In my previous post I detailed the dueling Los Angeles premieres Rudolph Valentino enjoyed on October 30, 1921–the “Western” premiere of Camille and the “pre-release” debut of The Sheik. The Sheik then premiered in New York in two theaters–on November 6 at the Rialto at Times Square in Manhattan and in Brooklyn at the Rivoli.
The day after the premiere, the ad for The Sheik in The New York Tribune heralded first day attendance–20,000 on the opening day–although it shared the ad space with another Paramount Film, Peter Ibbetson. The following week, the ad for The Sheik on November 13 was far bigger and featured exciting descriptions of the film as the picture entered its second week at the Times Square Rialto.
Like her Los Angeles counterpart a week earlier, New York Tribune critic Harriet Underhill panned the story line of The Sheik in her review the day after the film opened.
Harriet Underhill writing in
The New York Tribune
Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 8.
…Kindly play “Hearts and Flowers.“
But Harriet Underhill’s critical appraisal seemed to soften as she commented, “…The Sheik, almost got us at certain moments in the performance yesterday at the Rivoli Theater. It is probably that this was so because the title role is played by Rudolph Valentino, and most any woman would try to bear it with equanimity if he carried her away on his Arabian steed to be the queen of the caravan.” While commenting that Agnes Ayres “doesn’t do anything in particular with Diana Mayo, the young lady who was the object of Ahmed’s desire,” she had much more to say about Valentino. She noted the “very wide eyes” that reminded her of Theda Bara but overall she was impressed by his screen presence as a “fine young animal, with a sense of humor and a predilection for vamping” instead of what she feared might be a portrayal as a “conservative and dignified person.”
The New York Times critic (name unknown) wrote a review that could be described as “tepid.” After discussing how the novel offered “no little amusement for the book reviewers,” he continued:
Again the writer must confess that he has not read the novel from which the photoplay under review has been derived. He knew he would have to see the picture sooner or later. Isn’t that enough?” ….Agnes Ayres is the girl and Rudolph Valentino is the sheik. Both of them can make the characters they impersonate seem real in a picture, which gives any character a chance to seem real.
(The New York Times, Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 20)
The New York Daily News critic, writing under the name “McElliott” was unhappy over the fact that the picture had been “denatured.” (“The Sheik” Has Been Denatured for the Movies, Daily News, Tuesday, November 8, 1921. Page 21.)
Daily News, New York, New York
Tuesday, November 8, 1921. Page 17
McElliott the critic finished with an attempt at humor about Valentino:
“The picture is beautiful as to photography and as to Agnes Ayres, playing the trapped Diana. She and Mr. Valentino are worth looking at, whatever the story. However, I like Rodolfo not so much in one of his turbans. The other is becoming.”
On November 20, 1921 The Sheik was released at over 250 theaters across the country and newspapers like the Arkansas Democrat announced “Sheik Week” to the public and noted the New York opening box office success. A month later, revised box office numbers confirmed the initial reports.
Where did the numbers come from? They were provided in a press release produced by Paramount Pictures that would become part of ads and picked up as “news” stories by papers across the nation.
Below is a “news” article from the Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi (actually the Paramount publicity release) which shows the text in readable form:
Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi
Sunday, December 25, 1921. Page 4
Headlines from newspapers across the country reflected the excitement and anticipation as The Sheik opening rolled out:
“Arabian Romance Makes Thrilling Drama for Screen..Spectacular Settings a Feature of ‘The Sheik’, Plot One of Interest“–South Bend News-Times, South Bend, Indiana. Monday, November 28, 1921
“The Sheik, Tremendous in Power, Wildly Exciting, at the Opera House“–Bangor Daily News, Bangor, Maine. Tuesday, December 13, 1921
“‘Sheik’s’ Story of Man Breaking Girl’s Strong Will, Many Stirring and Thrilling Scenes in Great Photodrama“–Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana. Sunday, December 25, 1921
“At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentino at the Regent and That’s That!“–The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1927. Page 31
The headline from the Wichita Eagle set the stage to let readers know what the Wichita public could expect to see. And although a New York critic felt the film was “denatured” the Wichita columnist was careful about telling readers how the film had survived the state board while letting parents know that, even so, the film “wasn’t for children.” The accompanying ad heightened the public’s eagerness to join the anticipated crowds at the theater.
“At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentino at the Regent and That’s That!“
The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1921. Page 31
While The Witchita Eagle writer was concerned about children, a professor in Chicago had a different reaction…
We probably will never know exactly what that psychology professor discussed with his students after they saw The Sheik, but one hundred years later, we know that the arrival of The Sheik not only thrust Rudolph Valentino to a new level of fame, but also triggered a wave of reaction that turned the spotlight onto the shifting relationships between women and men. It played right into the spirit of the newly-liberated 1920’s and the beginning of “the Jazz Age.” But society hadn’t moved THAT far as the story had to work around the subject of interracial relationships/marriage. One hundred years later, we are still talking about The Sheik and although it may seem like a relic from a distant age, the echoes of the themes are still with us today.
1. Emily Leider, in her biography Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, mistakenly states that the film premiered in New York on October 30, page 167.
2. Agnes Ayres also appeared in The Affairs of Anatol. See my previous post for more details on the overlap of cast members who appeared in this film and The Sheik.
Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
Newspaper articles as cited in the text.