On the balmy, Halloween morning of October 31st 1968, a bloodied corpse was discovered at 3110 Laurel Canyon Blvd in the hills above Hollywood. The body, beaten beyond recognition, belonged to a man who, 40 years prior, had been one of the most popular movie stars of the silent era. The 69 year old silent film star, who had been closeted his entire life, received a phone call from a hustler–a solicitation for him, and his even younger brother, to make a call at Novarro’s home. Novarro did not object: He’d bought such companionship for decades. Hours later, he would be dead.
Bludgeoned to death by the two men who had come with every intention of robbing Navarro, whom they had been tipped to believe stashed thousands of dollars in cash. This was, of course, not the case. The murder investigation became a tawdry spectacle, and a shocking display of homophobia that is still relevant today: The accused murderer blamed Novarro’s homosexuality–and his violent reaction against it due to his strict Catholic rearing– as the reason for his violence. The man, named Paul Ferguson, told the police, “When [Novarro] kissed me, I reacted like a Catholic, what they call homosexual panic. … It had nothing to do with him, it had to do with how I saw myself.” It was, of course, a logical alibi to confess ‘not-guilty’ to the charge of first-degree murder–for which he was finally charged.
How tragic, the irony, that the man he had killed had been, himself, a devout Catholic.
After 40 years, Novarro’s name would be front-page news once more, and in the most gruesome manner possible. “RAMON NOVARRO, 69, FOUND SAVAGELY BLUDGEONED TO DEATH” read the Variety banner on November 1st. The tragedy of his death, exploited by such sensationalist trash as Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, clouded his legend and his very real merit as a fine actor. Today, Turner Classic Movies honors him as its star of the day for its month-long Summer Under the Stars celebration. And it’s about bloody time.
Born Jose Ramon Samaniego to a wealthy family in Durango, Mexico, he emigrated to the United States to pursue a career in the opera. The naturally gifted tenor supported himself by taking in work as an extra in the motion picture business. As was often the case in those days, superstardom was something he quite literally fell into. Star producer Rex Ingram single-handedly invented Novarro’s image as the Latin Lover to rival Valentino (following his bit part in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, starring Valentino, and a handful of other films) when he cast him in The Prisoner of Zenda, Followed by the movie that made him a star, Scaramouche. Novarro rose to the challenge of being a ‘matinee idol’, his energy, charisma, and smoldering good looks making him a natural fit for the screen and a formidable rival to Valentino. But it was the 1925 megabudget MGM epic Ben-Hur that made Novarro, not merely ‘another Valentino,’ but a major movie star in his own right.
Although it is not my favorite of Novarro’s roles (that crown rests with The Student Prince From Old Heidelberg) he is irresistible in the title role. He possesses a naivete and innocence that is guileless and utterly without pretension. (And, yes, he spends most of the film running, climbing, jumping, and or squatting in not much more than a loin cloth…but that has nothing to do with! At least … not much.) In all seriousness: Novarro’s youthful charisma and boyish charm is infections; his Ben-Hur is down-to-earth, fresh, and plain old likable, and I do not think it an overstatement to say that Novarro’s Ben-Hur quite blows the clench-jawed Charlton Heston right out of the Aegean waters.
William Wyler’s more well-known 1959 Technicolor blood-and-sandal epic is simply bursting with splendor and spectacle–it was, and remains, a truly impressive display of cinematic prowess. But Fred Niblo’s (and by due extension, whiz kid Irving Thalberg’s who steered the production from ruin) is without question, every bit as epic in scale as Wyler’s, even featuring segments filmed in an early two-strip Technicolor process. (One of which displays a parade of topless women–they’re hard to see, but they’re there. Beat that, 1950s Hollywood.) It cost nearly $4 million dollars to film (an unfathomable number in 1925) and would remain the highest grossing film until Gone with the Wind came along nearly 20 years later. And yet, amongst all that, it manages a fragile intimacy not found in its successor. And it happens every time Novarro gets screen time.
Also too in its favor is the simple magic of silent film. There is a mystic undercurrent to the motion of silent pictures, and here when tinted in deep ominous blues and purples, or when the nitrate fairly shimmers with its painterly, ethereal matte sets, the silent images befit the lore of a biblical epic moreso than (in this writer’s opinion, anyway) its blood-and-sandal counterpart.
It was during the production of the film that he and friend William Haines, the first movie star to be openly gay among the Hollywood colony, went out on the town together one night, ending up at a male Bordello. This was a time when one’s sexual preference would certainly mean the end of their career, and studios took great care to protect the image of its investments, and no studio was more protective than MGM. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer caught wind of the escapade, and while he was ambivalent to Haines, who was not yet a major star, he had an apoplectic fit to learn that Novarro had been involved. Mayer had the establishment closed down, suffocating any possible gossip about the sexuality of a major movie star that was starring in the biggest film the studio had ever produced. (Haines would have got the can, had it not been for his good pal Marion Davies who had W.R. Hearst intervene.) Especially catastrophic would it have been to Mayer, should the news have leaked, since Novarro was starring in a biblical film being advertised as “The film every Christian should see.”
Hitherto, Novarro had been more or less reconciled with his deeply ingrained Catholic faith, and his sexual preference. But this experience shook Novarro deeply and would be a factor in his remaining closeted for the rest of his life.
Tellingly, Novarro must have comprehended the similarities the illusion of his deeply compartmentalized personal life had with the illusion of his work in films, especially when you take into account the words he spoke about his decision to not attend the glittering premiere of Ben-Hur, as appears in his marvelous biography Beyond Paradise:
“Herbert Howe’s [Novarro’s then-lover] recommended that the actor who played the larger-than-life Judah Ben-Hur not go to the premiere. In the days of silent films, when film stars were genuinely worshiped by their audiences, Howe believed that personal appearances would dim a star’s brilliance. Novarro concurred. ‘We are an illusion,’ he would later say. ‘The audience does not look at us as real. We are just an image on a giant screen that can never live up to their expectations in person.'”
In life, Novarro believed he could not live up to the expectations of his family nor his faith nor his fans due to the truth of who he was inside. In death, he leaves us legacy of films that allow us, if we look hard enough, to see through that ‘illusion’ and get to know the man who existed beneath it.