In Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger notes that for modern audiences Rudolph Valentino has “become an image frozen in time, a still photograph emblematic of the world of the 1920s, that crazy outmoded world of sheiks and flappers.” This static—even fossilized—image robs us of the very elements that defined his extraordinary stardom: “his energy, his sass, his slightly mocking self-humor” and “his sensuous physicality, his graceful movements and precise gestures.” The sumptuous and witty The Eagle gives us ample opportunity to appreciate just how appealing a screen presence Valentino was and how deftly his director, Clarence Brown, nurtured his talents.
The film was a comeback of sorts for the star after a “meteoric” rise kicked off by show-stopping performances intwo 1921 releases,Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and George Melford’s trashy-but-fun The Sheik(in truth, Valentino had appeared in films since the mid-1910s).Valentino’s stardom was astonishing in the levels of devotion it inspired, most notably from female fans, many of whom were beginning to push the narrow limits of gender roles and sexual desire. The Hollywood studio system, increasingly invested in the industry of fame, was eager to play to that fan base, shaping vehicles that showcased Valentino’s face and lithe body. Yet with this adoration came alarming levels of abhorrence from sections of the press and from some cinemagoers. As Gaylyn Studlar explores in her 1996 study, This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age, the backlash against Valentino was infused with virulent xenophobia and homophobia. Representative of the nastiness to which he was subjected is Dick Dorgan’s ditty, “Song of Hate,” published in Photoplay in July 1922, in which readers are assured that all men hate this “embezzler of hearts” with his “oriental optics,” and accompanied by a grotesque and racist pencil sketch of Valentino.
Such vitriol, alongside contract disputes and a complicated private life, deeply affected Valentino and led to a hiatus in his screen appearances until 1924. By 1925, however, he was anxious for more compelling roles and accepted a promising offer from United Artists. In May, it was announced that the story chosen would showcase a new Valentino, no longer the stereotypical Arab of The Sheik or the tortured bullfighter of 1922’s Blood and Sand, but a “Slavic Lover” and all-round action hero. The director was the newly signed Clarence Brown, working from a script by longtime Lubitsch collab- orator Hanns Kräly, supported by cinematogra- phers George Barnes and Dev Jennings and a cast that included several European-born actors.
By the time he teamed up with Valentino, director Brown had achieved a double degree in engineer- ing, run a successful automobile business, and accumulated ten years of film experience, first as an apprentice to Maurice Tourneur (his “god,” according to his interview with Kevin Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By), then as a director for hire and, from 1923, as one of Universal’s contract directors. At Universal, Brown had excelled directing female stars such as Virginia Valli (The Signal Tower), Ruth Clifford (Butterfly), Laura La Plante (Butterfly; Smouldering Fires), Pauline Frederick (Smouldering Fires), and Louise Dresser (The Goose Woman), but in 1925 hewas anxious to prove he could handle men, too. In a piece published in the Los Angeles Times shortly before The Eagle, Brown expressed his belief that there was urgent need for the star to take on a “virile story … something that will attract the men to him and overcome their prejudice against him.” Such a story needed a decisive director and Brown was just the man: Valentino later gushed that he was like the “leader of an orchestra … [he] knows what he wants and goes right after it.” The virile story chosen—an adaptation of an unfinished Pushkin novel—had ambitions to rival the output of the King of United Artists, Douglas Fairbanks, whose influence stretched to set designer William Cameron Menzies, recently of The Thief of Bagdad, who crossed Russian Imperial with the Oriental fantasy style then so in vogue. There was more than a hint of the older star as well in the lightness of touch, the sense of fun, that Valentino brought to his Doubrovski.
As part of his contract, Valentino had a say in cast- ing and, fortuitously, he okayed the perfect choice to play Mascha, his love interest. The “Hungarian Rhapsody,” the luminous Vilma Bánky, delights in every scene she’s in—from her introduction in a reveal shot for which she lowers her fan to uncover her beautiful face lit up by a pair of mischievous (and desiring) eyes, to her final enveloping of Doubrovski in her parasol, shielding him from other gazes. It would be difficult to dispute that Bánky was by far the best leading lady Valentino ever had, but she had competition in the form of forty-seven-year-old supporting player Louise Dresser. A vaudeville veteran, Dresser had starred in Brown’s The Goose Woman and critics had marveled at her affecting performance as the disheveled former opera singer. In The Eagle Dresser again showed her willingness to transform herself and she plays up the comedy potential as the tyrant Catherine the Great. Valentino may have shot to fame when he tangoed with Alice Terry in Four Horsemen, but here his Doubrovski dances to the tune of the tsarina, subject to her official orders and her lecherous attentions—a scene in Catherine’s private quarters, in which she tries to ply him with alcohol to make him more re- ceptive to her advances, is a masterclass in acting by both players.
The Eagle was intended to rejuvenate Valentino’s career, but it also served as a calling card for Brown. He handled his actors with the sameassurance that marked his work at Universal, while his attention to visual details (of landscapes, of bodies, of machinery), his dynamic editing, and his polished—sometimes showy—camerawork found brilliant expression in this romp through an imagined Russia. Many scenes continue to delight: the exhilarating opening in which the tsarina’s inspection of her favorite regiment is intercut with shots of Doubrovski giving chase to a runaway carriage and, in an impressive stunt shot, bringing it to a halt; the careful choreography of the seduction “dance” between Catherine and Doubrovski; the comic scene in which a haughty Mascha attempts to evade a flirtatious Doubrovski (here, Brown reworks a scene from The Goose Woman); and the dizzying array of witty shots that deliberately mislead the audience (Doubrovski’s administering of a massage to his mortal enemy, Kyrilla), introduce risqué innuendos (Doubrovski on his knees in front of the tsarina, followed by a reaction shot of her in ecstasy), or slyly invite audiences to make visual connections (Mascha’s corpulent aunt, played by the wonderful Carrie Clarke Ward, captured in a shot that also features her doppelganger, a squashed-face lapdog!).
In the midst of these visual delights there is one that might make even today’s viewer wonder, “just how did they do that?” For the standout sequence in which Kyrilla and company are gorging them- selves at a banquet, Brown’s camera traverses the entire table,not as a frontal horizontal shot (as his mentor Maurice Tourneur had done in The Wishing Ring in 1914), but as a tracking shot up the middle. Interviewed by Brownlow, Brown explained how it was done: “The camera started with a character (James Marcus) … then it traveled along the middle of the table … which must have been sixty feet long. To get the camera in that position was very difficult; no equipment existed
to do it. So we made perambulators. We put one on each side of the table and we constructed a bridge, with stressbeams so that it was rigid. Then we dropped a crosspiece and fastened the camera from the top, so that the bottom of the camera could travel from the top. Of course, nothing could obstruct the movement of the camera, so we had prop boys putting candelabra in place just before the camerapicked them up.” (An aside: engi- neer Brown was so pleased with himself that he self-plagiarized the shot for 1935’s Anna Karenina and, almost twenty years later, Delmer Daves paid homage to the shot in Never Let Me Go, produced by Brown).
The Eagle was released in November 1925 and earned a modest return and generally appre- ciative reviews, but it didn’t quite prove the elixir that Valentino had so wanted. The star remained the target of astonishing levels of abuse and just weeks before his early death in August 1926, the Chicago Tribune published a now notorious piece that asked, “Why didn’t someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo, alias Valentino, years ago?”
Brown went on to forge a rich career, showcasing stars (notably, Garbo and Crawford) and making moving and personal films (The Yearling, Intruder in the Dust, among others), but he always regretted that he never had the chance to work a second time with Valentino. Forty years on, he fondly recalled him as one of “the greatest personalities of the screen.”
Presented at A Day of Silents 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Wayne Barker