The Young Rajah
Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi attended agriculture school in Nervi, Italy, before going to Paris to explore his skills as a dancer. It was there that Rodolfo's physical grace and seductive personality blossomed, and he earned a living as a cafe dancer and gigolo. After being embroiled in a scandal with a wealthy married woman, he left France for New York, where he traded on his charms to land small parts in big films. In 1918 (at age 23), he chose a name decidedly shorter than that on his baptismal record, yet one that encapsulated his exotic romantic presence: Rudolpho De Valentina. He met other influential women. One such woman was celebrated screenwriter June Mathis (three years his senior), who scripted Metro Pictures' prestige productions. She found a spot for him in Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).
In a rapid succession of films, a Valentino formula began to emerge: of a graceful, olive-complected seducer who abducts women, conquers their scruples and dances the occasional tango. The locations changed, the character's race underwent slight variation, but -- be he a sheik or a bullfighter -- the formula was seldom tampered with.
In The Young Rajah, Valentino (billed with the Christian name Rudolph), is an Indian rajah with psychic powers. Through a series of fateful twists, the young prince is given to the care of an American couple, Caleb and Sarah Judd (Spottiswoode Aitken and Fanny Midgley) and re-christened Amos. He attends Harvard, is a member of the rowing team, and endures the taunts of classmates who resent his swarthy charm and family wealth. He also suffers occasional bursts of second sight, and catches glimpses into his own future, and that of others. When Slade, a jealous rival (Jack Giddings), attempts to break a chair over Amos's head, a premonition causes him to dodge the blow, and the would-be attacker falls to his death.
At a costume party, Amos dons traditional Indian garb. "Amos, I always thought this re-incarnation stuff the bunk," says one admiring female partygoer, "but when I see you in that rig --." He captures the attention of beautiful Molly Cabot (Wanda Hawley) and manages to steal her away from her betrothed, the mean-spirited Horace Bennett (Robert Ober). Word of Slade's accidental death somehow reaches "behind the barriers of Asia" to its iron-fisted ruler, Ali Kahn (Bertram Grassby), who usurped the throne from Amos's father. Kahn sends assassins to America to seek out and destroy the true heir to the throne.
As wedding plans are underway for Amos and Molly, Amos has a premonition of one of Kahn's henchmen holding a sword to his throat on his wedding day. He locks himself in a nearby sanitarium, and waits to see if his darkest vision will be realized... or if fate will somehow intervene.
In the late 1910s/early 1920s, popular culture and interior design were experiencing a surge of interest in Orientalism. Its influence is apparent in films such as Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915) and Douglas Fairbanks's The Thief of Bagdad (1924). It was evident in Valentino's The Sheik (1921, directed by George Melford) and became even more prominent in The Young Rajah. Just as the term "Orientalism" was a Western concoction, the films and music and design that embrace Eastern culture are romanticized stereotypes merely inspired by the religion, culture and dress of Asia and the Mideast -- about as authentic as the bejeweled costume Amos wears to the Harvard party. In one scene, the Maharajah Ali Kahn sits on a silken throne, entertained by a veiled harem dancer, fanned by eunuchs and accompanied by a harem girl gently waving incense behind him. The film is peppered with references to the Koran, Buddha and the Talmud. All these whiffs of Eastern cultures drench the film with an intoxicating (if kitschy) exoticism.
Apparently Valentino took the film's metaphysical plot elements seriously and began consulting psychics on a regular basis, a practice that would continue for years.
The Young Rajah was made just as Valentino was sliding into a period of great personal and professional difficulty. He was in the midst of divorcing actress Jean Acker. The marriage was tumultuous from the beginning, when Acker allegedly locked Valentino out of the bedroom on their wedding night. He fell in love with costume designer Natacha Rambova (who designed the ersatz Indian robes and gowns for The Young Rajah). But the troubles with Acker reportedly weighed heavily on the 26-year-old actor. According to Emily W. Leider's biography Dark Lover, Valentino complained of "cheap sets, cheap casts, cheap everything," and confessed that neither he nor the studio were very happy with his performance. "Some scenes had to be cut because of my bad appearance on the screen," Valentino wrote, "as a result of the messages that I had from Mrs. Valentino in New York."
In all fairness, there was not much in the role for Valentino to sink his teeth into. His character is frustratingly passive, and does not wield a whip, kidnap a woman or engage in any of the usual sadomasochistic fantasies that make some of his other films so titillating.
In spring 1922, after being granted a divorce from Acker, Valentino traveled to Mexico to marry Rambova. Unfortunately, neither of them was aware of the intricacies of marital law. Because divorces took one year to become final, Valentino was arrested and charged with bigamy. Mathis was one of three people who paid Valentino's bail. Paramount (the studio to which he was under contract) did little to support him. Valentino responded by refusing to work. Paramount filed an injunction so he could not appear in films for any other studio. The stalemate lasted for months. Contractually blocked from acting, Valentino waged war on studio head Adolph Zukor and the film industry in general. During one radio appearance, speaking on the topic "What's the Matter with the Movies?" Valentino became so irate (and potentially slanderous) that the radio station pulled the plug on the broadcast.
Eventually, Valentino would return to work -- at Paramount -- in Sidney Olcott's Monsieur Beaucaire (1924), but he would forever view the film industry with cynicism. From that point on, he made an effort to wield more control over his own career, rather than allowing himself to be freely manipulated by others. Once he broke free of his Paramount contract, he appeared in nothing but independently-produced pictures (such as Clarence Brown's The Eagle  and Joseph Henabery's Cobra ) for the remainder of his career.
Director Phil Rosen was a prolific filmmaker with a thirty-year career. Starting as a cinematographer (shooting Lon Chaney in The Miracle Man  and Theda Bara in Sin ) he graduated to directing Hoot Gibson westerns in 1919. During the early 1920s, the zenith of his directorial career, he worked at Paramount, where he directed The Young Rajah. During the sound era, Rosen's projects were plentiful, if less glamorous. He ground out numerous melodramas for the B-picture studios such as Republic and Monogram. He ended his career at the slightly more upscale Columbia Pictures (The Secret of St. Ives ) and died two years later.
Director: Phil Rosen
Screenplay: June Mathis, John Ames Mitchell (novel), Alethan Luce (play)
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Cast: Rudolph Valentino (Amos Judd), Wanda Hawley (Molly Cabot), Pat Moore (Amos as child), Charles Ogle (Joshua Judd), Fanny Midgley (Sarah Judd), Robert Ober (Horace Bennett).
by Bret Wood