Based on the Edith Maude Hull’s popular novel, The Sheik was directed by George Melford and starred Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres, and Adolph Menjou. It met with immediate box office success, catapulting Valentino to the first on-screen sex symbol. Filmmaking was still in its infancy, and the like of Valentino’s charisma and charm had not been filmed before.
The plot revolves around Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, played by Valentino, who manages a “marriage market” at an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Here, wealthy tribesmen purchase brides. Ahmed rents out a casino in a neighboring town where only Arabs will be allowed entrance to gamble, and prizes will be brides. Visiting this Saharan town is Lady Diana Mayo who has recently run away from an arranged marriage in England. Thinking that crashing the casino will be fun, she purchases appropriate dress to blend in with the native prospective brides. When it is her turn to be shown before the eager male Arabs, Diana balks and Ahmed deduces that she is not an Arab. He sends her away with her waiting escort, but then later ambushes her in the desert and takes her back to his tent. He has become infatuated with Diana, but she spurns him. Meanwhile, a neighboring sheik is interested in Diana, and will do anything to claim her.
"Women are not in love with me but with the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams." --Rudolph Valentino (1923)
Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926) was raised in Castellaneta, Italy, but, being restless, moved to Paris in1912. Failing to find work, he boarded a boat to New York City the following year. Speaking only Italian and not being trained in anything other than agriculture, he first worked in the gardens in Central Park, often sleeping on park benches at night. It was while he was washing dishes in nightclubs that he noticed wealthy women paying men to dance with them. This sent him to dance classes to learn primarily the tango.
As a dancer, he joined a touring production. Although the show closed in Utah, Valentino made his way to California, setting his sights on Hollywood. For awhile, he was cast in bit roles, usually playing the bad guys. He’d become friends with fellow actor Jean Acker, and the two were married in 1919. She’d neglected to tell him that she was a lesbian, and had no interest in Valentino sexually. They divorced in 1921.
Screenwriter June Mathis fought to get him the lead in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), in which he dances a tango in the opening scene. This led to his stardom and roles in The Sheik (1921), and Blood and Sand (1922).
He and set designer Natasha Rambova began living together, and were married in 1922. She began managing his career, and wanted to produce and design his films. This led to a series of box office failures, including Monsieur Beaucaire (1924). The next film contract Valentino was offered expressly forbade his wife having anything to do with his films. They were in debt and Valentino hoped that Natasha would be interested in starting a family, so believing he was doing the right thing, he signed the contract. Natasha, much to his sorrow, moved to Paris.
His next film, The Eagle (1925), brought back his fans as did The Son of the Sheik (1926). It was while he was in New York on a promotional tour for this film, that he was taken to a hospital to treat acute appendicitis and ulcers. After surgery, he developed peritonitis, and died. For three days, thousands crowded into a Manhattan funeral home to view his body before it was sent by train to Los Angeles, where thousands more gathered to pay respects. When it became known that he didn’t have a burial plot, and it was apparent that no studio for which he made money was going to help, June Mathis offered a place in her family plot. His two homes in Los Angeles, his Arabian horses, and cars, were all auctioned off to pay his debts.
Silent films were accompanied by an organ, piano, and sometimes a full orchestra: the beginnings of film scoring as we know it. From Charlie Chaplin, who scored his own films, to John Williams and Thomas Newman of today, the power of music accompanying a silent or a talking film cannot be undervalued. Experienced composers know that music enhances the action and emotion, but never overshadows it.
Providing the live musical accompaniment for all these films is Wayne Zimmerman, who has been playing for ELTC and The Cape May Film Society’s Silent Film Series since 2011. Wayne has played in a variety of venues from coast-to-coast and in Hawaii, regaling audiences with his silent-film accompaniment and concerts. At varying times he’s served as organist at the Lansdowne Theatre in Lansdowne, PA, the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, PA, the Brookline Theatre in Havertown, PA, and the Merlin Theatre in suburban Philadelphia. Currently he is president of the Delaware Valley Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society.