A PERSONAL JOURNEY–MY ITALIAN IMMIGRANT FAMILY ECHOED IN THE LIFE OF RUDOLPH VALENTINO–AND MORE
Former contributor to Buzzflash with the World Media Watch, World Energy Watch and essays. Have blog Rudolph Valentino Connections...A Personal Journey–My Italian Immigrant Family Echoed In The Life Of Rudolph Valentino–and More. Blog about nature,etc. at Open Range Ramblings.
Rudolph Valentino Connections and Open Range Ramblings (under Secretariat Girl channel) on Youtube.
One hundred years ago in December Rudolph Valentino was ending his “breakout year” as he rose to full film stardom. By the time “Sheik Week” was declared by Paramount starting on November 20, 1921, Valentino’s next film, Moran of the Lady Letty, was completing production; it would be released on February 12, 1922. Beyond the Rocks with Gloria Swanson was filmed during December 1921-January 1922 and would premiere on May 7, 1922; by March, Blood and Sand, which would be Valentino’s first film in which he carried the “starring role,” was in full production; filming was completed by mid-May and set for a September 10, 1922 release. The Young Rajah (with Valentino’s first name still not settled…he was still billed as “Rodolfo”) was filming by June; it was completed some time during August and had a November 12, 1922 release. (A companion post “Rudolph Valentino Joins Paramount’s Gallery of Stars” is also available on Youtube.) Link to the video version of this post on Youtube.
Rudolph Valentino’s Film Releases During 1922
Moran of the Lady Letty 2/12/1922
Beyond the Rocks 5/7/1922
Blood and Sand 8/10/1922 (8/6/1922, New York open)
The Young Rajah 11/12/1922 (11/5/1922, New York open)
Keep in mind that as Valentino’s star rose many of his earlier films were booked again to capitalize on his popularity and played around the country even as his new films were premiering during 1922. Among these were A Wonderful Chance, Delicious Little Devil, Frivolous Wives (a 1921 version of the 1918 The Married Virgin, re-cut to enhance Valentino’s role), The Conquering Power, and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And, of course, The Sheik played on…along with a succession of knock-off films, parodies, and songs in 1922.
For example, here is a 1922 ad for Frivolous Wives from my collection. This ad appeared in The Everett Daily Herald, Everett, Washington on Wednesday, September 13, 1922 (Page 6). I’ve only showed part of the full page but it’s quite obvious that the ad for Valentino’s old film took up a great deal of that page!
A Typical Small-Town Theater: The Palace Theatre, Antigo, Wisconsin
The glittering premieres held in cities like New York and Los Angeles attracted important reviewers and big box office numbers but theaters in smaller cities and even smaller towns were where the ultimate success of a film was determined. Audiences who went to the movies for an afternoon matinee or a night out were the people who kept a star’s light blazing.
The Palace Theatre in the small community of Antigo, Wisconsin was typical of many venues around the United States and Canada. The Palace Theatre still exists. Today The Palace Twin Theatre has two screens with a total of 1000 seats. Here’s a brief history provided by the Langlade Historical Society as related in a thread on the Cinema Treasures site.
Harvey Hanson, prominent theater owner, was born in Appleton, WI in 1883; he came to Antigo around 1908 and started in the theater business. In 1909 the Hanson building was built on 5th Ave. (still stands today,the name Hanson is still on the building) and during this time Harvey Hanson showed silent movies to the people of Antigo, thus started the beginning of the Palace Theater. Then in 1915, Harvey leased the building to a well known five and ten cent store F.W. Woolworth, and across the street the “New” Palace Theater was going to be built. In 1916, the new Palace Theater (capacity 1180 seats and at that time the only fireproof theater in central Wisconsin) opened and it was a successful venture and generations of movie goers attended the show house to be enthralled by Hollywood movies. On the stage were occasional vaudeville and talent shows.
Antigo, Wisconsin in 1922. The Palace Theatre is visible just behind the “Lunch” sign on the right.
This image is most likely from the Langlade Historical Society collection but was posted by Mark Zelinski on his family site named The Lena Web which is dedicated to a special family member.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse actually had a scheduling mix-up before it was back at a The Palace Theatre in the Fall of 1922. There were mix-ups in scheduling dates for other films as well, but the letter below shows a particular misunderstanding on the part of the theater’s management as to which entity actually controlled the picture. It seems that the issue was resolved in a letter written to Mr. H. E. Hanson on May 29, 1922 and dates for a four-day booking were set for September 25-28, 1922. More than a year from the original March 1921 release, this film continued to attract a large audience. (See my post on the premiere here.) Unfortunately, there was no discussion about the rental fee but figures at the lower left of the page suggest that the fee may have been $75.00 a day, with a deduction for some reason of one day’s fee, resulting in a total fee of $225.00. This fee would have been equal to what was charged for Beyond the Rocks in December 1922.
The Theater “Billhead”
A billhead is “a letterhead used for statements of charges” as defined in Collins online dictionary. The billhead pictured below is from my collection and is titled “Notice of Exhibition Dates.” It shows the rental fees the Palace Theatre owed to Paramount Pictures/Famous Players-Lasky Productions.
Information on this type of theater billhead included the name of the film, the shipping date, the number of the print shipped to the theater and the scheduled exhibition dates/days for the months involved. This billhead covers shipping dates during the period between October 30-December 25, 1922. Looking down the list of films, only eight films had three-day runs during this two month period, with a check mark marking the last day of the run which would be a Saturday. Of those films, three were Valentino pictures.
Note: In the discussion below I will often refer to a “possible second run” at the theater. Without all the billheads for this theater, it is impossible to know exactly when first runs of some of these films took place. Some pictures were distributed more quickly to the country’s heartland than others; with the “big” films I have speculated in some cases that enough time may have passed since an initial release to allow for a second booking during the time frame of the billhead.
Rental Fees Paid by The Palace Theatre: How Other Films Stacked Up Against Rudolph Valentino’s Releases
1. The Sheik…Shipping date November 7, 1922. Run dates scheduled for Thursday-Saturday, November 9-11. Rental fee: $70
Audiences in Antigo were still going to see The Sheik a year after its release. The film had had it’s “pre-release” in Los Angeles on October 30, 1921 followed by the New York City premiere in two theaters on November 6. It’s very likely that The Sheik already had a first run in Antigo because “Sheik Week” which began September 27, 1921 marked the full distribution of the film across the nation and within weeks it was in places like Illinois and Mississippi (see my earlier post about “Sheik Week” and the reviews, links above). The Sheik was shown at The Palace starting on Thursday, November 9th, 1922. During the first two weeks November 1922, of the seven movies shown, the Antigo Theatre paid the most for The Sheik ($70.00) which illustrates the staying power of this film.
The Affairs of Anatol (released September 21, 1921), was also still popular. It actually held the box office record in New York City for opening day until The Sheik arrived. The Affairs of Anatol apparently enjoyed another run from November 16-18, 1922 at the Palace with a rental fee of $35.00. Directed by Cecile B. DeMille, it had finished a successful run in Los Angeles immediately prior to the “pre-release” of The Sheik. Agnes Ayres, who starred in The Sheik, appeared in The Affairs of Anatol, but the lead roles were played by the very popular heart throb Wallace Reid and top female star Gloria Swanson. In addition to Swanson, cast members Wanda Hawley, Bebe Daniels and Ruth Miller had already played in a Valentino film or would play in one in the future.
An interesting story surrounds Don’t Tell Everything which was booked for three days for November 2-4, 1922 for a rental fee of $40.00 just before The Sheik played its 3-day run the next weekend. This film originated from out takes/extra footage from The Affairs of Anatol which would be shown only a couple of weeks later. One note of interest: on November 15, a British short titled Loves’s Boomerang was booked for a $10.00 rental fee. The title director for this film was a man named Alfred Hitchcock.
2. Moran of the Lady Letty…Shipping date November 28, 1922. Run dates scheduled for Thursday-Saturday (November 30-December 2). Rental fee: $50.00
Moran of the Lady Letty, with leading lady Dorothy Dalton, had its initial rollout beginning February 12, 1922 and was most likely having another run at this time and was sandwiched between two more DeMille productions. The week before there was a three-day run of Saturday Night, a DeMille film that had been released on January 29, 1922, so it also may have been returning for another showing at the Antigo. With the same $50.00 rental cost as Moran of the Lady Letty, it’s clear that Saturday Night continued to have audience appeal. (Click here for my series on Moran of the Lady Letty.)
The weekend after the run of Moran of the Lady Letty the feature was Fool’s Paradise which ran from December 7-9, 1922. This film commanded a rental fee of $70.00 which matched the fee that had been paid for The Sheik a month earlier. Fool’s Paradise was another Cecile B. DeMille production which starred Dorothy Dalton. It had been released one year earlier on December 9, 1921 and drew critical praise as well as excellent reviews for Dalton. Exhibitors Herald considered Dalton’s performance as the best she had done to that point and found her “piquant and charming” in the role of cantina dancer Poll Patchouli (Exhibitors Herald, December 24, 1921. Page 141, available at Archive.org). Its popularity is obvious as a year later its rental fee matched the fee charged for The Sheik.
3. Beyond the Rocks…Shipping date December 19, 1922. Run dates scheduled for Thursday/Friday (December 21/23). Rental fee: $75.00
Beyond the Rocks with Gloria Swanson as star had been released in May 1922 so it is possible this was another run at the Antigo Theatre; it carried a $75.00 rental fee–$5.00 more than the fee for The Sheik. The pairing of Swanson, Paramount’s top star (see prior post) with the newly popular Valentino warranted this higher rental fee.
But the week before a film called Forever carried a $50.00 fee which matched the rental fee of the newer release, Moran of the Lady Letty. Forever is another film with an interesting backstory. It was released on October 16, 1921 under the title Peter Ibbetson and went into nationwide release in early March 1922. Under this title it was playing in New York City when The Sheik premiered on November 6, 1921. In fact, both films appeared in a “joint ad” the day after The Sheik premiered. You can see this ad by clicking here, which will take you to an earlier post on this site. It starred Wallace Reid and Elsie Ferguson and was directed by George Fitzmaurice. Fitzmaurice was a director Valentino had wanted to work with from early in his time at Paramount. His chance to have Fitzmaurice direct him would come only at the very end of his career when Fitzmaurice directed The Son of the Sheik.
Tucked in the middle of the the schedule was a Wednesday, December 20 showing of The Ordeal which had been released on May 21, 1922. It was a melodrama co-written by Somerset Maugham and was only 50 minutes long. Agnes Ayres, who had been the “lead” in The Sheik only six months before, and Conrad Nagel, a popular actor, apparently couldn’t bolster its appeal, so six months later the rental fee was only $10.00.
One film that is notable for its very low $15.00 rental fee is Beauty’s Worth which was booked after Christmas for one day on Wednesday, December 27. This film starred Marion Davies and it definitely was not a “short.” According to Wikipedia, “The centerpiece of the film is a stunning ‘tableaux vivants’ in which Davies recreates her dancing doll routine from the 1916 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.” Exhibitors Herald in its April 15, 1922 edition gave a full review (Page 63) along with a “digest” (Page 62); the digest noted the “thin” story, but thought the film would have good audience appeal because of the excellent production.
Exhibitors Herald, April 15, 1922. Page 62.
from Digest of Pictures of the Week
Was the low fee due to the possibility that business would be slow during this period in addition to industry-wide financial issues? I can only observe that by 1924 Marion Davies would be the number one box office female attraction…but this was 1922 and she hadn’t reached her peak popularity. The low rental fee late in the year of release could simply illustrate how a film’s appeal could taper off dramatically.
The 1922 Valentino Releases Missing from the Billhead
The two 1922 Valentino releases that are missing from this billhead are Blood and Sand and The Young Rajah. Blood and Sand had its New York premiere on Sunday, August 6 at the Rivoli according to an ad the prior day, so it most likely had a first run before the start date of this billhead (October 30, 1922). The Young Rajah had a November 12 release, so the Palace Theatre would have had its first booking sometime in early 1923; this timing was evident in many ads which appeared in newspapers from around the country and away from the big cities which I saw during my research.
According to news reports, Blood and Sand on its first Monday “drew 500 more than went to see him the first Monday he appeared in ‘The Sheik’ when he set a new Monday attendance record at the theater” (The Nashville Tennessean, Sunday, August 20, 1922. Page 2.) A couple of months later, The Young Rajah broke the opening day record set by Blood and Sand when it opened at the Rivoli on November 5 (Daily News, New York, Tuesday, November 7, 1922. Page 17). Each new release seemed to draw a bigger audience than the prior film did at least at the New York openings.
In 1923…No New Productions for Valentino
So what happened when each film returned to the Palace Theatre about a year later?
As discussed above, The Sheik still commanded a fee of $70.00 for year after its release, while Beyond the Rocks was still at a peak of $75.00 six months after its premiere. I do not have a record of the initial rental fees for Blood and Sand or The Young Rajah, but there seemed to be a big drop off a year later for these two films. The billheads above don’t indicate the length of the runs. Blood and Sand had a rental fee of $50.00 for a September 1923 showing. This is a bit surprising since the film was one of the highest grossing films of 1922, had given Valentino his first “star” billing and had received generally positive reviews. Surely the initial rental fee must have been in the range of the already aging Beyond the Rocks and The Sheik. The fee for The Young Rajah is even more surprising–$25.00 for its November showing. The early showings in 1922 had drawn strong audiences but a year later the waning appeal of this “big” film had dropped the rental fee to the level of some of the “program” pictures on the billhead that were running at The Palace Theatre in 1922.
Why? In the case of The Young Rajah the reviews had not been very enthusiastic. But that was not the case for Blood and Sand. Perhaps the problem was that by November 1923 Valentino had been off the screen for a year after going “on strike.” The tumult had gone public by August 1922 and the long legal battle continued until moves began in mid-1923 to end the impasse with the studio. In spite of Valentino’s efforts to stay in the public’s eye–the Mineralava dance tour with Natacha Rambova; his poetry book; his body-building publicity–being off-screen without new films would have been a big issue for any film career’s momentum. Naturally, the studio actively promoted other actors during this time, notably casting Antonio Moreno opposite Gloria Swanson. As early as September 1922, just a month after Blood and Sand‘s triumphant premiere and rave reviews for Valentino’s performance and well before before The Young Rajah opened in mid-November, the reports were out about the Moreno-Swanson pairing in My American Wife (considered lost), which would be directed by Sam Wood, who had directed Beyond the Rocks (Daily News, New York, Wednesday, September 27, 1922. Page 17).
At the same time, Ramon Navarro, who had been an extra in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, was being championed by Rex Ingram and appeared in his first good supporting role in The Prisoner of Zenda, released a matter of weeks before Blood and Sand. It was still playing on Broadway at the Astor Theater when Blood and Sand opened. (There were large, head-to-head ads for both films when Blood and Sand debuted.) In 1923 Navarro had his first starring role in Scaramouche (released in September), which despite the cost, did make money and would break box office records in Paris and London. Also in the public eye was Douglas Fairbanks, then known as “The King of Hollywood,” who released Robin Hood on October 18, 1922. This film was not only a great hit, but its premiere one hundred years ago is now cited as the first modern movie premiere and red carpet event. (See NOTES below for more information.)
The first half of 1922 had brought Valentino to true “star” status; but by the end of the year his momentum as an actor stalled. Although he did attend the premiere of The Young Rajah in New York while carrying on his legal fight with the studio, his energies in 1923 would be aimed at earning money using his celebrity rather through his film career…and while he was off-screen there were missed opportunities that may have helped erase the memory of the disappointing reception of The Young Rajah. Valentino’s next film, The Spanish Cavalier, which had already begun pre-production when he went on strike, was completely reworked to have a female lead. The Spanish Dancer would star Pola Negri playing against Antonio Moreno and would be released in November 1923, only a couple of months before Valentino would finally return to work.
Then in 1924…
Valentino’s first effort when he returned was Monsieur Beaucaire, which started filming in early 1924 in New York. Interestingly, Douglas Fairbanks had purchased the property in 1922, thinking he would make his version after completing Robin Hood.
“Doug” Buys “Monsieur Beaucaire”
Film Daily, Wednesday, April 26, 1922. Page 4.
Eventually, Fairbanks would sell his rights to the story. Valentino’s opulent, much-anticipated version–his comeback film–was released during August 1924, drawing large crowds in bigger cities in the U.S. and in Europe, but losing audience in smaller cities and towns across the country such as Antigo, Wisconsin.
I do not know if the December 30-31 booking was a first showing or a return booking at The Palace Theatre. Regardless, the rental fee for this extravagant “comeback” film was only $45.00–higher than the $25.00 fee for Valentino’s last film The Young Rajah a year before, but below the $50.00 fee for Blood and Sand one year after its release and less than for a first run of Moran of the Lady Letty…and only two-thirds the booking fee for Beyond the Rocks and a repeat run of The Sheik.
The reception of Monsieur Beaucaire would illustrate how the all-important audiences away from the sophisticated large cities would be instrumental to the level of success of Rudolph Valentino’s comeback. Publicity and reviews could launch a film, but the general public still needed to be willing to buy tickets…and Rudolph Valentino’s comeback was off to an uneven start.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT–The billhead in my collection was purchased from EBay seller “mrbuysalot” who graciously permitted me to use images of the other billheads that are pictured in this post. His store features, among other things, items from a huge trove of documents retrieved from The Palace Theatre. UPDATE–these items are now part of my collection!
1. The Metro Pictures Corporation letterhead prominently displays a “logo” reading “Distributors of NAZIMOVA Productions.” Various timelines report that she signed a five-year contract with Metro in 1917 and that the contract was cancelled after Camille, the picture that brought Valentino and Rambova together. Nazimova did create her own production company but the company simply let her contract expire. Metro had announced her signing in the July 28, 1917 issue of Motion Picture World (direct link here at Archive.org), but I’ve seen comments that she actually signed in early May 1917. Regardless, by the time this letter was written on May 29, 1922 her contract had most likely already ended.
As 1922 began it was clear that Rudolph Valentino’s popularity was quickly on the rise. After the smashing success of The Sheik following the the full release of the film in November 1921, the floodgates had opened, largely due to the intense reaction of female moviegoers. Moran of the Lady Letty was completed by November 1921 and was an attempt to broaden his appeal to attract more men; it would be his first release in 1922 with a February premiere (See my four-part series on this film; links below.). Then the studio paired their top female star, Gloria Swanson, with Valentino in Beyond the Rocks which filmed during December 1921 into January 1922 for a May release. Although they wouldn’t be release until later in the year, Blood and Sand was filming from March through mid-May and The Young Rajah was in production in June. In preparation for 1923 Valentino then moved into pre-production for The Spanish Cavalier, which ultimately was never made, although there would be a re-working of the film…a very interesting story in itself…
By June, Valentino was near the top of the hierarchy of Paramount stars and his new status was clearly shown in this advertising spread from TheSaturday Evening Post, June 17, 1922.
R to L, top row: Cecille B. DeMille, George Fitzmaurice*, Penrhyn Stanlaws, Sam Wood*, John S. Robertson, Fred Niblo*
Continued on 2nd Page, top row: Joseph Henabery*
R to L, bottom row: William deMille, George Melford*, Irvin V. Willat, Alfred E. Green, James Cruze
Continued to 2nd Page, bottom row: Philip E. Rosen*, Ernest Lubitsch, Paul Powell*
*Indicates directors who had already directed or who would direct Valentino in the future.
Top: Gloria Swanson*
R to L, 2nd and 3rd: Thomas Meighan, Rudolph Valentino
R to L, 4th row: Elise Ferguson, Bebe Daniels*, Betty Compton, Wallace Reid
R to L, 5th row: May McAvoy, Jack Holt, Dorothy Dalton*Agnes Ayres*
R to L, 6th row: Wanda Hawley*, Mary Miles Minter, Lila Lee*, Pola Negri
Bottom: Alice Brady
*Indicates actresses who appeared with Valentino.
NOTE: May McAvoy had been announced to play Carmen in Blood and Sand in the industry press then in a publicity notice entitled “New Paramount Productions” published in The Houston Post, Houston, Texas dated Sunday, February 12, 1922 (Page 35). However, she was dropped from the cast and was replaced by Lila Lee in the film. This notice is pictured in Part 3 of my series on Moran of the Lady Letty. Bebe Daniels had been announced for the role of Dona Sol but was replaced by Nita Naldi.
Below is a closer look at the “top three…”
The Saturday Evening Post, which traced its roots back to Benjamin Franklin, was a dying publication in 1897 (circulation 2,231) when it was bought for $1,000.00 (downpayment, $100.00) by Cyrus Curtis who published Ladies Home Journal. He poured his profits from this successful publication into The Saturday Evening Post and “public demand for it became so great that the presses could scarcely turn out copies fast enough.” By 1922, it had an average circulation of 2,187,024 and ads like the one pictured here help give it advertising revenue of over $28 million dollars a year. (Peterson, Theodore. Magazines in the Twentieth Century, Page 12.) The magazine was a prime advertising vehicle for the movie industry, along with newspapers and fan magazines such as Photoplay.
At this time of year the studios would present a preview of upcoming releases for the next “season” which in 1922 ran from August to January 1923. So, about a month after the ad was published in The Saturday Evening Post, Paramount released its list in newspapers like The Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas (Sunday, July 30, 1922, Page 32).
To top this off, Paramount actually made a promotional film that highlighted its company of directors and actors. This ad appeared along with the list in The Wichita Eagle.
The list was in alphabetical order, so the name “Rodolf Valentino” appeared last on the list of “Stars.”
By contrast, note the second column which listed “Players.”
The Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas. Sunday, July 30, 1922. Page 32.
You can actually see this humorous 10-minute film on Youtube, thanks to the Historic Hollywood channel. The film starts with a sequence featuring Dorothy Dalton in snippets of her various roles, beginning with Moran of the Lady Letty. It shows how charming she was and why she was such a popular player. The segment featuring Valentino on the set of Blood and Sand as he “trains” to fight a bull starts at approximately Minute 4:40 and also includes the other stars in the film–Nita Naldi, Walter Long, and Lila Lee.
Unfortunately, as Rudolph Valentino was finally coming into his own as a true “star” versus being a “player,” the path to a reversal of the early momentum of the first part of 1922 was already in place. Tumult was on the way and he would end the year without film plans for 1923. Paramount released its schedule of releases from February 1, 1923 to August 1,1923–the “Super 39”– at the beginning of 1923 (for example, as published in The Orlando Sentinel, Orlando, Florida. January 21, 1923. Page 17).
The name “Rudolph Valentino” was nowhere to be seen.
1. Links to all the blog posts and video links for the 4-part series on Moran of the Lady Letty can be found in Part 4. Click here.
2. The Saturday Evening Post 2-page advertising spread is from my personal collection.
3. Theodore Kosloff, listed as one of Paramount’s “Players,” had been involved with Natacha Rambova before she and Rudolph Valentino met.
4. The image of The Orlando Sentinel story about Paramount’s “Super 39” was very poor, so it was not included in this post. I’m providing the headline for reference.
There was quiet mourning for Rudolph Valentino, away from the crowds. There were private friends, friends who will remain unknown to us forever…A simple remembrance from two friends, placed ninety-six years ago in Variety on Wednesday, August 25, 1926.
“Time travel me back. Let me say good-bye again. A minute more, a moment, a chance to see. . .” ― Sarah Crossan, Moonrise
“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” ― Thomas Campbell
“Friends come into our lives and friends leave our lives. But friends never leave our hearts. And best friends always get to stay in the best places in our hearts.” ― John M. Simmons, The Marvelous Journey Home
Links to blog posts Parts 1, 2 and 3. Youtube video summaries Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.
All the glowing studio publicity pumped out for Moran of the Lady Letty as illustrated in the ad below had to meet the test when the reviewers saw the film. The reactions were mixed and theater owners reported much different levels of audience interest depending on where the film was shown.
Reviewers emphasized different aspects of the film such as the action and the appearance of the cast, with some being unimpressed and others being very favorable. Although most wrote straightforward reviews, there were some harsh, even caustic and sneering opinions aimed at the two leads.
Here are two examples of the first reviews after the premiere in New York City on February 5, 1922.
The reviewer from The New York Herald remarked that the plot line “strained credulity a bit when it came to a girl remaining alive all night ” after the ship’s fire that “killed strapping men.” But the critic thought Dorothy Dalton generally gave “a forceful characterization of the girl who wanted to be a man except when her hair gets into her performance.” This critic was fixated on the actors’ hair and overall appearance! “To bob or not to bob was evidently the burning question that faced Miss Dorothy Dalton in girding herself up for this picture.” The critic regretted that she “trimmed her hair to the length standardized for horses” and “it seems to hang in strings of licorice around her face. The ordinarily enchanting countenance of Miss Dalton becomes as broad beamed as a ship, and her charming smile turns into a hatchway.”
Valentino got off relatively easy with the comments that “as evidence that his rough experience before the mast works a transformation of character, he no longer wears the patent leather haircomb of his San Francisco trifling,” and how “one feels that even when…he is sloshing water from a bucket, …that he could change instantly into his best party manner and slosh tea from a cup.”
By contrast, the Daily News reviewer McElliot heralded Valentino as a much-needed new hero and considered the release of Moran of the Lady Letty as “real news.” He valued the film at about “98 per cent” and remarked that “This man Valentino has a pair of fists with him, my dears!” But Dalton came up short again as she looked “oddly boyish and perhaps a trifle grotesque, at moments, in seaman’s clothes…and the straight bobbed locks made famous by one Buster Brown.” (See NOTES below for more information about Buster Brown and my own Buster Brown haircut and shoes!)
“strings of licorice around her face”–New York Herald review
“…bobbed locks made famous by one Buster Brown”–McElliot
A couple of days before the Los Angeles premiere (February 12, 1922) a syndicated review by James W. Dean, datelined New York, began appearing in newspapers. It started off with a dig at Valentino:
"It had to happen sooner or later, Francis X. Bushman used to get away with it with considerable regularity. Wally Reid has been guilty of it several times. Yessir, Rudolph Rodolf Rudolpho Rodolfo Whathis name Valentino just had to peel of his shirt off and get out in front of the Kliegl lights sooner or later in his sleeveless undershirt so the flappers might gaze upon his manly muscle."
Then Dean moved onto Dorothy Dalton and her hair “shorn to within eight inches of her scalp” but finished his summary by praising director George Melford for not dressing Dorothy “up in evening low-cuts” and allowing her “to go right through the fade-out in her raggedy outfit without a wave or a ribbon in her hair. ” Ultimately, Dean praised both Valentino and Dalton for their work–in his opinion, Dalton’s “best film in months” and Valentino’s “better work in it than he has in any picture since ‘The Four Horsemen.'”
A couple of weeks later, a review in The St. Louis Dispatch (Monday, February 27, 1922, Page 17) had the exact opposite reaction to the actors’ work:
…Valentino and Miss Dalton have been seen to better advantage in other offerings.”
The St. Louis Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri. Monday, February 27, 1922. Page 17.
As the film rolled out , reviews swung between either praising, disliking or ignoring Dalton and her hair and, with regard to Valentino, comparing him to his recent roles or praising him for his fighting skills.
The critic for The New York Herald had questioned the believability of the plotline because Dalton’s character survived a fire when “strapping men” did not (see review above) and The Baltimore Sun review also found fault with the story, failing to find the film a “convincing piece of drama.” But while The New York Herald critic at least credited Dalton with a “forceful characterization,” The Baltimore Sun showed no mercy toward Dalton calling her “well-nigh hopeless ” while passing off Valentino’s performance as “lacking.”
“…she fails to breathe a real soul into the role of the captain’s tomboy daughter….Rudolph Valentino, perhaps, does the best he can with six reels of fighting a viperous sea smuggler, but his performance, too, is lacking, save for the “grand finishing fight” amidst the top-most rigging.”
The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore, Maryland.
Tuesday, February 21, 1922. Page 5.
This idea that the plot was not up to par was often mentioned. A paper in Tacoma, Washington called the film “a fanciful story that pleases those who like Valentino’s style and Dorothy Dalton’s masculinity” (The News Tribune, Tacoma Washington, Monday, May 8, 1922. Page 8).
The April 1922 edition of Photoplay went so far as to call the picture “more or less pure hoakum that you’re almost ashamed of yourself for enjoying (Page 62). Whether it was because of “two sparklers such as Valentino and Dorothy Dalton…or the original power of the Frank Norris novel,” the writer could not really pinpoint what made the film enjoyable.
…but it’s good strong entertainment. Sea stuff; fights; love. Rodolph as usual; Dorothy with bobbed hair–yum yum! You’re bound to like it.”
Photoplay, April 1922. Page 62
Photoplay wasn’t the only publication that viewed the pairing of Dalton and Valentino in a positive light. A paper in Delaware described the pairing as “well nigh unbeatable in screen circles. The cream of beauty to both the feminine and masculine sense and the best screen ability are found in the two” (Every Evening, Wilmington Daily Commercial , Wilmington, Delaware, Saturday, April 15, 1922. Page 11). It’s interesting to note that the term “beauty” was already being applied to Valentino.
The Leader-Post in Regina, Saskachewan, Canada further elevated both Dorothy Dalton and Valentino.
“…She brings to the part a conscientious forcefulness and withal betrays that womanly sweetness which cannot be disguised by either her manlike dress or her strength of character. Her portrayal is a revelation of art…
Rudolph Valentino…as a petted society favorite…proves that beneath his lavender kid exterior he is a real man and in the end he conquers even the intrepid Moran….This is a role in which all the robust qualities possessed by Mr. Valentino are brought to the front with splendid effect. His portrayal will not be soon forgotten.“
The Leader-Post, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Saturday, May 13, 1922. Page 19.
Earlier in the film’s run Dorothy Dalton and Valentino received some kind words in The News-Post in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada (Friday, March 17, 1922, Page 12). They describe how Dalton was “excellent’ in her role” while “Mr. Valentino gave a powerful portrayal as Ramon.” In this particular piece, the rest of the cast also received a nod: “The support generally as of the best.”
That “support” was mentioned in passing in many theater announcements and reviews. Walter Long wasn’t named specifically but his acting was mentioned in joint praise along with Valentino, when both were described as “great actors” in The Central New Jersey Home News, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
And, in what was an overall favorable review, Exhibitors Herald made a point of praising Walter Long right from the start: “Rudolf Valentino and Walter Long press the star (Dorothy Dalton) for honors.” The preview for the film’s opening at the Majestic Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana quoted another publication, Exhibitor’s Trade Review, and also noted the performance of Walter Long. (Note: This publication should not be confused with Exhibitors Herald; unfortunately, the issue of Exhibitor’s Trade Review from February 1922, which would have included the review, is missing from the collection available at Archive.org).
The review in the Exhibitors Herald concluded that “Valentino’s popularity ought to be greatly boosted by his part in that [the fight scene with Kitchell]. He can fight.”
The review in the trade publication Variety called Dalton “a new type of heroine”–“The sinuous frocks are gone. So are the vampish headresses….It’s an astonishing transfiguration from the typical Dalton roles.” But the reviewer also stated that “whether the fans will accept Miss Dalton in an ingenue part of this kind is an interesting consideration” because the character of Moran was rather a “colorless person” in translation to the screen.” The review went on to say that the real star of the picture was Valentino and noted that, like Dalton’s changed image, the change in the Valentino persona as a “fighter” was also a big shift in style and maybe even “a shock.”
As a rough-and-tumble fighting hero Valentino is a revelation…Physically he looks the part, but it comes as something of a shock, probably because he has so long been identified with roles of a daintier kind.
Variety, Friday, February 10, 1922. Page 34.
Exhibitor’s Herald featured a section called “Voice of the Box Office” which presented reports from the field about how pictures fared in various cities. These reports gave details on how a film was performing in terms of drawing an audience, other parts of the program, and the type of publicity the theater may or may not have used, such as billboards, lobby displays, newspapers, etc. Below is a sampling of reports from theater managers on how the film was being received. During the run of Moran of the Lady Letty, Valentino’s earlier films were still in circulation including his hit films, The Sheik and The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, so it is interesting to see how they were still pulling in audiences even as Moran of the Lady Letty was playing during it’s initial run.
A comment in an Ohio newspaper revealed a potential problem with Exhibitor’s Herald‘s conclusion that Valentino’s ability to fight would boost his popularity. While commenting that Valentino “proves he can ride the bounding main as gracefully as he does the camel,” the public was warned that they wouldn’t be seeing a sheik.
“Anybody who expects to see Rudolph Valentino syndicate the Sheik in ‘Moran of the Lady Letty,’…is doomed to heart-breaking disappointment. There is not a tent, a turban or a turbulent lover visible, even in the silhouette.”
The News-Journal, Mansfield, Ohio. Monday, March 6, 1922. Page 6.
And, apparently, some of the women fans, were not enthralled by what Variety had called the “shock” of the physical change in Valentino and the disappearance of the sheik character. Below is an interesting juxtaposition between the interest in Valentino’s sea-faring film playing in Omaha, Nebraska compared to that of the The Sheik, which was playing in Evanston, Illinois as the same time. While The Sheik had been re-booked for a third run in Evanston, Illinois and was turning away crowds, the theater management in Omaha, Nebraska reported that Moran of the Lady Letty started off well enough during the first half of the week, but Valentino as Ramon Laredo was missing the mark with the female audience!
Exhibitor’s Herald, April 29, 1922.
Moran of the Lady Letty….”Rudolph Valentino in this role does not appeal to the ladies.” –Rialto Theatre, Omaha, Nebraska.
The Sheik…”Rebook it, men; it’s there. You won’t lose.”—Hoyburn Theatre, Evanston, Illinois.
Columnist Harry Carr, in his column “From a Carr Window” which appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, March 12, 1922 (Page 33), reviewed Moran of the Lady Letty within the broader context of the state of the movie industry, specifically noting the “tragic famine in stories.” In particular, he was exasperated by the proliferation of “business stories”–stories which centered on young wives neglected as their husbands focused on work. Calling these themes “absolutely unnatural,” Carr recites all the activities a wife would be involved in with “plenty to occupy her mind without waiting for her husband’s footsteps on the front stairs.” Ironically, in his opinion, most of this “sentimental slush” was churned out mostly by “women writers who know better.”
“Honestly, I couldn’t stand another one.”–Harry Carr
Los Angeles Times, Sunday, March 12, 1922. Page 33.
Carr wasn’t any happier about Moran of the Lady Letty, which he thought missed the mark in terms of direction and story. He pointed out that the audience had to get over “the sea atmosphere” to get to the story, but “the director did not get over the atmosphere.” And, overall, the character of the girl raised on a boat was not believable, a problem which was picked up by other critics as cited earlier in this piece.
“You never really believed that girl was living on a boat. There were no intimate little touches that made you feel it was really her home. Furthermore, you never believed that she knew how to steer or sail the ship.”
“…When she went to the wheel she spun the spokes around a lot, but you never believed for an instant she was really controlling the ship.”
“These points lacking–the big thrill that she got out of the battle with the cruel, relentless old ocean–you couldn’t get much interest or sympathy out of her reluctance to give up her sea-dog life to become the wife of a man.”
Los Angeles Times, Sunday, March 12, 1922. Page 33.
Carr concluded that “The point of the story seemed to me absolutely to depend upon getting over to the audience the idea that her ship absolutely filled this girl’s life.” And Carr obviously felt the film failed in conveying this key element.
“But,” he said yesterday, adjusting his gorgeous bullfighter costume. “You can always find consolation in everything. That picture gave me at least an opportunity, after so many lounge lizard parts, to show that I could be a fighting athlete.”–Rudolph Valentino
Los Angeles Times, Sunday, March 12, 1922. Page 33.
Carr apparently met Valentino on the set of Blood and Sand, which was already in production when Carr’s piece came out in March. And, according to his report, Valentino was not thrilled with Moran of the Lady Letty, either. Carr described Valentino as being a “weary traveler who has at last arrived at an oasis” by being given the lead role in what looked like a “good one in “Blood and Sand.” After telling Carr that he hated “The Sheik” Valentino found some consolation in his role in Moran of the Lady Letty because he wasn’t a lounge lizard and he could look like a “fighting athlete.”
For all the mixed reviews and the back and forth over which actor was the star of the film, there is no question that the momentum with the public was with Rudolph Valentino as Moran of the Lady Letty was released. In fact, even BEFORE the official premieres of the film in New York (February 5, 1922) and Los Angeles (February 12, 1922), movie goers in Stockton, California had an early opportunity to see the film and the publicity was skewed toward featuring Valentino. In fact, in the “review” touting “Valentino’s Magic,” the person responsible for using the studio publicity in The Stockton Evening and Sunday Record seemed to think that the film was already “bringing in crowds from all over Stockton, and the country as well” even before it went into wide release!
After the film opened in New York on Sunday, February 5, Variety reported in its February 10th edition what was obvious–Valentino was the draw on Broadway and Dorothy Dalton hadn’t even been mentioned in the advance billing.
Of course, Dalton would get her due in many venues as the film rolled out around the country because she was a popular player, but without a doubt Rudolph Valentino was definitely starting off his busy year of 1922 in “stellar fashion”….
1. Full pages were often devoted to the showing of the film as it opened around the country. The large ad at the top of this post is taken from the full-page publicity push in The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Sunday, March 26, 1922. Section 4, Page 6.
2. Buster Brown–The Buster Brown comic strip originated in 1902 and in 1904, the character became licensed to the Brown Shoe Company. Buster Brown, whose name was inspired by the young vaudeville performer Buster Keaton, was a child of wealthy parents who was a prankster… as described at TVTropes.org, Buster Brown was essentially an Edwardian “Dennis the Menace” whose dog Tige, believed to be the first talking pet in a comic, would warn his master of the trouble he would create, but his warnings were usually unheeded and Buster would be spanked although it wasn’t clear if he really repented for actions. For more information, this piece at NPR is includes audio, a photo gallery, and links to many sources. One interesting bit of information details the use of midgets and small boys circa 1908 to dress up as Buster Brown to promote the sale of Buster Brown shoes.
Years later I would love my Buster Brow saddle shoes!
(Left) On a personal note, here is a picture of me with my Buster Brown shoes from 1956! (Below) My full-blown Buster Brown hairdo in 1954.
3. Exhibitors Herald originated in 1915 as a regional trade paper for exhibitors of films. Through mergers, it developed into a national publication for the film industry. Source: Wikiwand, “Motion Picture Herald” entry.
Adventure films were popular during the silent film era and seafaring yarns produced in the 1920’s were some of the more popular offerings to the the film-going public. If one looks at this list at Wikipedia, for example, you can see that for a couple of years seafaring stories seemed to have more production than usual. But, as noted in the entry, this list is not complete and probably never will be because so many films from the era have been lost.
Before we discuss the production of Moran of the Lady Letty, there are a few interesting side notes I’d like to point out. First, this was not the first sea tale for director George Melford–he had already directed The Sea Wolf in 1920, with Walter Long playing a “mate.” Second, two of Rudolph Valentino’s leading ladies either made it onto a ship before he did or were back on board after the release of Moran of the Lady Letty! And finally, the male leads in these films were actors who had been briefly considered to play the lead in The Sheik! (See NOTES below for more details about these films.)
During the filming of Moran of the Lady Letty and then as the film was released, there were a number of short “reports” in the newspapers about how the film was made. As the distribution of the film rolled out nationwide, write-ups appeared in papers across the country, some as locally produced commentary which most likely included studio press information and others that were clearly directly picked up verbatim from studio publicity.
The Sheik premiered with a “pre-release” on October 30, 1921, and even before the “official” premiere a week later in New York City on November 6, 1921, publicity for Moran of the Lady Letty was being placed. For example, this little squib appeared on November 1:
Although the above publicity drop reports that all sea scenes were made in San Francisco, apparently some scenes were filmed on a boat built to rock on the studio set along with sets for the cabin scenes. The studio boat seems to have been used during the coal fire sequence. Although hard to discern, from approximately minute 24:24 to minute 25:34 the film (Youtube version here), one can see lighting fixtures, a piece of clothing hanging of a bunk to the left swaying slightly, and a following scene where a white door is moving back and forth in the background. This door could have been moved by an off-screen stagehand, however. There is quite a bit of cutting between scenes filmed on what seems to be the studio boat to scenes filmed on the actual ships at sea. (The inter-cut scenes showing the crew scrambling to get off the ship don’t seem to show any wave action at all–perhaps a calm interlude on the rough seas described in press stories which appeared during filming.)
See the NOTES below for intriguing information about what techniques were used in the above mentioned Dalton film On the High Scenes which was in production in June 1922. In the six months since the filming of Moran of the Lady Letty, were the techniques that much improved? Or, were some already in use during the filming of Moran of the Lady Letty? At this point, I haven’t found any specific information on this possibility…but the possibility might still exist.
Another example of early publicity for Moran of the Lady Letty comes from Buffalo, New York. It appeared a week into the run of The Sheik in New York and even before the start of “Sheik Week” which began the week of November 27, 1921.
Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, Buffalo, New York. Sunday, November 13, 1921, Section 7. Page 2.
“Rudolph Valentino will get a sample of his own medicine–doled out to Agnes Ayres in The Sheik–when he does his new picture.”
In early December 1921 seasickness during filming was already part of the publicity campaign:
Salt Lake Telegraph, Salt Lake City, Utah
Sunday, December 4, 1921. Page 22.
Dorothy Dalton–“I was so sick scores of times when we were out at sea that I didn’t care whether we ever finished the picture or not.”
The full campaign was in full swing by January 1922. This picture of Dorothy Dalton, George Melford and Rudolph Valentino appeared in Exhibitors Herald on page 88 of the January 28, 1922 edition.
Director George Melford was praised for his ability to save money during production. Money concerns for many studios at this juncture were top of mind and had played a role in Valentino winning the lead in The Sheik. Now, with Valentino’s next film, Melford was singled out for his “economy in the use of film.” He rehearsed scenes so that he would need very few retakes.
Wichita Beacon, Wichita, Kansas. Sunday, January 29, 1922. Page 19.
“Mindful of the necessity for economy in these times…
…In making ‘The Sheik’ he used up 28,000 feet of film, which was boiled down to 7,800 feet in the final picture.
He bettered this record in Moran of the Lady Letty, using only 22,000 feet of film which was boiled down to 6,800 feet finished.”
Once the film premiered on February 5, 1922 in New York City with the Los Angeles “world premiere” following on February 12, the nationwide distribution rolled out in full force. Here are a few examples of obvious studio publicity, pure studio hype at its best.
“Once again has George Melford produced for Paramount a picture with every claim to superiority….The situations are highly dramatic and appealing….
Dorothy Dalton, popular Paramount star, …Her portrayal in a revelation of art.
Rudolph Valentino…This is a role in which all the robust qualities possessed by Mr. Valentino are brought to the front in splendid effect.”
The Ogden Standard Examiner, Ogden, Utah.
Tuesday, February 14, 1922. Page 7.
As we will discover in Part 4 of this series, publicity material was not always accurately used by the outlets who chose to use it. For example, One piece provided theater management with suggestions if they desired to “exploit the big Paramount picture” by using any of the material provided “in any way you may deem wise.” The material provided an easy way to create a publicity blurb; apparently, the people running the Orpheus in Nova Scotia, Canada just added their theater’s name to what was included in a press packet…instructions not meant for public view. The ad for the showtimes and this publicity information actually ran side by side in the local paper.
The Evening Standard, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
May 19, 1922. Page 16.
Around the same time, an ad for the film was accompanied on the same page by a list picked up by theater management which gave five reasons to see the film.
The (Morning) Leader,
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Thursday, May 11, 1922. Page 11.
The idea that Moran of the Lady Letty was a “special or big production” was one that was repeated in other advertising as well. Below is one example:
Reading Times, Reading, Pennsylvania.
Wednesday, May 14, 1921. Page 7.
These publicity pieces pale, however, when compared to a spread that appeared in The Coffeyville Daily Journal, published in Coffeyville, Kansas, on April 7, 1922, Page 12. (See Notes below.)The “Brilliant Players in ‘Moran of the Lady Letty'” section was an expanded version of the “Queries and Replies” ad that appeared in May in Nova Scotia (pictured above) that added fuller details and two more players to the list of stars (Charles Brindley and Emil Jorgenson). Note, again, that the film was described as a “Big Paramount Super Play,” A Stupendous Production” and provided an unusually detailed synopsis of the story. However, the copywriter made an error when picking up the names of key cast members: in the column to the far left, the writer names “the popular Rodolf Valentino as the star of an unusual supporting cast including Dorothy Dalton, Walter Miller….” Of course, the correct name was Walter LONG! And, the writer seems to imply that everyone is in a “supporting cast” (?)…did the write mean to say an “ensemble” cast? Obviously, publicity material from the studio sometimes didn’t make it into a publication intact or accurately.
There were different approaches to what was emphasized in the publicity that was delivered to the public. I’ve organized some of the more frequently used publicity themes I’ve found to make it easier to get the gist of how interest was built for the film.
One of the publicity angles that was used frequently in local papers involved the shanghaiing of Valentino/Ramon Laredo at the start of the film.
The tea and ball scenes were often noted for their glamour and style. A couple of columns over from this piece, there was a squib which gave more details:
“Fifty of the prettiest girls in film circles and an equal number of the best looking men, appear in the grand ball scene….”
The Selma Times-Journal, Selma, Alabama. Sunday, April 9, 1922. Page 6.
Great pains were taken to “educate” the public about what it meant to be shanghaied since this event set the stage for the rest of the story. The “teasers” below are from March and April 1922.
Here’s the definition that was presented repeatedly and essentially verbatim in the newspapers: “Shanghaied” is the forcible abduction of an unaware citizen who wakens from a stupor to find himself on the high seas at the mercy of a brutal buck mate or master.” (Once in a while, an editor would tack on a small grammatical change such as “Shanghaied is a term that means the forcible abduction….”) And note the incorrect name of “Mark Melford” in the article on the left.
Along with the concept of being shanghaied, the publicity revealed Valentino’s feelings about his part…and his career, in general, to this point. Although Valentino proclaimed that he “liked it” some writers “commented” that “Rudolph Gets His,” a reference to the rough handling of his leading lady in The Sheik which was still playing around the country.
“Such a trifle as being ‘shanghaied,'” observed Valentino during the screening of the picture, “means nothing in my life. I’ve been abused continually since I’ve been in pictures–shot and beaten up and generally mishandled. But I like it!”
Dorothy Dalton received her fair share of attention, notably about her appearance and specifically about her hair. Her role as Moran was dubbed as one of “the most wholesome roles that she has ever played (Dayton Daily Ness, Dayton, Ohio, Thursday, March 2, 1922, Page 32) and focused on her particular issues with seasickness. The standard “report” about her hair stated that “Miss Dalton had to cut a couple of inches off her hair, which had already been bobbed to some extent, so that she could make up for the role–the mate on her father’s ship–in many scenes, and the role is a primitive one, full of rough and tumble fighting and thrills.” (Part 4 reveals the brutal references to Dalton’s hair in the reviews after the film’s release.)
“MANY OBSTACLES” AT SEA…
The “mean ocean” which caused the constant seasickness endured by Dorothy Dalton was a recurring publicity story. The piece above describes how with the “continuous run of heavy ground swells, the consequent conduct of the boat was too severe a test for the stomach of a good sailor, the actress contended, and preparedness was her motto….” To that end, “Lemons, chewing gum and lemon drops, in large quantities, were on the shopping menu…when she was making preparations for days work on exterior scenes taken at sea on a sailing vessel near San Francisco.”
More details about the conditions encountered are presented in the two examples below…some of the copy is the same, but additional information included varied depending on who was putting together the publicity materials and some was also a revamping of some of the material found in the above “Mean Ocean” piece.
In one “Hollywood hometown” paper in Los Angeles (above), there was quite a bit of commiseration for the difficulties involved in the filming as it delivered the lament that “The motion picture art sometimes makes strenuous demands on its players and in ways not so that the public…would ever be aware of the difficulties surmounted” and went on to say that each actor “was called upon to reveal the utmost sang froid in the midst of a storm and a resolute and unembarrassed digestive apparatus no matter how high the billows swelled about their craft in midocean” (Los Angeles Evening Express, Los Angeles, California. Saturday, February 25, 1922. Page 22.).
A couple of months later, a paper in Washington, D.C. (above) detailed what was going on with the ships and how a shoot that was supposed to take three weeks in San Francisco filming exteriors wound up taking five weeks. Three- and four-masted ships had to be towed in and out of port every day, a process which took four to five hours a day.
"In the morning, when the vessel was being towed out, the tide was coming in and in the evening, when the company turned the nose of the ship homeward, the tide was ebbing out to sea. Thus, it was necessary to 'buck' the tide both going and coming, which accounts for the time to and from the outer-sea location."
Then when the location was reached, if Dorothy Dalton or William Marshall, the cameraman weren't seasick, a few of the highly dramatic scenes of the picture were made." --The Washington Herald, Washington, D.C. Sunday, April 2, 1922. Page 18.
In the end, after the four to five hours of towing, only about four to five hours of actual shooting time was available every day!
While there were difficulties filming the ship scenes, things didn’t always go smoothly on land, either. An entire Mexican village was built at Paradise Cove on the San Francisco shore for the scenes depicting the Magdalena Bay of the novel. Under the direction of Rudolph Blyek, technical director of George Melford Productions, twenty buildings with thatched roofs were constructed by thirty carpenters over the span of two weeks. But–a bit of sleuthing revealed that the expensive project was destroyed by hungry horses!
“In the future George Melford will permit no horses or mules in the vicinity of thatched roofs if he uses them in any of his productions….”
The San Francisco shoot had more interesting details revealed through the press. For example, this small article described some of the extras who played crew members:
“…in two of the city’s largest hotel groups of bearded, rough-looking characters, … lounged the lobbies every morning and evening.”
“The Orientals were employed as extras, forming the motley followers of Captain Kitchell, an Eurasian villain and captain of a smuggling ship…
…the Chinese types took part most realistically.
After the scenes were ‘shot,’ Miss Dalton was conducted through the mysterious and dark by-ways of the sleep city by one of the admiring yellow men who had played in the picture.”
The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, Canada.
Saturday, March 11, 1922. Page 20.
A School Holiday…
The shoot even impacted some of the local school children. I found a couple of reports in papers like The Caldwell Tribune in Caldwell, Idaho and in a paper in Oklahoma (below). When a few students saw the film company at the waterfront, the news spread and a few students were missing from school. The next day, about one hundred fifty children were waiting to see the crew. According to the story, “Hookey on a large scale was the order of the day. When the teachers learned the facts, they joined the pupils, called a holiday, and there was general rejoicing. A good time was had by all.”
THE FIGHT IN THE SHIP’S RIGGING–WHO FELL INTO THE SEA?
Of course, the climax of the film featured the fight in the rigging between Ramon Laredo and the villainous Captain Kitchell. In a build-up for an extended run in Washington, D.C., this sequence was described as being “one of the most gripping and powerful climaxes ever brought to the silver sheet” (Washington Herald, Washington, D.C. April 2, 1922 — full article found above in the section entitled “Many Obstacles” At Sea).
Many publicity pieces included a joint comment from Valentino and Walter Long and detailed how the rigging scenes were filmed:
"Fighting on the fore top of schooner with the vessel rolling and pitching and the mast swaying, is no pleasant job, according to Rudolph Valentino, playing the male lead role and Walter Long...
"The fight scenes were filmed aboard the ship in San Francisco Bay. The two men were at least 60 feet above deck. The fight started on deck and continued on up the rigging until they reached the fore top. From there they fought on out to the end of a spar. After a final struggle, the villain drops into the ocean. For this latter shot, a camera was lashed to another spar, and thus a close-up view of the knock-out punch and the fall obtained." -- "Adventure Story Draws to Columbia"-- TheVictoria Daily Times, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Tuesday, June 6, 1922. Page 10.
Doubles started the fight but the publicity revealed that Valentino and Long “wanted a real as well as a reel fight…”
“Doubles were produced and began the fight with Rudolph and Walter standing in the wings watching. The audience (consisting of the two men) nudged each other, smiled, then look disgusted, and after the fight between the doubles, advanced and asked permission to do it themselves…”
The Houston Post, Houston, Texas.
Sunday, February 12, 1922. Page 30.
So,was that actually Walter Long as the evil Kitchell losing the battle and finally dropping off the rigging into the sea and to his death?The answer isNO!
The double who fell into the sea was an athlete and actor named George O’Brien. According to the Hollywood Star Walk project provided by The Los Angeles Times, O’Brien was:
"Born in San Francisco, where his father was chief of police, O'Brien became the Navy's Pacific Fleet light-heavyweight boxing champion during World War I. After his discharge he was introduced to cowboy star Tom Mix who helped him find work as an assistant cameraman, extra and stuntman.
One of his early film tricks involved Rudolph Valentino knocking O'Brien from the rigging of a ship into the sea."
O’Brien would go on to appear in one of the greatest of all silent films Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) with Janet Gaynor and appeared in approximately seventy-five films over the course of his long career. He was known as “The Torso” because of his physique and worked with top stars such as Mary Astor, Wallace Beery, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and William Powell and Myrna Loy. After the 1930’s he worked mostly in Westerns and had a long connection to director John Ford. O’Brien’s last film was in 1964, and after his retirement from the screen, he directed and produced stage plays in Europe and the United States and then became a script writer for TV and movies. For a wonderful piece about George O’Brien, visit Strictly Vintage Hollywood which includes a photo of George O’Brien and Dorothy Dalton chatting on set.
The Image Issue…
So, while George O’Brien settled into a career in rough and tumble pictures, Rudolph Valentino would struggle with his image. After his triumphant performance in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and his elegance in Camille, The Sheik finally triggered the full-scale swooning of female fans–but questions about his screen persona were starting as he had been teased in reviews for his “Theda Bara wide eyes” and over which turban was more attractive. (See previous post November 27, 1921: The Start of “Sheik Week” Follows The Precedent-Setting New York Premiere and Nationwide Release of “The Sheik”.) As Emily Leider wrote in her book Dark Lover:
"A theater manager in Alabama reported, 'The lady trade makes up for the men that stay at home.' The more girls and women lost their heads and hearts to Valentino, the more their dates, husbands, and fathers seethed with resentment at the hypnotic actor showing them up." -- Leider, Page 189.
Aware of the problem, the studio cast Valentino in Moran of the Lady Letty to boost his appeal to the male audience by presenting him as an “action star” rather than simply a female heart throb. But, compared to the All-American Douglas Fairbanks, who had already delivered The Mark of Zorro in 1920, The Three Muskateers in 1921 and who was producing Robin Hood in 1922, Valentino’s efforts in Moran of the Lady Letty, such as throwing some punches and climbing around rigging, certainly didn’t turn him into a full-fledged action type. Reviews of the film, as you will see in the next post in these series will show, certainly didn’t herald Valentino as the next action hero.
Ironically, behind the scenes, while filming this role, Valentino was being photographed in his off time in poses that would further confuse his image–the “faun pictures” taken under the guidance of girlfriend Natacha Rambova, who turned up in San Francisco after she had gotten wind of his after-work escapades.
One of these pictures (not shown here), showed Valentino curled up at Rambova’s feet, and would be introduced during the Jean Acker-Valentino divorce proceedings in December 1921 which ultimately resulted in an interlocutory judgment entered in January 1922, just before the premiere of Moran of the Lady Letty.
To add to the irony, a publicity spread in a Los Angeles paper presented a picture of Valentino next to one of Grace Darmond. Jean Acker, who had been involved in a tense love triangle with Darmond and Alla Nazimova, fled to Grace Darmond, her real love, after realizing she had made a mistake marrying Valentino in November 1919. Grace Darmond testified during the divorce proceedings about “the bathroom incident” during which Valentino reportedly hit his wife. Darmond and Acker would stay together until 1925. (Ankerich, Pages 89-91.)
As Moran of the Lady Letty opened around the country, publicity started to surface about Valentino’s next film. On the same day Moran of the Lady Letty premiered in Los Angeles on February 12, 1922 an example of the early publicity for Beyond the Rocks, which started production in late 1921 and continued during January 1922, appeared in a Houston paper as the publicity cycle revved up toward its May 7 release date.
“The period of Louis XV and the Garden of Versailles as a background form a combination for one of the special scenes in “Beyond the Rocks”…This scene was made on the newly covered big stage at Lasky studio…”
The Houston Post, Houston, Texas. Sunday, February 12, 1922. Page 35.
In the same column Valentino’s next film, Blood and Sand, which was already in production in February 1922, was announced. Note the incorrect name of the leading lady…May McAvoy.
After all the publicity hype and film’s release, the reviews came in. In the next post of this series (Part 4), we’ll explore what the critics, theaters managers and Valentino himself thought of Moran of the Lady Letty….
1. The Sea Wolf. Considered lost. Artcraft Pictures Corporation was created in 1916 to distribute Mary Pickford Film Corporation productions. It was purchased in 1917 by Famous Players-Lasky Productions and by January 1918 was designated as a distribution brand name for Paramount Pictures Corporation. Source: Silent Era, Progressive Silent Film List. Jack London’s 1904 novel story had already been filmed as a short in 1913, again in 1926 (also lost) and many times after the 1920’s. Aside from the director George Melford, another “carry over” from this film to Moran of the Lady Letty was Walter Long, who played “Black” Harris, a Mate. Sources: Wikipedia, The Sea-Wolf (novel) entry and Wikipedia, The Sea Wolf (1920 film) entry.
2. Cappy Ricks. An 18-minute fragment of this film is held in the UCLA Library Film and Television Archive/Silent Fragments. Author Peter B. Kyne wrote four novels featuring the title character Cappy Ricks and would adapt three to the screen. The first in the series, Cappy Ricks: The Subjugation of Matt Peasley was produced first as a Broadway play in 1919. Kyne then adapted the novel into the 1921 film Cappy Ricks. The star, Thomas Meighan, was at one point considered for the lead in The Sheik. In addition to Agnes Ayres, who played the leading lady in The Sheik, another actor with a connection to Rudolph Valentino appeared in the film–John St. Polis, who played the blinded Etienne Laurier, husband of Marguerite Laurier, in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (released in 1921). Lois Wilson, who played Queen Marie of France in Valentino’s Monsieur Beaucaire, appeared in the 1935 Cappy Ricks Returns. In 1937 the series entry entitled The Affairs of Cappy Ricks starred Walter Brennan. (Sources: Silent Era, Progressive Silent Film List, IMDb and Wikipedia, Cappy Ricks entry.
3. On the High Seas. Survival status unknown, probably lost. Dorothy Dalton starred with Jack Holt, another actor who had been considered to play the lead in The Sheik. William Boyd, who became famous later in life as Hopalong Cassidy, also played in the film. Shorts made in 1914 and 1915 with same title, each had different plot lines from each other and the 1922 film. (Sources: Silent Era, Progressive Silent Film List, IMDb and Wikipedia, On the High Seas entry.
4. In what was labeled an “-Avd.” (Advertisement), a theater showing On the High Seas offered a detailed description of how the stormy sea scenes in the film were created. From The Meriden Morning Record (Meriden, Connecticut), Wednesday, November 8, 1922:
5. The big spread in the Coffeyville Daily shown above was not unique to the films of Rudolph Valentino. During the same period, similar items appeared for top actors such as Wallace Reid.
Ankerich, Michael G. Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels: The Lives, Careers, and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2015.
In my first post in this series about this often-overlooked film I discussed the premiere(s) of Moran of the Lady Letty, 100 years ago in February 1922. In this second post of this three-part series I will take a look at the actual story upon which the film is based. You can follow along via the following links:
Monte M. Katterjohn, who had adapted Edith M. Hull’s The Sheik for the screen, was called on to adapt a seafaring novel for Rudolph Valentino’s next film. He had “toned down” The Sheik and also made some minor story line changes/omissions when he adapted that book to the screen, but with Frank Norris’s Moran of the Lady Letty, he not only softened the tone of the story but also made major deletions and other changes to the story to create the film audiences saw then and which we can still enjoy today.
Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Norris, Jr.
March 5, 1870-October 25, 1902
The film was based on a serialized work by Frank Norris, an American journalist and fiction writer who became known for his “naturalistic” works. The site Literary Devices explains how this type of writing was based on the idea that “natural forces predetermine a character’s decisions, making him/her act in a particular way” with human character based on environment (the family, social and environmental experience.) With circumstances viewed as being out of the characters’ control, this type of work started off with a pessimistic view of life. The naturalistic writers such as Norris created very detailed descriptions about the characters and their actions, with the aim of passing no moral judgments on how they acted.
Norris was working for a San Francisco publication, The Wave, as an editorial assistant when he started writing and releasing the story week by week beginning late in 1897. The first of his major works would follow. McTeague, which had not found a publisher at the time Norris dashed off the serial Moran of the Lady Letty, was published in 1899. (McTeague, with the new title Greed, would be filmed in1924 by Erich von Stroheim.) Norris then planned a trilogy, “The Epic of the Wheat“, which dealt with the economic and social forces involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of wheat. The first part, The Octopus (1901), often considered his masterpiece, was followed by The Pit (1903). The third part called Wolf, which was planned to depict American how wheat sent to help famine in a European village, was never written due to Norris’s death at age 32 in 1902. Ironically, Norris died following an operation for appendicitis…much like Rudolph Valentino who would die at age 31 following his operation for a perforated ulcer and the removal of his inflamed appendix. (Source: The Britannica, online)
The story was popular when it was published in book form in 1898, but I have not found Moran of the Lady Letty listed as one of Norris’s major work in any of the basic research I have done, perhaps because the story line doesn’t have “the sweep” of the other novels–after all, it is simply a thrilling story of smuggling between California and a bay in Mexico, a story full of violent events with the addition of a story line about the interaction of a man and woman from very different worlds. But since the time of its publication critics have noted that the work suffered because it was written week by week under the pressure of deadlines and then published as a novel without any revisions or corrections.
In a journal article entitled The Erratic Design of Frank Norris’s “Moran of the Lady Letty,” Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. describes the story as the most “contorted” of any of Norris’s works and the characterization of the title character, Moran Letty Sternersen, as “erratic.” After watching the film then reading the book I would say that that description is almost an understatement because Moran as portrayed in the novel is so different from what I expected; and the change in her behavior is so drastic that it seems to just come out of the blue and is very hard to understand. The film, of course, was an adaptation meant for the entertainment of a mass audience, so the story was turned into a straightforward adventure with romance that results in a happy ending. I would add that while the film’s script is so different from the book in terms of plot line, the characterization of Moran and changes in her behavior don’t seem as extreme when compared to what was presented in the book. So, it seems to me that the film version would have been more in tune with what audiences in the 1920’s expected for a romantic ending on the screen…and even to many watching it today.
I found it fascinating to read the book to see how far the film departs from the original work. What follows are some of the key differences between the novel and the film. Again, all pages from the book cited here are derived from the 1898 edition available at Archive.org.
The Lead Characters Defined
In the journal article cited above, the author quotes a letter written by Norris on March 13, 1898 in which Norris seems to be clear about his characters. He describes Wilbur as being “a mere nit…my game was to make ’em all nits and bring Moran out in full value…Moran is the only excuse for the yarn.” (Page 115)
The novel opens up with a description of “Ross Wilbur” who becomes “Ramon Laredo” in the film, a name change that accommodated Rudolph Valentino’s “Latin” appearance and appeal. In the novel, when Ross Wilbur leaves the afternoon “pink tea” held for Josie Herrick, he is “settling his hat gingerly upon his hair so as not to disturb the parting” in contrast to the “dash and fire” which describes Ramon in the film’s introductory title card:
Dorothy Dalton was given the role of Moran. Dorothy Dalton was already well-established, having worked in stock theater and the vaudeville circuits from 1910 until Thomas Ince convinced her to make films starting in the summer of 1915 (Dalton was quoted in Bizarre Los Angeles saying 1915 rather than the usually cited 1914). She became a top-billed star starting early in her career and by 1921 she had already appeared in nearly 50 films.
Dalton was considered a vivacious beauty in Hollywood and was known for her dimples.
The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pennsylvania
Saturday, January 22, 1922
Dalton cut her hair into a “bobbed” style in an effort to create the image of a young woman molded by a life at sea. However, her appearance was a far cry from how Moran is described in the novel. First, she was much shorter than Valentino’s character, unlike the Moran in the novel. The details of Moran’s appearance are emphasized and repeated throughout the story; after all, Norris, as described earlier, considered her the “only excuse for the yarn.”
Pages 71-72(Wilbur's first chance to look at her after the rescue)...She was not pretty she was too tall for that quite as tall as Wilbur himself, and her skeleton was too massive. Her face was red, and the glint of blue ice was in her eyes. Her eyelashes and eyebrows, as well as the almost imperceptible* down that edged her cheek when she turned against the light, were blonde almost to whiteness. Her hands were red and hard, and even beneath the coarse sleeve of the oilskin coat one could infer that the biceps and deltoids were large and powerful. She was coarse-fibred*, no doubt, mentally as well as physically, but her coarseness, so Wilbur guessed, would prove to be the coarseness of a primitive rather than of a degenerate character. (*as spelled in the book) (my underlined emphasis)
Page 93...her enormous mane of rye-colored hair was braided into long strands near to the thickness of a man's arm. The redness of her face gave a startling effect to her pale blue eyes and sandy, heavy eyebrows, that easily lowered to a frown.
Page 172...Wilbur looked at her with intent curiosity noted again, as if for the first time, the rough, blue overalls thrust into the shoes; the coarse flannel shirt open at the throat;the belt with its sheath-knife; her arms big and white and tattooed in sailor fashion; her thick, muscular neck; her red face, with its pale blue eyes and almost massive jaw; and her hair, her heavy, yellow, fragrant hair, that lay over her shoulder and breast, coiling and looping in her lap. (my underlined emphasis)
Moran Letty Sternersen…
…Not exactly as Frank Norris imagined her…
CHANGES TO THE PLOT
(Sub-sections include: 1: First Scenes…and A Shanghaiing; 2: A Coal Fire and a Girl; 3: Magdalena Bay and the Major Plot Differences; 4: The Different Homecomings; and 5: The Drastically Different Endings)
1. First Scenes…andAShanghaiing
The plot of the film actually starts with an addition to the story line compared to how the the book begins.
The novel begins in Chapter 1 (“Shanghaied”) with Ross Wilbur arriving early at Josie Herrick’s coming out party. He has accepted her bid before receiving an invitation to go out on the Ridgeways’ yacht, the Petrel. He is the only other man there, so over a quick cup of tea, he confirms that Josie will be at that night’s Assembly, they plan out their dance card and he leaves after a short time. He does not complain about being bored or needing to “get away.” He leaves the tea with time to fill before the Assembly at 9 p.m. So, he goes to his club where he finds a message from his “chum”) Jerry who is coming back from a shooting trip, and he decides to go down to the docks to greet Jerry at the boat when his boat arrives. Striking up a conversation with an old seaman needing a light for his pipe, Wilbur offers him a cigar and passes the time with him and then makes the mistake of accepting an invitation to have drinks — and soon he is drugged and shanghaied.
The film has a completely different beginning with additions to the story. First, there is the saccharine opening title card and the two protagonists introduced in their cradles! Then, the film moves on to a Norwegian port to introduce the Fru Letty (The Lady Letty). We see the captain, Moran’s father, on deck and then get our first glimpse of Moran, looking happy, attractive and dressed in a shawl and skirt, smiling and greeting women at the dock before going back on board and changing into her mannish “work clothes.”
Only after this addition to the story are we introduced to Ramon Laredo at the society tea honoring Josie Herrick. Surrounded by fawning women, he is bored and tells her that “At times I feel like chucking this crowd–running away somewhere, just to escape from it all.” (Title Card)
As he leaves the party he accepts Josie’s invitation for a boat excursion on the Herrick yacht a few days later. (In the film, the yacht belongs to the Herrick family, not the Ridgeways.) When the day arrives he’s late getting to the dock and is left behind. In a foreshadowing of Ramon’s being shanghaied, we catch a glimpse of an old seaman on the dock with a pipe (just as we see in the novel), whom Ramon encounters first and who tells him that yacht has already departed. Then the film’s story line adds a meeting on the dock between Moran and Ramon that is not in the book. The Fru Letty has arrived in San Francisco and Moran and her father are going into town when they run into Ramon who still wants to make sure he’s heading the right way to where his party should be waiting. Note that Moran is again wearing a skirt and nice jacket for the trip into town. She IS a girl, after all, and the film emphasizes this fact again. But, she makes a point of make a mocking comment about Ramon to her father…which reinforces the Moran’s confidence in her seafaring abilities and clearly contrasts the Moran and Ramon characters for audiences.
After this chance meeting on the dock plays out, the film returns to the story line in the novel in — a friendly visit to a dockside bar for a drink results in the shanghaiing of the film’s leading man…Ramon.
2. A Coal Fire and a Girl
Once shanghaied, Wilbur gets integrated into life on Kitchell’s smuggling ship (Chapter 2–“A Nautical Education”) as does Ramon in the film, and although both versions of the character are tagged as “Lilee of the Valee” by Kitchell, soon both Wilbur/Ramon characters begin to become useful members of the crew.
The film continues with the exciting sequence that starts with the discovery of a coal fire in the hold of the Fru Letty (henceforth referred to as the Lady Letty). As the crew abandons the ship in fear of an explosion, Moran watches them (“You cowardly dogs!” — Title Card) and then goes down into the hold to discover her father overcome by coal gas…and she is also overcome on the stairs. Then, at “the grim dawn for ships that have passed in the night” (Title Card), Kitchell’s schooner, (called The Heart of China in the film), sees the Lady Letty and his chance for loot. Boarding the ship, Kitchell (played by Walter Lord) and Ramon see the smoking coal in the hold and a crew member “loco” from the coal gas — and Ramon carries the victim up to the deck where he discovers “It’s a girl!” Worried about her fate at the hands of the crew he carries her to a dinghy and gets her back to Kitchell’s ship while Kitchell begins looting the Lady Letty‘s captain’s quarters. However, explosions begin and he hastily leaves the ship and heads back to his boat. In the meantime, Ramon gets Moran below deck and reveals Moran to the the ship’s cook (later called Chopstick Charlie) who warns Ramon that Kitchell better not find out about Moran. So, they hide her in a cabin just as Kitchell comes back on board.
Of course, Kitchell finally sees Moran:
Moran emerges, Kitchell sees her for the first time…and the leering begins…
Dinner follows and Ramon reminds Moran that they have met before and she realizes who he is and teases him about his “minstrel clothes” and wonders how he wound up on Kitchell’s boat. The truth is deflected by Kitchell with Ramon going along with the deception. Later that night, Kitchell sneaks into Moran’s cabin, is spotted by Charlie the cook, who alerts the rest of the crew; meanwhile, Ramon hears noise in Moran’s cabin, knocks and peers inside but doesn’t see Kitchell hiding behind the door. But Charlie has alerted the crew and they rush to see Kitchell outside the door and Charlie confirms to Ramon that Kitchell has gone inside. With a warning from the crew not to cause problems which could affect their financial stakes in the voyage, Kitchell makes an excuse about simply wanting to see that she is properly “tucked in” which is met with Ramon calling him out on the lie. In this scene Valentino acts with his hands, with his fists clenching and unclenching in close-ups as he instincts hone in on Kitchell’s actions and excuses. But, for now, Moran is safe from the advances of the lecherous Kitchell.
Kitchell confronted and warned…
But, while this sequence in the film is exciting, the novel unfolds in a very different way.
In Chapter 3 (“The Lady Letty”) of the novel, after a coal fire disables the Lady Letty, the boat (which is described as “a bark”), is spotted by Captain Kitchell who is running smuggling and pirating operations with a mostly Chinese crew from his schooner, named the Bertha Millner in the novel. He and his crew board the bark and discover her dead captain (Moran’s father). They also discover a young, dazed member of the crew who is still alive. As he helps what he thinks is a youth up to the top deck, Wilbur realizes that “It’s a girl!” (Page 69)
At the start of the Chapter IV (“Moran”), Kitchell orders Wilbur to take what he thinks is a young man back to his ship and tells him to return to him with axes so he can plunder the Lady Letty. Kitchell retrieves the Lady Letty‘s personal and ownership papers (Pages 79-81) and the reader finds out that Moran is 22 years old. Wilbur’s initial excitement over the money to be made from the plunder is just as great as Kitchell’s until he remembers the survivor he has taken off the bark. He realizes that the bark is not really derelict and tries to discuss the fact that there may be a survivor with ownership stakes. But he has to give in to Kitchell when he’s directed to hide the papers back on the Bertha Millner. Before Wilbur leaves the bark for good, they conduct the “dreadful business” of disposing of Captain Sternersen’s body. Wilbur is sickened to the point of vomiting as he witnesses the treatment of the dead Captain Sternersen’s corpse and its gruesome end in the water as it is devoured in a shark feeding frenzy. Wilbur then goes back to the schooner, leaving Kitchell behind on the Lady Letty to “gut this old pill-box from stem to stem-post before I leave.” (Page 87)
Back on the Bertha Millner, while Wilbur debates over what to do about Moran, a sudden squall descends and the schooner is in danger of going down. For the first time, Wilbur sees the power of Moran as she recovers from her stupor and leaps into action:
Page 91..."And you call ourselves sailor men! Are you going to drown like rats on a plank?" A voice that Wilbur did not know went ringing through that horrid shouting of wind and sea like the call of a bugle. He turned to see Moran, the girl of the Lady Letty, standing erect upon the quarterdeck, holding down the schooner's wheel. The confusion of that dreadful moment, that had paralyzed the crew's senses, had brought back hers. She was herself again, savage, splendid, dominant, superb in her wrath at their weakness, their cowardice.
Moran saves Kitchell’s ship, but the Lady Letty rolls over and capsizes in the squall.
"Of the Lady Letty and the drunken beach-combing Captain not a trace remained. Kitchell had gone down with his prize." (Pages 93-94)
So, the villainous Kitchell is dead by the end of Chapter 4...BUT he lives on in the film!
3. Magdalena Bay and the Major Plot Differences
At this point in the novel, Moran becomes the driving force of the story. After saving the ship Moran takes command of the Bertha Millner. It is Moran who steers the ship to Mexico (Magdalena Bay) to hunt sharks. Chapter 5 entitled “A Girl Captain“ (starting on Page 95) describes the hunt and how Wilbur sees Moran at this point in the story:
"The more he saw of her the more he knew himself to have been right in his first estimate. She drank whiskey after her meals, and when angry, which was often, swore like a buccaneer. As yet she was almost, as one might say, without sex savage, unconquered, untamed, glorying in her own independence, her sullen isolation."(Page 104)
The script of the film recounting the time in Mexico is drastically altered from events in the book.
In the film version, there is no evidence on any shark hunting. Captain Kitchell has not been drowned, and he is the captain who sails down to Mexico to deliver a load of guns to his “partner” Poncho and his band of Mexican brigands. Poncho offers Kitchell a “wench” but Kitchell rejects her. Charlie the cook overhears Kitchell plotting to pass along Moran to Poncho and when Poncho asks him how his crew will react, Kitchell reveals that he wants to get rid of the crew: The title card reads:“I want to lose that crew anyway–we’ll throw ’em to the sharks when we go out to unload the ship tonight.”
Kitchell’s ship’s cook, called “Chopstick Charlie” in the film, barters for the wench’s dress…he has plans…which are not in the novel!
Of course, in the book there is no Poncho or his gang, no wench or Kitchell’s cook thinking about romance between Moran and Wilbur.
But, meanwhile in the film, Ramon and Moran have decided to go to shore while Kitchell is meeting with Poncho and here we see Ramon’s tentative attempts to tell Moran how he feels about her, only to be rebuffed, in an sweetly awkward sequence, with the rather shy Moran telling the smitten Ramon that…
“…I could never care for a man–I’m not made for men” (Title card)
“I ought to have been born a boy.” (Title card)
What’s clear is that the time in Mexico in the film is setting the stage for romance and Moran is not really in a state of “sullen isolation” as she is in the novel. Rather than being the “Viking” of the novel, Moran in the film is full of spunk and tom boyishness, but with a rather sweet and shy side to her personality–she is not overly masculine unlike the Moran depicted in the book.Ramon has very little time to be disappointed because Charlie runs to the beach to warn him and Moran about Kitchell’s plans and all three hastily return to the ship to prepare for Kitchell and his gang’s assault. Ramon organizes the defense and as the attack unfolds, Kitchell is knocked down and falls down into the hold of the ship, where he remains hidden…
But this is not what happens in the novel…
From Pages 139-221, over four chapters comprising about one-third of the book, the story descends into violence; actions by Moran that mirror some of the worst aspects of Kitchell; and the author’s ugly racist descriptions of Chinese characters. The chapters are : Chapter 7 (“Beachcombers”), Chapter 8 (“A Run for Land”), Chapter 9 (“The Capture of Hoang“), and Chapter 10 (“A Battle“). This is how the action unfolds in each chapter…
Chapter 7–“Beachcombers”: In the previous chapter, the Bertha Millner‘s Chinese crew escapes from the ship taking the only dory to head for the shore to make camp. As they face the task of trying to sail the ship alone, Moran and Wilbur spot a Chinese junk at the entrance to Magdalena Bay. As Chapter 7 opens, Norris describes the crew of the junk as true “beachcombers,” otherwise known as “scavengers, ” which Wilbur remembers Kitchell calling “the wickedest breed of cats that ever cut teeth.” (Pages 140-141) The blatant racism of attitudes toward the Chinese at this time (late 19th-early 20th century) is shockingly clear in the way Wilbur describes them:
They were the lowest type of men Wilbur had ever seen. The faces were those of a higher order of anthropoid apes: the lower portion- jaws, lips, and teeth salient; the nostrils opening at almost right angles, the eyes tiny and bright, the forehead seamed and wrinkled unnaturally old. Their general expression was one of simian cunning and a ferocity that was utterly devoid of courage.
The beachcombers have come across a dead whale and ask for help handling the carcass and agree to give Moran and Wilbur one-third of their prize; Moran does the math — a barrel of oil worth $50, a barrel of spermaceti worth $100 — mean a lot of money. She positions the Bertha Millner along side the whale and the junk’s crew scramble over the deck as they work to strip the whale of its blubber, oil, spermaceti, and bone: “they swarmed the forward deck and rigging like a plague of unclean monkeys, climbing with an agility and nimbleness that made Wilbur sick to his stomach. They were unlike any Chinamen he had ever seen–hideous to a degree that he had imagined impossible in a human being.” (Pages 145-146)
As the work winds down on the third day, the captain of the junk, Hoang, comes on board the schooner and is true to his word–he has already set aside the agreed to share: 10 barrels of oil, 3 1/2 barrels of spermaceti, and 20 pounds of bone. Hoang goes back to the junk, only 40 feet away, and as Moran and Wilbur are working to cut the carcass free, Wilbur notices a sweet smelling lump — the rare find, ambergris — and, Moran orders him to get it on the ship before the “Chinamen” see it. But it’s too late and Hoang and his crew swim to the schooner demanding their share, which Wilbur does understand to be a logical request. However, Moran claims the find as her own, at that moment becoming as unscrupulous as Kitchell would have been and a fight ensues, with Hoang making off with the entire lump. Wilbur has been cut with a hatchet during the fighting and is bleeding heavily but Moran has other things on her mind…their boat is sinking.
Chapter 8–“A Run For Land”: While waiting for the end in shark-infested waters Moran and Wilbur begin musing about the time they’ve spent together. This is when Moran talks about their being “A strange pair to die together” and how they “could have lived together” (Pages 164-165) and Wilbur rhapsodizes about the weeks at sea and how “I may as well say it—I love you more that I imagined I could love a girl.” (Obviously, this dialogue occurs in a much different scene in the film — waiting for an attack from Kitchell’s gang near the end of that story line.) Moran, of course, rebuffs him and on Page 166 declares, “I could never love a man. I’m not made for men.”
All this goes on as the two are on a foundering ship, not during earlier described the beach scene depicted in the film.
But instead of drowning on a sinking ship, Moran manages to keep the ship afloat, helped by empty barrels used to store oil that have floated up to the roof of the hold which act as buoys until she safely grounds the boat. They sleep on the beach and Wilbur talks himself out of any thoughts of kissing her (Page 175). The next morning, they find a leak that they repair and as they prepare to sail on, Charlie and the ship’s crew return, wanting to go home and afraid of the Hoang’s gang of beachcombers still on shore. Just as Charlie and the crew return, they spot the junk as it heaves in the water and sinks.
Chapter 9–“The Capture of Hoang”: Moran, convinced that Hoang’s gang will want to take the Bertha Millner and their “loot,” decides it’s time to fight the beachcombers on land. Moran aims to take back the ambergris and all of Hoang’s share. Wilbur wonders if they have a right to take it all and Moran explodes in anger. She wants all of it and she dominates…and Wilbur feels “ashamed of himself and proud of her.” (Pages 190-192) Moran and the crew go onto the shore and face the beachcombers. Suddenly, there is a melee and Hoang is captured. (Page 195-196) And Wilbur notices the change coming over Moran:
“…lapsing back to the eighth century again…to the Vikings, the sea-wolves, the berserkers…”
Moran then tortures Hoang, by tying his jaw shut around a file that had been brought from the ship showing that she can be as harsh as Kitchell was earlier during the disposal of the body of Moran’s father:
“…The hideous rasp of the operation turned Wilbur’s blood cold within him. He looked away…”
But the battle isn’t over. Moran and her crew track the beachcombers and finally come upon them…
Chapter 10–“A Battle”: A vicious battle now ensues and Wilbur takes another hatchet wound this time to his leg and then kills his attacker, and “the primitive man, the half-brute of the stone age, leaped to life” within him… Never had he conceived of such savage exultation as that which mastered him at that instant. The knowledge that he could kill filled him with a sense of power that was veritably royal. He felt physically larger.” (Pages 214-215) At the same time, Moran “with a voice hoarse from shouting, she sang, rather chanted, in her long-forgotten Norse tongue, fragments of old sagas, words, and sentences meaningless even to herself.”
And then Moran “lapsed back to the Vikings…Brunhilde again,… a bersirker (sic),…deaf to all reason” (Page 216) and begins fighting Wilbur. And, he, in turn, already excited by the combat with the beachcombers, fights her “as against some impersonal force that it was incumbent upon him to conquer–that it was imperative he should conquer if he wished to live…it was her will, her splendid independence, that he set himself to conquer.” (Page 218) She fights him to his knees twice, he punches her between the eyes, but it makes no difference….Wilbur “knew that the combat was deadly serious and that more than life was at stake. Moran despised a weakling.” (Page 219)
And this is where the literary critics and this reader find that the story goes off the rails. Wilbur eventually pins Moran down, plants a knee on her chest and “suddenly Moran gave up, relaxing in his grasp all in a second, and, to his great surprise, suddenly smiled.” She has not shown any signs of affection toward Wilbur up until this point and then she declares “I’m as weak as a kitten” and admits that he has “conquered” her, “and shaking him by the shoulder, confesses — ‘and, mate, do you know, I love you for it.'” (Pages 220-221) You can read the how the whole transformation below in the slideshow.
In the film, after Ramon pulls Moran off one of the attackers and she continues her blind pummeling and after a few moments, she has a “swoon of recognition” before falling into Ramon’s arms, who never punches here between the eyes! She isn’t exactly a “berserker” as depicted in the novel–there are no title cards with “fragments of Norse sagas” being uttered by “Brunhilde.”
Chapter 11–“A Change of Leader”: This chapter opens with the emphasis of Wilbur’s new found strength and how he is now in command… “All that was strong and virile and brutal in him seemed to harden and stiffen” since he had killed. (Page 222) They come across Charlie and the rest of their crew…Charlie, trampled in the sand, has a bullet wound. As they get him back to the beachcomber’s dory for the trip back to their schooner, they find the almost-forgotten ambergris and Moran revels in that fact that they are now rich. (Pages 224-227) Moran then worries about Charlie having been drawn into the battle and Wilbur is amazed: “Where was the reckless, untamed girl of the previous night, who had sworn at him and denounced his niggling misgivings as to the right and wrong?” (Page 228)
The positions of the two were reversed. It was Wilbur who assumed control and direction of what went forward, Moran taking his advice and relying upon his judgment. (Page 229)
Wilbur and Moran decide not to leave the defeated Hoang behind because he most likely will be killed as he has “lost face” in defeat and Moran has had enough of “all the fighting and killing.” (Page 234) At this point, Moran returns to her expressions of love and submission on Page 238 that leave Wilbur “suddenly smitten with awe at the sacredness of the obligation thus imposed on him.” (Page 239)
Mate, be good to me, and always be kind to me. I'm not Moran any more. I'm not proud and strong and independent, and I don't want to be lonely. I want you I want you always with me. I'm just a woman now, dear--just a woman that loves you with a heart she's just found." Wilbur could find no words to answer. There was something so pathetic and at the same time so noble in Moran's complete surrender of herself, and her dependence upon him, her unquestioned trust in him and his goodness,...(Page 238)
“Whimpering femininity” really does say it all…and yes, it is “bathetic”–full of overdone emotional self-pity and sentimentality, for sure! And, at least for a moment, Wilbur has exalted in the power of knowing that he can kill and “feels larger.”
After the battle Charlie dies quietly after requesting his desires for his funeral; but in the film the dramatic deathbed scene revolves around the dress he had acquired from the wench and which he now offers to Moran…and which she wears from then on until the film ends…transformation complete! (Of course, she’s worn a skirt at the start of the film, but no matter!)
…because “no mak-um love in pants”…and that deathbed gesture may be the truly most “bathetic” moment in the film! …and it isn’t in the book…
And then the title cards tell us they are “Homeward bound” with no more troubles with Moran having learned about what really matters…and they finally see land. But Kitchell remains hidden and fortifying himself with food and drink from the ship’s stores…
4. THE DIFFERENT HOMECOMINGS
As Moran and Ramon are gazing at the land, the film cuts to the Herrick yacht sailing into San Diego harbor for the next night’s ball.
Just as in the novel, the Wilbur/Ramon character reunites with Josie who hopes he has come back to her and he tries to explain to his friends how he’s changed. This visit to land will be the only trip Ramon makes in the film versus the multiple trips made in the novel.
“Chapter 12– “New Conditions”: This chapter of the novel opens with a description of the Coronado Hotel’s season of festivities and the arrival of The Petrel, Nat Ridgeway’s yacht, a few days before and how he will be leading Josie Herrick at the cotillion planned in her honor. Wilbur goes ashore to “call his people” and Wilbur meets up with his friends again, including Jerry, at the hotel, and the party guests treat him like a hero…and film shows the return with the same excitement as it is presented in the book. However, there is quite a difference in how Wilbur/Ramon are presented…and I wonder if Valentino would have relished making up to look as disheveled as the character in the novel!
Pages 253-254…And the hero of the occasion, the centre of all this enthusiasm thus carried as if in triumph into this assembly in evening dress, in white tulle and whiter kid, odorous of delicate sachets and scarce-perceptible perfumes was a figure unhandsome and unkempt beyond description. His hair was long, and hanging over his eyes. A thick, uncared-for beard concealed the mouth and chin. He was dressed in a Chinaman’s blouse and jeans the latter thrust into slashed and tattered boots. The tan and weatherbeatings of nearly half a year of the tropics were spread over his face; a partly healed scar disfigured one temple and cheek-bone; the hands, to the very finger-nails, were gray with grime; the jeans and blouse and boots were fouled with grease, with oil, with pitch, and all manner of the dirt of an uncared-for ship…And as the dancers of the cotillion pressed about and a hundred kid-gloved hands stretched toward his own palms, there fell from Wilbur’s belt upon the waxed floor of the ballroom the knife he had so grimly used in the fight upon the beach, the ugly stains still blackening on the haft.
In the book Wilbur is more adamant about how he’s changed than Ramon is in the film. Wilbur even expresses contempt for his friends’ plans for another cotillion for him, which they say will be the “event of the season.” As much as Wilbur insists he wants a different life, Jerry tells that he doesn’t think his friend will abandon his old life for good and Wilbur decides not to discuss his relationship with Moran because he doesn’t think his friend can ever understand his feelings. Wilbur wants to get back to the schooner and doesn’t hear Jerry call out that he’ll visit him on what he thinks is Wilbur’s “yacht.” Back on the schooner he tells Moran that he’s anxious to get away and onto the next adventure. The next morning, just as they are preparing to start out to complete the business of bringing the body of Charlie home and cashing in their “loot,” they are surprised by Jerry and Josie, who arrive and want to see the “yacht.” (This visit also occurs in the film, but, again, the yacht is identified as belonging to Josie Herrick’s family, rather than it belonging to the Ridgeways.) Needless to say, they are shocked by the filthy, smelly ship and crew. Wilbur is also uncomfortable with their arrival as he “gasped” and muttered “desperately” as he helped them aboard. (Page 264) The chapter ends with a bewildered Josie being introduced by Wilbur to a “surprised” Moran:
"It was long before the picture left Wilbur's imagination. Josie Herrick, petite, gowned in white, crisp from her maid's grooming; and Moran, sea-rover and daughter of an hundred Vikings, towering above her, booted and belted, gravely clasping Josie's hand in her own huge fist. (Page 266-267)
5. The Drastically Different Endings
In the novel...Doubts and Death
Chapter 13–“Moran Sternersen”: In this chapter of the book Ross Wilbur starts to have doubts — and the film begins to take another big deviation from the novel. After Jerry and Josie depart, Wilbur and Moran finally head toward San Francisco, eventually mooring a few miles from the city — both wanting to keep their “loot” safe, Wilbur wanting to avoid the publicity of his return, and Moran “detesting any nearer approach to civilization.”
"...the distant sight of the city of San Francisco, Nob, Telegraph, Russian, and Kincon hills, all swarming with buildings and grooved with streets; even the land locked harbor fretted her. Wilbur could see she felt imprisoned, confined. When he had pointed out the Palace Hotel to her a vast gray cube in the distance, overtopping the surrounding roofs she had sworn under her breath. "And people can live there, good heavens! Why not rabbit-burrows, and be done with it? Mate, how soon can we be out to sea again? I hate this place." (Page 274)(my underlined emphasis)
When Wilbur goes ashore for the first time in the novel, his first stop is at the Lifeboat Station where he meets Captain Hodgson on duty. He’s already heard about the arrival of the Bertha Millner as the news has traveled from San Diego and, when asked, Wilbur gives Hodgson only a selective information regarding Kitchell. Hodgson has also picked up news about Moran…
When Wilbur's business was done, and he was making ready to return to the schooner, Hodgson remarked suddenly:"Hear you've got a strapping fine girl aboard with you. Where did you fall in with her?"; and he winked and grinned.
Wilbur started as though struck, and took himself hurriedly away; but the man's words had touched off in his brain a veritable mine of conjecture. Moran in Magdalena Bay was consistent, congruous, and fitted into her environment. But how -- how was Wilbur to explain her to San Francisco, and how could his behavior seem else than ridiculous to the men of his club and to the women whose dinner invitations he was wont to receive? (Page 276) (my underlined emphasis)
Wilbur needs to walk: “Like most men, Wilbur had to walk when he was thinking hard. He sent the dory back to the schooner with word to Moran that he would take a walk around the beach and return in an hour or two.” (Page 277) All the memories of the experiences he has had come rushing back…
Then, suddenly, a cold wind comes up and a storm seems close and then — “Wilbur rose to his feet, and saw the Bertha Millner, close in, unbridled and free as a runaway horse, headed directly for the open sea, and rushing on with all the impetus of wind and tide!” (Page 280)
And then in Chapter 14 entitled “The Ocean is Calling You” the shocking ending occurs! Left behind on the Bertha Millner, Moran allows the crew, mostly coolies, to go ashore, not worried about them as she expects a new crew to come on in a few days. Hoang rows them to the shore, but then comes back to the ship. Moran is surprised to see him — but Hoang says he’ll stay and cook for her and stay on watch. He has been “very useful” and “in fact, obsequiousness itself, and seemed to be particularly desirous of gaining the good-will of the Bertha s officers.” (Page 282) Hoang busies himself on deck, eyes the shore, which is about four miles away, for signs of activity, then goes down below to his “ditty box” and moment later, goes into Moran’s cabin and shuts the door behind him (Pages 282-283):
Hoang grabs the gunny bags holding the ambergris, rigs the boat so it will wrench free in the wind, swings himself into the dory with his treasure and rows back to the wharf…and “Two hours later, Hoang was lost in San Francisco’s Chinatown.” (Page 286)
The novel jumps back to Wilbur who, seeing the schooner being pushed out to sea by the storm, is gripped by a “sense of calamity.” Just then Hodgson rides up and delivers the stunning news (See the slideshow below, Pages 287-289):
Wilbur runs to the top of the old harbor fort and as the schooner runs toward the sea,
"passing not one hundred yards from him, he saw Moran lying on the deck, saw Moran lying upon the deck with outstretched arms and calm, up turned face; lying upon the deck of that lonely fleeing schooner as upon a bed of honor, still and calm, her great braids smooth upon her breast, her arms wide; alone with the sea: alone in death as she had been in life. She passed out of his life as she had come into it alone, upon a derelict ship, abandoned to the sea." (Page 291)
As the schooner sweeps by Wilbur calls out…
…Fainter and fainter she grew, vanished, reappeared, was heaved up again a mere speck upon the western sky a speck that dwindled and dwindled, then slowly melted away into the gray of the horizon.
I have to admit that I gasped when I read the ending and I’m wagering that it would have made a great ending for a film! However, the setup in the film has been headed toward a romantic, happy ending from the start.
And in the film…
Although the Moran in the film shows no aversion to civilization on the docks of Norway or San Francisco, she does decide to stay behind as Ramon goes ashore and waits with some nervousness as she waits for Ramon to return — will he?
At this point, Kitchell emerges from his hiding place below deck and finds Moran, sitting with her head down with apprehension…and he begins to attack her. Luckily, Ramon has just returned to the ship and he hears Moran screaming for help, with the title card dialogue only slightly different from the words in the novel — but words said in a totally different context:
“Help, mate! — oh, mate, where are you?”
Ramon rushes down below deck and confronts Kitchell, the fight begins and, like a true damsel in distress, Moran hangs back to watch and then follows as the fight moves back up to the deck and then up into the ship’s rigging. As the fight reaches it’s final stages, Moran seems to think that it is Ramon who has ultimately fallen into the water.
Of course, Ramon has prevailed and Moran tells him “Oh mate – I thought I’d lost you!” (Title Card) and the two embrace–but no kiss yet! First, the film has to reinforce that Ramon has definitely decided to leave his old life which is accomplished by a cut to a quick scene of the cotillion that Ramon won’t be attending. Then, as Ramon and Moran gaze at each other, the crew returns and seem a bit embarrassed by it all — the “Lillee of the Vallee” monicker that was so derisive when uttered by Kitchell now seems to be delivered with more of good-natured acceptance without any hint of hostility…just a wink and a nod. Finally, the film has to make sure the audience knows that finally Moran is now really “a girl” — so Moran’s declaration that being a girl is a good thing is blunt and to the point.
And then comes the long-awaited kiss (with a quick cut to the crew gazing up with smiles)…and the audience knows Moran and Ramon will sail off together.
So…how does the film stack up against the novel? The novel is very exciting and grabs the reader. But, the shift in Moran’s character really is very sudden. At the same time the character of Wilbur, who will become Ramon in the film, is very interesting and fully delineated through his thoughts. Overall, I would recommend fans of the film read the book!
As for the film…well, it’s enjoyable, well-acted and the ship scenes are authentic and exciting. And, the script makes no bones about the fact that romance is in the air right from the beginning and so the changes in Moran seem to flow a bit better than in the novel. The villains are real villains, there is some comic relief, Dorothy Dalton as Moran is appealing and Valentino as Ramon — well, he is athletic and it’s nice to see him in a more natural look. I can only speak for myself, but I think many today — one hundred years later — might react to Valentino’s performance in his first film role after The Sheik the same way female audiences did in 1922…because Rudolph Valentino is as handsome and charismatic on the deck of a ship as he is on a horse wearing Arab robes!
Part 3 of this series about Moran of the Lady Letty will be looking at how the film was made, reviews and and delve into the question of who was actually on that ship’s rigging?
Kitchell’s full name–Captain Alvinza Kitchell– is revealed by Kitchell himself as he describes himself a “beachcomber/scavenger” and a “hog right through” in Chapter 3 (The Lady Letty) of the novel on Pages 60- 61.
2. Ambergris –A rare, waxy substance found in the gut of of sperm whales, used in making perfumes for centures, as well as in medicine and even as an edible delicacy. For an excellent history of ambergris, see A Brief, Fascinating History of Ambergris in the September 2, 2021 edition of Smithsonian Magazine online.
3. When the serial was finally published in book form, the dedication was to Captain Joseph Hodgson of the United States Life Saving Service. In Chapter 13 the character of the Lifeboat Station captain, was based on the real Captain Joseph Hodgson.
McElrath, Joseph R. “The Erratic Design of Frank Norris’s ‘Moran of the Lady Letty.’” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, vol. 10, no. 2, University of Illinois Press, 1977, pp. 114–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27745787
Norris, Frank. Moran of the Lady Letty; a story of adventure off the California coast. New York, Doubleday & McClure Co., 1898. Available at Archive.org.
One hundred years ago Moran of the Lady Letty, a seafaring tale based on a story by Frank Norris, had its “World Premiere” on Sunday, February 12, 1922–even though the film had already opened in New York City the previous week on February 5.
A short description of the film appeared with the above ad:
Although the ad in the Los Angeles paper presents Rudolph Valentino ahead of co-star Dorothy Dalton, this would not be the case in all the advertising that appeared in newspapers as the film arrived in different venues across the country. For example, below is an ad from The Miami Herald, Miami, Florida which appeared on Sunday, March 19, 1922 (Page 10):
The same graphics in ads would be adapted to different programs in different cities as well. Below on the left is an ad from a paper in El Paso, Texas from February 1922, which is part of my collection. On the right, the ad is changed for local publicity in a Bristol, Tennessee paper for an April showing of the film. In one ad, Valentino is given the top/equal billing, in the other, he is listed as being part of a “Great Supporting Cast.”
From my collection: Clipping from an unknown El Paso, Texas newspaper, February 1922.
This film began production during the last week of September 1921 with the finishing interior work still going on into early November (Arkansas Democrat, Little Rock, Sunday, November 1, 1921. Page 6). The Sheik would be pre-released in Los Angeles on October 30, with the New York premiere on November 6 and nationwide release on November 20. While The Sheik may be the film that is most closely tied to Valentino’s legacy, Moran of the Lady Letty represents an attempt to modify a persona that was already a topic of discussion as shown in the last sentence of the small publicity piece which accompanied the ad for the Los Angeles premiere. I’ll be delving into more details about the story (which is very different than what is presented in the film), the stars, the reviews and production details in posts which will be coming soon…
At some theaters across the U.S. and Canada, the presentation of The Sheik was accompanied by a “prologue” before the film was shown. Music, singing, desert scenes–all were presented to put the audience in the mood for the film. But one prologue went drastically wrong…
At the New York premiere on November 6 at the Rialto at Times Square, Manhattan, several opening features entertained the audience. In the review by Harriet Underhill carried in the New YorkTribune the next day, a description of the program was included.
Out in Calgary, Canada, a scene “showing a tent in the desert” was offered at the Capitol Theater.
“A tent in the desert; a very pleasing baritone …”
The Calgary Daily Herald, Tuesday, November 29, 1921. Page 8
On the same day, in Winnipeg, Canada, at another Capitol Theater, the prologue furnished “a realistic scene from the very heart of the hot, sand-covered desert, with colorful lighting effects playing its whole gamut of glitter upon it. The curtains part with the sun partially clouded….”
“The colorful background changes into many pleasing hues, the glitter of all vanishing with the opening scenes of the feature.”
The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, Tuesday, November 29, 1921. Page 10
In both theaters, a song titled “Till the Sands of the Desert Grow Cold” was presented, This was a popular song composed in 1911. There are several renditions on Youtube, but this video by Tim Grayck which features a 1912 recording by Donald Chambers also has lyrics to follow along with to about Minute 1:30 and really gives a sense of what audiences going to see The Sheik may have experienced. Here is a link to the full lyrics for the song, which was composed in 1911.
These spectacular introductions to The Sheik certainly got the audience in the mood for the film…but, on the first day of “Sheik Week” a terrible tragedy occurred in New Haven, Connecticut that evening of November 27, 1921.
As the late newspaper editions hit the streets, the headlines revealed the the evolving story of horror.
According to The New York Tribune, the frame building was already 100 years old. It had been a church before it was sold to Yale University and was used as an auditorium and music school for 20 years. One story said that the building was altered for use as a movie theater six years before The Sheik was booked for that night.
There was different reporting on how and where the fire started– from an ember from an incense lamp in front of the screen (The New York Tribune) or from a flash from the left wing of the stage which set the curtain a blaze (Daily News). The difference is understandable as the scene would soon turn into chaos. The incense lamp seems to be the most likely scenario given The New York Tribune background report:
The New York Tribune,
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2
One hundred Yale students, some of whom became victims of the fire, were in the audience and they tried to urge order, but exits were blocked. People were trampled and many in the balcony were trapped as flames moved from the proscenium arch of the stage and climbed rails and onto the seats. People in the balcony jumped down onto those below who were trying to escape. The New York Evening News reported that many children were in the audience and parents were injured as they tried to lift them above the mass of flailing bodies surrounding them. People already standing in the lobby waiting for the second show were pushed back into the street as a rush of people tried to escape through the house doors of the theater. The walls caught fire and flames swept to the side where there was one window which opened on to the fire escape, which was the site of a horrific scene:
“…charred beyond identification…”
Daily News, New York, New York
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 1
Although every piece of firefighting equipment in New Haven reportedly rushed to the scene, the Rialto was completely destroyed, along with the Hyperion theater building at the rear.
“…The fire burned for more than two hours and a half…”
Daily News, New York, New York
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2
Lawrence R. Carroll, the manager of the theater and his assistant, James Carter, were initially detained by authorities but were released on their own recognizance (The New York Evening World, November 28, 1921, Page 8). The Final Edition of the Daily News reported that the coroner was prepared to issue manslaughter charges against Carroll (Monday, November 28, 1921, Page 2).
1. The Prizma Color system, according to Wikipedia, “was a color motion picture process, invented in 1913 by William Van Doren Kelley and Charles Raleigh.
2. The New York Evening World from November 28, 1921 carried another film-related story right next to the New Haven theater fire headlines along with a full banner across the top of the paper. That story was titled “Arbuckle In His Own Defense Goes On Stand And Gives His Version of Actress’s Death.” It’s a story still remembered to this day, unlike the fatal New Haven fire.
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 Valentinoat the Regentand 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 Regentand That’s That!“
The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1921. Page 31
While The WitchitaEagle 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.
SCROLL DOWN TO FIND INFORMATION ABOUT THE NEW BLU-RAY ANNIVERSARY RELEASE OF “THE SHEIK” COMING ON NOVEMBER 2, 2021!
The Wednesday, October 26, 1921 edition of the Los Angeles Evening Express inadvertently presented a snapshot of the “before” of Rudolph Valentino’s career as the motion picture world awaited the premiere of the film version of Edith M. Hull’s wildly popular novel The Sheik. Page 29 had three items–2 short announcements and one advertisement–that summed up the state of Valentino’s status up until the film was shown. The announcement of the arrival of Nazimova’s Camille focused on how Nazimova was adding her modern interpretation of the play to the long history the history other actresses in the role. Another ad for The Affairs of Anatol included a notice that the next coming attraction at the Rialto would be The Sheik. The third item was the full announcement about how a special arrangement was made to present The Sheik a month ahead of general release as producers were anxious to have the reaction in Los Angeles, the film industry company town.
First “Western” Showing October 30, 2021. No mention of Rudolph Valentino in the role of Camille’s lover Armand Duval…it was all about Nazimova.
Agnes Ayres played Annie Elliot, a thieving farmer’s wife who becomes one of Anatol’s “affairs”.
“The Sheik” was the next coming attraction in the ad…
Producers wanted favorable “expert” opinion of the LA public to bolster the later nationwide release.The film premiered on November 6 in New York and released nationwide on November 20, 1921 (not the 25th as initially reported in this article).
Nazimova’s production of Camille had been introduced at a reception and special preview showing at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City on Wednesday, September 7. She traveled to New York to attend the event, along with her set/costume designer Natacha Rambova and her leading man Valentino, who were now a couple. After spending some more time in New York (Nazimova attended nearly every play on the boards at the time), the party left New York on September 18 to return to Los Angeles. Distribution of the film began on September 26, 1921, with a “Western” premiere planned in Los Angeles for Sunday, October 30, 2021.
Meanwhile, The Affairs of Anatol was ending its run at Grauman’s Rialto and a notice for the coming attraction of The Sheik was included in the final ads of the run. Agnes Ayres, who played Annie Elliot in The Affairs of Anatol and a fellow cast mate, Ruth Miller, who had played an uncredited role as a maid named name Marie, would both appear in The Sheik–Ayres in the lead role of Lady Diana Mayo and Miller as Zilah, the serving girl attending Lady Diana in the film. And, although Valentino’s paramour Rambova thought Hull’s novel was trash, she would appear in an uncredited role as an “Arabian Dancer.”
On Sunday, October 30, 1921, both Camille and The Sheik premiered in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Times, Sunday, October 30, 1921, Page 61.
Camille opens at the California Theatre
A large, approx. quarter-page ad for the film (much reduced in size!) Note the small credit given to Valentino at the bottom of the ad.
Ad in the Los Angeles Evening Express, Monday, October 31, 1921, Page 25 after The Sheik premiere on Sunday, October 30, 1921.
The top billing for Ayres in The Sheik may also have been helped along by the fact that she was involved in a long-term affair with her married boss, Jesse Lasky, head of Paramount. She had started at Vitagraph in New York, but had been brought to Hollywood by Jesse Lasky sometime in 1920 to film a Civil War story entitled Held by the Enemy. After receiving glowing reviews, she was placed under contract at Paramount and her long-term relationship with Lasky began. (It would end in late 1923 when she met and married Manuel Reachi.)
Some announcements from venues where Camille had already been shown did give passing attention to Valentino. But, it was Nazimova’s film and the character he played was subordinate to her Camille. In the words of film critic Alexander Walker, Valentino was “a pliant supplicant, not a seducer, forever dropping on to one knee to signify his fidelity.” (Page 37, Rudolph Valentino).
After Camille opened in Los Angeles, a smaller ad for the film appeared in the Los Angeles Express on Tuesday, November 1, this time with no mention of Valentino at all…but the day after the premiere (Monday, October 31) on Page 24, a reviewer named Milton Lathrop did notice Valentino…and in glowing terms.
Milton Lathrop did not mention any specific scenes from the film but Alexander Walker would later note that“the earliest hint of what was to become one of his most seductive features occurs in this film. It is when he breaks the bank in a gambling casino–he’s been playing to kill the pain of losing Camille–and with a sudden, unanticipated flash of cruelty he seizes her arms, forces them behind her and pinions them there while he plants a kiss on her lips. This was the ‘cruel’ Valentino. This was the so called ‘sex menace’. This was the element of ‘threat’ in him that worked its way up the scale of romantic emotions he stirred up in the hearts of women.” (Page 37, Rudolph Valentino.) Of course, this energy is in dramatic contrast to the “dignified portrayal of the naive lover” that Lathrop had mentioned in his review decades earlier.
In the same edition, on the very next page (Page 25) of the Los Angeles Evening Express, a review of The Sheik by a different critic named Charles A. Goss appeared under the title “‘The Sheik’ A Beauty, But Oh, The Story!” He wrote:
To enjoy the production it becomes necessary to ignore the story entirely and to focus the interest upon the beauty of the settings. Vast stretches of sand waste and shifting dunes are relieved only by the cluster of palm trees that form an oasis here and there and by the picturesque caravans of the Arabian dignitaries. Those of the interior are not without charm also, for they exhibit a prodigality of luxury that recalls the tales of the "Arabian Nights."...The story however, might be the dream of a sweet young thing who had eaten too many caramels and chocolate sundaes. The subtitles, probably from Miss Hull's book, are pretty trite.
But, when Goss observed the players, his tone changed. He noted the how Valentino was without peer in the way he displayed the “shifting emotions of this young barbarian the product of the desert and of Paris schooling.” It seems Goss saw the contrast of the “barbarian” versus the “handsome” actor and the character’s underlying “Paris schooling”; without using the term “sex menace,” he sensed the “threat” versus “the allure” that attracted a female audience. He didn’t mention “popping eyes” or any other distractions that later reviews would see…he noticed the force of Valentino’s charisma.
“Valentino’s the whole show…”
…quoting a “young lady who sat nearby”
…Reviewer Charles A. Goss
Los AngelesEvening Express, Monday,
October 31, 1921, Page 25.
Until this point Valentino had made steady progress in his career. On October 30, 1921 the megastar phase of his career would begin…
The 100th Year Anniversary Blu-Ray Restoration of “The Sheik”
After some delay, the 100th Year Anniversary Blu-Ray Release of “The Sheik” will be released and available on Amazon on November 2, 2021. Pre-ordering is available. Each link below offers slightly different information about how the new release was restored and the film. .
1. Nazimova’s contract with Metro would come to an end in mid-1922. Waning popularity and differences about the types of films she would work on led to the split. She had already begun planning her production company while she was in New York at the preview of Camille. According to an essay at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website, once Nazimova left Metro, “… the studio changed the film’s publicity campaign and gave top billing to Valentino.”
2. Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, and Wanda Hawley all future co-stars with Valentino also appeared in The Affairs of Anatol. And, the role of Mr. Nazzer Singh, a Hindu hypnotist who hypnotized Gloria Swanson’s character Vivian in the film was none other than Theodore Kosloff…yes, the onetime lover of Natacha Rambova.