The Sheik, celebrating its 100th anniversary later this month, becomes the first silent film to join the Paramount Presents line.
This film became a box office sensation upon its release in 1921. Domestically, the film would gross some $1.5 million against a production budget of under $200,000. In some international markets, the film also played between six months to a year! Moreover, the film also made Rudolph Valentino, dubbed The Latin Lover, a sex symbol a few years before his 1926 death at the age of 31. In another universe, Ahmed Ben Hassan could have been played by James Kirkwood Sr. rather than the Italian native. For what it’s worth, the character isn’t Arab because his father is British and his mother is Spanish. In watching through a 2021 lens, there might be some casting controversy today because Valentino is from Italy and not of Spanish descent.
Compared to the book that it is based on, the film is toned down. The novel features Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) raping Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres). Critics were initially concerned that not including the rape would take away from the novel’s message. Mind you, this film came out during an era in which the Production Code was not yet a thing. While Will Hays was recruited to become the chair of the MPPDA in early 1922, the Code itself would not be established until 1930.
While Paramount distributed the film, it was produced by Famous Players-Lasky before the studio’s merger with Paramount. The new Blu-ray features a digital copy, collectible packaging, and a score from Roger Bellon. The sole bonus feature sees Professor Leslie Midkiff DeBauche discussing the controversy surrounding the film.
Rudolph Valentino is Ahmed Ben Hassan, a charming Arabian sheik who becomes infatuated with the adventurous, modern-thinking Englishwoman Lady Diana Mayo, played by Agnes Ayres. When the sheik abducts Lady Diana, the two clash, but ultimately profess their love for one another in this quintessential “desert romance” that effectively capitalized on the popularity of the genre.
- Desert Heat: 100 Years with The Sheik
THE SHEIK restoration employed modern technology so viewers can experience the original beauty of this monumental silent film. Since original negatives for silent films rarely exist, Paramount searched the world for the best elements and used a print and an intermediate element called a fine grain. One source of the film yielded better results for image quality, another for intertitles. One of the elements was “stretch-printed” and had to be adjusted digitally during the restoration process. In the silent era there was no standard frame rate, so stretch printing was done to show silent films at 24 frames per second. In addition, tints and tones were digitally applied, guided by an original continuity script from the Paramount archive. The result is the best picture quality THE SHEIK has had since it was originally shown in theaters 100 years ago.
DIRECTOR: George Melford
SCREENWRITER: Monte M. Katterjohn
CAST: Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres
Paramount released The Sheik in theaters on November 20, 1921. The film is available on Blu-ray.
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