Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) Directed by Sidney Olcott. Rudolph Valentino, Bebe Daniels, Lois Wilson (146 min).
Rudolph Valentino tangoed into silver screen immortality100 years ago. It’s hard, now, to comprehend the enormous impact he had as a movie star in an early decade of cinema. Women adored him, and conversely, many men hated him for his supposed assault on traditional American notions of masculinity. He died young, only 31, a death that probably could have been prevented had antibiotics been invented. But, by dying at the peak of his youth and popularity, he became a legend that has reverberated into the 21st century.
Rodolfo Guglielmi was born in 1895 in Southern Italy, into a middle-class family. Rodolfo didn’t care much for school, and was an indifferent student at agricultural college. When he was 18 he set off for a great adventure, immigrating to the United States. Once on board, he swapped his 2nd class ticket for 1st, and wearing his dress suit, mingled with the passengers hoping to network his way into New York high society. Once in the city, he spent his savings lavishly to impress, without much success, and ended up broke and possibly sleeping in Central Park. He got a job as a dance partner for hire in one of the popular tea rooms, where women went in the afternoon without their husbands to dance. Valentino was an expert at the tango, an erotic dance that partners danced pressed hotly together. Some cities in the US banned the suggestive dance. “When sixteen-year-old Gloria Swanson went to a fancy tea dance on Staten Island in 1914, she was warned to steer clear of the dangerous Argentinean import. Don’t worry a friend their reassured her. ‘They never play tangos on Staten Island.’” (Leider 57). He was graceful, talented and pleasing to his partners, migrated to a job as a ballroom exhibition dancer, and then decided to try his luck in the movies.
When he arrived in Hollywood, he was told that his dark complexion would relegate him to villain roles, but that was fine, for now. In 1921 he caught the eye of June Mathis, a screenwriter and one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. She possessed a shrewd eye for talent and cast him as Julio, an Argentine playboy, the hero of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a popular novel by Vincente Blasco-Ibañez. Many of his books were adapted into silent films, Blood and Sand would become a later hit for Valentino. Ricardo Cortez, one of his rivals, starred in Torrent with Greta Garbo. Julio dances a sensual tango, moves abroad to enjoy the artistic atmosphere of Paris and finds meaning on the battlefield in WW I. Valentino was a sensation as Julio and then immediate filmed The Sheik.
The Sheik was a trashy novel penned by Edith M. Hull, equivalent in its cultural impact to something like the Twilight novels, or 50 Shades of Gray. Lady Diana Manners, a headstrong society beauty defies convention by making a trip into the Sahara desert accompanied only by guides. She is abducted by a handsome Sheik and carried off into his desert lair. “What do you want with me?” she demands, and he replies, “Are you not woman enough to know?” The Sheik is an Orientalist rape fantasy which does not sit particularly well today, and Valentino was directed to overact his desires. But, at the time, his passionate looks, ravenous kisses, and intense focus on the object of his affection was no less than transformational. Women “thought of him as someone who could whisk away from humdrum lives to a romance-drenched fairyland where no one has to pay bills, tend children, chop onions or do the laundry. Rudolph Valentino would be forever stamped as a handsome, exotic Romeo who pursues and escapes with one particular woman, the object of his desire—not just any skirt who happens by” (Leider 171).
The 1920s were a time of sexual liberation for women. World War I had broken down some barriers as women stepped into men’s roles for the first time in a major way, and as clothes became less constrictive, and automobiles gave young people the freedom to spend time away from adult supervision, morals loosened, much to the outrage of so-called responsible adults. And, women could watch handsome men on-screen. In the dark. Alone. Absorbed in their forbidden sexual fantasies. At this moment in time, their fantasy was Rudolph Valentino, and, it was a transgressive one. The 1920s was a time of intense racism in this country, and Italians, part of a perceived invading hoard of immigrants taking American jobs, were not considered to be “white.” Today we look at Valentino and don’t see that, but that’s not how all audiences viewed him in the Jazz Age. When he played foreign characters, sometimes of mixed-race, who indulged and caressed white women, this was an outrage to the patriarchy.
Valentino also was somewhat of an androgenous character. It’s impossible to tell after a century, when all the people who knew him are long dead, and past interviews may be coded and guarded, but it seems that he was primarily if not exclusively straight, but the women he loved, his two wives, Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova, and his last love, Pola Negri, were bisexual. He loved flamboyant dressing and yet seemed to be completely confident in his masculinity. Apparently this was a gigantic threat to the red-blooded American male. There were constant accusations that he was weak and effeminate on screen, a tango pirate, a lounge lizard, a gigolo, a Pink Powder Puff. He wore a chain link bracelet, called a “slave bracelet” for no reason I can discern, a gift from his wife, and a wristwatch, at a time when real men carried pocket watches. The roles that his second wife, Natacha Rambova, who was very controlling about his career, chose for him and the outré costumed photographs that she staged drove male reporters and commentators wild. This only made women love him more, his sensuality, his beauty, coupled with an on-screen demonstration of passion made him the idol of idols.
Did the original owner of this book watercolor the embellishments herself? They are not fully filled in.
Hollywood was very open minded about sex in the 1920s. A commentator said, “The law of the colony is that everybody is entitled to do exactly as he or she sees fit in all personal matters. If you don’t like it, you may stay away, but you must not knock” and even Motion Picture magazine acknowledged bisexuality was definitely an option (Leider 134). But, many who knew Valentino associated him more with his love for Italian food than a trail of sexual conquests of either sex. Stuart Holmes, who acted with him in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, said, “All he thought about was Italian food. He’s turn those slumberous eyes on some woman, and she’d just about swoon with delight, but he couldn’t have cared less. He was usually thinking about the spaghetti and meatballs he was going to have for dinner that evening” (Leider 126).
He made a film with Gloria Swanson right before his Four Horsemen breakthrough, Beyond the Rocks, once believed lost, and now found! They were already friends, bonding over their love of horseback riding in the Hollywood hills. “Everyone wanted Beyond the Rocks to be every luscious thing Hollywood could serve up in a single picture: the sultry glamour of Gloria Swanson, the steamy Latin magic of Rudolph Valentino, a rapturous love story by Elinor Glyn, and the tango as it was meant to be danced, by the master, himself” Swanson recalled in her autobiography. But, the Hays Office had just been created, and kisses could last only 10 feet of film. So, there was an American kiss, and a European kiss. “Poor Rudy could hardly get his nostrils flaring before the American version was over. Only Europeans and South Americans could see Swanson and Valentino engage in any honest-to-goodness torrid kisses. American fevers were now controlled by a stopwatch” (Swanson 173-4).
Valentino and Rambova became embroiled in a massive contract dispute, which kept Valentino, who admittedly deserved a more lucrative agreement, off the screen right as the fever for his image was peaking. He was forbidden to appear on any stage, or for any other film studio, and the Valentinos embarked on a personal appearance tour for Mineralava, a “beauty clay.” They danced the tango, and interacted with the audience. In the interim, his old films were reissued, and his fans saw them over and over. He was off the screen for two years, and when he returned, it was in a story handpicked by the Valentinos, Monsieur Beaucaire. Douglas Fairbanks had originally owned the rights to this story about how a barber, a Monsieur, was just as good as a Duke…even if he is a Duke disguised as a barber.
Valentino’s comeback would be filmed at the Astoria Studios in Queens. The couple lived at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel while filming. Natacha would later be blamed for steering Valentino towards a part that would be played in powdered wigs and silk stockings, but Valentino himself was enthusiastic. “He very much looked forward to playing a role that would allow him to make love to two beautiful women and showcase his adeptness at comedy. He could at the same time parade in gorgeous finery, strut half naked in another prolonged dressing scene, and exhibit his skill in fencing” (Leiber 289). He had a lot riding on this comeback film, and was under a lot of pressure from the studio, from the press and from his fans.
Here are the Valentinos (at left) in the Paramount commisary in Astoria. Once The Astor Room (35-11 35th Avenue, Astoria, Queens, NY) the name was changed to George's, in homage to the studio's founder, and featured on the menu Rudolph Valentino's 6 ft long spaghetti with a sauce based on a Valentino family recipe. Sadly, it seems to have permanently closed. I did have a cocktail there when it was The Astor Room, and soaked in the atmosphere!
Booth Tarkington, the author of Monsieur Beaucaire, was at one time the most famous novelist in America. He was a proud Midwesterner, and his novel (collected stories, really) Penrod, about the hijinks of an upper middle class Indianapolis boy was considered the equal of Huckleberry Finn. It was so wildly popular that to this day, if there is a row of old hardbacks at an antique store, Penrod, or one of its sequels, is sure to be among the offerings. A silent film version of Penrod was a highlight of the virtual Podenone Silent Film Festival in 2020. Yet, the everyday 1920s racism makes the Penrod stories a tough slog today. The Magnificent Ambersons mourned the modern world (Tarkington, born in 1869, hated automobiles and thought modern life despoiled nature) and was made into a film masterpiece by Orson Welles. Tarkington’s alma mater, Princeton, gave him two honorary degrees, in spite of the fact he was one credit short of graduating. The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams both won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. When Monsieur Beaucaire was first filmed in 1924, Tarkington was America’s greatest living writer. Today, he is virtually forgotten.
Monsieur Beaucaire was Tarkington’s first written work, but the second published. His formidable sister Hauté brought the manuscript to magazine and book publisher S. S. McClure during a New York City trip in 1898. McClure wasn’t sold, and she mentioned that he had another novel The Gentleman From Indiana. McClure was much more enthusiastic about that one, and Tarkington serialized it in a magazine (quite common in those days) and became an instant celebrity. The Gentleman looked forward to much of Tarkington’s popular writing, describing, and idealizing small town life. ““Beaucaire”—written at the height of the fashion for historical romance—is a clever pastiche of eighteenth-century derring-do: “The Duke’s mouth foamed over with chaotic revilement.” (Surprise! Beaucaire, posing as a barber, is in reality the prince Louis-Philippe de Valois, Duke of Orléans! He will be the only character ever to be played on the screen by both Rudolph Valentino and Bob Hope.)” (The New Yorker).
Oh, and the Bob Hope version of Monsieur Beaucaire is TERRIBLE. It bears little resemblance to any of the source material: Monsieur Beaucaire as played by Bob Hope is a barber, not a nobleman in disguise. Splitting the character into two people ruins the whole point. It's not even remotely funny, just a lot of warmed over radio shtick. I never thought I would yearn for the relief of a Bing Crosby cameo, which goes to show, never say never. But, where did they repurpose the costumes from? They are surprisingly elaborate, and surely not built for Bob Hope's comedy.
Monsieur Beaucaire is a novella, or extended short story, rather than a true novel. In my photoplay edition, it is 127 pages long, with a similar number of words per page. Much of it is written in French accented English, which makes it pointlessly hard to read. It is in three acts, which seems to lend itself to being turned into a play (which it was) reflecting Tarkington’s love for the theater; he was a founding member of The Triangle Club, Princeton’s musical comedy club. Because it is so slight, the film version had to add considerable plot. The first scene in the book does not occur until half an hour into the film. Because, rather than Valentino’s character being introduced as a barber as in the novel, trying to eke his way into high society, we know from the beginning that he is really a nobleman, in exile from the court for having insulted Louis XV’s favorite, Madame Pompadour.
No expense would be spared on either the sets or costumes. One fan magazine reported 350 wigs cost $40,000, $85,000 of antique jewelry and $90,000 had been spent on costumes. There were 15 principal acting parts, and the director, experienced with big budget costume films was likely paid $30,000. The opening scene hinted at the lavishness to be expected in the Versailles court of Louis XV, and Valentino himself appeared in a powdered wig and “a green satin coat emblazoned with silver brocade, a lustrous pair of green satin breeches, with gray silken hose ornamented by jewelled garters and pumps that were resplendent under buckles sparkling with precious stones” (Leider 296). Surviving prints don’t reflect the care that was taken by cinematographer Harry Fishbeck, who shot the Versailles scenes using bright spotlights on the actors, and the later scenes in Bath with a romantic soft focus. Natacha was essentially the assistant director on the film, as well as influencing the art direction and designing many of the costumes. She was well acquainted with the frilly rococo style from her childhood summers in France.
About forty, or maybe sixty of the ensembles were crafted at the costume house of Max Weldy, and designed by Georges Barbier (with an uncredited assist by Rene Hubert) an influential fashion illustrator who also designed the barely-there costumes of the Folies-Bergere showgirls. Natacha hired a scenic artist and two assistants, a costume director and four wardrobe assistants, an art selector, interior decorator and one assistant, a draper, a make-up supervisor and perhaps a music ensemble, a specialty caterer, a director of etiquette, period transportation expert, a gardener and a tapestry expert, a fencing master, a dancing master, a reader of poetry and private violinist, a tobacconist, and two assistants to his valet, a physiotherapist, a calisthenist, an autograph forger, a librarian and a masseur. These specialists vary from source to source, and surely some of them were an invention of the fan magazines. Were they?? Again, the murky 16mm transfer of Monsieur Beaucaire doesn’t do justice to the astounding costumes with their 18th century lines and their Art Deco embellishments. One of Barbier’s suits for Valentino was a “walking ensemble of pale gray velvet with chenille braid. Lined with purple and red taffeta, it had a waistcoat of pink velvet embroidered with silver and breeches and boots of gray suede” (Leiber 298).
I love this insane outfit because the applied ribbon? braid? is so haphazard. Not historically accurate.
Lois Wilson, who played Queen Marie of France, remembered the filming as enjoyable, with “a spirit of fun and comradarie” during filming (Leider 299). Valentino was warm and friendly, although Natacha was a trifle frosty, and insisted on being called “Madam.” (ibid).
Since Valentino made the film after a hiatus, this is is a film for the fans. Yes, he appears in the make-up, wigs and fancypants attire of the French court, but there is also a lengthy dressing scene, in which he is shirtless. Valentino is a handsome fellow, not as puny as many of the hunks of his era. This provoked plenty of commentary. In a Rudolph Valentino scrapbook, archived at victorianpopularculture (see link below) the scrapbooker cut out letters written to fan magazines about the scene, including the following:
“The scene in Beauciare, where Valentino appears naked from the waist up, in fact the whole sequence showing the young Duke in his apartment was, I think necessary and very good. It helped to make a fine, manly human being out of a silk and lace picture prince. It was a virile, artistic and well-chosen touch in a most excellent picture. Mabel Warren”
“Rudolph Valentino not only drove a nail in his coffin with his shirt scenes in Beaucaire, he dug his grave and interred himself forever as far as I am concerned. That was the most blatant display of an actor’s physique that I have ever witnessed in the seventeen years that I have been an ardent screen devotee. It was disgusting to say the least. Mrs. Lorenza Stevens”
The scene in question. This still is reproduced in Richard Griffith's "The Movies" the movie book obsession of my childhood.
And, there are plenty of kissing scenes with different lovely ladies (although, since they are not given any particular personality traits, and they are all wearing similar white marcelled wigs with a decided Jazz Age flair, they are hard to tell apart). And, when he is merely flirting, there is a bit of open mouth kissing, although lips are clamped shut when true love is involved.
Valentino excelled when he could play swashbuckling characters in the Douglas Fairbanks mode, which he was allowed to in several of his best films. The Eagle is my favorite. Of course, his female fans preferred him in romantic scenes. The center section of the film, when he is playing the barber is by far the most enjoyable, and he seems to be having the most fun playing that part. All the stiff “etiquette of the court” scenes are static in comparison. Although he was accused of being effeminate, due to the 18th century styles in the film, he plays a character who is a lover, not usually a fighter, and the titles tell us when he has “the shock of his life…a woman is not looking at him.” He does have one brief moment when he enters a ball disguised in a woman’s cape, hiding his face with a fan, which is not exactly dressing in drag, or maybe it is.
It’s sad that vivacious Bebe Daniels is wasted as his true love. Born in Dallas, Texas, she made her stage debut at 4, and her screen debut at 7. Unsurprisingly, she hated school, and left the Sacred Heart Convent school at 14. She was immediately signed to star in short Harold Lloyd “Lonesome Luke” comedies. Her mother despaired, “I never thought Bebe would sink that low” (Bodeen 414). She was a spritely foil to Lloyd for four years. Spotted by Cecil B. DeMille while dining out with Lloyd, at 18 she entered features as a Babylonian courtesan in a flashback in DeMille’s Male and Female. Afterwards, she became one of Paramount’s top stars playing glamourpusses in DeMille’s saucy social comedies, as well as in “slapstick comedy, French bedroom farce, Zane Grey Westerns, opulent costume drama to modern jazz romances” (Bodeen 418). Here, she is “fresh from the convent” and she spends most of the film being huffy, which is a waste of good kissing time with Valentino. His other sweethearts are played by Lois Wilson and Doris Kenyon, and while they are fetching in their panniers, they do not have much personality.
I wish a director who cared more about the actors than Sidney Olcott had held the reins. One can’t help but think of The Laughing Cavalier the film singled out in Singing in the Rain as a relic of the silent era at the dawn of the talkies. Although Valentino is gently mocking his image as a great lover, the film is too posed and static to make the point as vigorously as it should. Certainly, the studio must have been thinking of Ramon Novarro’s Scaramouche (1923) which had been a box office smash for one of Valentino’s rivals the year before. Novarro was a less passionate lover (perhaps because he was on-screen romancing director Rex Ingram’s wife, Alice Terry, although that had not inhibited Valentino in Four Horsemen) but Scaramouche is emotionally well acted, and has a much stronger plot. Novarro was also being paid $10,000 a week (Ellenberger 28) when Valentino was making only $1250 a week (Lieber 230). He had reason to bear a grudge against the studio who exploited him, yet undervalued him simultaneously.
Critics seemed required to take sides, for or against Valentino. Was it a women’s picture, or could men enjoy it as well? Was the dressing scene to prolonged or just right? Was Beaucaire too effeminate? Was it time to return to the stolid, pre-Latin Lover heroes of the screen? Should Americans care at all about royalty? The fact that he was argued about in the press so vigorously confirmed his importance to the cultural conversation.
This is Doris Kenyon, in another dress trimmed in a kooky way that never would have been seen in the 18th century.
Initially, the reviews were glowing. The New York Times declared it a must see, even for the non-movie going public. “Gorgeous is a word we invariably dodge, but this pictorial effort is thoroughly deserving of such an adjective, as never have such wondrous settings or beautiful costumes been seen in a photoplay” The film was released in the summer, and the public packed non-air conditioned theaters for the sight of their idol. The film was virtually “nothing less than 100 minutes of Valentino (ibid). But, as the release widened, reviewers outside the urban centers were less enthusiastic. That “there was too much art and not enough menace, that Rudy’s sex appeal had been buried beneath powdered wigs and embroidered clothing.” “Some of the farmers of God’s country had taken unkindly to the white wigs” Natacha sniffed. (all quotes Morris 151-2). But, the film was eventually judged by posterity to be a static tableau, and not keyed into the intense physicality of Valentino’s stardom.
The DVD from Grapevine, which is the only way I could view this film, is not only appears to be a murky 16mm transfer, but the organ score is monotonous. But, thanks, Grapevine! I long to see this film in a pristine print on the big screen, preferably with a score by the Monte Alto Picture Orchestra or David Drazin.
“Rudolph Valentino in Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) is so hot, and the costumes/hairstyles are so gorgeous, that I almost want to forgive anything. I’m impressed that they got the short hair around the face that so many films miss, even to this day. Of course, they styled that shorter hair in a Marcel wave which is all 1920s, baby. “ (Frock Flicks)
His most passionate biographer, Emily W. Leider asserts, “Rudolph Valentino helped deflower postwar America, teaching by his screen example the limits of emotional restraint and erotic innocence. And, he reconfigured its ideal of the desirable man. Along with flamboyant male fashion trends, Valentino offered his adopted country a new masculine ideal: sensual, continental, and far more attuned to women than earlier models, darker in both complexion and mood, more willing than any before (or since?) to respond to beauty, show passion, and give his all—even die—for love” (Leider 422).
There have been many masculine ideals in the 100 years since The Sheik abducted Diana Manners to share passionate caresses with her. And, it’s hard in these days, when there is nothing hidden about sexual passions, to reproduce the effect Valentino had on his fans. To see him on screen, to time travel to his world and imagine the impact of these forbidden desires is still rewarding for the romantic cinema fan.
Monsieur Beaucaire by Booth Tarkington: The Photoplay Edition https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booth_Tarkington, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/11/the-rise-and-fall-of-booth-tarkington, https://www.frockflicks.com/contemporary-hairstyles-affect-historical-costume-movies-1920s/ Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider, Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger, Valentino by Irving Shulman, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp, Swanson on Swanson by Gloria Swanson, Hollywood Costume Design by Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland, Madam Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova by Michael Morris, Ramon Novarro by Allan R. Ellenberger