Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson star as a pair of star-crossed lovers who just keep running into one another while wearing gorgeous clothes. Oh, the humanity! A long-lost film that emerged to great fanfare and celebration.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD
Your fantasy or mine?
Rudolph Valentino. Gloria Swanson. Together? In the same movie? Beyond the Rocks sounded too good to be true. It had certainly taken on something of a mythical reputation. After all, for decades after its initial release, Beyond the Rocks was believed to be a lost film.
In her wildly entertaining autobiography, Swanson on Swanson, Gloria Swanson wrote that she was constantly asked about the last reel of Sadie Thompson, the lost costume picture Madame Sans-Gêne and Beyond the Rocks. She hopefully stated that she knew they were not lost forever and that she would love to see them again.
Swanson did not get her wish. She passed away in 1983 with all three films that she listed still lost. But twenty years after her death, an announcement rocked the world of film history: Beyond the Rocks had been found. A single copy had been discovered in a collectors stash in the Netherlands. It was restored, its Dutch titles translated back to English, and released on DVD with an introduction by Martin Scorsese.
And this is where we come in. Was Beyond the Rocks worth the wait?
Swanson plays Theodora Fitzgerald, a young lady living in Dorset with her older half-sisters and her dear old dad. The sisters conspire for Theodora to marry money and lift them out of grinding poverty. How poor are they? Well, they have a nice cottage, a boat, a spectacular view but some of the armchairs are threadbare. Given the family’s desperate situation, Theodora simply must land a rich husband.
Lord Hector Bracondale (Valentino) is boating near where Theodora is row row rowing her boat. We are carefully informed by title card that his grandmother was Italian but of the right sort. The need to explain by intertitle why our hero looks (whispers) Mediterranean is probably baffling to most modern viewers. Anti-Italian xenophobia was still in the mainstream of American culture (see Sacco and Vanzetti) and the studio’s obvious discomfort with Valentino’s peculiar brand of sexiness led to some very strange title cards, indeed.
Valentino’s early heroic roles were often played under two tons of pale pancake makeup—he looked positively sickly in The Delicious Little Devil— but stardom brought permission to be dark and handsome, so long as the matter was carefully explained in writing and his character had at least one WASP-y parent. “I’m sure you’re all wondering why this Italian man is here. Well, let me tell you…”
Anyway, Theodora suddenly develops a case of the galloping dumdums and manages to capsize herself. Hector dives in, saves her and sparks fly but the sisters decide he won’t do because he doesn’t seem like the marrying kind. So, Theodora is obliged to finance the family’s new living room suite by marrying Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder), an tradesman who has made good. The horror!
The newlyweds honeymoon in Switzerland but it soon becomes clear that Brown is not able to keep up with his energetic young wife and so she goes off the climb the Alps herself. And just when she steps back to take a picture… she falls off the cliff! And who is there to save her? You guessed it!
Basically, the entire film is centered around Theodora being imperiled by her klutziness and Hector swooping in to save the day. I would call it unrealistic but considering the rather grim, self-inflicted fates of British explorers Captain Scott and George Mallory around this time, maybe I should give Beyond the Rocks points for accuracy. One thing is clear: if you’re English and planning an adventure, it seems that bringing along an Italian is advisable.
Theodora heads to Paris and Hector follows. I expected our hapless heroine to slip on a banana peel and fall from the top of the Eiffel Tower but instead, we get a fantasy sequence with the couple dreaming themselves into the court of Versailles (not the head-choppy bit, naturally).
These fantasy sequences are often said to have been inspired by the films of Cecil B. DeMille, which had made Swanson a superstar, but it’s worth noting that dream sequences featuring other places and times were commonplace throughout the silent era and particularly in the 1910s, when DeMille started using them. You can see them in A Little Princess and The Mystery of the Sleeping Death, for example, the former of which was released in 1914, the year of DeMille’s film debut.
Given that this was a Paramount picture starring a DeMille leading lady, he likely was an influence but we should be cautious about attributing full authorship of historical fantasy sequences to him. There were plenty of other examples.
Anyway, Hector and Theodora agree that theirs is a Hopeless Love™ and part but not for long. After all, there are more sets to show off and more costumes to wear. She even acts in a Georgian pageant, the better for she and Hector to wear more old-timey clothes.
Meanwhile, Brown discovers the emotional affair, thanks to the machinations of a jealous Gertrude Astor, who hoped to marry Hector. If your wife has fallen for Valentino, there’s nothing else for it, you have to go on a dangerous expedition to North Africa in order to try to get yourself killed and free her to marry her true love. Theodora and Hector follow to rescue him and not, I repeat, not to tap into those vibes and extra costumes from Valentino’s hit film The Sheik.
Will they save Brown? How many more costume changes can they fit into the runtime? See Beyond the Rocks to find out!
Beyond the Rocks is a bit of a special film for me. Every silent movie fan faces a bitter discovery when they learn that the majority of the movies from the era are lost. Picture it: a happy new silent movie fan enthusiastically reads a synopsis of a picture starring some of their favorite talents. And then the sting at the end: no copy is known to exist.
But with the bitter comes the sweet taste of resurrection and Beyond the Rocks was the first major rediscovery that was announced when I was a new silent film devotee. It received coverage in the mainstream press and I can’t tell you know many friends emailed me stories and handed me clippings. As a fan of both Swanson and Valentino, I was obviously ecstatic.
Accepting that you will probably never see a particular movie—and then hearing that, yes, you actually will… yeah, no better feeling in the world. It’s euphoric and Beyond the Rocks gave that to me. Other lost films have been found since but you never forget your first one.
So, this leads to the next obvious question: is the film actually any good?
All right, confession time. No. No, I don’t actually like it.
Here’s my main problem with Beyond the Rocks: What did Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson and Gertrude Astor all have in common? Killer comedy chops, that’s what. I’m not saying that I wanted them to break out the custard pies but this was a cast that needed an Ernst Lubitsch or a William de Mille, not Elinor Glyn. A bit of sass, a bit of winking, a gag or two would have done wonders to buoy the soggy romance. We all know Sam Wood would have been more than game. But nothing. It is the most humorless picture. Even The Sheik had its awkward comedy relief!
As I was watching the finale, I couldn’t help but fantasize about an alternative comedy version in which Brown is trying desperately to get random Algerians to slay him based on stereotypes but they just treat him to dinner and show him the sights. And a meta cameo of Ahmed from The Sheik would have been the icing on the cake.
In fact, the entire picture is full of moments that are so barely separated from comedy that it would have taken the daintiest breath of air to send them over the edge. A costumed village fete? That’s some E.F. Benson comedy gold right there.
But I must review what I have seen and not what I want to see. As a motion picture, Beyond the Rocks is very much in the “if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you like” category. It’s a particular brand of romance, stylized and extremely formal. I tend to go for more trash, you know? Also, I have very little respect for Elinor Glyn as a writer but I absolutely bow to her as a hoopla artist. Convincing the world that charisma and sex appeal were actually a magical “IT” that only she could properly detect? That’s marketing genius.
As for Beyond the Rocks… The lavish settings—the finest matte paintings in Hollywood! – and the lovely costumes are a feast for the eyes but nobody stays in one place long enough for us to soak up the atmosphere. We’re at a small seaside town! Then Switzerland! Then Paris! Then a manor! Then Algeria! That’s a lot for 80 minutes, believe me. It’s a wonder that Valentino and Swanson’s costumes weren’t Velcroed on to make them change faster. (But aren’t they pretty? Well done, Natacha Rambova!)
Further, the initial objection to Hector is never made quite clear. We are told a few times that he is a ladykiller but in the film, he never has eyes for anyone but Theodora. You’d think the fortune hunting sisters would at least want to give it a go, especially since Hector had a title in the bargain. Further, the decidedly un-impoverished surroundings of Theodora’s family make her unhappy union with Brown all the more baffling.
The furious pace and thin characters don’t give Swanson and Valentino much to work with. Just when they start to settle into some romance, the scene changes. For example, after Theodora falls down a cliff, Hector climbs down to save her and they remain on the ledge while help arrives. That is a made-to-measure moment for grand romantic gestures but… we get a title card saying time has passed and help arrives. You had one job!
In general, the film gives the impression of a production that was built around big names and a generous budget but not much planning beyond “YIPES! WE HAVE SWANSON AND VALENTINO! DRESS THEM NICELY!” In fact, these criticisms were leveled against Beyond the Rocks when it was first released.
However, it is not lost on me that, thanks to this rediscovery and restoration, I am in a position to say that I didn’t really care for Beyond the Rocks. No guessing, no speculation. I got to see a previously lost film. Who cares if I didn’t like it? Plenty of people did and, anyway, all of our opinions are based on real viewings.
Some lost films emerge and turn out to be masterpieces. The Canadian, for example. But Beyond the Rocks is like the 1916 Sherlock Holmes: I don’t like it but I know I don’t like it! (If you want to make references to the android Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation getting an emotion chip and being delighted with his discovery that he hates a certain beverage… well, I won’t stop you.)
So, there you have it. This is very much a hit or miss film but the only way to know is to see it for yourself and now you can. That’s still pretty exciting.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Milestone. The release includes a featurette on the film’s miraculous discovery.
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