Happy 100th birthday to The Sheik! (Part II: Plot summary)

Ahmed Ben Hassan is the sheik who rules a simple, peaceful, premodern oasis in the Sahara. From the moment he’s introduced, we know he’s a good guy, since he releases a young lady from the marriage market to marry her sweetheart. “When love is more desired than riches, it is the will of Allah. Let another be chosen.”

One day, Ahmed journeys to the market of nearby Biskra (a real city in Algeria), an exciting blend of new and old. Also in Biskra is the orphaned Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), a headstrong young woman planning a tour alone into the desert.

Her brother, Sir Aubrey (Frank Butler), has tried and failed for years to bring her to heel, but Diana insists her mind is made up about this journey. Also fruitlessly trying to convince her to abandon the idea is a suitor. Diana says she has no interest in marriage, and that marriage is the end of a woman’s independence.

Diana is quite excited to see a group of Arabs, including Ahmed, arriving and heading towards the casino, but disappointed to be told the casino is closed to everyone else. Diana is told Ahmed is no savage, but “a rich tribal prince, who was educated in Paris. In Biskra his slightest wish is law.”

Diana gets a brilliant idea when she sees a veiled dancing girl, and sneaks into the casino wearing a borrowed costume. She’s horrified by the marriage fair, which smacks of an unenlightened past, and even more indignant when she’s chosen for display.

Ahmed, whom she made mutual eyes at earlier, suspects she’s a white woman, and proves it when he pulls off the veil and scarf. He asks who gave her permission to come there, and she says she wanted to see the person who’d bar her from the casino. Ahmed escorts her to the door.

That night, Ahmed climbs the balcony leading to Diana’s hotel room, and comes in through a window while she’s sleeping. Soon after Ahmed leaves, Diana awakens and gets out of bed. Though she doesn’t see Ahmed, she hears him serenading her.

In the morning, Diana starts into the desert with her brother and her guide, Mustapha Ali, who told Ahmed of their acquaintance last night. Aubrey tries one final time to convince Diana to turn around, but she’s still undeterred, and says she’ll see him in London in a month.

Soon after she sets out alone, Diana is ambushed by Ahmed. She drops her pistol when she’s shooting at him, and he scoops it up. Ahmed then pulls Diana onto his horse and takes her back to his tribe.

Diana is confused and terror-stricken, not quite sure this is real, when Ahmed takes her into his very large, luxurious tent, and even more so when they’re left alone. She asks why he brought her there, and he responds, “Are you not woman enough to know?”

Diana tries to run, but Ahmed grabs her arms and says he’s not accustomed to having his orders disobeyed. Not one to be pushed around, Diana shoots back that she’s not used to obeying orders.

The ordeal becomes even worse when Ahmed demands she change out of her “mannish” clothes and into one of the dresses in her luggage, which he also commandeered. Diana is given a French-speaking maidservant to attend to her every need, but she doesn’t see this as a happy development, since she’s still a captive.

Diana says her friends in Biskra will soon notice her missing, and Ahmed responds that it’ll be too late by that time, since the desert is a great hiding-place. She attempts to escape, but there’s a blinding sandstorm. Ahmed says she’ll be much safer inside. When Diana then tries to stab him, he easily overpowers her and grabs the dagger.

Ahmed says he can easily make her love him, and she says she’d rather he kill her. This makes Ahmed laugh, and he kisses her.

Soon afterwards, Ahmed leaves to round up horses that broke loose in the storm, and Diana collapses over the bed, weeping. When Ahmed returns, it’s obvious what’s on his mind, but his face quickly softens, and he backs away, when he sees how distraught Diana is.

A week of despair and “sullen obedience” passes.

Ahmed is delighted to receive a letter from his old buddy Dr. Raoul de St. Hubert, whom he met during his Parisian school days. Raoul announces his intentions to visit and see the charming place Ahmed calls home.

Diana seems to be coming around when she realizes Ahmed was the one who sang beneath her window, but she quickly devolves back into grief when Ahmed tells her about Raoul’s upcoming visit. The idea of a white man seeing her dressed like an Arab woman and so totally submissive horrifies her.

Ahmed tells her she must cordially receive his guest, then orders his French valet Gaston (Lucien Littlefield) to return all of Diana’s possessions to her. After this, he announces he’s leaving for Biskra and will be gone for three days. He gives Diana full permission to do whatever she wants in his absence, and says Gaston will soon return her clothes.

Ahmed kisses Diana goodbye, and backs away in anguish when he realizes she’s not reciprocating and is holding herself very stiffly.

While riding through the desert with Gaston, Diana asks him to gather some flowers growing in the sand. She uses this as an opportunity to gallop away.

Meanwhile, Ahmed has met up with Raoul (Adolphe Menjou), and is telling him all about his lovely captive bride. Raoul doesn’t share the enthusiasm, and can’t believe someone who was educated in Paris can behave like a savage. Ahmed says when an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her.

Diana falls off of her horse, who trots away, leaving her at the mercy of an oncoming other tribe. She mistakes them for Ahmed’s tribe at a distance, and walks towards them. Conveniently, she faints before Omair (Walter Long) can abduct her, and Ahmed, who was approaching from the other direction, comes to her rescue.

Diana confesses she tried to run away because she wasn’t brave enough to face Raoul. Ahmed says she would’ve been carried away by his enemies if he’d arrived a moment later.

After dinner, Raoul once again expresses his displeasure at the situation, and takes Ahmed to task for humiliating Diana by making her appear before “a man from her own world.”

Diana and Raoul grow closer over the next few days, though after the ordeal of captivity, Diana has a difficult time believing his sincere, noble nature and offer of friendship are legit.

Gaston runs in to summon Raoul, saying there’s been an accident. Not realizing Ahmed is lurking outside the tent, Diana calls out Ahmed’s name. She’s relieved when Gaston says it was someone else.

But Omair’s spies are still in the area, and Raoul is trying to convince Ahmed to let him take Diana back to Biskra and her own people. Ahmed also needs to come to the realization that he genuinely loves Diana and doesn’t just want her as a pretty possession to boss around.

Happy 100th birthday to The Sheik! (Part I: General overview)

Premièring 30 October 1921, and going into general release 20 November 1921, The Sheik was the first film Rudy Valentino made after he shot to superstardom in the spring with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Though the film leaves much to be desired artistically, and was outdone on every single level by the sequel, it’s one of those films that’s so bad it’s good, so trashy it’s delicious, and really fun to watch.

The Sheik is based on Edith Maude Hull’s trashy 1919 bestseller of the same name, which is little more than one long rape and abduction fantasy. That book started the revival of the desert romance subgenre, and built on the existing Orientalist romance subgenre.

Thankfully, the film significantly tones down Ahmed’s brutal character, and leaves the fate of Diana’s virginity rather open-ended. In the book, Ahmed rapes and beats her every day, abusing her so much her entire body is bruised and her bones feel broken.

Amazingly to our contemporary sensibilities, some critics thought it was a mistake to leave the rape scenes out, since it radically changed the book’s message (that the independent-minded, tomboyish Diana only falls in love with her captor after being so completely broken and developing what we now know as Stockholm Syndrome). Director George Melford said, “We have handled the frank scenes in The Sheik so delicately that I think the censors will be the only disappointed reviewers.”

The film was a giant blockbuster, and set attendance records at many theatres. Because of its success, Jesse Lasky, head of Paramount, declared the final week of November 1921 as Sheik Week. It ran for months in many theatres, including in France, Australia, and Rudy’s own native Italy. This was the first of his films to play in his homeland.

Within that first year of release, The Sheik earned over a million dollars. So popular was it, the word “sheik” became slang for a hot, charming young guy on the make. In return, a sheba was the object of his affections.

Many women fainted in the aisles during showings of the film, since they’d never seen such raw sex appeal on the screen before. Prior, they’d been fed so-called “all-American boys next door” like Wallace Reid, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Thomas Meighan, guys who were stereotypically masculine and clean-cut. While I love those actors too, they were radically different from Rudy in so many ways. To start with, Rudy was dark-featured, and had terra-cotta skin. He also had softer facial features, and was foreign.

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 was an exciting change of pace from the kinds of men they were socialized to want. That made the powers that be very uncomfortable, since it challenged the status quo.

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. In a true fantasy, you’re always in total control, and things go exactly the way you’d like. It was about what it represented, not truly wanting to get kidnapped, beaten, and raped.

An overgrown mean girl on a message board I left years ago haughtily insisted that if women were truly fainting in the aisles, 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!

The popularity of The Sheik inspired many other desert romance/abduction films, serious films as well as parodies and cartoons. In addition, there have been countless references to it in popular culture over the last century. Hollywood High School also has Rudy’s character as their mascot, and the student body and sports teams are called the Sheiks.

A lot of The Sheik’s shortcomings have been blamed on director George Melford egging his players on to overacting (e.g., Rudy’s infamous eye-bulging). He wanted a commercial hit, not a serious, quality, deep, complex, artistic masterpiece. There also isn’t any real chemistry between Ahmed and Diana, whereas the sparks fly off the screen with Ahmed, Jr., and Yasmin in the sequel. The love-hate story is also much more believable in The Son of the Sheik, and the secondary characters are better-developed.

But sometimes you just want the film equivalent of popcorn and bubblegum, not gourmet chocolate and wine.

A chamber of horrors in a Spanish castle

Released 12 August 1961, The Pit and the Pendulum was the second of seven American International Pictures horror films loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe works. This one, of course, is based on Poe’s 1842 story of the same name, which had been adapted a number of times prior, with varying degrees of accuracy.

Here, the pendulum only appears in the final reel and third act, though the film’s first two acts were intended to feel like they could’ve come from a real Poe story. Given that the story is all of two pages long, every film based on or inspired by it necessarily had to employ many creative liberties to fill in the many blanks and create a feature-length story.

In 1546, Englishman Francis Barnard (John Kerr) pays a visit to the Medina castle in Spain after hearing of the tragic, sudden death of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). At first, doorman Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) refuses to let him inside, but Francis is finally allowed entrance when Catherine Medina (Luana Anders) sees him and recognizes him. (I suppose an authentic Spanish name like Catalina sounded too foreign for 1961 audiences.)

When Francis asks to see Elizabeth’s widower Nicholas, Catherine says her brother is resting, and hasn’t been well since Elizabeth passed. Francis then asks to see the grave, and Catherine says she was entombed, in the family custom. On the way to the tomb, Catherine lets the bomb drop that Elizabeth died three months ago. Francis is stunned he wasn’t notified earlier.

Nicholas (Vincent Price) turns up In the cellar, coming out of a room with a bizarre noise. He claims Elizabeth died after a long sickness of the blood, but is evasive about the details. This doesn’t satisfy Francis, who vows to stay till he learns the whole truth.

During dinner, family physician Dr. Charles Leon (Antony Carbone) admits she truly died of a fright- and shock-induced heart attack brought on by the castle’s creepy atmosphere. Francis demands to see proof, and Nicholas obliges by showing him a torture chamber in the cellar. It was built by his Inquisitor father Sebastian, whose painting hangs in the guest room.

Nicholas recounts their happy life together, which was derailed when Elizabeth became obsessed by the torture chamber and fell into a bad mental state. He was making plans to leave the castle and begin a new life elsewhere when a horrific scream came from the cellar. When Nicholas ran to the scene, Elizabeth fainted into his arms and whispered “Sebastian” with her dying breath.

Francis still refuses to believe Nicholas is on the level, but Catherine tries to convince him by telling the story of how Nicholas trespassed into the torture chamber as a boy. He wasn’t supposed to be there ever, but his curiosity trumped his fear of discipline. Nicholas hid when his parents and paternal uncle Bartolome came in.

At first it seemed his father (also Price) was giving a macabre, unnaturally cheerful tour of these torture instruments, but then the true reason for the visit came out. Sebastian turned on Bartolome and began beating him, calling him an adulterer. After torturing his brother to death, he accused his wife of adultery and tortured her to death too.

Ever since that day, Nicholas has been haunted by what lurks in the cellar.

That night, mysterious harpsichord music plays, and Nicholas is convinced it was Elizabeth. He knows her playing, even without seeing who did it. A ring belonging to Elizabeth also turns up on top of the instrument.

After Nicholas returns to bed, Dr. Leon reveals the secret that Nicholas believes Elizabeth was entombed alive. Contrary to the official story, his mother wasn’t tortured to death, but entombed alive after her torture. Ever since, Nicholas has been terrified by the idea of premature burial, so much so it drives him to convulsions of horror. Nicholas also believes Elizabeth walks the corridors and calls his name.

Dr. Leon believes someone found this out and is using the information to drive Nicholas insane, possibly a servant. This theory is given credence when Elizabeth’s room is found ransacked in the morning, while maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) was cleaning. Maria claims Elizabeth spoke to her.

Francis has another theory, that this is all an elaborate ruse by Nicholas. Worried he might unconsciously be doing all these things due to his fear Elizabeth may have been entombed alive, Nicholas demands an exhumation.

But the macabre discovery waiting inside the tomb doesn’t solve this haunting mystery. Instead, it unleashes a parade of even more horrors.

Humanity snatched by giant seed pods

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released 5 February 1956, was based on Jack Finney’s 1954 sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers (originally serialized in Collier’s magazine). To avoid confusion with the 1945 film The Body Snatcher, the title was changed first to They Come from Another World, then run through four different alternatives. The final title was chosen in late 1955. However, it’s still known as Invasion of the Defilers of Tombs in France, due to a mistranslation.

The film opens in a psych ward, where a hysterical Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) demands the other doctors believe his wild tale and take his dire warnings about oncoming danger seriously. At last, Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) has compassion and agrees to listen to his fantastic story. We then enter flashback mode.

Miles has been summoned home to Santa Mira, California (Mill City in the book) by his nurse Sally Withers (Jean Willes). En route to their clinic, Miles suddenly brakes to avoid hitting a little boy, Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark, now going on 77 years old). Despite what it looks like, Jimmy isn’t trying to avoid school or bullies. Instead, he’s terrified because his mother supposedly isn’t his mother.

The second such case Miles encounters is that of Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine), who’s insistent her uncle Ira, who raised her, isn’t Uncle Ira anymore. She says everything else about him is exactly alike, right down to his memories, but the emotions aren’t there. He seems dead inside.

In the middle of dealing with these strange cases, Miles rekindles his relationship with his old high school sweetheart Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), Wilma’s cousin. Both of their first marriages ended in divorce, but they’re now both older and wiser, and eager to begin fresh.

Though Miles’s colleague Dr. Dan Kaufmann (Larry Gates), a psychiatrist, assures him these people are just suffering from a mass psychosis and can’t possibly be telling the truth, everything Miles thinks he knows about medicine, psychology, and reality is shattered when he visits his friends Jack and Teddy Belicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones) that evening.

Out of nowhere, a body appeared on the Belicecs’ pool table, wrapped in a sheet and with blank facial features, like a coin that hasn’t been struck yet before leaving the mint. He leaves no fingerprints either. Things go from bizarre to hair-raising creepy when they realize he has the same height, weight, and general features as Jack. Then a bleeding cut appears on his hand, exactly matching the cut Jack just got.

Miles takes Becky home, but is so disturbed by the feeling that she’s in grave danger, he presently returns. Becky’s father is emerging from the cellar, which strikes Miles as odd. When Miles goes into the cellar, he finds Becky’s incompletely formed double. In terror, he rushes upstairs and carries the sleeping Becky into his car.

Dr. Kaufmann is called to investigate the two doubles, but they’ve both vanished by the time he arrives on each scene. He believes the one at the Belicecs’ house was real, and that Miles was so jittery about it, he hallucinated seeing Becky’s double. Police Chief Grivett presently reports a body matching the description of Jack’s double was seen on a funeral pyre.

The next day, Miles finds Jimmy happily reconciled with his mother and asking to go home soon (after staying overnight with his grandma). Wilma likewise cancels her psychiatric appointment and reports she no longer thinks Uncle Ira is a phony.

In the evening, Miles discovers giant seed pods on his property, which presently open to reveal more bodies, surrounded by foam. These bodies look like Miles and his friends. In terror, he phones the FBI and is informed all the lines are dead. Every operator reports this, in every city he tries.

Miles takes a pitchfork to these pod people and sets them on fire, then tells the Belicecs to flee and get help. He and Becky will take another route and try to reach someone, anyone, who can stop this menace in its tracks.

After stopping by a gas station, Miles discovers two pods in his car. He immediately destroys them, but it’s like fighting a mighty enemy army with pebbles and shoestrings. One by one, everyone Miles knows is turning into a pod person, and more are constantly being brought in.

Miles and Becky go on the run, trying their best to evade capture and sleep. If they fall asleep for even one minute, they’ll be replaced by an emotionless pod person. But if they manage to make it to another town, there just might be hope to save humanity.

An invisible boxer seeks exoneration and revenge

A&C Meet the Invisible Man was the third film in their popular A&C Meet… series, which eventually came to seven such mashups. It was originally intended as a straight horror film in the Invisible Man series, but the huge success of A&C Meet Frankenstein (1948) convinced Universal to rewrite the script as a comedy-horror film.

It was filmed from 3 October–6 November 1950, and released 19 March 1951. The special effects were the work of Stanley Horsley (son of English film pioneer David Horsley), who also did the special effects for The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, and Invisible Agent.

A&C actually first met the Invisible Man (voiced by Vincent Price) in the fun twist at the end of A&C Meet Frankenstein, but the one they meet and help in this film is entirely different.

Bud Alexander and Lou Francis are graduating from detective school, and very excited to start their new career. Soon after they go into business, a man (Arthur Franz) enters their detective agency, draws all the blinds, and asks if they’re interested in a case. Before he can give details, the radio reports an escaped murderer named Tommy Nelson, who exactly matches his description.

Lou is typically the first to realise their client is one and the same, while Bud takes a bit more convincing. However, as soon as Bud figures it out, he’s chomping at the bit to get the promised $5,000 reward.

Meanwhile, Tommy phones his fiancée Helen Gray (Nancy Guild) and arranges to visit her and her uncle, Dr. Philip Gray (Gavin Muir). Once he arrives in the lab, Tommy begs for the invisibility potion he’s working with. Dr. Gray steadfastly refuses, pointing out the long-known side effect of eventual madness. He tells Tommy about the sad case of the potion’s inventor, Jack Griffin, and points to his photo on the wall (Claude Rains, who played the original Invisible Man).

The cops pull up outside, and Dr. Gray and Helen stall them for time as Tommy hides. Against the dire warnings, Tommy injects himself.

Soon afterwards, Lou comes upon the scene, forced to be in a room alone with Tommy while Bud talks with the cops and demands the reward. Lou’s terror at being so close to a believed murderer increases when he shakes hands with Tommy and sees Tommy’s hand disappearing. Bit by bit, his entire body disappears, and all that’s left is a pile of clothes.

No one believes Lou’s story, and he’s sent to a shrink, Dr. James Turner (Paul Maxey). The therapy session fails miserably, as Lou instead hypnotizes not only Dr. Turner, but also several cops and anyone else who ventures into the room. Bud is outraged at Lou’s incompetence, particularly since it cost them a big reward.

Bud cheers up a bit when Helen comes to see them and begs them to prove Tommy’s innocence. She gives them $500 and a suitcase to deliver to Tommy in Riverside Park at night. Before she leaves, she asks them to tell Tommy her uncle’s working on the re-agent.

Of course, Lou is the one forced to go to the park alone at night while Bud waits by the car, dreaming of collecting the reward after all. Tommy emerges with his head wrapped in bandages, wearing the clothes from the suitcase. When the cops arrive, Tommy has once again disappeared.

Bud finally believes Lou’s story about invisibility when Tommy makes himself known and expresses outrage at Bud’s attempted double-crossing. While they’re driving away, Tommy explains what happened and why he’s innocent.

Their next stop is the gym, where Tommy elucidates a few more details. He then begins working a punching bag at incredible speed, making it look like Lou is doing it. The trainers are so impressed, they take Lou on as a boxer.

Many hilarious hijinks ensue, all while Tommy remains fixed on his goal—proving his innocence and getting revenge on the promoter who murdered his trainer. But the longer he’s invisible, the stronger the serum’s effects become, and the greater the chance of something going wrong during the big showdown in the ring.