Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tragic Star: Ramon Novarro

2015 is the year of the tragic star on A Person in the Dark. May's tragic star is Ramon Novarro.

In 1925, Latin lover Ramon Navarro seemed to have it all. Coming off a starring role in the epic Ben Hur, he was poised to take a place at the top of Hollywood's Mount Olympus of stars. 

But storm clouds gathering inside of him and around him would prevent Novarro from finding true happiness and lasting success. Sadly, the thing now most remembered about Novarro's life is his death.

By the time Ramon Novarro had hit Hollywood, he had already known adversity. Entering the world as Jose Ramon Sanmaniego, Ramon was born to a large and well-to-do family in 1899. His father was a prominent dentist in Durango, Mexico, but the family lost their standing and were forced to flee their home at the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Young Ramon had 12 siblings and felt responsible for his family for all of his life.

By 1917  Ramon was working as a singing waiter in Hollywood and looking for work in the movies. After some frustrating bit parts that lead nowhere, Ramon was fortunate to catch the eye of director Rex Ingram. As Ramon Novarro, Ingram cast him in an important role, along with Ingram's wife Alice Terry, in Metro's 1923 version of Scaramouche. His leading man good looks and his sensitive and romantic style put him on the road to stardom. Ingram was one of Novarro's greatest supporters in this early phase of his career.

Novarro makes an impression in Scaramouche with Alice Terry (1923)

His stardom was solidified in 1925 with the release of the epic Ben Hur. After a tortuous effort to bring this tale to the screen (begun in 1923, it went through major changes in directors, actors and script) and expending so much time and money on the production, Metro had a hit with Ben Hur and one of the primary reasons was Novarro. Touting him first as a rival to Valentino, Novarro became the Hollywood Latin Lover after Valentino's death in 1926. 
The birth of a star: Novarro in Ben Hur

Novarro stares down Francis X. Bushman in Ben Hur
From 1926 to the dawn to talking pictures, Novarro made a sting of successful films at Metro (later MGM), including the delightful The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), co-staring with Norma Shearer and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. 

Ramon and Norma Shearer at their most charming in The Student Prince
He was the dream lover supreme and the romantic ideal of millions of women. He was also a devout Catholic and gay.

Looking sexy for MGM
Ramon Novarro never would play the studio game. His homosexuality was known to everyone but his fans. Bucking the studio's demands, he refused to be bullied into a sham marriage for the sake of publicity. He was also devoted to his religion, so much so that he had once considered becoming a monk. The conflicts and the secrets and the lies caused the sensitive Ramon great pain, a pain he numbed with alcohol.

As if life hadn't thrown Ramon enough curve balls, the advent of talking films marked the end his brand of romantic hero. His voice was good (he had a fine singing voice), but his luster dimmed when MGM failed to find the right vehicles for him. By the mid-30s he had faded from view. His last important film was opposite Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931).

Novarro and Garbo in Mata Hari.
His Russian accent was by way of Duango, Mexico
Ramon had managed to provide financial security for himself and his family and  worked sporadically during the next decades in supporting film and television roles in between bouts of alcoholism and multiple DUIs.

On October 30, 1968, the lonely 69 year old former heart throb called an escort service for some male company. Instead of pleasure, he encountered a brutal death at the hand of 2 brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson. The brothers mistakenly thought the actor had money hidden in his home, but after hours of torturing Novarro and finally killing him, they left his home with $20. Both were arrested and served prison terms.

The romantic idol
It was a sad and sensational end for a sensitive man whose search for happiness was always tempered by inner conflicts. An excellent book about Ramon Novarro is "Beyond Paradise" by Andre Soares.


Inge Gregusch said...

Excellent post! The darker side of stardom in La La Land--yet again. There are far too many. Terrific writing and photographs, as always.

ClassicBecky said...

Ramon's story is all the more tragic to me, because I new an older man who met the same fate. We had known him as kids when visiting family in a small rural community. All we knew about him was that he was kind and funny and collected beer mugs. One of my great aunts told me that he had been sent away to Cincinnati in his early teens rather secretly -- everyone had always assumed the family was ashamed of him because he was illegitimate (this would have been about 1915-1920). He came back when he was much older and lived across from my relatives when I knew him. A few years ago, he met exactly the same death as Ramon. We knew then that he had been sent away because he was gay, not illegitimate. He was just a lonely old man too. Neither of these men deserved the awful end to their lives.

I'm sorry for the long comment, but your article hit home for me. God bless them both.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Inge. Poor man - he really was born too soon. How much happier he could have been if he did not have to live such a lie.

FlickChick said...

Becky - thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I think all of us "of a certain age" have fuzzy memories of people from our towns who were "different." There was a lady who lived down the block who always dressed like a man and lived with a "friend." People were always whispering about her. She eventually became a nun. One can only imagine her story. I was fascinated by her because she and her brother (who also lived with her) had many boxers over the years - all named "Beau."

ClassicBecky said...

Aren't kids wonderful? You may have known she was different, but your main memory of her was her dogs! I wish we could keep that kind of innocence through adulthood...

Unknown said...

I admired Ramon Navarro in his roles, especially the wonderful Ben Hurt. I remember reading about his death in LA at the time, and of course subsequently as well. It was a tragedy for such a star. Thank you for remembering him in your blog post FlickChick.

FlickChick said...

Hey Becky - you are so right. No judgments. She (her name was Mary) and Beau were always so kind to us kids.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Christian. Sadly most people know Novarro because of his death, not his life.

Elizabeth Boyde said...

Hm, I'm one of a minority, who knew Navarro only through his movies. I hadn't heard how he died. Good post. Very sad story.

(Is it just me, or does that second photo look like a curly-haired Gene Kelly?)

FlickChick said...

Hi Elizabeth. Gene Kelly? Hmmm - well, Gene liked his pipe. Maybe there was a Mexican arm of the Kelly family?

Geraldine Tan said...

Hello. I'm the Founder/Admin of the Ramon Novarro Fans' Facebook Group. :) A member posted your wonderful article there. Thank you so much for writing about our favorite. We'd love it if you joined us there. Best wishes!

Geraldine Tan said...

P.S. I'm so glad you mentioned "Beyond Paradise" by Andre Soares. I have it, and I love it! Mr. Soares is also a member of our group, along with relatives of Ramon, as well as Mr. Matias Bombal, who actually knew Ramon's former secretary, and posts pictures of the treasures he was given.

It's true...sadly most people only know of him because of how he died. Not many know what a kind person he was. One of his cousins said that when her Grandmother fell on hard times, Ramon was always there for her, both emotionally and financially.

Aside from being a wonderful actor and singer, he also played the piano, composed music, and painted. He was so kind to his fan club, too. Please join us there, and learn more about this one of a kind, magical person, and help us continue to honor his memory.

FlickChick said...

Hi Geraldine - many thanks to you and Martin! I just submitted my request. I hope I can join you soon!

Anonymous said...

Of all the tragic stars, Novarro is one of the most tragic. Although I knew how your post would end, reading it was still emotional. Whilst I'm happy that the individuals responsible were bought to some kind of justice, it was hardly equal punishment for ending a life that gave delight to so many on screen.
I'm so happy you're doing this series as sometimes we need to remember that the bright lights aren't all that they seem.

Silver Screenings said...

I'm ashamed to say I knew nothing about Novarro's personal life, and what a sad story it is! He sounds like a truly kind and generous person.


It was a very tragic life, indeed. It's sadder because people remember some Hollywood LEGENDS by their untimely or tragic deaths than by their lives and body of work. I, personally, love both Novarro's body and work! *swoon* A great and beautiful actor!