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. Blog about nature,etc. at Open Range Ramblings. Have recently begun a new blog Rudolph Valentino Connections...A Personal Journey–My Italian Immigrant Family Echoed In The Life Of Rudolph Valentino–and More.
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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, (3/4 pending).
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 hangs 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 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”–McElliott
“…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 of the plot 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, 2022, 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, 2022. 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 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” on 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 that assumption of the 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 roles 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 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 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 over his role 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.
Link to the video version of this post on Youtube pending.
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. 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, one can see a piece of clothing hanging of a bunk to the left swaying slightly, followed by a 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. But, to offer a word of warning, as we will discover in Part 4 of this series, publicity material was not always accurately used by the outlets using it. See 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 still might 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.
One piece even 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 might have been something not meant for the public that was included in a press packet . 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 offered by theater management giving 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.”
“MANY OBSTACLES” AT SEA…
The “mean ocean” which caused the constant seasickness endured by Dorothy Dalton was another 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!
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.
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.”
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 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!
"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.
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.
The intense media interest in the death of Rudolph Valentino finally reached its end on September 7, 1926 when his 2nd funeral was held in Los Angeles and he was finally interred in the crypt at Hollywood Cemetery (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery).
The day was in marked contrast to the out-of-control days in New York City when his public viewing was held. Originally planned to continue until Friday, August 27, it was cut short after the viewing deteriorated into an uncontrolled, mob-like event.
In an article under the headline “Premonition of Early Death,” John W. Considine, Jr., who produced Valentino’s pictures, revealed that “Valentino several times remarked to me, “I shall die young. I know it, and I shall not be sorry. I would hate to live to be an old man.” (The Tribune, Scranton, Pennsylvania, August 24, 1926, Page 2 (Dateline: Los Angeles, August 23, Associated Press).
He got his wish, but much sooner than he would have anticipated. And one of his wishes as he fought for his life was that he would have a public viewing in the event he died.
Valentino had suffered greatly and had wasted to a shadow of the image he projected on the screen. The morticians who received his body at Campbell’s Funeral Church had a difficult job to do. A “secret embalming process” supervised by W. H. Hull, claimed Valentino’s body would stay in it’s final state “practically forever.” It was the same process used to embalm Enrico Caruso, who had died in August 1921 in Italy.
The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) Tuesday, August 24, 1926, Page 8
In The Times Union (Brooklyn, New York) dated Wednesday, August 25, 1926 (Page 15), reporter Ted Le Berthon recounted what had transpired the day before (August 24) in an evocative piece entitled “VALENTINO RIOTS A MORBID ORGY.”
...Rudolph Valentino's cold, lifeless image, waxen and unreal, laying like a flat, smashed thing, beneath a glass cover, on the second floor of Campbell's Funeral Church, was the goal of this stubborn, screaming crowd....[About 2 P.M.] By now, reporters and cameramen had been permitted to view the dead Rudy in his last personal appearance. Peering through the glass coffin cover was like looking through a glass case in a museum.
“He only weighed 102 when he died,” one employe of the undertaking firm whispered.
His nose was sharply defined, a little ridged; he face, pitifully small, and inclined, for some reason, to one side. Those eyes, that had “burned to the cores of women’s beings,” were closed. That face, that wore make-up so often in the bustling multi-colored cinema studios, was delicately powdered. The thin, sunken lips were thinly rouged, the brows penciled. It did not seem possible that this was Rudolph Valentino. From the eyes of those standing about, one sensed a sickening desire to be away, quickly.
The heavy smell of flowers suggested great fields of death. One wondered if some substitution had not been made. Surely this mashed body, with claw-like hands was not the ardent lover, in whose veins had coursed fiery blood, consuming a romance-hungry world in its glow, made ubiquitous by the universal markets of the cinema.
Le Berthon describes how at “About 3 o’clock [on Tuesday, August 24], it was decided to admit the first line of the city’s mourners.” It was raining and the line went up a winding staircase to the room where Valentino lay. Le Berthon relates the mood of the visitors:
…disappointment about his burial clothes, giggling, and surprise over his thin hair…
The following day, on Wednesday, August 25, the body had been relocated to the ground floor to help keep the lines moving more efficiently. The reporting by United Press described how the bier was placed in the center of the room and how the crowd circled and exited through a side door through a florist shop adjacent to the Campbell’s Funeral Chapel. Although there were still “giggling girls of high school age” waiting to enter when the doors opened at 9 A.M., the United Press story commented that “While yesterday the throng was perhaps a bit inclined to be unexpectedly gay, today the attitude seemed change. There was more showing of reverence…The scene was more somber–an atmosphere heightened by dull, drizzling fog” (The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, August 25, 1926, Page 2).
When the doors opened at 9 A.M., the first two people on line were two tourists from Terre Haute, Indiana, who had arrived at 6 A.M. Margaret Kenley and Josephine Attman had planned to leave the day before but “We couldn’t return without seeing Valentino…We were going home yesterday but we simply had to stay” (The Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wednesday, August 25, 1926, Page 2).
Another visitor was a woman who said she had seen Valentino two years before:
The early reports of “more reverence” on Wednesday were soon revised in late editions of papers like The Brooklyn Daily Times:
The Dayton Herald in Dayton, Ohio came to this conclusion in their Wednesday edition (Page 4):
“excited curiosity…laughing and chatting…”
George Ullman’s full comments were reported by the Associated Press:
"This has gone far enough," Ullman said. The lack of reverence shown by the crowds, the disorder and rioting since the body was first shown, have forced me to this decision. Tonight at midnight the doors will be closed to the public and the body placed in a vault here in the funeral church until Monday. It will be viewed only by friends and associates." (A.P. syndicated report from the Fort Worth-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas, Thursday, August 16, 1926, Page 4.)
Ullman was still shaken by what he had seen. On Thursday, August 26, he was quoted in a United Press report: “I loved Valentino so,” he said, “that I thought the whole world would reverence him” (Courier-Post, Camden, New Jersey, Thursday, August 26, 1 926, Page 14). From the same newspaper:
“normal decorum and dignity now prevails…”
At the end Valentino’s animals mourned him, without judgment...
Yaqui and Valentino in The Son of the Sheik
Kabar and Valentino, returning from Europe on the Leviathan, January 1926
This post has been updated as of 10/3/2021. I am including a new photo from a copy of the New York Daily News that I have obtained. The paper is dated August 24, 1926 and is one of several editions published that day. The new photo shows another view of the removal of Valentino's body from the hospital
Once again, my interest has been piqued by differences in the “lore” about Rudolph Valentino.
Following his passing at the New York Polyclinic Hospital, the body of Rudolph Valentino made the journey to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church, which at the time, was located at Broadway and 66th Street. (The Polyclinic was located at 341-351 West 50th Street, New York, New York. The current address of the clinic building, now converted into condominiums, is 345-349 W. 50th Street as indicated in a picture taken by Allan Ellenberger on a visit to the site and also confirmed using Google Earth.)
The question is how and when did Valentino’s body leave the Polyclinic Hospital?
Polyclinic Hospital building in the foreground showing a courtyard and the alley out to 51st Street (visible at the right).
Google Earth, 5/24/2019
The clinic at a different angle and time of day showing increased shadows around the building and one wall of the interior courtyard (faintly visible on the right side of the courtyard.) The courtyard will be discussed further, below.
Google Earth, 6/22/2021
See NOTE 1 below for a detailed description of the hospital plant at the time it was designated as “Embarkation Hospital No. 4, New York City” by the Government in 1918 during World War I. Although officially designated as an “Embarkation Hospital” it actually functioned as a “Debarkation Hospital” for the most part, used by patients returning from overseas. The description gives a great deal of information about theoriginal, basicdesign of the hospital.
There are multiple descriptions of how the body of Valentino exited the hospital…and when. According to Emily Leider (Dark Lover, Page 387), the exit was by “a side door.” Jeanne De Recqueville (Rudolph Valentino, Page 126) describes how the body, in a “wicker basket,” was “brought an interior courtyard…loaded onto a truck [which would] slip away through a back alley,” which is clearly visible in the above photo.
Allan R. Ellenberger (The Valentino Mystique: The Death and Afterlife of the Silent Film Idol) describes how crowds outside the clinic had become so large that it was impossible for the hearse to approach from the rear of the building on West 51st Street. So the police spread the rumor that the removal would be from the front entrance: “Remarkably, the ruse worked, and the majority of the crowd moved slowly back to 50th Street just long enough for the hearse to circle the block and pull up in a spot cleared by the police ” (Page 56).
Ellenberger then goes on to quote–indirectly–a reporter from The New York World. Ellenberger must have had trouble finding the original source and my efforts have failed as well. (The paper had several incarnations and there are gaps in what editions are available, even at the Library of Congress.) Ellenberger’s source is derived from an article entitled “Legend of Valentino, Part 1” in Movie Classics, June 1973, Page 13. I’ve managed to track down this issue as well as the issue including Part 2, so it will be interesting to see the actual article. So, with a bit of caution about sourcing, here is what this unidentified reporter claims to have witnessed:
As two-forty (2:40) that afternoon the stillness was interrupted by the sound of the elevator descending from the floors above... As the elevator doors opened, the reporter witnessed the undertaker's basket being wheeled out and rolled down the corridor toward the back door..."There waited Campbell's 'wagon.'...Rudolph Valentino beloved idol of millions going out the back door of Polyclinic Hospital in a wicker basket! That was dramatic enough. But to add to the drama, someone had thrown a piece of gold cloth over the top of the basket!'"
UPDATE: I received a copy of the Movie Classics magazine cited above the day after I posted this blog article. The reporter says he worked for the New York American (very few, scattered holdings in libraries, what might be a full collection is on microfilm at the New York Public Library). He apparently sent a letter years later to the Hollywood Citizen, signing it as” E.B., Landsdale Street, North Hollywood, California.” He actually first refers to the basket as a “casket” then later calls it a “wicker basket.” So, he may have seen the type of wicker “corpse” basket picture below. More notable is the fact that there is NO mention of any specific time of the body being moved.
Looking at the lower picture, apparently taken after the transfer of the body to the hearse, there does appear to be a light-colored surface visible…most likely the “gold cloth.” But it’s hard to discern a basket if one looks at the two picture showing the actual transfer. Wouldn’t a “wicker basket” have been a light color?
Another view of the removal of the body from the hospital from a different edition of the New York Daily News, August 24, 1926.
From my collection
Baskets were used by undertakers to receive bodies. Here is an example from 1882…
Jesse James’ wicker “corpse” basket used to take his body to a funeral parlor in 1882. Located at Heaton-Bowman-Smith and Sidenfaden Chapel Funeral Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri.
(Interestingly, one hundred years after Valentino’s passing, wicker baskets are becoming available for those wanting a more natural or eco-friendly burial . Manufacturers seem to most prevalent in Britain and Australia. The selection is quite extensive at a site called Thinkwillow.com. Most are light colored or a light brown; if they are painted, the integrity of the coffin* can be compromised. [See NOTE 2 below]. )
But looking at the the top photographs, although they are grainy, nothing looking like a wicker basket is visible. In fact, a close look seems to show something solid and dark colored.
Frank Mallen’s Story as Related in His Book “Sauce for the Gander”
From my collection
None of the authors mentioned have referenced a source written well before they wrote their books about Valentino. In 1954 Frank Mallen published Sauce for the Gander: The Amazing Story of a Fabulous Newspaper. This book is the story of The New York Evening Graphic, known for its notorious “composographs”–a name created by the founding editor Emile Gauvreau–but which the public and Graphic staffers continued to call “composites.” Not a new technique, the overlaying of pictures into patterns or designs was already used in magazines and newspaper layouts. The Graphic pushed the method of to the limit to increase circulation and keep their readers once they had them. The composites were montages, cut and pasted together to create pictures of events when actual pictures were not available, for example, the front-page picture of Valentino, “lying on the operating tables with arms folded, surrounded by doctors and nurses standing around, apparently waiting for the signal to plunge into his interior organs” (Pages 72-73).
Composite from the “Composite Gallery” in Sauce for the Gander. Description by Frank Mallen:
“This composite was dreamed up to show Rudy Valentino just before the fatal operation in Polyclinic Hospital. To carry out the romantic theme a nurse is depicted caressing his head, while another used the occasion to smile at her prettiest.” (10 photographs)
In her earlier book, Affairs Valentino: A Special Edition (2015, first and second editions, 2011 and 2013, respectively), Zumaya included a description of the body’s removal from a manuscript by George Ullman, Valentino’s business manager. According to this manuscript, “two workmen heft their load into the back of a waiting truck strategically parked in a back alley” (Page 11). But in her most recent work published in June 2021, entitled The Rudolph Valentino Case Files: The Research Discoveries of Evelyn Zumaya & Renato Floris, Zumaya does include the account by Frank Mallen, summarizing his story in a chapter named “Frank Mallen’s Composographs” Pages 194-198) of how Rudolph Valentino arrived at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church. (See Note 3.)
In his book, Mallen tells the story in several sections: “Death of a Movie Star” (the section of interest for this discussion); Pageant of Tribute”; “Behind the Valentino Curtain”; “The Last Picture”; “The Journalistic Miracle of the Ages”; “Izzy Kaplan”; “Funeral Train”; and “The Lady in Black” (Pages 72-100).
Mallen actually had planned to resign from the paper after he had been assigned to the “picture desk” as Picture Editor. With no interest or experience in the post, he was ready to quit…but before he could do so, Valentino had slipped into a coma and he suddenly was in the middle of shepherding photographers and artists through this news bonanza.
I grabbed my phone and called Frank Campbell, the undertaker..."Valentino just died. Are you getting the body?" I yelled into the transmitter. For a moment there was deep throbbing silence, and then I heard sobs. He was crying. I kept shouting at him...With impatience I kept asking if he would get the body. For exasperating moments he made no reply. Then his voice returned, strong and vibrant. As though I had offended him by my implication that Valentino could possibly go to any other undertaking establishment he said: "Why of course we are getting the body." He bit off every word.
Mallen then relates that a short time later, he learned that Campbell had made a deal with United Artists, when death hadn’t even been deemed imminent. The deal was “if they would let him handle the funeral, in the event of death, he (Campbell) would make Valentino’s pictures more popular and profitable than ever…an amazing and startling proposition” because before this moment pictures died with their stars (Page 74). Campbell employed a publicity man, Harry Klemfuss, who would mastermind the funeral events right up to the final services in Los Angeles on September 7th, 1926.
Mallen describes how, soon after talking to Campbell, The Graphic “scooped” the reporters from other news outlets by producing a composite of Valentino lying in state with Campbell agreeing to keep the secret (Page 74):
Soon two Graphic reporters were speeding in a taxi to the Campbell Funeral Church at Broadway and 66th Street. One photographed the other lying on a catafalque and then both took pictures of the Gold Room from various angles. They rushed the them back to the office, I had [Harry] Grogin, the composite genius, superimpose Valentino's face over that of the prone lensman and transfer the result onto the Gold Room. He did a masterful job in record time. Within an hour we had Valentino lying in state on our front page. We forgot to say it was a composite. Then I called Campbell and asked him to keep our secret.
It is at this point in the story that Mallen has an entirely different account about the timing and removal of the body from the Polyclinic Hospital:
Although Valentino's body actually was still at Polyclinic Hospital and was not removed until that evening, even the sharpest of newsmen believed it had been photographed by us at Campbell's. They were sure Campbell had performed some sleight-of-hand magic in transferring the body, probably to thwart competing undertakers, despite the fact they had watched all the hospital exits and had not seen it come out. When the casket finally emerged they were certain it contained somebody else's body to cover up a fast one Campbell had put over them in favor of the Graphic.
Mallen then recounts how “angry newspapermen descended on the funeral parlor along with some of the throngs who had seen The Graphic. Harry Klemfuss defused the situation by inviting the reporters and photographers in to look around; they even inspected every corpse that was there.” After satisfying them that they had not been double-crossed he took them to a nearby speakeasy where their anger was quickly submerged in liquids and they shook their heads over the gall of The Graphic” (Page 75).
SO…we find that we have Mallen’s mention of a “casket” versus a wicker basket/undertaker’s basket; the removal from the Polyclinic Hospital in a hearse versus a truck, although the vehicle does look like a hearse rather than a truck, in my opinion; and a very specific time of transfer of two-forty (2:40) in the afternoon versus “that evening.” The Update above which discusses the quotation from Movie Classics magazine raises a question about this specific 2:40 time, but an earlier afternoon removal time still can’t be ruled out.
Looking at the pictures of the removal at the hospital, the transfer appears to be occurring in daylight. But what is meant by “evening”? It’s a subjective term with many definitions! Broadly speaking, it can mean the time between afternoon and nightfall, beginning a few hours before sunset; or sometimes defined as being between 4 and 9 o’clock. In August 1926, New York was on Daylight Savings Time, as it is now; “civil twilight,” also known as “dusk,” the period when the Sun sets and dips just below the horizon, would end about 8 PM. Regardless, as clearly shown in the pictures of the clinic at the top of this page, the courtyard of the hospital would be in shadows at least part of the day which makes it even hard to discern on which side of the courtyard the exit was located. Since it’s hard to find pictures of how the sun hits the building in real time, could the photographs of the transfer, particularly the large photograph from TheNew York Daily News, been taken with a flash, either in the early afternoon, possibly at 2:40 P.M. or later that day?
As I continue researching the life of Rudolph Valentino, I will be on the lookout for any information about that fateful day of August 23rd, 1926 that can provide a more definitive answer to my original question:
How (and When) Was Rudolph Valentino’s Body Removed to the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Church?
The hospital of the New York Polyclinic Medical School and Hospital was leased by the Government on October 20, 1918. The hospital was located at 345 West Fiftieth Street, New York City, 3 miles from the center of activities of the port of embarkation, three blocks from Pier 90 at Fiftieth Street and Hudson River, and one-half block from the electric car lines on Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The building was an 11-story, fireproof structure of steel and concrete, and contained a basement, a cellar, and a subcellar. It had been designed for use as a hospital, and had been completed in 1912. Its ground area was 100 feet square and its gross floor space was 110,000 square feet. Within it there were 94 private rooms and wards, 4 operating rooms, and a number of rooms which had been used for clinical and didactic purposes, and which were readily convertible into wards. These rooms and wards gave a bed capacity of approximately 450. The building contained a kitchen of sufficient capacity to feed 800 persons at one meal; a bakery adequate to prepare all the bread needed for the hospital; a laundry equipped to meet all needs; and a heating plant that not only heated the building in which it was located but five dwellings adjoining the hospital. All stairways were of steel and concrete construction, and they were equipped with fire doors. There were three large elevators ample in size to accommodate stretcher cases. The institution was lighted by both gas and electricity; and, to guard against a temporary failure of the city water supply, had reserve tanks for water on its roof.
From October 20, 1918, the day it was taken over for Medical Department use, until December 18, the building was cleaned, and preparations were made for the reception of patients. During much of this period of time the main hospital building was used as quarters for nurses who were being mobilized for duty overseas. There were a few patients in hospitals representing members of the command, nurses from overseas, etc.; but on December 19, 1918, the hospital was formally opened by the admission of 176 patients from overseas.
aThe statements of fact appearing herein are based on the “History, Embarkation Hospital No. 4, New York City,” by Lieut. Col. J. L. Robinson, M. C., U. S. A., while on duty as a member of the staff of that hospital. The material used by him in the compilation of the history comprised official reports from the various divisions of the hospital. The history is on file in the Historical Division, Surgeon General’s Office, Washington, D. C.-Ed.
Thereafter, the hospital, though designated an embarkation hospital, functioned principally as a debarkation hospital. On August 15, 1919, the hospital was abandoned.
NOTE 2 There IS a difference between a “coffin” and a “casket.” A coffin is shaped more closely to that of a human body, wider at the shoulders, tapered toward the feet, while a casket is rectangular (oblong) with right angles and without tapering toward the base.
NOTE 3 Zumaya includes the “surgery” composite in her discussion and also includes a picture that is described as a “Composograph of Rudolph Valentino in the Gold Room at Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home.” However, this picture actually shows the front page of the Daily Mirror under the headline “Many Hurt at Bier of Valentino” and is actually a cropped version of a picture that is a part of series showing “ardent fan Eva Miller” praying at the bier. A full picture also appeared on the front page of The New York Daily News; the Bettmann Archive states the originals were taken on August 25, 1926. Other versions of this picture are also sourced from the Hulton Archive. Various angles of this Eva Miller picture can be seen at Bing.com Images.
De Recqueville, Jeanne.Rudolph Valentino. Translated by Renato Floris, Edited and Annotated by Evelyn Zumaya. French Edition, 1978. Torino, Italy: Viale Industria Pubblilicazioni, Translation Edition, 2020.
Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
Mallen, Frank. Sauce for the Gander: The Amazing Story of a Fabulous Newspaper. White Plains, New York: Baldwin Books, 1954.