In 1925, Latin lover Ramon Novarro seemed to have it all. Coming off a starring role in the box office sensation 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 1910-20 Mexican Revolution. 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, also using the young actor in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and in The Prisoner of Zenda the following year.
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 (available in a DVD boxed set with the 1959 remake), 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.
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, alongside Joan Crawford in the adventure Across to Singapore (1928), and as a Navy aviator in The Flying Fleet (1929), with Anita Page.
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).
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. His final big-screen appearance was in the 1960 Anthony Quinn/Sophia Loren frontier tale Heller in Pink Tights.
On October 30, 1968, the lonely 69-year-old former heartthrob 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.
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.
This week the Warner Archive Collection is releasing seven of Ramon Novarro’s sound features for the first time on DVD. You can read all about them here.
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. You can also visit her Facebook group, FlickChick’s Movie Playground.