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​Remembering a movie icon on Blu-ray

by Christopher P. Jacobs | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Cinema | August 23rd, 2017

Wednesday, August 23, marks the untimely death at age 31 of movie superstar and international sex symbol Rudolph Valentino. Sicilian-born Valentino had become the celebrity symbol representing the 1920s, the archetypal “latin lover” soon imitated by numerous other actors, within eight years after he emigrated to the United States at age 18.

After work as a dancer and some theatre roles, he played movie bit parts and villains until his casting in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921) brought him to the attention of critics and audiences. Later the same year, his starring role in “The Sheik” turned him into a full-fledged sensation (among female movie patrons) and an irritation (to male moviegoers).

Both “The Sheik” (1921), his most famous film, and its sequel “The Son of the Sheik” (1926), which turned out to be Valentino’s final (and arguably best) film, came out in Blu-ray editions from Kino-Lorber this May.

“The Sheik” was adapted from a notorious and controversial best-selling 1919 romantic adventure novel by Edith Maude Hull, her first book and the most popular of her career. It was a book targeted exclusively for women readers, combining elements of feminist self-independence with an erotic undercurrent of desire for domination and submission, both commonplace today but far ahead of their time, considered so scandalous and salacious that women frequently had to hide the book from parents and/or boyfriends.

Hull’s book simultaneously helped revive the popularity of exotic orientalism and the appeal of Middle-Eastern, colonialist, and British stereotypes.

Paramount Pictures’ film version, naturally, sanitized much of the material, making the book’s more explicit rape elements ambiguous or eliminating them entirely. Nevertheless, female moviegoers knew the book (or its reputation) and flocked to the film.

“The Sheik” became a smash hit around the world, in the process making Valentino into a movie idol who came to represent the entire decade, even though he was not satisfied with his performance in the film.

Viewed today, the film can be appreciated as a significant historical artifact. If modern viewers are able to adjust to the style of high melodrama used through much of the story, it can also be watched as a very enjoyable romantic desert adventure of Lady Diana, a liberated young Englishwoman (Agnes Ayres) who is abducted by an Arab sheik (Valentino) and learns to love him while he learns to be a bit more sensitive and less self-centered.

The initially flamboyant acting mellows out as the film progresses and becomes somewhat more natural as the two central characters get to know each other better. Adolphe Menjou plays an author/doctor friend of the Sheik who helps mediate the relationship of the young couple.

Kino’s Blu-ray looks excellent for the most part, although for some reason a number of shots, especially during the first half-hour, are slightly out of focus, and there is occasional wear visible on the film source used.

An excellent pipe organ music score composed and performed by Ben Model accompanies the action appropriately.

Bonus features include an interesting analytical and informative commentary by historian Gaylyn Studlar, comparing the film with the book and orientalist pop culture of the time, while explaining context and background on the stars and crew, as well as Valentino’s sudden international icon status after this film.

There are also clips (in standard-definition) from the chaotic funeral procession, plus a trailer (also SD) from Valentino’s hit version of the famous bullfighting story “Blood and Sand” (1922).

THE SHEIK on Blu-ray -- Movie: B+ / Video: A- / Audio: A / Extras: B

After several hit-or-miss productions over the next few years, including his memorable “The Eagle” (1925), Valentino reluctantly agreed to do a sequel to his most famous film.

In “The Son of the Sheik” (1926), however, he took an intentionally satiric approach to his image and had the opportunity to play both the now more-mature father and the wilder, more impetuous son, who are often on the screen at the same time by means of excellent split-screen cinematography long before CGI made such effects easy and commonplace.

Obviously inspired by “The Sheik,” United Artists’ “The Son of the Sheik” incorporates similar romantic passion in its plot, but focuses much more on tongue-in-cheek swashbuckling action-adventure, with more sophisticated camerawork and editing.

The sheik’s son falls for a dancing girl (Vilma Bánky) he comes to believe has betrayed him to sadistic thieves, but naturally all works out in the end. Agnes Ayres returns briefly as his understanding mother (looking surprisingly more matronly only five years after the original film).

Picture quality on Kino’s Blu-ray is very good but not quite up to that on “The Sheik.” It was scanned from a 35mm print of the 1930s sound re-issue (at 1.18:1) that had been restored back in the late 1960s for the Paul Killiam Collection. Much of it looks slightly soft, with brief sections of heavy scratches, but overall it’s much sharper than DVD editions.

The music score by the Alloy Orchestra is among their best, and fits the action closely although it tends to be rather heavy on the synthesizer.

Several interesting bonus features include a 17-minute introduction and Valentino retrospective hosted by Orson Welles (in an HD scan from a soft 16mm print), and a montage of newspaper headlines chronicling Valentino’s death. There’s also a short silent documentary produced for home movie collectors with audio added so while the picture plays viewers can hear “The Sheik of Araby” pop song plus two songs Valentino recorded in the 1920s. A short called “Valentino at the Beach” and a trailer to “The Young Rajah” are also included. All are scanned in HD but from soft 8mm or 16mm film sources.

A commentary would have been nice, plus the option of the original 1930s music-effects soundtrack and/or the William Perry piano score originally on the Paul Killiam version.

THE SON OF THE SHEIK on Blu-ray -- Movie: A- / Video: B+ / Audio: A / Extras: B+ 

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