Movie Reviews: The Sheik (1921)
Though my work towards my MLIS degree has been taking its toll on my movie time, I am still working on watching the AFI lists to completion. I actually had to give a presentation last semester—3 minutes on any topic—and I chose to present on the AFI lists and my lengthy quest to dominate them. So now while I am on vacation (my last semester—woohoo!—will start in a week) I have been taking the opportunity to knock off a couple of list movies. My goal is to finish out one of the lists (probably 100 Thrills, which I’m closest to finishing) before the end of 2014.
The Sheik is a silent film from 1921; Son of the Sheik is its 1926 sequel. Both were on the disc I got from Netflix, and both were less than 90 minutes long, so I watched both. The original film is the one the AFI recommended, on the 100 Passions list. It is one of the original desert epic love stories of the kind I avoid even now! (I had The English Patient on disc for—no lie—longer than 12 months and returned it without watching it.) But hey, <90 minutes.
Here’s my immediate problem with The Sheik being a legendary love story: it’s based on kidnapping. The female love interest, Lady Diana, catches the eye of the Sheik while they are both running around some desert city casino. Later, she is out in the desert with a guide who seems to be in cahoots with the Sheik and sets her up to get grabbed by the Sheik’s men, and then they hold her until she comes around. She stays in a luxurious tent and wears luxurious outfits, which the movie seems to think makes it a little more OK. But even by the standards of the 1920s, this entire endeavor is pretty offensive.
Anyway, the Sheik wins her over because there is a rival gang of bandits who see that the Sheik is traveling with a white lady, and they decide they will steal her away from her captors. And unlike the Sheik and his men, these bandits are bad guys. So the Sheik successfully fights the bandits, getting injured in the process, and Lady Diana is overcome by gratitude and love. Happily ever after!
The racial politics are not terribly enlightened, either. Lady Diana sits by his bedside after the bandit battle, where the Sheik sleeps in one of those not-too-serious movie comas, and she remarks, so weirdly, that he has “large hands for an Arab.” (Firstly, is it a stereotype that Arabs have small hands? Or are generally small? What does one have to do with the other?) But then the Sheik’s English companion breaks the news to the Lady that the Sheik was never an Arab! His parents were European, had some desert encounter with the previous Sheik—he saved their lives or something—and then the previous Sheik, who had no sons, willed the title to this European boy. And he takes it on, going to live and rule over this lawless desert territory for some reason.
This backstory fits Valentino the actor, who was Italian and not Arab—not that Old Hollywood would hesitate for a SECOND to attribute a minority race to a white actor, mind you, there are a million examples. Here is a list of them, and they’re missing Katharine Hepburn playing Asian and Charlton Heston playing Mexican, off the top of my head.
But anyway, what’s really obvious about this moment in the The Sheik is that it gives Lady Diana permission to truly love the Sheik and consider him as a mate. The movie makes it very clear, as does the performance by the actress, that this is a moment of revelation for her. He is suitable now.
The movie does have some fine action, interesting sets and costumes. Agnes Ayres is lively and appealing as Lady Diana, though I was unimpressed by Valentino. Other than a few fight scenes, the Sheik does very little that is interesting to watch. Like many actors of his generation, Valentino makes a lot of big, broad faces. His role as the Sheik is still impenetrable. His acting doesn’t offer any indications of why he thinks kidnapping Lady Diana will be an effective way to win her, or whether he makes any reconsiderations of the choice once it’s been done. He seems to love her in an obsessed, heavy-breathing type of way. The reputation of Valentino as the king of romantic heroes was not fully justified to me by the performance here.
The sequel, which takes place 20-some years later, stars Valentino both as the original Sheik (barely recognizable under makeup and beard) and as the titular Son, not surprisingly a dead ringer for his father. A new young actress plays the love interest, while actress Agnes Ayres returns as mother of the Son, for which she received this charming credit:
The plot is some mess involving a girl who dances for coins, whose father is part of a roving bandit gang. She has a secret romance going on with the Sheik’s son, and the gang finds out and tries to exploit the son or the sheik or something. And there is much battling, and some son stepping out of the shadow of his father, and so on. It was only fine.
The extras on the disc were fascinating time capsules. Valentino apparently judged a series of beauty contests all over the United States (and Canada) and then judged the national finals in 1923. Apparently he did this long and thankless job because he was under a promotional contract with a cosmetics company, a contract he took on to rebound financially from a divorce. Anyway, there’s a short film about the contests and lots of footage from the final pageant and the crowning of the most beautiful woman in America, Miss Toronto. Whoops. (According to that link above, Valentino was probably having an affair with Miss Toronto. Scandal!)
Another extra, terribly disturbing, is newsreel footage reporting on Valentino’s death at age 31. He died very suddenly (due to infections following appendicitis surgery) and at the height of his fame (Son of the Sheik came into theaters a month after his death). The newsreel includes footage of the funeral home and the body itself, lying in state. That’s not an image I can imagine seeing on movie screens now (for sure on the internet, and TMZ). You can even buy glossies of it on EBay.
I always think of Old Hollywood whenever anyone talks about TMZ or other abominations of modern media. We saw an example of this last week when ABC News buzzed the house of the newly-deceased celebrity Robin Williams with helicopters, taking footage of…what? What could they have hoped to catch on video? Ambulances? A medical examiner or coroner entering the house? The body being carried out, I suppose. Like that’s something we need or deserve to see. It’s gross behavior to feel entitled to that level of celebrity access, but it is most decidedly not new.