"Who's that goomer?"
"That there's the Sheik!"
"How come he's wearin' bedclothes?"
"Them ain't bedclothes, them's Sheik clothes."
---Irene Ryan, Donna Douglas and Max Baer, Jr.: "The Beverly Hillbillies" (episode 109)---
Well, now that I've carried out something of an obligation by recently discussing two current films I feel wholly justified in going retro. And I mean RETRO!
First off, however, I must clear the waters between us and correct an error on my part. In my last column I had mistakenly listed Kathryn Bigelow as having received a Best Director Oscar nomination for "Zero Dark Thirty". Of course she hadn't (but, in my defense, after having seen "Zero Dark Thirty" I feel she should have been nominated). Just wanting to keep things straight here.
Anyway . . .
Even if you haven't seen George Melford's 1921 silent film "The Sheik" you've possibly heard of it. Or, if you haven't heard of it, then you've certainly heard of Rudolph Valentino and, when you imagine him in your mind, you're probably seeing him as he might have looked in this, his most well-known film.
(Of course there's the distant possibility that all this is meaningless to you, in which case you're more than welcome to remain for a bit of elucidation. And if you're one of those people who automatically go "ewwww . . . silent film", then I don't want to know about it.)
"The Sheik" was a blockbuster for its times. With a budget of $200,000 it easily grossed over $1 million in its first year. Male audience members generally snickered at what they thought were silly loves scenes. Women, on the other hand, went N*U*T*Z!
(No, seriously. Women saw Valentino up there on the screen with his bedroom eyes . . . completely ready, willing and able to ravish a female . . . and promptly lost it. Movie history was being made, and Valentino became one of the first big superstars. "The Sheik" was the reason male and female hipsters of that period started referring to themselves as "sheiks" and "shebas".)
(And yes, smarties, there were hipsters back in the 1920s. It was a wild, wicked time in American history . . . or so say the people whose job it was to report on wild, wicked times.)
George Melford, the director, was a rather prolific and busy person throughout the first half of the 20th century; being not only a director but an actor as well. Besides "The Sheik" he is perhaps best known for his Spanish language version of "Dracula" which was filmed on the same sets (and at the same time) as the more well-known Tod Browning version with Bela Lugosi. There are those who feel that Melford's film is the superior version (and Carlos Villarias, Melford's Dracula, a superior actor to Lugosi). All debates aside there is little doubt that Melford could position an actor to his or her best advantage, making the most of a scene.
An equally busy man was Monte Katterjohn: a writer who, throughout his career, wrote sixty-eight screenplays (and yes, pumpkins, I know a lot of silent films were shorter back then. Let's not be controversial). One of his screenplays was an adaptation of "The Sheik": a novel by Edith Maude Hill. Hill was a British author specializing in the sort of stories which seem to find their way into the hands of female office workers (and yeah, I know I'm in big trouble now for saying that. Please feel free to prove that I'm wrong). Today her books would be known as "bodice rippers" . . . the sort of story where the average reader goes: Oh no! She's fallen into the inescapable clutches of that vile, despicable, horrible and totally immoral man with the devastatingly handsome eyes. I gotta read faster!.
Look . . . I didn't write the story.
The story of "The Sheik" is, at face value, marvelously simple. Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Valentino) is the head honcho of a community of Arabs living in the North African desert ("Where the children of Araby dwell in happy ignorance that Civilization has passed them by", according to a title card. More on the film's enlightened view towards the native population later on). Valentino rules his people with an air of casual amusement towards custom and law. In an early scene he allows a maiden to be excused from the local marriage market because of the love which exists between her and one of the tribal chieftains. "When love is more desired than riches," says Ben Hassan (or at least his title card does), "it is the will of Allah. Let another be chosen". The elders of the tribe nod amongst themselves, deciding that sounds pretty cool.
(One brief note about the above scene. Yousaef, the lovesick tribal chieftain, was played by George Waggner. If the name sounds familiar then congratulate yourself because it should. Among other things, Waggner went on to direct films such as "Operation Pacific", "The Wolf Man" and "The Fighting Kentuckian" as well as episodes of "77 Sunset Strip", "Hawaiian Eye", "Maverick", "The Man from UNCLE", "Batman" and "The Green Hornet". Waggner is on the short list of people I'd call "Sir".)
But back to our story. We now go to the Algerian town of Biskra where we find Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is in the process of running away from a marriage proposal because she is a Young Sophisticated Modern Woman who desires her independence. She is so independent that she plans to take a month long trip out into the desert without (gasp!) a Proper Escort. Is Diana worried? Heck no. Remember, she's a Young Sophisticated Modern Woman.
Ayres died all too young, and was a person whose career ended on a rather tragic note. I confess to having something of a crush on her, but also admit she sometimes made it difficult. Case in point: her most famous role of Diana Mayo. On the night before she's scheduled to head off into the desert for a month (ignoring, for the moment, the obvious question of what the hell does someone do out in the desert for a month) she decides to go to the local casino, only to find that Ben Hassan has reserved the entire shebang for the purpose of entertaining his Arab friends. Here Ayres treats the audience to a 24-carat gold display of pouting and simpering. "And why should a savage desert bandit keep us out of any public place?" she demands (apparently deciding that the fact she is a foreigner is immaterial).
But the damage has already been done as Valentino and Ayres briefly see each other ("their eyes met across a crowded room and, in that moment . . ." And no, pumpkins, that's not from the movie. I wrote that one). Since Lady Diana is a Young Sophisticated Modern Woman (which easily translates into "frickin' twit") she decides the best thing to do is disguise herself as an Arab dancing woman and sneak in. It all falls apart though when she realizes she's stumbled into yet another marriage market (Young Sophisticated Modern Woman fall down and go boom!). Fortunately for her Ben Hassan's an easygoing type and intervenes (but also manages to learn which hotel she's in, a fact he uses later on to . . . gasp! . . . sneak unchaperoned into her room while she sleeps. Oh the scandal!).
The next day Diana heads out into the desert (still sans a Proper Escort), and circumstances result in her becoming a "guest" (or prisoner . . . you make the call) in Ben Hassan's camp. She makes several escape attempts, and Ben Hassan keeps bringing her back, and all the while the resistance between them is eroding away (Okay, so there wasn't any real actual resistance. But since we have to try and be proper about this we must pretend that Diana is a Well Brought-Up Young Lady. As for Ben Hassan well . . . he is, after all, a savage desert bandit. Hmph! The nerve of these savage desert bandits, mishandling Our Women. Shouldn't be allowed! Can we get another ticket for this movie, Henry?). I don't want to give too much more of the plot away, but suffice it so say that matters arrive to a conclusion in spite of sandstorms, stabbings, Adolphe Menjou, shootings . . .
Yes, and there was something about an infamous "rape scene" wasn't there? As compared to, I suppose, the usual sort of rape scene. Anyway . . . there comes a moment in the film where Valentino's reputation as a Screen Lover was firmly cemented. Ben Hassan brings Diana back from another escape attempt. She is helpless in his arms and he is gazing hungrily at her. His eyes leering . . . his nostils flaring. She grabs a knife (why do some guys leave those things lying around?) and declares she'd rather die than submit to a (gasp! shudder!) Fate Worse Than Death! Ben Hassan will have none of that however, and he soon has her in his bed chamber: helpless and vulnerable (Ayres that is, and not Valentino).
Small wonder women were lining up around the block to catch this film. I have, of course, heard the occasional theory that all women secretly want to be raped. Interestingly (or suspiciously) enough, these theories are presented by men, which is why I consider the whole concept to be a load of buffalo bagels. If women (or men for that matter) might secretly want anything, I feel it is to be consumed by Love and Passion, and especially the sort which manages to break through all reserves and doubts. By its very nature rape implies non-consent. A key dramatic thread is when a person in the sort of situation that Diana Mayo found herself must find the wherewithal to balance Desire against Fear and make the conscious decision of whether or not to submit. This has not only happened in "The Sheik" . . . consider the iconic scene in "Gone with the Wind" when Rhett kisses Scarlett goodbye outside of Atlanta. Eventually Romance calls for the removal of a barrier. The gamble comes in who blinks first.
And apologies for the drugstore anthropology, but everything in "The Sheik" tends to revolve around that one scene (and how it's handled by the principal characters). Even the most casual study of Valentino reveals the intensity in which he could project emotions (an ability which would help make stars out of Clark Gable, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis years later). At times lustful, sinister, jovial and tragic, Valentino gave the silent film world its greatest displays of expression (were he alive today I'd want him to play a James Bond villain, or another somewhat larger-than-life role). The visual signals he throws at Ayres (and, subsequently, his female fans) stormed the gates of what was considered Respectable or Proper. If women didn't want to be raped, they certainly curious as to the feel of Valentino's arms. This was (and still is) the significant difference. A genuine rapist would have to resort to violence. The emotive flash of his eyes was all Valentino needed. In engineering the entire scene Melford must've been juggling the same eggs Hitchcock was handing thirty-nine years later when he was choreographing Janet Leigh's shower scene in "Psycho".
Once again I apologize for perhaps treading on dangerous ground here, but I feel it might've been called "rape" back then because no Proper Young Woman would submit to the caresses of a man she wasn't legally married to. And certainly no White Christian Virgin would give herself over to a (gasp! shudder!) Arab!
Yes, these days "The Sheik" wouldn't win any awards for building bridges between cultures. Hull's novel was written in 1919 . . . only twenty years after Kipling wrote "The White Man's Burden", and even the most ardent Islamaphobe might find the movie's approach towards the people of the Middle East rather embarrassing. Again I'm not wanting to give out too much, but the end of Hull's novel (and Katterjohn's screenplay) make use of what I personally consider a coward's way out to defend Diana's virtue (and that all-important reputation). Of course it's possible that Hull (and Katterjohn and, presumably, Melford) were only responding to the mores and sensitivities of their time. To them there was no evil or malice involved. Everything made perfect sense.
And, before we pat ourselves on the back for our comparative superiority, let us pause and contemplate how we'll be perceived a hundred years from now.
Yeah, and if I knew I was going to preach this much, I would've saved this column for Sunday.
Back to the movie. As I mentioned, Melford's ability to direct people was brought to full fruition with the likes of Valentino to work with. If the cinematography of Paul Ivano and William Marshall occasionally looks faded and dated by today's standards, then I choose to blame the ravages of time rather than the talents of these gentlemen. The rules of filmmaking were still being written down, and some of the iris shots and other effects have not aged at all well. When the scenes do come in clear and sharp, then they stand up rather well in the opinion of This Commentator. Filmed out in California and Arizona (hey! Sand is sand is sand is . . .) the set designs of Biskra work convincingly. Agnes Ayres did enough memorable work in "The Sheik" to the point where she would reprise her role in the sequel "The Son of the Sheik".
But it's Valentino's show. Without him the whole movie would've fallen into obscurity. Melford gave the actor sufficient room to work, and the result is more than just a movie. To even the casual student of the cinema this is a must-see treasure from the past.