by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I’d downloaded two Rudolph Valentino items from archive.org: a complete version of the 1921 film The Sheik and There’s a New Star in Heaven Tonight, a charming modern-day tribute to Valentino done in music-video style accompanying an old recording of the song of that name, written by J. Keirn Brennan, Jimmy McHugh and Irving Mills just after Valentino’s death. The Sheik is a film I’d seen before and it was a key film in establishing the Valentino mythos — the exotic romantic heart-throb who would ravish a woman and thrill her the way no mere mortal man can — and in some ways it’s a good movie while in others it treads on the thin edge of silliness and occasionally goes over. It was based on a scandalous book by an author originally identified only as “E. M. Hull” — and the revelation that “E. M. Hull” was in fact a woman (the initials stood for “Edith Maude”) itself added to the shock value that a seemingly respectable English lady could write so graphically (for the mass market of the time) about sex.
Paramount snapped up the movie rights but without a clear idea of what they were going to do with it, because until Valentino signed with them after walking out on Metro (where he’d made his star-making movies, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Conquering Power, for the best director he ever worked with, Rex Ingram) they hadn’t had an actor on hand even remotely suitable for the male lead. The story deals with a free-spirited Englishwoman, Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres, who in the initial release prints was actually billed ahead of Valentino — though the extant prints are from a 1923 reissue in which Valentino was billed first), who lives in the colonial section of the town of Biskra in an unnamed Arab state. Biskra is nominally governed by colonial authorities but is really controlled by the local sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino), who’s established in the opening scene as a firm but just ruler: presiding over a marriage market (where what a wince-inducing title in Monte Katterjohn’s script calls the “rich sons of Allah” can buy a wife) he learns that one of the women put up for sale is genuinely in love with someone other than the man who’s put in the winning bid, and he frees her from her obligation and allows her to stay with her boyfriend.
Against the wishes of her father, Sir Aubrey Mayo (Frank Butler), Lady Diana plans to go into the desert the next day as the only white person in a caravan of Arabs, and that night she dresses in Arab drag to get into the Arabs-only Casino, where the sheik is having a little R&R. Naturally he’s immediately smitten by the white girl in Arab guise, and that night he follows her home, creeps into her bedroom (hanging out at her bedside in an odd anticipation of Bela Lugosi’s nocturnal rambles in Helen Chandler’s bedroom in Dracula nine years later) and ultimately kidnaps her and takes her to his tent. “Why have you brought me here?” she asks — and he replies, in a title card that became one of the most famous lines of the silent era, “Are you not woman enough to know?” The rest of the film shows Diana reluctantly but ultimately completely surrendering to Sheik Ahmed’s charms, especially after the good-bad Arab rescues her after she’s kidnapped by a bad-bad Arab, Omair [sic] the bandit (Walter Long), who has even more lascivious and less romantic designs on her.
Meanwhile, the Sheik’s encampment is visited by his old friend from France, Raoul de Saint Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), who befriended Sheik Ahmed while the sheik-to-be was getting an education in Paris. Both Ahmed and Raoul are worried about the effect seeing another European-descended person is going to have on Lady Diana’s fragile mental state, but she handles it just fine — especially after Raoul reveals to her that Ahmed isn’t actually an Arab. It seems he’s the son of a British father and a Spanish mother; his parents were doing their own tour of the desert when their Arab guides abandoned them and the old sheik found the baby, raised him as his own, adopted him and made him his heir. (So a half-British, half-Spaniard posing as an Arab is being played by an actor who in real life was half-Italian and half-French.) This preposterous plot twist got lampooned at the time — in the April 1922 issue of Photoplay Dick Dorgan wrote, “Back in the Sheik’s canvas bungalow, Diana sat up all night long with St. Hubert, beside the Sheik’s bed. The Saint tells her that the Sheik is a bum Arab, that he is really an Englishman whose mother was a wop or something like that, to help him make the story end well” — and still comes off as a pretty silly sop to the racial prejudices of the time. Even in a story as daring (for the period) as this one they couldn’t have the virginal white heroine fall for a real Arab — and they also soft-pedaled the polygamous aspect of Arab culture — but as it stood The Sheik was quite hot enough to enthrall young women viewers and feed their fantasies. It became a cultural icon of the time and inspired several songs, notably Ted Snyder’s “The Sheik of Araby” (a song Valentino loathed; he probably got tired of hearing bandleaders play it every time he walked into a restaurant or nightclub), which became the most popular song ever published by Irving Berlin’s company which Berlin himself didn’t write.
Seen today, The Sheik is a solid piece of entertainment and one can readily understand why it was such a blockbuster when new, but it doesn’t hold up very well. The script by Monte Katterjohn (who got assigned to the project after June Mathis, who wrote most of Valentino’s best films, decided the story was too stupid for her to want to bother with) is a barely connected series of incidents; the direction by George Melford (who nine years later would surface at Universal as the director of the alternate Spanish-language version of Dracula) is opulent and pictorial but not as exciting as this story deserved to be; and the plot a weird, almost dreamlike combination of intense (but, to a modern-day viewer, oddly chaste) romantic scenes, limp attempts at action and the sorts of racist attitudes towards Arabs and their culture the late Edward Said denounced as “Orientalist.”
Valentino looks oddly androgynous through much of the film — he was really the pioneer of gender-ambiguous male sex symbols (something that I noticed quite forcefully when I saw a documentary about him on TV in the early 1970’s and realized how much Mick Jagger and David Bowie owed to Valentino’s example, whether they knew it or not) — and one imdb.com commentator noted that through much of the film Agnes Ayres’ character is presented as more butch than her would-be ravisher. In the early parts he relies too much on an all-purpose leer to convey his lust for the heroine, but as the film progresses he drops even that and turns almost expressionless — which is actually good; the less Valentino tried to “act,” the more he let that extraordinary face (even with its too-large nose, which helped him in this part because it brought him closer to the common stereotype of what an Arab looked like, but got in the way, literally and figuratively, in some of his other parts) deliver his performance for him and just stood back from the action and looked aloof, the more effective he was. The Sheik, despite the silliness of its story, could have been a much better movie with a more sensitive director — like Rex Ingram; it’s clear from comparing this film to The Four Horsemen that Ingram was a far better filmmaker than Melford and had a much greater talent for getting the most out of Valentino (though the next film Valentino and Melford worked on together, Moran of the Lady Letty, is a surprisingly effective modern-dress action film even though Valentino’s role, an upper-class twit who becomes a man when he’s shanghaied and forced to survive by his wits on board a ship taken over by bad guys, is yet another stereotype) as well as a much stronger flair for staging action; after the power of the final scenes in combat in World War I in Four Horsemen, the last-minute rescue that’s supposed to be the action highlight of The Sheik looks limp by comparison.
It’s true we weren’t seeing it under the best conceivable circumstances; the picture quality of archive.org’s download was perfectly acceptable but the music track, mostly drawn from Brahms’ First Symphony, cut out about 53 minutes in, didn’t return until 1 hour and 12 minutes in and then cut out again for good eight minutes or so before the end. Silent films were never shown in silence — there was always some music to accompany them: a full orchestra in the biggest, most prestigious theatres; a theatre organ in the next rung down; a string trio and, in the cheapest houses, a piano — and the major productions of the silent era had complete scores written for them to be played live (and published in various reductions so a theatre could play the specially composed score no matter how much they budgeted for musicians). Even films that didn’t have entire scores composed for them often had music cues in the titles — we’ve seen them in the Stroheim The Merry Widow (which flashed the sheet music for the score’s famous waltz on screen to cue the organist or pianist to play the “Merry Widow Waltz” as the characters danced to it on screen), in some of John Ford’s silents (his penchant for inserting old cornball songs into his movies antedated the sound era!) and even in Buster Keaton’s The Navigator (in which the song “Asleep in the Deep” becomes a key element of one of the film’s funniest gag sequences) — and The Sheik has one for the “Kashmiri Song,” which Valentino as the sheik supposedly sings to Agnes Ayres from the balcony of her bedroom just before he breaks in. (He actually made a record of the “Kashmiri Song” — and of “El Relicario,” a Spanish tango he similarly “sang” silently in Blood and Sand — and it’s long been a dream of mine that someone would dub Valentino’s recordings into the appropriate spots in these films to give us the closest approximation we’re ever going to get of Valentino in a talkie.)
The Sheik is a peculiar movie because a lot of it still works as intended, but it’s also one of those movies that’s dated pretty badly simply because sexual mores and attitudes towards other cultures have changed so radically since it was made that what was one shocking today seems pretty tame. It also doesn’t help that its formulae were recycled more effectively by other filmmakers — notably Josef von Sternberg in the 1930 film Morocco, which featured Adolphe Menjou in a role pretty similar to the one he plays here — in that one the woman at the center of the action is a worn-out, world-weary cabaret singer (Marlene Dietrich) and the man who excites her passions is a phlegmatic French Foreign Legion enlistee (Gary Cooper), and Morocco is more openly racist than The Sheik (Cooper’s character calls the Arabs he’s fighting “walking bedsheets”), but it’s also a much deeper and richer film that shows the difference between a professionally competent director like Melford and a truly inspired one like Sternberg.