It can be hard for a contemporary person to fully grasp just what a social, historical, and cultural watershed Rudy’s popularity was in the 1920s. These days, there are so many graphic movies, songs, music videos (which apparently still exist), and books, coupled with a detachment from anything more than few decades old. The idea that women would faint in the aisles of a movie theatre or find a silent film without sex erotic strikes many people as laughable.
Some overgrown mean girl on a message board I left years ago once haughtily insisted that if women were truly fainting in the aisles when they saw The Sheik, their corsets must’ve been laced too tightly or they had no idea of what real sexiness actually was. Just because YOU, as a 21st century person, can’t fathom the mindset of a 1920s woman doesn’t mean they were a bunch of ninnies or suffering from tight corsets!
In every generation, the concept of shocking, sexy, vulgar, violent, radical, etc., changes. No one exists in a vacuum.
The Sheik was based on a trashy 1919 bestseller by Edith Maud Hull (writing as E.M. Hull). Women loved both the book and film because it was a forbidden romance. The only kind of sex a so-called “respectable woman” could fantasize about was rape, since it wasn’t sex she sought out. Women were expected to stay 10000% virgin until marriage, not enjoy or initiate sex, only endure sex as something done for the man’s benefit, not have affairs, not get caught alone with a man outside of marriage (no matter how innocent the situation), basically be asexual, celibate, ignorant flowers.
Women loved the story of Ahmed and Diana because that kind of excitement and passion was missing in their own lives. They loved the idea of a strange man driven wild with desire for them, so much so he’d kidnap and ravish her. I’m very uncomfortable with people who insist rape fantasies are inherently unhealthy and unfeminist.
In a true fantasy, you’re always in total control, and things go exactly the way you’d like. These women didn’t really want to be beaten up and raped so brutally they feared all their bones had been broken. It was about what it represented, not truly wanting to get kidnapped, beaten, and raped. We can’t police strangers’ fantasies!
The film also significantly tones down Ahmed’s actions to make him a more sympathetic character, and the fate of Diana’s virginity is rather open-ended.
Before Rudy, American women had only seen stereotypically masculine, clean-cut actors like Wallace Reid, Thomas Meighan, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. While I love those actors too, they represented a much different type of man. Rudy showed women an image of manliness they hadn’t known existed, a guy who harnessed sensitivity, beauty, grace, charm, wit, intelligence, physical strength, thoughtfulness, attention to his appearance. He also wore a slave bracelet.
Rudy was also dark-featured. Though he was actually half French (from his maternal line), he was blessed with dark Italian good looks and terra-cotta skin. He was an exotic, dark, foreign lover, an exciting change of pace from the stereotypical all-American boy next door they were socialized to want. That made the powers that be very uncomfortable, since it challenged the status quo.
American men began emulating Rudy’s slicked-back hair and attention to his physical appearance. This made the powers that be even more terrified, fearing for the future of “American manhood.” Back in Italy, it was normal for men to display emotions, show gentleness and tenderness, write romantic poetry, cultivate gardens, and wear jewelry. Those weren’t considered signs of a weak, effeminate man or a gay guy. It was the Italian version of normal.
Basically, it let both sexes know there were options beyond what they’d been socialized to see as the only acceptable way. Though the word “gender” was still predominantly only a grammatical term during this era, Rudy’s nonconformism was a perfect example of breaking down gendered stereotypes. Since gender is a social and cultural construct, there’s no one right way to be a “real” man or woman.
To this day, the name Valentino is synonymous with a handsome, suave seducer of women.
Lower right quadrant, perforated abdominal ulcers are called Valentino’s syndrome, since that’s what led to Rudy’s agonizing death.
The Valentino crypt is said to be notoriously haunted. Many visitors have reported feeling a cold spot, and seeing strange light show up in photographs. A lot of female visitors have also reported feeling phantom kisses.