Monday, April 13, 2015

The Young Rajah (Paramount, 1922)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that TCM showed a pair of films featuring Rudolph Valentino and we watched the first of them, The Young Rajah, a 1922 Paramount production and Valentino’s last film before he was off the screen for a year in a contract dispute with Paramount. The version of The Young Rajah that exists was produced in 2006 by a company called Flicker Alley in association with TCM, and is billed as “not a restoration, but a digital compilation.” After the film had long been thought completely lost, a researcher discovered about 30 minutes of it on 16 mm in a private collection and Flicker Alley’s compilers put together a 54-minute reconstruction with the existing footage, production stills and titles (based on Paramount’s original cutting continuity) to fill in gaps. As someone who suffered through the 47-minute attempt to reconstruct London After Midnight exclusively from production stills (through much of it I would have had no idea of what was going on if I hadn’t seen the film’s remake, Mark of the Vampire), The Young Rajah was pleasantly surprising; the print they had to work with was almost certainly a cut-down version Paramount had sold for home viewing, and while little of the opening two-thirds of the film was left, the last third was pretty much all there (even though I suspect the original ending was considerably longer than the one we have) and was quite engaging. Valentino plays Amos Judd, whose foster father is Joshua Judd (Charles Ogle, over a decade after he starred in Edison one-reelers as the screen’s first Frankenstein Monster and Ebenezer Scrooge) but whose real father is an Indian prince who was overthrown by a wicked usurpe

Fortunately Joshua’s brother was in India at the time and was able to rescue Amos (the scene in which he’s spirited out of the court — in which he’s played by Pat Moore, a child actor who doesn’t look like he’s going to grow up to be Rudolph Valentino — is unconvincing and makes him look like a giant rag doll) and ship him to Joshua, who dies as the film begins, leaving Amos a fortune in rubies sent by Joshua’s brother from his actual family’s rightful treasure in India. All Amos knows about his authentic heritage (an Indian father and an Italian mother — ironically, the real Valentino had an Italian father and a French mother, and according to biographer Emily Leider his mom taught him to speak French and the two of them drove his dad crazy by having long conversations in French his dad couldn’t understand) is that he has a mysterious ability to foresee the future, though not to alter it in any way. This comes in handy when, right after Joshua’s death, Amos goes to Harvard and makes the rowing team, beating out legacy student Austin Slade (Jack Giddings). Austin accuses Amos of having bribed his way onto the team after Amos leads it to victory in the annual boat race between Harvard and Yale, and at the celebratory party afterwards Austin attempts to assault Amos and throw him out of a window, only Amos gets a premonition this is going to happen and moves out of the way — so Austin takes the header out the window and dies instead. Amos also has an affair with Molly Cabot (Wanda Hawley, not an especially talented or charismatic actress — but except for Gloria Swanson, who starred with Valentino in another long-thought-lost but eventually rediscovered film, Beyond the Rocks, none of the women in Valentino’s movies were all that interesting) despite the consternation of her previous boyfriend, Horace Bennett (Robert Ober). At a costume party Bennett dresses as a Crusader and Valentino shows up in full Indian-rajah drag — once again, his psychic powers told him to dress that way — producing the famous still of Valentino presiding over an Indian court that for years was all virtually anyone could see from this film.

Amos learns of his true heritage and Molly is at first reluctant to keep dating him, but she looks at a verse in a book that tells her to follow her heart regardless of her beloved’s skin color (an anti-racist plot point decades before anti-racism was cool!), only in the end it’s he who leaves her to go save his family’s kingdom from the evil usurper — which he does in a series of scenes that makes it look surprisingly easy. I suspect the original version of the film contained a longer, more coherent and more action-filled ending; earlier in the movie there’s a scene in which Valentino’s character has a vision of himself being attacked with a dagger, but the scene cuts before we discover whether the attack was successful and it doesn’t correspond to anything that happens once Valentino actually returns to India, takes over the throne with seemingly no bloodshed at all (like the Sunnis in the recent Iraqi Army, who quit en masse and switched sides to join ISIS, the army in this movie automatically hails Valentino’s character as their rightful ruler and deserts the usurper). Based on two story sources — a novel by John Ames Mitchell and a stage play by Alethea Luce — The Young Rajah was directed by Phil Rosen (so, like his Monogram contemporaries William Beaudine and William Nigh, Rosen had once got to make movies with the “A”-list before exiled by his Depression debts to the “B” salt mines) and written by June Mathis (her hand is quite obvious in some of the more florid romantic titles). It’s a frustrating movie because there isn’t more of it, although the version we have is quite coherent in the last half-hour and surprisingly good even though through most of it we see Valentino in an American setting and in ordinary clothes, and it really took a period and/or exotic costume to showcase him at his best (like a later screen lover, Errol Flynn). It’s an obvious rehash of The Sheik, though with enough variations it can’t be considered a complete ripoff, and it anticipates those odd movies like Song of Freedom and the 1937 King Solomon’s Mines Paul Robeson did in Britain in which he was cast as a seemingly assimilated African-Britisher who turns out to be the rightful king of a tribe he’s obliged to rescue from an evil usurper (and, along the way, improve their lives by teaching them Western ways). While we can still hope for the discovery of a more complete version, The Young Rajah as “digitally compiled” by Flicker Alley (with a long list of credits that makes it look like it took more people to create this incarnation than it did to make the film originally) is a fascinating addition to Rudolph Valentino’s slender filmography even though it doesn’t really stretch him the way The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Conquering Power or the forgotten and monumentally underrated Moran of the “Lady Letty” do.