Rudolph Valentino was perhaps the first heartthrob of the silver screen, and the stock character of the “Latin lover” was actually created specifically for him in the ’20s. He died incredibly young at 31 in 1926, so he never was able to transition into talkies, which adds to the mythological aura around him. The Son of the Sheik was his very last film. It was actually a sequel to The Sheik, which was his most iconic role. Sequels were already old hat at this point in Hollywood, by the way, after the quick cash-in on The Birth of a Nation … The Fall of a Nation—a very apt title for these times as well.
Despite being a huge star, Valentino’s fame was starting to diminish after some flops—so just like Hollywood actors today, he decided to make a sequel to one of his biggest hits! He plays both the Sheik and the son of the Sheik in this quick-paced adventure tale. The son of the Sheik, Ahmet, meets a dancer and sweeps her off her feet. She is already promised to the villainous Moor Ghobah. but they secretly meet. Soon both are captured, and then he turns against her!
Valentino is really what makes it interesting. High production values are also very much on display, and they certainly knew how to make the L.A. desert look like Algiers! I’m sure it wouldn’t pass PC orthodoxy, with it being quite “rapey” and the brown-face portrayal of an Arab by an Italian-born actor, but then again, this film is over 90 years old. It’s a film that plays up the heightened sexuality of Valentino and women loved him—apparently the men who were dragged to see his films at the time despised him passionately. Female fans actually committed suicide after he died because they were so upset… that’s what you call a passionate fan.
Valentino’s sexuality has been hotly debated over the years, no doubt helped by the claims in Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon, which asserts that a hot affair occurred with the gay Mexican actor Ramón Novarro. Anger claimed Valentino gave Novarro an art-deco dildo as a gift, which was found stuffed in his throat at the time of his murder in 1968, but no such gift was received in reality. Valentino was married twice, including to the lesbian actress Jean Acker, which no doubt helped to fuel the rumours that these were “lavender marriages” meant to cover up his homosexuality. Acker reportedly locked him out of the bedroom on their marriage night after immediate regrets about walking down the aisle! The Ken Russell biopic of Valentino plays up the rumoured homosexuality, raising it to operatic levels.
Overall, The Son of the Sheik is a fun romp, and if you haven’t seen a film starring Rudolph Valentino, it’s probably as good of a place to start as any. The film was directed by George Fitzmaurice, who isn’t particularly remembered today. He worked constantly till his death at 55 in 1940. His other most noted film is probably Suzy with Jean Harlow and Cary Grant, which had Dorothy Parker on the screenwriting team. Hopefully the disc ends up selling well enough, because then Eureka might consider releasing some more of Valentino’s films, including The Sheik, Blood and Sand and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The disc from Eureka does not include many special features, but Orson Welles supplies an introduction for the film from a TV season of silent classics that is just as much of an overview of Valentino’s career as an intro for this specific film. The only other extras are an insightful video essay from David Cairns and the booklet, which includes a new essay by critic and film historian Pamela Hutchinson.