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Pre-'Sheik’ Valentino Burns Up the Screen

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1917 Rudolph Valentino, a 22-year-old Italian, arrived in Hollywood with an enticingly shady reputation as a gigolo and nightclub dancer. In 1920 “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and “The Sheik” established him as the silent era’s greatest Latin lover, and a screen icon. In 1926 he died at 31 of a perforated ulcer.

Valentino made the independently produced “The Married Virgin” in 1918. Directed by obscure neophyte Joe Maxwell, it wasn’t released until 1920, by Fidelity Pictures, retitled pointlessly as “Frivolous Wives.” It apparently received very limited release and disappeared swiftly until film historians and preservationists David Shepard and Jeffrey Vance launched a rescue operation that culminated in the Royal Film Archive of Belgium completing its restoration in 1995.

“The Married Virgin,” 80 years later, resurfaces with a new 35-millimeter print today and Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., where it will be presented with live organ accompaniment by Bob Mitchell.

Reportedly, Valentino preferred the film to remain in oblivion, but he needn’t have worried: It’s no worse than countless other society melodramas of the period. Its continuity is murky but it has elaborate sets and handsome actual locales, notably a substantial sequence filmed at the Hotel Del Coronado. Seen today, it seems lurid and contrived, but there’s no denying the impact of Valentino’s smoldering presence, and his ability to shade a stereotypical villain with both an insolent irony and a touch of melancholy regret.

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In an archetypal plot Valentino--billed as Rodolfo di Valentina--is aptly cast as a suave no-account Italian count. He’s a fortune hunter who so captivates the much-younger wife (Kathleen Kirkham) of a rich, elderly contractor (Edward Jobson) that she entrusts the far-from-noble nobleman with a secret about her husband that would allow her paramour to blackmail him for $100,000.

It scarcely matters today that “The Married Virgin,” due for release in a hand-tinted video at silent speed, is not very good. It has amusing novelty value, and is invaluable as a record of a poised, assured Valentino on his way to becoming a legend.

Information: (323) 655-2520.


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