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Milk the Franchise | July 20, 2017

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The Son of the Sheik: Hollywood’s First Blockbuster Sequel

The Son of the Sheik: Hollywood’s First Blockbuster Sequel
Ron Seifried
In the silent movie era of the 1920’s, no other star was both swooned and reviled as Italian actor Rudolph Valentino. The pseudo-Latin lover captivated women and enraged jealous men with his flashing pearly white smile, model posing and strong physique.
 
The year 1921 saw Valentino in his breakout role in “The Sheik,” a story of risky passion based on Edith M. Hull’s romance novel of the same name. The film became so popular ($1.5 million in 1921), that “Sheik” became a catch-phrase for men who entrance women and made Valentino the world’s first male sex symbol and an international star.
 
Son of the Sheik
Rudolph Valentino embraces Agnes Ayres in “The Sheik.”
 
There wasn’t much to the story. Arabian Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan meets and kidnaps a free-spirited and adventurous Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres). The early version of cinema’s take on the Stockholm syndrome takes effect when Diana cannot resist the primitive, swarthy Sheik and succumbs to his charms, eventually marrying him.
In a side by side comparison, Valentino's Sheik first stares at Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), and women all over swooned.
In a side by side comparison, Valentino’s Sheik first stares at Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), and women all over swooned.
 
Critics and fans of the novel felt that excluding the rape of Lady Diana by Sheik Ahmed toned down the film from the original message, that non-American men were savages. Valentino himself was not spared from the reviewers. Even for a silent his acting was over the top, with a frozen, creepy grimace and the nostril flaring exercises accompanying it, you have to wonder how he became an international star.
 
His star power could be attributed to the birth of a new type of American women: the flapper. Short skirts, bob cut hair, excessive makeup, jazz aficionado and most importantly rebels of acceptable behavior for women at the time. The Victorian age was forever shattered with the progressive era and loose morals of the roaring twenties. Drinking, smoking, casual sex and even driving automobiles were unthinkable for a woman. Combined with the conservative repression of Prohibition and Congress passing the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, social turbulence was soon to follow.
 
Valentino was as much a sex symbol as he was a role model for rebellion of the American woman. For decades, repressed women were seen as inferior to the male dominated sex. The 1920’s was their breakout era; times to openly practice what men did and flaunt their behavior for society. Men facing feelings of inadequacy walked out on his movies, relating more to the “All-American” movie star Douglas Fairbanks and clearly threatened by the seductive Valentino women found attractive. Even love-making was put into question to the average 1920’s man, with comparisons of tame and unimpassioned performances in the bedroom to the exotic, sepia-toned fictional character on celluloid.
 
If you look at the original “Sheik” there is a compelling role reversal taking place. Valentino is the mysterious local inhabitant while Diana is the traveling adventurer rejecting her proper place in society. When first confronted with each other, Valentino’s intense, hypnotic gaze transposes Diana to be objectified into a sexual being, releasing all her prior desires and letting the Sheik take control. In one brief instant, Valentino becomes the most desired male fantasy for women.
 
Rudolph Valentino films are not considered important cultural artworks. If wasn’t for the fact that he starred in them, most of his films would probably have been lost along with the other 80%+ movies of the silent era. Adapting from trashy romance novels, most of his movies are looked upon as a social casualty of 1920’s filmmaking. What is lost in the Valentino story was his desperation to break out of the sexy leading man role to become an actor. The five year difference between the two Sheik films is striking in production value and Valentino’s desire to perfect his craft. Sadly, it would be his last film. He died two weeks after the premiere of “The Son of the Sheik.”
 

The Son of the Sheik

 
Edith M. Hull’s career as a novelist centered on the “desert-romance” genre that was sweeping the nation in the 1920’s. Although she wrote several similar themed books, only two focused on Sheik Ahmed. Screenwriter Frances Marion was commissioned to adapt Hull’s sequel and it was Valentino himself who suggested that he should play both father and son for the movie.
 
This was an interesting turnaround for Valentino. Fresh of the dissolution of his second marriage to designer Natacha Rambova who ran his career to a perilous decline for years, he gave an interview saying “I wanted to make a lot of money, and so I let them play me up as a lounge lizard, a soft, handsome devil whose only sin in life was to sit around and be admired by women….I was happier when I slept on a bench in Central Park than during all the years of that ‘perfect lover’ stuff….No, I am through with sheiking.”
 
Free to control his destiny, the more relaxed Valentino jumped into the sequel, embracing his loverboy image with more swashbuckling stunts, dual role as father and son and simply having fun with the part. The cinematography was improved with director George Fitzmaurice fast paced sequences, brief comedic turns and early special effects, makes this follow-up  vastly superior over the longer original. Agnes Ayres briefly reprised her role as the older Diana from the first film, now married to the Sheik.
Son of the Sheik
The infamous first embrace between Valentino & Yasmin (Vilma Banky) in “Son of the Sheik”
 
The sequel picks up the story about 25 years after the original. The son, also Sheik Ahmed, falls in love with a poor local dancing girl Yasmin (Vilma Banky), who happens to be part of a group of bandits led by her father. Briefly reuniting with his new found love in the dessert ruins under the moonlight, their embrace mixes romance, uncertainty, passion, lust in a scene that stands as one of the most influential coming out of the silent era.
 
During this romantic interlude, the Sheik is kidnapped and tortured the(first of several bondage scenes) by the bandits, led by Gahbah (Montagu Love), a menacing presence that stands out throughout the movie. The Sheik eventually escapes and seeks revenge by easily kidnapping Yasmin from the bandits.
Son of Sheik
Kidnapped & tortures by a band of thieves, Valentino contemplates escape
 
Convinced that Yasmin is nothing more than a common woman with diabolical intentions, the broken hearted Sheik throws her on his bed, threatens to hit her, then suddenly pulls back smoking a cigarette. Yasmin briefly fights back, unable to stop him as he kisses her, saying “For once your kisses are free” and the scene fades to black alluding to forced intercourse.
Rudolph Valentino
Before the implied rape, Valentino has a cigarette
 
Rapists never get cheered in storytelling today, but Valentino was the exception. Considered one of the sexiest scenes of the silent era, it was one of the earliest examples of “rape fantasies” in cinema. The phrase used in context today alludes to a man claiming his property more than an actual violent encounter with forcible physical battery.
 
Humiliating Yasmin even further, she is sent back into the dessert on a donkey, an interesting parallel to Diana’s forced encounter with a fellow Englishman from the first movie. A touch of religious worship follows for the lovelorn Yasmin, praying to Allah to cleanse her of feelings for the Sheik. This proves unsuccessful as she is convinced her heart belongs to the Sheik, despite the forgotten, implied rape
 
The Sheik is later convinced that he was not betrayed by Yasmin and attempts to rescue the girl from capture and certain rape by Gahbah, and along with his father ends up in a decent action sequence, with close-up sword fighting, jumping on horses, swinging from chandeliers and great early special effects combining the two “Valentino’s” in one frame.
Son of the Sheik
Like father, like son. Some clever optical manipulation & editing combing two Valentino’s in one shot.
 
The film ends up with a happy ending, the younger Sheik hooking up with Yasmin and the older Sheik expressing his disappointment in the dancer has beneath his son. The submissive theme of both films is wrapped up in one line with Diana telling the older Sheik “What you wanted, you took.”
Son of the Sheik
Mid-air jumping on a horse.
 
Although dated now, the sequel sought to contain the uncontrollable female audiences of the time by implicitly calling out woman seeking adventure with the lesson that eventually they will be controlled by men. A dilemma accepted by the female novelist and perpetuated by the male dominated studio executives. Unknowingly to the female fan base, the image of Valentino was redirected to contain a woman’s freedom.  
 
While on a promotional tour for “The Son of the Sheik,” the world’s first great sex symbol died at the age of 31 or peritonitis and a perforated ulcer. The legend grew when thousands mourned the movie star (including my Sicilian grandfather), riots erupted and a few suicides were reports.
 
Despite the tongue-in-cheek performance, “Son of the Sheik” became Valentino’s most successful film. It was to be his comeback picture after years of weaker vehicles, but his death just prior to its release fueled his legacy to a place he never intended. The other legacy of this forgotten 1926 film, it was one of the first profitable sequel’s to come out of Hollywood. A genre was born.  
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