One hundred years ago in December Rudolph Valentino was ending his “breakout year” as he rose to full film stardom. By the time “Sheik Week” was declared by Paramount starting on November 20, 1921, Valentino’s next film, Moran of the Lady Letty, was completing production; it would be released on February 12, 1922. Beyond the Rocks with Gloria Swanson was filmed during December 1921-January 1922 and would premiere on May 7, 1922; by March, Blood and Sand, which would be Valentino’s first film in which he carried the “starring role,” was in full production; filming was completed by mid-May and set for a September 10, 1922 release. The Young Rajah (with Valentino’s first name still not settled…he was still billed as “Rodolfo”) was filming by June; it was completed some time during August and had a November 12, 1922 release. (A companion post “Rudolph Valentino Joins Paramount’s Gallery of Stars” is also available on Youtube.) Link to the video version of this post on Youtube.
Rudolph Valentino’s Film Releases During 1922
- Moran of the Lady Letty 2/12/1922
- Beyond the Rocks 5/7/1922
- Blood and Sand 8/10/1922 (8/6/1922, New York open)
- The Young Rajah 11/12/1922 (11/5/1922, New York open)
Keep in mind that as Valentino’s star rose many of his earlier films were booked again to capitalize on his popularity and played around the country even as his new films were premiering during 1922. Among these were A Wonderful Chance, Delicious Little Devil, Frivolous Wives (a 1921 version of the 1918 The Married Virgin, re-cut to enhance Valentino’s role), The Conquering Power, and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And, of course, The Sheik played on…along with a succession of knock-off films, parodies, and songs in 1922.
For example, here is a 1922 ad for Frivolous Wives from my collection. This ad appeared in The Everett Daily Herald, Everett, Washington on Wednesday, September 13, 1922 (Page 6). I’ve only showed part of the full page but it’s quite obvious that the ad for Valentino’s old film took up a great deal of that page!
A Typical Small-Town Theater: The Palace Theatre, Antigo, Wisconsin
The glittering premieres held in cities like New York and Los Angeles attracted important reviewers and big box office numbers but theaters in smaller cities and even smaller towns were where the ultimate success of a film was determined. Audiences who went to the movies for an afternoon matinee or a night out were the people who kept a star’s light blazing.
The Palace Theatre in the small community of Antigo, Wisconsin was typical of many venues around the United States and Canada. The Palace Theatre still exists. Today The Palace Twin Theatre has two screens with a total of 1000 seats. Here’s a brief history provided by the Langlade Historical Society as related in a thread on the Cinema Treasures site.
Harvey Hanson, prominent theater owner, was born in Appleton, WI in 1883; he came to Antigo around 1908 and started in the theater business. In 1909 the Hanson building was built on 5th Ave. (still stands today,the name Hanson is still on the building) and during this time Harvey Hanson showed silent movies to the people of Antigo, thus started the beginning of the Palace Theater. Then in 1915, Harvey leased the building to a well known five and ten cent store F.W. Woolworth, and across the street the “New” Palace Theater was going to be built. In 1916, the new Palace Theater (capacity 1180 seats and at that time the only fireproof theater in central Wisconsin) opened and it was a successful venture and generations of movie goers attended the show house to be enthralled by Hollywood movies. On the stage were occasional vaudeville and talent shows.
Antigo, Wisconsin in 1922. The Palace Theatre is visible just behind the “Lunch” sign on the right.
This image is most likely from the Langlade Historical Society collection but was posted by Mark Zelinski on his family site named The Lena Web which is dedicated to a special family member.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse actually had a scheduling mix-up before it was back at a The Palace Theatre in the Fall of 1922. There were mix-ups in scheduling dates for other films as well, but the letter below shows a particular misunderstanding on the part of the theater’s management as to which entity actually controlled the picture. It seems that the issue was resolved in a letter written to Mr. H. E. Hanson on May 29, 1922 and dates for a four-day booking were set for September 25-28, 1922. More than a year from the original March 1921 release, this film continued to attract a large audience. (See my post on the premiere here.) Unfortunately, there was no discussion about the rental fee but figures at the lower left of the page suggest that the fee may have been $75.00 a day, with a deduction for some reason of one day’s fee, resulting in a total fee of $225.00. This fee would have been equal to what was charged for Beyond the Rocks in December 1922.
The Theater “Billhead”
A billhead is “a letterhead used for statements of charges” as defined in Collins online dictionary. The billhead pictured below is from my collection and is titled “Notice of Exhibition Dates.” It shows the rental fees the Palace Theatre owed to Paramount Pictures/Famous Players-Lasky Productions.
Information on this type of theater billhead included the name of the film, the shipping date, the number of the print shipped to the theater and the scheduled exhibition dates/days for the months involved. This billhead covers shipping dates during the period between October 30-December 25, 1922. Looking down the list of films, only eight films had three-day runs during this two month period, with a check mark marking the last day of the run which would be a Saturday. Of those films, three were Valentino pictures.
Note: In the discussion below I will often refer to a “possible second run” at the theater. Without all the billheads for this theater, it is impossible to know exactly when first runs of some of these films took place. Some pictures were distributed more quickly to the country’s heartland than others; with the “big” films I have speculated in some cases that enough time may have passed since an initial release to allow for a second booking during the time frame of the billhead.
Rental Fees Paid by The Palace Theatre: How Other Films Stacked Up Against Rudolph Valentino’s Releases
1. The Sheik…Shipping date November 7, 1922. Run dates scheduled for Thursday-Saturday, November 9-11. Rental fee: $70
Audiences in Antigo were still going to see The Sheik a year after its release. The film had had it’s “pre-release” in Los Angeles on October 30, 1921 followed by the New York City premiere in two theaters on November 6. It’s very likely that The Sheik already had a first run in Antigo because “Sheik Week” which began September 27, 1921 marked the full distribution of the film across the nation and within weeks it was in places like Illinois and Mississippi (see my earlier post about “Sheik Week” and the reviews, links above). The Sheik was shown at The Palace starting on Thursday, November 9th, 1922. During the first two weeks November 1922, of the seven movies shown, the Antigo Theatre paid the most for The Sheik ($70.00) which illustrates the staying power of this film.
The Affairs of Anatol (released September 21, 1921), was also still popular. It actually held the box office record in New York City for opening day until The Sheik arrived. The Affairs of Anatol apparently enjoyed another run from November 16-18, 1922 at the Palace with a rental fee of $35.00. Directed by Cecile B. DeMille, it had finished a successful run in Los Angeles immediately prior to the “pre-release” of The Sheik. Agnes Ayres, who starred in The Sheik, appeared in The Affairs of Anatol, but the lead roles were played by the very popular heart throb Wallace Reid and top female star Gloria Swanson. In addition to Swanson, cast members Wanda Hawley, Bebe Daniels and Ruth Miller had already played in a Valentino film or would play in one in the future.
An interesting story surrounds Don’t Tell Everything which was booked for three days for November 2-4, 1922 for a rental fee of $40.00 just before The Sheik played its 3-day run the next weekend. This film originated from out takes/extra footage from The Affairs of Anatol which would be shown only a couple of weeks later. One note of interest: on November 15, a British short titled Loves’s Boomerang was booked for a $10.00 rental fee. The title director for this film was a man named Alfred Hitchcock.
2. Moran of the Lady Letty…Shipping date November 28, 1922. Run dates scheduled for Thursday-Saturday (November 30-December 2). Rental fee: $50.00
Moran of the Lady Letty, with leading lady Dorothy Dalton, had its initial rollout beginning February 12, 1922 and was most likely having another run at this time and was sandwiched between two more DeMille productions. The week before there was a three-day run of Saturday Night, a DeMille film that had been released on January 29, 1922, so it also may have been returning for another showing at the Antigo. With the same $50.00 rental cost as Moran of the Lady Letty, it’s clear that Saturday Night continued to have audience appeal. (Click here for my series on Moran of the Lady Letty.)
The weekend after the run of Moran of the Lady Letty the feature was Fool’s Paradise which ran from December 7-9, 1922. This film commanded a rental fee of $70.00 which matched the fee that had been paid for The Sheik a month earlier. Fool’s Paradise was another Cecile B. DeMille production which starred Dorothy Dalton. It had been released one year earlier on December 9, 1921 and drew critical praise as well as excellent reviews for Dalton. Exhibitors Herald considered Dalton’s performance as the best she had done to that point and found her “piquant and charming” in the role of cantina dancer Poll Patchouli (Exhibitors Herald, December 24, 1921. Page 141, available at Archive.org). Its popularity is obvious as a year later its rental fee matched the fee charged for The Sheik.
3. Beyond the Rocks…Shipping date December 19, 1922. Run dates scheduled for Thursday/Friday (December 21/23). Rental fee: $75.00
Beyond the Rocks with Gloria Swanson as star had been released in May 1922 so it is possible this was another run at the Antigo Theatre; it carried a $75.00 rental fee–$5.00 more than the fee for The Sheik. The pairing of Swanson, Paramount’s top star (see prior post) with the newly popular Valentino warranted this higher rental fee.
But the week before a film called Forever carried a $50.00 fee which matched the rental fee of the newer release, Moran of the Lady Letty. Forever is another film with an interesting backstory. It was released on October 16, 1921 under the title Peter Ibbetson and went into nationwide release in early March 1922. Under this title it was playing in New York City when The Sheik premiered on November 6, 1921. In fact, both films appeared in a “joint ad” the day after The Sheik premiered. You can see this ad by clicking here, which will take you to an earlier post on this site. It starred Wallace Reid and Elsie Ferguson and was directed by George Fitzmaurice. Fitzmaurice was a director Valentino had wanted to work with from early in his time at Paramount. His chance to have Fitzmaurice direct him would come only at the very end of his career when Fitzmaurice directed The Son of the Sheik.
Tucked in the middle of the the schedule was a Wednesday, December 20 showing of The Ordeal which had been released on May 21, 1922. It was a melodrama co-written by Somerset Maugham and was only 50 minutes long. Agnes Ayres, who had been the “lead” in The Sheik only six months before, and Conrad Nagel, a popular actor, apparently couldn’t bolster its appeal, so six months later the rental fee was only $10.00.
One film that is notable for its very low $15.00 rental fee is Beauty’s Worth which was booked after Christmas for one day on Wednesday, December 27. This film starred Marion Davies and it definitely was not a “short.” According to Wikipedia, “The centerpiece of the film is a stunning ‘tableaux vivants’ in which Davies recreates her dancing doll routine from the 1916 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.” Exhibitors Herald in its April 15, 1922 edition gave a full review (Page 63) along with a “digest” (Page 62); the digest noted the “thin” story, but thought the film would have good audience appeal because of the excellent production.
Exhibitors Herald, April 15, 1922. Page 62.
from Digest of Pictures of the Week
Was the low fee due to the possibility that business would be slow during this period in addition to industry-wide financial issues? I can only observe that by 1924 Marion Davies would be the number one box office female attraction…but this was 1922 and she hadn’t reached her peak popularity. The low rental fee late in the year of release could simply illustrate how a film’s appeal could taper off dramatically.
The 1922 Valentino Releases Missing from the Billhead
The two 1922 Valentino releases that are missing from this billhead are Blood and Sand and The Young Rajah. Blood and Sand had its New York premiere on Sunday, August 6 at the Rivoli according to an ad the prior day, so it most likely had a first run before the start date of this billhead (October 30, 1922). The Young Rajah had a November 12 release, so the Palace Theatre would have had its first booking sometime in early 1923; this timing was evident in many ads which appeared in newspapers from around the country and away from the big cities which I saw during my research.
According to news reports, Blood and Sand on its first Monday “drew 500 more than went to see him the first Monday he appeared in ‘The Sheik’ when he set a new Monday attendance record at the theater” (The Nashville Tennessean, Sunday, August 20, 1922. Page 2.) A couple of months later, The Young Rajah broke the opening day record set by Blood and Sand when it opened at the Rivoli on November 5 (Daily News, New York, Tuesday, November 7, 1922. Page 17). Each new release seemed to draw a bigger audience than the prior film did at least at the New York openings.
In 1923…No New Productions for Valentino
So what happened when each film returned to the Palace Theatre about a year later?
As discussed above, The Sheik still commanded a fee of $70.00 for year after its release, while Beyond the Rocks was still at a peak of $75.00 six months after its premiere. I do not have a record of the initial rental fees for Blood and Sand or The Young Rajah, but there seemed to be a big drop off a year later for these two films. The billheads above don’t indicate the length of the runs. Blood and Sand had a rental fee of $50.00 for a September 1923 showing. This is a bit surprising since the film was one of the highest grossing films of 1922, had given Valentino his first “star” billing and had received generally positive reviews. Surely the initial rental fee must have been in the range of the already aging Beyond the Rocks and The Sheik. The fee for The Young Rajah is even more surprising–$25.00 for its November showing. The early showings in 1922 had drawn strong audiences but a year later the waning appeal of this “big” film had dropped the rental fee to the level of some of the “program” pictures on the billhead that were running at The Palace Theatre in 1922.
Why? In the case of The Young Rajah the reviews had not been very enthusiastic. But that was not the case for Blood and Sand. Perhaps the problem was that by November 1923 Valentino had been off the screen for a year after going “on strike.” The tumult had gone public by August 1922 and the long legal battle continued until moves began in mid-1923 to end the impasse with the studio. In spite of Valentino’s efforts to stay in the public’s eye–the Mineralava dance tour with Natacha Rambova; his poetry book; his body-building publicity–being off-screen without new films would have been a big issue for any film career’s momentum. Naturally, the studio actively promoted other actors during this time, notably casting Antonio Moreno opposite Gloria Swanson. As early as September 1922, just a month after Blood and Sand‘s triumphant premiere and rave reviews for Valentino’s performance and well before before The Young Rajah opened in mid-November, the reports were out about the Moreno-Swanson pairing in My American Wife (considered lost), which would be directed by Sam Wood, who had directed Beyond the Rocks (Daily News, New York, Wednesday, September 27, 1922. Page 17).
At the same time, Ramon Navarro, who had been an extra in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, was being championed by Rex Ingram and appeared in his first good supporting role in The Prisoner of Zenda, released a matter of weeks before Blood and Sand. It was still playing on Broadway at the Astor Theater when Blood and Sand opened. (There were large, head-to-head ads for both films when Blood and Sand debuted.) In 1923 Navarro had his first starring role in Scaramouche (released in September), which despite the cost, did make money and would break box office records in Paris and London. Also in the public eye was Douglas Fairbanks, then known as “The King of Hollywood,” who released Robin Hood on October 18, 1922. This film was not only a great hit, but its premiere one hundred years ago is now cited as the first modern movie premiere and red carpet event. (See NOTES below for more information.)
The first half of 1922 had brought Valentino to true “star” status; but by the end of the year his momentum as an actor stalled. Although he did attend the premiere of The Young Rajah in New York while carrying on his legal fight with the studio, his energies in 1923 would be aimed at earning money using his celebrity rather through his film career…and while he was off-screen there were missed opportunities that may have helped erase the memory of the disappointing reception of The Young Rajah. Valentino’s next film, The Spanish Cavalier, which had already begun pre-production when he went on strike, was completely reworked to have a female lead. The Spanish Dancer would star Pola Negri playing against Antonio Moreno and would be released in November 1923, only a couple of months before Valentino would finally return to work.
Then in 1924…
Valentino’s first effort when he returned was Monsieur Beaucaire, which started filming in early 1924 in New York. Interestingly, Douglas Fairbanks had purchased the property in 1922, thinking he would make his version after completing Robin Hood.
“Doug” Buys “Monsieur Beaucaire”
Film Daily, Wednesday, April 26, 1922. Page 4.
Eventually, Fairbanks would sell his rights to the story. Valentino’s opulent, much-anticipated version–his comeback film–was released during August 1924, drawing large crowds in bigger cities in the U.S. and in Europe, but losing audience in smaller cities and towns across the country such as Antigo, Wisconsin.
I do not know if the December 30-31 booking was a first showing or a return booking at The Palace Theatre. Regardless, the rental fee for this extravagant “comeback” film was only $45.00–higher than the $25.00 fee for Valentino’s last film The Young Rajah a year before, but below the $50.00 fee for Blood and Sand one year after its release and less than for a first run of Moran of the Lady Letty…and only two-thirds the booking fee for Beyond the Rocks and a repeat run of The Sheik.
The reception of Monsieur Beaucaire would illustrate how the all-important audiences away from the sophisticated large cities would be instrumental to the level of success of Rudolph Valentino’s comeback. Publicity and reviews could launch a film, but the general public still needed to be willing to buy tickets…and Rudolph Valentino’s comeback was off to an uneven start.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT–The billhead in my collection was purchased from EBay seller “mrbuysalot” who graciously permitted me to use images of the other billheads that are pictured in this post. His store features, among other things, items from a huge trove of documents retrieved from The Palace Theatre. UPDATE–these items are now part of my collection!
1. The Metro Pictures Corporation letterhead prominently displays a “logo” reading “Distributors of NAZIMOVA Productions.” Various timelines report that she signed a five-year contract with Metro in 1917 and that the contract was cancelled after Camille, the picture that brought Valentino and Rambova together. Nazimova did create her own production company but the company simply let her contract expire. Metro had announced her signing in the July 28, 1917 issue of Motion Picture World (direct link here at Archive.org), but I’ve seen comments that she actually signed in early May 1917. Regardless, by the time this letter was written on May 29, 1922 her contract had most likely already ended.
2. For more about the first modern movie premiere which was held for the premiere of Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, see “Everybody From Starland Was There”: The Hollywood Red Carpet Movie Premiere Turns 100. The Hollywood Reporter, October 18, 2022.
Newspapers and trade publications as cited in the text.
IMDb, Internet Movie Database
Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover, The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003.
Wikipedia entries for various film titles
Walker, Alexander. Rudolph Valentino. Briarcliff Manor, New York: Stein and Day, 1976.