Valentino opens with lead Anthony Dexter (whose resemblance to Valentino got him the job, not his acting abilities) doing the tango. It’s the troupe’s rehearsal and it’s fine. It’s not concerning, which is sort of cool for the film, because most of the scenes are concerning. George Bruce’s screenplay–based on his own story, “Valentino As I Knew Him”–ranges from tepid to cringe-worthy. Lewis Allen’s direction of that screenplay is never better than in this first scene. It’s as good, but it’s also much worse.
So when Valentino approaches mediocre, it’s to be appreciated. And you know early on, because the third scene–where Dexter quits the dance troupe because boss Dona Drake wants him to be hers alone. Not all women’s. Drake’s performance is terrible but her role is terrible and hackneyed. Allen doesn’t care. It’s kind of stunning to watch this beautifully rendered Technicolor–Harry Stradling Sr.’s photography is only workman because Allen never asks him to do anything else (or takes him off set)–with this constantly misfiring production.
Bruce’s script either has Dexter playing Lothario or Great Lover, often to the same character. It might keep the character’s true intentions secret if Dexter didn’t give a spellbindingly awful performance. He kind of makes it through the first act, mostly because Eleanor Parker is on hand to hold the movie up, but once Dexter’s on his own… it gets real bad. A lot of it is Allen. He’s not trying at all with his composition. He has this one shot he uses for Richard Carlson’s close-ups over and over again. Carlson’s thanklessly playing clueless cuckold–Parker’s beau and Dexter’s best friend and both their boss. He’s a movie director.
Through the first act, Parker has this character to play. She’s a fictional silent era star–Allen’s real bad at rendering the silent era stuff, though it’s not clear Valentino had the budget to get the scenes done. The cheapness is another problem. Once Dexter arrives in New York City and it’s a backlot set of a town square? Well, segueing back to Parker, at least they didn’t cheap on her wardrobe. She’s beyond glamorous.
Unfortunately, other than the gowns, Parker ends up with nothing. Valentino makes some promises to its female stars–top-billed Parker and third-billed Patricia Medina–they’re supposed to be Dexter’s great loves. Parker makes it work until the script’s just too silly; she and Carlson also have zero chemistry together as creative partners, much less romantic ones. But it’s the script (and Allen) more than the actors. Medina has this somewhat interesting role as Dexter and Parker’s confidant who Dexter cravenly romances.
Valentino has a really small cast of characters who all are in the movie business and none of them have friends outside each other. There’s familiar chemistry between the actors–all of them–except it’s up to Parker and Medina to hold up Dexter. Parker at least gets to have a full character arc, albeit a terrible, thoughtless one, but not Medina. She’s completely disposable once her function is executed.
Everything in Valentino is purely functional, with the exception of Joseph Calleia’s throwaway comic relief lines. Calleia should have the best part in the movie. He’s Dexter’s down-to-earth confidant and business manager. They’re paisanos. Bruce is big on the authentic dialogue.
But Calleia’s got a crap part. He’s there to prop up Dexter too. Only the writing is a lot less compelling, which is a surprise how boring Bruce can go with this script, and Calleia can’t do it. The material isn’t there. Allen isn’t there. And, somehow, Valentino actually manages to get worse.
When Parker does come back, she’s in a different role–she’s subject, not lead. The film introduces Lloyd Gough as a reporter who’s on to Dexter. The last third turns out to be he and Dexter’s showdown over the Valentino brand. Initially, Gough’s a welcome surprise just because he’s different. Turns out you can be different and bad. Valentino has a lot of different bad things about it. Except the Technicolor and Parker’s wardrobe, there’s nothing to recommend it.