Latin lover respect. The idiosyncratic Valentino – with his headline-inducing marriages and preference for strong, older women – was often accused of being gay or at least effete, a “pink powder puff” – a slur he readily avenged with his fists. The more conventional Novarro, who actually was gay, mostly went under the radar by cultivating the press – he was the lover of the journalist Herbert Howe – and sticking close to his family and his Roman Catholic faith. Ironically, his brutal 1968 murder at the hands of two young men he had hired for sex would become one of Hollywood’s most sensational tragedies.

By then, Valentino had been dead 42 years, succumbing in 1926 to complications from surgery to alleviate appendicitis and gastric ulcers. With him died the novelty of and the passion for the Latin lover. By the 1930s, the Latin lover was a punch line – see Erik Rhodes’ amusing Italian dandy in the Astaire-Rogers musical “Top Hat” – and “tall, dark and handsome” meant you had better have an American accent (Tyrone Power) or at least, an Anglo one (Cary Grant.)

Despite the charms of Lamas, Montalbán and Romero – and the international stardom of Louis Jordan and Marcello Mastroianni – the later Latin lovers would never achieve the movie stardom of Valentino or even Novarro, often being relegated instead to supporting roles, other ethnicities, sci-fi and comic-book villains and TV series and commercials. The same was true of Latinas like Rita Moreno. One exception was the actress-dancer Margarita Carmen Cansino – Rita Hayworth.

In our global Internet age, it’s supposedly all different. Actors regularly play various nationalities. And no one wants to be the fair-haired boy. Everyone wants to be the antihero or villain. (In “Skyfall,” the latest, terrific James Bond thriller, Spain’s Javier Bardem went blond to play the antagonist of Daniel Craig’s fair Bond, the idea being that they are two halves of the same cold-spy coin.)

When we think “Latin” today, we might think of Bardem or Antonio Banderas, Marc Anthony or Enrique Iglesias. But perhaps we’re more likely to think of strong Latinas like Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Shakira, Sofia Vergara and Penelope Cruz – who are international media and fashion stars as well as performers.

Call them Valentino’s revenge.

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