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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

The Son of the Sheik (1926)
(Blu-ray & DVD Dual Format)


Starring: Rudolf Valentino, Vilma Bánky, Montagu Love, Karl Dane and Bull Montana
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £17.99 (Blu-Ray & DVD Dual Format)
Certificate: U
Release Date: 17 February 2020

Ninety-four years ago this was the rage. Audiences waited in line rain or shine, days and nights to see one of the round-the-clock showings. Ticket stubs were pressed into diaries or stuck to photo-collages on bedroom walls. Said collages clipped from fan magazines and studio publicity department keepsake booklets on glossy paper stock were always viewable from the bed. For those private interludes of discreet abandon. Rudolf Valentino was probably, no, certainly, responsible for more orgasms than anyone to that point in Hollywood history. Handicapping for population growth, he’s still among the all time top five fingertip fantasies. Hetero-males were suspicious. Were the women they escorted to cinema palaces thinking of them when they rolled their heads back and forth on the bedroom pillow at home? It was hardly certain if their eyes were shut. They could be thinking of him. Millions of Egberts were delighted then when the matinee idle died suddenly from a botched operation for peritonitis. This they had to conceal if they knew what was good for them as they consoled their weeping partners. At least two women committed suicide.

He was not the usual rugged male movie lead. Not a Richard Barthelmess, Douglas Fairbanks or Antonio Moreno. Valentino was smooth with a feline elan. More exotic ballet dancer than strutting bull. His eyes seemed capable of undressing an adulator down to his or her knickers. His poses were statuesque not brawny, his stillness tingled with promised eruption. He was the first male star who delivered a screen presence nothing like his real life persona. A smoldering promise of ecstasy, a valentine of thrilling sadomasochism. Women screenwriters like the psychically savvy Francis Marion understood his appeal better than Freud or Jung. United Artists understood his box office.

Nobody took The Son of the Sheik seriously. They knew it was a romp, a send up, a boudoir bend-over with imaginings of pretzel positions, a Kama Sutra catalogue of pentathlon passion.

Dawn Murray, cocooned in bed beside me says, “Okay, now I think you should describe the film. Otherwise they’ll think you’re stuck somewhere.”

“…Yes, Dear.”

The Sheik kidnaps a woman (Vilma Bánky) and carries her off to his tented encampment in the undulating Mojave Desert sand dunes where DeMille had filmed his first Ten Commandments (1923). She learns love she never knew before. The Sheik is betrayed and whipped. He bears this indignity stoically. He takes revenge. And Vilma Bánky learns even more love that she never knew before. (And yes a line of condoms was named after him because of this picture.)

Clouds of aromatic pine rose, squeezed by usherettes from bladder equipped flagons, was mandatory between showings.

Notable here is the production design of William Cameron Menzies who invents the professional title in this picture. The Menzies look is unmistakable and would stamp its memorable imprint on all genres for the next three decades. A Menzies short list will touch someone in every age range: Chandu the Magician (1932), King Kong (1933), Things to Come (1936), Gone With the Wind (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940) specifically its famous climactic crash of the clipper plane which Menzies designed completely for Hitchcock, Thief of Baghdad (1940), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Maze (1953), Invaders From Mars (1953) which is still the penultimate text book for shoestring art direction to create a movie (the original ending, please) called “Kafka for kids”. Menzies had already racked up some impressive credits but it is with The Son of the Sheik that he emerges as tenured professor of the art of production design..

In these lush Menzies sets, Valentino is perpetually photographed like a lady, through gauze and with Alfred Stieglitz style lighting as if for Garbo or something Lang would be doing for Hitler chick Thea von Harbou at UFA. The Eureka 1080p presentation is the product of studious engineering from a high definition digital transfer from original nitrate elements and one can see the luminosity that enchanted audiences way back when. The virtue of nitrate emulsion is yours to behold without explosive fire hazard and trying to scramble out of the theatre while immolating.

Eureka has bolstered the release with a video essay (24 min, 01 sec) by redoubtable film scholar David Cairns Loitering in the Tent. Cairns’ insight and infectious delight with the subject is worth the whole RRP but there is more. An Orson Welles intro (17 min, 35 sec) from the TV series The Silent Years is valuable for bridging the chasm between the silent era and now. A production booklet with a new essay by film historian Pamela Hutchinson is very good for context of 1926 and contemporary values in gender consciousness today Great grandmother’s sexual standards compared to great granddaughter’s.

Of course this Blu-ray isn’t for everyone. But for the home entertainment connoisseur it is of inestimable value.


John Huff

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