Valentino, left, appears in "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." (AMPAS )
It was the tango that changed the world.
Flash back to 1921. Female moviegoers were entranced with such handsome athletic actors as Douglas Fairbanks, Richard Barthlemess and Wallace Reid. But nothing prepared them for Rudolph Valentino's performance that year in Rex Ingram's acclaimed "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."
As Julio, the charming wastrel grandson of a wealthy Argentine landowner before World War I, the smoldering Italian actor commands the screen, especially when he is in a local Buenos Aires dive watching a man and woman tango. Dressed in gaucho pants and bolero hat, he catches the eye of the woman dancing. Julio swaggers over to the dancing couple and asks to break into the dance. The man brushes Julio off, only to have Julio strike the man and take over in the woman's arms. Valentino's intensity and ardor still permeate the screen nearly 90 years later.
"This film really put him on the map, so to speak," says Donna L. Hill, who runs a Valentino website (www.rudolph-valentino.com) and is author of the new book "Rudolph Valentino: The Silent Idol."
" 'The Sheik' that followed only compounded that and increased his star appeal," she says. "But this is one of the few cases in any Hollywood film where you literally watch a star being born on film. The minute he starts dancing the tango, the whole film changes."
Tuesday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater, you can watch Valentino glide across the dance floor when the restored, uncut version of the film screens. Noted film historian, documentarian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, who restored "Four Horsemen" with the late David Gill 20 years ago, will introduce the film, which features a new score by Carl Davis.
"As a kid I had read some of those books on Valentino and had seen 'The Sheik' and 'Son of the Sheik' and I never understood what all the fuss was about," says academy programmer Randy Haberkamp. "I thought he was interesting and somewhat campy. But I didn't have any real sense of him as an actor."
It was only when he saw the restored print at a silent film festival in 1992 that Haberkamp got the full effect of Valentino and the film itself. "I saw the tango sequence and I said to myself, 'That's what all the fuss is about. Now I get it.' "
Haberkamp calls director Ingram "one of the true underappreciated masters of silent film," adding that it's no wonder that David Lean was a major fan of Ingram's works. "Ingram is the silent David Lean — the visualization, the attention to detail of the art direction. In my opinion, it is the next great generation in American filmmaking after D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance' and 'Birth of a Nation.' "
The film, which also starred Ingram's wife, Alice Terry, Wallace Beery and Alan Hale, was one of the biggest box-office hits of the silent era. Based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez, "Horsemen" was described in its original press book as "an epic tale of surging passion sweeping from the wide planes of the Argentine through the fascinating frivolities of pre-war Paris into the blazing turmoil of the German invasion."
For over 50 years, "Horsemen" was only available in an edited version. After Valentino's death of a perforated ulcer at the age of 31 on Aug. 23, 1926, "Horsemen" was cut down by nearly 30 minutes, mainly to get in more showings of the film.
Brownlow says that he and Gill had a tremendous advantage in locating the cut material because the Museum of Modern Art had done a preliminary search for it.
The National Film Archive in London also had some material they were able to use. And "MGM had preserved the edited version … in terms of visual quality, it looked gorgeous. So you start with something good and it gets better."
"I think this is Valentino's finest film," says Brownlow. "His performance is very restrained and elegant. It's light-years away from 'The Sheik,' in which he was directed to give a very exaggerated performance for women who imagined themselves in his tent. He was ashamed of that."