A scorching swan song

Happy heavenly 70th birthday to Freddie Mercury!

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The Son of the Sheik, Rudy Valentino’s unintentional swan song, had an advance première screening at L.A.’s Million Dollar Theater on 9 July 1926, and went into general release on 3 September. Now 90 years old, it’s held up most incredibly well, and easily stands as one of Rudy’s greatest performances.

It’s obviously a sequel to the runaway 1921 success The Sheik, and was likewise based on a novel by Edith Maud (E.M.) Hull. Ms. Hull wrote the sequel in 1925, six years after the release of the first book. The Sons of the Sheik features the twin sons of Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan and Lady Diana Mayo. Ahmed, Jr., is in the desert, while Caryll is in England with his grandpap.

Son of the Sheik

The sequel is so much better than the original, for so many reasons:

A much better director! TSOTS was directed by George Fitzmaurice (most of whose films are sadly lost), while The Sheik was directed by George Melford. A lot of The Sheik‘s shortcomings have been blamed on Melford egging his players on to overacting. He wanted a commercial hit, not a serious, quality, artistic masterpiece, and it sure shows. TSOTS isn’t one of the greatest films of all time either, but at least it’s a very solid, quality film.

Much better chemistry between the romantic leads. Yasmin is played by the beautiful Vilma Bánky (née Koncsics [Kon-cheech]), known as “The Hungarian Rhapsody.” She also was Rudy’s leading lady in 1925’s The Eagle. In both films, they make such believable, intense, complex couples. With Agnes Ayres in The Sheik, sparks don’t really fly.

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A much better script, with a more believable love-hate story, compelling subplots, and great secondary characters. Both source novels were trashy pulp fiction, but the screenwriters of TSOTS (the legendary Frances Marion and Fred de Gresac) did a much better job than Monte M. Katterjohn did with The Sheik.

A very tongue-in-cheek, campy spirit, with the sense that Rudy was having a lot of fun spoofing his own image and the original film. I love all the light comic relief, particularly from the wonderful character actor Karl Dane and Hyman Binunsky. The latter gets on the nerves of both the good guys and bad guys!

Fun intertitles, like “The night was young at the Café Maure. Not a knife had been thrown—so far.”

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Rudy plays a dual role so well. Early split-screen technology also allowed both the young Ahmed, Jr., and the older Ahmed, Sr., to appear together in a few scenes. For the reprised role of Sheik Ahmed, Rudy had a moustache and beard. Based on his performance, I could easily see him as having transitioned well to an elder actor. Someone once suggested he would’ve been great as the title role in The Godfather.

It’s got everything—romance, adventure, action, drama, lust, revenge, swashbuckling, intrigue, comedy, you name it.

Much better acting from everyone.

I love the interactions between father and son, both serious and funny.

Great pacing!

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When the film starts, we’re introduced to a band of vagrant outcasts, “entertainers by profession, thieves by preference,” headed by André (a Frenchman) and Ghabah (a Moor), “whose crimes outnumber the sands.” André’s daughter Yasmin dances to support the troupe, and is unhappily betrothed to Ghabah.

In the Touggourt marketplace a few days ago, Yasmin met and fell in love with young Ahmed, who gave her his ring. They’ve been regularly, secretly meeting in the ruins.

One night, Ghabah spies Yasmin getting ready to go out, and he runs and tells André. They track her to the ruins, where they capture Ahmed. He’s lashed to a grating in the ruins, and tortured quite horribly.

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During the torture, Ahmed is led to believe Yasmin never loved him, and was the bait to lure him just as she supposedly lured many another. His loyal servant Ramadan (Karl Dane) leads a rescue mission, and Ahmed recovers at a friend’s house.

Ahmed concocts an extremely un-PC, shocking plan for revenge, and abducts Yasmin from the Café Maure. As disturbing as this revenge is for a modern viewer, I love the moments when Ahmed’s face displays hesitancy. That helps to make his actions somewhat more tolerable.

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The plot thickens when Ahmed, Sr., discovers his son isn’t home yet, and goes to confront him. I won’t spoil anything that happens after this, but suffice it to say, it all helps to make this a 5-star film.

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