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SHEIK, THE(director: George Melford; screenwriters: Monte Katterjohn/from the novel by Edith Maude Hull; cinematographer: William Marshall; music: Roger Bellon-re-release; cast: Rudolph Valentino (Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan), Agnes Ayres (Lady Diana Mayo), Adolphe Menjou (Raoul de Saint Hubert), Walter Long (Omair), Patsy Ruth Miller (Zilahl, The serving girl), George Waggner (Yousaf); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; Paramount; 1921-Silent)
“It’s one of those films that should be seen by film buffs and those interested in films as history.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Sheik” is a costume romantic adventure directed by George Melford and penned by Monte Katterjohn from the novel by Edith Maude Hull. From this film Rudolph Valentino became one of the biggest international stars Hollywood has ever known. His instant stardom lasted for five years until his unexpected premature death from appendicitis at age 31.

Valentino’s brief life story was a tumultuous one. He was born in Italy in 1895, the son of an army veterinarian. When he failed in military school he came to Paris in 1912 and ended up as a street hustler. In 1913 he arrived in New York and became a boarder with an Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn and became a landscape gardener. He lost his job and got into trouble with the law on suspicions of petty theft and blackmail. This led him to become a taxi dancer on Broadway, where he was again plagued by bad luck and a further arrest. After abandoning a play troupe in Utah he arrived in Hollywood in 1917 and got bit parts until 1920. Around that time he married the actress Jean Acker, but she locked him out of a hotel bridal suite on their wedding night and the marriage was never consummated — neither was it annulled which would lead later to bigamy charges when he remarried. His big break came in 1921 when screenwriter June Mathis, an influential voice at Metro, insisted that he be given the lead in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The film was a box-office smash and Valentino became an overnight sensation. The Valentino craze reached new heights with The Sheik, where women fainted in the aisles over his sexy gestures.

The graceful and handsome dark skinned lover, who especially thrilled the female audience, was caught in the stiff acting styles of his day imitating such leading men dignitaries as John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Ramon Novarro. His seemingly glued on smile throughout The Sheik was the way the romantic leads of the day all appeared. By the time of his last film “The Son of the Sheik,” Valentino had grown into a more sophisticated actor and his mannerisms started to become more natural, as films were also changing. But he started taking on weaker male roles under the influence of his second wife Natasha Rambova, a set designer and actress, and he was severely blasted by the editor in the Chicago Tribune as a pansy and sorry image for the American male youth.

The thin storyline in The Sheik had the amorous Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Valentino) take Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayers) by force to his spacious luxury tent-palace when he finds the beauty riding in the desert with only one guide for protection. The spirited Lady Diana is attracted to him but resists his sexual advances. When the Sheik’s former French school chum Raoul de Saint Herbert (Adolphe Menjou) convinces him to let Diana go free she is only kidnapped by the villainous desert bandit Omair (Walter Long), who threatens her with a fate worse than death. Only then does Diana realize how much she has grown to love Valentino, who with his army comes to her rescue in the nick of time before she attempts suicide. The sheik is wounded in the battle, but Diana nurses him back to health and promises her everlasting love.

The film met with strong moral protests at the time, but audiences nevertheless flocked to the theater and it became box-office heaven. Since the story doesn’t hold up well with time, what is worth noting is Valentino’s intense stares and animated gestures that might seem quite amusing to us now but was considered very sexy back then to the women viewers. It’s one of those films that should be seen by film buffs and those interested in films as history, otherwise it’s just a curiosity film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”