The Sheik & Social Mores part 2

Initially, I had envisioned part 2 (part 1 here) as comparing and contrasting the continuum from reel–>read–> real. In the future I’d like to steer back in that direction with some other silent film, perhaps The Lost World or Phantom of the Opera. In the meantime I’ve gone off on a bit of a literary bender related to the Near East, chewing thorough numerous online references, Persian Pictures (1892) by Gertrude Bell, and Winter in Arabia (1937-38) by Freya Stark. I wasn’t that impressed with Pictures, but Winter in Arabia is an excellent companion piece to Nicholas Clapp’s Sheba.

A lot of people have gotten mileage off the Sheik-Valentino mythos, particularly on sociological topics including race, class, gender roles and the taming of otherness. These have been covered in professional literature, which I’ll leave to you to look up. Despite my earlier dismissal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there’s actually a lot more alike than dissimilar between the two novels, but LC is consistently included on the ‘banned books’ list while The Sheik is remembered as an early popular romance. Why the contrast in notoriety?

The authors (E.M. Hull and D.H. Lawrence) were contemporaries, both with a Derbyshire connection, but from different social classes. Each novel deals with an intimate relationship that was disturbing to the prevailing mind set (LC class reasons, S racial/colonial issues), involving blunt, passion-driven men and women described as remote or cool to emotion. Both also deal with sex as something that happens, this touch of directness in Hull’s writing I wasn’t expecting, given the dense layering of purple prose in places, but Lawrence is even more direct, which is probably the reason LC is stuck on the banned books list. That and the conflict in LC was resolved by a pregnant Constance Chatterley running away to British Columbia—leaving behind a crippled aristocratic husband and a large estate—to marry a lumberjack. The solution to Diane’s problems were a bit more deus ex machina (He’s a Spaniard! Aristocratic even! Raised by wild desert tribesmen the way talking apes raised Tarzan Viscount Greystoke!) I was actually looking for this b/c the movie was my first introduction to the idea of anti-miscegenation laws and the Hayes code.

The two novels definitely don’t match up in the development of the female protagonists. Constance grows into herself, while Diane suffers a psychological break and decides she’s perfectly happy being carted all over the back of beyond by a guy whose idea of foreplay is making her cry. *Bleh* The Ahmed-Diane relationship in book has hallmarks of Stockholm syndrome, and he’s totally open about the fact he grabbed her off the street because he hates the English, and she was conveniently English, blue-blooded and vulnerable in one hot package. Freud must have had a field day with the horse breaking scene if he read a German translation. It’s interesting that the male author (Lawrence) writes about a woman finding more of herself and the female author (Hull) goes the subjugation route. Have to wonder what the rationale for each of them was since they were both seeing the same changes in society, broadly speaking.

For women, that meant a lot more empowerment (availability of cervical cap & diaphram contraceptives, expanded suffrage in Europe and US), shifts in fashion (short hair, pants, flapper dresses) and public display of small vices (cigarettes)(another)(third). The adventuress persona of Diane was not without precedent (Mary Bradley) (A. Sheldon on her mother as “a kind of explorer-heroine, highly literate, yet very feminine, whatever that is. You help her through doors–and then find out she can hike 45 miles up a mountain carrying her rifle and yours. And repeat the next day. And joke. And dazzling looks … I am still approached by doddering old wrecks, extinguished Scandinavian savants and what have you, who want to tell me about Mother as a young woman.”), but many of the old roles were still clung to tightly (Emily Post biography review), including by some of these same strong minded women. While she had great respect for the professional capabilities of the archaeologist and geologist she spent the winter in Yemen with, Freya Stark lamented the adaptation of trousers by women and was horrified by the mental image of the ladies of Yemen giving up their spangles and fabrics in favor of pants.

(Side note:The Sheik and many other surviving silents predate the code later adopted by the film industry in the US for controlling image content for moral purposes, so the film makers got away with being more earthy (cabaret in Metropolis) than some of their successors, but much of the imagery was more demure than more recent examples. For a vivid contrast in acceptability search for images of the original Sheik movie posters (another) and the ones for Valentino from the 1970’s. The imagery for the later film intentionally plays on the mythos surrounding the actor & silent film, and leaves the Hayes Code coughing in the dust.)

In contrast to all of the meaning that can be read into the novel, the movie works perfectly well as an exercise in escapism, after the trauma of adaptation to a screenplay. The usual Hollywood adjustments have occurred; shortened time frame, reduced locations and mellowing of the characters to make them appealing to a wider audience (the supporting characters in the novel have fairly detailed personalities). Ahmed and Diane’s relationship is also greatly improved; he goes from lustful bully with a major chip on his shoulder to headstrong, impassioned but generally caring dude. The pairing is tempestuous but par for the course in light romance (not the companionable banter of Much Ado About Nothing, mind you). She hates him, he intends to seduce her after dessert, and they both keep shooting each other glances–then the special effect guys chase a horse though camp and upset everybody’s plans. Under all that make up it looks like the actors are having fun.

The sequel, Son of the Sheik, is an even lighter piece, cheerfully introducing comedy, where the original attempted brooding romanticism. The Cafe Maure is the prototypical den of scum and villiany (The sort of place where the Master of the House would host Thanksgiving Day dinner, “The night was young at Cafe Maure, not a knife had been thrown–yet”) complete with tough chain-smoking dancers, a greedy manager and customers who can’t wait to get a hand on the help. Ahmed Jr is sweet on the prettiest of the dancing girls who happens to be the owner’s kid, and gets himself mugged in a neighboring alley–which of course doesn’t go over well. Revenge provides ample opportunity for brooding as well as brawls interwoven with whimsical touches.

Viewing Son of the Sheik is chronologically disorienting—made in RL 6 years after the original, to be Rudy’s comeback feature, but 23 years or so have elapsed in story (My estimate based on ‘young Ahmed’ being grown up enough to have his own tent, minions and a taste for dancing girls, while ‘old Ahmed’ is depicted as still powerful in middle age, if a bit more distinguished, due to the goatee & pipe he’s sporting). 1921 (year of first film’s release) + 23 years = 1944. North Africa was a very interesting place about then thanks to the Desert Fox (and perhaps the Desert Peach –there’s story that can’t survive in the same mental universe, although the potential for a head spinning mash-up is just begging for some one who can draw story boards).

-posted by tytoalba


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