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(Re)considering Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi in Blood and Sand – “intended to be a film about bullfighting, though it is really a romantic melodrama tinged with sadomasochism.”

By Thomas Gladysz.

We are going to see why Rudolph Valentino got his first star billing, in a picture called Blood and Sand…. In 1922, when that picture was released, it was considered the absolute epitome of adult entertainment. Well, it is still a good show. Before this picture, his type was unknown on the screen – which was dominated by clean cut American types. But then came along the erotic lady killer, the king of which was Valentino. Cults come and go, movie personality cults. I have a hunch there will be a Valentino cult pretty soon.

– Orson Welles

Welles’ comments, made in 1971 for the TV series “The Silent Years,” have proven prophetic. Today, almost a century after the release of Blood and Sand, there is a burgeoning “Valentino cult” – that is, if you define “cult” as continuing interest in a long-dead personality from long ago. Whereas many of his contemporaries are nearly forgotten, Valentino is still well remembered. In fact, since 2000, there has been a steady stream of home video releases, theatrical screenings, articles, books, events, and websites. In 2018, there was even another Valentino-inspired bio-pic, the fourth so far.

Welles’ comments are among the special features included on the new Kino Lorber release of Blood and Sand (1922). Notably, the film was Valentino’s first starring vehicle, following his break-out success the previous year with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (in a supporting role) and The Sheik (as co-star with Agnes Ayres). Those two films made Valentino a star, and today are his best known roles.

Blood and Sand, based on a celebrated 1908 novel by the bestselling Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco Ibanez, tells the story of Juan Gallardo (Valentino), a poor boy who grows up to become one of Spain’s celebrated toreadors. However, with fame came temptation and treachery. Juan is torn between two lovers – between his beautiful, virtuous, and sweet-natured wife Carmen (played by Lila Lee) and a wealthy, seductive, widower Doña Sol (played by the sultry Nita Naldi).

Blood and Sand is intended to be a film about bullfighting, though it is really a romantic melodrama tinged with sadomasochism. Valentino is more than effective in portraying a conflicted soul who’s brooding sexuality leads him astray; Naldi, however, nearly steals the show in the role of a vamp. She is hot and she knows it.

Legendary screenwriter June Mathis, who is often credited for discovering Valentino when she insisted he be cast in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, adapted Ibanez’s novel for the screen. Fred Niblo directed, and Dorothy Arzner was the film’s uncredited editor. (Arzner’s work on the film helped solidify her reputation as a gifted and resourceful editor. Later, she commented that working on Blood and Sand effectively marked the beginning of her long career as one of Hollywood first female directors.)

The film was a box office hit, and one of the top-grossing films of 1922. Mary Pickford liked it as well. “In my judgment it is the best thing he has done,” Pickford said of Valentino’s performance, “and one of Mr. Niblo’s finest pictures. It is one of the few pictures I have been able to sit through twice and enjoy the second time more than the first.”

In fact, Blood and Sand was such a hit that it was parodied almost immediately by Stan Laurel (playing one Rhubarb Vaselino) in a 1922 short, Mud and Sand. Since then, it has been remade twice; the 1941 version was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and stars Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Rita Hayworth. A 1989 Spanish remake, directed by Javier Elorrieta, stars Chris Rydell, Sharon Stone, and Ana Torrent.

Kino’s new edition of Blood and Sand looks great. It has been mastered in 4K from 35mm film elements preserved by the Cinémathèque Française and the Paul Killiam collection, with additional material provided by Eye Filmmuseum. The film has been color-tinted according to instructions in the 1922 continuity script, and is accompanied by a fine contemporary score compiled and arranged by Rodney Sauer and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Besides Welles’ filmed comments, the robust supplemental features include an anecdotal, interesting, sometimes rambling audio commentary by film historian Anthony Slide; an excellent booklet essay by Donna Hill, author of the recently reissued Rudolph Valentino: The Silent Idol; an original theatrical trailer; footage of Valentino’s funeral procession; a Valentino Sheik parody starring Will Rogers (from 1924); and a contemporary audio recording of the film’s romantic theme song, “You Gave Me Your Heart,” performed by Susan Rogers. (Some of these extras were included on the previous Kino release of the film.)

Though Blood and Sand is a torrid “good show,” for me a better picture is The Eagle (1925), another Valentino film recently released by Kino on DVD and Blu-ray. In a departure from his onscreen persona of Latin lover or Sheik, Valentino delivered one of the most nuanced performances of his career in this romance set in 18th-century Russia.

Rudolph Valentino and Louise Dresser in The Eagle.

Directed by Clarence Brown and based on a novel by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, The Eagle tells the story of a handsome young army lieutenant named Dubrovsky (Valentino) who catches the eye of Czarina Catherine II (played by Louise Dresser). Throughout her long reign, the Czarina (known as Catherine the Great) was known to take many lovers, often elevating them to high positions for as long as they held her interest.

In The Eagle, Dubrovsky comes to the notice of the older Czarina when he rescues Mascha (played by the beautiful Vilma Bánky), a young lady trapped in a runaway coach. Dubrovsky is delighted when the Czarina offers him her prized horse, but horrified when she tries to seduce him. He flees and the Czarina puts a price on his head.

There is much to watch for in The Eagle. Besides Valentino, Dresser and Banky – each of whom is superb – the film includes uncredited bits with Gary Cooper as a masked Cossack, Mack Swain as the innkeeper, and Gustav von Seyffertitz as a court servant at dinner. The Eagle is also notable for an extended tracking shot of the food-laden table in the banquet scene.

Unhappy that Blood and Sand had not been filmed in Spain, and in a salary dispute with his studio, Valentino went on strike in 1922. He refused film roles for more than a year. The three films he made upon his return were not particularly well received; The Eagle, however, proved to be a strong comeback film, getting good reviews and doing well at the box office. It was, as well, the second from last movie he would make.

Kino’s new edition of The Eagle also looks very good. It features a 2K restoration from 35mm material, a new musical score composed and performed by the irrepressible Alloy Orchestra, and an insightful audio commentary by film historian Gaylyn Studlar, who looks at gender roles and highlights some of sexual undertones beneath the surface of the film. Studlar notes, “Women loved Valentino, and created a virtual cult around him, even as American men were portrayed widely in the press as despising him.” Studlar, the author of This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age (1996), astutely adds “there is a running theme in this film of older women responding to Valentino with unseemly enthusiasm.” Indeed.

Also just out in the Masters of the Cinema series on the U.K. label Eureka! is a dual format release of The Son of the Sheik (1926), Valentino’s last film. The actor died just days before its release – and his subsequent New York City funeral was a spectacle nearly unprecedented in popular culture.

The Son of the Sheik is a sequel to the role that defined Valentino’s career. At first reluctant to play a sheik once again, Valentino took the reins of this film and made it his own, adding some depth and subtly to what was otherwise a campy story. Directed by George Fitzmaurice, and acted out against lavish set designs by William Cameron Menzies (The Thief of Bagdad), The Son of the Sheik is a fitting crescendo to a memorable career.

Regarding the new Eureka! release, Valentino expert Donna Hill recently stated “The clarity of the print looks like it is as close to a first generation print as possible,” adding, “it’s the best print of this film I’ve ever seen.” The Eureka! release features a new 1080p high-definition digital restoration available for the first time on home video, and a lush score by Carl Davis. The special features include a filmed introduction by Orson Welles, Loitering Within Tent – a new video essay by David Cairns, and a new booklet essay by the noted U.K. critic and film historian Pamela Hutchinson.

Valentino’s passing in 1926 at the age of 31 and at the height of his career led to public demand for the rerelease his earlier films, effectively beginning a “movie personality cult” which has endured to this day.

Thomas Gladysz writes about early film. He is the author/editor of four books, including Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film and Louise Brooks, the Persistent Star. In 2019, he delivered the keynote address at the 92nd Rudolph Valentino Memorial in Hollywood. Due out later in 2020 is a two volume work, Around the World with Louise Brooks.

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