The Arab (1924)
Status: No print existed in American archives until Gosfilmofond (the state film fund of Russia) presented a digital copy to the Library of Congress in 2010.
In the early to mid-1920’s Hollywood was mad to find the next Valentino and the next Sheik. On the surface, The Arab looks like just another attempt to cash in on Valentino’s signature role. Filmed on location in Tunisia (at a time when California doubled for everywhere from India to Alsace), it starred Ramon Novarro (widely considered a rival for Valentino’s Latin Lover crown) and was directed by Rex Ingram, who had helped catapult Valentino to stardom. However, the truth of this film is considerably more complex.
The production was breathlessly followed by fan magazines. Ingram and Novarro were hot commodities after the success of Scaramouche and the novelty of going on location was enough to keep reporters flocking to the set. However, once the film was released, results were mixed.
Photoplay found the whole thing a bit dull:
This latest — and possibly final — directorial effort of Rex Ingram has a fascinating background, the very Sahara itself, but the story limps. The action revolves around a missionary and his daughter, with a young native on the sentimental horizon. In this it is suggestive of “Where the Pavement Ends.” But there the comparison ends.
This mission is a pawn in the hands of the wily Moslems. They plan to send away the government troops, let the desert tribesmen wipe out the Christians and politely disclaim all responsibility. But the dashing dragoman, Jamil, son of a desert chieftain, prevents the tragedy. There is an indefinite ending, with the girl returning to America but promising to come back. All this may sound like a story of considerable action. “The Arab,” however, is turgid. There are few romantic scenes and the sentiment is meager. The Moslem attack is worked up without creating any real suspense. But there is more than a measure of picturesqueness in the role of the dragoman, Jamil, who has politely lied his way in and out of Christianity four times. And there is a distinct pictorial appeal to Mr. Ingram’s production.
Mr. Ingram seems to have fallen down most in his plot development but he has performed something of a miracle with his native players. They seem excellent actors, indeed. There are some finely atmospheric scenes of the East, notably in the Algerian dance halls and in the streets of the Oulad Niles.
Ramon Novarro is the Jamil and the role seems to us to be better played than anything this young actor has yet done. Alice Terry is the missionary’s daughter and Alexandresco, a vivid Russian actress, makes her film debut in the colorful role of an Oulad Nile.
Variety, on the other hand, lavished the film with praise:
This is the finest sheik film of them all. The Arab is a compliment to the screen, a verification of the sterling repute of director Rex Ingram.
As a sheik Ramon Novarro is the acme. Surrounded as he is by genuine men of the desert – for the scenes were shot in Algiers and the mobs are all natives in their natural environments he seems as bona fide as the Arabs themselves.
So, is The Arab a fascinating film or lovely-but-dull? Here’s hoping that we are able to see for ourselves soon!