Rudolph Valentino, the king of the Silent Film era, took his first breaths in Castellaneta, Italy in 1895. He wasn’t born Valentino: his name at birth was Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella. Note the Pierre — his mother was French. He was beautiful, even as a child, and indulged by the women in his life. He failed at school, failed to find work, failed to make a new beginning in Paris. In 1913, he emigrated to the United States.
He was one of four million Italian immigrants who entered America between 1880 and 1920. It wasn’t necessarily hospitable for Italians: Irish and German immigrants created competition for jobs and housing. Trade unions, fearing that immigrants would work for a lower wage, barred them. Racial violence, discrimination, and prejudice were daily threats. Southern Italians like Valentino were particularly targeted: they were the lowest non black social class, often laboring alongside black people.
Valentino did not labor, exactly. He found a “cabaret flea” job at Maxim’s, where he worked as a taxi dancer.
Was this sex work? Maybe. It was sexy, and it worked. His charms put him the good graces of wealthy women, and later landed him a screen test in Hollywood. In 1921, he starred in The Sheik. The film propelled Valentino to sex symbol status and broke box office records. It is still the sixth highest grossing silent film of all time. Valentino played the title role, a sexy Arab sheik who abducts and seduces a headstrong young American girl, played by Agnes Ayres. He rolls his eyes when he seizes her. His skin, artificially darkened by makeup and kohl, is supposed to read as “swarthy.”
Valentino is in Arabface. His character, Ahmed Ben Hassan, is too. As the plot unfolds, the heroine learns that the Sheik isn’t actually a marauding Arab rapist: he’s a white man, the orphaned son of two Westerners. He was educated in Paris but raised by an Arab prince in the Sahara. Suddenly, Ahmed’s advances are not undesirable, and the heroine, who earlier declared that “marriage is captivity,” is eager to succumb to long term commitment.
An Italian-American actor, in Arabface, playing a disguised white man in an Orientalist film, based on a desert romance novel written by a British white woman. And one more thing: when asked if his costar in The Sheik would have fallen for “a savage,” Valentino said, “People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world…the Arabs are dignified and keen-brained.”
White/brown/white/brown. That’s a lot of layers.
“First of all, Valentino was only half Italian,” one blog says. “He played mostly Europeans like himself: Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, a Russian Cossack, and even several ‘all-American’ characters with Anglo/Celtic names.” On the screen, at least, he was white — and if not exactly white, then a handsome brunet. Off screen? Who knows. Some people have argued that fame, especially the kind Valentino attracted in the early 1920s, erases the ‘undesirable’ aspects of male identities. Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra are an example of this: both Italian, both embraced as ‘all-American’ stars. They ceased to be Italian, in a way. Or if they were Italian, it wasn’t a bad thing; it was just incidental to their identities, the way some people have feet that turn out or feet that turn in because of the way their legs developed as they grew. He’s Italian but it’s not his fault.
We say that now, about gender identity or queerness. When we like someone enough — someone famous, like Ellen — we forgive them for being what they are. The star, subjected to the smelting heat of our love and approval, becomes ‘accessible’ or ‘likable’ or ‘relatable’ because their intimidating personality characteristics are melted away. We imagine Morgan Freeman clapping us on the back. Samuel L. Jackson, laughing at our dirty jokes. We lose our fear of the stars’ otherness, their blackness, their gayness, their queerness, their transness, their femaleness, their illness.
We imagine that we see “under” those traits. We say that we don’t see color, when we love someone. But also, I think, part of us doesn’t want to see the other person’s identity. Secretly, we hope that the thing we love is like us. Like Ayres in The Sheik, we resist until we realize that the unfamiliar is ‘acceptable.’ It makes the forbidden permissible. Nothing is exotic and everything is safe. Valentino, as Ahmed Ben Hassan, is one example of that fantasy. Male attention, usually so dangerous, is suddenly safe. He’s not a savage: he’s a wealthy white man, the kind of person the heroine ought to want to harass her. His true self is revealed, and the heroine’s prejudice is lifted: in this new scenario, her racism is obsolete and his white identity absolves her of her problematic desire.
What a happy ending. The beast turns out to be a prince, after all, and the patriarchal fairy tale is fulfilled, to the tune of millions. It was, too: The Sheik’s story was a blockbuster. When Valentino died at the age of 31 in Manhattan, over 100,000 fans packed the streets to pay their regards. There were riots. There were flowers, tossed and trampled by the thousands of distraught women mourning the death of the sex symbol. The immigrant from Apulia, Italy, who once made his living as a ‘dancing companion,’ died the most beloved star of his time. The first superstar.
When I examine this with a modern, intersectional eye, it’s easy to say: look how backwards we were. Look how racist The Sheik was. How pathetic, to romanticize Stockholm Syndrome and stereotype Middle Easterners as decadent and primitive. Do you see the patriarchy? Do you see the racism? From this perspective, it’s impossible to miss.
I’m not going to tell you that there is another, more lovable face under the swarthy paint this film is wearing. Maybe there is one; I don’t know. I don’t find The Sheik defensible, nor can I say it was ‘a product of its time.’ For that to be true, our culture would have to have evolved in its treatment of minorities, especially Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East. Yet our fear of Muslims is so intense that, over a decade after 9/11, we still take our shoes off at the airports and stockpile home arsenals to ‘defend against terrorists.’ We attack women in hijabs and bomb our neighborhood’s mosque. We want our white goodness to be seen, even as we put on our warpaint. Who’s the real savage?
Valentino was other for a number of reasons. But whatever he was, and however he will be remembered and resurrected and reinterpreted: he was white enough to wear blackface, and dark enough to titillate an immigrant-fearing audience.
To assert that Valentino was white — that Italians weren’t really ‘brown’ — is impossible. It may be more convenient to read him through a ‘white’ lens, but that is not so. White privilege is not bestowed posthumously. It is a lived reality. Nor is it a way to co-opt and appropriate the things we love — to pretend that, under that brown or black skin, a person just like us is waiting to reveal themselves.
“People are not savages because they have dark skins,” he said. What’s more primitive — our inability to see anything other than race, or our willingness to ‘forgive’ it?