Monday, July 20, 2015

The Sheik/The Son of the Sheik

The Sheik
YouTube viewing

The Son of the Sheik
seen @ Celebrate Brooklyn, Prospect Park, Brooklyn NY

So what was the big deal about Rudolph Valentino? It's hard to imagine how big he was during his brief life as a silent film star, because apparently he was HUGE - like Brad Pitt in his prime, Justin Bieber, Beatles-in-'64 huge. And it's not even like he was that great an actor. Acting was kinda beside the point for someone like him.

In her book Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger attempts to justify the Valentino madness that seized movie audiences in the 20s:
...Valentino was an ordinary Italian boy from an ordinary background, but when he came to Hollywood and stepped in front of the camera, he took on an air of mystery that fascinated everyone, even those who despised him. Valentino's mysterious quality hinted at several different things; throughout his career, people speculated on whether he was superficial or deep, kind or cruel, stupid or smart, male or female. He might be anything, anything at all. That was his gift and what made him a star.
He goes through most of The Sheik looking like this.
First of all, The Sheik is a lousy damn movie, but not necessarily because of Valentino. Agnes Ayres' character brings everything that happens down on her own head because she is the epitome of privilege. She insults Valentino's Sheik and his entire culture (calling them "savages"), she sneaks into a private gathering of the Sheik and his pals simply because she's insulted that she can't attend, and to top it off, she pulls a gun on the Sheik when she's found out, which in the real world would be cause for an international incident - and all because of her superior, xenophobic attitude. 

But that's not the worst part. Later, after the Sheik has kidnapped her and taken her to his desert hideaway, Stockholm Syndrome sets in and we're meant to feel sorry for her because Sheiky won't admit his love for her. I just found her absolutely repulsive. Oh, and I just LOVE the part near the very end when we discover that Sheiky's not really Arabic after all - he's a Brit who was raised Arabic! Miscegenation is averted! Hooray! Valentino was kinda funny, in an unintentional, campy way, of course - Basinger notes that had he lived to the sound era, he might have found a second life doing comedy.

But let's get back to Ayres' character, Diana. People forget that The Sheik was based on a novel written by a woman, and thus, the Sheik was originally created from a female perspective. Basinger points out that Valentino represented some kind of female fantasy of the time period:
...When Valentino's image is analyzed today, he is usually described as androgynous. However, he is not like a Marlene Dietrich, who clearly understood the term and definitely played with sexuality for a dual appeal. Valentino is from a less knowing, more innocent decade, and his films forthrightly present him as a Latin Lover for women... who wanted to escape the bounds of a constricting society that gave only men sexual freedom. He is not a hip, cutting-edge, bisexual figure but a creature out of a romance novel. He is there to rip bodices.
On the surface, I can buy that, I guess, but Diana doesn't come across as repressed. Early on, she turns down a marriage proposal because she calls marriage "the end of independence," and Eurocentric imperialist attitude aside, she's no Victorian prude; she defies her brother's wishes by making an expedition into the desert with only a local to guide her and has no fear of what may happen to her. The way the Sheik is presented, it's as if he's there to teach her a lesson, to restrain her in some manner, which would seem to be at odds with the purposes of the Diana character. At least, that's how I saw it.

The Son of the Sheik was similar, yet it was pretty different as well. For one thing, Vilma Banky was sexier. For another, it's more of an action film than the first Sheik - there are way more fight scenes. I knew Valentino played both Sheik and Sheik Junior, but I didn't realize until I saw it how big a role the former would be. I suppose Original Sheik kinda seems like the same character, though without having seen him through the passage of time, it's hard to tell - even with the brief flashback to the first movie. And the special effect of seeing Valentino, as Sheiky, put his arm around himself, as Junior, was pulled off well.

Junior falls for Banky's character, but he's led to believe that she deceived him in order for him to be captured by the bad guys, but when he demands the truth from her, threatening her life, we can't tell whether she's begging for mercy or insisting that it's a lie and that she always loved him. She's not given a title card to indicate exactly what she's saying, and it looks like she could be going either way. Perhaps this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but somehow I doubt it. A movie like this isn't exactly known for its subtle plot turns.

At least I had the music of the Alloy Orchestra to go with Sheik 2. Once again, Celebrate Brooklyn brought their favorite band back to Prospect Park to provide the music for another silent film, and once again, they were marvelous. I sat next to this older couple who were seeing the band for the first time, though they had seen the movie before. They were big film fans. In fact, they run a website where they sell Art Deco paraphernalia, and among their product includes some classic film related material. They gave me a catalog.

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