Saturday, February 6, 2016

Born Today February 6: Ramon Novarro


Born Jose' Ramón Gil Samaniego in Durango, Mexico to a well off family (his father was a prominent dentist there); the family fled the Mexican Revolution in 1913 and relocated in the Los Angeles area here in the U.S.  His mother, Leonor, was said to be of prominent mixed ancestry and a descendant from the Aztec royal house.  His father's side of the family were pure Castilian.  As a young man in the L.A. area, he decided to study ballet.  By 1917 he had gotten the attention of the movie industry.  He made his motion debut in 1916 in Cecil B. DeMille's epic Joan the Woman as a starving peasant.  By the next year he had steady work in various extra roles; supplementing his income by working as a singing waiter.  By the 1920's, he as being promoted by MGM as a "Latin Lover" type--even as a rival of Rudolph Valentino.  This was done at the urging director Rex Ingram and his wife Alice Terry; early Hollywood friends of Ramon.  It was Terry who suggested that he change his name to "Novarro," though the name had no familial connection and he had plenty of prominent names that he could use that did.  His break through role came in Scaramouche in 1923; a film directed by Rex Ingram.  The film also starred Alice Terry.  By 1925, he had full blown, and well known, leading man status; playing the lead role in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ--his revealing costume causing quite the stir.  After Valentino's untimely demise in 1926, only Novarro was left as Hollywood's Latin Lover.  Oddly he did not make any films in 1926, opting instead for the stage (his work on the stage, is undoubtedly what allowed him to make the transition to talking films).  The Flying Fleet (1929), was his first partial sound film, with the soundtrack and sound effects being provided by Movie Tone.  His next film, the rather infamous The Pagan, in which he plays a "half-caste Pacific islander" who refuses the Christianity of his white father, had a specialized synchronized full musical soundtrack, also by Movie Tone--one of the first of it's kind.  His next role Devil-May Care, based on a French drama, was his first full sound talking film; sound provided by Western Electric.  It also featured on full scene in early 2 strip technicolor.  This would be the last film that he made in the 1920's.  During this time, and through the early 1930's he had prominent roles opposite the greatest leading ladies of their time, including:  Myrna Loy, Greta Garbo, & Lupe Velez; becoming one of the highest paid actors in town.  After his contract with MGM expired in 1935, he made fewer and fewer films; largely retreating from public life.  He developed a drinking problem that was the result of his homosexuality being at odds with his strict Catholic upbringing.  Supposedly, Louis B. Mayer tried on more than one occasion to arrange for a "lavender marriage," the term used for men and women (largely actors) who were gay that marry each other out of convenience; Novarro was having none of it.  Things only got worse for him, when he, and Lupe Velez, Dolores del Rio and James Cagney were all accused of promoting communism in California after they attended a special screening of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's ¡Que viva México!.  Fortunately for Novarro, he had used some the hundreds of thousands of dollars he was paid as a leading man to invest smartly in real estate around Hollywood.  His own personal residence as designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright.  From this he was able to maintain quite an easy lifestyle, working in acting when he felt like it.  It also allowed him to keep a comfortable low profile.  Throughout the rest of his life, he acted sporadically in films and later television, until his horrific death on 30 October in 1968.  Two young men, one a minor and one not (ages 17 and 22)--brothers Tom and Paul Ferguson--were hired by Novarro from an agency for the purposes of sex.  Apparently they thought the actor kept $5000 hidden behind a portrait.  They tied him up and beat him incessantly, demanding to know where the money was (one of them would later deny this part of the story).  Novarro died from asphyxiation on his own blood.  The brothers left the house with the $20 dollars that the actor had in his bath robe.  They were caught, tried and convicted and spent several years in jail, before being released in the 1970's (they were both rearrested several times, and one of them, committed suicide).  Novarro was buried by his sibling under his stage name at the Catholic Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles as "Beloved Brother."

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