Accidentally Hilarious: On “The Sheik” (1921)

This post is written especially for the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently.  Enjoy the post, feel free to leave comments, then head over to Movies Silently and check out all the other great articles!

When I was but a wee silent film newbie, I discovered there were far more old films available on YouTube and Netflix than I’d thought. Innumerable classics of early master filmmakers, such as Intolerance, Greed, Battleship Potemkin and The Last Laugh were all awaiting me, holding within their hallowed reels the potential to unlock within my brain a renewed appreciation for film artistry, and the ability to view early 20th century history through fresh eyes. So what did I do first?

Why, sit myself down with a bag of cheesy popcorn and watch The Sheik, of course!!

“Yesssssssssss.”

I operate under the rock-solid belief that some dated elements of old movies –such as Keystone’s love of big silly mustaches–are, in fact, Awesome and should be embraced as such. Thus, my first viewing of The Sheik brought forth much rejoicing for its abundance of Awesomeness, and I’ve had a genuine fondness for it ever since.

To be clear, if you’ve never watched a silent film starting with The Sheik is not something I’d generally recommend–it’s much better to get into some silent comedy and then a few top-notch melodramas first. Why? Well, to the inexperienced newbie this important Valentino film will seem like a textbook of silent “cliches” that everyone assumes ran rampant through early film. It’s bad enough that most people don’t give old films enough credit as it is.

“They thought that guy was a hot leading man? Geez, old movies were so, like, weird.” –Uninformed Silent Film Newbie

Now, as you’re suspecting it’s very easy to giggle at certain elements of The Sheik. But is it maybe a tad underrated? Is it a better showcase for Valentino than we might assume?

Let us examine!

Some background: The Sheik was the result of some cunning target marketing on the part of Famous Players–Lasky (which in the future would be called Paramount).  At time, E.M. Hull’s torrid romance novel The Sheik was wildly popular. It was the Twilight of its day (or another novel whose name I don’t want to besmirch my innocent lil’ blog with; Many Pale Shades of Black will do). Studio heads reasoned that a film version of this book would be embraced by the large female demographic and rake in enough cash to, oh, buy everyone ten solid gold ukuleles (because 1920s).

Rudolph Valentino, who had recently made a sensation as Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and whose obvious star power was being treated with a “mehhhh” in films such as Camille (1921), decided to sign with Famous Players–Lasky. He was quickly offered the role of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. As Moving Picture World put it at the time: “The part is considered ideal for Valentino, who is a dashing and colorful actor with unusually good looks and much ability.”

Not the least of which was pulling off this costume LIKE A BOSS.

It was certainly a plum role, and it came with quite a few expectations. As the Sheik Ahmed Valentino would have to be handsome, magnetic, temperamental, virile, sultry, mysterious, indomitable, savage, strong, stealthy, imperious, dashing, exotic, foreign, Arabian, not white, sort of white, okay maybe white–and maybe a tad sensitive.

His leading lady was Agnes Ayres, a Players–Lasky girl attracting notice at the time. She perhaps couldn’t radiate “fearless adventurous modern woman” quite like, say, Constance Talmadge could, but she certainly knew how to show fear in the presence of the Sheik.

As so beautifully demonstrated here.

The plot: Lady Diana Mayo, a Thoroughly Modern Woman with a “reckless spirit of daring,” defies all convention and decides to plan a tour “alone into the desert, with only native camel-drivers and Arabs!” (as an appalled matron exclaims via title card). As someone who had the good fortune of visiting Egypt a few years back, frankly, I’ve got to say that even today this truly…isn’t practical. The sweet Ms. Ayres pulls off the spirit of reckless daring about as aptly as skinny me pulling off the part of a professional football player, but that’s alright. While in a casino she sees Sheik Ahmed for the first time. He sees her for the first time. He finds her…intriguing.  

So intriguing that he later kidnaps her…snatching her from the back of the horse she’s riding. Forced into captivity with this handsome passionate he-man, she at first fears him, but when he does her no harm (aside from a forced he-man kiss) one thing leads to another and she begins to soften. Will Lady Diana fall for the Sheik? Will she get kidnapped yet again?! Will true love triumph in the end?! Will it turn out that the hot-blooded Arabian is actually European?!!

“HECK yesssssssss.”

While you might snicker, this film was a huge hit in its day. The timing for it was perfect. At the time “Orientalism” was just utterly all the rage, you chickens, at least among artistic types like Nazimova and Valentino’s girlfriend Natacha Rambova. E.M. Hull’s novel, described by Picture-Play Magazine as “that presposterous and phenomenal best seller…so long the delight of old ladies’ boarding houses and young ladies’ seminaries,” had popularized the idea of a “desert romance.” Indeed, reviews of the film compared it to the novel often. As Motion Picture Magazine put it: “Almost everyone has read ‘The Sheik.’ And almost everyone tells you, ‘Of course, I know it isn’t a great book, but it is exciting.’ And, having read ‘The Sheik’ yourself, you admit that much, anyway.”

Pictured: Excitement, admittedly.

Watching the film today, a few things stand out. (Some more than others.)

One is the cinematography. This is a beautiful film, with the minimalist desert scenes (dunes, rows of palms, horsemen) and carefully posed tableaux that recall Romanticist paintings. Director George Melford tried hard to make every frame of his film shout “EXOTIC!” The sides of the tents flap and quiver in the desert winds, the tents themselves are a tasteful riot of patterned cloths and Mid-eastern furniture, and many scenes are shot through drawn curtains and Moorish-shaped doorways.

The Sheik ayres and servant

Another thing that stands out is Valentino’s charisma. Oh yes, he had it. I would define an actor having charisma if he merely stood in the corner of the frame, did nothing, yet somehow still made you feel he was Somebody, about to Do Something. Even in crowd scenes, you look at Valentino. And as far as his legendary looks went, well–I’ll just say that they will be at home in any time period from here to eternity.

You probably didn’t notice, but he’s holding a cigarette in this photo.

Then there’s the theme. The idea of a big dangerous exotic man going wild with lust for you and kidnapping you and forcing you to make love to him was quite the fantasy back then, apparently (you are an innocent maiden by the way). Women loved the notion of a take-charge “caveman” who won’t be ordered around. A Real Man, even an Exaggeration of a Real Man, sent their pulses racing. (In Harold Lloyd’s feature Girl Shy his character imagines himself using “caveman” methods to woo a ditsy flapper. It’s Awesome.)  You might assume that having exotic Sheik Ahmed turn out to be European would put a damper on the excitement, but…in all fairness, it was 1921.

When an Arab sees The Sheik

From an ad for “The Sheik.” And honestly, do I really need to remind you that times were different back then?

The casting in The Sheik sure helps the theme along. Ayres is quite petite. Her slim wrists and tiny hands conveniently almost disappear in Valentino’s strong grip, and he seems even taller and more masculine in comparison with her (okay, maybe I can understand the appeal a teensy bit).

A lot of reviews from the era complained that the film diluted the spicier elements of the book. Sheik Ahmed, they griped, didn’t act nearly as dangerous and hot-blooded as he was supposed to be. As Motion Picture Magazine lamented at the time: “He smiles often. And you wonder why Diana is ever afraid of him.”

And the last thing that stands out is what everyone remembers. It’s…well, this.

That.

Valentino’s wide-eyed leering at Ayres is so out of the norm for him (heck, I’d say uncommon in films of the time) that some have speculated it was Melford’s idea. The Sheik’s eyes pop. His grin is almost pasted on. He laughs with cookie-cutter deliberation. And Ayres doesn’t help matters with her Fearful Damsel poses and theatrical attempts to flee him. But I gotta admit…it’s all pretty Awesome. Were it not for the whites of Valentino’s eyes showing all around his pupils, this film might not have the special place in my heart that it does today, I do declare.

Modern viewers might assume that those backward people of the past swallowed this kind of overacting hook, line, and sinker. There were indeed some reviews praising Valentino’s performance, as in the Exhibitor’s Trade Review, Nov. 19, 1921: “Rudolph Valentino carries off the dramatic honors by his dashing impersonation of the hard-riding, violent love-maker, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan.”  But there were also reviews like this one from Variety, November 11 of the same year: “Mr. Valentino…depicts the fundamental emotions of the Arab sheik chiefly by showing his teeth and rolling his eyes”.

And sitting with his love in front of inexplicable yellow shapes.

But let me add that in spite of all this wild posturing there’s one moment where Valentino transcends his role. At the 35 minute mark he begins to realize how he’s frightened Lady Diana, and feels twinges of remorse. He looks right at the camera–right at you–and for a moment you can see the phenomenon. And it’s those moments that arguably can still win him fans today.

If you wish to see this photoplay of tempestuous love between a madcap English Beauty and a bronzed Arab chief (a 1921 Exhibitor’s Herald’s words, not mine) then break out that cheesy popcorn and go for it! (But only after carefully acquainting yourself with the silent era first.) It can offer a little something to everyone. If you want something fun, escapist, and full of beautiful scenery, this is the film for you. If you are a film snob and desire to use your favorite word (“campy”), this is the film is for you. If you are a gal wanting to see what all the Hot Valentino Hoopla was about, this is definitely the film for you. If you are a guy hoping to it laugh at what the Hot Valentino Hoopla was all about, ditto.

The Sheik may encapsulate some of the funniest cliches of the silent era…but few old films have done so with such charm. I wouldn’t quite call it a guilty pleasure, because heck, I experience no guilt whatsoever in enjoying it. It fulfills expectations, goes a bit beyond expectations, and will forever have its Moorish-shaped niche in film history.

p.s. If you love this film (which of course you will), definitely indulge in the sequel The Son of the Sheik (1926) at some point.  It is a fulfillment of what The Sheik was trying to be, and features a magnificent performance by Valentino.  The young Italian certainly had It.

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19 thoughts on “Accidentally Hilarious: On “The Sheik” (1921)

  1. This movie is my number one guilty pleasure. I love Valentino’s overacting and the silly moments. It’s certainly better than the novel, which is quite icky. The sequel is sexier and superior technically, but I have a hard time deciding which film I like more. They both have their own escapist charms.

    • I agree that that’s a tough one to pick. I MIGHT prefer the fairly unpretentious charm of The Sheik to Son of the Sheik, although I love how “polished” the sequel is and how good Valentino is in it. I haven’t read the novel yet–hmm, now that would make some interesting summer reading!

      • The novel… Ah, the novel. It’s very… yeah, icky is the word. You basically will want to take a bath in Listerine when you are done, assuming you finish. Just sayin’ 😉

        I like to blame Valentino’s eye-popping on Theodore Kosloff. I like to blame most things on Theodore Kosloff, in fact.

        Totally agree, The Sheik is a complete kitschy trip. It’s just so eager to please that you can’t help getting caught up in the spirit of the thing, politically incorrect as it is. What can we do? It just swept us off our feet!

        Thanks so much for joining in the fun!

        • Certainly, it was a really fun topic! 🙂 One thing about Theodore Kosloff…he can sure pull off a bathing suit with a cape. Wait…no, actually he can’t. No one can. But we can certainly APPRECIATE him wearing a bathing suit with a cape. (Dang, now I really want to watch Why Change Your Wife.)

      • The novel is very icky. Let’s just say the “spicier” elements the critics lamented the loss of– they were rightfully taken out. If people thought the film was a feminist’s worst nightmare, then they’ve not read the book. Approach with caution.

  2. Fun review, Lea! And if you REALLY want to see a ‘take-charge caveman’ use his gigantic hands to unabashedly take charge of a woman, might I suggest the movie ‘Eegah’!

    • A friend, who hadn’t seen a silent film yet and didn’t know what Valentino looked like (many people today don’t, I noticed), once asked me skeptically if I thought people might still consider this 1920s idol to be attractive today. As my mind reeled, I answered OH YES with much emphasis. Tastes don’t always change that drastically, that’s for sure! 😉

  3. I was lucky enough to see this for the first time a few years back on a big screen in 35mm with a wonderful live score. It was during a silent film festival and though there were some great dramatic moments, Rudy’s toothy, stare-y grimaces brought forth much laughter from the audience of silents aficionados.

    My abiding memory though is of how his hands were covered in some sort of really dark ‘fake tan’. They were far darker than his face and arms (you can even see it in the pics above) and it was really distracting!

    http://www.brentonfilm.com/

    • Oh yes, definitely know what you mean! It’s like they were considering making him tan or “dark-complexioned” all over but chickened out after just the hands were done. 😀 It was certainly deliberate but man it looks strange today.

    • Yes, it is a great movie, as well as easy to make fun of–I love it! Having unintentionally funny moments honestly just adds WAY more points in its favor. Please check out the article if you want more details. 😉

  4. This is a fine, interesting article. I enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join my blogathon, “The Great Breening Blogathon:” https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/extra-the-great-breening-blogathon/. It is celebrating the life and work of Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code between 1934 and 1954. As we honor his birthday, which is on October 14, we will be discussing and analyzing the Code era, breening films from other eras, and writing about our own ideas for classic movies. One doesn’t have to agree with the Code and Mr. Breen to enjoy that! I hope you will do me the honor of joining. We could really use your talent! I know you would be excellent at breening a silent film.

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    • Hi Tiffany! Thanks for the invite, this is a great blogathon idea. I like how you differentiate between self-regulation and censorship! Not a lot of people look into the Code that deeply. 🙂 I might be able to join but have to hold back for now, I have a couple big pieces coming up that are due around the same time (for other publications), so I don’t want to get your hopes up and end up over scheduling myself! Looks like you have a nice signup so far. 🙂

      • Dear Lea,

        Thank you for your reply. I appreciate the kind, friendly response you gave to the Code. I entirely understand your scheduling concerns. I know that you will make the right decision based on your commitments. Whether you are able to join or not, I appreciate your response to my comment.

        Yours Hopefully,

        Tiffany Brannan

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