It’s the story of a wayward wife/wicked step-mother. But, let’s face it, no one cares about that. We have all come to see a pre-fame Rudolph Valentino do his stuff on the silver screen. You know, look fabulous and play rough with the ladies. And does he ever.
An Italian leading man? It’ll never work, I tell you!
We’ve all seen them listed by our friendly movie rental service. Those low-budget movies with a future star in a minor role. Once our star hits it big, their older films are rereleased like clockwork. So what if she only appeared for two seconds and had exactly one line of dialogue? On the cover she goes!
This is hardly a modern phenomenon. While a few actors hit it big from the start, most have to struggle and scrape and take what work they can until they catch that elusive big break.
Valentino’s lean times lasted from the mid-1910s until the release of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheik in 1921. In that time, he had built up a resume that swung between extra work and playing oily foreigners after the virtue of American women. (The Delicious Little Devil with Mae Murray and All Night with Carmel Myers were two of his good guy roles during this period.)
After his phenomenal rise to stardom, Valentino’s early films were dusted off and re-released. Some were even recut to further emphasize his presence. The Married Virgin had been a low-budget affair that had barely made an impact in 1918. Apparently, the producers neglected to pay the crew and the film was trapped in limbo before dying with a whimper. In the twenties, it was retitled Frivolous Wives (in an apparent attempt to capitalize on both Valentino and Erich von Stroheim) and the film proudly blared that it had the sheik himself in a major role.
This leaves us with a question. Is the movie any good in itself or is it just worth it for Valentino fans? Let’s take a look and see for ourselves.
The heroine of the film is Mary McMillon (Vera Sisson), a wealthy young lady who has won the heart of Douglas McKee (Frank Newburg), a crusading attorney. Mary lives with her father (Edward Jobson) and step-mother, Ethel (Kathleen Kirkham). Ethel is obsessed with maintaining her beauty. You see, she is carrying on with the notorious Count Roberto di San Fraccini.
Three guesses as to who plays him.
Our wayward wife is infatuated with the handsome Roberto, who has a title but not a bean to his name. And this is where the limitations of the English language come into play. There’s no true equivalent word for a male mistress. Valentino’s character is often referred to as a gigolo but to me that indicates a class difference where none exists in the film. I mean, he’s a mistress, only a guy. Paramour is technically correct but makes it sound too… romantic, I guess. Ditto for the more generic inamorato. The right word just doesn’t seem to exist. Therefore, I shall be referring to him by a wonderful portmanteau that I ran across some years ago: misteress.
Anyway, Mary and Douglas (hee hee heeeeee) are so happy and cute and adorable and sweet and in love that you just want to shoot them. However, Ethel has arranged to spend the summer at the Hotel del Coronado (of Some Like it Hot fame) with Mary and the couple must part.
Of course, Ethel’s real reason is to spend time with Roberto away from her husband. In order to keep her misteress in cash, Ethel gives him a pistol that her husband used to murder a political rival. Roberto can use it to blackmail McMillan. Well, that was certainly out of left field. But carry on!
McMillan refuses to pay the blackmail so Roberto has a new idea. He will marry Mary (merry?) and use her dowry to elope to Argentina with Ethel, where they will dance a hot tango together. Ethel is incredulous at throwing a younger woman Roberto’s way but he assures her it is strictly business. (I’ll just bet. A very, very old business indeed.)
It seems that no one on Coronado has heard of babysitters or leashes as Mary is saddled with caring for a whole herd of rug rats. One of the rotters escapes and decides it would be grand to walk into the ocean. Mary can’t catch him because he’s in the water. I mean, she has a choice between letting a toddler drown and soaking her beautiful shoes. Of course she’s going to let the little monster die.
Roberto swoops in and saves the kid. Mary is grateful as the paperwork would have been a nightmare if she had lost him. This scene reminded me of The Gashlycrumb Tinies. You have read The Gashlycrumb Tinies, right? Do it at once! “M is for Maude who was swept out to sea…” Now I have visions of the entire book being played out as Mary the careless caretaker looks on. “U is for Una who slipped down a drain. V is for Victor squashed under a train.”
Why, yes, I am morbid and possess a twisted sense of humor. Have you only just noticed? And, yes, I do have a Gashlycrumb Tinies lunchbox. Don’t judge.
So Roberto starts to work his magic on Mary while Ethel watches on. There is frolicking on the beach (Valentino wears a pretty teeny bathing suit, just sayin’) and suchlike. Mary writes Douglas a letter gushing about Roberto but assures her fiancé that there is no need to be jealous. I mean, Roberto is only handsome and athletic and cultured and sings like an angel and did you see him in that bathing suit? So, no need to be jealous at all.
Roberto decides to make his move and pops the question to Mary. She is horrified and shocked that he would suggest such a thing. (A bit of stretch. Is she really so naïve about flirting? Or is she supposed to be one of those “What is… kiss?” heroines? If so, phooey!) At this point, Ethel brings in the heavy guns and tells Mary that her father will go to prison unless she marries Roberto.
So, Douglas is kicked to the curb. He doesn’t seem to really notice as he is investigating graft and corruption for the U.S. government. McMillan has had his hand in the till, it seems.
Mary and Roberto keep separate bedrooms and he promises not to touch her without her permission. Meanwhile, he’s still carrying on with Ethel. But he keeps putting off that promised escape to Argentina… What do you suppose will come of that? Well, I don’t want to reveal quite all.
And now for the verdict. Is this movie worth seeing for people who have absolutely no interest in Valentino’s teensy bathing suit? Yes, actually. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone except Valentino is an appalling actor, the plot is stupid and full of holes and no one seems to notice that the heroine’s father gets away with murder. (Or that Valentino tangos off with $100,000.) That being said, the movie is never boring and is a prime example of an over-the-top silent melodrama.
There are also some scenes of uproarious unintentional hilarity. Besides the characters constantly stumbling over children in weird peril (does no one watch their kids?), we are also treated to the sight of Mary’s nursemaid driving off Valentino Nosferatu-style with a crucifix. Hmm. Okay then. This is after he dives at Mary but ends up belly-flopping onto her bed and then tries to break down her door by throwing random household items at it. For her part, Mary is panicking until her nursemaid arrives which leads to a question. If the nursemaid could get in, surely Mary could get out, right?
Valentino’s magnetism is evident even at this early date. The camera loves him and his presence is missed whenever he is not on the screen. No one else in the cast stands a chance against him. Kathleen Kirkham as Ethel probably does the best but her acting is pretty much limited to turning her head slowly with her eyes hooded. Still, her modern looks and vampish wardrobe go well with Valentino.
Vera Sisson’s Mary is as dull as a broken crayon. I’m not exactly sure what it is about her that is supposed to drive Roberto wild. Oh right. Her silent movie heroine innocence. (“What is… kiss?” Remember?) I suppose we should just be happy she didn’t start smooching birds. (For those of you new to silent film, silent movie heroines did this. A lot. It’s weird. I don’t understand why either. Seems rather unsanitary.)
Of course, the problem is that Valentino is so magnetic that the movie skews in his favor. Douglas, the ostensible hero, comes off as dithering and dopey. While the script does its best to make Roberto a villain, Valentino’s charm makes him into more of a rogue and adventurer. It’s a big problem when the one guy we need to hate is played by the single most likable actor in the movie.
I mean, come on, do you really think Douglas the lawyer is any match for Valentino? If so, you’re welcome to him.
The film’s low budget definitely shows. At one point, a car speeds behind a tender love scene. Random dogs wander through. And the “estate” of the McMillans looks like it is actually a public park. (Note the sign next to the bushes. It gets turned to the side in the next scene. Retakes? Feh! Do you have any idea how expensive film is and you want to use it on your fancy-schmancy retakes?) It seems that the entire budget was used getting the cast to Coronado and filming a violent car crash that takes place near the climax of the picture.
And the plot! Oh brother. The story structure is appalling. We are given flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks with characters “remembering” events that they could not possibly have witnessed. Plot devices are introduced abruptly and then evaporate when they are no longer needed. All of the characters struggle to reach two dimensions. Three? Now that’s just crazy talk.
Still, if the film is bad, it is entertainingly bad. Valentino’s presence may be the reason that it gets noticed but it is also a kooky bit of entertainment for non-fans. A lot of people have a set idea of what a silent movie melodrama involves (mustaches, train tracks, etc.) but this is the real thing, pure and unadulterated (hee heeee) for your amusement.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
The Married Virgin was released on DVD by Image but has since fallen out of print. Used copies are going for ridiculous sums. Sigh.