The Eagle (1926) Directed by Clarence Brown. Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Banky, Louise Dresser (76 minutes).
In his brief traverse across the starry cinema universe, Rudolph Valentino only starred in 14 films before his tragic death at 31. The Sheik and Son of the Sheik are Orientalist rape fantasies (more about that later) and his breakthrough, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ends bitterly on the killing fields of WW I. In other films he plays the love interest, but is not really given the opportunity to do much of anything other than stand nobly by until it is time to kiss the leading lady. Camille is Nazimova’s film (and maybe she had his best scene edited out). Beyond the Rocks is fun, but does not tax his talents. So, we are left with only a handful of films that really evoke the tremendous sensation he caused in his day. I don’t think he made a better film than The Eagle, in which, as a Russian Robin Hood, he gallops wildly on his horse, plays comedy as he evades the attentions of Catherine the Great and romances Vilma Banky. He had a skilled director, Clarence Brown, and his career was no longer being supervised by Natacha Rambova, his estranged wife, who exercised an iron will where her husband’s films were concerned, not necessarily to his benefit.
Rodolfo Guglielmi was born in 1895 in Southern Italy, into a middle-class family. Rodolfo didn’t care much for school, and was an indifferent student at agricultural college. When he was 18 he set off for a great adventure, emigrating to the United States. Once on board, he swapped his 2nd class ticket for 1st, and wearing his dress suit, mingled with the passengers hoping to network his way into New York high society. Once in the city, he spent his savings lavishly to impress, without much success, and ended up broke and possibly sleeping in Central Park. He got a job as a dance partner for hire in one of the popular tea rooms, where women went in the afternoon without their husbands to dance. Valentino was an expert at the tango, an erotic dance that partners danced pressed hotly together. Some cities in the US banned the suggestive dance. “When sixteen-year-old Gloria Swanson went to a fancy tea dance on Staten Island in 1914, she was warned to steer clear of the dangerous Argentinean import. Don’t worry a friend their reassured her. ‘They never play tangos on Staten Island.’” (Leider 57). He was graceful, talented and pleasing to his partners, and migrated to a job as a ballroom exhibition dancer, and then decided to try his luck in the movies.
When he arrived in Hollywood, he was told that his dark complexion would relegate him to villain roles, but that was fine, for now. In 1921 he caught the eye of June Mathis, who was one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, a successful screenwriter with a shrewd eye for talent. She cast him as Julio, an Argentine playboy, the hero of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a popular novel by Vincente Blasco-Ibañez. Many of his books, like Torrent, were adapted into silent films, Blood and Sand would become a later hit for Valentino (and Tyrone Power later on). Julio dances a sensual tango, moves abroad to enjoy the artistic atmosphere of Paris and finds meaning on the battlefield in WW I. Valentino was a sensation as Julio and then immediate filmed The Sheik.
The Sheik was a trashy novel penned by Edith M. Hull, equivalent in its cultural impact to something like the Twilight novels, or 50 Shades of Gray. Lady Diana Manners, a headstrong society beauty defies convention by making a trip into the Sahara desert accompanied only by guides. She is abducted by a handsome Sheik and carried off into his desert lair. “What do you want with me?” she demands, and he replies, “Are you not woman enough to know?” The Sheik is an Orientalist rape fantasy which is problematic today, and Valentino was directed to overact his desires. But, at the time, his passionate looks, ravenous kisses, and intense focus on the object of his affection was no less than transformational. Women “thought of him as someone who could whisk away from humdrum lives to a romance-drenched fairyland where no one has to pay bills, tend children, chop onions or do the laundry. Rudolph Valentino would be forever stamped as a handsome, exotic Romeo who pursues and escapes with one particular woman, the object of his desire—not just any skirt who happens by” (Leider 171).
The 1920s were a time of sexual liberation for women. World War I had broken down some barriers as women stepped into men’s roles for the first time in a major way. Clothes became less constrictive, and automobiles gave young people the freedom to spend time away from adult supervision, and morals loosened, much to the outrage of so-called responsible adults. And, women could watch handsome men on-screen. In the dark. Alone. Absorbed in their forbidden sexual fantasies. At this moment in time, their fantasy was Rudolph Valentino, and, it was a transgressive one. The 1920s was harshly racist, and Italians, part of a perceived invading hoard of immigrants taking American jobs, were not considered to be “white.” Today we look at Valentino and don’t see that, but that’s not how all audiences viewed him in the Jazz Age. When he played foreign characters, sometimes of mixed-race, who indulged the desires of, and kissed and caressed white women, this was an outrage to the patriarchy.
Valentino also was somewhat of an androgenous character. It’s impossible to tell after a century, when all the people who knew him are long dead, and past interviews may be coded and guarded, but it seems that he was primarily if not exclusively straight, but the women he loved, his two wives, Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova, and his last love, Pola Negri, were bisexual. He loved flamboyant dressing and yet seemed to be completely confident in his masculinity. Apparently, this was a gigantic threat to the red-blooded American male. There were constant accusations that he was weak and effeminate on screen, a tango pirate, a lounge lizard, a gigolo, a Pink Powder Puff. He wore a chain link bracelet, called a “slave bracelet” a gift from his wife, and a wristwatch, at a time when real men carried pocket watches. The roles that his second wife, Natacha Rambova, who was very controlling about his career, chose for him and the outré costumed photographs that she staged drove male reporters and commentators wild. This only made women love him more, his sensuality, his beauty, coupled with an on-screen demonstration of passion made him the idol of idols.
Hollywood was very open minded about sex in the 1920s. A commentator said, “The law of the colony is that everybody is entitled to do exactly as he or she sees fit in all personal matters. If you don’t like it, you may stay away, but you must not knock” and even Motion Picture magazine acknowledged bisexuality was definitely an option (Leider 134). But, many who knew Valentino associated him more with his love for Italian food than a trail of sexual conquests of either sex. Stuart Holmes, who acted with him in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, said, “All he thought about was Italian food. He’s turn those slumberous eyes on some woman, and she’d just about swoon with delight, but he couldn’t have cared less. He was usually thinking about the spaghetti and meatballs he was going to have for dinner that evening (Leider 126).
The Eagle was the 12th film in which Valentino had received star billing, and he would make only two more before his untimely death. It was also a film on a new contract with United Artists, one that gave him a lot of money, but banned his wife from meddling in the production: she was not even welcome as a spectator on set. Director Clarence Brown knew Valentino needed “virile” films “that will appeal to men moviegoers as well as women” (Lieder 341) and this swashbuckling adventure was an excellent choice. I think it’s his best film.
Hans Kraly, a frequent collaborator of Ernst Lubitsch, was given the commission to craft a script, hopefully more dashing and witty than Valentino’s recent films under Natascha’s firm hand. The source material was an unfinished story by Pushkin, “Dubrovsky.” At first, it was going to be called Untamed, or The Lone Eagle or The Black Eagle. But, The Black Eagle sounded too much like Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate, and as much as they hoped the film would be comparable to Fairbanks universal fan appeal, the title was eventually shortened to The Eagle. While referencing Fairbanks’ stand-bys as athleticism, historical settings and humor, Valentino adds passion into the mix (Doug wasn’t much of an on-screen lover, he tended to idolize his heroines). The director referenced beloved tropes from Valentino’s earlier hits. A woman is lifted onto horseback but gently, not abducted. He dances not a tango, but a spirited mazurka. And, he is pursued by two women, as in Blood and Sand, although the Czarina is not much of a rival for the true heroine. Gaylyn Studlar points out in her commentary on the Kino Lorber DVD, the Czarina is somewhat of a stand-in for Valentino’s fans, flirting with him, undressing him with her eyes, and planting an (unwanted) smooch.
Natacha thoroughly disapproved and disdained her husband’s approval of the script. Exiled from the set, Natascha boarded a train for New York City shortly after filming began, and the Valentinos separated: they may not have intended it, but it was the last time they would see one another. Their marriage had crumbled under the pressure of Natascha’s need to control her husband’s career. Now that they were apart, Hollywood had no reason to to kowtow to her any longer. Valentino found escaping into the character of Dubrovsky a relief, he said Chaplin shared that he had done his best work when he was stressed by personal issues. The Eagle was a hit, if not a home run. But, Valentino was satisfied. It was “the first film in which I have played which as really been of my own choosing” (Lieber 348). He loved riding, and he certainly looks marvelous on horseback.
He romances the lovely Vilma Banky. She was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1903 and made films in Hungary, Austria and France, billed as “The Hungarian Rhapsody.” Samuel Goldwyn was scouting for talent in Europe (all the studios wanted another Garbo) and Banky arrived in Hollywood in 1925. The Eagle was only her 2nd American film, and she immediately co-starred again with Valentino in his final film, Son of the Sheik. She met actor Rod La Rocque shortly after arriving, and in 1927 they married. Banky made a handful of talkies, but was thought to be hampered by her Hungarian accent and gladly retired to play golf and devote herself to being Mrs. Rod LaRocque. They were married for over 40 years. Screenwriter Frances Marion said “Rod La Rocque and Vilma Banky were one of the only two really happily married couples I ever knew in Hollywood: the other was Billy Haines and Jimmy Shields” (Bodeen 391).
Over a 40 year career, most of it at MGM during their most glamourous era, Clarence Brown directed classic films with a sure hand. He was closely associated with Greta Garbo’s mystique. Kevin Brownlow interviewed him in the 1960s. “Clarence Brown as a director was concerned not only with performances, but with lighting, composition, editing, story construction—every stage of the process of filmmaking. Brown was a brilliant technician,but he also had a warm feeling for people. In his handling of players, and of situations, he achieved a naturalism that, even when stylized, was also convincing. The Eagle, for instance, was a highly romantic story, in settings of deliberate artificiality, but Brown’s evocation of atmosphere, and his gentle humor, gave the slight story real stature” (Brownlow 138). If only Clarence Brown had directed Valentino's Monsieur Beaucaire instead of Sidney Olcott!
Banky and Valentino breaking brown bread with the director.
George Barnes’ photography coupled with Brown’s extraordinary eye makes The Eagle a visual pleasure and includes one tour de force tracking shot, one of the most memorable of the silent era. Brown explained the process to Kevin Brownlow. “There was on elaborate effect shot I did in that; a long track down a banquet table. The camera started with a character (James Marcus) earing at one end. Then it travelled down the middle of the table, past all the other occupants, right the full length of the table—which must have been 60 feet long. To get the camera in that position was very difficult; no equipment existed to do it. So we made two perambulators. We put one on each side of the table and we constructed a bride, with stressbeams sothat it was rigid. Then we dropped a crosspiece and fastened the camerafrom the top, so that the bottom of the camera could travel along the top of the table. Of course, nothing could obstruct the movement of the camera, so we had prop boys putting candelabra in place just before the camera picked them up. I liked the effect so well I did it again in Anna Karenina” (Brownlow 146).
Even though here you can see the contraption they used, when you see the shot in the film, it looks magical.
He gets terrific performances not just from the leads, Valentino and Banky, but from Louise Dresser as Catherine the Great (1729-1796) her general, Albert Conti, and as the villain, Kyrllia, James A. Marcus, who doesn’t even get a photo on the IMdb. Tony the Bear, of the Pallenberg Bears, was no doubt directed by his trainer, rather than Brown. The performing bears rode bicycles, walked tightropes and roller skated, so his role here does not tax his skills (thanks to Gaylyn Studlar for the bear credit). Banky is quite spirited in the Maid Marian part as Mascha, and Valentino never gave a better performance, humorous (his gift for comedy was underrated) graceful on and off horseback and passionately romantic.
The fantastical Russian settings have a fairy tale quality, courtesy of William Cameron Menzies, who had recently designed Douglas Fairbanks' enchanted Thief of Bagdad. Although Fairbanks influenced the film in many ways, Valentino was an influence on Fairbanks, as well. He was one of the earliest stars to popularize a “sun tan” no longer would a darker skin tone be thought of as unromantic. Menzies said of his designs, “realism has an inhibiting effect on the fantastic” (DVD commentary).
As Janine Basinger writes of Valentino, “He didn’t merely become rich and famous, he became rich and famous and desired and envied and imitated and adored and even worshipped. He rose to the heights of movie stardom during the years when the term really meant something, when it was all new and fresh and joyous, when the curse it brought wasn’t yet fully understood” (Basinger 265). He spent all his money on houses (the last was called Falcon’s Lair) and custom-made automobiles and reams of bespoke tailored suits, riding attire, Japanese silk pajamas, dressing gowns, hats, canes, socks and silk underwear; when he died he owned 100 silk handkerchiefs embroidered with his initials, along with a huge inventory of jewelry, watches and cigarette cases, including a matching cigarette holder and match case inlaid with cut diamonds in a cobra design (Leiber 406). He made plenty of money, and there was no income tax. He enjoyed his fame and adoration, but chafed at the bad reviews, and especially the editorial accusing him of being a “pink powder puff” which seems to have rankled him until his death.
Since he died young, at the height of his fame, it’s impossible to imagine him even a year or two later in the talkies. Would he have faded away like John Gilbert, whose ardent romancing seemed out of step with the hard-boiled 30s mood? Or, a parody of his younger self, as John Barrymore did? Would he have altered his romancing like Ramon Novarro, who eventually ended up as a character actor, as did Antonio Moreno, even into the early days of television? Or, would he have completely reinvented himself like Ricardo Cortez, the former Jake Krantz, who embraced the fast-talking style of Depression era movies. Garbo became a recluse, would that have been his choice? Perhaps, it’s best not to speculate at all. Rudolph Valentino is immortal, like Marilyn Monroe, like James Dean, like Jimi Hendrix. Let him transport us to a century ago, when his beauty, erotic menace, humor and dashing persona transfixed his fans, male and female, but mostly female, with the promise of transporting romance.
Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider, Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger, Valentino by Irving Shulman, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp, Swanson on Swanson by Gloria Swanson, Hollywood Costume Design by Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland, Madam Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova by Michael Morris, Ramon Novarro by Allan R. Ellenberger, “Rod La Rocque and Vilma Banky” by Dewitt Bodeen in August-September 1977 Films in Review, “Clarence Brown” by Oscar A. Rimoldi in August-September 1990 Films in Review, The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow.