2022 marks the centenary of a very specific social phenomenon–1920s flapper culture. That’s right, I’m saying “centenary,” because I propose that 1922 should be formally recognized as the “Birth Year of the Flapper.” I’ve spent, err, too much time exploring this fascinating era of the early 20th century (especially when I did Flapper Month here on Silent-ology a few years ago), and after awhile I started noticing a trend. While flapper culture had been brewing and evolving for quite some time, 1922 is truly the year when the quintessential bobbed-hair flapper burst into the public consciousness. Did she ever!
Two examples of what I mean: here’s the results you get when you search for “flapper flappers” (both words at the same time) in the years 1910-1929 on the Media History Digital Library:
And if you do the same search on Chronicling America, if you narrow the search results down to a single year at a time, you will see:
1919: 12 results 1920: 22 1921: 36 1922: 533 (!)
I dunno, that’s looking pretty clear cut to me!
(If you’re curious, on Chronicling America 1923 = 67 results, and 1924 = 64. After 1922, flappers seemed to be an accepted part of life–or maybe the public was tired of talking about them so much.)
This is the final day and final post of Sheik Month. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Roaring Twenties sheik culture, and thank you kindly for stopping by! And I’m looking forward to what posts the spring and summer will bring (hint: a trip’s on the way!).
In 1926, Rudolph Valentino’s stardom was at its height. At the young age of 31, the Italian screen idol’s name was known around the world, there were several box office successes under his arm, and women adored him so passionately that public appearances often ended with his hat being stolen and buttons torn from his coat. Today, we look at portraits of this near-mythical figure dressed to tailored perfection with the light shining off his patent-leather hair, and wonder what thoughts were behind that meditative gaze. Perhaps he would surprise us–a few months before appearing in what would be his final film, The Son of the Sheik, Valentino spoke frankly about his romantic image: “The whole thing is false and artificial. You can’t go on and on with it…One appears to be what others desire, not what one is in reality.”
Be that as it may, in The Son of the Sheik Valentino proved that he could, indeed, “go on and on with it,” at least for one last time. Five years after appearing in his iconic role of Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik (1921), he agreed to appear in the film’s sequel–despite his dislike of being pigeonholed as a “sheik.” Douglas Fairbanks’s Zorro films had brought sequels into vogue, and the fans, naturally, had been clamoring for more desert romances. And perhaps Valentino also agreed to the film since this time he could show his range–even having a dual role. Continue reading →
While researching this month’s theme, I found a number of interesting or amusing newspaper clippings about “sheiks” that didn’t quite fit into my articles (or would’ve made them too long).
Or too weird. (Buffalo Courier, February 18, 1923.)
But since I like to share my joy, here’s a small collection covering various aspects of 1920s sheik culture. You might find these insights mighty similar to the public’s thoughts on flappers, too.
The use of “sheik” and “sheba” to describe hep teens seems to have grown in popularity very rapidly after the release of The Sheik in 1921 (as you know), and became a staple of contemporary slang until the early ’30s. Here’s an example from 1924–oh, those traffic-endangering young spooners! Continue reading →
During the heyday of Rudolph Valentino, studios scrambled to find their own versions of a “sheik”–that passionate, menacing “exotic” lover women’s hearts were fluttering over (who also guaranteed plenty of box office gold). Actors from the steady Milton Sills to dashing Antonio Moreno were considered worthy rivals, but perhaps the worthiest one of all was the talented, gentlemanly Ramon Novarro.
“The woman from fourteen to ninety loved him, because he made romance come riding home to her dreams. He was not the individual she craved, he was the symbol of what she craved.” —From a letter to Photoplay, January 1927
What does it mean to be an icon? In the case of film actors, we assume this means their image has instant recognition. Across the world, people belonging to every culture and race will recognize Marilyn Monroe or Charlie Chaplin. Their very names have symbolism–“Chaplin” calls to mind laughter and old-time slapstick, while “Marilyn Monroe” stands for glamour and sensuality with a touch of vulnerability. (Interestingly, many people I’ve encountered who mention admiring Marilyn have never seen one of her films.)
So let us consider “Rudolph Valentino.” Of all the screen icons, his legacy is perhaps the most obscured by mythology, fantasy and cult status. The mere mention of his name–and how fortunate he was to adopt the elegant “Valentino”–recalls the kind of old Hollywood romance involving soft lighting, perfectly tailored suits, glimmering jewels and long, thrilling kisses. It calls to mind the stories of sobbing, fainting fans at his funeral bier–for he died young, as everyone remembers.
But how many people today know what Rudolph Valentino looked like? How many have watched one of his films, or even a single clip? Who was the living, breathing human being behind the romantic name–the romantic dream? Continue reading →
Throwback time! This post was originally written for the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon hosted by Movies Silently a few years back. I’m dusting it off for you since you can’t have a Sheik Month without The Sheik itself. (Plus, this article was really fun to write.) Hope you get a kick out of it!
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!!
We’re all familiar with stereotypical 1920s flapper–the fun-loving, trendy young woman who loved Jazz, dancing, and all things “modern.” But arm in arm with the flapper was the 1920s sheik, their male counterpart. There’s plenty of discussion about flappers nowadays, but there’s comparatively little discussion about sheiks, and the sort of factors that lead to their place in pop culture.
One of John Held Jr’s popular cartoons.
But “sheik culture” is an important piece of the Jazz Age puzzle. Its advent spurred numerous discussions about movie romance, masculinity and female desire. And its impact on American cinema was tremendous–in fact, you could easily categorize screen romance as B.V. (Before Valentino) and A.V. (After Valentino). Continue reading →