Ramon Novarro may be a name better known by true crime buffs than by vintage movie fans. The reprinting of Allan R. Ellenberger’s fine 1999 biography gives 21st century readers a fresh chance to see Novarro in the context of his own time in a very different Hollywood. One of Ramon’s early ambitions was to be a priest: The book includes a baby picture taken with his older sisters Guadalupe and Rosa, both of whom outlived him. Each became a nun.
Instead of becoming a priest, Ramon became an actor. Like many actors, then and now, Ramon was gay. He tried to keep it a secret. His coping mechanism was alcoholism. He couldn’t keep that a secret: He was busted many times for drunk driving, the alcohol clouded his judgment. When Ramon Novarro was a rich young movie star, there was no such thing as A.A. to help him: It didn’t exist until 1935, the year he left MGM. In the last half of his life, he would not have sought help for his drinking anyway, since he didn’t believe he had a problem.
The biggest film of his silent career is “Ben Hur:” The 1925 Biblical epic made millions, but it also cost millions, resulting in a hefty loss of nearly $700,000. Even so, “Ben Hur” ensured Ramon Novarro’s status as an indelible star. Rumbling was heard in the executive offices at MGM regarding Novarro’s bachelor status. But it was three money losers in a row that did him in: “The Cat And The Fiddle” (it lost $142,000), “Laughing Boy” (A $383,000 loss) and “The Night Is Young” (a $234,000 loser). True, musicals were way over exposed in the early sound era, but there would be no roads back, at least not as a star, for Ramon Novarro. Long past his heyday, he would return as a much better actor in four character roles in 1949 and 1950. In John Huston’s “We Were Strangers”, he was a rebel chief, looking nothing at all like the matinee idol of the 20’s and 30’s. In Don Siegel’s “The Big Steal”, he was Colonel Ortega a role so vivid that RKO briefly considered making a series of films with Novarro as Ortega. He said no, but did return to MGM for Roy Rowland’s “Outriders” and Richard Brooks’ “Crisis”, and, in 1960, he made “Heller In Pink Tights” with George Cukor. A string of 15 television appearances followed for Disney, “Thriller”, “Combat” (twice), “Rawhide”, “Dr, Kildare” (3 episodes), “Bonanza”, “Wild Wild West”, and 7 months before his death “High Chaparrel”.
The saddest aspect of Ramon Novarro’s life as he approached age 70 was that none of his self-protection measures worked anymore, if, indeed, they ever had. He always thought his drinking was under control, it never was. He always thought that discretion would ensure his gay life style would remain strictly private. In fact, it was a well-known Hollywood realtor who ratted out Novarro to the Ferguson brothers. They killed Novarro the day before Halloween, 1968. The realtor had obligingly cashed the many checks of Novarro’s tricks for a fee. In his summation, the Fergusons’ defense attorney said “Novarro, the man who set female hearts aflutter, was nothing but a queer.” By the time of the Novarro trial, Hollywood was still reeling from the shock of the Tate La Bianca murders. Even at the outset, national magazines suggested that the victims’ extravagant lifestyles made them easier targets for murder.
Although “Ramon Novarro” has a sad ending, it is not an entirely depressing story. He accomplished a great deal in his life and is fondly remembered as an actor even today. If you want an unsentimental look at the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, Ellenberger’s book will supply it. “Ramon Novarro” is available through mcfarlandpub.com.
© 2010 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 02/17/10
Movie Magazine International
Movie Magazine International