Future “It” boy Antonio Moreno is seduced and abandoned by Norma Talmadge (the heartless despoiler of young Spaniards). He recovers but the couple is destined to meet again with far more fatal consequences. This over-the-top melodrama is one of Moreno’s earliest surviving starring roles.
This is part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen. Read the other great posts here!
I think we might be overreacting a bit…
Before anyone had ever heard of Ramon Novarro, Rudolph Valentino or Ricardo Cortez, Antonio Moreno was setting hearts aflutter in American movie theaters. While the studio publicity machine claimed that both Novarro and Cortez hailed from sunny Spain, Moreno was the real deal. Born in Madrid, he immigrated to the United States as a teenager and soon caught the acting bug. With his boyish good looks and his natural aptitude for screen acting, success came quickly. (For the curious, Novarro was born in Mexico and Cortez, whose Latin name and heritage were a studio creation, was born in New York City.)
Moreno, along with Beatriz Michelena and Myrtle Gonzalez, was a member of the small but popular group of Hispanic performers who were working in the American film industry in the early to mid-1910s. (All but forgotten today, Venezuelan-American Michelena and Mexican-American Gonzalez both specialized in outdoorsy action movies. Neither enjoyed the same career longevity as Moreno. Michelena left the screen to focus on her singing career, Gonzalez died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918.)
For this picture, Moreno was once again paired with Norma Talmadge, who was one of Vitagraph’s top stars and well on her way to becoming one of the most sought-after leading ladies of the silent era. It’s a rather silly little melodrama but charming in its own particular way.
John Rance (Moreno) is a sincere young doctor who has overworked himself and needs a rest, so he heads out to a resort. There he catches the eye of a socialite with the remarkable name of Lesbia Vane (Talmadge). She decides that he is the perfect summer fling and immediately pursues the naïve young doctor. After the season is over, she refuses to make an honest man of him and declines his offer of marriage. She was just having fun.
Brokenhearted, Rance throws himself into his work and starts a clinic for sailors at the local shipping docks. There he meets his old pal Winfield Cummings (Harry Kendall), a wealthy yacht enthusiast who plans to sail around the world. The two men promise to meet up once Cummings returns from his trip.
Cummings stops in Paris and meets a certain Miss Vane, who very quickly becomes the new Mrs. Cummings. This leads to a rather awkward meeting when Rance stops by to greet his friend and meet his new wife. By this time, Lesbia has grown bored with her husband and decides it’s time to rekindle things with Rance. He is still in love with her but cannot betray his best friend and tells her so.
Uh oh. Cummings overheard! (Spoilers for the rest of the paragraph.) And so he does what anyone would do upon overhearing a single conversation: he shoots himself, leaving a note telling Rance to marry his wife and be happy. Um… That was… sudden… Seriously, has this man never heard of divorce court? And so Lesbia is all excited to marry Rance but he shows her to note and leaves her, never to return. So this whole thing was pointless, really.
John Rance, Gentleman was made when feature films were starting to take over the industry. It’s pretty much a little film that wanted to be much bigger. It’s only twenty minutes long but covers vamps, unrequited love, suicide and self-sacrifice. Those are simply too many big topics to take on and the movie collapses from a plot overdose.
Antonio Moreno does what he can but it’s kind of hard to keep your head above water with such rampant silliness. Still, he is handsome and charming, even if the plot is idiotic. The real surprise of this short is Norma Talmadge. Regular readers of this site know that I have been on a quest to discover why she was so popular and why that popularity turned into utter obscurity in modern times. Well, John Rance, Gentleman gives a glimpse of what made her a star in the first place. Her character is a classic vamp but Talmadge brings a light touch. Why are you mad at her? She’s just having a bit of fun! Poor Moreno never knew what hit him. (And, no, I don’t think her character’s name indicates any kind of subtext in the film. Frankly, this movie is not smart enough for subtext. It barely manages single entendre.)
This film is a bit of fun movie archaeology as most silent film fans are more familiar with Antonio Moreno’s 1920s pictures but his career was really taking flight in 1914-1915, when John Rance, Gentleman was released. He started making films in 1912 and had a stint at Biograph; you can spot him in the background of The Unseen Enemy and The Musketeers of Pig Alley. However, it was at Vitagraph that he began to catch fire.
Moreno’s handsome looks and versatility made him an appealing leading man and he played heroes of every stripe in the mid-teens. He was teamed with Norma Talmadge ten times in 1914 and then switched over to Edith Storey as his regular leading lady the following year. He made the jump to features but was stuck in a serial rut when the Latin Lover craze came to his rescue.
Moreno had played Latin roles on occasion but his characters had been much more likely to sport names like John Vanderlyn, Willie Buckland, George Curtis and, most amusingly, Daniel Craig. He kept that versatility in the 1920s but there were a lot more names like Count Ferenzi, Don Cesar and Carlo Bruni in the mix. He also followed in the footsteps of Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro as the leading man of a Rex Ingram picture, the spy romance Mare Nostrum.
However, it would clearly be a mistake to consider Moreno’s career to be just that of a Latin Lover. The craze helped him escape serials, certainly, but he was much more adaptable than that. In fact, he was pretty much the Swiss army knife leading man of Hollywood. Look at the variety of actresses he played opposite: Pola Negri, Marion Davies, Dorothy Gish, Constance Talmadge, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, Alice Terry, Estelle Taylor…
With the coming of sound, Moreno divided his time between English and Spanish language cinema. Like many aging leading men, he eventually transitioned to character and supporting roles, playing in such diverse films as The Searchers and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Moreno was only in his late twenties when John Rance, Gentleman was filmed and it’s fun to see him looking so young and eager. (Most of his major silent feature roles came when he was hovering around forty.) The story is ridiculous but the lurid melodrama was just what audiences wanted and Moreno is a good sport. This film is overwrought as heck but worth seeing for Talmadge and Moreno.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
John Rance, Gentleman was released on DVD as part of Grapevine’s disc of Norma Talmadge’s VItagraph shorts. As you can see from the screencaps, the print quality is pretty poor (Grapevine warned that this was the case) but it is the only version currently available.