Archivo de la categoría: Ramón Novarro

On the Road with Ramón (Tercera y última parte)

Esta tercera y última parte de la extensa crónica dedicada a Ramón Novarro se publicó en Motion Picture Magazine de junio de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 5, pp. 66-67 & 88 & 93-95 & 118). Las fotografías también provienen del mismo artículo.

On the Road with Ramón III

by Herbert Howe

Ideals do count. According to this last chapter in the Novarro biography, it is because of their ideals that the greatest stars not only have won their high places but held them

Motion Picture Magazine de junio de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 5, p.
Motion Picture Magazine de junio de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 5, p. 66)

The Road of the Future

I was lying boastfully on the beach in swimming trunks. Boastfully, because it is something of a feat to lie on a beach in the winter in California, no matter what the advertisements say.

A pelican was swimming in the air overhead. I was wishing to be a pelican in the next life. I love travel, and the pelican takes it so easy, lying down as it were. One beat of his wings carries him a greater distance than a man can negotiate with five hundred movements of his legs. And the pelican takes his food where he finds it. He can eat anything. One almost swallowed a whale the other day. I was worried as I saw the one overhead make a swoop toward my brother’s cabin where the community Ford was standing. I wonder how a Ford would digest.

“Mr. Howe, telephone!” Mein friend, the German innkeeper, who serves me sauces and philosophy with my stakes, was calling me from the embankment. I draped a towel over as much of me as possible, wondering what pest had gotten on my trail, for my hermitage among the rocks is not easy of access even by telephone.

“Long distance. Los Angeles,” said the Inn Philosopher. “Mr. Novarro calling you.”

“Hello, Ramón.”

“Hello, Herb…  Say, Herb, would you like to go to Cuba?”

“No.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“No. The swimming is good here, and the islands across are full of bootleggers, so why Cuba?”

“Oh, I see. “Well, how about Quebec?”

“Quebec? That’s where it snows in the winter… I’d like Quebec.”

“All right, then we’ll leave Sunday.”

“Fine. I’ll be in Saturday and give you a ring.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“I’m going to Quebec,” I said to the innkeeper, as he prepared me a steak with one of his secret sauces which put you in a Lucullian mood.

“Quebec’s a nice place,” he said. “All French.”

Then I recalled a little French girl from Quebec whom I had met on my first trip to Europe after the war. She was on her honeymoon. Her husband was a good scout. We had cocktails together every evening before dinner. She always took just two in a precise, charming little way. “Ze first,” she said, “ees for appetite, ze second to drive eet home.” She drove home much faster than her husband and I.

Quebec… French girls… snow.

You get to longing for snow in California, especially if you happen to have been born in a Dakota igloo during a blizzard. Remember the blizzard of 1860?

As for French girls… remember the war of 1918?

At Home on the Wing

When the train porter had stacked our bags around us in the train compartment, Ramón relapsed with a sigh of contentment. “Well, home again.” he said.

“It’s a nice old covered wagon,” I said looking around.

Just then a reporter broke in. He wanted Mr. Novarro’s opinion of the train. It was the first flyer in a new service out of Los Angeles. Ramón spoke enthusiastically of it. He hadn’t been outside the compartment, but he knew he liked trains in general. Most people do who live in Hollywood.

“You look more at home in a train or a boat than in your house in Beverly,” he said to me.

“You don’t look out of place yourself.” I rejoined.

When you consider that the Road of Ramón has taken us half a million miles in the past three years, you can understand why we, like the pelicans, are more at home on the wing.

When Ramón signed a contract with Marcus Loew more than three years ago, he specified a vacation of two months every year. Every actor of Hollywood ought to get away for that space of time each year, if only to get a perspective on his little self.

“When I’ve finished this contract in two years, I’m going to Europe and stay as long as I like,” mused Ramón. “I’ll do Spain and the Riviera — and Italy again, of course. And I’m anxious to go to Berlin. I want to study music there, and I’d like to do my first concerts in Europe. Over here I’m afraid they’d come to see a movie star — out of curiosity. The Germans are not moved by publicity where music is concerned. You are judged on your merits.”

photoplay3334movi_0291What’s in a Name — $ 2.00

We arrived in Quebec at night. Lights were beaming from the little shop windows as we drove thru the twisting streets. The place had for us a charm as instantaneous as that of Miss Garbo upon the American public. We decided unanimously to remain a week instead of three days.

Usually Ramón does not register his name at a hotel But he did at Chateau Frontenac. The clerk had said the rooms would be ten dollars a day. When he read the name on the register, he looked up with a smile and extended his hand. “We are glad to have you, Mr. Novarro.” he said. “The rooms will be eight dollar a day.”

“So the name of Novarro must be worth two dollars,” laughed Ramón.

Quebec

Quebec is one of the most charming cities of the Road. Ramón considers it with Annapolis among the typical places of America. Annapolis, where he made “The Midshipman,” is one of his favorite spots in the world. “This,” he declared, “is America — the United States.” Quiet and culture and courtesy were everywhere. The officers of the Academy entertained Ramón in their homes, but there was none of the fanfare or insistence which so often accompanies the hospitality accorded a picture star.

The same spirit permeated old Quebec, the genuine aristocracy of the New World. The theater managers called but did not ask for personal appearances; however, Ramón made one in behalf of a church charity. The editor of Le Soleil, the French newspaper, offered to show us the town and each day published bulletins on Ramón’s activities.

The premier extended an invitation to Novarro to visit the parliament buildings, and afterward the minister of agriculture took us for lunch at the old club. There were no cameras grinding when the premier received Ramón. It was not a publicity stunt, but a gesture of real hospitality. “We regard you,” he said, “as an aristocrat of pictures. Ben-Hur is a true nobleman.”

French Girls and Autographs

Instead of requests for pictures, Ramón was besieged for his autograph. People located his room in the hotel and came up unannounced with autograph books in hand. He had to change his room three times in order to get sleep.

“But they are so charming you can’t turn them away,” he said.

I understood when on a few occasions I went to the door and found gasping little French girls with their books open and their fountain pens ready.

“Mr. Novarro is sleeping,” I told one of them. “I will take the book and have him autograph it. You may call for it later.”

She hesitated a moment and then said shyly, “Pleas’ but I would wish to see him also.” I assured her that when she returned she would see the hand that wrote the magic name.

Music Hath Charms

Ramón spent hours in a music store getting old Canadian and French songs. Le Soleil made note of the fact in its columns. The next day several people called offering him music. “And imagine, I had the bad taste to ask the price when the first one called,” said Ramon. “I thought of course he was a salesman. What gracious people these Quebec-ers are!”

There was no piano in our rooms, so at midnight, when everyone had left the hotel, we would go down to the ballroom. Mounting to the stage, Ramón would sit down at the grand piano in the darkness and play for the benefit of me, the janitor and the scrub ladies, who sat trancelike over their mop pails in the outer lighted room.

Cameras did not click until Ramón waved adieu to Quebec from the train platform. Back in the compartment on the way to New York, he wrote telegrams of appreciation to all Quebec.

Prophets Predict

Everyone is interested in a woman’s past and a man’s future.

Dareos the Seer predicts that Ramón will quit the screen to become a priest.

That would be a new drama for Hollywood, tho old in the world of literature where romantic characters often turn from the flesh-pots to a life of the spirit. It is indeed the story of the greatest characters that have, shadowed this world screen — philosophers, artists and men who later were made saints and gods.

A still more remarkable story would be for Novarro to become a priest and remain on the screen. I hasten to add that I speak figuratively, not heretically.

motionpicturemag33brew_0491
Ramón Novarro carga sobre sus hombros a Philippe De Lacy quien lo interpreta de niño en su papel de Karl Heinrich en The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg

The Gospel of Art

It is true that Ramón is religious. But I believe the expression of his ideals will be thru pictures and music rather than by sermons. Music is the ritual of his devotion. Music affects our feelings directly and not thru the medium of ideas. Schopenhauer points out: it speaks to something subtler than the intellect. And so with masterpieces of human likeness, he says, “That peace which is above all reason, that perfect calm of the spirit, that deep rest, that inviolable confidence and serenity… as Raphael and Correggio have represented it, is an entire and certain gospel.”

Novarro is an actor, a musician, a mystic and something of a poet, but overall he is a spiritual symbol to the imagination. “The friend of man,” says Harry Carr of him. “The friend of that clean, fine thing inside your soul that never quite surrenders even in the worst of us.”

The screen offers an opportunity — unrealized as yet — for a man to be the Artist of Himself, as Raphael and Correggio were the painters of others.

Peter the Hermit

I stopped recently at a photographer’s shop on Hollywood Boulevard to get some prints of Novarro’s photographs for an Eastern publication. While I was waiting, the door flew open and in blazed Peter the Hermit.

“Soul!” shouted Peter, pointing to a portrait of Ramón in the window. Peter himself was the picture of a prophet standing there, barefooted, staff in hand, his rock-hewn face in a halo of silver locks. I thought of that other Peter as painted by Guido Reni; here, too, was one of life’s masterpieces.

“Soul!” he repeated fervently, then turning to Mandeville, the photographer, “God bless ye, my man, ye have shown the lad’s soul. I have known him since the day he came a lad to Rex Ingram, and I’ve been waitin’ and waitin’ for a great artist to bring it out. And there it is. I tell ye it is a fine face. The whole world will be the better for a-gazin’ on it. God bless ye, too, dear sir!”

With a wave of his hand, he pattered off, followed by his shepherd dog, the old philosopher of the mountain top whom all Hollywood knows and often consults.

“The whole world will be a-better for a-gazin’ on it,” mused Mandeville with a smile. “Strange old Peter.”

In echo I heard the words of Shelley spoken of his friend. “On whose countenance I have sometimes gazed till I fancied the whole world could be reformed by gazing too…”

It was a noble lament, for Shelley had just learned how that friend had deceived him. Perhaps the great poet saw more than was actually present in his friend’s face. But I’d rather think it was the friend’s failure to appreciate the power within himself which Shelley saw envisaged.

It is a tragedy common to pictures, the failure of a man to create his life in the image which the world holds of him.

Evangelizing Faces

If words can evangelize, why not faces? I left the shop thinking of idealized Faces worshiped by people in temples all over the world… Faces of Christ… of Mary… of Gautama the Buddha… of Krishna… Confucius… Mohammed… Lao-Tse… Faces of saints and sages and prophets who once were men.

I wondered impiously if they were actually adored as much as those other faces so miraculously filling the world of today; the faces of film gods and goddesses.

Men Made Gods

Familiarity rarely begets veneration. Rome is an irreligious city and a star is not without honor save in Hollywood.

We do not appreciate, nor do we fear, the influence of our idols as do people at a distance. We take them lightly. Yet a foreign critic of far perspective asks if we are not on the eve of a new religion with men made gods as in the days of imperial Rome.

The answer comes from still more distant Russia, where old gods have been thrown from the churches and in their places the images of men enshrined – Tolstoy, Turgenev and, among others, we’re told, Charlie Chaplin.

“Better the people should worship men of accomplished good than mere idols and fetishes,” so argues the government.

Even the church itself reaches down now and then to elevate a worshiper to a place with the worshiped.

All this I cite as evidence that the passion for sublimating a hero until he is made more than mortal is common to the human race.

The unconscious deification of picture idols is evinced in the very intolerance toward their human frailties. They are sentenced for deeds which a minister of the gospel might get away with. And this not thru malice but thru love of them.

Ernst Lubitsch, Ramón Novarro y
Ernst Lubitsch, Marion Davies, Ramón Novarro y Mary Pickford en el set de The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg

The Art of Acting

When a screen star is dethroned for reasons of personal nature, the invariable cry goes up, “Why can’t a film artist be judged by his art alone?”

The answer is, because he is his art.

The sculptor works in clay, the writer in words, but the movie artist in terms of self. His is the most personal of all the crafts.

Pearl White once gave a classic definition to the art of screen acting. She said it was “the bunk.”

D. W. Griffith long ago declared that the camera penetrates to the soul. “Everyone can act except an actor,” said he, meaning that self-conscious histrionic gestures are not permissible on the screen where a player must be as real as the scenery in which he appears.

The art of screen acting at its best is the art of being. When we cease trying to judge it in the light of the stage and realize this fact, we will have comprehended much.

The variety of characters which a man can play depends upon the variety of his own nature, the conjuring power of his imagination and his physical appearance.

“I wonder sometimes when people congratulate me upon my performance in ‘Ben-Hur’ how much that performance would have mattered had I had a fat stomach,” muses Novarro ironically.

It would have mattered for less than nothing had he had a fat head. Still less had he possessed a small soul.

Ramón’s Infinite Variety

Novarro is a versatile actor. He was the witty, diabolical Rupert in “The Prisoner of Zenda,” the lyric pagan youth in “Where the Pavement Ends,” the dashing impertinent Scaramouche, the sly sardonic dragoman of “The Arab,” the princely and fine-souled Judah of “Ben-Hur.”

All these are distinct characters, yet each is Novarro. The difference in them is simply in the emphasis placed on his own characteristics. His art as an actor lies in his ability to project from his own nature those phases which the author has stressed in the fictional character.

Novarro exemplifies my definition of the art of screen acting — the translation of character in terms of self.

Because he is himself a complex and versatile nature, he can play many parts with fidelity, there are writers who can write with authority on many subjects and there are those, equally great, who specialize on one. A writer cannot compose beyond the zone of his own mind, no more can an actor create beyond the horizon of his heart.

Life’s Masterpieces

In arguing of the art of the screen we overlook the fact that the screen is a medium for something more than storytelling. It is a conveyance of the gods, a means by which exceptional personalities are presented to the world.

Certainly it is not the art of Greta Garbo that has cast an immediate spell upon the public, and it is not the high merit of the stuff in which she has appeared. It is — Greta Garbo, a singularly strange and interesting specimen of the human species.

And it is the mesmeric power of character, personality, soul or whatever you choose to term the Real of a human being, that has exalted such favorites as Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, Douglas Fairbanks, Emil Jannings, Harold Lloyd.

Wilde says, thru the painter in “Dorian Grey”: “I sometimes think there are only two eras of any importance in the world’s history. The first is the appearance of a new medium for art, and the second is the appearance of a new personality for art also…”

And further, as tho apropos of the screen: “Now and then a complex personality takes the place and assumes the office of art, is indeed in its way a real work of art, life having its elaborate masterpieces, just as poetry has, or sculpture or painting.”

In the screen we have the first exhibition place for these masterpieces. And with the discovery of this new medium for art came the discovery of new personalities for art also.

Will the Screen Yield a Leonardo?

The masterpieces of life to which Wilde alludes are also cited by the Italian historian, Vasari. “Occasionally,” says he, “Heaven bestows upon a single individual grace and ability, so that every action is so divine that he distances all other men and clearly displays how his genius is the gift of God and not an acquirement of human art.”

Such a man, says Vasari, was Leonardo da Vinci, “whose personal beauty and grace cannot be exaggerated, whose abilities were so extraordinary he could readily solve every difficulty that presented itself. His charming conversation won all hearts, we are told ; with his right hand he could twist a horseshoe as if it were made of lead, yet to the strength of a giant and the courage of a lion he added the gentleness of the dove.”

Thus Leonardo lives more vividly by the force of his own character than by his works as an artist, and he will continue to live in the love of man when those works have perished from their canvases.

It is not without the bounds of reason to suppose that the screen may one day yield such a personality. It already has produced unusual ones.

Why Stars Fall

Stars fall from popularity for two reasons: one is poor story material that obscures their personal worth in trash; the other is change in personal character. I have yet to observe one who fell because he had forgotten his “art” of pantomime.

“Praise is the most insidious of all methods of treachery known to the world,” says Balzac. “The policy of intriguing schemers knows how to stifle every kind of talent at its birth by heaping laurels on its cradle.”

Many is the starry cradle that has been heaped with laurel until it took the appearance and served the purpose of a coffin.

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Ramón y Norma Shearer en los roles de Karl Heinrich y Kathi en The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg

Hollywoods Amon-Ra

It was the custom of Alexander the Great to propitiate the gods of each country he conquered and so to bring the people into a willing subserviency. When, master of the world, he came as a ruler to Egypt, his first move was a visit to the temple of Amon-Ra containing an image of the god which could speak and move. Before Alexander had a chance to bow down before the god, the god approached and flattered him — “Alexander, thou art thyself a god!” So it was that the priests of Egypt conquered their conqueror.

Under the influence of Aristotle, his tutor, Alexander became a great and magnanimous ruler — master of all the world with the opportunity of becoming a veritable god. Under the influence of flatterers he was made to believe in his own godship before he had attained it, and at the age of thirty-three he died after a drinking debauch.

Hollywood has its Amon-Ra and Alexander repeats himself.

Doug the Evangelist

The exceptions prove the rule.

Douglas Fairbanks is one of them. Doug has been an evangelist of youth, spreading the gospel of never say die, dare to live dangerously, keep young your ideals of courage, hope and romance.

Doug once told me that he set out deliberately at the beginning of his career to preach the doctrines of youth, which are activity, clean living and the pursuit of ideals. He hasn’t done this by “educational” films. He has done it far more effectively by suggestion. Not a preacher, but an exemplar, he has backed up his screen ideal by his daily living. Thus he endures not by any esoteric gift for “acting” but by the greater gift of being.

Mary…

Mary Pickford has so far transcended her position as a screen favorite as to be recognized among the great women of this age. Perhaps that is the reason her screen children seem to have a lesser appeal. Her own womanly character overshadows them. She is greater than any specialized work she can do.

Norma, the Woman

Norma Talmadge goes wherever the Ladies Home Journal goes — and farther. This reception of her is not based on her art as a pantomimist but upon her typification of womanly ideal. She is in herself a very lovely portrait of Woman.

Harold, the Boy

Harold Lloyd exists for much the same reason as Doug. His screen characters are at one with his own. There is sweetness, cleanliness and a modesty that is irresistible. He is, in fact, the Kid Brother and Grandma’s Boy.

Novarro’s Future

Novarro has not stood the test of time as these great favorites have. He is just coining into his own. His rise has been rapid enough to dizzy an ordinary mortal. Tho an established favorite, he has appeared in only ten pictures: “The Lover’s Oath,” “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “Trifling Women,” “Where the Pavement Ends,” “Scaramouche,” “Thy Name is Woman,” “The Red Lily,” “The Arab.” “The Midshipman” and “Ben-Hur.” His next is “Lovers” from Echegaray’s great drama, “El Gran Galeoto.” This will be followed by “Old Heidelberg.”

Thus he is interesting mainly in terms of his potentialities.

Externally the omens are in his favor. He is with a successful organization. He is under the supervision of Irving Thalberg, whose particular gift is a shrewd insight to character values combined with the ability to match like elements in story, director and star. His belief in Novarro is manifest in a remarkable schedule of stories and directors.

“Young Hercules”

I visited the studio recently to see Novarro working under the direction of Ernst Lubitsch. It appeared to be visitors’ day on the set. Mary Pickford and Marion Davies had called, and in the sidelines was an old Indian gazing raptly at Novarro. He wore the make-up and the feathers of a chief. He was playing a part in one of Colonel Tim McCoy’s Western pictures on a neighboring stage.

“Hello there!” cried Ramón coming out of the scene and gripping the old chief’s hand. “How have you been?”

“Fine,” said the chief. “And you — you are as strong as ever, hunh?” He placed a hand on Ramón’s arm. “Yep, strong as ever. Some fighter you are!”

Ramón laughed and explained that the Indian had played extra with him in his first picture, “The Lover’s Oath,” a pictorial version of the “Rubaiyat.” In one scene Ramón was taken captive by two strong-armed Persians, one of them played by the Indian. The director told Ramón to struggle with them in a futile attempt to free himself. Ramón’s attempt was not futile. He hurled the Indian over the edge of the cliff on which they were working and all but hurled him into the Happy Hunting Ground.

“Some boy,” grunted the chief, who since that day has been a warm admirer of Novarro, never failing to visit him on the set when opportunity offers.

A worshiper to whom Ramón is “Young Hercules.”

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Ramón Novarro de México con Norma Shearer de Canadá bajo la dirección de Ernst Lubitsch de Alemania se dan un beso chino en la cinta The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg

Lubitsch’s Forecast

Lubitsch came over to speak to me and I left Ramón chatting with his Arapahoe friend.

“How does Novarro like the picture; he is happy, yes?” asked Lubitsch with solicitude.

“In seventh heaven,” I replied.

“Ya? So. I am glad,” replied the expansive little German. “I tell you the truth, that boy is giving a great — a marvelous performance If this picture is big with popularity, he should be the outstanding man on the screen. Ya, he should be…” He paced a few steps, then quickly turned. “This is not masquerade romance. No big gestures — so and so. That is acting. This is heart. He is just a simple boy who is a prince. A boy with a clean fine heart. I think that is like as Novarro, not?”

I agreed.

Ingram’s Faith in Ramón

Like every star who has responded quickly to a tine director, Novarro has been considered a director’s creation. This is a mistake. Neither Rex Ingram nor anyone else made a star of Novarro. He excited the enthusiasm of Ingram, who has a rare instinct for gift in an individual. Rex had an eliciting faith in Ramon and he worked with furious determination to justify it to the world. Novarro could not have started his career under a finer more discerning master. And he might well enjoy a glow of honest satisfaction —along with a lot of gratitude — upon the receipt of that telegram from Ingram, after the director had seen “Ben-Hur” in New York. It read simply: “You give a great performance, Ramón. I am very proud of you.”

“The Coming Great Tenor”

Novarro inspires a like faith in another of his masters, Louis Graveur, celebrated concert baritone, who has tutored him in voice. In an interview in Musical America, Mr. Graveur says: “In addition to possessing a tenore robusto voice of exceptional quality, Mr. Novarro is a thoro musician and an accomplished pianist. He is the coming great tenor.”

The Rôle of Ramón

Personally I believe that destiny has outlined an heroic role in life for Ramón Novarro and equipped him with all the gifts that are needed for playing of it. Whether its chief expression will be thru the medium of the screen or thru the medium of music, I do not know. It may be simply thru the art of living without the handicap of fame.

The best forecast of Novarro’s future lies in the faith which others have in him. It is his business to take the cue and see what they see in him, but always as an ideal which is just beyond.

He has the gifts. Everything depends upon his treatment of them.

In the way he lives, in the direction his mind takes, there lies the Road of Ramón.

May it lead — Ever Upward!

The End

On the Road with Ramón (Segunda parte)

Esta segunda entrega de la entrevista-biografía que Howe escribió sobre el actor mexicano Ramón Novarro se publicó en Motion Picture Magazine de mayo de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, pp. 56-57 & 114-119). Las fotografías también provienen del mismo artículo.

On the Road with Ramón II

by Herbert Howe

The romantic life story of Novarro, who had the courage to play a Beethoven sonata on amateur night… and the artistry to win the prize

Motion Picture Magazine de mayo de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, p. 56)
Motion Picture Magazine de mayo de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, p. 56)

Before the curtain rises, permit me to make an announcement for the benefit of those of you who haven’t programs.

The following scene is laid in Santa Monica, California, nine years before the abduction of Aimee Semple McPherson. Or, for those of you who still reckon time by the birth of Our Lord, it is the year 1917 A. D. It is Amateur Night at the Bijou Theater. I wonder what that means to many of you, if at all. Peanuts are chirping, hot dogs are snapping, and the orchestra wails “Poor Butterfly”! Electric fans beat waspish wings against the soggy heat. The audience is large, with susceptible pores, and perfume fills the air in Nature’s own inimitable way.

The manager appears with his collar on, for this is Amateur Night. His voice is clear and golden, due to several Sunkist orange drinks, and he announces, just as I do, “Laydees ‘n Genlmum, I take pleshur t’night ‘n ‘ntradoosn’ the flower of Lus Anjulus an’ Sant’ Monica local talent…”

There issues a local favorite who renders “Poor Butterfly.” A saxophone artist renders it further. A juggler misses only three balls out of seven. A disciple of Booth does Kipling in a green spotlight. Two ballroom dancers (local society favorites) execute the Castle steps that won them three loving-cups and a shotgun in the Dreamland dance hall. Then a boy appears, bows gravely with unheeding smile, and sits down at the piano which two huskies have just lurched on.

He sits motionless for seconds… “Looks like he was prayin’,” sniggers someone. His fingers touch the keys, and slowly out into that crackling din rolls Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 8”… Pfeiffer’s “Inquietude”… “Etudes” of Chopin… a Beethoven sonata…

The boy arises and gravely bows. There is numbed applause… The manager bustles on… Each talented performer of the evening will kindly pass before him, and, as he lays a hand on the head of each talented performer, the audience will kindly burst into applause according to their liking for the performance of said him or her…

The performers file by. Each in his (or her) turn receives a burst of applause, now rising, now falling. The boy appears, he smiles, and the audience forsaking gum and peanuts suddenly lets go with applause and roars of “Give him the prize!”

The manager beams and lifts the boy’s hand to the audience. “This young genlmun,” he howls, “wins the handsome prize of two dollars and a half — in cash.”

When Ramón was playing in “The Prisoner of Zenda,” a carpenter ambled over to where he was standing on the set. “Say, ain’t you the kid that rattled the ivories down at Santa Monica a few summers back?”

“Yes,” said Ramón.

“Some entertainer you are,” said the carpenter with respectful eyes. “Some entertainer.”

Hearing this, I thought of the many who worry about going over the heads of the public. Ramón, preoccupied in his own sense of beauty, never stops to think that other heads may not be as high as his…

There is a blind faith that never stops to question, but goes right over the head of reason. And we are told it works miracles…

The pity is that so few of us ever have a faith great enough to put to this test.

Divine Language

Ramón tells of a little Mexican Indian woman kneeling before the image of her Blessed Virgin… It is one of the many stories and legends with which he weaves the spell of Mexico.

Wrapped in her shawl, the india knelt on the marble floor of the cathedral; with hands clasped and eyes uplifted, she was addressing her love to the Queen of Heaven: “Oh, dear Mary, my rose, my little dove, my onion, my little cabbage…”

A priest, in passing, overheard her. “Here, here,” he said gently, “you mustn’t address the Holy Mother in that way.”

The woman turned mute questioning eyes.

“Address her thus,” said the padre. “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women…”

The Indian woman looked back to the Virgin, then sadly shook her head, “Ah, she wouldn’t understand me… My rose, my bird, my little flower…”

I have no doubt that the old woman speaking the language she understood was understood by The Little Rose…

Ramón Novarro lee en la terraza de su casa
Ramón Novarro lee en la terraza de su casa

A Mexican Feast

Ramón told me the story while we were having dinner the other night in a place we often frequent. It is located in Sonoratown, the Mexican section of Los Angeles. Both the food and the patronage are exclusively Mexican, and the waitresses have eyes that are shy pools of tropic night.

Half grocery, half restaurant, the windows are stacked with that thin brittle pottery of Mexico that is unbreakable, and the counters are loaded with dried meats, cheeses and candies of crystallized pumpkin and cactus.

After a precautionary inspection of wood-partitioned booths along the wall we chose one next the open-faced kitchen. Ramón called the waitress and requested her to sweep out the remnants of food and bones that strewed the floor, this despite my protests that they gave the place a medieval charm, suggesting that the last to dine there was François Villon with a party of friends.

A slot in an iron box on the wall invited nickels for a player piano located in mysterious nether regions. I contributed two but only elicited a grunt and a sigh from the instrument. Evidently it had retired early after celebrating one of the numerous Mexican holidays. The waitress with the tropical orbs merely smiled at my efforts. The piano did not seem to wish to play, she said vaguely.

Ramón in rapid Spanish ordered the dinner, with numerous admonitions to each of which the waitress murmured, “Sí, señor…”

…“Sopa de arroz, carne de puerco con chile verde, frijoles refritos con queso, tortillas, chocolate y pan de huevo…” It sounded like an incantation and tasted like an offering to Zoroaster. Delicious fire-seasoned Mexican food!

Ramón told the señorita to serve us half portions, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so… “It seemed so little for the señors.” But to the señors it seemed so much they couldn’t move, even tho seats for Chaliapin awaited them after the chocolate y pan de huevo

The Face of a Don

Whenever I meet Ramón I make a new acquaintance. He has the sphinxian charm of being not quite knowable. Thru him I can readily believe that Mexico is a legendary land, “more various than Greece, more mysterious than Egypt.”

When his interest is not outwardly engaged, he withdraws into his tower and hauls up the drawbridge, the lights in his eyes turned inward as behind drawn shades, his gaze apparently fixed on some vision on the inner stage.

Such was his initial mood at dinner, and I observed him as one does an extraordinary face seen for the first time. An aristocratic face, reminiscent of old Spanish paintings, a trifle long and somewhat out of drawing. The skin has the moonlight pallor that glows from out the backgrounds of Velasquez. Characteristic too, the black, slightly waving hair, the rapier lines of the brows and the swift brilliancy of eyes under thick lashes and fine-drawn lids.

For all the sculptural definition of the head and features, the decisive intelligence of the eyes and the imperiousness bordering on arrogance which is indicated in the line of the mouth and the poise of the head, a painter of sensitive perception more interested in the essence of character than in literal imagery would portray his features in a slight diffusion as if not quite tangible to the eye.

An expression of “heroic sweetness” combined with the childish simplicity of the Latin may lead superficial minds to expect a nature of sympathy, tenderness and even softness. It requires only a short association with Novarro to discover that beneath this gentle courtly mien you soon strike bronze. Indeed, the very qualities of tenderness and sympathy are the ones in which Novarro’s nature is most wanting.

motionpicturemag33brew_0433
Ramón Novarro en su caracterización de Karl Heinrich en la cinta The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg dirigida por Ernst Lubitsch

The Curtain Rises

I am on the point of saying that Ramón in this rapt mood, the curtain down, is more typically himself. Then the curtain lifts… The lights in his eyes dazzle on… And a smile flashes into his face that expression of boyish eagerness…

Ramón Novarro: Lubitsch was funny today… He’s never gotten used to Hollywood, quite. Pacing up and down the set, shaking his head over the idea of gold-diggers in Hollywood… “What’s a man to do with such womans like this?” he asked… I said, “Bring over a wife as you did…” “Ya,” he agreed, “I think that is the only way… And you, Novarro, will you get married soon?…” “No.” I said, “Divorces are too expensive — I haven’t saved even one million yet…”

Herbert Howe (Sternly oratorical): There are just as many happy homes in Hollywood as in any town… Look at the… Look at the…

R. N.: I was telling Lubitsch that in Mexico when you see a girl thru the iron grille of a window you get a greater thrill than where…

H. H.: Where she sits on your lap. (Again oratorical) There are just as many good girls in Hollywood… There are good and bad girls everywhere…  But, oh, my God, how their technique differs!

R. N.: You know who is charming — so exquisitely feminine — Renée Adorée.

H. H.: Ah, we Latins!

R. N.: But no, really she is so modest — actually shy. And don’t you think her a great actress?

H. H.: If you had been reading good literature, you would know I do. I told Renée today that I had informed an editor she was the world’s greatest actress. “Ooh,” gasped Renée, “and did he faint?” “No,” I said, “He sent a wreath to Bernhardt’s tomb; he hadn’t quite realized before that she was dead.”

R. N. (Irrelevantly): Hold your tortilla like this and the butter won’t stripe your necktie… Ump, too late!

H. H.: I’m too emotional to talk of Renée and eat tortillas at the same time.

R. N.: You know who is charming also, Frances Marion. I met her at lunch today. By the way, she suggested “The Life of Shelley” as a story for me. Do you think it has great screen possibilities?

H. H.: It has if Frances says so.

R. N.: Last night I was reading the Romance of Leonardo da Vinci. How I would like to play a character like that!

H. H.: Sure, with a gray beard… You always want to play some patriarch

It’s too bad De Mille didn’t cast you for Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”

R. N. (Cheerfully): I’ll soon be old… I look forward to old age. It’s admirable. Youth is insipid, empty of life. That’s one trouble with the screen… Youth, youth, the leading characters must always be young and beautiful. I see beauty with fine lines around the eyes, tolerance and wisdom, as in the face of your beloved Havelock Ellis… But speaking of the Romance of Leonardo, it is filled with rare and touching pictures. Recall the scene of Leonardo with the golden child. It was after the banquet at which the child appeared as a gilded cherub. All the guests had withdrawn when Leonardo found him shivering by the fireplace. He took the little one in his arms — I can see Leonardo with his graybeard looking down on the baby. But the little fellow was ill. The gold with which they had painted his body had poisoned him… He died shortly afterward. It seems strange to me that while da Vinci is drawn with reference to Christ he could follow coldly and unemotionally the condemned to the gallows in order to study their dying expressions…

H. H.: To him Love and Knowledge were synonymous.

R. N.: Grace gave me the poems of Michelangelo in Italian. There is feeling! He surges with it, and so does his work. The agonies of Hell and the ecstasies of Heaven you feel in him… as in Beethoven.

H. H.: Do you know that Darios predicts you will enter the priesthood?

R. N.: Good!

H. H.: I don’t believe it… The monastery, perhaps, when you have finished troubadouring — like Ramón Lull.

R. N.: He was more hermit than monk.

H. H.: More sufi than Christian hermit.

R. N.: Ah, there is a marvelous story — the “Life of Ramon Lull.” If they would only do such things for the screen. What could be more pictorial, more inspiring, than Lull’s story. You know how his conversion was brought about? He was a great lover, a poet, a worshiper of beauty in women. He fell madly in love with a beautiful woman of Palma to whom he addressed poems without success. One day while he was on horseback he saw her enter a church. Spurring his horse, he rode after her thru the doors. So horrified was she and determined to repel him that she took him aside and uncovered her breast… It was eaten by cancer. In his revulsion the poet came to realize the mockery of all love of the flesh. He went on a pilgrimage and became a Franciscan. Of course, this is just one episode of his story. His attempt to convert Islam to Christianity, his vision of a continent on the other side of the world before Columbus sailed, his death at the hands of a mob to whom he was teaching Christ… all are moving pictures. It would be a service just to remind the world of Lull and his amazing books on so many divers subjects, for I don’t think many people know him.

H. H.: Unfortunately, Señor Novarro, the costume play is bad for the box-office. You might modernize it. Have Lull drive a Rolls-Royce into St. Patrick’s cathedral after his beloved… We could keep the touch where she opens her dress and shows her breast.

R. N.: In a modern version it certainly would already be showing. But you are sacrilegious. Like Voltaire — anything for wit.

H. H.: You are unjust toward Voltaire.

[The dialog is interrupted by the arrival of the waitress with cups of chocolate and the pan de huevo — a sugared bread resembling Danish pastry in shape.]

R. N. (To the waitress with tropical eyes): Hágame el favor de traerme un jarro y un molinillo.

H. H.: Am I in the way?

R. N.: No, I wasn’t making love to her, I was asking her for… But here it is.

(It appears that the chocolate did not foam in true Mexican fashion, so Ramón pours it into a pottery bowl which the waitress brought and churns it with the molinillo — an instrument resembling a potato masher, the handle of which he rolls rapidly between the palms of his hands. Then he pours the chocolate back into the cups, regretting that the foam is not so iridescent as it should be. He explains that it is permissible to dip pan de huevo in the chocolate.)

R. N.: But not that way! Just a small pinch, and eat it all after dipping it, otherwise you offend the laws of etiquette which in Mexico are very strict.

H. H.: Do they drink out of their saucers down there?

(A polished silence.)

R. N.: I hope you did a lot of writing while you were away at your cabin.

H. H.: I’ve become a Taoist.

R. N.: What’s that?

H. H.: Taoism you should know is the creed of Lao-Tse. The cardinal virtue is inactivity. “There’s no greater guilt than to sanction ambition, neither is there any greater calamity than to be discontented with one’s lot.” The Chinese should send missionaries to Hollywood…

R. N.: It isn’t ambition that makes trouble, it is rivalry, which in small minds breeds envy and malice. Here in Hollywood the people who are struggling are happy; it is only those who have achieved that are discontented. When I was working as an extra and in small parts, I was always happy because I was always living in the future. Disappointments only came after I had achieved what then I considered as a success. I always looked forward to the time — which is now — when I could be free to do great things. But I am no freer to do them now than I was then. You cannot arraign the motion picture on any one charge; the fault, it seems to me, from the standpoint of art, is rather in its complexity. For instance, Thalberg outlines a great story which he has in. mind for me. “But,” he warns, “don’t build too much hope on it… I don’t know how well the scenario writer will succeed in developing the idea. And I don’t know whether the company at this time will be willing to do a costume play of that period. Thalberg wanted to do “Romeo and Juliet,” but the Eastern offices had to be consulted and they consulted their salesmen, who consulted the exhibitors, who consulted I don’t know whom. . . . Anyhow “Romeo and Juliet” is not being produced. You begin to feel after a few adventures in this maze that you are up against a monster without a head. No one person can definitely say “Yes” or “No.” I’m happy just now. I have a charming story in “Old Heidelberg,” I have a great director in Lubitsch, one in whom I have implicit faith — and without that you can’t do good work, yet how rarely do you have it! And I am under the supervision of the finest producer in the business. Yet what will the next picture be? Another “Ben-Hur” or another “Arab,” another “Scaramouche” or another “Thy Name Is Woman”? It is true, you cannot build for tomorrow because tomorrow is without plan. Everything is — Kismet. No matter how hard you work improving your own little art, the combination of direction, story, photography, cutting is so overwhelmingly greater than your bit that you can be crushed to nothing, when actually you are at your best. On the other hand, you may be rotten but the story and direction so fine you are made to appear good. This to me is no more satisfying than to be placed at a disadvantage. The only genuine satisfaction is that which occurs within your own heart when you view your own work well done.

H. H.: I think it is a mistake to plume an industry with the name of art. No great work of art ever was created in collaboration of several people. That is, if we take music, sculpture, painting and literature as illustrative of our meaning; each is the expression of a single individual. They tell how Michelangelo, greatest of sculptors, would throw bricks at pope, priest and cardinal if any attempted supervision. And the cardinal who insisted that Michelangelo paint panties on the figures in Hell returned a few weeks later to find himself in Hell with jackass’ ears.

R. N.: Yet faith in the motion picture as a medium is so great that you keep on struggling even tho you can’t build hope on the tomorrow because of industrial exigencies. I think I am quite domineering. I am not content to be a participant. I want to create the whole show. That is why I love music so. Whatever I give to it I get back. And only I stand in the road of perfection. I come home from the studio thinking I’m exhausted. I go to work directing amateurs in my play on the stage of my little theater and within an hour I’ve forgotten weariness.

H. H.: I think the industry is simplifying. Even the great companies are dividing work into individual units with one man dominating.

R. N.: I hear that Eric Pommer predicts there will be no motion picture theaters in fifteen years. Pictures will be shown in the homes. What will poor Marcus Loew do then?

H. H.: Don’t worry. He’ll own the homes.

R. N.: Anyway, pictures will still be produced.

H. H.: And you’ll still be in them, or do you think you’ll give them up for the stage and music when you’ve finished this contract.

R. N.: I never want to give them up, but no more do I want to confine myself exclusively to them. The only real satisfaction in pictures, it seems to me, is in producing — to have the power of creating. But that commands all your time. It is a life-work. And tho I believe I could succeed with it, I will not confine myself to a life of pictures only. I want music, I want travel, I want time to develop me a real character, not just as a performer. The ideal of a true life is self-culture.

H. H.: And as for money?

R. N.: Oh, the truth about that has become so common it is considered trite. I like Marcus Aurelius’ phrasing — “With philosophy you can be happy even in a palace.”

H. H.: But speaking of the screen as a medium, it does offer larger scope than theater or concert hall.

R. N.: Yes, but as your audience is widened, your ideas are restricted—that is, if you are thinking of pleasing everyone. No artist should be concerned in pleasing anyone. He should express himself and if he pleases the whole world, fine! If he pleases no one but himself — fine also!

H. H.: But about his earning a living?

R. N.: Oh, let him die! He’s miscast…

motionpicturemag33brew_0336
Ramón Novarro en su papel de Ben-Hur, cinta que requirió un gran esfuerzo físico debido a la infinidad de tomas que se tuvieron que repetir; algunas ocasiones veinte y en otras, hasta treinta veces

The chocolate is drained from the cups. My Mexican cigar has been lifeless an hour. We tip the waitress with tropical who returns us a smile of twice the amount. Silently we drive to Ramón’s home in Los Angeles, where with invariable courtesy he says, “Good night and thank you so much for a most enjoyable evening.”

I drive on to my home in “aristocratic Beverly Hills,” where Mayor Will Rogers, a lineal descendant of an Indian chief, even as Ramón, rules the town with a sense of humor. What the motion picture needs, I decide, is more Indians.

And so to bed with dreams of Michelangelo, The Pope, Renée Adorée, Bernhardt’s Tomb, Da Vinci, Gilded Cherubs, Movie Producers, Headless Monsters, Ramón Lull, Horses in Church, Tropical Eyes, Cancered Breasts, Praying Peons, Holy Mary, Fires of Zoroaster, Voltaire, God and Me…

Divine fire-seasoned Mexican food!

Prince Incognito

The morning finds me, after a cold shower, still able to write.

On one point God and the Movie Producers seem agreed, and that is in casting Novarro for the role of Prince.

The title which he endows with princeliness in “Ben-Hur” and which he again ennobles in “Old Heidelburg” is a gift of nature distinguishing him as much in life as on the screen…

Thus it is said he travels incognito.

If by that is meant he travels as himself rather than as a movie star, I can truthfully add that he also lives incognito.

He claims no royal prerogatives, wears no majestic airs, and his habitat is not a palace in Beverly Hills. (By the way, I wonder when that interest on that mortgage is due.)

The common expression on meeting Ramón is, Why there’s nothing of the actor about him! This would seem trite were it not for the number of actors who wear their profession about them like a voluble perfume with gestures as recognizable as Brother Moose.

When Ramón leaves the studio he leaves his screen likeness with his costumes on the clothes-hangers. If it appeared at the door of his home it would be courteously turned away, like any pest.

To his family — none of whom has ever visited the studio — Novarro is still Ramón Gil Samaniego. For practical check signing reasons he has legalized the name of Novarro but only as a middle name. The initials on his personal effects are R. N. S.

To Hollywood, on the other hand, Novarro is only a screen reality. He never attends opening nights. He rarely is seen at social functions. And all “personal Appearances” are interdicted. Thus he appears to live a concealed life.

Mexican Aristocracy

In an artificial society, where pose and naturalness go topsy turvy, this way of living may appear a striving for exclusiveness, whereas with him it is an hereditary inclination.

By realizing Ramón you comprehend something of the Mexican character with its loyalty to tradition. Mexican aristocracy, as Lewis Spence observes, is chiefly remarkable for its exclusiveness or, more accurately, its self-sufficiency. Its members cling to the adage that there are no friends like the old friends, and thru the habit of living en famille they find the companionship of the home sufficient.

I once remarked to Ramón that Americans are quicker to receive you into their homes. “And quicker to throw you out!” he retorted with a laugh.

The Home of Ramón

When Ramón came into his earned fortune, he did not scale the peaks of Beverly Hills to rear a monument to his achievement in the form of a hundred thousand-dollar palace.

Instead, he purchased an old-fashioned roomy house in that section of Los Angeles known as the old exclusive; meaning by that, a section where families have lived long enough — together — to pay off the mortgages.

He renovated the house and added quarters for himself where he might pursue his musical studies and theatrical experiments without interrupting the family life. Here he lives with his parents, his brothers and sisters, a family life in the fullest traditional sense.

The creative ego is deemed incompatible with home ties. Too unyielding for the necessary compromises. With Novarro it is great enough to overcome them and to live among many as one apart. Here again is aptitude for Aurelian philosophy — the ability to retire within that little field of self.

Not a Society Man

Ramón is not a society man for still another reason: He’s too busy.

I don’t know anyone whose life is so filled with varied interests. Neither the Spanish trait of indolence nor the artist’s aversion to routine has any reference in him. He lives by schedule. A half hour each day he gives to music, two hours each week to instruction in it. He recently commenced the study of German, and he continues perfecting his French and Italian by the phonographic language method. Even his diversions have cultural aim. He attends the theater, opera and concert, and does a wide amount of discriminating reading. His chief recreation, as he has said, is producing plays on the stage of the little theater which he has constructed in his home.

We might venture to think him an egotist were it not for the blastful language which Balzac hurls at us on this point:

“Great men are the slaves of work,” says he. “Their indifference to outer things, their devotion to their work, makes simpletons regard them as egotists, and they are expected to wear the same garb as the dandy who fulfils the trivial evolutions called social duties. Such men want the lions of Atlas to be combed and scented like a lady’s poodle. These artists, who are too rarely matched to meet their fellows, fall into habits of solitary exclusiveness; they are inexplicable to the majority, which, as we know, consists mostly of fools — of the envious, the ignorant and the superficial.”

A World of Imagination

Ramón is by no means an egotist, as the term implies thoughts of self. Ramón never thinks of self. But neither is he one of those who are “always thinking of others.” He neither thinks of himself nor of others. His mind is filled to capacity with ideas — or rather the pictures which he instantly resolves from ideas.

Harry Carr has observed that Ramón never seems quite present, not quite of the world. The reason for this is that he lives so much more ardently in his imagination that he is more really alive in the unreal. He translates into pictorial symbols as instinctively as a writer of genius translates impressions into words — thus in reading Da Vinci he carries away the picture of Leonardo with his gray beard bending over the golden cherub, and the life of Lull the dramatic picture of the knight riding into a church to recoil before the cancered breast of his enchantress.

Knight of a Prolonged Romance

His environment has done its part in moulding an actor, a music-painter. Born into that prolonged romance which is Mexico, blended out of Spanish and Aztec traditions with Oriental antecedents, Ramón’s daily life has been an intensely pictorial drama. From the patriarchal ceremonials of the home, where the son on departing never fails to kiss his father’s hand and his mother’s brow, he passes to the dramatic rituals of that other home so significantly called Mother Church.

Even had Ramón been born on the stark prairies of our Middle West he would have recreated a romantic life, a spontaneous energy driving him to self-forgetful gestures.

By nature an actor, he has been one in the theatrical sense from the day he converted the sala of his Mexican home into a theater for his marionettes. And today he makes of his home a theater and of the theater his home.

Teatro Novarro

Teatro Novarro — or Teatro Íntimo as Ramón terms it — is an integral part of the home, an intimate theater in the literal sense. The auditorium is slightly larger than a drawing-room. The walls are of cream-tinted plaster, and the floor is velveted in thick taupe carpets. There are comfortable opera chairs for sixty people. The stage is large enough to accommodate a company of thirty. There is an orchestra pit for twelve musicians, slightly below the floor elevation and so concealed by a parapet that the heads of the musicians are out of sight; thus you are not distracted by the increasing baldness of the pianist or the fascinating wen on the drummer’s neck, and may enjoy a disembodied music such as that which gives an ethereal air to churches with choirs invisible.

A huge and complex switchboard in the wings of the stage has control over all the lighting effects known to the modern theater. It is with light that Ramón paints his scenes against a background of plain hangings.

If you expected to find a projection machine and a screen in Teatro Novarro you are disappointed. For, as I warned you, Ramón’s screen likeness is not invited to the home. When he wishes to view pictures, he goes to a theater where he can feel the reaction of the spectators.

Teatro Íntimo serves as training quarters for Novarro, whose ambition is not silenced by the screen. Here he is experimenting in ideas of stagecraft and the production of drama and musical plays.

motionpicturemag33brew_0296Me Honro en Invitar a Ud.

I attended the opening performance of Teatro Novarro, for which invitations were issued on parchment scrolls lettered in crimson and gold. Ramón characteristically chose the wedding anniversary of his parents as the day of christening for his theater:

Me honro en invitar a Ud. a la inauguración de mi Teatro Íntimo con la primera edición de la revista Novarro que para celebrar el 34 aniversario del enlace de los queridos autores de mis días:

Sr. Dr. don Mariano N. Samaniego y Sra. doña Leonor Gavilán de Samaniego

se verificara el 24 del presente Octubre, a las 8:30 p. m. (en punto)

(autographed) Ramón Novarro.

The courtly charm of the Spanish language cannot be translated precisely in English, but in effect it is: “I am honored in inviting you to the inauguration of my little theater with the first edition of the Novarro revue which is given to celebrate the thirty- fourth wedding anniversary of the beloved authors of my days, Señor Doctor don Mariano N. Samaniego and Señora doña Leonor Gavilán de Samaniego; presented on the twenty fourth of the current October at eight thirty (prompt).

With the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Carr, myself and a few others, the guests were Mexican and Spanish, among them several priests, artists, musicians, a Mexican general and government officials who had, on behalf of President Calles, extended to Ramón an invitation to attend the opening of “Ben-Hur” in Mexico City.

La Revista Novarro

The revue, entirely in Spanish, consisted of one-act plays, songs and dances, the company recruited from the younger members of Spanish and Mexican families residing in Los Angeles.

The entire show was so incredibly spontaneous, gay and polished—from the first lovely note of Mexican music to the last flower that was flung in the finale — that I didn’t know whether young Mexicans are all born actors or whether, as each of them declared when congratulated, “All credit must be given Ramón, who directed us.” Certainly the entire revue bore the impress of his personality.

Louis Graveure, whom many consider the greatest of our concert singers, has declared that Ramón may, if he chooses, establish an unrivaled place for himself in concert or opera as a dramatic tenor. And as I have previously observed, it is while singing Mexican songs that his personality is elicited most fully. The wit, the sparkle, the dash and intelligent subtlety all combine to insinuate a charm that can only be described as Novarro. He is a conjurer of song, creating pictures out of sound.

Ramón en la azotea de su casa diseñada por Frank Lloyd Wright
Ramón en la azotea de su casa diseñada por Frank Lloyd Wright

The Azotea

After the performance Ramón conducted me by stairs leading up from the back of the stage to the azotea — a roof garden such as old Aztec dwellings had, similar to those of Moorish houses and not unlike the roof-top of the house of Hur in “Ben-Hur.” It is laid off in parterres of flowers and centered with an aviary where birds sing under the sky.

“You like it then, my revue?” he asks when we have taken seats along the parapet overlooking the lighted city.

“Immensely!”

“Now tell me its defects…”

“The direction was too good, several of the company all but equaled the star.”

A voice floats up from the stairs, “Ramón!”

His sister Carmen emerges out of light, the metal sheen of her dress in tone with her luster-pale skin. The pointed oval of her face, framed in night and gleaming hair drawn low, is such as Benda paints with Oriental eyes, There’s a mistiness to her beauty. She speaks musically in Spanish.

“Will you pardon me?” asks Ramón, swiftly rising. “My mother wishes to speak with me.”

Carmen lingers a moment, flowering out of the darkness. I congratulate her on the loveliness of her dancing in the revue.

“I hope you enjoyed the revue,” she says in English that has the soft colored texture of Spanish shawls.

“It was great,” I repeat, wishing to God for a miracle that would thrust a guitar into my hands and turn me into a troubadour.

“Then we did not seem too much like amateurs? Ramón worked very hard directing us.”

I am about to reply that the boy who turned Amateur Night into classic music has indeed the power of miracles.

But she has disappeared in the light by the stairs and I am left with the recollection of that scene in Santa Monica.

A boy leading Beethoven and Liszt and Chopin into a sweating, crunching mob of a tawdry theater… Making that crowd see the visions of beauty he saw until they, like a mesmeric power bringing others, shouted: Give him the prize!

A divining line sang thru my mind… None but the loftier spirits open to faith can discern Jacob’s mystical stair.

The Room That’s Ramón

The next afternoon just as Ramón had finished a lesson with Louis Graveure I visited his studio, above the auditorium of his theater and opening off the stairs that lead from the stage to the azotea.

Man creates in his own image, and his dwelling place is the distillation of his spirit. When you enter the room that is Ramón, you are affected not so much by its loftiness as by its inner glow serening the sense with that touch of mellow magic such as old cathedrals have.

Thru spired windows of pale amber tipped with sunset color the light strikes into the purple density of the hangings and gives a copper burnish to the carved wood of the ceiling. Playing over the monastic texture of the walls, it fastens here and there on the gold-leaf carving of a little door closed over a secret niche.

In an arched recess a fire burns on an Italian grate, bordered on either side by the mosaic pattern of books on shelves indented. A Tunisian broderie pours its aged color over a Venetian chest, and between the glow of fire and window stands the altar to which the place is dedicated — a great piano covered with a Roman cope.

Unless you visit the place with a reporting eye you are scarcely aware of size or details, but only of that personal glow which plays like a harmony over tints and textures. Later, leaning back in a deep-cushioned chair, you are conscious of the upward reaching lines, the slim aspiring windows, the long straight folds of heavy velvet, the high gleam of a processional crucifix, and over all, surmounting a canopy, the dim iron pattern of a crown of thorns.

On the Road with Ramón (Primera parte)

Pocas estrellas de cine de la época muda tuvieron tan extensos reportajes. Ramón Novarro fue uno de ellos. En las siguientes tres entregas comparto la que Herbert Howe, amigo de Ramón considera la primera biografía del actor. Está llena de recuerdos personales y destaca la relación que lleva con su familia y el hondo respeto y amor que tiene por sus padres. También nos percatamos de su profunda y exquisita cultura sobre historia, música y filosofía. También aflora su muy latino sentido del humor. Su concepto teatral que recrea en su Teatro Íntimo, que construye en su casa, lugar donde promueve la Revista Novarro, nos muestra su amor a lo clásico. La importancia que le da a su entorno, en especial a su hogar, que rompe con lo que las estrellas hollywoodenses construyen en Beverly Hills y donde diseña una azotea como las tenían las antiguas casonas mexicanas. Tampoco se deben omitir sus opiniones sobre actores y actrices de la época y su relación con los directores Rex Ingram y Ernst Lubitsch.

Herbert Howe reseñó On the Road with Ramón (De gira con Ramón) su amistad y admiración por el actor. A diferencia de las otras estrellas mexicanas del cine mudo norteamericano — Dolores del Río o Lupe Vélez — en México poco se han estudiado las aportaciones a la cinematografía que el oriundo de Durango dejó. Es probable que ello se deba a su homosexualidad que afloró a raíz de su penosa muerte. Sin embargo durante los años de la década de 1920, Ramón Novarro fue una de las más famosas estrellas de Hollywood. Entre sus filmes destacan Ben-Hur, El prisionero de Zenda y Scaramouche.

Resalta en la extensa entrevista y crónica el nulo conocimiento que tiene el autor sobre la historia y sociedad mexicanas, así como querer convertir a Ramón en un caballero español, más que mexicano.

El texto y las fotografías provienen del Motion Picture Magazine de abril de 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, pp. 36-38 & 86-90 & 93):

On the Road with Ramón I

By Herbert Howe

The Author Explains His Friendship with Novarro

At first thought it would seem there could be little in common between a Mexican devoutly religious and an American devoutly pagan; one a bounding go-getter and the other a descendant of Sitting Bull, who wasn’t named that way for his love of work. But Ramón and I have a common camp ground that dates back to the teepee period.

When my ancestors from Ireland followed the Pilgrims to this country, the first thing they did was to set up my ancestors on this side to a round of drinks. One of my ancestors on this side saw right away the future for fire-water in America and, exclaiming “Whoopee!” traded my Irish ancestor the two Dakotas for a bottle of Irish whiskey. When you consider what that bottle would be worth today, you can see what a shrewd, far-seeing Indian my ancestor was. Unfortunately he took down with a cold immediately and had to drink the bottle at one sitting, thus getting the name of Sitting Bull—his ensuing conversation supplying the idea for the last name.

During the general merriment of the pow-wow, someone suggested that everybody get married, and my Indian ancestor and my colleen ancestor, the daughter of the first bootlegger to this country, eloped to the nearest Justice of the Peace Pipe, and thus started the great American civilization that resulted in me.

While my ancestors were getting acquainted in the Dakota teepee, Ramón’s ancestors came yachting over from Spain and met his ancestors in Mexico, who belonged to a political party known as Aztecs. Again hands were shaken, and also cocktails. And again old shoes and rice flew thru the air with merry quips.

Still further back, before the Spaniards, Ramón has Creek relatives, while in our family, way back, there are also bootblacks. So you can sec by what close ties our respective families are knit.

Personally, I hate to hear people boast of their family connections, but when you’re a mixture of bootblacks and redskins, you’ve got something more to talk about than the bluebloods have.

It’s a darned colorful background and serves to explain our roving tendencies which figure in the following chapters.

Blood will tell.—The Author.

Novarro—Incognito

Ramón Novarro invariably travels incognito. He evades the usual publicity fanfare attending the tours of movie stars. He never appears in the spot-light of “opening nights” and rarely attends social functions.

Few people really know him, for he is by nature, shy and retiring. No one outside of his family knows him as Herbert Howe does, who is the only writer capable of writing this, the first biography of Novarro ever published. (A. W. F.)

motionpicturemag33brew_0294 complete
Motion Picture Magazine de abril 1927 (Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, p. 36)

Sabbath in Hollywood, at the twilight hour when chimes are sounding from a thousand cocktail shakers, the door of my teepee opened and there stood Ramón.

“Say, Herb, would you like to go to Italy in the morning?”

“Sure.” I said soothingly. “But how about skipping over the Himalayas this evening for exercise?”

“I’m going to play Ben-Hur.”

“So-O!” I blared with a prophet’s pride. “They’ve discovered what the rest of us knew all along, that you alone can win the race for them.”

With one hand I ripped the priceless tapestries from the wall, and with the other I telephoned Harry Carr to come over and help pack.

Pershing Enters Plot

For some mysterious motive, still a riddle to the police, our departure was ordered in secret. So, disguised as actors, we left from the Pasadena station. To complete the illusion, we both spoke English, albeit with a marked accent. All went well, with no one suspecting our real celebrity, until a telegram arrived from Irving Thalberg, addressed to Ramón Novarro. Thenceforth, we were dressed, and ready to give ourselves up to the police.

Once aboard the Leviathan, we felt secure—until General Pershing walked up the gang-plank.

The General Applauds

I had been abroad with the General in 1918, and he had caused me a great deal of trouble. He didn’t recall my face, but I remembered his distinctly. However, I am not one to accuse another of being upstage. After all, the General and I had not been buddies.

Altho the General did not recognize me, he did Ramon, and gave him a hearty hand at the ship’s concert, for which Ramon played some Mexican things, and the General delivered a talk. The receipts were designated for seaman and poor actors. The General said he never had heard of poor actors in the financial sense, at least not poor movie actors, and he wanted his contribution to go intact to the seamen.

Upon our return from Italy, Ramón was elected by the officers of Annapolis from a long list of players for the leading role in “The Midshipman,” produced under Government auspices. The choice was indorsed by Washington, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the General put in a good word for Ramón, noting what a good seaman the boy was. (He never missed a meal.)

When Doubles Won’t Do

In view of the General’s amiability I thought of posting him for guard duty at the door of our cabin. No one under the rank of General could have stemmed the assaults of hero-worshippers. All thru the day and night notes drifted under the door. They came in every scent and shade, and I opened them all impartially. I’ll rifle anyone’s mail for a laugh, and, besides, I thought there might be quarters enclosed for photographs. I’ve found, however, that while love for a star may be great, it seldom amounts to a quarter’s worth.

There were notes from mamas with dramatic daughters, who wanted to recite sonnets to Ramón. There were invitations to lunch, dinner and champagne suppers, teas and swimming parties in the ship’s pool. And there were notes with such lines as “I’m the girl who smiled at you on deck ‘A’ this morning. . . . I’ll be on the boat deck at ten tonight.”

Realizing that Ramón couldn’t possibly fill all the engagements, I undertook to double for him in night work. I know now the danger of doubling… Especially in close-ups…

La mansión que Frank Lloyd Wright diseñó para Ramón Novarro
La mansión que Frank Lloyd Wright diseñó para Ramón Novarro

The New Religion

We speak loftily of silly fans, having in mind the flappers, but no one is quite immune to the balmy touch of Hollywood’s artificial sun. The new religion breeds fanatics among the aged and intellectual as readily as in the ranks of callow youth.

Living in the gray monotone of democracy, in an irreligious time, we have no objects for veneration, yet the will-to-adore remains with us. Romance is not dead, it’s just away, and no amount of scoffing can ever kill it. We must have pictorial symbols for the imagination — princes, prelates or movie stars. Of the three, the movie star is capable of satisfying the greatest number. The power of his influence as a world personality is as yet unrealized. We only catch a hint of it when a great favorite dies.

Ramón’s Transition

Ramón with his freedom from vanity went unsuspecting to the fray, acceding with graceful courtesy to as many requests as he could fulfil. He posed tirelessly for amateur kodaks, until halted by the corporation lawyer with dour council as to blackmailers. Fat rougish ladies bubbling with mother instincts and sly innuendoes received the same polite attention accorded flappers, who, being younger and slimmer-ankeled, were less coquettish. (Edison is right — the flappers have more sense than their elders.)

Ramón took the sudden onslaught standing up, but it bewildered him a little. The Ben-Hur period marked for him a definite transition. He was fortunate at this time in being isolated in Italy where a man, be he anything of an artist, may gain a balancing perspective.

Goethe said he never would have been Goethe had he not visited Italy. Ramón certainly would not have been the man and artist he is had he not visited Italy at this propitious time.

Ben-Hur in Training

Rome was depressed in heat, the company in chaos and everyone’s disposition out of tune.

Venice beckoned and I departed for the Lido surf.

On my return I found Ramon in training. He arose at six in the morning, and after thirty minutes in the gym went for roadwork with a trainer. As variation he would row and swim in the Tiber.

Ramón is an Olympian, his powerful body in surprising contrast to the classic refinement of his face. “Young Hercules with the face of Apollo,” is Harry Carr’s phrasing of him. “Michelangelo’s David with the face of an El Greco don,” says the captious Rex Ingram.

His superb physique is a heritage rather than an acquisition. There are none of the bulging muscles of the over trained athlete but that symmetry of strength in harmony with beauty which is the Greek ideal. He has had little time for sports since his childhood, when he engaged in mock bullfights, football, swimming and the Mexican game of la bandera. Aside from a vacation spent at Dempsey’s training camp, where lie topped off some boxing lessons, he has had only an ordinary round of exercise.

Suppleness combined with mental alacrity fits him for any game he enters. He is particularly adroit as a fencer. A swordsman by nature, like every Spaniard, he has the swift flexibility of a Toledo blade. In his hand a rapier is alive, and in dueling he displays that grace of savagery which marks the Spanish character.

motionpicturemag33brew_0294
Ramón en los jardines de El Vaticano

“The Soul of Spain”

For all his religious training Ramón has about him a pagan ecstasy he conjures the figure of a shepherd boy herding flocks on a Thracian hill, a lyric primitive, detached from the world and time. Havelock Ellis defines him perfectly in “The Soul of Spain.” “The Spaniard is, and remains today, in the best sense of the word a savage. His childlike simplicity and intensity of feeling, his hardness and austerity combined with disdain for the superfluous, his love of idleness tempered by the aptitude for violent action, his indifference to persons and interests outside the circle of his own life—these characteristics and the like, which have always marked the Spaniard, mark also the savage.”

And word for word, they mark Ramón.

A Loyola Romantic

Havelock Ellis likewise defines the romantic spirit of the Spaniard which Ramón exemplifies. He is not in the common sense of the word “romantic” — the expression of a superficial sentimentality, chivalry peculiarly identified with Spain — the chivalry embodied in the conception of the Cid, which finally drove the Moor out of Spain — however fantastic and extravagant it sometimes became, was stern in its ideals and very practical in its achievements.

When Loyola, the knight of a new chivalry, watched over the weapons of his spiritual armor in his long vigil at Montserrat, he was not artificially aping the knight of old-world chivalry, but actually satisfying the spiritual instinct of the true Spaniard…

Loyola, like Francis of Assisi, was soldier as well as saint, a practical idealist and a gleaming figure of romance.

Chivalry

I have never seen Ramón lose his temper. Self-possession with him is a trait rather than an achieved virtue. I saw him knock a fellow in the general direction of Heaven but he did it with an apologetic grace that partook of courtesy. He wasn’t angry, he was regretful. Afterward he lifted the fellow to a couch and bathed his head. The man had made unpleasant remarks concerning a lady whom Ramon admires, and was obdurate in refusing to retract them. “But he had been drinking,” said Ramón. “I should not have struck him. I am ashamed.”

The Savage at Verdi’s Mass

I saw the savage when we went to the Eliseo for a rendition of Verdi’s Requiem Mass. We arrived late—thru no fault of Ramón’s — and were told to wait until the second part. At the same time the ushers were admitting a uniformed personage who wore insignia enough to gain entree to every lodge in the world. As the door opened, emitting the strains of divine music, Ramón bounded forward with the ferocity of a young tiger smelling blood. Knocking aside the world’s champion club member, who later was identified, despite his bruises, as a big league prince, Ramón vaulted into seats which I believe had been reserved for members of the royal family. But Mussolini himself couldn’t have unseated my friend, the savage.

Again Marcus Aurelius

“Stoicism, the instinctive philosophy of savage everywhere, is the fundamental philosophy and almost the religion of Spain… Marcus Aurelius bears the imprint of his native country.”

Only a stoic, a veritable reincarnation of the Emperor who reigned there in Rome, could have played out unrebelliously the role of Ben-Hur. There was tyranny and chaos. The retakes alone, with scenes reenacted twenty and thirty times, were sufficient to make an ordinary Christian forget his God.

Ramón’s day started at six in the morning and ended at an indefinite hour at night.

In the galley scenes his entire body was bronzed and for the desert sequence he covered himself with collodion which crystallized and cracked, giving the appearance of parched and peeling skin. He spent an hour putting on his make-up and more than an hour in the evening taking it off with kerosene, soap and water. In the summer months it melted and in the fall it froze!

Sun-Worshiper

“How do you escape the flu, running around naked in all sorts of weather?” he was asked.

“That’s the way to escape it,” replied the Aztec-Spaniard.

In reality a pantheist, Ramón’s worship includes the sun. He ranks sun-baths above physical exercise in the maintenance of health, and on the roof of his home in Los Angeles there is an enclosure open to the sky, where he toughens in the elements.

(Fans as yet have not acquired planes.)

Ramón’s Bucephalus

For recreation after work in Rome he attended the theaters and opera, always searching for new ideas in music and stagecraft. During his stay in Italy he spent a thousand dollars in old operatic scores and songs. Those comprise but a small part of his music library in Los Angeles.

We usually dined at the Castello dei Caesari because of the view it commands of Rome. Ramon’s favorite vettura was drawn by a horse with the impressive name of General Díaz. The driver charged a few lire more than the meter registered. “But that’s to be expected with a general leading us,” said Ramón.

Imagine our embarrassment for the high-ranking beast when one evening he fell down and had to be assisted up a hill with the combined aid of Ramón, the driver and me. I don’t think he ever quite regained his old military bearing; nevertheless, we stuck to him.

Ramón Novarro y
Ramón Novarro y Francis X. Bushman en Ben-Hur

A Star and a Proverb

The road to the Castello led past the Forum, over which there peered each night an invariable star. We came to know it conversationally. I felt it was the eye of some gigantic Caesar whose punishment for vanity was to gaze down on the ruins of his own achievements. In this theory Ramón was reluctant to concur.

His romantic spirit, as I have noted, is practical toward achievements. The sense of futility that currently oppresses the world has for him a taint of morbidity. He is creative, but as the true artist is, his joy is in the achieving rather than in the rewards. “Work for results but leave the results with God” is a Hindu proverb of his adoption.

Thanksgiving at Frascati

Thanksgiving day in Rome — with nothing to be thankful for, since the chef didn’t know how to make turkey stuffing, and couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the recipe which Carmel Myers’ mother had written for me.

Ramon was sunk in a “cholo” mood, a polite expression I have for the soul-flown state into which he passes when the stage is devoid of action.

Frascati in the Alban Hills is admirably situated for the lotus-eater, and I chose it as suiting the mood of the day. We settled at a table of a little caffe under the trees of a stone-paved piazza. Near by sat a huge signora, with feet well apart to sustain her upper edifice. A market stretched before us, vegetables, peaches, watermelons and green almonds lolling juicily under wide umbrellas in the sun, with here and there a bottle of wine sparkling out vivaciously like the eye of a gay cocotte. A donkey kicked up its heels flirtatiously, as tho it had partaken of the bottles, and a wine cart painted with scenes from the life of a saint, which I mistook for the Pavlowa ballet, creaked piously by with liturgic snores from its driver.

A Ghost Laughs

Ramón came out of his somnolence with: “Just nine years ago this Thanksgiving I arrived in Los Angeles. What dreams I had!”

He spoke in the thwarted tones of a mother who has seen her babes slowly strangled in their cribs.

“And I recall the Thanksgiving when I worked all day thonging leather for costumes. It was at the home of a theatrical manager. There was a turkey dinner. Its fragrance was ravishing. I was living on bread and milk. I worked on the costumes while the family ate. They didn’t offer me any. I had bread and milk with my brother at five o’clock.”

“Not so today!” I shouted with bursting heart as I ordered the cameriere to bring my dolorous friend a bottle of the best vintage.

Sad memories vanished and we drove blithely off to Tusculum, Cicero’s home town, which was founded by a son of Circe. Back in the silent hills we found the remains of a Roman theater whose only patrons today are the ghosts of the early A. D.’s and the only performers the birds in the olive-trees.

But it was a theater. I knew that from the way Ramón bounded into life. Springing into the arena, he regaled the shades with an impromptu burlesque of movie scenes… an actor registering passion (with subtlety) at the scent of a red rose (symbolic)… an actress portraying grief (with restraint) over the death of her child-without-a-name… and, triumphantly, a roaring likeness of Ramón Novarro himself in the act of mounting his first wild Arab steed in Tunis.

Suddenly I heard a laugh from the stone bench behind me. Was it my own echo? I turned and stared into air. Evidently, an echo. My attention returned to Ramón… another laugh, and this time I distinctly felt a jocular slap on the back.

When Ramon caught up with me a mile down the road, I was trying to shake off the Empress Faustina.

(Baedeker note: Persons contemplating a visit to ruins filled with the ghosts of bygone days should refrain from wine at lunch.)

Tasso and a Banana

Motoring lazily around the seven hills of Rome one Sunday afternoon, we came upon the Janiculum. Before the monastery of Saint Onofrio, Ramón ordered the car to an abrupt stop and reverently got out.

“Here Tasso died,” he said.

After a silent visit to the poet’s apartments, we sat for an hour in the porch while Ramon spoke glowingly of Torquato, who had illumined him as a child.

He recalled the self-oblivious period of his own youth when he was acting at the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles, before entering pictures. Between performances he would recite heroic roles for practice. While waiting for a street-car one day he burst into Richard Ill’s soliloquy and so frightened three old ladies that they scurried away to the next car stop.

“I met the manager of the Majestic not long ago,” Ramon laughed. “He said, ‘I’ll never forget, Ramon, the day I met you on the street. I almost ran into you, but you didn’t see me. You were eating a banana and reciting Tasso!’”

motionpicturemag33brew_0295Evidence for Lombroso

“By the way,” I said confidentially, “was your sanity ever questioned in those days?”

“Oh, yes.” replied Ramon airily. “When I was working in the prolog at the California Theater and playing extra in pictures at the same time, Marion Morgan telephoned the theater and asked for me. She wanted me for a bit in a dance scene of a Holubar picture.”

“I would like to speak to Mr. Samaniegos,” she said.

“We have no one by that name,” they told her. They were right. I had taken the stage name of Zerreco for some eccentric reason. Miss Morgan did not know this, but she did know I was in the prolog.

“I’m sure you have him,” she insisted. “He’s very young. Never does anything twice alike. He’s kind of crazy.”

“Oh, yes, we have him,” they said and promptly called me.

Just another evidence of the coincidence of genius and insanity, Lombroso would probably say.

Further Evidence

Certainly I never saw madness so realistically portrayed as by Ramón Novarro in a scene of the galleys. Three years Ben-Hur had been chained to an oar. “Three years as the world marks time – three centuries as we know it here.” With glazed eyes staring, he rowed to the agony beat of the hortator’s gavel, and beat by beat it pitched his frenzy toward a maniacal rage. Perspiration clotted his face and his eyes bulged out of their sockets. Suddenly he strained up from his chains — a piercing scream, nerve-snapping — and he collapsed, limp flesh across a paralyzed oar.

Death-house stillness — then a spontaneous cheer from the three hundred Italian extras, “Bravo, Novarro! Bravo!”

That scene never reached the screen. “But remember, too, all my bad ones that didn’t,” says Ramon philosophically.

The Vision in Venice

Completing work in the galley sequence, Ramón chose Venice as a vocational point. We rode all night in a day coach, and when finally we settled in a gondola we promptly went to sleep. A horrific bellow brought us to. The gondolier was outraged. His gondola was not a camera. If we poor clods could only notice the glories of Venice? Ignoring our pathetic protests, he dumped us at the Riva degli Schiavoni in front of our hotel.

Refreshed by a siesta, we strolled the Piazzo di San Marco. Venetian lace in a window reminded Ramon of gifts from home. We entered and were greeted by Olga Asta, the proprietress.

Signed photographs of Doug and Mary adorned the walls, and the signora assured us that they were fine patrons. Suddenly she stopped and fixed Ramón with a querying eye. “You — you, too, look like someone famous,” she exclaimed.

Ramon’s face was shrubbed with beard, grown for the galley scenes, and his hair flowered in lengthy locks.

“Yes, you remind me of someone famous. Let me think! Not a cinema actor. No! An artist, perhaps… but no.” The signora stood transfixed. Suddenly she let forth a piercing shriek. “I know… Jesus Christ!”

Shop girls and lace makers scurried from all corners, startled by the signora‘s outburst. Ramón flushed and smiled.

“Jesus Christ!” cried the signora in a second convulsion, pointing a trembling finger at Ramón.

The shop girls emitted little stricken cries. I was afraid they would fall to their knees and demand miracles. Coming out of her trance, the signora glanced at me, whereupon I quickly shuffled off. I didn’t want to be mistaken for John the Baptist by some local Salome.

I decided, on quitting Olga’s place, that to prevent further confusion, Ramón should have a shave and hair-cut. We visited a barbiere and as I submitted my own locks to the shears I heard the man ask Ramón in an awed whisper, “Are you playing Jesus Christ, signore?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” replied Ramón.

A Protean Slot-Machine

A few days later in the Hotel Danieli awaiter took on a sudden recognizing air.

 “You look like someone, signore,” he said to Ramón.

I hastily crossed myself.

“A saint?” asked Ramón modestly.

“No.” said the waiter, “Oberdamm, the man who assassinated the Emperor of Austria in… ”

God or assassin, Ramón has the divine magic of reminding everyone of someone. Marion Morgan once said, “Ramón is like a slot-machine: put a nickel in and any character you want will come out.”

She was paying tribute to his art for characterization, but discounting this, he is by his very appearance a symbol to the imagination.

Eluding the Police

After driving a chariot for two months in the chill of winter, Ramón decided either to have the flu or a vacation. Hurling this ultimatum at the production manager, he achieved a week’s leave of absence, and we mounted a train for the French Riviera.

Shortly before our arrival at San Remo he announced that he had forgotten his passport. Forgetting your passport while touring Europe is like forgetting your bed sheet on the way to a Ku Klux Klan parade — you might just as well turn around and go home. My disgust was on the point of expression when a surreptitious peep at my own passport informed me that it was out of date.

“Never mind,” I said valiantly. “Maybe we can get by on Mrs. Myers’ recipe for turkey dressing; it’s written on Carmel’s engraved stationery and looks official.”

The guards at the border refused to accept either Mrs. Myers’ recipe or the hundred-lira notes that we fingered temptingly. There was an albergo on the Italian side, and we registered there for the night, thinking that when the guards went to sleep we could easily shove them over the cliff into the ocean. But the albergo proprietor said that the guards did not sleep. He believed, however, that parties had crossed from his hotel by descending the cliff to the beach.

The next morning we made our way along the sands to the French line. There we were halted by an Italian guard with an interrogation as to passports. We replied in the Indian sign language with dumb signs toward the hotel, indicating we were merely out for a stroll. The guard smiled, as one invariably does at the dumb, and we walked tenderly into France. We walked until we rounded the first corner, then we soared.

Ramón’s Winning Way

The Riviera sequence was the gayest of our trip abroad. Each day we chartered a car and drove over the Corniche road to Nice or Cannes. Ramón usually went to sleep on these excursions. Scenery doesn’t interest him particularly save in terms of a back-drop. He likes the Casino at Monte Carlo, where there was action — the movement of roulette-wheels and the swifter movement of francs from your pocket to that of the croupier. It only required a half-hour for Ramón to discover a secret method of winning. By following this carefully we were able to lose fifty dollars in fifteen minutes each evening — thus saving a great deal of time. Time is more valuable than money, of course, but I felt that to win more than fifty dollars’ worth of it per evening was a sin, inasmuch as there were poor bartenders and waiters who needed the money — right there in Monte Carlo.

The Monastic Life

Florence is Ramón’s favorite city of Italy. There we visited the medieval monastery of Certosa, crowning a hill of vines and olives. Fortified and serene, it has remained thru centuries a beacon to the spirit of man. At its gates all worldly ambitions fall away, to be replaced within by the white garments of saintly aspiration. The monks arise at dawn to work in the vineyards and to pursue in silence a devoted, self-mortifying, contemplative life. Only twice a week, when they dine together in the refectory, is there any communication between them.

“How simply they live,” mused Ramon, “and how successfully!”

A white-robed monk, with clear, fine eyes in which twinkled a genuine joy, escorted us thru the corridors and showed us the bare, clean cells, whose windows gaze on to a tranquil valley of contentment.

“I feel I will end my days in a monastery,” said Ramón firmly.

“Not in this one,” I said. “There’s no music.”

Ramón regarded me sadly. I had a very false conception of him. “By the way, Herb, I found the score of a wonderful opera today in Florence and some fine old Tuscan songs. Would you like to hear them this evening?”

Troubadour and Ariel… “Shelley with a face that reminds you of those frescoed saints you see in Florence.”

Ramón Novarro durante la filmación de The Mid
Ramón Novarro durante la filmación de The Midshipman

Worldly Joys

Louis B. Mayer, arriving to inspect the Italian situation, had revived the drooping morale of the company by announcing that Ben-Hur would return to Hollywood and the rescuing hands of Irving Thalberg.

Fifteen minutes after Ramón had completed his final scene in the Roman studio we were on a train bound for Paris and the Restaurant Foyot.

Jacques received us at the door with a recognizing smile, and took us to our usual table.

“Fraises de bois,” I read on the menu. “M’God — wooden strawberries!”

“Strawberries from the woods,” corrected Ramón sniffily, “and, from the price, I gather that the woods go with them.”

We indulged ourselves beyond the dreams of Lucullus. As the check was presented I asked Ramón if he loved Foyot as much as before.

“Love it?” he said, paying the luncheon check for twenty-five dollars. “Can’t you see I’m buying it?”

A Knight Returns

The return trip on La France was in contrast to the trip over, which we had made aboard the Leviathan. Eschewing all society, Ramon stayed in his cabin, permitting his beard to grow while he drummed a guitar. The guitar had been purchased at my behest. On previous trips Ramón had carried a set of practice chimes. You can smash a guitar, but you can’t smash a set of steel chimes. I can pay no higher tribute to Ramón’s charm as a musician than to say that the guitar arrived intact in New York.

Ramón singing Mexican songs is the lyric, the gay and insinuating Ramón whose charm is irresistible. Moved by my delight in the songs and Mexican legends which he recounted, Ramón one night recited the names of all the streets in Mexico City! Such was his intention, at least, until I broke in with, “Now I’ll name the streets of my home town.” But all I could recall were Main Street and Phillips Avenue.

As we were repacking our trunks on the eve of landing, Ramón showed me a notebook containing a line which he had written before sailing for Rome. It was: “If my Ben-Hur is remembered, I have not lived in vain.”

He threw back his head and laughed.

He had grown up.

(Ramón Novarro, when a child of twelve, conducted a marionette theater in his Mexican home and gave public performances.

Today in his Los Angeles home he has a beautiful little theater, seating just sixty people, equipped with every device of modern stagecraft. “It is the laboratory,” writes Herbert Howe, “of a man to the theater born. Here he conducts his experiments in stagecraft, and occasionally presents, to an invited audience of friends, vivid glimpses of old Spanish drama and folk-songs plucked from the fields of Italy, France, Spain and Mexico.”)

Ramón Novarro, tenor. La Calle de septiembre 17, 2012

Este breve semblante de Ramón Novarro está conformado con información tomada de Mexican musicians in California and the United States, 1910-50, ensayo de John Koegel.

Ramón Novarro en su casa, diseñada por Frank Lloyd Wright

Ramón Novarro (José Ramón Samaniegos) fue uno de los pocos histriones mexicanos que cosechó grandes éxito como actor en Hollywood en los años 20. También fue un buen cantante. Novarro llegó a California de su natal Durango con su familia durante la Revolución mexicana y comenzó como extra en algunas cintas hollywoodenses tales como Joan the Woman (Cecil B. De Mille, 1917) donde tuvo el estelar la estrella del Metropolitan Opera Geraldine Farrar. Al inicio de la década de 1920 estaba ya apareciendo en roles protagónicos en cintas como The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) y Scaramouche (1923). Al final de los 20 del siglo pasado y principios de los 30, como una de las más grandes estrellas de la Metro Goldwyn Meyer, estelarizó como galán romántico una serie de dramas exóticos, históricos y comedias contemporáneas; las más notables Ben Hur (1926), la versión muda de The Student Prince (1927) que dirigió Ernst Lubitsch, con Norma Shearer, y Mata Hari (1931), con Greta Garbo. Durante los inicios del cine sonoro o parlante, Novarro también incursionó como cantante y bailarín en tres cintas musicales de la MGM del dueto integrado por Herbert Stothart (compositor) y Clifford Grey (letrista): Devil May Care (1929), In Gay Madrid (1930), y las versiones en inglés, español y francés de Call of the Flesh (1930). (1)

Tomado de The Motion Picture News, 1930

Novarro dirigió y estelarizó las versiones en español y francés de la cinta Call of the FleshSevilla de mis amores, también conocida como La Sevillana y La Chanteur de Seville – en momentos en que los grandes estudios de cine estaban produciendo versiones en español, francés, italiano y alemán de sus cintas para el mercado europeo y latinoamericano. (También contribuyó con la letra en español de las canciones que compuso Herbert Stothart para Sevilla de mis amores.) Aparte de Novarro, quien era un verdadero actor políglota, otros histriones que filmaron versiones en otros idioma de las cintas de Hollywood incluían, entre otros, a los comediantes Laurel y Hardy y Buster Keaton, la actriz y cantante Jeanette MacDonald, y el actor y cantante Maurice Chevalier – interesantes compañeros de trabajo. Sin embargo, este experimento solo duró esporádicamente durante los años 30, ya que las cintas de Hollywood fueron dobladas o subtituladas para audiencias extranjeras desde entonces.

Novarro con Ernst Lubitsch. Foto de Photoplay

El serio interés que Novarro mostró al seguir su carrera de cantante junto con su trabajo actoral lo condujo a estudiar con el barítono (después tenor) Louis Graveure (1888-1968) en Los Ángeles a fines de los 20. Si bien se presentó en recitales como solista durante giras internacionales, Novarro nunca logró su meta de convertirse en cantante de ópera; sin embargo, sí cantó tres arias en la cinta Call of the Flesh: Ah! Fuyez, douce image de la obra de Jules Massenet, Manon; Una furtiva lágrima de L’Elisir d’amore del compositor Gaetano Donizetti y Questa o quella de Rigoletto, obra de Guiseppe Verdi.

A mediados de los 30, Novaro volvió a actuar en dos musicales de la MGM: una adaptación cinematográfica de la opereta The Cat and the Fiddle (1934) de Jerome Kern, con Jeanette MacDonald; y la romántica opereta fílmica de Sigmund Romberg y Oscar Hammerstein II, The Night Is Young (1935) con la cantante inglesa Evelyn Laye. La interpretación de Novarro en The Cat and the Fiddle es convincente y llena de gracia; poseía una sólida técnica vocal, así como una adecuada y agradable voz de tenor perfecta para cantar operatas. Su dicción tanta al cantar como al hablar resultó encantadora y muy clara. The Cat and the Fiddle es su más conocido y mayor éxito como cantante cinematográfico.

Al final de los años 30, la carrera cinematográfica de Novarro decayó, y nunca volvió al status de estrella de cine. Sin embargo, las adecuadas e inteligentes inversiones mientras estuvo entre los mejores actores de Hollywood (Novarro reportó que llegó a ganar 10 mil dólares a la semana durante el pináculo de su popularidad) le dio libertad financiera. Todavía con el impulso de actuar, apareció en obras teatrales y en roles secundarios en películas de Hollywood y en la televisión (Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, The Wild Wild West). Pero son sus actuaciones de juventud las más significativas y mejor recordadas hoy en día. Su galanura, natural habilidad para actuar, finas maneras y agradable voz de tenor lo hicieron uno de los más populares actores latinoamericanos en actuar en filmes del Hollywood durante 1920 y 1930. (2)

A pesar de que Novarro nunca tuvo una carrera significativa en México, sí actuó en una película mexicana sobre Juan Diego y la virgen del Tepeyac, La virgen que forjó una patria de 1942 que utiliza una banda sonora compuesta por el destacado compositor mexicano Miguel Bernal Jiménez (1910-1956). Novarro interpretó al humilde indio Juan Diego, a quien se le aparece, según la leyenda, la virgen María en el cerro del Tepeyac. (3)

En el siguiente video Ramón Novarro y Jeanette MacDonald en una escena de The Cat and the Fiddle (1934):

Notas:

(1) Novarro cantó en cinco musicales de la MGM durante la década de los 30, y su grabación de The Pagan Love Song fue utilizada como banda sonora en su película muda The Pagan de 1929 (la cinta contenía música pre-grabada, pero carecía de diálogo). Sin embargo, sólo hizo contadas grabaciones comerciales, donde se incluyen, por ejemplo, la famosa canción del compositor español José Padilla, El relicario y la canción del compositor de operetas francés André Messager, Long Ago in Alcala (HMV B-8426; grabada en 1936); la canción de Messager se re-editó en el disco LP A Nostalgia Trip to the Stars, 1920-1950, Vol. I (Monmouth-Evergreen Records MES 7030).

(2) La fama de Novarro como galán romántico en Estados Unidos y Latinoamérica se puede constatar en la canción cubana La niña del cine, grabada por el Trío de Moya en La Habana, circa 1929-1930 (Brunswick 40858). En el primer verso de esta chusca canción una niña le dice a su madre: Mamá, me voy al cine, al cine me voy, mamá. Me gusta Ramón Novarro porque el besa muy sabroso. Esta canción está incluida en el disco compacto A History of Early Cuban Trova, 1900-1940 (Alma Criolla 803), editado por Zac Salem.

(3) Allen R. Ellenberger, Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol, 1899-1968 (Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 1999). El mejor estudio sobre la importante carrera y trágica muerte de Novarro es la obra de André Soares, Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2002). El fascinante libro de Soares, meticulosamente documentado trata con mucha sensibilidad la homosexualidad de Novarro y su influencia directa en su trabajo actoral y carrera de cantante, así como su brutal muerte.