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In the era of the silent film, directors were king; the recipients of top billing, they were often better known than the film's actors. A handful of men were at the forefront of the Hollywood game during those years, including D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Erich von Stroheim. Add to that list Rex Ingram, who has been called the master of silent cinema, but is better known today as the director who introduced Rudolph Valentino to the world. In an ironic twist, the focal shift from director to star by film audiences began following the release of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), which ignited an unparalleled worship of Valentino. The film was helmed by Ingram, and starred the beautiful Alice Terry, but Valentino stole the show by demonstrating his skills with - summed up in two words - the tango.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is an epic tale of an Argentinean family who becomes divided and ends up fighting on opposite sides during WWI. The film, based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez, grew into a mammoth production: over $1 million was poured into it and over 12,000 people were involved. Yet the film's existence can be traced back to one woman, June Mathis. As the head of Metro's script department, Mathis, realizing the film potential of the best-selling novel, persuaded then-president Richard Rowland to buy the rights. She also convinced the studio to hire Ingram on as director; realizing her passion for the project, Metro also gave her screenwriting duties. As the final coup de grace, Mathis insisted on casting an unknown actor in the featured role of Julio. In a 1921 interview with famed columnist Louella Parsons, Valentino says of Mathis, "She discovered me. Anything I have accomplished I owe to her, to her judgment, to her advice and to her unfailing patience and confidence in me." Mathis had spotted Valentino in a bit part in the film Eyes of Youth (1919), and her instincts told her he was a star. Those instincts resulted in one of the most successful films of its time, grossing over $4 million, and catapulted "The Great Lover" into cinematic history as the first screen idol.
An Italian immigrant, Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D'Antonguolla arrived in New York City in 1913, adopted the soon-to-be-famous name of Rudolph Valentino and struggled to support himself doing odd jobs like gardening, dishwashing and waiting tables. He was, however, a good dancer, which proved to be his break into movies via his friend and occasional dance partner Alla Nazimova. The tango scene from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was embellished and expanded to optimally display Valentino's talents in the sensual dance. Since the role of Julio was a feature part, Valentino was originally paid $100 per week; this was soon increased to $350 per week. After the release of the film and the resulting "Valentino mania," Metro still refused to increase his salary to a starring player's rate. Metro may have been truly unaware of Valentino's massive potential, or perhaps they were wishfully hoping to keep him on at bargain basement prices. At any rate, Valentino called their bluff and moved over to Paramount, which quickly released The Sheik (1921), sealing Valentino's celebrity status. Rudy would star in nine more films before succumbing to peritonitis in 1926; his death sparked mass hysteria and near riots when fans learned the news.
During the filming of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, however, Valentino was still new to the publicity game. Director Ingram found him one day on the back of the lot, posing for informal photographs. Unfortunately, the heroic image he was trying to project astride a horse was compromised by the saddle being on backwards, so Ingram kept a close eye on Valentino's publicity throughout the remainder of the production. Ingram also takes credit for extending the tango scene, claiming that he reused a scene from one of his earlier Universal pictures and transposed it into the Horsemen plot. Given Mathis' influence and initiative with the project, however, one is inclined to think that the scene was a cooperative effort at the very least. Ingram did have an expert crew to work with, led by editor Guy Whytock and cinematographer John Seitz. Whytock often worked with Ingram, and was well prepared to deal with the director's propensity to overshoot production.The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ended up with half a million feet of raw footage for Whytock to sort through. Seitz, nominated for his work on such films as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Sunset Boulevard (1950), was a pioneer in his field with such contributions as the matte shot and his trademark usage of low-key lighting.
Although the presence of Valentino dominates The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, there are other actors of note featured. Alice Terry, the billed star as well as Ingram's wife, was a popular actress of her day. She would be cast in the next Ingram/Valentino flick rushed out in the same year before Rudy's jump to Paramount, The Conquering Power (1921). Alan Hale appears in a supporting role; he was perhaps best known as Errol Flynn's sidekick in numerous films, his role of Little John in several Robin Hood flicks, and as the father of Hale, Jr., who played the Skipper on the television series Gilligan's Island.
Director: Rex Ingram
Screenplay: June Mathis
Production Design: Joseph Calder, Amos Meyers
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Film Editing: Grant Whytock
Original Music: Louis F. Gottschalk
Cast: Rudolph Valentino (Julio Desnoyers), Alice Terry (Marguerite Laurier), Alan Hale (Karl von Hartrott), Pomeroy Cannon (Madariaga).
by Eleanor Quin