Friday, April 5, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra'


The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra

Dir: Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich

Scr: Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich

Pho: Gregg Toland, Paul Ivano

Ed: not stated

Premiere: 1928

11 min.

Hollywood avant-garde film is an oxymoron, pretty much. Not a lot of non-standard narrative work has emerged from the confines of Tinsel Town.

Yet here is a remarkable example of DIY filmmaking, right on the cusp between the silent and sound eras. It was the brainchild of Frenchman Robert Florey, but it involved two who would become the most honored film professionals in Hollywood – Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland.

Florey was an ambitious film journalist who migrated to Hollywood in 1921, finding work in various capacities until he began to catch on as a director. Shortly after his first film, One Hour of Love (1927), he created this satirical short, paying for the production out of his own pocket – working with a budget rumored to be only $97.

Using handmade sets and miniatures, one 400-watt lightbulb for illumination, and the efforts of a few friends, Florey and Vorkapich crafted a 13-minute mini-epic that relates the sad tale of John Jones, a naïve aspiring actor who wants to make it big in the film world. Instead, his forehead is embossed with the number 9413, and he is condemned to an existence as a lowly extra, little better than a living puppet.

Meanwhile, another extra who’s able to hold masks of stereotypes in front of his face is acclaimed and given a star on his forehead, elevated to prominent status.

Poor 9413 continues to run up against the sign: “No casting today.” His bills pile up, he wastes away, and expires. Magically, he is transported to Heaven, where his number is erased from his forehead and he is given wings.

Florey showed the film to his friend Charlie Chaplin, who loved it. Chaplin in turn screened it for some of Hollywood’s high and mighty, and as a result got the film a bit of distribution – a surprising turn of events for a film that so solidly criticizes the industry.

Florey would go on to be a prolific and competent director of B movies, including the Marx Brothers’ first feature, The Cocoanuts, and the Expressionism-tinged Murders in the Rue Morgue. Vorkapich would become a master cinema craftsman, whose specialty was creating montages for mainstream Hollywood films. The camera operator, still at the beginning of his career, was Gregg Toland, an innovative cinematographer who would become legendary for his work on such films as Citizen Kane, winning an Oscar for Wuthering Heights (1939).

So much talent focused on so intimate a project gives the film a rich beauty, and makes its message just as current today as it was in 1928.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Seventh Heaven.

Friday, March 22, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Jazz Singer' (1927)

The Jazz Singer

Dir: Alan Crosland

Scr: Alfred A. Cohn

Pho: Hal Mohr

Ed: Harold McCord

Premiere: Oct. 6, 1927

89 min.

There are a few American films that are landmarks, but that are also fatally flawed. Such is the case with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which peddled animistic views of African-Americans, portrayed by white men in blackface. Such is the case with The Jazz Singer, whose more casual and unspoken racism is almost more disturbing.

It’s the central character’s use of blackface twice in the film that sinks it for us today. We can handle the idea of guy wanting to grow up and become a great jazz singer. What we are no longer capable of understanding is how making oneself up as a caricature of a Black person and singing sentimental ballads was ever a big and ever-present thing, the height of the entertainment experience.

It was and continued to be a thing. The minstrel show began in the 1840s, and remained popular for decades among white audiences. Blackface can be found in Babes in Arms (1939) and Holiday Inn (1942). Jolson would go on to appear in blackface on film nine more times. Only the post-World War II generation began to think of such antics as distasteful.

It’s The Jazz Singer’s prestige as the first sound film that preserves it in our memories, although it’s sound sequences are brief, a half-dozen strung along the course of the narrative, mostly musical numbers.

Despite the ridiculous level of background racism, oddly the film isn’t about that. It’s about GUILT, Jewish guilt specifically. Young Jakie Rabinowitz is the son of a Jewish cantor (a singer of sacred songs), one of generations of the same. His father wants Jakie to follow in his footsteps, but Jakie likes to hang out in beer parlors and sing that low-down jazz. His father forbids him to sing jazz, and Jakie runs away, breaking his very understanding mother’s heart in the process.

We fast-forward to an adult Jakie, now the Americanized “Jack Robin,” played by the inimitable Al Jolson. There was something extraordinary about Jolson’s manner. He was the last of the great pre-microphone era singers, someone who could project and make himself felt all the way to the back row of the theater. He had big, expressive eyes and a ready grin.

Above all, he had energy. His live-wire, shuffling, gesticulating attack of a song transmitted his nervous enthusiasm to the crowd, who responded with adulation. This technique adapted itself well to film. Jolson was as one time termed “the world’s greatest entertainer,” and it is arguable that it was so. He certainly impresses with his renditions of “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” and “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” early on in the film. (Look close, you’ll see William Demarest; Roscoe Karns and Myrna Loy have small parts, too.)

Jack Robin finally gets his big break on Broadway, and he returns home to kiss and hug his mother, give her presents, and sing a few songs for her. His father, who has disowned him, comes home unexpectedly while Jack is riffing on “Blue Skies.” “Stop!” he shouts, the last time a line of dialogue is heard in the movie. The sanctimoniousness of the cantor ironically squelches sound.

Opening night of the big show approaches – but so does Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and repentance. Jack is ready to take the stage, but then his mother shows up at the theater – his father is dying, and there is no one to sing the Kol Nidre, the unique, beloved, and ancient song that opens the Yom Kippur ceremonies. Can Jakie do it? What about his career? What’s he going to do, ruin his future or break his mother’s heart?

Suffice it to say Jack gets his cake and eats it too. The audience is given a solemn, tear-jerking ending to Jack’s story, then gives him one more number in the spotlight, all blacked up and singing “Mammy” for an adoring crowd that includes his mother, who always believed in him and told him that God made him an entertainer. The levels of mother love in this film are near toxic.

So, to our modern minds, in order to understand the film you have to take everything with a huge grain of salt. When Jakie becomes Jack, he suppresses his Jewishness to be more acceptable. When he dons blackface, he assumes the privilege of the white entertainer to mock his supposed inferiors. When he turns around and stakes claim to his Jewish identity, he restores his integrity and reconnects himself to his past. And then it’s back in blackface again for the big finish.

It’s a story about assimilation, about fathers and sons. It’s the pioneer of a new technology. Thanks to the evolution of society, what we mostly have now though is a problematic milestone in cinema history.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra.




Thursday, March 14, 2024

The NFR Project: "It" (1927)


Dir: Clarence Badger, Josef von Sternberg

Scr: Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton

Pho: H. Kinley Martin

Ed: E. Lloyd Sheldon

Premiere: Feb 19, 1927

72 min.

This is a story about early cross-promotion, or, as you might call it, a racket.

Elinor Glyn was an English writer who specialized in popular literature – that is, lightly erotic and racy material, stuff to amuse the casual reader of romances. She went to Hollywood, and crafted 28 screenplays there in the course of a decade during the silent period. She was phenomenally successful, and she began to be regarded as an arbiter of taste.

She coined the idea of “It” in 1914. A simple euphemism for sex appeal, she wrote on “It” in Cosmopolitan, a popular magazine. She dubbed up-and-coming actress Clara Bow as the “’It’ Girl.” Glyn supplied the source material for the film “It”, adapted it, and appeared in the film starring Bow to boot, to define her concept of “It.” The film was a smash hit, and everyone involved profited. Bow was now a star, and Glyn’s name and ideas were cast broadly across the culture.

“It” is an inoffensive, Cinderella story about a lowly shopgirl (Bow) who finds love and contentment with her boss, the young and sociable Cyrus (Antonio Moreno) despite a few minor setbacks and misunderstandings. Bow plays Betty Lou as an energetic, charismatic do-gooder with a heart of gold, a spunky lass whose big eyes and healthy grin make her an ambassador of the “It” concept.

Badger, who also directed two of Raymond Griffith’s best silent comedies, would see his career slow to an end at the beginning of the sound era. Von Sternberg would of course move on to sweeping epics with Marlene Dietrich at their centers. Bow would continue to make films for a decade, finally retiring young at the age of 28. Glyn returned to England and went back to writing novels.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Jazz Singer.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The NFR Project: 'The General' (1927)


The General

Dir: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

Scr: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith

Pho: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings

Ed: Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell

Premiere: Dec. 31, 1926

75 min.

Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General is meticulous and precise, beautiful like a set of mathematical propositions, or a Bach cantata. There’s not an extraneous frame – everything leads to a stunning climax that is still the most spectacular gag ever staged. Most importantly, it’s still funny, all the way through.

Keaton’s comic persona here is the one he perfected over the previous decade – the stone-faced, stoic endurer of nature and fate’s insults. He is clever, but guileless, level-headed but awkward. He also happens to be a superbly trained, athletic physical comedian. He is the unsmiling, inventive clown of silent film.

The General is his eighth self-directed feature film, and he and his team of writers and of technical experts were at a peak of efficiency. He had gone into period filmmaking with his Our Hospitality (1923), and here, with the help of 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard, he convincingly recreates the sense and scale and sheer mass of the battles of the Civil War era.

Keaton is Johnnie Gray, a train engineer and solid son of the South. (Keaton wisely puts his protagonist on the side of the underdog.) When war is declared, he attempts to join the Confederate Army, but is rejected because, unbeknownst to him, he is more valuable to the Cause as an engineer. His sweetheart and her family reject him, and his disconsolately returns to the cab of his engine.

However, the Union has a plan. It seeks to steal Buster’s train and ride it back to Northern lines, burning bridges and wrecking track on its way. Buster makes chase on foot, and is soon the only person still going after the train. Still he doggedly pursues the Union men, hurtling via handcar, bicycle, and finally in another engine towards his goal.

Keaton is fascinated with how things work. He loves using stage machinery and camera tricks. In this film, set primarily out of doors, he is still indulging with problems negotiating space in time, but he is doing so in an epic way. He gets to play with real-life, full-sized trains. The trains speed up, slow down, reverse, change tracks, couple and uncouple, do everything but pirouette. Keaton makes these large, clumsy machines lead a kind of elephantine dance.

Buster chases the Yankees, who fortuitously have kidnapped his girlfriend to boot. Discovered to be alone, he must dash away and hide from those he pursued. He comes upon a house in a rainstorm, enters, and finds himself hiding beneath a tableful of plotting Union generals. He discovers their plans, and escapes, having found his girl there as well and rescuing her.

Now the chase is reversed. Buster steals back the General and flees south, with the Union in hot pursuit. Now it’s he and his girlfriend’s task to deter the Yankees. This is does with dimwitted assistance from her, which leads to her being throttled, briefly, before Buster kisses her. Ah, romance.

The girlfriend role is largely ornamental, propelling some of the plot and giving our hero a goal to achieve, that is, union with her. Marion Mack does just fine as the fair Annabelle Lee, taking a few tumbles and generally acting as straight woman. Buster’s real love affair is with the locomotive. He clambers all over it, plumbs its comic possibilities, clearing happy transforming

The crowning moment of absurdity arrives finally when a Union general orders the pursuit train to cross a bridge damaged by fire. Orders are followed, and the general and his army watch as the train teeters and crashes down into the river beneath. Cut back to the straight-faced pain in the general’s face, as he gestures listlessly for his men to go forward.

As Tim Dirks reports, this stunt cost $42,000 – the most expensive shot in silent film history. After the debacle at the bridge, the Southern forces charge against the Union soldiers and drive them back. Buster is now, finally, a hero.

The whole production was massively expensive, and the film did not recoup its cost in its initial run, in addition to being critically panned. It took decades for its dark sense of humor and its kinetic grace to be appreciated.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Clara Bow in It.



Thursday, February 8, 2024

The NFR Project: 'Flesh and the Devil'


Flesh and the Devil

Dir: Clarence Brown

Scr: Benjamin Glazer, Marian Ainslee

Pho: William H. Daniels

Ed: Lloyd Nosler

Premiere: Dec. 25, 1926

109 min.

This is a story of two people intersecting, gloriously, before one rose to stardom and the other faded away into oblivion. It’s the real-life version of (and perhaps the template for) films such as A Star Is Born. It’s the story of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo.

John Gilbert was an established screen star. He began in the movies in 1915, enduring years of apprenticeship and supporting roles in Hollywood before attaining leading-man fame in 1924, in King Vidor’s His Hour (1924). He was quickly labeled as suitable primarily for romantic leads, and termed “The Great Lover.” He had a contentious relationship with fame.

Greta Garbo was a shy young Swedish actress of 19 when she was chosen to star in The Story of Gosta Berling (1924). She was immediately noted for her beauty and for her subtle acting technique. She quickly gained a prominent role in her next film, G.W. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925). Meanwhile, Hollywood mogul L.B. Mayer saw her in Berling and vowed to make her a star. With her appearance in The Temptress (1926), only her second Hollywood film, she too was seen as a bankable star, honored as an aloof beauty.

Fate brought the two together in Flesh and the Devil. Their immediate attraction to each other is palpable in this film. At the same time their characters intertwined in a story of tragic love, so did they become a highly publicized couple, moving in together and talking of marriage.

But first, the film. It’s a misogynistic, homophilic tale of two wealthy childhood friends in Germany who swear eternal devotion in their youth. Unfortunately, one of them (Gilbert) falls for a mysterious and amoral woman who neglects to tell him she is married. When her husband finds the two of them, he demands satisfaction. At dawn, the men meet for a duel, and Gilbert slays his rival.

Sent away in disgrace, he asks his friend to take care of Garbo’s character. Three years later, he returns to find that she has married his friend. Once again, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to her. This leads, naturlich, to yet another duel. Fortunately, our friends stop their feuding and reconcile, as Garbo, en route to stop them, falls through the frozen surface of a lake and drowns. Curtain.

It's all fairly standard romantic-drama fare (the rich production design helps elevate the drama), but it is extraordinary to see two people falling in love on camera. Their scene kissing in the garden is iconic. Their chemistry is palpable, and Garbo’s face is astonishingly expressive. Garbo was so pleased that she used director Clarence Brown, and especially cinematographer William H. Daniels, who she felt made her look as good as possible on screen, in many of her future films. Gilbert and Garbo were to make three more silent features together, all of them successful.

Then came the sound era. Garbo, despite her accent, kept making hits. Gilbert, however, did not make the transition effectively. Though it has long been a legend that his voice was not suited for sound film, the reality is that industry politics meant that he was sabotaged. And, quite simply, his star was sinking. Despite a number of attempted comebacks, he never regained his silent-era popularity. He began to drink heavily. Garbo tried to help him by insisting he be cast opposite her in Queen Christina (1933), but despite his skill in that role, it was no use. He received worse and worse roles. Finally, he died of a heart attack in 1936, at the age of 38.

Garbo went on to become a legend. Choosy about her roles, she maintained her screen persona of aloof beauty, for another decade, one of the highest-paid and highest-regarded stars of her time. She retired in 1941, at the age of 36.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Keaton’s The General.



Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The NFR Project: 'The Battle of the Century'


The Battle of the Century

Dir: Clyde Bruckman

Scr: Hal Roach, H.M. Walker

Pho: George Stevens

Ed: Richard C. Currier

Premiere: Dec. 31, 1927


I love Laurel and Hardy. I consider their films, especially their shorts – which did not necessitate padding in the form of an involved narrative and some musical numbers, as their features sometimes did – to be the perfect cure for what ails you. Their subtle interplay, their exquisite timing, their deadpan slapstick, their flailings against fate and each other, and the obvious deep connection between the two makes for comedy of a heightened order, best absorbed in concentrated, bite-size pieces.

In The Battle of the Century, we see them at the very beginning of their creative partnership. Stan Laurel was a vaudeville comedian who had come to America (along with an unknown named Charlie Chaplin) in Fred Karno’s variety troupe in 1912, and who wandered into filmmaking out West as a solo comedy performer. Oliver Hardy was a boy tenor who literally grew into “heavy” roles, playing the villain or second banana in over 100 early movies. They were teamed by Hal Roach, the expert producer, director, and screenwriter of silent comedy.

Stan was the innocent, the dim-witted naif and Ollie was the overbearing bully, but they were bosom companions and stuck together no matter what the (usually awful) outcome of their adventures turned out to be. This balance of personalities resulted in enduring comedy.

With this film, they had expert help. Roach co-wrote the script and Clyde Bruckman was a highly skilled comedy director. Even more importantly, the film bears the credit “Supervised by Leo McCarey.” McCarey’s excellent sense of fun and brilliant staging of gags would be made obvious in his later films as a director, including Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers, The Awful Truth, and Going My Way – and would win him three Oscars to boot. The director of photography was none other than George Stevens, who would go on to win two Oscars as a director himself.

We open on a stock setting for a comedy – a boxing ring. Up against the monstrous Thunderclap Callahan (L & H regular Noah Young) is poor Stan, Canvasback Clump. Callahan glares mercilessly across the ring; Stan responds with his typical deer-in-the-headlights look. Ollie is his hapless manager, to whom Stan can’t really pay attention to. Stan accidentally knocks down the Champ, but he keeps interrupting the referee’s count by peering over his shoulder at the fallen fighter. Eventually Stan and the ref go at it, rolling around the ring.

The Champ gets his wits back and of course fells Stan with one punch. The pair win $5 as a result and Ollie spends it on an insurance policy for Stan -- $1,000 in case of injury. (The insurance salesman is future character actor Eugene Pallette.) Next, we find the two walking down a city street. Stan nearly slips on a banana peel (yes, even then a tired premise). Ollie tries to make him slip again, but only succeeds in making a policeman fall down. Ollie diverts responsibility to Stan, who gets a nice clonk on the head with a nightstick. He doesn’t cry out in the pain, he simply goes to sleep standing up. It’s only when Ollie wakes him does he begin one of his distinctive crying spells.

In the meantime, the errant peel trips up someone else – this time a man bearing a tray of pies (Charlie Hall, another L & H regular). The boys again try to trade blame, but it’s on Oliver the hapless pieman vents his spleen, tweaking his face. He turns away, and Stan blows a raspberry. Hall calmly grabs up a pie and smashes it into Ollie’s face.

Now the comic beauty of the film comes into full bloom. By this time, the pie in the face was one of the most overused comic moments in pictures. Those who made the film were evidently thoroughly tired of the conceit, and decided to make the pie fight of all pie fights, once and for all. [They were perhaps bested by Blake Edwards, considering his massive pie fight in The Great Race (1965).]

Oliver calmly considers his pie-spattered self. He thinks. He goes to the pies, and gets ready to pie Charlie Hall. He misses and hits a woman. She enters the fray, tries to pie Ollie, and hits yet another bystander.

There is a slow, geometric progression of outrage. Innocent parties get pied. They stop. They fume. Then they in turn, calmly and deliberately, try to pie those who pied them. Each time the pies land, the people involved rush to the pie van to get fresh pies, waiting respectfully for everyone to be ready before beginning another assault. The increase in flying baked goods grows exponentially.

Soon pies are flying up and down the avenue, with dozens of combatants and thousands of pies (somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 pies were used!). Finally, Stan and Ollie run from the police, around the corner and out of the frame.

Once and for all, the comic pie fight was put to bed. The epic scale of the collective insanity of humanity has rarely received a better rendition on film.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Flesh and the Devil.



Sunday, January 28, 2024

The NFR Project: 'The Strong Man' (1926) and the problem of Harry Langdon


The Strong Man

Dir: Frank Capra

Scr: Arthur Ripley, Hal Conklin, Robert Eddy, Reed Heustis

Pho: Glenn Kershner, Elgin Lessley

Ed: Harold Young, Arthur Ripley

Premiere: Sept. 19, 1926

75 min.

Who can explain the popularity of silent-film comedian Harry Langdon in the 1920s? Not me.

Primarily on the strength of three successful features in a row made in 1926 and 1927, he was dubbed by famed critic James Agee in 1949 as one of the four great silent clowns, alongside Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.

However, Agee also famously referred to Langdon as having the demeanor of a “baby dope fiend” – giving performances that only read as creepy and disturbing today.

The Strong Man title is ironic as Langdon is here the meekest of the meek and the weakest of the weak. He is dimwitted to the point of imbecility.

In this film, Harry is a World War I Belgian solider who comes to America after the war to find his pen pal, Mary Brown, who is lovely, kind, and touchingly blind (then how did she write those letters?).

He falls in as the assistant to Zandow, the strong man. They travel until they wind up in Mary’s home town. Harry finds his love, and goes onstage, woefully, for his drunken master, displeasing the crowd until he fires Zandow’s cannon at them (his one non-impotent act) and he brings the local palace of sin down and drives its ugly and rapacious mob out of town.

It is extremely difficult to watch Langdon now. His comedy is grounded in the premise that he is childlike and naïve. However, Langdon pushes these traits to their extreme, giving us a character that is so passive that he is blown from one plot point to another without any exercise of will whatsoever.

You wonder how he can make his way across a room, let alone through an entire film. He is fate’s plaything, coy and innocent, slow-blinking and staring off into the middle distance. He gets the girl, but he can’t for the life of him figure out how he managed it. Even at film’s end, he stumbles and his blind girlfriend picks him up and guides him along, into the distance.

For some reason I can’t fathom, audiences found this persona enchanting, and he made a lot of money for First National Pictures. This is the second of the three key Langdon films, and the first feature directed by the soon-to-be-wildly-renowned Frank Capra, who got his real start in the industry years previous as a gagman for Our Gang and Mack Sennett. This film demonstrated Capra’s talents, and he directed the next and last memorable Langdon feature, Long Pants (1927).

There is no real hint of the earnestness of Capra’s strong future outlook and style, unless you think of Langdon as hopelessly, helplessly earnest in his obliviousness to the complexities of existence. After the success of Long Pants, the story is that Langdon now thought he was a genius and parted ways with Capra, who went on to better things as Langdon wasted away into obscurity in self-directed mediocrities, and finally odd comedy jobs for small studios.

He is not a transformational comedian like Chaplin, or an architect and engineer, as Keaton was. He doesn’t have Lloyd’s energy and optimism. Langdon can’t seem to do anything. He just, barely, is. He is condemned to a waifish insubstantiality, and requires the full attention of a benign world in order to exist.

It’s understandable that certain kinds of comedy go out of style. It’s just unfortunate that Langdon didn’t know when to leave well enough alone.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Battle of the Century.


Monday, January 15, 2024

The NFR Project: 'Son of the Sheik'


The Son of the Sheik

Dir: George Fitzmaurice

Scr: Frances Marion, Fred de Gresac, George Marion Jr., Paul Gerard Smith

Pho: George Barnes

Ed: Unknown

Premiere: July 9, 1926

80 min.

Silent film star Rudolph Valentino’s last picture was his biggest.

“Son of the Sheik” was a 1926 sequel (when sequels were a rarity) to his 1921 hit “The Sheik.” That initial film cemented Valentino in the minds of filmgoers as the great “exotic” lover. (A line of condoms was named Sheik, and the association with Valentino’s supposed sexual prowess made them a popular brand.)

Like so many screen sex symbols, Valentino wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. He made some attempts in this direction, which proved not too profitable. “Son of the Sheik” was a return to the heartthrob territory in which he excelled.

In the film, the young son of the original sheik (both father and son were played by Valentino, and they shared the screen through the magic of in-camera editing) falls in love with a dancing girl, but then is kidnapped by her family of bandits. The young sheik-to-be thinks his girl was in on the plot, and he spurns her until the truth is revealed. There are escapes, chases, storms, and moments of nearly compromised virtue.

Throughout, Valentino emits emotions penetratingly. He can manifest feeling on screen vividly. Here, he yearns, he suffers, he smolders all to perfection. It’s this fullness of emotional presence that women found so relatable – so dissimilar to the sober, hard-working, emotionally distant ideal American male of the time. Valentino didn’t love, he LOVED.

The film is problematic today for its portrayal of much of the Arabic world as consisting of thieves and brigands, and for the rather rape-y aspect of the male expression of love in the film, and general racist tone throughout . . . for hero and heroine, as in the first film, could not really be together unless both were of white parents – heaven forfend!

The film opened in early July of 1926. Valentino got busy promoting it. On August 15, he collapsed in his hotel room in New York City. After an operation for a perforated ulcer, he contracted peritonitis and died on August 23.

The movie went into nationwide release two weeks later, and went on to make more than two million dollars. Was it the novelty of the star’s demise that made it such a draw? Or was Valentino precisely, exactly where he needed to be onscreen – in an epic romantic adventure?

 The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Strong Man.