Silents are Golden: The “Sheik” Phenomenon of the 1920s

Silents are Golden: The “Sheik” Phenomenon of the 1920s

Everyone knows about 1920s flappers–the youthful, fun-loving ladies of the Jazz Age. Their style of bobbed hair, tight-fitting hats, and short (as in knee-length) skirts, has become iconic. There’s no doubt that their impact on early 20th-century pop culture was tremendous.

But what about the flapper’s male counterpart, the sheik? With his baggy trousers and shiny, slicked-back hair, he left a big mark on pop culture too. And who were some of these famous screen “sheiks” that were such a phenomenon in Hollywood?

John Held Jr. Illustration
A John Held Jr illustration.

We can trace the label’s origin to Rudolph Valentino’s huge hit The Sheik (1921). At the time, the young Italian-born Valentino was an up-and-coming actor whose role as Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) had made him a household name. His first role as a main star would be Ahmed Ben Hassan in the film version of E.M. Hull’s popular romance novel, The Sheik. Hull’s lurid story, about an independent English beauty who decides to travel through the desert and winds up getting kidnapped by Ahmed, was a sensation when it was published in 1919. Women were apparently intoxicated by the idea of a handsome, “exotic” lover going wild with desire for them. It’s not surprising that a movie producer would jump at the chance to commit the story to film, anchored by an attractive star like Valentino.

Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres in The Sheik.
Valentino and Agnes Ayres in The Sheik.

The film was a hit and turned Valentino into a phenomenon – and the very concept of a screen “sheik” became a phenomenon as well. Prior to 1921, most Hollywood leading men were staid, dependable types like Thomas Meighan or boyish types like Charles Ray. Sessue Hayakawa was probably the most “exotic” lover the screen had to date, the closest match to the 1920s sheik. But once the undeniably virile Valentino hit the scene, the way romance was depicted onscreen would never quite be the same. It sparked a lot of talk about the pros and cons of “caveman” wooing–cavemen being men who “wouldn’t be bossed around” – and a general new awareness of female tastes and desires.

The “sheik” phenomenon also coincided with the public’s interest in “Orientalism,” as it was called, which had been strong since the 1910s. The Far East, particularly the desert, was considered a place of mystery and beauty where passions could still run wild. Trend-setters enjoyed decorating with lacquered tables and dressing in Eastern-inspired clothing, perhaps seeking some escapism. Certainly, the romantic “sheik” was one of the prime escapist figures of the 1920s, showing up in artwork, comic strips, ads, and songs like the popular The Sheik of Araby.

Sheet Music Rudolph Valentino The Sheik
Sheet music banking on Valentino’s popularity.

Studios were eager to pounce on the new craze, attempting to produce sheiks of their own (no matter what). 1921-1924 was probably the high point of this trend, with stars like the stalwart Milton Sills put in pictures like Burning Sands (1922), and the youthful Ramon Novarro decked out in robes for The Arab (1924). Despite these studios’ best efforts, none held quite the fascination that Valentino did (although some actors like Novarro did transcend the sheik genre and became popular in their own right).   

Ramon Novarro and Alice Terry in The Arab
Still from The Arab.

With so much public fascination with sheiks, it wasn’t long before trendy young men–particularly those who loved jazz, girls, and fast cars–were being jokingly referred to as “sheiks.” (And flappers their “shebas.”) The label stuck – some even seemed to wear it with pride. And while some young men predictably rolled their eyes at the Valentino fellow so many women were gaga over, they would soon start copying his glossy, slicked-back hairstyle. It would be one of the most popular trends of the decade, likely a way for these youths to signal that they were part of a more dashing, modern breed.

1920's men's hairstyles
1920’s men’s hairstyles (Image from Vintage Dancer.)

If the flapper had an iconic style, so did these teenaged and college-aged sheiks. Oxford bags (wide-legged trousers) became very popular, especially on college campuses, and many young men also favored loud-patterned sweater vests and sporty straw hats. Carrying a ukelele was a bonus, and spending time at a college game wasn’t complete without wearing a raccoon coat. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd would take notice of the new trends, lampooning them in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and The Freshman (1925).

Ernest Torrence and Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
Still from Steamboat Bill Jr. 

Valentino would pass away suddenly in 1926 from an infection caused by a gastric ulcer to the shock of his countless fans. He had just completed Son of the Sheik (1926), the sequel to his former blockbuster, and arguably a more smoldering film than the first. By the late 1920s, “sheik” began to be a catch-all term for a matinee idol, with stars as diverse as Ronald Colman, Buddy Rogers, Nils Asther, and Gary Cooper all being pegged as sheiks. But the term finally began to fall out of favor, especially once talkies became the norm.

Motion Picture Classic Article June 1929
Typical fluff article from Motion Picture Classic, June 1929.

By the 1930s, both the sheik and his sheba were going out of style. The optimism, partying, and innocent flirtations of Jazz Age films would start to seem dated next to the sarcastic dames and hard-boiled gangsters of the ’30s and beyond. The mirror-shiny hair gloss and baggy trousers were also starting to look very “of its time.” But while the sheik’s vogue was relatively brief, he certainly had a big impact on the 1920s, right alongside that much-admired, impetuous flapper.

The Chicago Tribune Sheik Cartoon 1919
Sheik-themed cartoon from 1919

This post was partly based on my article “Homme Fatales and Hair Grease: The Phenomenon of the 1920s ‘Sheik’” which can be accessed here.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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