RAMON NOVARRO—A Super Star with Only One Demon
By Frank Javier Garcia Berumen
Reviewed by Tod Jonson
Ramon Novarro holds a prominent place as one of the legendary matinee idols of silent and talking films, regardless of race. Novarro conjures up the era of the great silent screen lovers that included Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, John Barrymore, Antonio Moreno and Ronald Colman. It is the flickering image of the courtly cavalier, of illicit and impossible love and beautiful women, of adventure and high purpose.
It is filled with the glamour and allure that only Hollywood of that Golden Age could produce. It is a glimmering image that is at once comforting and deceptive. Novarro’s biographer, (U.C.L.A. and Harvard historian and educator) Frank Javier Garcia Berumen, agrees and— bluntly says so.
The Hollywood screen star known the entire world over as Ramon Novarro was born in Durango, Mexico. Ramon’s mother drew from Aztec nobility while his father drew from Spanish conquistadors. Thus, Navarro had more American blood in his veins than George Washington, born in Virginia but from British ancestors.
Novarro performed in 100 films as a bit player before he signed his first contract to perform in the silent film version (1917) of Joan of Arc titled Joan, the Woman, starring the celebrated actress Geraldine Farrar. After working with Farrar, he moved on to DeMille and Mary Pickford for The Little American. From that point on, he only worked with the top stars and directors of the day.
It was the dangling of the role of “Messala” in Ben-Hur that finally lured Novarro away from doing Independent films to doing contract films with Metro (which eventually became MGM). Oddly enough, when Novarro finally filmed Ben-Hur, it wasn’t the role of “Messala,” it was the lead role instead that he played. He was too big a star to have second billing as previously had been decided by the studio.
Under contract to MGM, he made 29 more films, including Ben-Hur, Scaramouche, Prisoner of Zenda, The Arab, The Red Lily, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, The Student Prince, Marti Hari, and the Midshipman plus another 20 others, most of which received glowing reviews.
Alcohol became a severe problem as age crept in. There was also the private versus the public persona. Whatever the vicissitudes and orientation in his private life, it seems to have brought him no lasting happiness. His public persona brought him undreamed of wealth and legendary fame, yet being a movie star was his real hell. In time, these contradictions must have become his demons. Alcohol failed to resolve/dispel these inner conflicts. But his status is assured through his magnificent films. He will live on as the handsome hero, but also as an actor of depth and skill. He reigned during the pre-Academy Awards. Had there been, he would have had a mantle filled with Oscars. His life was one that brought untold joy, happiness, and inspiration to millions of fans throughout the world during times of poverty, depression, and war.
In 1968, he was murdered during a home-invasion robbery for a mere $45.00.