It is movie time! The subject of this week’s reading (Unit 7, Lesson 22) is the 1920s, or the “New Age.” To explore the period, we are going to watch one of most significant American films of the silent era, The Son of the Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky. This silent movie was released in 1926 and is 68 minutes in length. It has English subtitles; the audio technology facilitating “talking movies” became available one year later. The Son of the Sheik can be accessed through the YouTube link below. The movie is the subject for analysis in Discussion Board 3.
Consumer consumption, mass culture, and mass media exploded on the American scene during the 1920s due to rising incomes. These conditions fostered a “cult of celebrity” in which “individuals, being reduced to anonymous parts of a mass industrialized society, could find solace by identifying with the achievements of celebrities and heroes.” Baseball home-run-slugger Babe Ruth, Christian radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and transatlantic solo-pilot Charles Lindbergh were just three of the famous people who animated the popular culture of the 1920s. Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky, the leading actors in The Son of the Sheik, were certainly part of this cult of celebrity (Davidson 470).
The 1920s offered Americans new entertainment venues. Radio had emerged as a new and powerful entertainment and communication tool. Movie productions became more sophisticated as Americans were treated to the new phenomenon of “blockbuster” films. By the mid-1920s, “more than 20,000 movie houses offered customers lavish theaters with overstuffed seats, live music, and a celluloid dream world. By the end of the decade they were drawing in over 100 million people a week, roughly the equivalent of the national population” (Davidson 470).
The Son of the Sheik was released in 1926 and was an instant box-office success. The two lead actors were big Hollywood stars of the day. Indeed, Valentino’s performance and smoldering, sexualized appearance practically invented the role of Hollywood male sex-symbol. It was a reputation solidified by his his implied rape of Banky, a scene in the movie that is controversial to this day.
The film opened in Los Angeles on July 9, 1926 and played for four weeks. Valentino then embarked on a nationwide tour to promote the film as it rolled out in first-run theaters throughout the nation. On August 15, he collapsed in his New York City hotel room and was rushed to the hospital. Doctors discovered he had a perforated ulcer which required emergency surgery. After the surgery, Valentino developed peritonitis and died on August 23. 1926. He was 31 years old. The Son of the Sheik was put into general release nationwide on September 5, 1926, nearly two weeks after Valentino’s death.
An estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of Manhattan to pay their respects at Valentino’s funeral. Suicides of despondent fans were reported. Windows were smashed as fans tried to get into the crowded funeral home, and an all-day riot erupted on August 24. Over one-hundred mounted New York police officers were deployed to restore order. A phalanx of officers lined the streets for the remainder of the viewing of Valentino’s body.
THE FILM’S SETTING
Set in modern times (1926), The Son of the Sheik was filmed in Yuma, Arizona. In it, Valentino plays the son of a wealthy “sheik,” meaning his father was the head of an Arab tribe, family, or village. Vilma Banky plays a young, impoverished woman who dances to support her unscrupulous father. The setting is Touggourt, Algeria. Located in Northwest Africa, Algeria was a colony of France in 1926, just as much of the Middle East was a colony of France or Great Britain. These colonial arrangements were sanctified by mandates established for nations and regions deemed unable to govern themselves through the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which concluded World War I. Movies Silently is a website devoted to silent films and offers an excellent overview of The Son of the Sheik and its plot.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?
Please proceed with the Discussion Board Forum 3 assignment in this way:
- Read the background information about The Son of the Sheik at Movies Silently.
- View the film at the YouTube link below (68 minutes in length).
- Navigate to Discussion Board Forum 3 – The Son of the Sheik and respond to these two questions:
- What does the movie imply about American attitudes in the 1920s toward sexual assaults against women,
- and what does the film suggest about the nature of white supremacy in 1920s American culture?
- When responding, give examples to support your statement (“for example” is always good for me to see).