Saturday, May 1, 2010

Blood and Sand (Paramount, 1922)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched the last of the three Valentino movies they showed on TCM: the 1922 version of Blood and Sand, directed by Fred Niblo and co-starring Lila Lee as the good girl and Nita Naldi as the bad girl who seduces Valentino away from home, hearth and his promising career as a bullfighter into drink, dissipation and an ultimate goring in the ring. (This is the movie Lila Lee’s son, A Chorus Line co-author James Kirkwood, was talking about when he recalled in our interview how his mother told him that Valentino always ate highly spiced Italian food for lunch, and went particularly heavy on the garlic — with the result that his female co-stars always preferred to shoot the big love scenes in the morning rather than have to deal with Valentino’s garlic breath after lunch.)

I came to this movie familiar with the stunning 1941 remake, which starred Tyrone Power as the matador, Linda Darnell as the good girl and Rita Hayworth as the bad girl, and was directed by Rouben Mamoulian in an orgy of non-realistic color painting — and this version just didn’t seem as good. Part of the problem was that Niblo simply wasn’t anywhere near as imaginative a director as Mamoulian (interestingly, Valentino wanted George Fitzmaurice as his director and was upset that the studio palmed off Niblo on him instead), and for a film made as late in the silent era as 1922 the film is surprisingly short on close-ups. (It also doesn’t help that the cinematography is one of the worst photography jobs on Valentino in his entire career — his bulbous nose is particularly prominent throughout much of the film.) Another part of the problem is that June Mathis’ script — at least in the 61-minute version we have (it’s entirely possible that, like a lot of silent films, the first-run version was longer and it’s only the shortened subsequent-run version that has survived — in the days before sound it was incredibly easy to prepare different versions of a film at different lengths) — isn’t particularly insightful in terms of character development (as old-fashioned as the story seemed by 1941, Jo Swerling actually did make the characters more legitimately complex and better motivated in his script for the Mamoulian version). Still, Blood and Sand holds up pretty well — with legitimate action scenes (though to a modern viewer the transitions between the long-shot bullfight material filmed in Tijuana by a second unit and the inserts of Valentino supposedly twirling a cape or aiming a sword at a bull are pretty obvious) and a good story, well told within the limitations of silent film technique. — 5/6/98


I showed a potted version of the 1922 film Blood and Sand I’d downloaded from This was a 26-minute edit of the film (the common version runs 78 minutes and there’s a Kino on Video print that supposedly runs 108 minutes — which would be worth having; when I saw a 61-minute version on TCM long ago I thought the film didn’t hang together well as drama and decided this was one silent classic actually improved upon when it was remade with sound in 1941, with Rouben Mamoulian turning in a visually stunning job of direction, using a frankly artificial color scheme based on the work of Spanish painters, and Tyrone Power to the Valentino manner born in the lead) made in 1959 for the Paul Killiam TV show Silents Please, which introduced me to the joys of silent film in general and in particular to several of the major silent classics, including The Hunchback of Notre-Dame with Lon Chaney and Murnau’s stunning Nosferatu.

Killiam and his crew were faced with the task of editing feature-length movies to fit a half-hour (less commercials) TV time slot, but they did an effective job in at least giving you a taste of these movies — though at this late date what seeing a Silents Please episode did for me was whet my taste for a complete version of the film as well as sending my nostalgia circuits into overdrive. Blood and Sand was based on a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, whose The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had provided Valentino with his star-making role, and though Valentino didn’t get the director of his choice (he wanted George Fitzmaurice and had to settle for Fred Niblo) it was a personal project and a film he desperately wanted to do. It gave him a character with more definition than usual; he played Juan Gallardo, poor kid from the sticks of Spain who sees his ticket to wealth and fame in the bull ring. I wanted to see this one because Charles and I had just screened Stan Laurel’s devastating (and quite good) parody of it, Mud and Sand, and as near as one could tell from this heavily edited digest version it’s a good movie, with a well-honed performance by Valentino (though that look he gave when confronted by the vamp — less either moral revulsion or sexual attraction and more a bit of queasiness that looks like he’s about to throw up any moment and one should pass him a Dramamine immediately — is annoying, and a mannerism he repeated in other films) even though the plot isn’t much and Niblo’s direction (in black-and-white) utterly lacks the magnificent atmospherics of Mamoulian’s in the remake. (No wonder Valentino would have preferred Fitzmaurice, who was known as a visually atmospheric director whereas Niblo was an action specialist and a relief director called in when big projects, like the 1926 silent Ben-Hur, were in trouble.)

As the vamp Doña Sol (a role played to perfection by Rita Hayworth in the remake), Nita Naldi seems too matronly to be sexy by today’s standards — frankly, Lila Lee as the nice girl from back home, Carmen, seems more attractive in 2010 — but Naldi had already staked out her claim to roles like this in the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore and her casting was virtually inevitable. For all Niblo’s action credentials, Blood and Sand suffers from surprisingly little bullfighting footage — just a couple of stock clips and a final scene staged in a Tijuana bullring but hampered by the fact that neither Valentino nor his stunt double were all that close to the bull. Still, it’s a film with some surprisingly effective moments — the scenes in which Valentino breaks the stoic, mask-like appearance of that face and actually laughs are treasurable and serve to humanize him, and the final sequence in which Carmen is praying in the bullring’s chapel while Juan Gallardo is having his final, fatal corrida is intensely moving and leads one to want to watch this film “complete.”

Paul Killiam’s narration (I hadn’t realized that in addition to producing the film, he not only wrote but also spoke the narration) not surprisingly made much of the macabre coincidence that, like the character he was playing here, Valentino himself died young, but the narration is competent, workmanlike, fills the gaps in the story and is refreshingly free of either the sentimentality or the cornball humor that has marred other attempts to jazz up silent films for an audience bred to accept and take it for granted that movies have sound. Certainly, when I watched it as a child, Silents Please educated me on the silent-film heritage and prepared me to be able to enjoy silent movies au naturel, and for that I’m grateful just as I thank my mother for listening to classical and jazz music while I was a kid and therefore getting me accustomed to these sorts of music and preparing me to like them all my life. — 5/1/10