Today we bow our heads in memory of the screen star Ramon Novarro (José Ramón Gil Samaniego, 1899-1968).
Novarro was a scion of a large, aristocratic Mexican family (a second cousin of Dolores Del Rio), who were displaced by the Mexican Revolution. Born in Durango City, he moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 14. Within a couple of years, he was working as an extra in silent films, taking jobs as a singing waiter and a vaudeville performer between movies. Cecil B. deMille’s Joan the Woman (1916) is his first screen credit. The Goat (1918) with Fred Stone and A Small Town Idol (1921) with Ben Turpin are among these early jobs. He also has a small part in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) with Rudolph Valentino, an irony given that Novarro was quickly promoted to Valentino’s rival and successor as a popular “Latin Lover” largely at the instigation of that same film’s director Rex Ingram. He first gained some notice as a bad guy in the 1922 version of The Prisoner of Zenda, which led to full-fledged stardom in such films as Scaramouche (1923), The Arab (1924), Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), and Lubitsch’s The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg (1927).
The early sound period was fairly good to him. He co-starred with Garbo in Mata Hari (1931), and starred as the title character in the adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy (1934) opposite Lupe Velez. But by then Novarro was considered old fashioned, a throwback to the silent era. MGM did not renew his contract in 1935. He starred in some features at B movie factor Republic Studios, and some foreign films, then played some supporting parts for the majors. George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights (1960) with Sophia Loren was his last cinematic picture. In the 50s and 60s, Novarro worked primarily in television, on such shows as Thriller, Bonanza, The Wild Wild West and The High Chaparral.
We haven’t yet mentioned something major about Ramon Novarro: over time he has come to be remembered as something of a gay icon. Naturally, he was closeted throughout his life, but the truth came out in an ugly, tragic way when he was murdered in 1968 by a pair of brothers masquerading as male prostitutes who erroneously believed he had a fortune stashed somewhere in the house. They tried to torture the location of the nonexistent boodle out of the old man, obtained a mere $20 for their efforts, and then left the old man for dead. Whereupon he died — choked on his own blood. The punks, named Paul and Tom Ferguson, were caught and incarcerated, but each served less than a decade, presumably on account of their youth at the time of the crime (one of them had been a minor) and that the death was an inadvertant outcome of what had been intended to be a mere robbery. Naturally, both went back to jail for new infractions almost immediately. Tom Ferguson committed suicide in 2005, thoughtfully relieving the state of the burden of his upkeep. Paul is doing a 60 year stretch on a rape charge and likely won’t be seeing the light of day again. The path of justice is often circuitous, but typically inexorable. It’s not the mysticism of fate, simply the march of logic.
For more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, and for more on vaudeville where Ramon Novarro also performed, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.