Natacha Rambova: Character Development and Costume

Son of the Sheik, 1926 (Click for Source)

Yesterday, the Smithsonian Magazine’s blog, Past Imperfect posted a rather long article on Rudolph Valentino and his impact on sex and seduction in the early silent film era – and of course there is a brief mention of Natacha Rambova (the main subject of my own research). The article spends much of its time focused on the very public battle over the speculation of his sexuality, and his impact on masculinity in film. However, the article fails to discuss the role that Rambova played in the creation of his on-screen persona – especially in the role that many suggest established him as an entirely masculine star, The Son of The Sheik.

Although Rambova and Valentino had already separated by this point, their time together had inevitable effect on the development of his on-screen personas. This, coupled with the fact that Rambova’s costumes from Hooded Falcon were used for The Son of The Sheik, suggests that she had a significant (perhaps unintentional) hand in his career trajectory.

“A stunning Moorish costume adorned the stalwart form of our hero, including a pair of cerise satin Zouave trousers plentifully braided and embroidered in gold. These had been secured in Algiers originally for ‘The Hooded Falcon,’ which Rudy never made and which was the high spot in the Valentino contention with the Ritz-Carlton Company, which sent him into the United Artists fold. Natacha Rambova was the one who designed the costumes, to the tune of $100,000. They now lie on the wardrobe shelves. This is the first use that has been made of any of them.”[1]

Regardless of whether this bit of publicity is true (often the film studios publicity machine’s put out information that was in fact dead-wrong) – many actors regularly explain that putting on their costumes has helped them to ‘realize’ or ‘achieve’ the personality of an on-screen character (see the work of Dr. Deborah Nadoolman Landis). This is no less true in the early days of film. Rambova’s impact on Valentino is regularly discussed – often with negative connotations: she was too avant-garde for some, and European tastes often read as ‘effeminate’ to middle America. It’s unfortunate that this positive association is overlooked.
Despite this foible – I think the article is a good introduction to those unfamiliar with the scandals and speculations associated with Rudolph Valentino and his now infamous cult of celebrity.

[1] Chicago Tribune, April 11, 1926. William McGuire Papers, Library of Congress, Box 83, Folder 1.

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