Ramon Navarro

QUESTION:  Ramon Navarro and Alice Terry starred together in 1924's The Arab.  Which other movie were they also seen in together?
A)  The Prisoner of Zenda
B)  Mr. Barner of New York
C)  Where the Pavement Ends
D)  The Little American

Yesterday, we discussed the 1924 film The Arab, which happened to be a vehicle for romantic heartthrob Ramon Navarro.  Navarro was a Mexican-American actor born Jose Ramon Gil Samaniego in Durango, Mexico in 1899.  Fleeing the Mexican Revolution in 1913, Navarro and his family settled in Los Angeles, California.  Within four years, he started appearing in the films of Rex Ingram and his wife, Alice Terry, while also working as a singing waiter.  His good looks and adequate skill as an actor made him an ideal competitor for Rudolph Valentino's dominance as a Latin lover.  The Italian-American Valentino played the title character of The Sheik in 1921. Three years later, the Mexican-American Novarro played a similar role. But in 1925, Novarro gave his breakthrough performance as the title character in Ben-Hur.  The film was a blockbuster hit, as would be its 1959 remake (but maybe not the 2016 re-interpretation). Valentino's 1926 death left Novarro the title of Latin Lover Number One in Hollywood, and he enjoyed the status into the talking film era.  It was only after his studio contract with MGM Studios was not renewed in 1935 that his celebrity faded.  After that, he made sporadic appearances in film, then television, until his death in 1968.  But that's another story.

Navarro, Latin lover and sex symbol, was homosexual in a time when society had little understanding and no tolerance for anyone considered different. MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer asked him to take a woman as a bride, to participate in a "lavender marriage."  Novarro refused, and maintained romantic relationships with men.  Some accredit the stress of this unconventional lifestyle as triggering the alcoholism that would haunt him until October 30, 1968, the night when he was murdered by two brothers he invited into his home, who hoped to rob him blind, instead accidentally killing him. Tragic end to a fascinating character. But let's focus more on his life.  Get a copy of The Arab, or just enjoy the images celebrating the film throughout the American Treasure Tour's Music Room! 

ANSWER:  A)  The Prisoner of Zenda.  The two stars also appeared together in Scaramouche, Where the Pavement Ends, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Lovers?

Madonna of the Streets (1924)

QUESTION:  A remake of Madonna of the Streets was made only six years after the original, starring Robert Ames and Evelyn Brent in the rolls originally played by Milton Sills and Alla Nazimova. What was the biggest different between the two versions, besides the actors?
A)  The remake was done in color
B)  The remake was British, not American made
C)  The remake added sound
D)  The remake was a musical

Alla Nazimova.  Milton Sills.  Two American actors.  Neither of them have a large fan base today but, in the 1920's, they were both considered high celebrities for either their professional or private lives. They starred together in the film Madonna of the Streets in 1924.  Based on the William Babington Maxwell book The Ragged Messenger, it is the story of Reverend John Morton (Milton Sills), who aspires to follow the teachings of Jesus.  Shortly after inheriting a fortune from a deceased uncle, he meets and marries Mary Carlson (Alla Nazimova). Things do not go well between the two, in no small part because it was revealed that Mary had been having an affair with John's uncle when he died. Feeling she deserved the money from his uncle, Mary seduced Morton.  Having none of it, John sends Mary away and spends the money on charitable causes. One of those causes is a home for fallen women. When he spots Mary as one of the patients, he expresses his remorse for his harsh treatment of her, and the two are reunited.

Sadly, Madonna of the Streets is one of the thousands of films of the silent era considered lost today. In 1909, a U.S. Copyright law was passed that required one copy of every film ever made be sent to the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, the law did not stipulate that the Library was required to keep the print sent to them, and they often returned them to the studio that produced them. From there, they were often misplaced, forgotten, or destroyed.  Often, the destruction was intentional on the part of the studios, which saw no historic value in retaining the movies in the limited space of their vaults.  Now, it is believed, less than half the films produced between 1927 and 1950 survive today, with even worse odds of survival for films made before 1927 (up to ninety percent for some years!). Fortunately, a movement has begun to preserve those films that survive.  Let us treasure these wonderful movies that depict a world we can barely comprehend today - a world from before the invention of the first video games!

ANSWER:  C)  The remake added sound. The original was silent; however, the technology to incorporate sound had been patented in the interim. 

Milton Sills

QUESTION:  Milton Sills starred opposite yesterday's blog topic Alla Nazimova in what 1925 film?
A)  As Man Desires
B)  Madonna of the Streets
C)  The Knockout
D)  Paradise

Alla Nazimova was a controversial woman in her own time thanks to her multiple (simultaneous?) marriages and outrageous parties.  In contrast, today we would like to talk about another silent film era actor, Milton Sills. His rise to fame was hardly as dramatic as Nazimova's, although it was a little unusual. Sills was born in 1882 to a successful mineral dealer and the heiress to a successful banking family. His life was set out for him from day one. He was a prominent student at the University of Chicago, and was lecturing on philosophy and psychology when he hosted a lecture by a popular stage actor named Donald Robertson. Robertson liked Sills, and suggested that he abandon teaching to become an actor. Sills did.

It may come as a surprise that Sills succeeded.  He starred in around a dozen plays between 1908 and 1914. That was the year he signed on with a studio to become a film actor, and he not only starred in numerous films over the next sixteen years, including the highly popular Flaming Youth and 1924's top-grossing movie The Sea Hawk, but wrote a number of them as well. His star kept rising when, in 1930, he suffered a fatal heart attack while playing tennis with his wife, the actress Doris Kenyon.  He was 48 years old.

ANSWER:  B)  Madonna of the Streets.  And, as everyone knows, Paradise was released in 1926, not 1925.  So that is just a ridiculous answer!

Alla Nazimova

QUESTION:  During the silent film era, Alla Nazimova helped establish the careers of Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova.  Both women were married (at separate times) to what famous actor?
A)  Charles Boyer
B)  Rudolph Valentino
C)  Douglass Fairbanks
D)  Orson Welles

The American Treasure Tour has more stories throughout its amazing collection than can possibly be told in one blog.  But we try.  Today, we would like to discuss a woman who was at one time enormously popular on the stage and in theater, but who is all but forgotten today. Born Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon in Yalta, part of the Russian Empire (prior to becoming a part of the Soviet Union) in 1879, she abbreviated her first name to Alla, and took on as her last name that of a fictional character from a Russian novel. Nazimova emigrated to the United States when she was 26, having become a famous actor across much of Europe by 1905.  She continued her success on Broadway for many years, then made her film debut in 1916.  This led to bigger and better things until the bigger and better became smaller and not quite so good. By 1925 her film career was over, aside from a few cameo appearances in films of the 1940's.

What makes Nazimova fascinating to students of Hollywood today is actually her private life. She was a married woman when she left Russia. And she was still married when she became involved in what is called a "lavender marriage," which is to say one or both participants are homosexual and hiding that from public scrutiny. Nazimova was outed, which caused a scandal and played a large part in her retirement from film in 1925. She is also accredited with coining the phrase "sewing circle" to discreetly describe lesbian or bisexual actresses. Her reputation for hosting wild parties at her Sunset Boulevard home was quite possibly accurate, and she was definitely entrenched in Hollywood culture. One of her friends, Edith Luckett, asked her to be godmother to her daughter.  Her name was Nancy Davis, who would marry Ronald Reagan and become First Lady of the United States.

ANSWER:  B)  Rudolph Valentino