miliosr

Classic Hollywood/Hollywood's Golden Age

274 posts in this topic

Please do, miliosr. I've only seen a handful of Novarro's pictures but in every one of them he makes a charming impression. Maybe not so much in Mata Hari, but in his silents he's a very appealing performer. So sad he came to such a ghastly end.

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I read the funniest thing in my local "alternative" weekly today. The movie listings showed that the UW-Madison cinema society would be showing Dishonored(1931). Here's what the short write-up said:

Greta Garbo is a spy behind enemy lines in Josef von Sternberg's 1931 film.

I can hear the German curse words from beyond the grave as I type this! :wink:

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SPOILER****************

Dishonored is very entertaining. I have fond memories of Dietrich adjusting her lipstick before the firing squad shoots her full of holes.

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Dishonored is very entertaining. I have fond memories of Dietrich adjusting her lipstick before the firing squad shoots her full of holes.

And how about Dietrich in 'Foreign Affair' telling Jean Arthur to put on lipstick, because "In Eu-wope, we heaw about the chic Ame-wee-can woe-meen..." and so forth. Oh, I love to hear 'Black Market', but I do not much care to hear 'I-OH-WAY' very often.

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It seems like in the old studio system they very often threw together movies around a star, with no desire to make any kind of masterpiece.

Hmmm. I wouldn’t say “threw together.” Star vehicles were put together with quite a bit of care and attention, and many of them have survived better than the prestige pictures the studios were making to collect awards.

I've been thinking a lot about how much "care" the studios put into vehicles for their star performers as I continue to make my way through Andre Soares' bio of Ramon Novarro.

I guess I'm of two minds on this subject. I do think the studios did try to match the right properties with the right combinations of stars. The problem with this, as I see it, is that the nature of film production at that time was often in opposition to studios doing the "right thing" by their performers. Since the studios made the movies, promoted the movies and showed the movies in theaters which they (or their parent corporations) owned, there was a constant and voracious need for product. In practice, this meant that the studios of the studio system had to put together a lot of "programmers" to meet the demand. Everyone made them -- even Garbo and Shearer. Unfortunately, the studios' needs (a constant stream of product) didn't always square with the stars' needs (decent vehicles).

More on this when I finish the Novarro bio . . .

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Garbo and Shearer didn't make anything close to programmers once they were top stars, though, and by the end of the thirties both women were averaging a film every other year. Even MGM stars producing several pictures a year weren't making low rent vehicles (which didn't mean they've stood the test of time). The year Clark Gable hit it big in A Free Soul, 1931, I think he made something like ten pictures, but once he was established as a star that wasn't happening. You are right to say that the factory aspect did affect quality as well as quantity. A lot of the material that the studios once turned out migrated to television later on and much of it was no great loss.

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Garbo and Shearer didn't make anything close to programmers once they were top stars, though, and by the end of the thirties both women were averaging a film every other year. Even MGM stars producing several pictures a year weren't making low rent vehicles (which didn't mean they've stood the test of time). The year Clark Gable hit it big in A Free Soul, 1931, I think he made something like ten pictures, but once he was established as a star that wasn't happening. You are right to say that the factory aspect did affect quality as well as quantity. A lot of the material that the studios once turned out migrated to television later on and much of it was no great loss.

Here's part of Claudette Colbert's schedule, although I don't know if it's apropos of Paramount vs. MGM, but although she slowed down, she still was turning out 3-4 films quite a few years after she became one of the major stars, maybe not quite as big as Garbo (but I'm not sure about box office), but definitely as big as Shearer. May have had to do with contracts, about which I know little:

So Proudly We Hail! (1943) .... Lt. Janet 'Davy' Davidson

No Time for Love (1943) .... Katherine Grant

The Palm Beach Story (1942) .... Gerry Jeffers

Remember the Day (1941) .... Nora Trinell

Skylark (1941) .... Lydia Kenyon

Arise, My Love (1940) .... Augusta (Gusto) Nash

Boom Town (1940) .... Betsy Bartlett

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) .... Lana (Magdelana)

It's a Wonderful World (1939) .... Edwina Corday

Midnight (1939) .... Eve Peabody aka Baroness Czerny

Zaza (1938) .... Zaza

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) .... Nicole De Loiselle

Tovarich (1937) .... Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna Romanov

I Met Him in Paris (1937) .... Kay Denham

Maid of Salem (1937) .... Barbara Clarke

Under Two Flags (1936) .... Cigarette

The Bride Comes Home (1935) .... Jeannette Desmereau

She Married Her Boss (1935) .... Julia Scott

Private Worlds (1935) .... Dr. Jane Everest

The Gilded Lily (1935) .... Marilyn David

Imitation of Life (1934) .... Beatrice 'Bea' Pullman

Cleopatra (1934) .... Cleopatra

It Happened One Night (1934) .... Ellie Andrews

Four Frightened People (1934) .... Judy Jones

Torch Singer (1933) .... Sally Trent, aka Mimi Benton

Three-Cornered Moon (1933) .... Elizabeth Rimplegar

I Cover the Waterfront (1933) .... Julie Kirk

Tonight Is Ours (1933) .... Princess Nadya

The Sign of the Cross (1932) .... Empress Poppaea

The Phantom President (1932) .... Felicia Hammond

The Man from Yesterday (1932) .... Sylvia Suffolk

Misleading Lady (1932) .... Helen Steele

The Wiser Sex (1932) .... Margaret Hughes

His Woman (1931) .... Sally Clark

Secrets of a Secretary (1931) .... Helen Blake

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) .... Franzi

Honor Among Lovers (1931) .... Julia Traynor

L'énigmatique Monsieur Parkes (1930) .... Lucy Stavrin

La grande mare (1930) .... Barbara Billings

Manslaughter (1930) .... Lydia Thorne

The Big Pond (1930) .... Barbara Billings

Young Man of Manhattan (1930) .... Ann Vaughn

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I actually think the question of what is "doing right" by a performer or any artist is rather complex. Sure, the studio system was designed to turn out product, and lots of product very quickly and efficiently, and lots of films were not terribly memorable. But the independent contractor system that's currently in place now makes it quite difficult to get any film off the ground. It's not unusual for stars for even well-known actors to go a year or two without turning out any film at all, let alone a memorable one, and that's not necessarily by choice. Yes, performers, actors, writers do have more power to choose their projects if they're in a position to choose, but the downside is there are a lot fewer potential projects to choose from.

Also, although the programmers were pretty mediocre and formulaic, they did give new talent a steady training ground to develop their craft without the pressure of a major studio project. With less product being turned out, there is more and more pressure for talent to make their debuts count. In the 30s a young performer might get a slew of programmers under their belt before getting into a real feature, but it's not unusual for a first film to make or break a career now.

The old studio old-time contracts certainly put talent under bondage, but in the best cases it did create a long-term interest in developing talent. Hollywood is much more fluid these days, and talent is dropped from projects easily and talent can easily drop a handler (agent, manager, attorney, etc.) easily. It unfortunately creates incentives to make as much money as possible NOW (and collect the sure fee or percentage) without considering long-term consequences to a career.

I'm not saying that the studio system was better, but I do think that some elements of it were actually quite good in developing talent.

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Patrick, what I said about Shearer's and Garbo's schedule in the thirties stands, thanks. :)

The old studio old-time contracts certainly put talent under bondage, but in the best cases it did create a long-term interest in developing talent.

Definitely.

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Patrick, what I said about Shearer's and Garbo's schedule in the thirties stands, thanks.

What do you mean? Of course it stands. I was giving another example, because it interested me that Colbert still made so many more. Please explain. I thought you or someone else might know why some big stars began to make films more sparsely and some continued to turn them out.

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Oh, I misunderstood the intent of your post, Patrick, sorry. It looked as if you were just offering evidence to the contrary. I don't remember exactly why Garbo and Shearer's output slowed. I would guess that both ladies became more selective because they had enough clout to do so. In Shearer's case she also had two children and a husband who was chronically ill.

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According to the Wikipedia -- their film articles don't seem bad -- MGM cut production from fifty films a year to twenty five in the early forties. They also had a B movie unit which may have increased output sometime to provide their theaters (Loew's) with films. I don't know if the Andy Hardy films were on B budgets, but they did reflect the common touch taste of Louis B Mayer who took over production after Thalberg died. Another factor might be that films of the late thirties took longer to make than earlier ones, with better sound and more complicated lighting. The Technicolor ones demanded several times more light over black and white, and their cameras were bulky and clumsy to handle.

Claudette Cobert had a fair amount of freedom to appear in movies of other studios -- and get three (extra?) days off a month to Selznick's chagrin; "tell her there's a war going on" -- and she and Gable were of course were loaned out for "It Happened One Night."

Anyway because of continuing changes in the studio system, it may be difficult to compare some elements of production from one five year period to another.

Dishonored is very entertaining. I have fond memories of Dietrich adjusting her lipstick before the firing squad shoots her full of holes.

I had forgotten about that. Yes, it's a very strange and laconic scene -- Sternberg based some of those moments on little things he saw Dietrich do in real life, not in front of a firing squad of course ...

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Dishonored is very entertaining. I have fond memories of Dietrich adjusting her lipstick before the firing squad shoots her full of holes.

I had forgotten about that. Yes, it's a very strange and laconic scene -- Sternberg based some of those moments on little things he saw Dietrich do in real life, not in front of a firing squad of course ...

I wonder if she was channeling the Biblical Jezebel, whose adornment needs in terms of painting her eyes and lips were not the least bit deterred by what would be her (immediate) future! I've always found that a very impressive action, and have never understood why she's never been portrayed in a film (I always thought the Bette Davis one was about her for years, although when I finally saw it, I quite liked it as a Southern Belle as well, having known a large number of these meself, with two big sisters who are, like, totally into it), but maybe she thought the eunuchs would hang at least a little tougher when they were confronted with Jehu (Victor Mature would have been good at that, and clearly Marlene already knew the scene.)

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Oh, I misunderstood the intent of your post, Patrick, sorry. It looked as if you were just offering evidence to the contrary. I don't remember exactly why Garbo and Shearer's output slowed. I would guess that both ladies became more selective because they had enough clout to do so. In Shearer's case she also had two children and a husband who was chronically ill.

I've always read that Shearer got put into Thalberg's "prestige pictures" because her husband favored that sort of thing, and ironically this sort of ruined her movie career reputation in the long run because it gave her an undeserved reputation as this rather starchy, matronly actress. It's strange because Shearer married Thalberg in 1928, and didn't star in the "prestige pictures" until the mid-to-late 1930s, when the Production Code took over. And Thalberg was dead by 1936, so the theory that Thalberg unintentionally ruined his wife's career might be more myth than anything else.

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Hi, canbelto, good to hear from you. You raise an excellent point about the advent of the Production Code. I think the move to fancier vehicles was a joint project on the part of husband and wife, and certainly the Romeo and Juliet of 1936 was Thalberg's present to Norma, who'd always wanted to play it. If he'd lived longer I think he would have helped preserve her career, either at MGM or at the independent company that was being discussed at the end of his life. (At the very least he would probably have nixed "Her Cardboard Lover.")

As to whether the prestige pictures he favored hurt her reputation in the long run...it's possible, but the same type of movie didn't hurt Garbo's.

It's true those vaunted Broadway and literary adaptations haven't generally worn well, but they performed a useful service at a time when films were not taken seriously. And a few, like Mutiny on the Bounty, were pretty terrific.

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Okay, just put a hold on that R plus J, might as well catch up on some of these things. I did see 'The Women' about 4 years ago, and I'm sure she'd come back to memory if I watched it again, but I remember Joan Crawford more. Not really a Crawford fan, but I think she's very good in at least 4 movies I can think of, esp. 'Flamingo Road'.

Oh yes, liked Roz Russell a lot in that, too, but never saw her in anything I didn't like. She was great.

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The Romeo and Juliet is nothing to write home about. Everyone is far too old, especially by today's standards. There are costumes by Oliver Messel.

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So, I have finished Andre Soares' Beyond Paradise: The Life Of Roman Novarro. I have a lot to say about the book and the subject but I am going to divide my thoughts into three categories: the book as a biography, Novarro's career at M-G-M and its subsequent decline, and the man himself.

There are several Novarro bios/retrospectives out there but I picked this one because the online reviews I read said it was very evenhanded. I have to agree with the reviews -- Beyond Paradise is neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job. Soares offers praise when praise is due but also is more than willing to criticize Novarro for his failings, especially his numerous drunk driving arrests later in life.

The book is very well-researched, which is a marvel when you consider that the first edition hardcover wasn't published until December 2002. By that point, many of the central principals in the story were long since dead and could not tell Novarro's story. (It's a pity a Novarro bio wasn't published during the 1970s when many of the principals were still around to talk.)

The relative absence of first-hand accounts sometimes poses problems in the narrative as there aren't always corroborating voices for what may or may not have been occurring in Novarro's life at any given point. To Soares' credit, he never presents theories as fact and, if he honestly cannot prove something one way or another, he freely admits that he (and we) just don't know.

That being said, there is some excellent reporting in this book, especially in relation to Novarro's murder at the hands of two sociopathic brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson. Soares interviewed the brothers; both of whom were in prison while he was writing the book. (Scandously, the brothers only served 8 years [Tom] and 9 years [Paul] of their "life" sentences before they were paroled. Both brothers subsequently found their way back to prison due to separate rape convictions. Tom should have been released by now but Paul, the elder brother, should have another ten years to go before his release.) The chapters detailing Novarro's murder are hard to read (the brothers Ferguson tortured and murdered a 69-year-old man) but compelling because the truth, like so many aspects of Novarro's life, remains elusive. The brothers blamed each other for Novarro's death and, even today, it's hard to know what precisely happened that fateful night. I suppose it doesn't matter as both brothers were held culpable regardless of who actually struck the killing blow.

In relation to the murder, Novarro also debunks the scandalous and untrue comments made by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon regarding the manner of Novarro's death. Everyone involved in the case (including the two murderers!) denied Anger's disgraceful and salacious assertion as untrue. (You can look it up online -- I'm not going to write it.)

Overall, I would say that the first half of the book is a lot of fun to read as Novarro climbs up the ranks at M-G-M and, between 1929-32, was the studio's top male star. The second half of the book is a hard slog, not because it's badly written but because the hoped-for comeback (by Novarro and the reader) never materializes and Novarro descends further and further into obscurity and alcoholism.

Next: Novarro's career at M-G-M and its aftermath!

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All very interesting, miliosr. I know little about Novarro's work, and only (distinctly) remember him as a not especially persuasive leading man of 'Mata Hari' (he wasn't right for that, I didn't esp. think, although he was okay. I always think Garbo needs a hard-bodied sort, because she sure is.)

There is very interesting writing in the eponymous chapter of Joan Didion's 'The White Album', in which the Fergusons (or one ot them) talk of 'what they do as hustlers'. In her usual way, it's oblique, but you get some sort of insight. I'm not sure that was the case (not having the volume here anymore) that she 'followed quite closely', but Laurel Canyon does seem to have had its share of strange noir-type murders, continuing to the Wonderland Murders (I believe the first Manson Murders occurred at Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon, Beverly Hills before continuing elsewhere in the following days.)

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I know little about Novarro's work, and only (distinctly) remember him as a not especially persuasive leading man of 'Mata Hari' (he wasn't right for that, I didn't esp. think, although he was okay. I always think Garbo needs a hard-bodied sort, because she sure is.)

Well, Soares would agree with you. He thought that Novarro was wrong for the part that he played and would have been better cast as the Spanish ambassador in Queen Christina. (I'll let you know what I think in the Garbo thread after I've watched both pictures.)

Nevertheless, Mata Hari was a huge hit for Garbo and Novarro. But more on that later . . .

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Novarro's not shown to best advantage in Mata Hari, but I don't think he would have been a great improvement on Gilbert in Queen Christina, either. Unfortunately, Garbo didn't want Laurence Olivier, still young and callow at the time but a more interesting match for her than either of the others.

I"ve seen Novarro in several silent movies - The Red Lily, The Student Prince, and Ben-Hur - all good movies and he is very appealing in them. His sound movies, not so much.

Thank you for telling us about the book, miliosr. It sounds like a good read.

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So, moving on to Ramon Novarro's career at M-G-M and its subsequent decline . . .

His major phase began as a Metro Pictures contract player in 1922. He was subsumed into the M-G-M contract player roster in 1924 when the separate Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer production companies merged into one. All told, he would make 24 pictures at M-G-M between 1924 and his departure in 1935. He was the last of the original Metro players to leave M-G-M and he was the second to last of the original M-G-M contract players to leave. (Only Norma Shearer would outlast him by another 7 years.)

Although his best remembered role will always be his star-making turn in Ben-Hur, he actually played a wide variety of roles during his time at M-G-M. In some respects, he was a utility actor who could play just about anything and often did. He made the transition to sound without any problems and, after Greta Garbo, he was M-G-M's top star in the foreign box office from the mid-20s to the early-30s. (Eight of his pictures made more money abroad than in the United States.) After Ben-Hur, his biggest commercial peak was Mata-Hari (w/ Garbo) in 1932, which grossed a walloping $2.2 million and was the most profitable film for both of them.

The question then becomes, though: Why did his career at M-G-M crater so soon after the commercial triumph of Mata-Hari? If I had to apportion the blame, it would be as follows: 40% to Thalberg and Mayer/40% to Novarro himself/15% to changing tastes and trends.

Thalberg and Mayer deserve their fair share of the blame for assigning Novarro some projects that may have seemed like good ideas at the time (there is no evidence that Thalberg and/or Mayer were trying to get rid of Novarro) but ended up being mistakes of the first order. These projects would include:

1) Huddle, a 1932 programmer in which Novarro -- at age 33 -- played a college football star at Yale,

2) The Son-Daughter, an "A" picture with Helen Hayes and director Clarence Brown in which the studio buried Novarro's biggest calling card -- his looks -- under makeup which was designed to make him look Chinese, and

3) Laughing Boy, a 1934 disaster in which the studio cast Novarro as a Navajo Indian.

These pictures either lost money or barely broke even and eroded Novarro's position as a box office draw. (The Cat and the Fiddle [w/ Jeanette MacDonald] in 1934 was one of his few, big grossers during this period but it was also very costly and lost money.)

Novarro himself must take a big share of the blame for what happened as he willingly agreed to appear in things like Huddle, The Son-Daughter and Laughing Boy. In addition, starting in the late-1920s, he had begun to spend more and more time away from M-G-M making concert appearances (he had a fine voice) and took his eye off of the ball at M-G-M (the ball being the fight for quality projects that would suit his talents.) Finally, by the mid-30s, he had become expensive -- the costs of his pictures were inflated due to his large per-picture salary.

Perhaps if Thalberg and Mayer had made more intelligent choices in regard to Novarro or if Novarro had played the political game at M-G-M more aggressively (as Joan Crawford did), then he might have been able to extend his career at M-G-M through the remainder of the 1930s. Still, the fact that the 30s offered up a new breed of screen hero (i.e. James Cagney, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable) may have rendered Novarro's fate as inevitable given that he was an altogether different kind of screen idol. His career was forged on his striking good looks and his romantic playing, both of which would have been harder and harder to maintain over time.

Regardless of how the "blame" is apportioned, Novarro was gone from M-G-M in 1935. That's when he started to make some big mistakes that would torpedo his chances at reestablishing himself either as a featured actor in musicals or as a character actor. Even after he and M-G-M parted ways in 1935, the studio approached him about playing the male musical lead in the Marx Brothers comedy A Night at the Opera. He grandly refused; thinking that the part was beneath him. But given that he didn't have anything lined up with another studio, appearing in an A-list production like A Night at the Opera would have at least kept him in the public eye and could have led to roles in musicals.

Instead, he went to England to perform in a play in the hope that the publicity from that would lead to film offers in Hollywood. But he refused to accept advice from cast members about projecting his voice and, as a result, audiences couldn't hear him and the play was a commercial and public relations disaster. By the time he arrived back in Hollywood, he was ice cold in the business and was reduced to appearing in pictures by tiny Republic Studios.

In retrospect, what he should have done was either (a) do what his cousin Dolores del Rio did when her Hollywood career sputtered and commit himself to the burgeoning Mexican film industry, and/or (b) immediately reposition himself as a character actor after he left M-G-M in 1935. He half-heartedly attempted the former (which led to nothing) and, by the time he got around to the latter in the early 1940s, he was starting from scratch in the business and it was impossible for him to gain a toehold. Sadly, the remainder of his life would be marked by fitful attempts to recast himself as a character actor and achieve the spectacular comeback that would never come.

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Still, the fact that the 30s offered up a new breed of screen hero (i.e. James Cagney, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable) may have rendered Novarro's fate as inevitable given that he was an altogether different kind of screen idol. His career was forged on his striking good looks and his romantic playing, both of which would have been harder and harder to maintain over time.

I suspect that's right. From what I know, MGM actually seems to have tried its best to find something, anything that would suit Novarro given that his type was going out of style. One of the things I remember from Mata Hari was how immature and unimposing Novarro is next to Garbo and the Talkies probably showed up his limitations - which wouldn't bode well for a future as a character actor. The big success of the picture probably had little to do with Novarro's participation in it and thus wouldn't provide more than a temporary boost if Novarro couldn't find a niche on his own. He came in with the Latin lover tide that followed Valentino's success and tides run out. It happens.

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So, who was Ramon Novarro the man?

To say that his life and personality were a mass of contradictions would be the understatement of the year. His homosexuality was in direct conflict with his strong Roman Catholic faith and his conservative cultural background. He enjoyed great fame in the 1920s and early 1930s as a leading man in pictures but, behind the scenes, he had at least one very stable relationship with another man during that same period. (To be fair to L.B. Mayer, there's no evidence that he ever pressured Novarro into marrying -- and Novarro was at M-G-M for a long time.) Reconciling these competing forces in his life would prove impossible for him and, gradually, he would drift into alcoholism.

Still, I have to wonder if the conflict between his homosexuality on the one hand and his religion/cultural background/leading man status on the other was the sole cause of his alcoholism. His drinking didn't really get going until his fame started slipping away in the mid-30s. Novarro's 1920s partner, journalist/publicist Herbert Howe, made this telling observation about Novarro:

"He is not a particularly good companion. As he [Novarro] often said: 'I have so little to give.' His life is expressed in acting, not in thought or conversation. You get the essence of him seeing him on the screen. Off the screen he is . . . a theater with the lights out."

Was Novarro's decline as a star and as an actor as much to blame for his slow, sad decline after 1935 as the contradictions in his personal life were? Novarro during the 1920s, when he was riding high at M-G-M, was not notably tormented by his homosexuality. He kept it compartmentalized from his family and others but he managed to make everything work. It was only when the career faded away that the heavy drinking started. Did the loss of his great love -- performing -- throw him so far off balance that he was no longer able to keep the other elements of his personal life in balance?

Oh well, we'll never know now. But we do have the films, which will hopefully continue to be seen so that his memory endures.

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It's sad how many stars went to pieces when their careers faded. I'm sure adjusting to a life of non-fame is especially difficult.

Novarro will always have a place in movie history as Ben-Hur and for his very appealing performances in the silents. It's true that he came in with the other Latin lovers like Antonio Moreno but he was more individual and lasted longer.

Thank you for telling us about the book, miliosr.

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