by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We can’t imagine having our Ticket to the Twenties festival, which takes place tomorrow and Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m., without the screening of silent films in the Homestead Museum Gallery accompanied by the great Michael Mortilla on keyboards adding the live musical experience moviegoers enjoyed during that time.
So, as we gear up for the event, this last preparatory post highlights a film-related artifact from the Homestead’s collection: a program for the “western premiere” of Devil May Care, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production filmed in late 1929 and which opened at the opulent Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on 29 January 1930.
Of the trinity of Latin Lovers, including Antonio Moreno and Rudolph Valentino, who enthralled film goers in the 1920s with their stunning good looks and undeniable screen chemistry, the one with the longest career was Mexican actor Ramon Novarro (1899-1968), the male lead in Devil May Care.
First coming to attention in 1922 as a protege of Irish-born director Rex Ingram and through his work in The Prisoner of Zenda, Novarro, born Ramon Samaniegos, became a huge star thanks to prominent roles in films like Scaramouche (1923), Ben-Hur (1925), and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927).
He managed to make the transition, though in roles that usually worked for his strong accent, into the talking era and worked somewhat consistently into the early 1940s. His alcoholism and age proved to be barriers to work later, though he did make a comeback of sorts with television appearances for much of the 1960s.
Novarro’s first talking picture also featured his fine singing voice and Devil May Care, a costume piece about the trials and tribulations of Armand de Treville, a Napoleon loyalist, filmed just as the Great Depression was about the burst forth in New York City in fall 1929, made its world premiere in New York City. Norbert Lusk, writing for the Los Angeles Times in its 29 December edition about films making their debuts in the Big Apple, subtitled his section on the film, “Engaging Personality.”
Specifically Lusk noted that “Ramon Novarro has a splendid personal hit to his credit in ‘Devil May Care,’ which opened Sunday night [the 27th] at the Astor, where every seat is sold out for evening performance in the near future.” The critic added that “no more engaging personality has been unmasked and emphasized since audible pictures began to change values in Hollywood than that revealed by Mr. Novarro.” Lusk praised the actor for his “gay, insouciant, but never self-conscious comedy” as well as “his easy, spontaneous and melodious singing.”
When it was time for Devil May Care to make its “western premiere” at the Carthay Circle Theater about a month later, Times critic Edwin Schallert (whose son, William, was a character actor perhaps best known for his portrayal of Admiral Hargrade in the 1960s television spy spoof Get Smart) lavished praise on the film and its star.
The Sunday edition of the paper included five large still photos from the production and Schallert began his piece by observing “Ramon Novarro goes back to the costume realm” which served him well earlier in his career in the “exceptionally well-produced” film. While the critic was less-than-impressed by much of the music and lyrics, his tune changed (!) when he addressed Novarro’s work and the overall quality of the movie.
“Novarro gives one of his most dashing performances,” commented Schallert, “since ‘Scaramouche,’ and possessing as it does an excellent story, the picture is certain to score a decided hit. In fact, the film, which included a dance scene filed in Technicolor, was budgeted at just under a half million dollars, had box office receipts of not quite three times that amount.
In summer 1930, Novarro had another hit with a movie that included more of his singing, as Call of the Flesh, which featured his Devil May Care co-star Dorothy Jordan, racked up impressive box office receipts, as well. The following year, Novarro was paired with the legendary Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, another box office smash, generating receipts about four times greater than the budget. The hit, the biggest of the year for MGM and Garbo’s most commercially successful in her career, also featured such fine actors as Lionel Barrymore and Lewis Stone.
While Novarro made several more pictures for MGM and then Republic Pictures, his career quickly waned. Between 1937 and 1949, he made no American films, though he had a bit of a comeback in character rolls in 1949-50, including movies starring Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant. His last film role was in a 1960 George Cukor-directed Western starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn. He then made some appearances on television programs through the last several years of his life.
Novarro invested his film earnings wisely and lived in a large home in Laurel Canyon. His battles with alcoholism were public knowledge, but what was not was his sexuality. Though there were many gay actors in Hollywood, it was doubly hard for leading men and women to conceal their homosexuality.
Sadly, Novarro’s sexual identity did not become newsworthy until 30 October 1968 when the shocking story of his death was broadcast. The 69-year old actor was found in his bedroom badly beaten and bludgeoned and the scene in the home spoke a terrible struggle. Days later, two brothers were arrested and it became apparent that they’d gone to the actor’s home for a paid sexual encounter. Whether robbery was a major part of the motive or not, the young men were convicted of Novarro’s horrific murder.
Unfortunately, his terrible demise has become his legacy for many people, including those fixated on the “Hollywood Babylon” view of film history. What others, however, focus on is that, for about a decade from the early 20s to the early 30s, Ramon Novarro was a compelling and magnetic presence. Strikingly, his status as one of the triumvirate of “Latin Lovers” came at a time of often pervasive racism and ethnic hostility.
In fact, as Devil May Care was released, deportations of Mexican nationals and even some American citizens of Mexican descent from greater Los Angeles to Mexico were underway. The Great Depression years and afterward were also very different for Latino actors than they were in the Roaring Twenties and the glamorous leading men and women (the latter including such figures as Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez) of that period were not to be found nearly as much in later years.
As for the program, note that it was on a high-quality paper with impressive graphics and an embossed onion-skin sheet that gave it an aura of class not often found with these types of handouts. It is also interesting to see the varied program, including the opening newsreel, the short film “College Hounds” and “the only theatre symphony orchestra in Los Angeles” playing Russian music.
On the reverse are printed signatures of the film’s main actors and other affiliated with the picture, while there are two actual signatures on each side, though it is not known if they were connected to the film or the theater.
Meanwhile, we hope to see you at the Homestead for our Ticket to the Twenties festival this weekend!