Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro (book review)

Beyond Paradise, Andre Soares’ biography of silent and early talkie film star Ramon Novarro paints a vivid picture of a man who was charming, frustrating, generous and self-destructive.   Novarro will forever be remembered as the star of the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur – which to this writer is far more entertaining than than the lavish but sterile 1950s remake – as well fine roles in Old Heidelberg and Mata Hari.  However, his fame as a great film star is all too often overshadowed by his violent murder at the hands of two hustlers.  Kenneth Anger’s sensationalist and frankly rather vicious book Hollywood Babylon started the rumour that one of the murder weapons was a antique sex toy, but Soares manages to put this rumour to rest for good – although no doubt it will linger for as long as Anger’s book remains in print. 

Thankfully, a good two-thirds of this biography is concerned with the young Novarro, his rise to fame and his sudden fall from it.  During this early period Novarro comes across as remarkably charming, energetic and naive, and by the time the actor is dropped by MGM in the mid-thirties, the reader feels as if Novarro is their own personal friend.  In fact, it is this more personal side of the autobiography which makes it so readable.  So many biographies are really quite clinical affairs – a detailed list of dates and events – but Soares’s effort is really quite different from this.  Yes, the dates, facts and figures are there, but so is Novarro the person.  While Soares is frank about the actor’s flaws, such as his heavy-drinking and his seeming inability to fight for decent roles at MGM, he is also non-judgemental and certainly there is no dwelling on the heavy drinking or, in the later years, the actor’s penchant for hustlers. 

The final third of the book is not quite so addictive reading.  Novarro was largely inactive as an actor by this point, and sometimes one gets the feeling that Soares is having difficulty making the actor’s last thirty years as interesting as he would like them to be.  There is not so much detail of either the work Novarro was doing during this period, or the filming process (something which has vivid detail during the MGM years).  Novarro’s tragic end is covered matter-of-factlyand without sensationalism, but the effect of Novarro’s death is not felt by the reader as much one might imagine it would be when reading the first half of the book.  By this stage Novarro has gone from being an intimate friend to a casual aquaintance and, in many ways, an enigma.  The charming, naive young man has largely left the building to be replaced by a solitary man approaching old age who is struggling more and more with a drinking problem.   This isn’t Soares’s fault, of course, it is simply that Novarro’s life was far less eventful by this point.

Much of Novarro’s MGM output is now available to us on DVD, mostly through the Warner Archive series, but the most frustrating element of the book is reading about films we know we shall never see due to their status as a lost film.  As is so often the case, it is the missing films that seem the most interesting.  One can only hope that some of them re-appear in the future. 

Novarro was a charismatic, always charming figure on film and a fine actor, even if sadly largely forgotten today outside of the film buffs.  This book manages to bring to life this unfairly neglected star and is an absorbing read that is thoroughly recommended.

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2 comments on “Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro (book review)

  1. Shane, I enjoyed your review of this book…I guess mainly because I came to the same conclusions. Soares focuses the book on the more interesting part of Novarro’s life, but does justice to his more inactive period. It was largely because of this book that I included Novarro in my novels set in Hollywood during the golden age. Nice post!

  2. Am I correct in thinking that it was Ramon Navarro that sang in the final Technicolor sequence of The Cat & the Fiddle (1933)? Cheers, Stephen

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