Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Son of the Sheik (1926)

No question, Valentino was dead-sexy in a turban.
I'll admit I have decidedly mixed feelings about Valentino. At his best, he radiates a raw sex appeal like no one else. However, his films usually rely more on his charismatic good looks than his acting ability, which is never his strongest quality. In The Sheik in particular his brand of acting usually involves a manic grin and fierce, wide-eyed stare that makes me want to pass him some eye drops. And then there was the frightful mockery that was Moran of the Lady Letty, a film the producers thought would improve his image among male viewers by putting him in a story driven by action rather than sex. A great idea, perhaps, but in execution Moran comes across like an attempt to prove you're a man's man by joining the badminton team. The big action finale, I kid you not, pits Valentino, along with the entire crew of a smuggling ship, against two men in a rowboat.

Son of the Sheik is a far cry from Moran, different in style and substance even from the 1921 original. The Sheik was a fanciful bit of indulgent escapism straight out of a dime store romance novel, but Valentino's fierce sexuality and bedroom eyes took the world by storm, and it was a smashing success. Among other things, this made movie producers wake up to the buying power of female viewers, who were not all satisfied, it appeared, by juvenile fluff such as Mary Pickford had been pumping out for years. (Sadly, Pickford herself was equally dissatisfied with the Pollyanna-type roles she played well into her 30's, but every attempt she made to break out of this box only alienated her fan base).

At 31, Valentino was roughly halfway between the ages of his two characters.
The set for Son looks as though it was pieced together from leftovers from The Thief of Bagdad (if you've read my remarks on Thief, you know that's a huge compliment). Indeed both films were made for United Artists and shared the same set designer (William Cameron Menzies), so that may be literally true. Wherever they came from, the curved stone walls, over sized pots, and layers of silk draped over everything that would stand still long enough do an admirable job of placing the film in its fantasy Middle Eastern setting.

The story itself is not fundamentally different from the original. The Sheik from the first film now has a grown son (Valentino played both roles), who is just as impulsive and libidinous as his father was at his age. When he is assaulted and then held prisoner by the family of the dancing girl he has been wooing, he mistakenly believes she betrayed him and so seeks revenge on her. Once he realizes his mistake, he must first win back her trust and then rescue her from her evil bandit family and the no-good scum they want her to marry. Nothing unusual there.

While the story is much the same as that of the first film, the development of that story is dramatically better in every respect. Screenwriter Frances Marion (Anna Christie, Stella Maris) was a capable professional, who turned  a compelling but unoriginal bit of romantic fluff into a fully-realized story. While some have criticized the use of elements of slapstick in Son, I found it to be a welcome change from the stormy melodrama that made up the bulk of the film. The story's moments of comedy blended easily with the dramatic action and helped keep the film from getting too heavy--this is supposed to be fun, after all.

Extreme close-ups like this heighten the films already tense eroticism.
The critical difference between the two Sheik films surely was the involvement of director George Fitzmaurice, personally selected by Valentino for Son. Fitzmaurice directed over eighty films in his forty-five year career, specializing in romantic dramas. Most of them are relatively unknown today; Son of the Sheik and Mata Hari are the notable exceptions. His accomplishment in Son, however, is nothing short of extraordinary.

First and most importantly, he managed to wrench some honest-to-goodness acting out of Valentino. Not only did Valentino learn how to blink regularly and avoid his usual disturbing facial mannerisms, but he navigates a complex trajectory of emotional development that is surprisingly understated and sympathetic. Moreover, he does this with two distinct characters, who, in spite of their similarities, never overlap or bleed into each other.

On top of this, Son makes it abundantly clear that Fitzmaurice knew how to tell a story. Visually, Son is remarkably well-constructed. Judicious use of extreme close-ups, subjective editing, flashbacks, and point of view shots give the film an intimacy and immediacy that embraces the audience into its story as a participant. The story may be unremarkable, but it is vibrant and alive, and it is difficult not to become fully invested in its outcome. Considering that the story is at its essence a simple erotic fantasy, the intimacy of Fitzmaurice's camera makes it far more powerful and compelling than its predecessor.

This chilling POV shot from Ahmed's perspective as he closes in on
Yasmin makes the audience a participant in her ravishment.
Most notable is the scene where the son, Ahmed, kidnaps his former lady love Yasmin (Vilma Bánky), takes her back to his tent, and rapes her. Oh, there is nothing explicit, of course, but there doesn't have to be--the suspense leading up to his assault is so dense there can be no doubt of Ahmed's intentions. Yasmin, who still loves him at the beginning of the scene, progresses from bewilderment to terror. Ahmed blends love and hate and frantic lust with an intensity that fully justifies Valentino's reputation as screen lover par excellence. Many modern viewers will find this scene deeply disturbing (as indeed many did when it was made), but a great many others will relate to its fierce sexual energy just as it was intended. Of course, this sort of rape fantasy, like that depicted in Harlequin romance novels in the 1970's, bears little resemblance to actual rape: the attacker is a handsome man whom she already has feelings for, but something (in this case, Ahmed's anger) gets in the way of the fulfillment of her desires. Ravishment in the isolation of the desert by a handsome but cruel prince is simply another element in the erotic fantasy of the story, not a commentary on real-life social mores.

Valentino's unexpected death at the time of the film's release helped to cement its success at the box office. It was a commercial and critical success, and is widely considered to be Valentino's best film. From a modern perspective, it remains imminently watchable today, its action and eroticism saving it from the disfavor that has fallen on most of the romantic melodramas that were so popular in the silent era. 

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