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The Sheik / The Son of the Sheik: Special Edition

Image Entertainment

Starring Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayers, Vilma Banky

Written by Monte M. Katterjohn
From the novel by Edith Maude Hull

Directed by George Melford

Restoration supervised by David Shepard

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

Today, eight decades later, it's disquieting to imagine the effect legendary screen lover Rudolph Valentino had on our grand- or great-grandmothers. By the time he starred in Paramount's The Sheik (1921), this charismatic matinee idol had become the first full-on Hollywood male sex symbol. With his lithe build and graceful style, he gazed at his heroines with a seductive blend of passion and melancholy, guaranteeing to moisten the sensibilities of enthusiastic female audiences. When the Valentino craze reached its pinnacle with a kitschy desert romance melodrama, The Sheik, women fainted in the aisles and Arab motifs influenced fashions and interior designs.

To the American woman, who had gained the power to vote only a year before The Sheik hit the screens, Valentino represented mysterious, forbidden eroticism, a vicarious fulfillment of illicit love and willing sexuality. It's not a stretch to assume that a great deal of the movie's enormous popularity stemmed from its subtext of women as independence-craving, freely sexual beings who would openly enjoy a good roll in the sand. So it's no surprise that The Sheik came under fire as being "morally objectionable," and some critical reviewers called for its censorship. Of course, Valentino was never confused with a great actor — but he was the right man at the right time. Like a Jazz Age Leonardo DiCaprio, he was handsome, not altogether untalented, and exuded a delicate, rather fey sexuality that made women swoon and red-meat men squirm with annoyance.

Here, in the role that he's best remembered for, Valentino plays Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, who spies free-willed Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayers) in his desert camp and determines that she will be his. Lady Diana finds the refined, Paris-educated Sheik alluring, yet she resists his amorous advances. But when she's kidnapped by the villainous Omair (Walter Long), who promises her a fate worse than death, the heroic Sheik and his army charge into fun action sequences to rescue Diana in the nick of time. With Sheik Ahmed severely wounded in the attack, Diana nurses him back to health and vows everlasting love to her adventurous hero.

The Sheik is populated by "Arabs" who look just like Southern Californians, and its comic-book idealization of the Sahara as a place "where the children of Araby dwell in happy ignorance" is now even less culturally sensitive than it was in the '20s. So what? The sets and costumes are lavish, and The Sheik never pretended to be more than an Arabian Nights romance novel given a lush Hollywood treatment. It appears on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 most passionate movies of all time.

*          *          *

In 1926, in one of the rare cases of a sequel improving on the original, the lively and rollicking The Son of the Sheik arrived. It's Valentino's last, and arguably his best, film. He takes two roles here — as both the now-older Sheik and his hot-blooded son Ahmed. Ever-faithful Diana (Agnes Ayers again) is still the Sheik's desert flower as well. This time it's young Ahmed who falls in love. Unlike Dad, though, the object of his desire is a local dancing girl, Yasmin (Vilma Banky), the daughter of a bandit in the company of vile Ghabah (Montagu Love), "whose crimes outnumber the desert sands." After he is captured and tortured by the bandit band, Ahmed escapes and, because he believes that Yasmin is responsible, seeks revenge by taking the innocent girl to his desert tent and raping her (brilliantly suggested by a sequence of wide-eyed, soft-focus close-ups). The elder Sheik has harsh parental words with his impulsive boy, and soon the son vanquishes the bad guys and wins the heart (etc.) of his true love.

Son of the Sheik was a huge success and still works as an enjoyably camp period piece. Valentino shines as both the wizened father and the energetic son. Alas, sound technology made the movie obsolete the following year, and whether Son would have revived Valentino's flagging career (never mind the question of whether he had a voice for sound films) became a moot point — at the New York premiere, he collapsed and soon died at age 31. His funeral was a phenomenon by itself (more on that shortly).

Today Valentino is preserved in popular culture by the iconic character he played in these films. Like Chaplin's Little Tramp, his Sheik and the Saharan fantasy trappings surrounding him are permanent images from American silent cinema. This new double feature DVD of The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik gives us the opportunity to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about. They aren't great art, but they are a lot of fun.

*          *          *

Image Entertainment's sparkling new DVD edition is another accomplished piece of work from film preservationist David Shepard (The Lost World, Slapstick Encyclopedia, Dr. Mabuse, Nosferatu). The Sheik comes from a 35mm nitrate master in splendid condition with all the original ornate title cards. Color tinting of the black-and-white image is provided according to the original Paramount cutting continuity. The Son of the Sheik is from a 1937 reissue print taken from the original negative, with a few shots replaced from later material, and remains untinted. Both look quite good, considering. The Sheik in particular is clean and clear, and with no signs of frame gaps or other splices. Son is somewhat worse for wear, but it's still in appealing good condition. Although they're a bit soft and signs of age are always present, you'd be a cad to find reasons to grouse about these prints.

As for the audio, The Sheik sports an outstanding new Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo score compiled from period music by Eric Beheim and his electronic "Cafe Maure Orchestra." The Son of the Sheik offers a choice between a fine Beheim score or a 1937 recording of a vintage compilation score, complete with vocals. The Beheim is the superior choice, and the disc comes with a slipsheet essay by Beheim detailing the music he used and how he assembled it.

Shepard also gives us these three shorts:

New, well-crafted scores by Beheim support all three shorts.

—Mark Bourne

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