10 December 2011 | Bunuel1976
THE LEGEND OF VALENTINO (TV) (Melville Shavelson, 1975) **1/2
I was only vaguely aware of this one, so much so that I added it to the Ken Russell tribute schedule (since he also made a film about Valentino) at the very last minute! Interestingly, Russell's big-screen biopic was released a mere 2 years after this TV-film, just as Karel Reisz's 1968 version of ISADORA came hot on the heels of Russell's own for the small-screen from 2 years previously!
Like those 2 biopics, there are the expected similarities but also major differences between each version: Shavelson's background in scriptwriting serves him in good stead (especially as delivered by Suzanne Pleshette, playing a scriptwriter herself i.e. June Mathis who is credited with giving Valentino his big break). However, here, we are supposed to believe that the actor (played by Franco Nero – a fellow handsome Italian, at least, but who managed to transcend the Latin Lover image fairly early on) became an instant star upon entering the movie industry when he had really languished in the medium for a good 7 years prior to making THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921): with this in mind, his lead role in the film is described as small but significant(!) and, what is more, since he is caught by Pleshette – who immediately notices his magnetic qualities and iconic possibilities – burgling her house (his very first line of dialogue, in fact, is the Italian cussword "stronza"!), she fakes an aristocratic background for him on the spot!
As with the Russell version, the script plays around with the chronology of events (1925's THE EAGLE – incongruously shown in a montage via snippets of the genuine Valentino footage – comes before BLOOD AND SAND, made a full 3 years prior to it!). Incidentally, judging by the titles that are mentioned, one would think that the star made nothing but exotic costumers, when this is clearly not the case and that he knew beforehand just what properties would suit him (since no sooner is HORSEMEN released that he is already discussing the acquisition of CAMILLE, actually as Alla Nazimova's leading man – his future wife Natacha Rambova had been a close collaborator of hers and possibly even lover, BLOOD AND SAND and MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE!). While Rambova is shown being superstitiously influenced by runes in the Ken Russell picture, here she persuades Valentino to attend a séance in order to communicate with his mother (who passed away during the shooting of CAMILLE, as per this version and while he was still on HORSEMEN according to Russell's)!
While he is also shown being involved with his leading ladies, this one commits the cardinal sin of making Rambova (as played by a dark-haired Yvette Mimieux) a total bore and utterly unsympathetic to boot – while Michelle Philips from the later film may not have looked anything like the genuine article (but, then, neither did Rudolf Nureyev), her striking looks at least make us accept his dependence on her! Indeed, as already intimated, Pleshette comes across much better (with the film's best scene – which does not appear in Russell's biopic and is probably a complete fabrication – being the one towards the end when Nero presents Pleshette's Mathis as the real force behind the Valentino image). Despite the fact that some of Valentino's directors appear here (notably Rex Ingram), they are not played by recognizable faces as in Russell's film, but we do get Milton Berle as Paramount head Jesse L. Lasky and Judd Hirsch in more or less the part played by Seymour Cassel in 1977. Besides while the actor's effeminacy ("finocchio") is brought up, oddly enough, the boxing match held in order to uphold his manliness is omitted – as is, for that matter, the 2-year sabbatical he took from movie-making after the failure of the expensive THE YOUNG RAJAH (1922; which, regrettably, is currently unavailable for appraisal)!