Rudolph Valentino plays Amos Judd, an all-American gentleman farmer who is really a hidden maharajah. One of Valentino’s least successful films, it was thought lost for years before a partial print emerged.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
The vast majority of all silent films are lost forever but sometimes, a much-wanted picture will emerge after a long absence. In the case of The Young Rajah, it was an incomplete and battered reduction print but silent movie fans know better than to be choosy. It’s half a loaf but better than none at all. That being said, I will be factoring in the film’s incomplete status in my review.
When The Young Rajah is discussed, it is usually in the context of leading man Rudolph Valentino’s career—it was just the sort of drivel that made him unhappy at Paramount—or that of his wife, Natacha Rambova, who designed the lavish costumes. While those are certainly worthy topics, I will be heading a little off the beaten path to examine how the picture portrays South Asians and how its interracial romance fits into Hollywood’s handling of the subject at the time.
The picture concerns Amos Judd of Connecticut (Valentino), who is actually the maharajah of an Indian state who was hidden away under the care of Joshua Judd (Charles Ogle) after a palace coup installed the wicked Ali Khan (Bertram Grassby).
Young Judd goes to Harvard, where he is a champion member of the rowing team, a sport that, by an amazing coincidence, allows Valentino to be seen shirtless. What are the odds? But all is not pecs and riparian entertainments. Judd is attacked by a rowing team rival, who ends up falling out a window to his death.
Later, Judd meets Molly (Wanda Hawley), who is beautiful but racist. (Her prejudice is directly stated in the title cards. She loves Judd but hates that he’s not white, so therein lies to conflict. Judd doesn’t cut his losses but instead pines for her and she finally changes her mind when a jealous rival throws a rock at Judd’s head.
Speaking of heads, Judd has a white birthmark on his forehead that gives him the power to see the future and he sees violence and murder for himself. He’s right, too, because Ali Khan follows the news at Harvard and spots Judd’s picture in the paper. One team of assassins coming right up!
And the allies of the maharajah, one of whom can also see the future, also head to America to save their exiled ruler. With all these visions of the future, one wonders why they didn’t see the original palace coup coming but this really isn’t the sort of film that calls for logic.
Will Molly stop being racist? Will Judd reclaim his throne? Will his visions of his own murder come true? See The Young Rajah to find out!
First, we’ll start with the positive: Natacha Rambova’s costume designs are very beautiful and I wish the print was 35mm so we could all see them better.
And now down to the nitty-gritty.
Film stars sometimes bash their own films and sometimes they are too hard on themselves. Leatrice Joy dismissed Eve’s Leaves, for example, and I rather enjoyed it. But Rudolph Valentino’s contempt for The Young Rajah was thoroughly deserved.
The romance is flaccid, the action is confused, the story is a mass of cliches and the characters never rise above their stereotypes. In general, both the screenplay by June Mathis and direction by Phil Rosen fail to capitalize on Valentino’s humor and charisma. Amos Judd’s entirely personality is “He is Indian and therefore terribly mystical,” which is lazy writing.
The portrayal of South Asians in general in mainstream Hollywood fare often falls into these stereotypes. They are permitted to be mystical, obsequious, or violently rebellious, possibly all three at once. That’s not to say that mysticism cannot be explored but forcing hundreds of millions of people into three very limited roles is not very imaginative or healthy.
Besides its protagonist’s powers of prognostication, The Young Rajah is primarily concerned with his “exotic” appeal. Take this exchange between Molly and Amos:
“But you are a real son of India! I can see you now in robe and turban, with dozens of dancing slave girls ready to do your bidding.”
“There is only one woman whom I would wish to do my bidding.”
As squicky as the film is at points, the original 1895 novel is infinitely worse. In Amos Judd, author John Ames Mitchell never fails to remind the reader that the protagonist is “brown” and “Oriental” with the other characters practically salivating when he enters the room. It’s both unintentionally hilarious and stomach-churning.
At one point, a sculptor catches sight of Amos and makes this bizarre proclamation: “He is the most artistic thing I ever saw! The lines of his eyes and nose are superb! And what a chin! I should like to own him!”
He then speaks of putting Amos on exhibition for five dollars a ticket. Needless to say, I have never seen such reverie or such threats directed at a white male lead in a novel of this period. (I do, however, give the book points for having a character call Amos “the Bellehugger of Spoonmore” to describe his prowess with the ladies. If this was not retained for the movie, the filmmakers were fools.)
I am not sure which changes are due to June Mathis and which are due to playwright Alethea Luce, who adapted the novel for the stage. Despite some of the spicy dialogue, the book is a tedious affair and just about any alteration can be counted as an improvement.
The single biggest change between the film and the novel is found in the ending. (Spoilers, obviously, for The Young Rajah and quite a few other movies besides.) The novel ends with Amos bleeding out from an assassin’s bullet and dying in Molly’s arms, as he envisioned years before. The film ends with Amos retaking his ancestral realm and then experiencing a vision of marrying Molly and since his visions always come to pass…
The novel was obviously wheedling its way out of an interracial marriage and it’s interesting, given the time in which the film was made, that Mathis and company opted for a happy ending and managed to get it through the censors. Compare this to Less Than Dust (1916), a Mary Pickford vehicle in which she played an Indian woman in love with an Englishman but who turned out to be a lost white lady with a tan.
It’s important to understand the context of The Young Rajah’s release. Will Hays had just arrived in Hollywood to clean up movieland’s act and create a self-censorship body, the MPPDA, which would later release a list of “Don’t and Be Carefuls.” This 1927 list had as its sixth banned item “Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races).” In practice, though, this ban extended to Asians and Native Americans as well. Hays had not yet released his guidelines in 1922, of course, but he did immediately set to work trying to influence motion picture content. (Of course, the hammer did not fall until 1934.)
When the topic of interracial romance in mainstream Hollywood is discussed, the silent era is usually glossed over with journalists and historians simply assuming that it wasn’t a thing. Even major news agencies are content to mention Broken Blossoms (with yellowface casting, the waaaaay underage factor, the fetishized murder of a child and a tragic ending) and to misstate that the more obscure picture, The Bronze Bride, had a tragic ending. (It didn’t.)
Not surprisingly, the truth was considerably more complicated, so we’re going to dive a bit more deeply into the topic.
Now, obviously, The Young Rajah did not actually show Amos and Molly getting married but it hinted at it broadly and presented it as inevitable vision of the future. Plus, it was an epilogue scene that could easily be sliced away in more conservative markets. Would this evade the censors? Or did the censors even care? I checked with Valentino scholar and author of Rudolph Valentino, the Silent Idol, Donna Hill, and she was kind enough to share her research. The censorship issue she was able to uncover was an objection to the pouring of wine from a milk bottle. So, um, don’t do that, you lushes.
Another significant change between the book and the film is that in the movie, Amos is biracial, with an Indian father and an Italian mother, while he is presented as entirely South Asian in the novel. This fits in with romance trends of the period, which we are going to discuss in further detail.
I’ve been on the lookout for Hollywood silent movies that present an interracial romance, have a happy ending (no suicide, no accidental drinking of cholera water, no drinking poisoned tea), and no “Surprise, he’s really white!” plot twists. (Just a side note: Latin American performers and characters were permitted to romance white performers under the Code. That’s not to say they were shielded from racism and stereotypes, just that Ramon Novarro could end up with Joan Crawford in the movies.)
Let’s dig into some examples of these more common tropes—and this list is by no means exhaustive: A Gentle Volunteer (1916) was a Civil War romance about a young lady who discovered that one of her great-grandparents was African American and she ended up dying to save her love. In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914) presented a love triangle in which Red Wing loved Tom Mix but sacrificed her own life to save him. Java Head, released around the same time as The Young Rajah, is about a Chinese woman who shotgun-married a white American and then drank poison to allow him to marry his white lady true love. And, of course, the original Amos Judd novel would fall into this hoary category as Amos dies saving Molly’s life.
Valentino’s own breakout hit, The Sheik, ended with the revelation that the hero was not Algerian at all but a misplaced English nobleman with a Spanish mother. (The twist was spoofed in the humorous novel The Shriek by Thomas Sommerville. The sheik turned out to be the missing son of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his entire staff was made up of assorted European WWI luminaries in disguise.) Just Squaw (1919) featured an unhappy marriage between a Native American woman and a white settler but their biracial daughter turns out to be a misplaced white girl who is then free to marry to man she loves.
Discouraging, to be sure, but the search was not completely fruitless. (Though it should be noted that in nearly every case, all the lead players were white.) White Fawn’s Devotion (1910, Pathé Frères, extant) and The Bronze Bride (1917, Universal, lost) both also featured happy endings and the female main characters in both pictures were identified as Indigenous North Americans.
It is possible that the female lead in White Fawn’s Devotion was played by an Indigenous actress but one of the few confirmed cases of a true interracial romance brought to the screen without giving both parts to white performers is The Wrath of the Gods (1914). Tsuru Aoki wins the hand and heart of future director Frank Borzage, though she still pays a price when her father (future real-life husband Sessue Hayakawa) perishes in a natural disaster and she agrees to give up her religion to convert to Christianity.
Regarding other Asian performers, Sessue Hayakawa ended up with Helen Jerome Eddy in The Tong Man but she played a Chinese role with heavy makeup. Anna May Wong was loved, left and fridged by Kenneth Harlan in The Toll of the Sea. (As a relief from all this bad news, Hayakawa and Aoki enjoyed a happy ending in The Dragon Painter.)
I want to particularly focus on two other titles I found and viewed, as, like The Young Rajah, both were released under what would eventually be the Paramount umbrella: Heart of Wetona (Blackfoot father, white mother) and The Forbidden City (white father, Chinese mother). So, in all three Paramount examples, the interracial romances involved a biracial person with one or both parents deceased.
Both Heart of Wetona and The Forbidden City were written by Mary Murillo, who was drawn to stories that would get people talking. In Mothers of Men, a female governor must decide whether or not to pardon her condemned husband, The Vixen is about a nymphomaniac, Passion Flower revolves around stepfather-stepdaughter incest, and The Sign on the Door ends with the hero being let off the hook for murder.
Heart of Wetona and The Forbidden City both starred Norma Talmadge, who also played an Algerian dancer in The Song of Love but the film had two different endings, one with her recovering and ending up with Joseph Schildkraut and one with her dying in his arms.
Just to be clear, it is a fool’s errand to look for logic in racism and the ban on “miscegenation” is one of the nastier chapters in Hollywood history but it is interesting that The Young Rajah was allowed to pass through the first year of Will Hays’ tenure relatively unscathed. (Except for that offensive milk bottle wine drinking. For shame!) Obviously, The Young Rajah would have been held up to deeper scrutiny if an Indian actor had been cast as Amos. White actors playing this roles served to block censorship concerns, damage to everyone else be damned.
We should also note that there’s one more thing all three of these Paramount-adjacent releases (The Young Rajah, Heart of Wetona and The Forbidden City) have in common and that is the fact that they are all nutty. Perhaps that madness worked in their favor, similarly to Peter Lorre literally getting away with murder in Arsenic and Old Lace because the censor board was busy slicing lines like “I’m not a Brewster, I’m a bastard!” from the original play. Similarly, censors gaping at the implied incest in The Forbidden City may have been too distracted to cut anything else. Too bonkers to censor seems to be as good an explanation as any.
Certainly, the critics of the time had plenty to discuss in their reviews. Motion Picture Magazine described The Young Rajah as the concentrated essence of a cheap serial and sympathized with Valentino for wanting to end his Paramount contract. Film Daily described the story as highly improbable but admitted that would make little difference to Valentino’s fans. Motion Picture News succinctly stated that the story was improbable (there’s that word again) and the action was slow. Leading lady Wanda Hawley was particularly singled out for poor notices.
The reviews of the time didn’t fault Valentino for the picture’s failure and I agree, he did his best. I once read somewhere, I forget where, that Valentino tended to match the energy of his performance with his leading lady and I agree with that assessment. His slightly deranged turn in The Sheik matched the histrionics of Agnes Ayres, while he was at his best when matched with the more subtle Vilma Banky. Wanda Hawley is… there? She’s just bland and that’s not good considering that her character has to grapple with her own racism in order to accept the love of her ideal man.
Hawley’s contract with Paramount ended and she freelanced with major studios briefly before ending up in poverty row for the rest of the silent era, finally retiring in the early 1930s. I would love to know the details of her downfall. Film magazines hinted that she was difficult, chubby and had a saccharine screen presence. In Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels, a relative claimed she had a bad voice for the talkies but one of her sound films is available. Pueblo Terror (1931) was her last movie and her voice is fine to my ear, so any damage to the old vocal chords was done later. (Hawley’s relative painted her as a sort of Norma Desmond figure, obsessed with her long-forgotten career but without Desmond’s money or name recognition.)
We’ve learned to take “difficult” with a grain of salt but she certainly has not been a dynamic performer in any of the pictures I have seen her in. We may never know why she tumbled from her perch so abruptly but she was certainly miscast here. She and Valentino have absolutely no spark.
Charles Ogle (one of the first cinematic Frankensteins) probably comes off best as Valentino’s affectionate adopted uncle. And I am extremely disappointed that almost all of William Boyd’s scenes are among the lost footage as I am a huge fan and this early supporting role confirms Cecil B. DeMille’s claim that he pushed Boyd’s career after the latter saved Julia Faye from a wardrobe malfunction in Saturday Night.
I did feel that the story was simultaneously slow and rushed but I don’t think it’s quite fair to complain about the rushed parts due to the missing footage. There may very well have been scenes that would have made the picture’s finale smoother and more coherent. I suppose all I can do is hope that a complete print exists somewhere.
The Young Rajah’s partial recovery is a wonderful thing. Sure, the movie isn’t very good but I know that for myself rather than relying on secondhand information. It’s definitely for Valentino completists only and the rowing scenes should make them very happy. Just about everyone else can safely skip it.
Where can I see it?
The reconstruction, which uses the surviving footage, vintage stills and title cards to paper over holes in the story, has been released on DVD by Flicker Alley as part of their Valentino collection and on the volume two Bluray of that same set.
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