Moran of the Lady Letty: Part 4–Hair and “Hoakum”: Mixed Reviews from The Press…and from Rudolph Valentino

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.

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Sunday, March 26, 1922. Section 4, Page 6. (This ad was part of a an entire page of stories and photos devoted to the film. See the full page in the NOTES below.)

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 New York Herald, New York, New York. Monday, February 6, 1922. Page 6.
Daily News, New York, New York. Wednesday, February 8, 1922. Page 17.

The reviewer from The New York Herald remarked that the plot line “strained credulity a bit when it came to a girl remaining alive all night ” after the ship’s fire that “killed strapping men.” But the critic thought Dorothy Dalton generally gave “a forceful characterization of the girl who wanted to be a man except when her hair gets into her performance.” This critic was fixated on the actors’ hair and overall appearance! “To bob or not to bob was evidently the burning question that faced Miss Dorothy Dalton in girding herself up for this picture.” The critic regretted that she “trimmed her hair to the length standardized for horses” and “it seems to hang in strings of licorice around her face. The ordinarily enchanting countenance of Miss Dalton becomes as broad beamed as a ship, and her charming smile turns into a hatchway.”

Valentino got off relatively easy with the comments that “as evidence that his rough experience before the mast works a transformation of character, he no longer wears the patent leather haircomb of his San Francisco trifling,” and how “one feels that even when…he is sloshing water from a bucket, …that he could change instantly into his best party manner and slosh tea from a cup.”

By contrast, the Daily News reviewer McElliot heralded Valentino as a much-needed new hero and considered the release of Moran of the Lady Letty as “real news.” He valued the film at about “98 per cent” and remarked that “This man Valentino has a pair of fists with him, my dears!” But Dalton came up short again as she looked “oddly boyish and perhaps a trifle grotesque, at moments, in seaman’s clothes…and the straight bobbed locks made made famous by one Buster Brown.” (See NOTES below for more information about Buster Brown and my own Buster Brown haircut and shoes!)

“strings of licorice around her face”–New York Herald review

“…bobbed locks made famous by one Buster Brown”–McElliot

A couple of days before the Los Angeles premiere (February 12, 1922) a syndicated review by James W. Dean, datelined New York, began appearing in newspapers. It started off with a dig at Valentino:

"It had to happen sooner or later, Francis X. Bushman used to get away with it with considerable regularity. Wally Reid has been guilty of it several times.  Yessir, Rudolph Rodolf Rudolpho Rodolfo Whathis name Valentino just had to peel of his shirt off and get out in front of the Kliegl lights sooner or later in his sleeveless undershirt so the flappers might gaze upon his manly muscle."
New Castle Herald, New Castle, Pennsylvania.
Friday, February 10, 1922. Page 14.
Rock Island Argus, Rock Island, Illinois.
Saturday, February 11, 1922. Page 10.
Valentino peeled down to his sleeveless undershirt as noted by critic James W. Dean

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.

The Central New Jersey Home News,
New Brunswick, New Jersey
.

Friday, March 3, 1922. Page 4.

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).

Exhibitor’s Herald, February 18, 1922. Page 53,
The Shreveport Journal, Shreveport, Louisiana. Wednesday May 3, 1922. Page 16.

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.

March 11, 1922 Edition.
Note: Grauman’s Rialto was located in Los Angeles, California
April 1, 1922 Edition. Kansas City, Kansas.
April 1, 1922 Edition. St. Louis, Missouri.
April 1, 1922. Seattle, Washington.

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!

Wednesday, February 1, 1922. Page 12.
Thursday, February 2, 1922. Page 15.

Friday, February 3, 1922. Page 13.

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.

Variety, Friday, February 10, 1922. Page 36.

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”….


NOTES

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.

1956

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.

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.

SOURCES

Newspapers and periodicals as cited in the text

NPR (National Public Radio). Present at the Creation: Buster Brown. Includes links to the Buster Brown series of silent movies made by Thomas Edison and other material at the Library of Congress. Direct link to the Buster Brown materials at the Library of Congress.

TVTropes.org. Comic strip/Buster Brown entry.

SOURCES as

Moran of the Lady Letty: Part 2 — A Look at the 1922 Valentino/Dalton Film Vs. the Novel: The BIG Differences

Click for the video summary of this post on Youtube.

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:

The 1898 edition of the novel at Archive.org; Video of the film on Youtube–(This is the TCM version featuring the introduction to the Flicker Alley release delivered by the late Robert Osborne.)

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.

The Author

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:


“Ross Wilbur” — Pages 5-6

Title card from the film describing Ramon Laredo

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)

Dorothy Dalton portraying

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…and A Shanghaiing

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.”

A social, happy and attractive Moran,
“raised as a hardy seaman” (Title Card
)
Ready to go to work shipboard

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)

“I feel like chucking this crowd”

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.”

Walter Long as Captain Kitchell

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)

Shying away from Ramon’s ardor

“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:

Pages 196-197

“…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:

Pages 199-200

“…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)

So, what we see in the novel are three “overwrought features” (McElrath, Joseph R., “The Erratic Design of Frank Norris’s ‘Moran of the Lady Letty” (Page 117):

“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…

NOT
SO
FAST…
KITCHELL HIDING IN THE SHIP’S HOLD! (but already long dead in the novel…)

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!

Neat & Presentable on the Screen…

…VERSUS …

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):

Pages 284-285

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.

THE END

(Pages 292-293)

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.

No more cotillions for Ramon…
…Said with awkwardness, not hostility
No doubt about it now!

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?

NOTES

  1. 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.

SOURCES

Bizarre Los Angeles–Photography and Lost History (online)

The Britannica, Frank Norris biography (online)

Dorothy Dalton Filmography at Wikipedia (online)

Literary Devices–Definition and Examples of Literary Terms (online)

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.

February 12, 1922–“Moran of the Lady Letty” with Rudolph Valentino and Dorothy Dalton Premieres in Los Angeles (New York Premiere, February 5) (Part 1)

Video version of Part 1 on Youtube…

UPDATE: Link to Part 2 blog post (includes link to video version)

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.

Los Angeles Evening Express, Saturday, February 11, 1922 (Page 12)
Announcing the “World” Premiere Begin. Sunday”

A short description of the film appeared with the above ad:

Los Angeles Evening Express, Saturday, February 11, 1922

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.

The Bristol Herald Courier, Bristol, Tennessee, Sunday, April 1, 1922. Page 16

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…

SOURCES

IMDb (Internet Movie Database)

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

Newspaper ad/report sources as cited in the text

Norris, Frank. Moran of the Lady Letty; a story of adventure off the California coast. New York, Doubleday & McClure Co., 1898.

Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris is available at Archive.org.

The film is also available on Youtube.

November 27, 1921: The Start of “Sheik Week” Follows The Precedent-Setting New York Premiere and Nationwide Release of “The Sheik”

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.

New York Tribune, Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 8.

New York Tribune, Sunday, November 13, 1921. Page 2, IV.

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.”

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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.

The Arkansas Democrat, Little Rock, Arkansas
Sunday, November 27, 1921. Page 6

Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana
Sunday, December 25, 1921

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.

The Decatur Herald, Decatur, Illinois
Sunday, December 4, 1921. Page 21

Below is a “news” article from the Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi (actually the Paramount publicity release) which shows the text in readable form:

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Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi

Sunday, December 25, 1921. Page 4

Headlines from newspapers across the country reflected the excitement and anticipation as The Sheik opening rolled out:

Arabian Romance Makes Thrilling Drama for Screen..Spectacular Settings a Feature of ‘The Sheik’, Plot One of Interest“–South Bend News-Times, South Bend, Indiana. Monday, November 28, 1921

The Sheik, Tremendous in Power, Wildly Exciting, at the Opera House“–Bangor Daily News, Bangor, Maine. Tuesday, December 13, 1921

‘Sheik’s’ Story of Man Breaking Girl’s Strong Will, Many Stirring and Thrilling Scenes in Great Photodrama“–Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana. Sunday, December 25, 1921

At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentino at the Regent and That’s That!“–The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1927. Page 31

The headline from the Wichita Eagle set the stage to let readers know what the Wichita public could expect to see. And although a New York critic felt the film was “denatured” the Wichita columnist was careful about telling readers how the film had survived the state board while letting parents know that, even so, the film “wasn’t for children.” The accompanying ad heightened the public’s eagerness to join the anticipated crowds at the theater.

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At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentino at the Regent and That’s That!

The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1921. Page 31

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While The Witchita Eagle writer was concerned about children, a professor in Chicago had a different reaction…

Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana
Sunday, December 11, 1921. Page 11

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.

NOTES

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.

Link to Youtube video of this blog post

SOURCES

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

Newspaper articles as cited in the text.

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…

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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 )

May 11, 1921 — Valentino Writes a Check: Reconstructing The Fascinating Backstory About This Very Special Collectible…

On May 11, 1921 Rudolph Valentino wrote check No. 10008 in green ink payable to Walter M. Murphy Motors Co. for the sum of $200.00, drawn on his account at the Hollywood Branch of the Citizens Trust and Savings Bank, Los Angeles. It was signed “R. Valentino.” I have touched it only one time. It is extremely thin and the paper almost feels like fabric…so different from the stiff paper we see in our modern day checks. Perhaps time has taken its toll…100 years is such a long time ago, yet this check is part of my life now.

Interior of the Citizens Trust and Savings Bank, Hollywood Boulevard & North McCadden Place, Los Angeles, Ca, 1928

Source: University of Southern California, USC Libraries Special Collections,

“Dick” Whittington Photography Collection, 1924-1987

This bank branch was located on a side street a few blocks from both Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards and also what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

The Los Angeles Times Sun., Sep 4, 1921 Pg. 69

The months before and after this check was written were pivotal in the life and career of Rudolph Valentino. Here’s a timeline of what happened:

  • Completes his work on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, November 1920 (see this prior post for details).
  • Quickly begins work on Uncharted Seas, filming during December 1920 (see this prior post for details). Meets Natacha Rambova. First formal date Christmas week, 1920 at a costume ball, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles.
  • Filming of Camille underway January-February 1921. First wife Jean Acker files for divorce, January 17, 1921. Valentino fully smitten with Rambova during this time and relationship develops. They soon begin to co-habit at Rambova’s Sunset Boulevard bungalow.
  • The Conquering Power begins production one week after filming of Camille is completed.
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse premieres March 6, 1921.
  • Filming of The Conquering Power completed in a few weeks by the end of March 1921. After this film, Valentino will have no work until July 1921. Money is very tight during this time. (Valentino is in debt, paying off his New York tailors for all the suits he had made to use in The Four Horsemen. During especially lean times, he hunts and eats mussels found at the beach.)
  • Also in March, the American edition of The Sheik, by E.M. Hull, appears and becomes an immediate success.
  • Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation has been negotiating the rights for Hull’s The Sheik, finally purchasing the rights for $12,500.
  • Valentino leaves Metro Pictures after the completion of filming The Conquering Power, following friction during filming and money issues. Valentino offered the lead role in The Sheik. Signs a 2 picture deal with an option for an extension with Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. In a letter to Adolph Zukor dated July 2, 1921, Lasky writes that he is “fortunate in getting Valentino, the remarkable boy who played the lead in The Four Horsemen” and that casting the film has just finished.
  • July 5, 1921…The Sheik begins production and filming ends by late August.
  • The Conquering Power released July 8, 1921.
  • Camille released September 26, 1921.
  • The Sheik released October 30, 1921.

What would make Rudolph spend $200.00 (about $2960.00 in 2021) at Murphy Motors while not working, paying off debts and hunting for dinner during months without income? It seems to have been the NEED FOR SPEED.

As a youth in Taranto, Italy following his stint in agricultural school, cars were a way to pass the time. He was already attracted to speed. From Emily Leider’s Dark Lover, page 36:

In her book, Rudy: An Intimate Portrait of Rudolph Valentino By His Wife Natacha Rambova, Rambova spends quite a bit of time recounting Valentino’s preoccupation with cars, commenting how “Automobiles from the first were Rudy’s downfall.” He purchased a Mercer, which was considered to be the first sports car, on installment. The Mercer Series 5 was produced between 1919 and 1922 with prices over these years ranging from $3,675 – $5,650 making it on the high end of automobile prices. (Rounding off to $5,000, for example, a Mercer bought for that price in 1921 would cost $73,988 in 2021!) There were 6 body types including sedans, with the “sports car” version often called a “Speedster” in ads. It could reach speeds of 70-80 mph. (Rambova commented that “Rudy always had expensive tastes”….)

This ad for a 1920 Sport Model shows the appeal this car would have had for Valentino.

Chicago Tribune, Sun., September 4, 1921, Pg. 82.

When his acting jobs stopped at the end of March 1921, Valentino eventually lost the car and about half of what he had put into it. So, without a car of his own, he borrowed Rambova’s Buick “runabout” which she acquired when she started working at Metro Studios sometime in 1919. The term “runabout” was going out of use by 1915 when it was replaced by the term “roadster”. The original runabouts were very light cars usually without doors, windows or roofs usually seating 2 passengers and they eventually became virtually indistinguishable from roadsters. Roadsters were more refined with concave “hoods” over the dashboard which would deflect moving air away from the front passengers. (Hooded dashboards were also found on speed cars.) We don’t know if she bought a used “runabout” or newer model “roadster” but they were quite similar in appearance although seats in the runabout were further to the rear of the vehicle than they were in the roadster. Rambova fitted her car out with extras–“mirrors, spotlights, canteens, etc.”

Source: Clough, Albert L. A Dictionary of Automobile Terms. The Horseless Age Company. New York, 1913.

Whichever car Rambova owned, it lacked enough “pick-up” to suit Valentino. He scoured ads and had his connections at the studio on the lookout for a second-hand car that would meet his standards. He finally found a 1914 Cadillac, according to Rambova, which still had remnants of blue paint on the body and then campaigned to convince Rambova to allow him to trade in her runabout for the Cadillac. He even pocketed $400 on the trade. For Valentino, it was all about the motor; it had good speed even though it was not a racer–it could hit 70 mph–and it had “marvelous pick-up.” As for the body…no problem, it could be brought up to like new condition “in a week.”

And so the deal was done!

Valentino already had some experience with Cadillacs because while filming The Four Horsemen, he was ferried to the set in a Cadillac studio limousine.

The model year of the Cadillac he bought varies, with most sources, including Leider, saying the car was a 1914 model, while Donna Hill in Rudolph Valentino-The Silent Idol says it was the 1915 version. While Cadillac made models that looked very similar from year to year, there is one critical difference between these two production years. Part of the discrepancy may be due to the fact that Cadillac introduced a new engine in late 1914 for the 1915 production year.

Introduced in 1914 as the standard engine for all 1915 models, Cadillac’s first V8, the Type 51, used a 90-degree layout with three main bearings, L-head combustion chambers and water cooling...Cadillac’s initial design was a true high speed engine...the first use of a thermostatically controlled cooling system that was eventually adopted by all car manufacturers...soon earned world-wide praise for unprecedented smoothness and performance. The L-Head was on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines of the 20th century list.

Source: CaddyInfo – Cadillac Conversations Blog

More details from The (New) Cadillac Database:

1914: The last of the 4-cylinder Cadillac models. The motor was rated 40HP.

1915: New Cadillac V8 model dubbed "The sweetest running car in the world". "The ultimate in motor car engines" was the verdict of the industry's representative engineers. ...Top speed was a conservative 55-65 mph...
Trivia: On August 29, 1915, a stock Cadillac V8 drove a distance of 72 miles in 77 minutes and beat by 12 minutes the express Vandalia passenger train between Indianapolis and Terre-Haute, Indiana. On some stretches the car reached a speed of 75 mph.  Remember this is 1915 and the car is a stock Cadillac!

Dropping down a body during the assembly of a 1914 Cadillac touring model which was nearly identical to the 1915 version.

A restored 1914 Cadillac…looking very similar to Valentino’s car.

But, note some of the differences in the photo below which are found on Valentino’s car: the custom trim, the glass windscreen in front of the passengers, and the location of the small “spots” located over the front fenders.

Rudolph Valentino in his restored Cadillac (private collection)
as noted in Donna Hill’s book
Rudolph Valentino–The Silent Idol, pg.196

According to Evelyn Zamaya in her book Affairs Valentino (page 78), Valentino would work on the car during lunch hours during the final days of filming The Sheik. Rambova relates in her memoir that “he worked untiringly on the transformation of this ugly duckling, fitting it out with two strong “spots” on either side of the windshields, a cigarette lighter on the driving board, and many other improvements all installed by himself.” These other improvements included mirrors, a custom trim and, as Rambova comments, “After a good coat of black paint–egg-shell finish–and much polishing of the nickel trimmings, it really didn’t look so bad.” However, she reported that the car would break down at “the most inopportune moments,” which Valentino brushed off as being something that happened with powerful motors. And and it also guzzled oil and gas. But…for Valentino, it was a REAL car…

And here is something truly amazing: We can actually hear what Valentino heard when he started the engine! Watch these videos on Youtube:

Rebuilt 1914 Cadillac Engine – First Start in 65 Years! (Posted Feb 11, 2020)

1915 Cadillac Starting. (Posted May 21, 2009)

It’s quite something to hear this engine running and imagining Valentino working on it, 100 years ago.

This brings us back to the check written to Walter M. Murphy Motors. Murphy Motors was founded in 1920 in Pasadena, California as a dealer for Simplex automobiles. It added Leland Lincolns to its roster and then Duesenbergs. The “coach building” aspect of Murphy’s Motors began as an unplanned aside. Basically, the company started to change the top and paint on the Leland Lincolns because Murphy’s clientele thought the original designs were not modern or flashy enough and because he thought the engineering of the Lincolns was poor. Murphy bought equipment and brought in staff from the New Jersey-based Healey and Company and by 1922 began making a name among wealthy clients, which included industrialists, movie stars and car aficionados, by building custom bodies on top of the basic chassis of many brands.

Murphy is known to have built on Bentley, Bugatti, Buick, Cadillac, Cord, Crane-Simplex, Doble, Dorris, Essex, Ford, Hispano-Suiza, Hudson, Isotta- Fraschini, Lincoln, Locomobile, Marmon, Mercedes-Benz, Mercer, Minerva, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Rolls-Royce and Simplex chassis, but they are most famous for their work on the Duesenberg Model J.  

Source: Coachbuild.com, The Coachbuilders Encyclopedia

It seems logical to assume that Valentino wrote this check on May 11, 1921 for $200.00 to buy parts from the Walter M. Murphy Motors Company that he needed for his restoration work. It is quite likely that he would have asked for advice and perhaps would have some work like the new paint job and custom trim done by the company itself.


So, today marks the 100 year anniversary of the day Rudolph Valentino went over to Pasadena to an auto business, bought parts, chatted about his treasured second-hand Cadillac, and then went home to work on it…

And the proof of how he spent that day is in the check…


ADDENDA

NOTE: An image of the check is now posted in the My Memorablilia/Book Collection section of this blog.

1. Valentino’s used Cadillac was apparently gone by the time of his death in August 1926. In the list of estate items in auctioned off only the following vehicles are listed: the 1925 Isotta Fraschini; the 1925 Avion Voisin; a 1926 Franklin Coupe; a 1925 Chevrolet Roadster, and a 1922 Ford Truck. Source: Allan R. Ellenberg, The Valentino Mystique. page 182.

2. A photo of the showroom of Walter M. Murphy Motors which was relocated in to West Colorado Avenue, Pasadena in 1920. Photo ca. 1927.

Walter M. Murphy Motors, 285 West Colorado, Pasadena, ca. 1927.

View of the new display room

Parker, Harold A., 1878-1930, photographer

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Garden

3. National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form Submitted January 2, 1996

Listing for Early Auto-Related Properties in Pasadena, California

American companies (which came to be concentrated in southern Michigan) along with their European counterparts would often ship their high performance chassis to New York and Los Angeles were there was a strong market for luxury cars.6 Local custom coach builders would then complete the automobile according to the individual taste of the patron. One such company was the Walter M. Murphy Motor Company of Pasadena.Walter M. Murphy came from a Detroit family that had made its fortune in lumbering. An uncle, William H. Murphy was a stockholder in Henry M. Leland’s Cadillac as well as a backer of Henry Ford’s early automotive ventures. Before entering the custom body5 Peter Ling, America and the Automobile: Technology. Reform and Social Change. p. 127.6 Duesenberg, Lincoln, and Cadillac were the first American made luxury cars able to compete with the European imports such as Mercedes and Rolls Royce. business, Murphy sold Simplex and Locomobile cars. In 1920, he moved into new facilities at 275-85 West Colorado Boulevard and became the California distributor for the new Lincoln luxury car. He expanded into the body business as a result of the Lincoln’s poor engineering and conservative styling. After Lincoln was acquired by Ford in 1922, Murphy turned to building custom bodies for a variety of luxury car chassis at his Pasadena plant at 37-55 North Vernon Avenue (now St. John Street); however, Murphy built more bodies on Duesenberg chassis than any other coach builder in the United States. Murphy’s forte was in designing convertibles and roadsters.

Section F: Associated Property Types Page 18-19 Automobile showrooms are significant under criterion B if they are associated with individuals who pioneered and/or innovated the automobile sales business in Pasadena. Walter Murphy, for example, was one of the most significant figures in the history of automobiles in the United States. He was a nationally recognized leader in the sale and manufacturing of luxury automobiles, including Lincolns and Duesenbergs.


Sources:

AFI Catalogue

Rambova, Natacha. “Rudy: An Intimate Portrait of Rudolph Valentino by His Wife Natacha Rambova.” News Clippings of the Life of Natacha Rambova & Rudy Valentino with Complete Transcript of her Book. Middletown, Delaware: Self-published, 2021. (book available at Ebay, ISBN 9798565516371)

U.S. Inflation Calculator, 1913-Present (Learn how this calculator works. The US Inflation Calculator uses the latest US government CPI data…to adjust for inflation and calculate the cumulative inflation rate through the prior month. Example: The U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics will release the Consumer Price Index (CPI) with inflation data for April on May 12, 2021. (See a chart of recent inflation rates.)

Clough, Albert L. A Dictionary of Automobile Terms. New York: The Horseless Age Company, 1913.

Coachbuild.com. The Coachbuilders Encyclopedia.

CaddyInfo–The Cadillac Conversations Blog

The (New) Cadillac Database The (New) Cadillac Database© was originally compiled by Yann Saunders, a member of the Cadillac & La Salle Club, Inc., the Society of Automotive Historians and the Classic Car Club of America. It is now being updated and maintained by DLM Group, Inc.

Ellenberger, Allan R. The Valentino Mystique, the Death and Life of the Silent Film Idol. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005.

Hill, Donna L. Rudolph Valentino, The Silent Idol–His Life in Photographs. RVG, 2019. (self-published)

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