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.

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