George Fitzmaurice: The Son of the Sheik (1926) | poster excerpt
Poster excerpt from The Son of the Sheik (1926) | Wikipedia, public domain

The Sexual Politics in Sexy Rudolph Valentino’s Silent Film, ‘The Sheik’

Eyebrows tilting and nostrils flaring and emanating pheromones of intoxicating effluvia, Foreigners like Valentino’s Sheik had un-American sex all over Hollywood.

The Sheik
George Melford
2 November 2021

Item 25 in the Paramount Presents line of remastered classics on Blu-ray is a surprise. The studio has reached far back into the vaults to celebrate the 100th anniversary of one of the most seismic shocks in the history of Hollywood and world cinema: George Melford’s torrid and titillating The Sheik (1921), the film that confirmed the super-stardom of Rudolph Valentino.

To spell it out, this film is all about S-E-X. Therefore, it’s a textbook of sexual politics of its era, illustrating what couldn’t or couldn’t be said or done, and by whom, and what might be shown or implied.

The crux of the matter is the mores and shibboleths surrounding the middle-class American woman, the iconic Good Girl who’s supposed to be above vulgar impulses unsanctioned by church and state and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. She’s not allowed to want what she’s not supposed to want, and anyone who implies otherwise will be slapped for besmirching American womanhood.

At the same instant, and contrariwise, the threat or promise or possibility of such things sells tickets, so we’re talking about wanting and not wanting at the same time. The Good Girl becomes the battlefield, not only externally in the world but in her internal self, as she wrestles with the devil of desire. She may feel a strange erotic pull in an overpowering presence, but she’s not allowed to be a “hussy” or “tramp”.

The problem must be solved, for the viewer and the woman, by having the overpowering male make the decision for her, even against her visible protests. This raises the spectre of romanticized rape, or at least a highly ambiguous dance of denial and desire, that surely did a number on the psychology of generations of women continuing to this day. Hollywood never invented this specious cultural convention but it sure figured out how to sell it.

The most subversive and problematic way to interpret this phenomenon is to seize upon its falseness as a strategy not only to sell sex but for Good Girls to do the buying while remaining non-culpable. This twisted morass of justifications is among the most perverse thought-creatures bred in a civilization that fears and loathes sex, in which sex must be discouraged and regulated as much as possible, fenced off by fears and taboos, and especially in which women’s traffic with their bodies must be vigorously controlled and repressed.

“Hey, mister, are you ever going to talk about this movie?” Pipe down, son, I’m on a roll. Okay, okay, let’s glance at the movie for a moment.

Jesse Lasky’s production is adapted by one Monte M. Katterjohn from Edith M. Hull’s scandalous 1919 bestseller. Hull belongs to an army of women writers aimed at female consumers among the working shopgirls and secretaries and housewives with spending money and leisure time in the rapidly developing middle-class economy. These were the purchasers of story magazines and pulp novels and movie tickets.

Such writers, including Elinor Glyn, Edna Ferber, Fanny Hurst, Faith Baldwin, and many others to whom Hollywood turned for inspiration, were the best and most subtle sailors upon this sea of shibboleths and shifting values. Here, Hull wrote a novel in which respectable morality (British, not American, but same difference) chafes against the lure of the sexual, presented as exotic because they both have “ex” in them.

“Hey, you said you were going to talk about the movie.” Hush, child, you bother me.

To import sex into film scenarios, Hollywood invented the Foreigner. With their eyebrows tilting and nostrils flaring, emanating their pheromones of intoxicating effluvia, emerging from their countries of Hindus and Catholics and other such vague “heathens”, Foreigners had shameless un-American sex all over the place. Neither the midwestern white protestant Good Girl nor even the All-American Good Boy was safe, fortunately for box office purposes.

Thus, Cecil B. DeMille made a fortune with The Cheat (1915). In this silent film, the respectable American housewife is presented as a dishonest person who makes a bargain with the more honorable and brazenly sexual Japanese businessman played by Sessue Hayakawa, one of Hollywood’s first and most important “exotic” male sex symbols.

Thus also, Theda Bara became a star as “the Vamp” in Frank Powell‘s A Fool There Was. Her thrilling sexual voracity, which means any kind of forwardness, could only be explained by vague and varying “exotic” nationality, never mind that she was born Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati, Ohio. A flood of foreign vamps followed, such as Pola Negri and Alla Nazimova, both of whom became associated with Valentino.

To Hollywood and the great unsophisticated masses it served, first-generation immigrant Valentino was Italian (and Catholic), therefore of Mediterranean origin, and therefore virtually the same as a Muslim Arab for The Sheik. One didn’t split hairs over trivia. Other was Other.

Paramount’s Blu-ray package comes with a reproduction of the iconic poster: Henry Clive‘s painting of the title figure in profile, his eyelashes delicate, his mouth seemingly lipsticked. He’s an androgynous sex symbol, calculated to appeal in some way to nearly everyone. His death at 31 in 1926 triggered one of the thronging funerals of the century, complete with hysterical breakdowns and several alleged suicides of fans, some of whom were men. Thus do we project our fantasies upon the screen or perhaps extract what fantasies we require.

Valentino’s billing as “the Latin Lover” triggered a wave of “Latin Lovers”, of whom Ramon Novarro and Dolores del Rio became most prominent. What would Hollywood have done without its foreign sex objects?

Clara Bow became famous as “the It Girl,” It being sex appeal, but she was never a vamp. If you study her films, she was an All-American Good Girl just a little rowdy to match the flappers of the Roaring 20s, but don’t get the wrong idea. She was no Foreigner.

In the Talkies, Marlene Dietrich became the go-to glittering Foreigner with an unabashed sexual experience. In the postwar era, Deborah Kerr became the dignified, acceptably English version who could get away with adultery because she had such a classy accent.

“Say, are we at the movie yet?” Keep your shirt on, junior, here we are.

At barely over an hour, The Sheik tells the story of Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), who’s notorious among the proper English ladies at Biskra (“where the new civilization rubs shoulders with the old”) for her unladylike behavior. This includes telling a boyfriend that “Marriage is captivity – the end of independence. I’m content with my life as it is.” She announces a “madcap” birthday trip into the desert accompanied only by Arab guides, so the good ladies wash their hands of her because English women have standards to maintain.

Diana disguises herself as an Arab maiden and sneaks into the casino when it’s taken over as a “marriage market” by a beloved local prince, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Valentino). Her feisty foreign Otherness catches his eye, and he serenades her that night while plotting to hijack her to his oasis, because “when an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her”. When she asks why she’s been kidnapped, he flashes his huge smile and says, “Aren’t you woman enough to know?”

So far so high-handed, yet his heart melts when he sees her sobbing and he lets her alone while treating her as an honored guest who’s not allowed to leave. This is apparently a major difference from Hull’s novel, which did include rape. As academic-historian Leslie Midkiff Debauche explains in a brief bonus, the film follows the same conventions as many of today’s romances, in which the man must reform his impetuosity into respectful love and the woman must evolve toward love by his gorgeous eyes, his laughing smile, his manly power, all that stuff like that there. To be shallow, this is where casting matters.

It helps that Diana must be rescued from a real scalawag without noble impulses, and finally, The Sheik pulls out the Tarzan defense. Just as Tarzan somehow symbolizes Africa while being not only white but an English aristocrat for good measure, so our Sheik is revealed as a half-English, half-Spanish orphan raised by the old Sheik as his son and heir. And there you have it. He’s English like Lady Diana! Everyone raises hands in praise of Allah at the fade-out. No, seriously.

How’s the “Mohammedanism” in general? It’s handled with about as much multiculturalism as 1921 Hollywood could muster, which is a trifle more than you may think, except for casting. The treatment of women like chattel is presented as a “barbaric” custom that nobody bothers to condemn, in contrast to how Lady Diana’s “New Woman” modernism is trashed by her fuddy-duddy compatriots.

When a title card says “The children of Araby dwell in happy ignorance that civilization has passed them by”, it’s an ambiguous slap in both directions, while the remark about old and new civilizations rubbing shoulders acknowledges vastly differing values. The religious observances aren’t mocked, as Hollywood was careful to avoid such things; the cards merely tell us it’s a world of saints and sinners. The dialogue implies both civilizations have forms of captivity.

It’s difficult to convey how overwhelmingly popular this film was among American middle-class respectable citizenry, especially Good Girls. Its Wikipedia page cites Richard Abel’s Silent Film (Continuum, 1996) in stating that some reviewers thought a watered-down, censor-pleasing version of Hull’s bestseller wouldn’t be so appealing, and that shows a lack of faith in Hollywood’s understanding of its audience. The studios have hardly ever watered down a scandalous bestseller without selling gobs of tickets.

You can start to grasp why during the hero’s closeups because Valentino still gives great headshots. He’s boyish, manly, subtly feminine, expressive, playful, glowering, and just beautiful, even when telling Diana things like, in reference to her traveling costume, “You make a very charming boy but it was not a boy I saw two nights ago in Biskra.” Jiminy!

According to Paramount’s PR, this restoration used one print source for the main image and another for intertitles. Adjustments were required, such as undoing the “stretch-printing” (an accommodation to talkie speed), and tints and tones were reproduced from archival notes. The results look impressive, and there’s a new score by Roger Bellon.

The stars reunited for The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice, 1926), in which Valentino plays a dual role. Paramount even spoofed the property with a gender-switched She’s a Sheik (Clarence Badger, 1927), a vehicle for the marvelous Bebe Daniels; a print was discovered in 2017, and that would be instructive. Either or both of these follow-ups would have made great additions to the package but I suppose we can’t have everything. For the record, you can find The Son of the Sheik on Blu-ray from Kino Classics.

What we do have is a historically important hit that, even with its eye-rolling elements, looks good and plays as smooth melodrama injected with star power. And, surprisingly, not all of the supposedly dated elements are as dated as you may assume. If you wish to use the film as a yardstick for how far we’ve come, you’ll see that it ain’t always that far.

RATING 8 / 10
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