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 quartet of antique horror films

For the sixth year in a row, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. So much of the language and development of early cinema was his creation.

Released 3 May 1901, Blue Beard (Barbe-Bleue) was based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale. This popular and famous story is the reason the word “bluebeard” is synonymous with a man who marries and murders one wife after another.

Rich aristocrat Barbe-Bleue (Méliès) is eager for a new wife, but none of the noblewomen brought to meet him like what they see. Not only is he ugly, he’s also been married seven prior times.

However, Barbe-Bleue’s riches convince one man to bestow his daughter in marriage (Méliès’s future wife Jehanne d’Alcy).

Barbe-Bleue gives his wife the keys to his castle before going on a trip, and warns her to never enter a certain room. While deciding between curiosity and fear, an imp (also Méliès) appears to tempt and taunt her. An angel tries to prevail upon her to stay away.

Curiosity gets the better of her, and she enters the room to discover a most macabre sight—seven bags that turn out to be Barbe-Bleue’s first seven wives hanging from a gallows in a torture chamber. In shock, she drops the key and becomes stained with blood she’s unable to wash off.

That night, she dreams of seven giant keys.

When Barbe-Bleue returns, he finds out what happened and tries to murder her too. She flees to the top of a tower and screams for her siblings to help her.

Barbe-Bleue is slain when they come to the rescue, and his first seven wives are resurrected and married to lords.

The Devil and the Statue (Le Diable Géant ou Le Miracle de la Madonna) was also released in 1901. A young man serenades his lover, then goes out a window. Presently a devil appears and begins growing to gigantic proportions.

A Madonna statue comes to life and makes the devil shrink, then opens the window so the lover can return.

The Haunted House (La Maison Hantée, also known as La Maison Ensorcelée) was released in April 1906. Though Méliès appears as one of the three characters, it was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

Three people take refuge at a house on a dark and stormy night, and spooky things immediately begin happening—chairs that appear and disappear, ghosts flying through the air, flying flames, the house tilting and rotating, the bed sliding across the floor, a knife cutting a sausage and bread by itself, a slice of sausage moving all over the table, a teapot pouring by itself, napkins moving.

This entire film is so fun! It made me eager to seek out more of Señor de Chomón’s work.

And finally we come to L’Inferno, which premièred 10 March 1911 at the Mercadante Theatre in Naples, not to be confused with the other 1911 Italian film of the same name, which I reviewed in 2016. This film was produced by Helios Film, a much smaller company than Milano Films, and made in a hurry to try to beat the other film to theatres and take advantage of the huge wave of public anticipation. It did arrive three months earlier, but is only 15 minutes long as opposed to over an hour.

Eleven major episodes from Inferno are depicted—the dark forest, Virgil’s meeting with Beatrice, crossing Charon’s ferry across Acheron, Francesca and Paolo, Minòs, Farinata degli Uberti in his flaming tomb, the usurers in a rain of fire, Ulysses, Pier della Vigna in the Wood of the Suicides, Count Ugolino, and Satan.

This L’Inferno uses only 18 intertitles (drawn right from Dante’s own words) and 25 animated paintings, compared to 54 in the full-length feature. However, the special effects are quite sophisticated, such as the lustful being blown around and Minòs’s gigantic stature.

Like the other L’Inferno, this one too is strongly based on Gustave Doré’s famous woodcut illustrations. And while both films feature nudity, the short film is more sensual regarding Francesca.

Lottie Pickford

I originally wrote this post on 17 March 2019, for that year’s April A to Z Challenge, but decided not to use it. Since I didn’t have an original post ready this week, let’s finally move it out of the drafts folder already.

Lottie Pickford (née Charlotte Smith) (9 June 1895–9 December 1936) was born in Toronto, the middle of John Charles Smith and Charlotte Hennessy’s three famous children. She was a daddy’s girl, and got the nickname Chuckie because her dad initially, mistakenly thought she was a boy when she was born.

Her dad died of a blood clot in 1898, and after struggling to make ends meet, the family turned to acting in 1900. They eventually moved to New York for greater opportunities, though oldest child Gladys was always the most popular.

In 1907, Gladys changed her name to Mary Pickford, and the rest of the family became Pickfords too. Mary signed a contract with Biograph Company in 1909, and got her siblings Jack and Lottie jobs there too.

Of the three Pickfords, Lottie appeared in the fewest shorts. When Biograph went to California in January 1910, to scope out a potential future studio location and film Ramona in authentic settings, only Mary and Jack went.

Lottie nevertheless continued acting in Biograph shorts.

Lottie made her first feature in 1914, The House of Bondage, which was also her first starring role. She played a prostitute, the exact opposite type of character her older sister Mary was already famous for. The film was poorly reviewed, and considered too crude and vulgar.

Her next film, The Diamond in the Sky serial, only came to her because Mary turned it down. Lottie’s pregnancy temporarily halted the production of this serial, and earned her a short blacklist. Though she was married, female stars just didn’t have babies during this era. It seriously jeopardised their careers.

The three siblings appeared in their first and only film together in 1915, Fanchon, the Cricket.

Lottie let her mother adopt her daughter Mary Pickford Rupp, born in 1915, and rename her Gwynne in 1920. In 1919, Lottie separated from her husband Alfred, and they divorced in 1920.

She took a break from acting during 1918–21. Her return to the screen, They Shall Pay, co-starred her future second husband, Allan Forrest. They married in 1922.

Lottie took another three-year acting break, and appeared in two more films before retiring—Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), in which sister Mary was the star; and Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), in which her brother-in-law Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., was the star.

She married twice more, and died of a heart attack at age 43.

One antique horror short and a trifecta of lost features

La Folie du Docteur Tube, released 1915 in France, was directed by cinematic pioneer Abel Gance. It seems to fall within the parameters of sci-fi horror, and features a mad scientist who creates a white powder causing hallucinations. He gives the powder to a dog first, then his assistant, a boy in the lab, himself, two young ladies, and their fiancés. The two couples are so upset by these distorted images, a fight breaks out, and it’s up to Dr. Tube to restore order and peace.

These crazed sights, which appear like images from a funhouse mirror, were created with distorting lenses.

Albert Dieudonné, who started acting in 1908 and went on to play the title role of Gance’s 1927 epic Napoléon, appears as one of the young men.

Mortmain, which premièred 29 August 1915 and went into general release 6 September 1915, is one of the all too many lost films of the silent era. It was based on Arthur C. Train’s 1907 novel of the same name, which was originally released in serial form on The Saturday Evening Post on 2 June and 9 June 1906.

This was one of the very first entries in the alien hand subgenre of body horror, in which one’s hands act of their own volition, as if they’re possessed or transplanted from another body.

Dr. Pennison Crisp (what an unfortunate forename!) proves limb-grafting is possible by showing friends and students a cat with a grafted paw. His buddy Mortmain, a rare art collector and talented musician, is very impressed.

Meanwhile, Mortmain is deep in debt to banker Gordon Russell, the ward of his fiancée Bella Forsythe. Predictably, Gordon is also in love with Bella. (This might be a lost film, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he’s old enough to be her dad, seeing as he’s her ward. That trope creeps me out so much!)

Gordon makes Bella’s brother Tom disgrace himself and forces Mortmain into bankruptcy. Flaggs, who works for Gordon’s lawyer, overhears Mortmain saying he’d like to kill Gordon. Mortmain then learns Gordon was murdered. This news so shocks him, he faints and hurts his hand.

Dr. Crisp has to amputate, and grafts on Tom’s hand. Tom agrees to this macabre operation because he’s suspected of the murder and offered $10,000 for his hand. He dies during the surgery, but Mortmain survives, and gradually goes insane as Flaggs bankrupts him and Bella is afraid to be touched by him. The transplanted hand also goes nuts.

Then Mortmain wakes up from the fog of anesthesia, and sees Tom’s hand choking Flaggs. It was only a dream!

The Head of Janus (Der Janus-Kopf), also lost, premièred 26 August 1920 and went into general release 17 September 1920. It starred the incredible Conrad Veidt and was directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau. This was an unauthorized adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Just as with Murnau’s unauthorized screen adaptation of Dracula two years later, names were changed.

Dr. Warren (Veidt) buys a bust of Janus, the two-headed Roman god of doorways, for his girlfriend Jane Lanyon (Margarete Schlegel, who escaped to England with her Jewish husband and son in 1935). When Jane refuses the gift, Dr. Warren is compelled to keep it in his own home.

This bust proceeds to transforms Dr. Warren into Mr. O’Connor, and whips him up into a rage. While acting as Mr. O’Connor, he storms over to Jane’s house, kidnaps her, and drags her back to his lab.

Dr. Warren is really ashamed and horrified when he comes back to himself and realises what he did. To prevent this from happening again, he attempts to sell the bust at auction, but it’s already too late. The bust has him under such hypnotic power, he buys it back himself.

During his second transformation as Mr. O’Connor, he runs amok, committing wanton acts of violence in the streets. Just like in all other versions of this famous story, there isn’t a very happy ending.

Béla Lugosi appears as Dr. Warren’s butler.

The House of Whispers, our final lost film this year, released October 1920. It tells the story of Spaulding Nelson, who moves into an apartment his uncle vacated due to phantom screams and whispers. While investigating, Spaulding meets neighbour Barbara Bradford. Her sister Clara is going crazy from the constant sound of her dead husband Roldo’s voice.

It turns out Roldo’s still alive and in league with Henry Kent, architect of this House of Whispers. This house is full of secret passageways enabling him to access all the apartments. When Spaulding finds the secret doors, he’s arrested for murdering actress Daisy Luton.

Spaulding flees via one of the passageways, where he finds and captures Roldo (the real murderer), Roldo’s first wife Nettie Kelly, and Henry Kent. Nettie confesses what really happened, and Clara is granted a divorce so she can marry her fiancé. Spaulding also marries Barbara.