Hollywood had been considering a film biography of the first great Latin lover for years, but coming up with a screenplay that could pass muster with the era's censors, avoid lawsuits and still satisfy his fans was a major hurdle. By the early 1950s, however, there were two Valentino projects in development. To safeguard their production, Columbia bought out producer Jan Grippo, who had been working on Bowery Boys films at Monogram, and gave him an associate producer credit. That didn't please his writer, Charles Marion, who sued for damages.
According to the film's publicity, 75,000 actors tried out for the title role and producer Edward Small gave screen tests to 400 before coming up with Walter Fleischmann of Talmage, Nebraska. The young man had acted in the Army during World War II and had made his screen debut with an uncredited bit in Side Street (1950). Renamed Anthony Dexter, he would win the support of Rudolph Valentino fan clubs when production stills revealed his uncanny resemblance to the legendary star.
For box office insurance, the studio top-billed Eleanor Parker, who had recently left her Warner Bros. contract in search of better roles. She played Joan Carlisle, an amalgam of Valentino's leading ladies, primarily Alice Terry and Agnes Ayers, with a lot of fabrication and fictitious material added.
It was this approach that would cause major problems for Columbia. Instead of having the star discovered by writer June Mathis, who would mentor him throughout his career and even give him a burial plot when he died broke, the script had him discovered by Joan Carlisle (who didn't even exist!) on his first ocean voyage to the states. Their romance, even though she's married to their director (Richard Carlson as William King, a fictional version of Rex Ingram, who directed the two in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921), was too much for Terry, who sued the studio for suggesting she and Valentino had had an affair. The $750,000 in damages awarded her cut into the film's meager profits. So did a $500,000 settlement with Valentino's sister and brother, who sued on the grounds that the screenplay defamed him.
At least by omitting Valentino's two wives, Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova, from the screenplay - both of whom were still alive at the time - the studio saved itself from two other lawsuits. Still, other historical changes occurred such as making Carlisle Valentino's leading lady in films that had different female stars and changing the order in which some of his pictures had been made. This did little to endear the film to critics. One change they had to make was omitting any suggestion that Valentino may also have had a few same-sex dalliances. Such material was strictly forbidden on the screen in the 1950s, though later critics have interpreted one scene as a gay reference - the one in which Joseph Calleia, as Valentino's servant, tells a rival gigolo, "For $50 Rudy would teach even you to tango."
Eleanor Parker and Patricia Medina, who shared an on-screen tango with Dexter, were the only performers to come out of Valentino relatively unscathed. Most critics attacked the script and Dexter's performance. Columbia tried building his career in roles Valentino himself might have played, like the double role in The Brigand (1952), before dropping him in 1954. After a few low-budget films, most notably the sci-fi camp classic Fire Maidens From Outer Space (1956), some television guest shots, and a few stage appearances, he retired from acting to teach high school speech and drama under the name Walter Craig.
That was hardly the end for Rudolph Valentino, who would suffer through two more filmed biographies. The 1975 television movie The Legend of Valentino featured Franco Nero as the star and romanticized his relationship with Mathis (Suzanne Pleshette). Ken Russell's 1977 biography, starring ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, went further than any previous film bio in exploring the rumors surrounding the star's sexual escapades.
Producer: Edward Small
Director: Lewis Allen
Screenplay: George Bruce
Based on the story "Valentino As I Knew Him" by Bruce
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: William Flannery
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Eleanor Parker (Joan Carlisle), Richard Carlson (William King), Patricia Medina (Lila Reyes), Joseph Calleia (Luigi Verducci), Dona Drake (Maria Torres), Lloyd Gough (Eddie Morgan), Anthony Dexter (Rudolph Valentino), Otto Kruger (Mark Towers).
by Frank Miller