In the 1920s Bedouin chieftains prowled the movie screens much as vampires do today. “There are more sheiks here than in the Sahara,” complained a Photoplay reporter in 1923. Perhaps the craze for the desert romance was fed by Lowell Thomas who exhibited footage of the dashing World War I exploits of one T.E. Lawrence; perhaps it can be traced to the improbable imperialist adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines, She). Certainly it was Edith M. Hull who set the standard when she blended exotic adventure with S&M-tinged romance in her best-selling bodice-ripper of 1919, The Sheik. Famous Players-Lasky adapted the titillating page-turner in 1921, spawning a host of celluloid imitations, including Burning Sands, The Tents of Allah, and The Arab. The film was lampooned by Mack Sennett in The Shriek and inspired songs like “Lovin’ Sam, the Sheik of Alabam.” Sheik brand condoms soon followed.
The New York Times described the formula: “the beguiling beauty of Anglo-Saxon maidens wreaks havoc with the hearts of handsome chieftains who decide that after all they only want one wife.” In the book and film versions of The Sheik, the title character kidnaps the independent Lady Diana Mayo as she’s adventuring unprotected (except for an Arab guide and crew of servants) in the desert. The film version is vague about how far Diana and the Sheik go, but the book spelled out their physical relationship quite clearly. After weeks of captivity, Diana realizes she’s in love with the masterful sheik, who is then revealed to be an Englishman under his flowing robes. Hull disapproved of miscegenation, if not rape. While the sexual and racial politics may seem hopelessly retrograde to modern audiences, at the time, as David Robinson noted in Sight and Sound, “to have read this slightly pornographic tale was the mark of the New Woman.”
The Sheik catapulted Famous Players’ newly signed young actor, Rudolph Valentino, into a kind of stardom unseen before. From the moment he snatches costar Agnes Ayres from her saddle, followed by a title card reading, “Lie still, you little fool!” Valentino became forever identified with the role.
Born Rodolfo Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla, Valentino emigrated from Italy in 1913, a ne’er-do-well of 18 whose bourgeois family had given up on him. Ambitious and fond of high living, Valentino supported himself by taxi-dancing in New York City, eventually becoming an exhibition dancer, all the while trying to break into showbiz. He fell back on dancing again and again throughout his struggle to make it in movies. He danced for a spell at San Francisco’s Cliff House in 1917 as he made his way to Hollywood, where he played an apache dancer in an early bit role. Valentino famously danced the tango in his breakout film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and, when a contract dispute forced him off the screen in 1923, he went on a dance tour to advertise Mineralava face cream. However, as the Sheik, he leaves dancing to the harem girls and shows off his horsemanship instead.
Five years after Valentino first galloped across the desert, Joe Schenck at United Artists bought the rights to E.M. Hull’s sequel Sons of the Sheik as a vehicle for the actor’s comeback. By 1926 studio heads were relying on dependable film formulas more than ever. Thousands of new theaters had opened, demanding more product. Balaban and Katz had recently merged with Famous Players to form Paramount, the last of the big studios to combine production with exhibition. “In the twenties,” Jesse Lasky wrote in his memoir, “I was turning out a continuous flow of pictures like a frozen custard machine.” It was a telling comparison. As Douglas Gomery points out in his history of film exhibition, Shared Pleasures, the movie industry came of age during a revolution in mass marketing; studios modeled their business practices on the emerging chain-grocery stores; economies of scale, assembly-line production methods, and standardized products were the order of the day.
By 1926 Valentino had changed, too. The survivor of two divorces, a bigamy trial, and contract battles that had kept him offscreen for more than a year, Valentino was sick of being the Sheik. He told a reporter for Collier’s in 1925 that “If any producer comes to me with a sheik part I am going to murder him!” He was weary of the intense scrutiny his fame provoked. His role as the Great Lover had sparked both devotion and antipathy, the latter exemplified by Dick Dorgan’s famous “Song of Hate.” Printed in Photoplay’s July 1922 issue, it begins simply, “I hate Valentino! All men hate Valentino.” Valentino’s appeal was as incomprehensible to his bosses as it was to Dick Dorgan. They knew there was money to be made out of him, but how? Their solution was another frozen custard.
If Valentino didn’t murder Schenck, it was because the 30-year-old was in debt and the films he’d made since his return to the screen had been financial disappointments. Frances Marion, who wrote the scenario for Son of the Sheik (and privately called the film “Son of a Bitch”), recalled in her memoir that Valentino “was too tired to combat the overwhelming forces that governed his career.” He took what comfort he could in his director, George Fitzmaurice, whom he’d long wanted to work with, and his costar Vilma Banky, a Hungarian discovery on loan from Sam Goldwyn. He liked the challenge of playing both the old Sheik and his son (the film combines the novel’s twin brothers into one character). Schenck’s market research, showing that 90 percent of Valentino’s fans wanted to see him as a sheik again, won the day.
The shoot in Yuma, Arizona, was hot and the menagerie of horses and camels attracted so many flies that cast and crew doused themselves in citronella. The New York Times “Movie Screen” column joked: “It is a Western thriller in an Arabian atmosphere, except for the exotic Eastern love affair, which no noble hero of the wide open spaces of the West would ever be let in for in moving pictures, no matter how much he really felt like it. Not even Tom Mix’s horse would be caught in a situation like that.”
On a more respectful note, Variety praised it as “an outstanding success.” Sales were brisk after the film premiered in August, even as the latest buzz was the Broadway opening of Warner Brothers’ Don Juan with its synchronized Vitaphone score. Then something happened that put this sync-sound invention in the shade. Rudolph Valentino went to the hospital on August 14 and died a week later, a victim of acute appendicitis and a perforated gastric ulcer.
“We are grieved and shocked at this great loss,” said Schenck, who then quickly pushed The Son of the Sheik into wide release. The publicity blast from Valentino’s death was phenomenal: a week’s worth of tabloid deathbed reporting, followed by coverage of the crowds at the funeral parlor, the Italian honor guard (a fake), the suicides, and, finally, the funeral. When the books were balanced at the end of the year, Son of the Sheik had grossed a million dollars. And the revenue stream didn’t stop there. Three years later the New York Times was writing stories about “the Valentino Cult” whose members were “obligated to think of Valentino at least once a day, to go see all Valentino films and to agitate for the showing of more of his films in the kino houses.” It was the kind of cult any studio boss could get behind. One might agree with H.L. Mencken who put aside his usual grouchiness to write of the fallen star, “I incline to think that the inscrutable gods, in taking him off so soon … were very kind to him.”
Presented at 2014 Silent Autumn with live music by the Alloy Orchestra