Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – The Son of the Sheik (1926)
After covering the iconic film The Sheik a couple months ago, I thought it’d be fitting to visit its equally iconic sequel. I hope you enjoy it!
A lot happened to Rudolph Valentino in the five years between his big starring roles in The Sheik (1921) and its exciting sequel, The Son of the Sheik (1926). Having first achieved fame as Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Valentino was quickly pigeonholed as the screen’s great “Latin Lover,” his Italian ancestry being deemed “exotic” in that time period. While many of his ‘20s films focused on living up to that image, he jumped at opportunities to branch out. He would play a bullfighter in Blood and Sand (1922), an Indian prince in The Young Rajah (1922), and a French barber who disguises himself as an 18th century nobleman in Monsieur Beaucaire (1924). One of his most popular roles was the Russian lieutenant in The Eagle (1925), a crowd-pleasing mix of romance, drama and action.
But despite these years of eclectic roles under his belt, Valentino agreed to return to his most iconic role of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan for The Son of the Sheik (1926) – playing both the original character, now in his old age, and his virile son Ahmed. While this might seem surprising at face value, the lushly-photographed sequel gave Valentino chances to show his red-blooded fighting skills, partake in some truly steamy love scenes, and use the dual role to prove his acting range.
The original The Sheik, based on the popular romance novel by E.M. Hull, was a big hit but also received some criticism for being “tamer” than the book. Director George Melford also played it safe in some dated ways, such as lightening Valentino’s naturally tan complexion so that he almost matched his fair costar Agnes Ayres. George Fitzmaurice’s The Son of the Sheik, also based on an E.M. Hull novel,would finally make Valentino’s character the menacing, exotic he-man of many viewers’ dreams. In some ways it also honored his status in cinema – which even at the time was already iconic.
Valentino’s recent films hadn’t been box office extravaganzas, and he’d recently walked out on a contract with Famous Players-Lasky and signed with United Artists. The idea of doing a sequel may have been inspired by Douglas Fairbanks, who had recently released Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), the followup to 1920’s popular The Mark of Zorro. United Artists president Joseph M. Schenck would also be capitalizing on Valentino’s “sheik” image, which persisted in sticking around–fans were always hoping to see him in more desert romances.
By this point in the 1920s there was a growing self-consciousness in the movie industry and a fresh awareness of pop culture, which we can discern in The Son of the Sheik’s knowing winks to the original film. Both Valentino and Ayres seem to enjoy reprising their original roles (while aged with makeup), and the younger Ahmed is introduced in a dreamy flashback sequence that seems to be a nod to Valentino’s romantic symbolism to his fans.
Valentino’s main costar this time around was Vilma Banky as the dancer Yasmin, a beautiful blonde whose fair skin contrasted well with his “Arabian” complexion–no skin-lightening for him this time around. Having worked together previously in The Eagle, they had a lovely rapport onscreen. Their love scenes, played out in appropriately moonlit desert surroundings and captured with lingering closeups, can certainly be filed under “Valentino fan service.”
The Son of the Sheik is daring in other ways too, much in the vein of the novel. Most infamous is the scene where Ahmed, having gotten Yasmin alone and believeing her responsible for his being kidnapped and tortured, stalks towards her while extreme closeups show her horrified eyes. While the film discreetly cuts away from any lurid action, the aftermath of Yasmin in tears on a bed leaves no doubt what occurred. Controversial in retrospect, strangely enough this was the type of menacing scene audiences had been expecting in the original The Sheik – and the menace had finally arrived, five years later.
With its action, adventure, love scenes, beautiful cinematography and lush costumes, The Son of the Sheik was determined to be everything The Sheik had tried to be – and more. While the original had its charms, the sequel went above and beyond and included a truly magnificent performance by Valentino. That performance would turn out to be especially poignant.
Initially released to first run theaters in major U.S. cities in the summer of 1926, The Son of the Sheik was promoted by Valentino in a nationwide tour of personal appearances. At the time his health was growing shakey and he complained of having stomach pains. On August 15, while at a party in a friend’s New York City apartment, he collapsed. At the hospital doctors discovered he had a perforated stomach ulcer, and unfortunately the resulting emergency surgery was unsuccessful. Peritonitis set in, and after lingering for several days he passed away on August 23.
The nation – indeed, the world – was shocked by the death of the screen idol, especially when he appeared to be so much in his prime on the screen. Two weeks after Valentino’s death The Son of the Sheik went into general release, eventually earning over $1 million as saddened fans flocked to see his final performance. His life may have come to a heartbreakingly premature end, but there’s bittersweet comfort in knowing that he left the world with a performance that will always be remembered.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
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 Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.