July 8, 1921–“The Conquering Power” Released 100 Years Ago Today (Rudolph Valentino and Rex Ingram Clash)

In my previous post (May 11, 1921 — Valentino Writes a Check: Reconstructing The Fascinating Backstory About This Very Special Collectible…) I included a time line of the events in 1921, a pivotal year in the career of Rudolph Valentino.

The filming of Camille had been completed in February 1921 and Rudolph Valentino’s next film, The Conquering Power began production one week later, with filming completed a few weeks later by the end of March 1921, with some work in April for retakes. In the meantime, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse premiered on March 6, 1921.

The Conquering Power was released a few days after Valentino began work on The Sheik on July 5, 1921. Valentino hadn’t worked from the end of March after filming The Conquering Power ended until the start of production on the film that would make his career explode later that year.

Tumult surrounded the production of “The Conquering Power.” The team that had produced The Four Horsemen included June Mathis, who wrote the script, and Rex Ingram, who would direct. Tensions with Metro arose over money almost immediately and conflict between Valentino and Ingram hung over the production.

The script was based on Honore’ de Balzac’s novel “Eugenie Grandet” which was part of Balzac’s series of novels about post-Revolutionary France under the title “The Human Comedy” (La Comedie Humaine) published between 1829-1950. It was written in 1833. The story opens in 1819 after the country has settled down after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. While Balzac was writing the story he developed his idea for “The Human Comedy” and quickly released a second edition, “revising the names of some of the characters so that Eugénie Grandet then fitted into the section: Scenes from provincial life (Scènes de la vie de province) in the Comédie.” (Wikiwand.com)

Honore de Balzac (1799-1850)

The novel was drastically truncated and story elements altered. The opening scene of Charles Grandet’s wild birthday party does not exist in the novel, for example. June Mathis’ script tried to shift the focus to Valentino and elevate the character of Charles into a romantic hero (Leider, page 144). And while he goes Martinique secretly engaged to Eugenie and returns years later and reunites with her in the film, the book is dramatically different. He does go to the West Indies among other places while making a fortune as a slave trader, which is not mentioned in the film; he asks Eugenie for his freedom to marry a woman from a noble family to enhance his status when he is back in Paris (saying he does not love her); and after Eugenie releases him she marries an old family friend without love, with the understanding that the marriage will never be consummated. After her husband dies, Eugenie lives frugally as she always has and gives her wealth to charity. The romantic reunion with Charles in the film after years apart never happens in the novel.

Against the advice of June Mathis, during the announcement of the film to the press, Valentino approached Ingram to ask him to talk to Metro’s Maxwell Karger about an increase in salary over the $350 a week that he was making. Ingram refused and Natacha Rambova thought Valentino should talk to Karger directly, which he did. Karger at that point was unwilling to raise his salary which didn’t satisfy Valentino.

Meanwhile, Natacha coached Valentino on how to enhance his importance for his future in pictures. She emphasized the importance of the people who lit the set, called juicers, and what he should tell the makeup people. He picked over the width of the lapels on coats. Valentino also groused about his lack of camera time but the reality was that his character was absent from long stretches of the book. When he displayed his new attitude on the set, the real friction between himself and Ingram began even as Ingram was already wary as Valentino’s performance in The Four Horsemen had gained so much attention at the expense of Ingram’s masterful direction.

Gag shot which belies the stress on the set….

Publicity portrait of, from left, director Rex Ingram, Rudolph Valentino, and Alice Terry from THE CONQUERING POWER, 1921. 7×9 b&w photographic print.

Source: Publicity portrait from the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Ingram focused on the visual effects of the film. He would film his fiancee Alice Terry, who played Eugenie, with gauze in front of the camera to emphasize her fragility and ethereal nature (Shulman, page 153). Valentino became increasingly temperamental to the point where Ingram one day left the set to go to Karger to demand a replacement and start the picture all over again with a young actor named Ramon Samaniegas, the future Ramon Navarro. Valentino, knowing that the studio considered Ingram to be the more important asset at this point, went to Karger and tried to explain that he simply wanted to do his best and hoped for a better situation with Ingram…Karger said the studio had decided to give him a $50 a week raise for the last few weeks of filming which didn’t make Valentino completely happy (Shulman, page 152). June Mathis would act as a buffer between him and the director, assuring him that Ingram would not deliberately sabotage Valentino with poor lighting or shooting angles and the film was finally completed. Although the situation had been patched up, when asked if he would make another picture with Alice Terry and Valentino, Ingram replied with a firm “No.” And he would not deny that he had wanted to scrap the picture and start over again with another actor.

By the time the picture opened on July 8, 1921, Valentino had left Metro to sign a contract with Jesse Lasky at Famous Players-Lasky. Ingram was praised for his direction and photographic effects and innovative lighting (Leider, page 144), while Valentino was praised in The New York Times for “his finished performance as Charles Grandet. He is a pantomimist of marked ability.” (The New York Times, July 10, 1921). However, the film didn’t achieve the box office success that had greeted The Four Horsemen. Some critics did not like the shift to modern dress from what would have been worn in the early 1800’s. But polling had been done which showed that at the time, the public wasn’t interested in costume drama and June Mathis in the opening title acknowledges that “commercialism tells us that you, Great Public, do not like the costume play.”

But tastes would shift, at least among the women in the audience. The Sheik opened in two theaters in New York, the Rialto on October 30, 1921, then moving to the Rivoli the next week, smashing attendance records. According to Emily Leider, after Valentino became identified as the Sheik, when his pre-Sheik films were circulated, including The Conquering Power, “female patrons left the theater disappointed if the revived picture scanted” on love scenes.

 A theater manager in Wisconsin complained that after seeing The Conquering Power his lady patrons gave him "a terrible razz...as they expected to see Valentino float through five or six reels of lovemaking."

…Valentino’s career would never be the same…

***

NOTES:

–Both the original novel Eugenie Grandet and the film The Conquering Power are available for free download at the Internet Archive

— See reviews from Photoplay (September 1921) and The New York Times (July 10, 1921) at Silents Are Golden

–Another beautiful video from mysilentboyfriend on Youtube …a present day “reel of lovemaking”!

SOURCES:

Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover, The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Shulman, Irving. Valentino. New York: Trident Press, 1967.

Haydn, Hiram & Edmund Fuller. Thesaurus of Book Digests. New York: Bonanza Books, 13th Printing, 1965 (Entry: Human Comedy, The )

April 25, 1921–“Uncharted Seas,” A Lost Valentino Film, Released 100 Years Ago Today…Go Back in Time to Read the Original Short Story and Meet the Author

(…His Name is John Fleming Wilson)

Although Uncharted Seas (released 1921; filmed at Metro Studios, late 1920) is truly a lost film, with absolutely no footage surviving, there is a great deal of fascinating history surrounding what would be the first film Rudolph Valentino made after completing his breakout role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (See my previous post on that film here.)

In a postcard written from Palm Springs, California on November 13, 1920 to his sister Maria in Italy, Valentino told her that he had finished work on The Four Horsemen.

By December he was back at work on Uncharted Seas

Emily Leider in her biography Dark Lover remarks that Valentino was “shoved into a supporting part in a standard-issue production.” (page 127) To be realistic about it, Valentino was a contract player at the time and the studio had taken a huge risk with him in the expensive Four Horsemen, which had taken 6 months to complete. While the film and Valentino were getting a lot of buzz in the industry, the fact is the public would not see the film until late March of 1921. The studio was not going to elevate him to superstar status just yet. And Uncharted Seas wasn’t meant to be a bottom of the barrel production just because it was a “standard-issue production.” The director was Wesley Ruggles, who already had wide directing experience and who would later win the Oscar for Best Director in 1931 for Cimarron, and John Seitz, who was the favorite cameraman of The Four Horsemen’s director Rex Ingram, was on board to shoot the film. And, any film, unless there had been another blockbuster suited to Valentino available to start filming, would have been a step down at that point from the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! Furthermore, Uncharted Seas was based on a short story by a writer whose work had already been turned into plays and films.

Meet John Fleming Wilson

John Fleming Wilson was born in 1877 in Erie, Pennsylvania and passed away in Venice, California in 1922. He was a prolific writer of short stories and adventure novels, some which take place in the Pacific Northwest and the California desert. Even with very little biographical information available, one can get a sense of who he was was from the dedications and forewards from a few of his books. (Many of his books and a short story are available for free download at The Internet Archive at archive.org. Just search the author’s name.)

For example, in Across the Latitudes (1911), a seafaring story, he dedicates the book “To My Friends of the S.S. Hanalei.” The Land Claimers, also published in 1911, is dedicated “To United States Senator George E. Chamberlain of Oregon” and includes a loving “Foreward: To My Wife”(below). Then, in his dedication to one of his best known works, The Man Who Came Back (1912), he muses about his sailing adventures and “the Unknown Woman.” The Man Who Came Back was adapted as a Broadway play which, according to IMDB “was considered a smash hit by the standards of pre-WWI Broadway…Filmed by Fox Film Corp. twice, The Man Who Came Back (1924) starring George O’Brien and as The Man Who Came Back (1931), starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.”

Foreword to The Land Claimers
Dedication of The Man Who Came Back
The Man Who Came Back, 1912, Fox Movietone Photo Play Edition

The Master Key, one of Fleming’s best known books, is set in the California desert:

Here’s a tidbit…Robert Leonard, who starred in the film of The Master Key (now lost) would marry Mae Murray, Rudolph Valentino’s long time friend/sometime lover (?) in 1918. She would divorce him in 1925 to marry fortune hunter (Prince?) David Mdivani with Valentino in attendance as best man. Leonard would move on to directing and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The Master Key starring
Robert Leonard

Souvenir Key marked “Fifteen Weeks – Thirty Reels – Talking Pictures – Universal.” Top and the bottom reads “Master Key by John Fleming Wilson – A Thrilling Story of Mystery and Romance”
The Master Key, 1915, Starring Robert Leonard, Jack Holt, Ella Hall. Universal Film Photo Play book edition

John Wilson Fleming earned some notice in Moving Picture Magazine in October 1920 (“John Fleming Wilson Enters the Moving Picture Field”) and October 1921 (October 1 1921, pg. 560, “John Fleming Wilson Has Signed with Ince”). Thomas H. Ince revolutionized the movie industry and was the first film mogul to build his own studio…read about him here. It is not clear what John Wilson Fleming’s role working for Ince would have been. Perhaps he would have done his own adaptations of his stories or would have started writing original scripts. However, John Wilson Fleming died only a few months later in March 1922…but at least he saw his short story, The Uncharted Sea, produced for the screen by Metro in late 1920.

The story was printed in Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 70, June to September, 1920 and is available at Google Books. The entire text of The Uncharted Sea is free to read or download. Just scroll down to page 607 if reading online. If you prefer to read a synopsis of the story, visit Strictly Vintage Hollywood for a fun read!

Here are the illustrations from the story as they appeared in Munsey’s Magazine:

The first thing you will notice if you read the full story is that the name of the hero has been changed from Ralph Underwood to Frank Underwood in the film. Wise move…can you imagine Rudolph Valentino being named “Ralph” let alone “Frank”? From the 3rd and last illustration you can also see that the “Frank” character has a very chiseled, all-American look. Now, there are some stills which depict rugged action and some images in which Rudolph has “natural” hair and looks fairly “chiseled”…but, then there are the stills where he looks almost angelic. That juxtaposition is emblematic of the “mystique of Valentino”!

Follow the slideshow to see the on location action, the All-American Rudolph, and the angelic Rudolph:

Where did all the snow come from? According to Strictly Vintage Hollywood, the film was “filmed on the Metro Pictures Corporation lot located on Cahuenga Blvd. and also on location in the Northern California town of Truckee for some of the exterior snow scenes.” (NOTE: Donna Hill in her book Rudolph Valentino: The Silent Idol places the location in Flagstaff, Arizona.) Here is the picture of the back lot snow pile:

The star of the movie, of course, was Alice Lake, who played Lucretia Eastman…

.

…which may have been a good thing for Valentino because at least one film review was not overly enthusiastic. The May 7, 1921 Exhibitors Herald review digest liked Alice Lake and the photography but thought the tale was “drawn out.” … with no mention of Valentino.

The full review in the same issue of the Exhbitors Herald was even more pointed: “Familiar triangle plot. Makes a poor vehicle for Metro star.” The star referred to was NOT Valentino…ironically, the only mention he received was in a mistake in the caption of the accompanying picture! That’s not Rudolph Valentino with Alice Lake–that’s Carl Gerard who played the errant husband Tim Eastman!

Uncharted Seas may not have been a stellar film, but from all the information I have found, it’s still a film of interest that is sadly lost to time. Hopefully, this post will help bring it alive again on the 100th anniversary of its release…


Sources:

Emily Leider, Dark Lover.

IMDB–John Wilson Fleming’s entry includes a full list of his works translated to the screen

Strictly Vintage Hollywood

IMDB–Entry for the film Uncharted Seas

Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 70, June-September 1920 on Google Books. Free readable/downloadable version of the original short story, The Uncharted Sea.

Internet Archive (Archive.org) John Wilson Fleming books and publications which included short stories

The Adventure, War, and Espionage Fiction Magazine Index Scroll down for a list of some of John Wilson Fleming’s short stories.

Many of John Wilson Fleming’s books are available as original or reprint editions from Amazon, EBay, and many used book sites. Scouts of the Desert and Across the Latitudes are available in Kindle editions.