Category Archives: Rudolf Valentino

Blood and Sand (1922)

“Happiness and prosperity built on cruelty and bloodshed cannot survive.”

Rudolf Valentino stars as the toreador Juan Gallardo in the 1922 silent film Blood and Sand. As the son of an impoverished widow, Juan is considered a wastrel for his attraction to bullfights, and no one in his family takes his interest seriously. But when Juan is catapulted to fame for his bullfighting skills, his family–particularly his brother-in-law–become hangers-on in Juan’s growing entourage. Soon Juan, a simple Andalusian peasant, has the equivalent of a management team accompanying him to all the fights.

Juan marries the sweet and good Carmen (Lila Lee) who stays at home and prays for his safe return from the bullring. Juan’s fame spreads and he eventually becomes the greatest toreador in Spain. Decadent, devious evil vamp Dona Sol (Nita Naldi) sets out to seduce Juan and add him to her list of conquests.

While the film directed by Fred Niblo seems essentially simple–good vs. evil, a man derailed by his own fame and fortune, etc., the film is actually rather complex and powerful. Juan is seen as a victim of a rapacious society that demands entertainment through a horrendous, senseless blood sport–bullfighting. In one fascinating scene, Juan meets the infamous bandit Plumitas (Walter Long) face-to-face. Plumitas has charted Juan’s mercurial rise to fame with great interest and sees parallels in their different careers. Plumitas remarks that they are both poor men who have to face death for a living–but whereas Juan’s death will be greeted with pomp, ceremony and mourning, the state will delight at the bandit’s ignoble death. Plumitas obviously grasps and visualizes the inevitable brutal end of his bloody career, but Juan is troubled by the comparison.

A philosopher, Don Joselito, who collects torture devices to “remind himself of man’s inhumanity to man” acts as a narrator and moralist throughout the film. He too apparently studies Juan’s career and also recognizes its inevitable conclusion.

Valentino does an excellent job as the Andalusian peasant who gets in over his head and is finally corrupted by a wicked woman. It’s a sign of how absorbing a silent film is when dialogue isn’t missed, and with its haunting score, Blood and Sand is a must-see. The Alpha DVD quality is acceptable. The words on the screen faded in and out (but could still be seen) in a couple of spots, and the picture was a bit scratchy. Warning: The film contains actual footage of bullfights, but these scenes are fairly short.

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The Sheik/Son of the Sheik (1921 & 1926)

“For once your kisses are free.”

If you’ve heard about the charisma of silent star Rudolf Valentino and wondered what all the fuss is about, then a wonderfully packaged DVD from Image Entertainment is for you. The DVD presents two films The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926) and naturally, Valentino stars in them both. In The Sheik directed by George Melford, Valentino plays the role of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, a French-educated desert dweller. The incorrigible, willful heiress Lady Diana (Agnes Ayres) runs amok in an Arab town. The Sheik comes to town to gamble in the Arab-only casino, his eyes lock on Diana, and the die is cast. Diana sneaks into the casino disguised as a dancing girl, but all those veils don’t fool the Sheik, and he unmasks her. When the Sheik learns that Diana is taking a tour in the desert, he decides to kidnap her and take her to his sumptuous tent with the intention of making her his bride. Diana doesn’t take kindly to the kidnapping thing, and this makes for a bumpy romance….

The Son of the Sheik directed by George Fitzmaurice was made just 5 years later, and it’s the better of the two films. Valentino plays two roles–young Ahmed and his father the Sheik (the hero of the first film who’s now middle aged). Ahmed falls in love with Yasmin (Vilma Banky), a dancing girl whose father is a thief and a bandit. Yasmin’s father has promised her to another member of the gang, and this spurned lover sabotages Yasmin’s budding romance by capturing and torturing Ahmed. Ahmed, believing that Yasmin betrayed him seeks revenge–and of course this means carrying her off in the desert and throwing her in yet another sumptuous tent.

Image Entertainment’s juxtaposition of the two films allows the viewer to see the progress of Valentino as an actor. In the first film, his facial expressions are limited to gleeful grins, but in The Son of the Sheik he’s mastered a range of expressions–from cold disdain, to passion and distress. In The Sheik there’s an attempt at colorization. The daytime scenes are gold tinted. The dawn scene has a pink tinge–while the night scenes have a blue-black cast. The Son of the Sheik is much more fluid, much more exciting, and full of stunts–swordplay, fighting, and leaping on beautiful horses that race across the desert sands. The Son of the Sheik also displays Valentino stripped and tortured by the evil bandits, and the filmmaker is confident enough to include elements of comic relief found in the relationships between the thieves. The thieves’ lair–the Cafe–is stuffed full of smoking dancing girls with “hips full of abandon”, and they drive the customers mad with desire. But even with the humour, The Son of the Sheik is a much darker film for it contains a controversial implied rape scene.

Extras include three short clips of film. The first clip Rudolf Valentino and His 88 American Beauties is about 12 minutes long and shows Valentino judging a beauty contest. The second 3-minute clip is The Sheik’s Physique. It’s a teaser of sorts and shows Valentino undressing to change into a bathing suit before he lounges on the beach falling asleep. The third clip (about three minutes long) is newsreel of Valentino’s funeral in August 1926.

There’s an irony in the fact that The Son of the Sheik ‘ages’ Valentino almost beyond recognition by giving him a double role as both the hero and the hero’s father. Sadly, Valentino’s early death negated aging–he died at the age of 31 from complications of appendicitis just days after The Son of the Sheik premiered.

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Beyond the Rocks (1922)

“Fate seems to send you to me when I most need you.”

Beyond the Rocks a 1922 silent film directed by Sam Wood was re-discovered in 2000 and restored by the Netherlands Filmmuseum. The film is irreparably damaged in a couple of spots–but for silent film lovers, this film is exquisite. The story–which concerns star-crossed lovers–is fairly standard, but it’s the sole screen teaming of two silent megastars–Gloria Swanson and Rudolf Valentino.

Theodora Fitzgerald (Gloria Swanson) is the third, and youngest daughter of an impoverished, retired guardsman. The fortunes of the family–including Theodora’s two spinster sisters–rest on Theodora. Everyone hopes that she will make a fine match with a wealthy man. When the film begins, a very young Theodora ventures out in a rowboat, and is saved from drowning by Lord Bracondale (Rudolf Valentino). The meeting is a significant one, but they part. Years later, Theodora is married off to the elderly millionaire Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder), and while on a honeymoon in the Swiss Alps, Theodore reconnects with Bracondale….

Beyond the Rocks is an epic love story–beginning in Dorset, England, and then traversing to Switzerland, France, London, and then to the violence of the desert sands of the Sahara. Even though Valentino has some great heroic scenes as he rescues Theodora twice from certain death, this is largely Swanson’s film. The drama is marvelously, elegantly restrained, and the film is packaged together with a gorgeous score. DVD extras include: an introduction by Martin Scorsese, a stills gallery, a 54-minute film The Delicious Little Devil starring Valentino, a recording of Swanson from 1955, and various interviews and articles detailing the film restoration. For silent film lovers, or Swanson/Valentino fans, Beyond the Rocks is a lost treasure.

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The Eagle (1925)

“I don’t associate with masked men as a rule.”

Dashing Russian Army Lieutenant, Vladimir Dubrovsky (Rudolf Valentino) draws attention from Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser) when he heroically captures one of her favourite horses. Catherine wants to reward him by making him a general, and while that title comes with certain privileges, it also comes with certain obligations. Catherine makes it clear that she has amorous intentions towards her new general, and while she goes to her boudoir to slip into something more comfortable, Dubrovsky escapes to the provinces.

Dubrovksy intends to return to his family estate, but in his absence, it’s been seized by Kyrilla (James Marcus). Meanwhile, Catherine, enraged by the rejection of her latest love-toy, issues a warrant for his arrest and execution.

Dubrovsky dons a mask, and calling himself the Black Eagle, he and a band of loyal followers begin robbing and generally harassing Kyrilla at every opportunity. But then Dubrovsky meets the lovely Mascha (Vilma Banky)–Kyrilla’s only child….

The Eagle  directed by Clarence Brown is great entertainment for Valentino fans. The scenes between Dubrovsky and Catherine are wonderful, and while she eyeballs him head to foot, she doesn’t hide her admiration or her insatiable nature. Dubrovsky is depicted as coy and chaste–powerful qualities that no doubt drove his hordes of female fans to distraction, and this simple but entertaining romance works well as a vehicle for Valentino’s role as yet another impossibly dashing romantic hero.

This silent film from 1925 is a decent print marred by a few, thin, black vertical lines. The DVD has no extras, and if you’ve never seen Valentino I also recommend the two-for-one Sheik/Son of the Sheik. These two films show Valentino several years apart and he measurably hones his acting skills for the later film. The Eagle is great fun for Valentino fans, but it’s not his best.

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Cobra (1925)

“Women fascinate me–just like that Cobra and its victim.”

The silent film Cobra directed by Joseph Henabery is a perfect vehicle for Rudolf Valentino. In the film, Count Torriano (Valentino) is an incorrigible Don Juan who cannot help himself when it comes to relationships with women. Interestingly, Torriano’s moral redemption finally arrives through his friendship with a man.

The film begins in Italy with the father of a young woman seeking recompense against Count Torriani (Valentino). The father mistakenly confronts American antique merchant Jack Dorning (Casson Ferguson) instead, and this leads to a friendship between the Count and Dorning. While Count Torriani bemoans the fact that women won’t leave him alone, Dorning offers him a job in America. Working for Dorning’s antique business will give the impoverished count an income and steer him away from women. Well that’s the idea, anyway.

The film casts Valentino as the victim of a series of rapacious women, and just like anyone with an addiction, he can’t help himself. At one point the Count compares himself to the victim of a Cobra’s hypnotic stare, and the Cobra represents the alluring female sex. The film plays this idea of Valentino as the victim, the crushed misunderstood hero who is used and abused by nasty women, but Valentino could just as well have cast as a heartless seducer who sees women as disposable objects. This is a splendid vehicle for Valentino as the film allows scope him to appear simultaneously heroic and dastardly, and of course, the idea that he can’t help himself when it comes to women certainly adds fuel to the fire. Dorning’s wife Elise (Nita Naldi) plays the serpentine vamp who tests Torriani’s moral fibre. It’s Valentino’s respect and loyalty for Dorning that causes Valentino to make the ultimate sacrifice.

There’s a pervasive sadness throughout the film, and this tone matches Torriano’s sense of regret–a sense that’s delicately hinted at but never explored. Cobra was made just a year before Valentino’s death, and his acting skills are mature and well honed. Valentino’s subtle glances and facial expressions capture Torriano’s sense of lost possibilities, and the film’s strong moral tone underscores the fact that our actions carry consequences.

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