Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fifty Years Fifty Films - The Eagle (1925)

Rudolph Valentino’s final two films under his Paramount contract in 1924 Monsieur Beaucaire and A Sainted Devil, were less than successful.  The fans were apathetic and Valentino had lost his box office mojo. 

Valentino’s contractual obligations to Paramount were now completed and he was soon set up to produce his first independent film under the banner of Ritz-Carlton Productions.  Number one on the docket was The Hooded Falcon; the story was penned by his wife, Natacha Rambova. 

In the summer of 1924 the Valentinos left for a European vacation/shopping trip for props and brocades for the costumes for The Hooded Falcon.  Before departure they left the scenario in the hands of June Mathis for a rewrite. 

Upon their return from Europe in the fall, the pair found Mathis’ treatment wanting and they ended their professional, and, for a time, personal relationship.  The head and pocketbook of Ritz-Carlton, J.D. Williams, insisted that it would be more cost efficient to film Cobra prior to The Hooded Falcon.  The company needed some cash coming in with a new release.  Neither was happy with the idea of Cobra, but had little choice since The Hooded Falcon was not ready to go into production.  Natacha began work on her own project entitled What Price Beauty and left Valentino to work on Cobra.

The excessive cost for The Hooded Falcon was due, for the most part, to the lavish spending in Europe.  The Valentinos had spent close to one third of the slated budget for the completed film before a single frame was shot.  Hooded Falcon appeared to be cursed.  After Cobra was in the can, the Valentinos and J.D. Williams parted company on not so friendly terms.  In short, Williams fired them and dissolved the company.  Nothing came of The Hooded Falcon except for some smoldering costume shots of Valentino sporting a mustache and goatee.
The Hooded Falcon
Valentino signed on with United Artists and John Considine (father of Disney Legend Tim Considine) was to act as producer for his films.  UA had, in fact, earlier hinted about inviting Valentino when he broke with Paramount in 1922.  Three years later he was welcomed into the fold.  A lavish dinner was held at the Ambassador to celebrate Valentino’s addition to the roster of stars.  Production of The Eagle was started in the early spring of 1925.  A lot was riding on The Eagle, Valentino knew it, too.  Rudolph Valentino was very badly in need of a box office hit. 

UA welcomes Valentino
The Eagle is based loosely on a Pushkin story Dubrovsky.  Considine employed Hans Kraly to fashion the tale into a scenario suitable for Rudolph Valentino.  Kraly is better remembered for his work with Ernst Lubitsch and his later work including The Patriot in 1930 (for which he won an Academy Award). Later, Kraly was also nominated for the adapted screenplay of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and for Original Screenplay for the Deanna Durbin film One Hundred Men and a Girl in 1937.  Kraly’s scenario blended the Pushkin story with touches hinting at The Mark of Zorro and came up with a winning scenario.  There is just enough action, just enough romance and a nice dose of tongue in cheek humor that makes the film breeze along.

The sets were designed by William Cameron Menzies.  Certainly they were no more historically accurate than the sets for the later gothic and uber-bizarre The Scarlet Empress (Hans Dreier).  Menzies hinted at Russia with a California Romantica twist.  Historical accuracy to the period was not exactly uppermost or really appropriate for this romantic fantasy.  This was not what Valentino’s female fans went to the pictures for.

Louise Dresser in the 1934 Scarlet Empress

Valentino and Banky were opulently costumed by a then relatively unknown Gilbert Adrian.  Adrian got his start with Natacha Rambova and Valentino designing for Cobra and the costumes for the aborted The Hooded Falcon.  He would go on to do the costumes for Rambova’s previously mentioned film What Price Beauty (not released until 1928) as well as Valentino’s final film The Son of the Sheik.  Adrian is best remembered for his stunning work at MGM in the 1930’s.

Vilma Banky - costume by Adrian

Valentino is given ample opportunity to show not only his romantic skills, but also his wry comedic side in this film.  He plays three roles: Dubrovksy, the Cossack, the bandit/Robin Hood by the moniker the Black Eagle and impersonates French tutor Marcel LeBlanc.  Fans were less familiar with the lighter side of Valentino.  This film really contains one of his most engaging performances.  Light on his feet and quick-witted, this hero finds it more and more difficult to maintain or follow through on his vow of vengeance as his ardor for the daughter of his enemy grows.  Valentino took pride in doing his own stunts and he suffered a slight injury during filming which was reported upon in various newspapers.

Vilma Banky on loan from Samuel Goldwyn shines and shows a real rapport with Valentino on screen.  The barrier of language did not hamper the on-screen chemistry.  Publicity for the film played up the language differences in a series of charming stills showing Valentino and Banky poring over dictionaries in attempts to communicate.  Banky proved herself to be not only a beauty, but a charming and witty character.  Banky’s on screen chemistry would be very much in evidence in Valentino’s final film, The Son of the Sheik.

Director Clarence Brown was responsible for the casting of Louise Dresser as Catherine the Great.  Dresser was fresh off the success of her tour de force turn in The Goose Woman.  Brown related to historian Kevin Brownlow:
Louise Dresser was great as the Goose Woman. I paid her three hundred and fifty dollars as week. I used her again as Queen Catherine in The Eagle, for Schneck, and this time I paid her three thousand a week!

This truly was luxury casting.  The role of Catherine is not exactly large, but Dresser makes the most of her delightful seduction scene with Valentino.  She clearly enjoyed her turn as the royal vamp.

In a smaller role and in another bit of luxurious casting, favorite villain Gustav Von Seiffertitz is seen briefly in a cameo as Catherine’s butler.  Von Seiffertitz as well as Estelle Taylor (Mrs. Jack Dempsey) were cast for Valentino’s third UA film on the life of Christopher Columbus.  It was set to begin filming after Son of the Sheik.  Considine had also secured the talents of Charles Rosher to lens the film.  Sadly, Valentino died before production would begin.

Brown lines up a shot as Valentino watches
Valentino, himself, indulged in a little friendly nepotism casting his good friend Mario Carillo as the “real” Marcel LeBlanc.

One can admire the performances of each of the stars, but one also has to credit their rapport with and the direction of journeyman Clarence Brown.  Brown got his training under Maurice Tourneur and blossomed on his own with films such as Smoldering Fires and The Goose Woman.  Brown and Valentino got along famously given their love of all things mechanical.  Valentino also shared a special rapport with Brown’s young daughter Adrienne.  Many candid shots taken during filming illustrate that they both were quite taken with one another.  Brown’s light directorial touch is evident throughout the film.  A little bravura must also be noted in Brown’s, now famous, tracking shot along the grand dining table.  It was so good Brown used it again in Greta Garbo’s Anna Karenina (1935).

Adrienne Brown poses for a portrait with Valentino and his dog Mirza
The camera was manned by veteran George Barnes and assisted by Dev Jennings.  There is great depth of focus in many shots; shadows are used effectively and romantically.  Exteriors of the film were shot in the Griffith Park area.

Valentino was not in a happy place in his personal life during the filming of The Eagle.  His marriage to Natacha Rambova was breaking apart.  It seems clear he took some refuge from his personal troubles during the shoot.  He enjoyed the company of many visitors, old friends and new.  UA co-founder Douglas Fairbanks took the opportunity to visit the set for some publicity shots; Marion Davies a good friend of Valentino, stopped by; Bebe Daniels friend and former co-star paid a visit, as well.  Erich von Stroheim visited and posed very obligingly sporting dueling pistols with a bemused Valentino.  Valentino’s close friend, the Spanish painter Federico Beltran-Masses was staying at Falcon Lair painting two portraits of Valentino.  He later painted portraits of Marion Davies, Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  He spent many happy days visiting the set looking like he was having the time of his life. 

The filming completed in early summer, United Artists worked quickly and got the film ready for release on November 8, 1925.  Valentino traveled to New York for the premiere at the Mark Strand Theater and then made his way to London for the premiere at the Marble Arch Pavilion.  Valentino was joined by his brother Alberto and family in London.  Both brothers look natty in their tuxes at the premiere.

Alberto and Rudy at the London premiere
A report in Variety stated that in Philadelphia, many of the local dailies panned the film.  This did not deter the crowds from flocking to see the film; Variety also reported that the film did $27,000 in a single week in Philly.  In 1925 this was not exactly chump change with admission prices on average between .10, .27 and .40.

Other reviews from across the country indicated the film was for the most part a winner.  A short sampling reveals the film garnered some wildly varying reviews:

In Cleveland, the Times reviewed:
Rudolph Valentino in a type of picture which gives him an opportunity to prove the reason of his former popularity as the sheik of the screen. To say that he redeems himself in the eyes of the movie fan, would be putting it in mild terms.  Valentino not only proves he can act, but that he is a trained athlete as well.

Valentino still had a harder time in Detroit, shades of the Mineralava Tour!  Three papers had three different opinions:

The Detroit Free Press:
Ruddy (sic) doesn't have a great deal to do in the way of thrilling stunts, and at times the action drags.

The News:
Directed with some of the cunning of Lubitsch and acted in better grace and manner than Valentino has exhibited since his first big coming out party.

And finally, the Times:
In this production, Valentino works as he never has before, thrills as a daring bandit hero and grows more passionate than ever in his love making.

PHOTOPLAY reviewed the film and grudgingly gave it a pass:.
Rudolph Valentino changes his personality three times in his new picture and each one is dashing and fascinating and very Valentino. First, he is a young lieutenant of the Czarina's regiment, brave and handsome and desired of Catherine. When he deserts because he objects to "boudoir service," young Dubrovsky becomes a bandit, the Black Eagle, seeking to avenge a wrong done his father.
Next we see Rudy impersonating a French tutor in the house of his enemy, teaching the enemy's beautiful daughter. Dubrovsky falls in love. Shall he break his oath of vengeance?
The story really begins when Dubrovsky becomes the Black Eagle. The finish is weak and the characters not well drawn. Vilma Banky is Sam Goldwyn's gift to the screen. You will like Rudy and Vilma and the picture, in spite of its faults.

PICTURE PLAY also seemed ultra nit-picky in their review:

Rudolph Valentino after a short absence returns to the screen in "The Eagle." He has evidently determined to treat himself to the best this time, for he is directed by Clarence Brown, who superintended the making of "The Goose Woman," and he is supported by Vilma Banky and Louise Dresser.

With these advantages, it is only natural to expect "The Eagle" to be an intelligent, pleasant and finished picture, and it is just that and nothing more. Only the very greedy could ask for more, and I am sure that almost everyone will be pretty well satisfied with what Mr. Valentino has chosen to serve, but for some strange reason, the spark that brightened his first picture, "The Four Horsemen," has never flared up in anything that he has done since then.
Just what has died in his acting is hard to say. He seems to try conscientiously to revive it, whatever it is, but he lacks vitality. Of course, I'm not one that believes that actors burst into being overnight, and it may be that his sudden and victorious debut in "The Four Horsemen" was a pure bit of luck. However, "The Eagle" is by all means the best of his pictures since.
The story is of the love affair of a lieutenant of the Russian royal guard who refused the Czarina's more-than-tentative offer and is sentenced to death for scorning her. The plot that follows is a pretty complicated affair, and combined with the Russian names, would, if put end to end, reach from Picture-Play to The Literary Digest.
Vilma Banky is beautiful and natural as Mischa (sic), but Clarence Brown has not brought out the talent which she showed in "The Dark Angel," nor did Miss Dresser have much opportunity as the Czarina. Playing opposite a male star is really no job for a woman. After all, woman's place is in the home.
In the New York theater where I saw this picture, the aisles, lobby, and house were packed with people during its entire run, which only goes to prove that I am too fussy, and that Mr. Valentino's hold on the public can still be accepted without question.
Anyway, the picture is well worth seeing, and I don't think you’d regret devoting an evening to it.

So, history records that the film was well received, but not the smash hit everyone had hoped for.  That smash hit they were looking for would come later, and sadly, Valentino would not live to see it.

J.D. Williams negotiated distribution of Cobra through Paramount/Lasky and released Cobra on November 30, 1925.  For the record, Cobra was not well received and sank like a stone. 

Valentino charms Vilma Banky
Happily, in the modern age one can view The Eagle dispassionately and enjoy the film for what it was, a delightful bit of entertainment.  As I stated above, Valentino fans (even if you’re not) are treated to a thoroughly enjoyable film.  Valentino shows much warmth and charm in his role(s), he clearly relished the action sequences as well as the scenes with the beautiful Vilma Banky. 

Banky was fresh from the success of her American film debut, The Dark Angel for Goldwyn co-starring Ronald Colman.  She was also very successful in the lighter and more dramatic moments of the film.  Her blond beauty complimented Valentino.  It is no wonder she was signed on for The Son of the Sheik.

Clarence Brown also benefited from the success of this film, he moved on to MGM and stayed for over 20 years from silent to sound. 

For a full rundown of the intertitles, you can visit one of my favorite websites, intertitle-o-rama (

The Eagle is available on DVD (the Paul Killiam/Blackhawk Films print) Amazon link Carl Bennett's wonderful and informative site, SilentEra, has a run down of the various available versions here:  

Sadly, the most  perfect and complete version is not available to be seen on DVD and is rarely screened.  I keep hoping and pestering that the Photoplay Productions restoration will be shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  I’m a glass half full kind of person and keep hoping!

There is also a nearly complete version to see on youtube here

Fifty Years/Fifty Films is my non-time-critical journey through the first fifty years of films. I'll be watching films that I've never seen or will be revisiting some very old friends. My original goal was to do this for the last six months of 2009 and you can see how well that went.