Carmel Myers starred in a light romantic comedy opposite some guy named Rodolpho de Valentina but when he hit it big as Rudolph Valentino, the film was recut and re-released. Is it an early turkey or a misunderstood classic?
Home Media Availability: Released on Bluray.
For Butter Pecan, It’s Not Bad
Rudolph Valentino spent years in the movie doldrums before hitting it big. Popular enough to be cast as the leading man opposite stars, not quite popular enough to be the top-billed star himself. Once he became a sensation follow the one-two punch of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheik, his former employers found themselves with plenty of material to re-release.
A Society Sensation was released in 1918 as a star vehicle for Carmel Myers but Universal re-released it in the 1920s with three out of five reels cut, the whole thing re-titled and Valentino billed as the star. Theater owners were invited to “clean up” using Valentino’s popularity.
(I will be using the characters’ original names for the purpose of this review.)
Myers plays Sydney Parmelee, a young lady living in a rural fishing town. Her father (Alfred Allen) is obsessed with aristocracy and believes that he is the heir to a dukedom. It’s not the money, you understand, but the title. Sydney shines her father on and doesn’t take the matter too seriously.
After Captain Parmelee’s affectations make the news, wealthy Mrs. Jones (Lydia Yeamans Titus) swoops in and invites Sydney up the coast to make a social scene. Hosting a duchess would be a great win for Mrs. Jones, who is trying to impress the snobby Bradley family.
Things go better than she could have imagined when Sydney rescues Richard Bradley (Valentino) from drowning and he becomes smitten. However, Sydney’s family discovers that their claims of aristocratic blood were all a myth and her mother returns to San Francisco to deliver the bad news. By this time Richard is very much in love but intimidated by Sydney’s title.
Will true love win out? You probably know the answer but getting there is all the fun.
First of all, this is a generally stronger vehicle than the other Myers-Valentino romance I have reviewed, All Night. In All Night, both leads played kind of prissy youngsters who blushed at the thought of a mild peck on the cheek and were a bit tedious. In A Society Sensation, the romance is more cinematic and I enjoyed Myers’ gutsy character. In addition to saving Richard from drowning, Sydney jumps in and fights the bad guys when it comes down to fisticuffs. As someone who is quite annoyed by heroines who stand in the corner screaming while the hero battles it out, I appreciated her spunk.
Lydia Yeamans Titus is fine as Mrs. Jones, though her motivations for exposing and then aiding Sydney are a bit opaque and vintage synopses have conflicting descriptions. I also liked ZaSu Pitts as the local character. She and Valentino seemed to have fun with their brief scenes together and, if I am honest, the idea of longer collaboration between the two sounds rather appealing. As for Valentino himself, his job was to be charming and look good in a swimsuit, which he accomplishes. Problems arise if you are looking for more than that.
One of the issues with “before they were stars” films in general and the work of Rudolph Valentino in particular is that some viewers become almost angry at the original stars for daring to act like, well, the stars when Rudy was in the wings. This attitude is really on display toward the great Alla Nazimova’s Camille, an innovative and woman-centered take on the Dumas novella. The disappointment has not been as great with A Society Sensation, partially because it is simply less famous, but I have seen it rear its head.
Now, there are obviously cases where the less-famous newcomer does indeed outshine the established star but let’s not be unfair to Nazamova and Myers. Both were talented and popular performers with strong careers with or without Valentino.
There’s a joke with many variations but the one I heard was this one:
A guy goes up to the owner of the ice cream parlor to complain. “This is the worst vanilla ice cream I have ever eaten in my life!” The owner informs him that he’s actually eating butter pecan. The customer immediately calms down and declares: “Oh, for butter pecan, it’s not bad.”
Or, for a non-joking example, the difference between enjoying a tasty oatmeal raisin cookie vs biting into a chocolate chip cookie and discovering that it is oatmeal raisin.
My point is that our expectations drastically alter our experience with something and that is certainly the case with A Society Sensation. It was designed as a Carmel Myers vehicle and featured many scenes with the star because, you know, she was the star. However, Universal’s decision to cut over 60% of its runtime and feature Rudolph Valentino’s relatively generic love interest role created a false expectation.
As a Rudolph Valentino vehicle, A Society Sensation is dreadful. As a romantic comedy vehicle for Carmel Myers featuring some light social satire, it was probably pretty good. Reviews of the time were certainly positive. I don’t put all my stock in vintage reviews but the things they compliment about the picture confirm my hunches. Variety called it “light, improbable, but entertaining.” Wid’s Film Daily declared that its “elementary plot made delightful by players and treatment.”
By ruthlessly cutting all scenes that didn’t feature Valentino, Universal removed a lot of content that was probably a good deal of fun. For example, in the cut of the film that we see, Sydney is revealed to be a real duchess after all in the end. However, the full cut of the film is said to show Mrs. Jones hiring nefarious lawyers to manufacture a title for the Parmalees in order to both ensure Sydney’s marriage and her own social coup in hosting her.
Obviously, this makes all the difference in the world. The cutdown version ends with an insipid fantasy while the original shows how a wily woman with access to paperwork can create a title out of thin air, mocking both the idea of aristocracy and the American fixation with it. Broad wink to the camera from Mrs. Jones and fade out.
I think what bothers me most about what happened to A Society Sensation is that I think I would have liked the uncut version very much indeed. I really enjoyed Cecil B. DeMille’s riff on the theme in The Golden Chance and I am always ready for some breezy heckling of the American aristocracy fandom. (One of my favorite jokes in To the Manor Born: “Don’t keep saying ‘SIR Peter’ like that. You sound like an American.”)
Of course, any major scenes of character development for either Sydney or Mrs. Jones were slashed out unless absolutely necessary to get the Valentino scenes. All the satirical tidbits were defanged as a result and the romance doesn’t ring true either because Dick Bradley was designed with all the depth of a secondary James Bond love interest. He simply wasn’t built to carry two reels alone.
So, in the end, Universal’s shortsighted decision to slash A Society Sensation down to the “Valentino parts” version damaged the picture’s reputation in the long run. I am grateful for releases of the two-reel version, naturally, but I am intrigued by those missing three reels.
Is it worth seeing? Yes, if you understand what you’re in for. It’s not vanilla ice cream or chocolate chip cookies but once you realize that, you should find something to enjoy.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD and Bluray by Flicker Alley.
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Thanks for the review Fritzi!
I wholeheartedly agree with your points and I find myself wondering again: why does every early Valentino film has to be his own exclusive vehicle to be enjoyed? And why do other stars need to be erased in the process?
I consider myself a Valentino fan and yet I’d rather see him in a small, minor role within a well-written, well-crafted, entertaining film than see him in a (forcibly) expanded role within a film that essentially flops (flops in the sense that the film itself is damaged by the very desicion to enlarge and promote a secondary/uninteresting part).
Yeah, Rudy was just fine as he was but I wanted to see more of gutsy Carmel and her wondrous hats!
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