Aunt Julia’s Movie Code

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One star who always maintained a high position in Aunt Julia’s low regard and whose pictures remained forever beyond the pale was Erich von Stroheim, who was billed as “the man you love to hate,” something Aunt Julia accepted as a categorical imperative. This was partly due to the anti-German passions that had been aroused by World War I and were slow to cool where anyone like Stroheim, who seemed the very personification of hated Hunnishness, was concerned—what with his shaved head, his wrinkled bullneck, his monocle, his swagger stick, and his arrogant ways. His Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives were further affronts to Aunt Julia, who contended he had the disabilities transposed. She acted as if the very air were polluted whenever the Lyric was showing his films, all of which, incidentally, she saw, though generally none of the rest of us did. Aunt Julia was not one to shrink from the responsibilities of her calling.

But lower even than Stroheim on Aunt Julia’s totem pole was the idol of millions of women in that day, the sheik himself, Rudolph Valentino. It is difficult to explain her feelings about the Great Lover except to say they were probably ambivalent, a word not too extensively bandied at our house in the twenties. On the one hand, although she was sixty if she was a day at the time, she may have felt he posed some obscure threat to her womanhood, while on the other hand she may have felt no threat whatsoever, which was just as bad. Although something of a Wasp, Aunt Julia did not let this inflame her passions too violently, except where Al Smith and the pope were concerned, and she actually looked with favor on other Latin types such as Antonio Moreno—when he wasn’t sporting a mustache—Ramon Novarro, and the Viennese Ricardo Cortez, né Jack Kranz.

I am not sure at this late date whether her Valentino phobia began with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or with The Sheik , when the burnoosed Rudy, showing the whites of his eyes and his teeth and baring his chest, carted Agnes Ayres off to his tent for purposes best only privately conjectured or left to the gamy parodists of the contemporary song hit “The Sheik of Araby.” But whenever it may have begun, it was both violent and virulent, and it kept us kids from seeing any of the Valentino oeuvre; if our parents saw any of them, they did so by sneaking off to the nine o’clock show and were careful to keep the fact quiet along with the rest of their guilty adult secrets.

Aunt Julia never did find a word opprobrious enough, yet suitable for mixed company and tender ears, to describe Valentino properly. He was “That…that… that …,” a creature who could only be left to bob around in unresolved splutter. Since Stroheim, well within the limits of coherence, could at least be categorized as a Hun, it was clear Aunt Julia felt Valentino was worse than the man who sank defenseless ships and had his swinish way with Belgian virgins.

In view of this we were hardly prepared for her reaction on that day in August, 1926, when Mrs. Meade, our next-door neighbor, rushed over to tell us her husband had just phoned from the hardware store he operated to say Valentino had died, maybe had even been poisoned. Aunt Julia at first said it was all a publicity stunt, and the next thing we could expect to hear was that he had been revived and was going to marry PoIa Negri. However, as subsequent reports and the arrival of the New York papers, especially the News , the Mirror , and the Graphic , flamboyantly confirmed and embellished Mrs. Meade’s simple bulletin, Aunt Julia’s attitude toward the departed idol underwent a startling change. He was, she asserted, not a bad man at heart, and she was sure he meant no harm with his sleek-haired foreign ways; in fact, it wouldn’t surprise her a bit if underneath it all he was no worse than some of your cleancut 100 per cent American stars who suddenly turned out to be dope fiends. By the time the Lyric had shown the newsreels of the Campbell Funeral Home spectacular, with the thousands of “mourners” fighting themselves and the police for a view of the body of the ill-fated Valentino, Aunt Julia had absolved him of all his sins, real or fancied.

Later when the Lyric, cashing in on the publicity following the death of the star, revived The Sheik , Aunt Julia attended the show as if it were some kind of memorial service. She eventually gave it her equivalent of a G rating, but by then it was too late for us kids to see it and find out how it compared with the raunchier parodies of “The Sheik of Araby.”