This quote by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1908–1990) is better known in its English translated form: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
The quote seemed fitting in connecting the dots from such recent successes as The Hunger Games and Twilight to similar events nearly a century earlier. The success of an individual movie, and the adoration of its stars is certainly nothing new – the silent era had its own blockbusters and idols – but what is different is in the packaging. This year’s model may look different, but it is sold in much the same way.
The Hunger Games finished its domestic opening weekend with $155 million in the coffers, making it the third-best debut to date in terms of revenue, right behind the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Dark Knight, and placing it in a new franchise series that also includes Twilight. This is no surprise. The books by Suzanne Collins are incredibly popular (I’ve read and enjoyed all three) and the pre-release movie buzz was over the top. Such was the same for the Potter series (loved-loved-loved the books) and Twilight series (not as much). In the world of filmmaking, the best way to land a hit movie is to start with a hit book. So it is with these aforementioned films, as it was with such diverse films as Gone With the Wind, Great Expectations, Lord of the Rings – and The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse, based on the Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novel.
I am currently in the process of reading an excellent biography of Rudolph Valentino (Dark Lover by Emily Leider, 2003), and the similarities are so clear of how a star can be made by such a vehicle, as well as take center stage as a sex symbol. Valentino did both, becoming the heartthrob to women across the world from his portrayal of Julio in Four Horsemen. In Twilight terms, Valentino was the Robert Pattinson of his age, and would have made a damn fine Edward, had they been shooting teen angst vampire romances at that time. He is not alone in comparisons to modern stars. In a recent blog, author Jamie Brenner made a similar observation about the allure of Louise Brooks, and how she was the Rooney Mara of her day. Likewise, Sam Worthington is but the latest of action stars to channel Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the key difference being that Doug did most of his own stunts.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse broke all records. Metro banked on its success going in, spending $800,000 on the production and claiming that 12,000 people had been employed to complete the film, a number most likely exaggerated. Its release brought about long lines around the theatres, and by the time it was all over, the film had garnered more than four million dollars in theatrical rentals, making it one of the top moneymakers of the 1920s. Actress Constance Talmadge had been in New York at the time of its release and later recalled the Valentino effect on the young ladies of the city, stating how all the girls wished that “they would be lucky enough to dance a tango with that hero.”*
The fever increased following the release of The Sheik in 1921, with girls nationwide swooning and screaming in adoration, a manner to repeat itself decades later for Sinatra, Elvis, and The Beatles. Seen today, The Sheik is over-the-top hokum, with far less finesse than was given to its superior sequel. However, for its time, it was steamy hot stuff, and the ladies ate it up.
Valentino’s reign as a top matinee idol was relatively brief, beginning with his rocket-fire fame from Four Horsemen in 1921 to his premature death in August 1926. His final film, Son of the Sheik, was released posthumously. Between these two films were a dozen other titles, including, Blood and Sand, Camille, and The Eagle.
Valentino’s appeal may be lost on some modern audiences – sexual allure is considerably different in 2012 than it was in 1921 – but for those who can put themselves in the mindset of the twenties, he smoked with the same intensity that Greta Garbo burned for the male portion of the population. He was the top box office draw, and adorned covers of the fan magazines, just like Pattinson and Taylor Lautner do now. While it may be crass to note how sex always sells, it is clearly true regardless of era when it comes to the matinee idols of yesterday and today.
This, then, begs the question: in another century, will the motion pictures of today be looked upon in the same way… and what of the modern heartthrobs who make the audience melt? Will Megan Fox or Josh Hutcherson, Kristen Stewart or Taylor Lautner be allowed the reverence of immortality in the same way as Valentino, who’s name is immediately recognizable as a romantic icon, even to those who have never seen one of his films?
Or will they go the way of the other romantic idol of the twenties, John Gilbert, who seduced Garbo both on and off the screen, and also died way too early?
If by some chance you are not familiar with the name, Google him.
* Dark Lover, page 123