“We made love like tigers until dawn.”
The thousands of more or less hysterical ladies who attended the funeral of Rudolph Valentino in 1926 in New York, would have been horrified by this diary entry, in which their idol describes a courtship with a young man. “The hero of millions of women and girls” (as Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf described him), the star of films as “The Sheikh” and “A Rogue’s Romance,” was bisexual.
And sometimes a little slow on the uptake. With his body in state and his spirit moving in between the mourners, it surprised him that his friends did not recognize him, were even ignoring him; eventually he realized that he had died. A medium hired by his ex-wife experienced this bizarre event after a séance. She also stated that Valentino had entered into a contract in the hereafter; she did not mention with whom. It seems strange that eternal rest was not for the actor.
‘Sister Film... Stay Chaste’
To many, Valentino’s and other colleagues’ popularity was a thorn in their side. The physician Willem Bernard Huddleston Slater, author of “Ik hèb geen man!” [I Don’t Have a Husband] and “Ja, ik wil! Levensgeluk in huwelijk en liefde” [Yes, I Do! Happiness in Marriage and Love], spoke about the risks of cinematography at a lecture for the Society Religion and Science in Den Bosch in 1922. “The moral decline of society,” he said, “can for a considerable part be contributed to the dangers of cinema.” A reporter of the catholic daily De Tijd shared his concerns and wrote the following five years later:
“Besides perverted fashion, we also have to blame the unchaste film as an equally important contributor to moral corruption. The unchaste film is one of the biggest causes of the ever increasing ease with which the boundaries of the 6th and 9th commandment are crossed. How many physical wrecks can directly blame the powerful film industry for their misery, an industry that has killed off much needed mental strength of will, and silences the speaking conscience with its many products in which indecency is so covertly prevalent? The devastating impact of cinematography on faith and morals is appalling. [...] So many young people, whose lives have failed because of just one film (it was a product of the Parisian night life), losing faith and morals, and are now living their lives as... the film. [...]
We should not turn a blind eye to what the big screen is showing people in almost all towns and villages; we should not pretend we do not hear the buzzing of thousands of machines that are showing the evil of indecency, often in glorified form and to a gullible audience; we should declare war against those who are hatching and staging evil in their studios if our action against this increasing and intruding corruption is to prove successful.”
The journalist concluded his lamentation with: “Sister Film... stay chaste.”
In the sectarian Netherlands, his distrust of the new medium was also shared by Protestants, who - as the 1568 Iconoclasm, the sober, not to say meager decoration of their churches, and endless sermons prove - prefer words over images. They played an important part in the realization of the Bioscoopwet (Cinema Act, 1926). The act enabled the foundation of a commission for film censorship (CCF, Centrale Commissie voor de Filmkeuring), which consisted of wise men who were to decide whether or not a certain film could be shown, and how old one should be to watch it. They were silent as the grave about their decision-making process, and their decisions were irrevocable.
Even though the Commission started work energetically, and made a lot of cuts in many films (when not prohibited), the Dutch Catholic MPs insisted that the Commission’s work should be checked and performed by the KFC, the Catholic Film Commission (Katholieke Film Centrale) for the provinces of Limburg and Brabant. In the period 1929-1940, the KFC managed to reject a staggering 450 films which were already approved by the CCF. The bishops gladly supported this initiative and urged their beloved congregations to take the so-called “film pledge,” in which they promised only to see films that, according to the KFC, were not contrary to common decency. Even in the post-war years, the Catholics in the South were thus free of “illicit loves,” “inappropriate revealing of skin” and “improper smashing and rolling.”
Now nothing makes adolescents more curious as the assurance that some forms of entertainment are not appropriate for them. Forbidden fruit tastes the best. And if you looked a little older than your actual age, it was not that hard to buy a ticket, especially in the bigger cities.
X - let’s call him that, as his real name was lost - was thirteen when he saw a film starring Rudolph Valentino in the period between the two wars. He was supposed to wait another five years before he was allowed to see the film, but he was a strapping lad and did not have to identify himself. This film would change his life. “I fell in love with him [Valentino] and would not rest before I came into possession of an album with all of his pictures. Often, I would look at them well into the late hours, without getting tired of them.”
The Hollywood star had made him aware of his sexual orientation, and it would be interesting to see what became of X. His experiences have all the ingredients of a melodrama from the old days, although there is no diva in it. Se non è vero, è ben trovato!
‘Which Boy Could Resist Such a Thing!’
Shortly after he had pledged his heart to Valentino, X visited the circus. There, it was as if he had received “an electric shock,” as in the lodges he saw a gentlemen of approximately twenty-four years of age, who was the spitting image of the adored actor. What happened in ring, escaped X; he was fixated on the man and ran towards the stables where he wanted to calm down by feeding the ponies. But instead, he stood “as if pinned to the ground” and met the intriguing visitor who then bought him a drink. “He repeatedly had to remind me that the lemonade was there for consumption, because I kept looking at him. As he was all by himself, he asked me if he could sit next to me.”
Emilio - as was the gentleman’s name - offered X to drive him home in his car. Of course, X thought it a splendid idea (“Which boy could resist such a thing!”); he stepped out of the car somewhat before arriving at his home address, and bid Emilio adieu. But the story did not end there. When X wanted to leave school on Monday afternoon, he saw how the janitor was in conversation with a chauffeur in uniform. The janitor pointed out X to the chauffeur, who then walked towards him, took off his cap and asked him to follow him to the car, where “his master” awaited him.
Overwhelmed, X was led to the car with a license plate of the corps diplomatique. Emilio was sitting at the back of the car, and admitted having followed X to his place on Saturday, having read his last name on the front door sign. Two days later, he had followed the boy to school. Would he like a lift? X accepted the offer. “During the entire journey home, which took about twenty minutes, I could not take my eyes off of him. Afterwards I promised him, after he inquired after it, that from now on, I would drive in his car with him to leave the house and come back.” It is strange that his parents seemed to tolerate this.
Emilio was a military attaché and was surprised to find that X still had to become fourteen. As did the sales person at the cinema, he had taken him for much older. During a summer trip X could not control himself any more, and fell into Emilio’s arms, confessing he was head over heels in love with him. A pleasant surprise for the foreigner, who was “also similarly inclined,” and with whom X would spend “the best years of [his] life.”
This romance, which did not remain platonic, brutally came to an end around 1930 when Emilio received a letter by his father, a Minister of Defence. In this letter he was relieved of his post and was ordered to leave The Netherlands. Protests were to no avail. Both in a desperate state, X escorted his lover to the port. Aboard the steamer, Emilio took a powder that would cure him of seasickness, or so he claimed. “He took my left hand, as is customary among scouts, which we both were, and drank it in one gulp. The glass was barely finished, or he fell to the floor. When I started screaming, people started running towards us; the doctor could only certify his death. The powder had been a poison with immediate effect.”
X never recovered. He spent six months in a sanatorium, attempted suicide and got involved in boxing, cycling and horse riding to regain a sense of balance. “With Emilio,” he wrote, “all the happiness in my life has vanished.” And he concluded: “To go on until the bitter end, that is our fate, the fate of those marked for life.”
His story was published in 1939 by Benno Stokvis in “De Homosexueelen: 35 autobiographieën” [The Homosexuals: 35 Autobiographies]. It is of interest as it sheds light on the role that cinematography could play in the sexual awakening of minors. The moral apostles of the KFC and similar organizations would have made Valentino responsible for the “derailment” of X. Does his story not clearly show the “unwholesome effects of the screen”? And if a film with a heterosexual plot is capable of enormous damage, what in heaven’s name would the risks be when it concerns a film about homosexuals? When such a film was imported in 1920, the fat was in the fire in The Hague.