‘Beyond Paradise’ Profiles Silent Film Star Novarro

Review by Joe Rosenberg

BEYOND PARADISE: The Life of Rámon Novarro
by André Soeares (St. Martin’s Press, 2002)

Motion picture history is filled with stories similar to the life of the Mexican boy Ramon Samaniego, romantic idol of the silent era and early talkies. Attracted to the arts, Ramon became a dancer and then protégé of early giant Rex Ingram, who featured him in some silent classics and changed his surname to Novarro.

As one of MGM’s early stars, Novarro was a rival to Rudolph Valentino and starred as Judah Ben Hur in the silent version of Ben Hur. Then he faced a series of bad career decisions and betrayals which led to chronic alcoholism and a less-than-smooth transition to talking roles.

Novarro rebounded. He studied voice, which led to a series of concerts and stage appearances throughout the rest of his life, including many appearances in summer stock and—during the ’50s and ’60s, TV roles. Throughout his life, three things remained constant: his strict devotion to the Catholic Church, his binge drinking (which led to numerous accidents and incidents), and his craving for young men who mirrored his earlier self-image.

The author, a native Brazilian, taps into Novarro’s religious and Hispanic roots and reveals a never-ending cycle of remorse and sin. A man of old-world generosity and charm, Novarro was continually undone by his hidden homosexuality, which even in a tolerant Hollywood was deemed detrimental to a male idol’s career.

Novarro was finally “outed” when he was murdered on October 31, 1968 by two brothers he had obtained from an escort service for his evening pleasure. California justice being what it is, neither brother served a full term for this crime. The defense tried to impugn Novarro’s character and negate his lifetime of good deeds and the pleasure he gave to audiences. As it was, the press had a field day exposing the star’s dalliances that had so long been hidden from his adoring public. One can only imagine the field day today’s media would have had with the facts of this sensational case.

As Soares tells it, Novarro had a full and productive life and died a wealthy man, having housed, fed and nurtured his extended family. He co starred with Greta Garbo, Jeanette MacDonald, Norma Shearer and Myrna Loy, tried the London stage, did a stint as a director and acted as a mentor to his fellow Mexican actors. He was, despite his alcoholism, a consummate performer. Soares makes it clear that, had Novarro lived in a more tolerant era, he could have pursued his lifestyle in a more open manner, he could have lived a fuller, less reproachful life.

Just as his best role of Judah Ben Hur was a cry for tolerance, so was the life of Ramon Samaneigo Novarro.

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This story was published on June 4, 2003.