Rudolph Valentino: Seducer, Sex Symbol and ‘The Sheik’

"Rudolph Valentino" by Unknown - of Youth. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

“Rudolph Valentino” by Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

The 1920’s saw a booming film industry, with such stars as Charlie Chaplin taking the limelight. Silent films reached their peak of popularity, and whilst it was possible to add sound to a motion picture recording, the technical implications of this made this uncommon until the end of the decade.

In this decade, Rudolph Valentino constructed his fame, his image, and his legacy.

Valentino, or Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla, emigrated from Italy to America in 1913. A new face in a new city, Valentino struggled for several years and spent some time living on the streets before finding a job in a touring theatre production of Robinson Crusoe Jr, but his big break was in 1926 with The Sheik.

The Sheik with Agnes Ayres and Rudolph Valentino, movie poster, 1921. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

The Sheik with Agnes Ayres and Rudolph Valentino, movie poster, 1921. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Whilst Valentino had featured in successful films prior to his role as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, it was in this film he secured his name in lights. Playing a supposed ‘savage’ who kidnaps Lady Diana Mayo and eventually falls in love, Valentino’s performance as the British/Spanish hero of this film adaptation of E.M. Hull’s novel secured him an increasingly iconic status as he captured the hearts of women throughout America. With his performance came numerous titles and nicknames, from cinema’s seducer to “Latin Lover”.

Valentino became, arguably, cinema’s first sex symbol. And it was an image he hated.

With his new fame, title, and image, Valentino received a backlash of male criticism and a rush of feminine hysteria. Men questioned his masculinity and sexual orientation, even claiming he was responsible for the America’s “degeneration into effeminacy”, and developed nicknames of their own such as “Vaselino”, referring to Valentino’s slicked back hair.

"Thesonofthesheik". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

The Son Of The Sheik. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Regardless, the film was so successful that a sequel was made in 1926. In The Son of the Sheik Rudolph Valentino played the passionate desert leader who falls in love with Yasmin, a dancer. The film was immensely successful and grossed $1,000,000 in its first year of release, going on to more than double that in subsequent years. Some critics heralded Valentino’s performance as one of the best in his career – however, his success was not to last and he was taken ill before the film was even released. Valentino died of peritonitis on 28th August 1926, leaving the American female population in mourning when The Son of the Sheik was released on the 3rd September.

Whether he was liked or disliked, Rudolph Valentino’s iconic status was indisputable. His image as cinema’s Great Lover surpassed him and his greatest films and remains alive today.


We will be screening Rudolph Valentino’s The Son of the Sheik at HOME next week on the 28th January with a free drinks reception beforehand in the ground floor bar to celebrate the launch of our newest strand of Humanities in Public events. Free tickets for the free wine reception and SEX launch can be booked at here.

For this special screening, we are delighted that the celebrated composer Neil Brand will provide live piano accompaniment. Neil will be joined by Dr Andrew Moor (Manchester Metropolitan University) to give an introductory talk on the theme of ‘Sex and Film Music’. Tickets for the screening can be booked on HOME’s website.

Our newest strand of Humanities in Public is all about Sex. The SEX theme events will run from January to March 2016 and will illustrate and question the extent to which our sexual identities affect our interpretation and experience of the world. To find out more and see our full schedule click here.


This was also published on the Manchester Metropolitan University website.

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