The Sheik (1921) A Silent Film Review

He’s a sheik. She wears chic clothes. He lives in a tent. She lives in a manor. He fights enemy tribes. She fights hat hair. Getting a date with her is out of the question.

Backup plan: Abduction. Obviously.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Bonus: I will also be reviewing the 1933 film, The Barbarian, an attempt to revive the sheik genre that starred Ramon Novarro and Myrna Loy. Click here to skip to the talkie review.

Rudolph Valentino? Never heard of him.

The Sheik is best remembered as the movie that rocketed Rudolph Valentino to superstardom. Based on an infamous 1919 potboiler by E.M. Hull, The Sheik was the precursor to the modern romance novel.

Paramount acquired the rights but knew that the material would have to be handled carefully if it was to pass censor boards. The biggest problem, however, lay not in content but in casting. Who would play the exotic sheik who abducts a civilized woman across the desert sands?

The answer came in Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Women across the country loved Rudolph Valentino, the handsome young lead. Unhappy with his situation at Metro (the studio refused to acknowledge his popularity and pay him accordingly), Valentino signed on with Paramount.

It may seem odd in hindsight, but Valentino was not the star of The Sheik. He was billed as a featured player beneath the leading lady, Agnes Ayres. Miss Ayres is all but forgotten to modern viewers. At the time, she was a popular leading lady who had appeared in some of Cecil B. DeMille’s hit films.

Diana's relaxing desert vacation has taken a rather unexpected turn.
Diana’s relaxing desert vacation has taken a rather unexpected turn.

With the naughtier bits excised from the plot, the leading man found and ably supported by Adolphe Menjou, Walter Long and Lucien Littlefield, The Sheik was ready to begin filming. And, much to the surprise of everyone, it took the motion picture world by storm.

The Kidnapper’s Guide to Romance

Valentino plays a liberal-minded, European-educated desert chieftain who is in the market for a wife. looking for the just the right girl, the Sheik goes on a journey to Biskra. He knows that his search is over the moment he sees Diana.

Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is an English noblewoman who is about to embark on a solo exploration of the desert, accompanied only by guides. Frankly, that doesn’t even sound like such a good idea nowadays. The other ladies of Biskra are understandably scandalized.

Conflicting ideas as to the proper time and place for romance.
Conflicting ideas as to the proper time and place for romance.

But Diana will have her own way. She gets herself into even more trouble by crashing an Arab-only shindig at the casino. The Sheik spots her at once and makes a pass. Diana pulls a gun on him and leaves. The Sheik is smitten. Without further ado, he begins to plot.

Step 1: Diana must be disarmed. This is accomplished by the Sheik stealing into her room under the cover of afternoon (wearing boots and spurs, no less!) and substituting blank rounds for real bullets. Fortunately, Diana sleeps like a log and the Sheik makes a clean getaway.

Step 2: Begin the wooing surreptitiously. This is accomplished by the Sheik singing under her window after he has accomplished his bullet switcharoo. Diana awakens to his intertitled singing voice and is entranced. Huh? She sleeps though a grown man clanking around her room but a ballad sung in the distance is enough to rouse her? This woman has the strangest sleeping habits I have ever seen.

Step 3: Wait for Diana to go waltzing into the desert and then make the snatch!

sheik-rudolph-valentino-agnes-ayres-silent-movie-escape1

Diana sets out on her trip across the desert sands but her journey doesn’t last long. The Sheik swoops down, drags her off her horse, orders her to pipe down and carries her off to his oasis home.

Once there, the Sheik… asks her to dinner. Nothing fancy, just dress nice and show up on time. Oh. So much for the lusty desert chieftan.

As it turns out, there is a dinnertime sandstorm. This is not helping the romantic atmosphere. However, the Sheik figures that he would now like to give that lusty desert chieftan thing a try. Surprised that she is not in the mood for love and after a fairly tense argument on the subject, the Sheik thinks that the direct approach (i.e. caveman) is the best. Diana believes otherwise and starts to cry. The Sheik feels like a heel, which indeed he is, and rethinks his strategy.

Home Sweet Stockholm

Seriously, dude, have you tried Tinder?
Seriously, dude, have you tried Tinder?

Diana spends the next week not speaking to the Sheik, though she secretly is starting to like him. Why this happens, I have no idea. I suppose we could put it down to Stockholm Syndrome. Well, that and Diana realizing that it was the Sheik who serenaded her back in Biskra. I guess kidnapping is kind of okay if the kidnapper sings with a smooth, pleasant tenor. Everyone knows that.

However, things grow frigid again when she discovers that he has invited a friend to visit. Raoul is a French doctor and author. Diana is humiliated to think he will see her. She plans an escape. Well, it certainly took her long enough.

Raoul (a slightly embarrassed-looking Adolphe Menjou) has joined the Sheik. He is not pleased with his friend’s romantic antics. The Sheik is confident that he has done the right thing but his cockiness fades when Diana’s horse shows up without Diana.

"You're such a jerk, Ahmed."
“You’re such a jerk, Ahmed.”

The horse threw Diana during her ride to freedom and she is wandering the desert in the usual movie manner. She stumbles a holy caravan that is really a group of bandits in disguise. The bandit leader, Omair (the reliably villainous Walter Long), catches sight of Diana and wants her for himself. Before he can snatch her, the Sheik shows up and snatches her back.

Raoul watches with a disapproving eye but is too tactful to scold the Sheik again. Never let a felony come between friends, I always say.

“You can’t kidnap her, she’s my prisoner!”

In spite of the fact that he is doing absolutely nothing to help her, Diana begins to spend a lot of time with Raoul. The Sheik is jealous but in overhearing their conversations, he realizes that Diana is in love with him after all. Touched, he offers her back her pistol ostensibly to defend herself from the spies of Omair. Firearms: the gift that keeps on giving.

"Kidnapping women. Really, Ahmed, you are naughty."
“Kidnapping women. Really, Ahmed, you are naughty.”

While Diana is out riding, Raoul tries to convince the Sheik to let her go. Now it’s the Sheik’s turn to realize that he is in love with Diana.

Meanwhile, Diana stops her ride to write a little love note in the sand to the Sheik. Suddenly, Omair and his accomplices appear, kill her bodyguards and Diana is once more kidnapped. She knows the drill pretty well by now and immediately faints.

The Sheik stumbles on the scene of the crime, including Diana’s miraculously preserved sand writing. Realizing that he must save his lady love from a fate worse than death— and never you mind the fact that he tried the same thing only a few days before— the Sheik springs into action.

Will he arrive in time? Will these two crazy kids find real love? Will Diana patent her permanent sand writing? Watch the film to find out but you can probably predict the outcome if you have been paying attention in Film Cliche 101.

The Sheik hits the big time

Omair (Walter Long) has stolen Diana. The fiend! And, yes, you did see him in Laurel and Hardy.
Omair (Walter Long) has stolen Diana. The fiend! And, yes, you did see him in Laurel and Hardy.

The Sheik turned all things Middle Eastern (which were already stylish) into a phenomenon. Slang, music, books and most certainly movies felt the Sheik affect. Latin leading men were in high demand to fill the growing number of Sheik parts.

For all that, The Sheik is a rather badly made movie. Valentino himself hated the picture and tried his best unsuccessfully to avoid taking Sheik parts. It’s easy to see why.

Poor Valentino’s performance has not aged well. As so many silent film historians have pointed out, he was not a terrific actor but he was capable of being a rather good one. It’s hard to see that from the first half of the movie, which he spends leering at Agnes Ayres, his eyes bursting out of their sockets. He redeems himself slightly in the second half and you can see a touch of his considerable screen charm.

sheik-rudolph-valentino-agnes-ayres-silent-movie-giving-her-the-eye

The rest of the cast is also guilty of overacting, from Agnes Ayres emoting to Lucien Littlefield in a creepy performance that was supposed to be funny. Only the perpetually dapper Adolphe Menjou comes through unscathed by the rampant silliness. However, both his character of Raoul and Lucien Littlefield’s manservant do not come off as very likable. Both of them seem to view the Sheik’s abduction and near-assault of Diana to be a impolite but understandable. In fact, Raoul goes so far as to blame Diana for being too beautiful. What else can a pretty woman expect to happen? Not cool, Raoul.

George Melford’s direction is pedestrian in this film. Melford would later be relegated to making Spanish language versions of Hollywood talkies. His modern reputation rests on the Spanish version of Dracula, filmed on the same sets as the horror classic. Some viewers (myself included) consider it superior to the more famous English language version. It included as an extra in the DVD release of Dracula.

sheik 1921 image (9)

The racial issues are unfortunately handled in the standard Hollywood manner. According to the film rules of the era, interracial relationships cannot end happily; therefore, one of the partners must die or turn out to be a white person in disguise. That was the prevailing attitude of the censors at that time and as ridiculous as it seems today, it was an attitude that much of the contemporary audience shared.

For all its faults, though, The Sheik has a quirky little charm of its own. It’s pure hokum but it was intended to be just that. It was designed as a glitzy and (for the time) racy fantasy that would provide an evening’s escape for the viewer. The plot and subject matter were perfect for 1921 but times have changed and the film has not weathered well.

sheik-rudolph-valentino-agnes-ayres-silent-movie-singing-MUSIC

The Sheik should be enjoyed for what it is: a period piece. The views of race and romance can lead to some interesting discussions. It reflects the attitudes and beliefs of the culture of its time and as such it is fascinating.

While such Valentino movies as The Eagle and The Son of the Sheik, a direct sequel to The Sheik are better showcases for his talents, The Sheik has an almost surreal charm. I am a little embarrassed to admit how enjoyable I found it.

For a newcomer to silents, though, perhaps it would be wise to watch the second film first.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★

Where can I see it?

Looking to add a bit of desert romance to your movie-watching? The Sheik is widely available on DVD. The version to get is Flicker Alley’s double feature, which also includes Son of the Sheik. It’s also worth noting that the VHS version released by Paramount has subtle footage differences. Nothing that changes the plot but there are one or two short scenes that are not found in other prints. This version also features a synth score and has not been released on DVD.

The novel upon which the film was based is in the public domain and widely available for free, if you are a completist.


sheik-silents-vs-talkies-header

Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner we have The Sheik, Rudolph Valentino’s signature film. And in that corner we have The Barbarian, a 1933 pre-Code romance starring Ramon Novarro.

Which ode to Eastern lovers will be named champion?

Talkie Challenger: The Barbarian (1933)

The one-two punch of sound films and the Great Depression changed the landscape of movies almost overnight. New technology, new tastes, new circumstances, the thirties were as different from the twenties as could be. But sometimes, there was a throwback.

Meet The Barbarian, a film that could easily have been made in 1923 instead of 1933. The success of The Sheik brought on a slew of rip offs and Valentino’s popularity made studios seek out Latin leading men for fiery love scenes.

The Barbarian was one of the last of these desert kidnapping romances. The tightened Production Code and changing tastes would soon bury this curious genre forever. (Well, almost)

Ramon Novarro and Myrna Loy enjoy a romantic moment in The Barbarian
Ramon Novarro and Myrna Loy enjoy a romantic moment in The Barbarian

Ramon Novarro plays Jamil, a tour guide and con man who makes money on the side romancing rich foreign women. He provides an exotic romance for their tour and they respond by showering him with parting gifts. It’s a win-win.

Then he spots Diana (why are they always named Diana?), a pretty tourist who has come to meet her fiance. The normally feisty Myrna Loy is given the thankless role. For Jamil, Diana is different from all the other women he has romanced. He doesn’t intend to be her Summer fling. He means to make her his wife.

But how to go about it?

Jamil (Ramon Novarro) puts the moves on Hedda Hopper.
Jamil (Ramon Novarro) puts the moves on Hedda Hopper.

Jamil proceeds to stalk Diana. Stealing her dog, spying on her as she sleeps, and finally kidnapping her. All the while, Diana is starting to think Jamil is awfully cute… Yeah, we’ve seen all this before.

And the Winner is…

THE SILENT

While The Sheik is not the best-made movie in the world, it still manages to exude a sort of clueless charm. Like a big, dumb Labrador. The Barbarian, on the other hand, is rather a sordid affair. I don’t know if it is the fact that it is a sound movie or if it is the plot but the whole thing is sleazy and not in a good way.

Poor Myrna Loy bears the brunt of the nastiness and the cringe-inducing moments. She is called on to fall passionately in love with her stalker/attacker for no apparent reason. Even if he is played by handsome Ramon Novarro, this is a tall order. Thank goodness Myrna Loy found her niche in screwball comedy and the popular Thin Man series. These faux exotic roles really were beneath her talents.

Ramon Novarro is also sorely miscast. He always seemed to be overshadowed by Rudolph Valentino even though the two men had completely different acting styles and screen personas.Of the two, Novarro was the more subtle actor and he was best in roles that required his sensitive touch. Films such as Scaramouche, which called for a wide range of emotions, were much more fitting to his talents.

Myrna Loy's scandalous bath
Myrna Loy’s scandalous bath

To pull off a role like Jamil, a certain fiery quality is needed. This is the sort of role Valentino could play in his sleep. Novarro was, by all accounts, an incredibly nice man. That niceness works against him in parts such as this. He looks like a pleasant, trustworthy young man. Not the smoldering, dangerous type at all. His “I will make you love me” scenes are particularly uncomfortable to watch. I like Novarro best when he is playing white-hatted hero roles in musicals and romantic comedies. He was also very enjoyable as Greta Garbo’s naive Russian lover in Mata Hari. Novarro plays the good guy very well and this film should have let him be one.

That is the problem with this film in a nutshell: Myrna Loy is too smart and Ramon Novarro is too nice.

The opening scene of the film feature Novarro sweet talking various women in English and German. Later, after Jamil thinks that he is making progress with Diana, he dances humorously as he walks. These screwball touches are the most charming part of the film and I just wish that the filmmakers had opted for a madcap romantic comedy instead of attempting a lusty but rusty melodrama. This is especially a waste when you consider how talented Myra Loy is as a comedienne.

Jamil finally corners Diana
Jamil finally corners Diana

Silent film fans will want to be on the lookout for Reginald Denny as Myrna Loy’s hapless fiance. Other familiar faces include C. Aubrey Smith and Hedda Hopper.

The Barbarian proves that good actors cannot save a movie if they are hopelessly miscast. While The Sheik was made by its casting, The Barbarian is broken by it. It is worth seeing for fans of pre-Code cinema (it contains the famous scene where myrna Loy takes a bath wearing some strategic rose petals) but will not have much appeal for the average film fan. The misogynistic tone, questionable portrayals of race  and generally silly plot are not terribly accessible to the casual viewer.

Availability: The Barbarian is available on DVD from Warner Archive.