In the mid-1920s and the dying days of the silent movie, Rudolph Valentino was in need of a hit. Laden with debt, he had recently walked away from his contract with Famous Players-Lasky following a squabble over money, and his last two movies – which saw him attempt to break away from his screen persona of ‘The Great Lover’ – had failed to make much impact at the box office. Signing with United Artists, he agreed to make a belated sequel to his career-defining 1921 hit, The Sheik. Released in July 1926, The Son of the Sheik saw Valentino not only return to the role of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, the British born Arab leader of the earlier film, but also portray the leading role of Ahmed, the impetuous young son of the title. His performance has been hailed as one of the finest of his career, but this return to form would also mark the Latin Lover’s swansong; just a little over four weeks later, on August 23rd, Valentino succumbed to peritonitis and died. He was just thirty-one-years of age. His funeral saw some 100,000 fans line the streets of Manhattan to pay their respects, but mass hysteria soon caused rioting in the streets. Meanwhile, three female admirers were reported to have committed suicide – the thought of life without their screen idol unbearable.
It’s difficult to understand how Valentino’s premature demise brought about such a reaction, a hundred years on from his heyday. But it’s important not to underestimate the impact he had on cinema and cinemagoers. For women, Valentino was the epitome of romance. For men, he was simply intolerable. Viewing the effect his performances had upon the female audiences of the day, men sought solace in casting aspersions upon Valentino’s sexuality as they licked their wounded male pride. It’s easy to see why they aimed for such a blow, look at any photo of Valentino and he’s shot (often through gauze) more like the starlets of the day, rather than male contemporaries such as Douglas Fairbanks. This ‘feminization’ or androgyny was an anathema to American male audiences who placed great store in their masculinity and wanted to see that represented on the big screen. It’s also fair to say that there was some xenophobia at play here too; American men didn’t mind their wives and sweethearts swooning over Fairbanks, but an Italian émigré whose exotic screen persona and implicit allure suggested a sexual prowess more worldly-wise and exotic than they could ever hope to achieve? Well, that wasn’t cricket. Or baseball, rather.
But what is perhaps a little more understandable about Valentino’s appeal is the implication of some of the characters he portrayed. Coming to prominence at a time when women had only just got the right to vote, Valentino’s characters represented a dominant male that was clearly a safe sexual fantasy (a sadomasochistic fantasy tempered perhaps by that androgynous quality that so appalled the menfolk) for newly progressive female audiences. Both of The Sheik movies were based on novels by British romance author, E.M. Hull; who we’ll call for a laugh the E.L. James of her day. Hull’s novels popularised the ‘desert romance’ genre and both they, and the subsequent film adaptations, are problematic in terms of sexuality and race. The Sheik, which helped launch Valentino’s career into the stratosphere of Hollywood fame, tells the story of a headstrong young English aristocrat, Lady Diana Mayo (played by Agnes Ayres), who flees a marriage proposal and heads off into the desert in search of adventure instead. What she finds are wealthy and domineering Arabs gambling for new wives in the local kasbah. Valentino’s titular Sheik basically captures Diana and tells her that she will soon come to learn to love him, with all the darkness that such a comment implies. This she actually comes to do (!) but she realises with sorrow that their love has no future because of the racial divide. In the film’s conclusion, it is revealed that Valentino’s character is not Arabian after all, and this revelation comes from the fact that his hand is, she claims, bigger than the average Arabs!?! Much like T.E. Lawrence, whose exploits in the recent Great War were then becoming known to the general public, Valentino’s Sheik is revealed to be British; an orphan taken in by a kindly old Sheik after his parents died during a desert expedition. Realising that all is white – sorry, right – with the world. The two ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after.
The Son of the Sheik follows a similarly problematic trajectory. Valentino’s Sheik Junior is a cultured yet wild youth who becomes enchanted by a beautiful European dancing girl, Yasmin (Vilma Bánky), who performs in the market place with a ragtag band of misfits. Alerted to his affections, Yasmin’s more swarthy and untrustworthy colleagues (led by Montagu Love’s Ghabah) hit upon the idea of luring the wealthy Arab into a trap and holding him for ransom. Here, Valentino’s Ahmed is tortured (something of a key facet to his appeal; women would then wish to mother him and tend to his wounds) but subsequently escapes when his loyal followers come to his rescue. His lieutenant, the offensively named Ramadan (Karl Dane), connects the kidnappers with Yasmin and erroneously presumes that she must have been complicit in the hostage-taking. Incensed, Ahmed kidnaps her and, it is suggested, repeatedly rapes her. The screen fading to black as he corners her in his desert lair, violent passion in his wide eyes.
Meanwhile, the Sheik of the original film (Valentino in a smart grey beard) is at home with his beloved Lady Diana (Ayres, making no effort to age up in reprising her role in the most formal title credit I have ever seen; ‘Agnes Ayres has courteously consented to resume her original role of Diana, wife of the Sheik ~~as a favour to Mr. Valentino and this picture‘) gesticulating wildly as he reveals he has reached the end of his tether with the hot-headed son who refuses to comply with the arranged marriage they have planned for him. This is a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere and feels both utterly redundant and surplus to requirements. The gesticulation Valentino displays in this scene, however, does go somewhere – it continues in each scene that the Sheikh Senior appears in and proves that Valentino was an old ham when it came to playing an old man.
When Yasmin is captured by the cutthroat entertainers, the young Sheik Ahmed realises she had no part in the scheme to ransom him and sets out to rescue her, joined by his father. In swashbuckling, chandelier-swinging scenes that show that Valentino could match the adventures of his more male cinema-goer approved rival Douglas Fairbanks, the duo rescue Yasmin with the aid of some wonky prototype split-screen effects and the dancing girl immediately professes her undying love for Ahmed – thereby not letting a little matter like brutal repeated rape get in the way of a happy ending.
Let’s face it, they don’t make them like this any more and perhaps that’s just as well. Putting the problematic depictions of sexual abuse and the offensive stereotypical characterisation of Arabian people aside – both the continued depiction of them being lawless, conniving savages, as well as being played by ‘blacked up’ European actors – if you view The Son of the Sheik for what it undoubtedly set out to be – a piece of popcorn entertainment in a less enlightened time – then it is actually quite enjoyable. The world was a much more expansive, unknowable place back in the 1920s and the filmmakers here no doubt viewed it as their duty to condense the ideas posited about other races and sexual fantasy into a marketable format that got bums on seats. As such, I feel a little kindly towards director George Fitzmaurice, a man who loved a happy ending; arguing that he could not stand it when a picture ended with “the girl weeping in the back of a cab”, and female (yes, female!) screenwriters, Frances Marion and Frédérique ‘Fred’ de Grésac. They were, after all, just doing what anyone would do at this point in time. They weren’t to know that time moved on and opinion changed. I doubt they were even to know that their work would still be viewed today, let alone be considered problematic to modern audiences. That said, it’s worth noting that Valentino did not share this unreconstructed world view. Asked around the time of the original film’s release if a high-born, culturally refined character like Lady Diana would ever fall for an Arab in real life, Valentino – himself no stranger to racial prejudice – shot back; “People are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world … the Arabs are dignified and keen-brained”.
With a lavish set design from William Cameron Menzies (who went on to become, in director David O’ Selznick’s famous edict, “the final word” on all matters related to Technicolor, scenic design, set decoration, and the overall look of a little production they worked on in 1939 known as Gone with the Wind), shot on location in the Yuma Desert of Arizona with lush cinematography from George Barnes, The Son of the Sheik is a film which, for better or worse, oozes 1920s notions of romance and sensuality. It is beautifully restored to high-definition here for its debut release to home video, care of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series, complete with a new, masterful score from Carl Davis. This special dual-format edition release includes a brand new video essay from David Cairns as well as an archive introduction to the film from no less a figure than Orson Welles.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I could murder a Fry’s Turkish Delight…