Ramon Novarro: Mata Hari

Garbo and Novarro first photoThis was the first still photo taken of the Mata Hari co-stars Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro. It appeared in the February, 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine.

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Mata Hari, shown on TCM Thursday, August 9, 11:30 p.m. CST
Posted by Mary McCord, Editor, classicfilmwatch.com

Ramon Navarro and Greta Garbo, who had never worked together before, posed anxiously for their first Mata Hari still picture in full costume—he in his officer’s uniform and she in her elaborate, exotic dancer ensemble. They were both a little apprehensive about working together, according to a Photoplay article published after the film's release.

Both had worked in silent films and each had made the transition to talkies. Novarro had around 10 years acting experience, twice as much as Garbo, but she rivaled him in popularity. They were each afraid that they would be upstaged by the other one. Novarro was probably the most concerned, since Garbo held the title role in the film that was a partially fictional account of the real-life Mata Hari who was executed in 1917 for being a German spy during World War I.

When the photographer clicked the camera shutter and the final still shot was made, Garbo looked up at Novarro and laughed. They became friends at once and remained so throughout the filming of Mata Hari. Of course, it probably helped that Novarro had left a huge bouquet of pink roses on Garbo’s dressing room table on the morning filming began, along with a note that read:

“I hope the world will be as thrilled to see Mata Hari as I am to work with her.—Ramon Novarro”*

Ramon Novarro must have been just as charming off screen as on. During the filming, it was rumored that there was a love interest between Novarro and Garbo which was not true. But, from the beginning, Novarro was enthusiastic about working with Garbo and they seemed happy to be co-stars.

The scene in Mata Hari's exotic apartment was first on the production schedule. It was there that Garbo and Novarro met for the first time before the camera. "I felt very strange and I imagine Miss Garbo also felt some restraint at the time," Novarro related to the Photoplay writer. "She was so very charming, however, that I felt instantly comfortable. There was a total absence of the tension I feared.”

The common thread between the two artists was that each one considered their career all-important. He said that Garbo expended an amazing amount of energy in her work. “She is not satisfied with only pleasing the director. Often, after a scene is okayed, she will plead for a chance to make it again, believing her performance inadequate,” he said.

Novarro said Garbo embraced the character of Mata Hari in such a way that she became that character and, in turn, inspired him to live his role of Lt. Alexis Rosanoff, a Russian aviator, and not merely act it, he told Photoplay.

Novarro also shared that he and Garbo worked differently. “When we began to work together, I discovered Miss Garbo did not care to rehearse. It was her habit to walk into her scenes and go right through with them . . . but it is difficult for me to work that way.”

Novarro’s more cautious work philosophy was evident earlier in his career in the spring of 1924 when Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer merged. Ben Hur was in production, but it was moving slowly and monies were dwindling fast. Louis B. Mayer decided not to scrap the movie and salvaged it. The new MGM needed a blockbuster. He called Novarro into his office and asked him to test for Ben Hur. Novarro replied, “If you want me to make a test, it will be in a hurry and I won’t have a chance.” Mayer conceded and offered him the lead.**

Ben Hur is the movie that Ramon Novarro is best known for making. It was a huge success, financially profitable and made him a superstar, earning $3,000 a week. None of his later films lived up to Ben Hur, including the extremely popular and financially successful Mata Hari.

His career had begun, after a series of minor roles, when he was recruited by Metro in 1921 to play the villain in The Prisoner of Zenda. Rudolph Valentino had recently left Metro and studio heads wanted to find a "Latin Lover" type to replace him. Handsome and dark-haired, Novarro played mostly romantic leads in roles that built up his reputation as a sex symbol in the 1920s and early 1930s. He was extremely popular in 1931 when making Mata Hari.

This writer thinks that Novarro may have had another fear during the filming of Mata Hari and all of his other films, as well. He may have been fearful the media and his fans would find out that he had a sexual preference for men. Studio head Louis B. Mayer knew this, but felt he could trust Novarro to be discreet and avoid a scandal.

He continued to make films with MGM until 1935 when the studio released him from his contract. Novarro’s personal problems and career disappointments had lead to alcohol abuse. He was aging prematurely as a result of his heavy drinking and it showed on the screen.***

Over the next 25 years, he appeared in several other movies, including his last movie, Heller in Pink Tights with Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn for Paramount in 1960. He also tried his hand at writing and directing. During the 1960s, he appeared in episodes of several popular TV westerns.

Novarro’s life ended tragically on October 30, 1968 at the murderous hands of two young men he had invited into his home. They thought he had money stashed away. They tortured and beat him mercilessly until there was no life in him. He had spent his whole life hiding his homosexuality. He kept such a low profile that even some of his close friends were not aware of it. But the media and ensuing court trial of the perpetrators threw a glaring spotlight on the subject.

Throughout his life, Novarro had been described at different times as being a gentleman—humble, sincere, dedicated and honest. He was also a very religious man. His life was challenged with disappointments in both his career and personal life. An assistant in the 1930s, a former lover, embezzled a large sum of money from him and his brother died of cancer.

This writer thinks Novarro's tragic death was preceded by an often distressing life—one where he couldn’t be true to himself. Because of the times in which he lived and society's attitudes, he was compelled to live a double life, fearful of what his family, friends, business associates and fans might think, if they discovered his secret.

And Novarro still had fans. At the time of his death at age 69, more than 30 years after MGM released him from his contract, and around 20 years before the Internet was invented, there was an organized and functioning Ramon Novarro fan club. On the day of his funeral, more than a thousand people filed by his coffin.

The first Latin American Hollywood star summed his life up best:

“The stars of my day enjoyed a certain privacy. We lived two lives: our film life, and our own private one . . . some of us realized it was necessary in order to sustain the public illusion that made us stars.”—Ramon Novarro**

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*Ralph Wheelright, "When Nordic Met Latin", Photoplay, February, 1932, pages 45, 101, copyright expired.
**Wayne, Jane Ellen, The Leading Men of MGM, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2004.
***Soares, Andre, Beyond Paradise, The Life of Ramon Novarro, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2002.

Note: All photos are screenshots from the trailer for Mata Garu that was not copyrighted,unless otherwise credite.


Novarro and Garbo in bedroom
In Mata Hari's apartment, she tells the handsome Russian officer, Lt. Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro), that their relationship is not to be. But, later, she discovers he has important documents to deliver. She then goes to where he is staying in Paris to seduce and make love to him while another operative steals the documents.

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What Novarro and Garbo feared during the making of the espionage drama Mata Hari

IGarbo and Novarro closeupThis close-up was taken in the set of Mata Hari. It appeared in the February, 1932 issue of Photoplay.

Mata Hari and two menIn this scene, Chief of the French Secret Police Dubois
(C. Henry Gordon, middle) has just told Russian General Serge Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) that he thinks Mata Hari is a spy. General Shubin is infatuated with Mata Hari.

Mata struggles with man
Mata Hari struggles with General Shubin as he tries, in a jealous rage, to call the Russian Embassy in Paris to turn in Lt. Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro) as a traitor. She has started to have feelings for Rosanoff.

Mata Hari poster
Novarro was so anxious to work with Garbo
that he readily accepted second billing.
It was a good move because this film re-instated
him at the top of MGM's male star roster.

Mata Hari adThis ad appeared in the February, 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine.

Mata Hari was a pre-code film. However, censors in some states ordered cuts, including the elimination of a scene that suggested a sexual relationship between the two unmarried leads. André Soares wrote in his book, Beyond Paradise, The Life of Ramon Novarro, that a representative of the Atlanta Better Film Committee stated, "I wish this picture could be destroyed. It is not fit to be shown anywhere."

When the film was re-issued in 1939 after the produc-
tion code went into effect, the ending of the suggestive scene was moved up with a fadeout.

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