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Contemporary audiences seeing a film starring Rudolph Valentino, the so-called Latin lover of the silents, might wonder what all the fuss was about. His nostril-flaring, eye-rolling expressions of passion seem ludicrous now. Most of his films, and his acting in them, have dated badly.
Take, for example, The Sheik (1921), the film which made Valentino a star. Based on a trashy romance novel by Edith M. Hull, similar to today's "bodice-rippers," it's a tale of forbidden passion in the Arabian desert, a crude melodrama without any real eroticism. Yet flappers swooned over Valentino's exotic charms. "Sheik" became 1920's slang for a man who fascinates women.
The Son of the Sheik (1926) was quite another story. It turned out to be Valentino's last film, and most critics think it's his best. Legendary screenwriter Frances Marion based her script on Hull's own sequel, Sons of the Sheik, but combined twin sons into one character, Ahmed. Valentino himself suggested that he play both Ahmed and his father. Agnes Ayres, who had played the sheik's love Diana, reprised the role in a cameo. Ahmed falls in love with a dancing girl, played by Vilma Banky. She's the daughter of a bandit, and when Ahmed thinks she's betrayed him, he prepares to have his way with her, but is stopped in the nick of time by his father. Much swashbuckling ensues, with father and son taking on the thieves.
A lot had changed in Valentino's life between the two films. He had married and been divorced by designer Natacha Rambova, who had taken control of his career and set it on a disastrous course, choosing effete and somewhat bizarre roles for him. After the marriage broke up in 1925, Valentino had given an interview which was headlined, "I'm Tired of Being a Sheik." In it, he said, "I wanted to make a lot of money, and so I let them play me up as a lounge lizard, a soft, handsome devil whose only sin in life was to sit around and be admired by women....I was happier when I slept on a bench in Central Park than during all the years of that 'perfect lover' stuff....No, I am through with sheiking." Yet a few months later, there he was, "sheiking" again. But this time, he was in control, and determined to prove that he could turn the stereotype into a real hero. In The Son of the Sheik, Valentino seems to have loosened up and stopped worrying about his loverboy image. He's decided to not only make fun of it, but to have fun with it.
And this time, everything was first-rate: Marion was one of the finest writers in the business. Director George Fitzmaurice paced the film skillfully. The action sequences are particularly well-done, especially the climactic scene, with father and son fighting side by side. The desert sequences were shot on location in Yuma, Arizona, and cinematographer George Barnes gave them a shimmering beauty. Valentino personally selected Banky, whom he'd co-starred with in The Eagle (1925), as his leading lady, and their chemistry is excellent. William K. Everson writes in American Silent Film, "Son of the Sheik was everything that...The Sheik should have been and wasn't. It was lush, exciting, genuinely erotic, and direct in the key confrontations."
Valentino had great hopes that The Son of the Sheik would turn his career around. But just one month after the film's premiere, Rudolph Valentino died suddenly of peritonitis at the age of 31. The Son of the Sheik turned out to be one of his biggest hits.
Producer: John W. Considine, Jr.
Director: George Fitzmaurice
Screenplay: Frances Marion and Fred de Gresac, based on the novel by Edith M. Hull
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Direction: William Cameron Menzies
Principal Cast: Rudolph Valentino (Ahmed/The Sheik), Vilma Banky (Yasmin), John Fawcett (Andre), Montague Love (Ghabah), Karl Dane (Ramadan).
by Margarita Landazuri