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A Silent Sheik Lives On

An Italian-American’s portrayal of the Anglo-Spaniard adopted by an Arab sheik in two silent movies may yet still provide many Americans with vivid, romantic, and ridiculous images of Arab men

Rudolph Valentino still colors the American myth of the Arabian man. I might not have believed this if I hadn’t heard this myth spouted from the mouths of young American women living in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Being stolen and locked up in a palace or desert tent at the hands of a dashing Arab on a galloping horse was on the minds of Karen, Sarah and me as we sipped mochas and picked at scones at the bustling Starbucks in the Mercato Mall along Jumeirah Beach Road. “Doesn’t that sound exciting! Karen gushed as we perused her shopping treasures from the spice souq that afternoon. “I may have a great business development job here, but I’m still looking for my sheik!” Those images came from Valentino’s iconic Jazz Age movies The Sheik and Son of the Sheik. Not even the events of 9/11 seemed to intrude on those young women’s fantasies. Whether or not they had even heard of Rudolph Valentino, I couldn’t be sure.

If my grandmothers had been alive when I announced my move to Dubai in the summer of 2004, I’m sure images from Valentino’s movies would have come to their minds. In those silent films from the 1920s, Rudolph Valentino galloped around sand dunes (in Yuma, Arizona, actually) and made dramatic entrances into high-ceilinged Bedouin tents, smoking, hands on hips, lusting after and kidnapping Western women. For many Americans, remnants of the impressions from those early films may still color their impressions of life in the Arabian Peninsula and throughout the Middle East. From what I’ve read about Valentino himself as a sensitive, poetic Italian-American ex-pat in America, I’m sure he would have been shocked and saddened to think his movies gave Americans cartoonish impressions of the emotional lives of Arab men.

Valentino was born Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina D’Antonguolla (on his Hollywood gravestone he’s more simply listed as “Rudolfo Guglielmi Valentino”) on May 6, 1895, in the small town of Castellaneto in Puglia, a region at the western base of the heel of Italy’s boot. He sailed to America at the age of 18, got work as a dancer in some plays, and then appeared in the movie Alimony as a dancing extra. Several movies later, George Melford directed him in what would become social and cinematic history.

Not only did Valentino become a sensation from his appearance in The Sheik, but Arab decorating and dress became very popular. Rudy’s horsemanship also needs mentioning. Although some of the riding sequences are pretty theatrical (there’s a lot of dramatic wheeling and kitschy rearing, for example), Valentino was an expert rider and owned many Arabian horses throughout his life.

The Sheik was a silent picture released in October 1921. It was based on a novel by E. M. Hull and starred Valentino as Ahmed Ben Assan (“Ahmed, son of Assan” in Arabic), a young, powerful sheik in an unnamed desert kingdom. Ahmed runs into Lady Diana (played by English actress Agnes Ayers), an English woman planning to take a trip into the desert. Although his acting was stiff, his teeth were uneven, and his eyes a bit jumpy, in 1921 he was the embodiment of male—and supposedly Arab—sensuality. (Claims of androgynous appeal would come after his death.) Women gripped by Rudy’s swaggering athleticism and smoldering good looks (and a sensational profile that still holds up) fainted in movie theater aisles. Whether my grandmothers were fainting in the aisles was never shared in family stories.

My mother was born two years after women fainted over that first picture. And whether Valentino had anything to do with Grandma Fruend’s libido (she was, after all, 43 when Mom was born), Grandpa kept to himself. Mom was three when Son of the Sheik was released in 1926. In this sequel, Valentino plays dual roles of Ahmed (more properly Ahmed Ben Ahmed) and his father, the original Ahmed Ben Assan from The Sheik. Agnes Ayers reprises her role as the older Sheik’s wife (“at the request of Mr. Valentino” as the credits say). The dancing girl Yasmin, (played by Hungarian actress Vilma Banky) unwittingly lures young Ahmed into a thieves’ trap, and Ahmed later kidnaps Yasmin in retaliation, holding her captive in his desert lair. When she is then kidnapped by yet another ludicrously portrayed Arab, Ahmed realizes he truly loves Yasmin. The plot is of little importance as the screen belongs to Valentino, Banky, and the lavish Arabian set designs of William Cameron Menzies. If Rudy had anything to do with my grandmother giving birth to another daughter so late in life, I can understand her enthusiasm. Rudy is a dashing hunk, even more so in this sequel.

Son of the Sheik was to be Valentino’s last movie. He died from endocarditis and septicemia soon after that movie was released. After carousing into the early hours the night before at speakeasies and nightclubs, Rudy collapsed at a hotel in New York City and was rushed into surgery for a large perforated ulcer at the Polytechnic Hospital. In front of two priests, Rudy’s Great Dane “Kabar” (probably a variation of “big” in Arabic), and legions of weeping nurses, Rudy said his last words, “Don’t pull down the blinds. I feel fine. I want the sunlight to greet me.” He then slipped into a coma and died on August 23. He was 31.

There were riots in fron of Campbell’s Funeral Parlor as the police tried to contain 100,000 people pushing to get in to see Valentino lying in state. A train then took his body to California where he was buried in Hollywood Memorial Park in the Cathedral Mausoleum, Crypt 1205. A mysterious “Lady in Black” (later revealed to be his first wife Jean Acker) visited his grave every day to leave roses. Valentino’s home and stables at his “Falcon Lair” estate and the backlots of Paramount Studios in Hollywood are reportedly still haunted by his ghost.

I regret that I never asked my grandmothers about Valentino. When he died in 1926, both of them were married with children but also experienced enough to hold onto a few romantic notions. I regret that Cora and Helen never knew I was living in the Middle East. I would have sent them colorful pashminas, exotic pillow covers, rich carpets, and many long letters about real life on the Arabian Peninsula, not the Hollywood-styled sultry silliness of Valentino’s sheik movies. But I wonder if, even as they read aloud my letter in their hands, they might laugh with their friends over iced tea and Scrabble boards about how their granddaughter was living in tents, traveling across dunes by Arabian horse, and being waited on by my sheik with a perfect profile.

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