Silence is golden: A closer look at it – the sheikh (1921)
One of the big screen sensations of the early 1920s, the sheikh (1921) is the kind of silent film that is almost to easy to scoff at: it’s melodramatic, it’s cheesy, it’s based on a flowery romance, and it contains a lot of the over-the-top acting that people always thought was common at the time (there was a lot of naturalistic acting, I promise…!).
And when it comes to analyzing its star, the legendary Rudolph Valentino, some might scratch their heads. The bulging eyes, the stilted love scenes — it’s a performance that admittedly hasn’t aged like fine wine. But there are still moments that capture his charisma and help us understand his unique mystique. And of course, the sheikh is also a damn fine example of early 20th century camp.
After his breakthrough role as the fiery gaucho Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Curiously, Valentino’s subsequent roles didn’t exactly capitalize on his talent. chamomile (1921), for example, was primarily an artistic vehicle for its star, Alla Nazimova. Eventually he signed a deal with the more open-minded famous player-Lasky, who quickly decided the ‘exotic’ young Italian would make a perfect Sheikh Ahmed Ben Hassan the sheik her planned film adaptation of Edith M. Hull’s hugely successful romance novel. His co-stars would be Agnes Ayres, a modest brunette whose petite build made her co-star appear taller than him (various sources say Valentino was either 5’8″ or 5’9″) and the elegant Adolphe Menjou .
This novel was not only popular, but also corresponded to the prevailing trend for all things “Oriental”. The Far East was considered a place of exuberant beauty and mysterious allure, where passions were sure to run hot. Various starlets wore turbans and dresses made from “exotic” fabrics, and decorated their homes with lacquered tables, painted screens and heaps of silk cushions. Interest in “Orientalism” signaled that you were more mystical and artistic than the average austere type, and certainly more sensual.
In this atmosphere, Hull’s novel was practically made to order. It has elements that really cringe us today. It tells the story of Lady Diana Mayo, an adventurous young woman who insists on going on an excursion into the Algerian desert only in the company of a guide. She soon catches the eye of Sheikh Ahmed, who decides he must have her. He abducts her in a dramatic manner, gets his way with her and holds her captive for several months. Despite trying to escape, Diana eventually falls in love with Ahmed. When Diana is kidnapped again by a rival sheikh, Ahmed realizes he loves her too, and after a few twists and turns, all ends happy… so to speak.
Faced with such a scandalous plot, the famous gamers had to figure out how to get away with filming it. Parts were tempered out of concerns that the film would aim to depict miscegenation (despite a surprise twist at the end which I won’t spoiler here), while emphasizing that Ahmed did not physically harm Diana during her captivity. Rather awkwardly, Valentino’s narrow eyes were made up to appear rounder and his naturally tanned skin tone was lightened. His hands are still noticeably darker than his face and stand in stark contrast to Ayre’s delicate pale skin – probably intentionally, since the script mentions Ahmed taking her “white, trembling hands in his firm brown grip”. Interestingly, posters and lobby cards depict Valentinos Ahmed with a darker complexion. His iconic “sheikh” costumes of flowing robes, sashes, tassels and turbans were designed by his partner Natasha Rambova, who herself was very interested in all things Far Eastern.
the sheikh was filmed on location in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where the desert dunes were a good substitute for North Africa – or its romanticized version. The studio set up two large camps full of extras, which made the production feel like one big desert expedition. The director, George Melford, was a fan of westerns and hired a number of experienced riders for some of the shoots. He was happy to discover that Valentino was already a seasoned rider and ready to do whatever type of action the film needed. Natasha later said Valentino was “in his element”.
A bit of Hollywoodland magic was required for some of the exotic exteriors. An oasis was created by designing a series of full size palm trees in painted wood and canvas. These trees later ended up as a decoration in the famous Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in LA. Portions of Pathe stock footage of an Algerian city were included for some scenes, adding a bit of realism – but not too much. The overall effect was intended to be exotic fantasy rather than a rigorous recreation of real life, and much of the interior filming took place in ornate tents, where sides gently flapped in the wind and lush curtains framed the scenes. Melford also enjoyed filming scenes through Moorish-shaped doors, trying to add as much atmosphere as possible.
The acting, a bit notorious, was also part of the fantasy. Melford liked some of the pantomime-inspired tricks Valentino used, like widening the eyes to show desire, and encouraged it to the extreme. Similarly, Agnes Ayres displays a fairly limited range of exaggerated emotions, mainly fear, anger, and of course, love. It’s all a lot of fun today, but there were a few scenes that Valentino managed to get over – mainly a key scene where he feels remorse for scaring Diana. His gaze directly into the camera has a captivating quality that can still fascinate us today.
the sheikh was of course a big hit, although reviews were mixed. The acting was pretty snark, and there were even many complaints that the plot wasn’t as sharp as the book. But the consensus was that Valentino carried the film well – and there’s no doubt his fans felt the same way. the sheikh officially made the young actor a phenomenon, one of the biggest stars of the 1920s – and one of the biggest names in film history. And while his first major leading man may be difficult for 21st-century audiences to take seriously, he also has a cheesy charm that’s hard to forget.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.
Lea Stans is a born and raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely credits to Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion on her website, Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.