Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Eagle (1925)

Rudolph Valentino remains one of the really instantly recognizable names in film history, even to those with only a fleeting interest in the subject. His reputation as a romantic idol of the silent screen is well entrenched even after almost 90 years since his untimely passing.

However, like certain other icons of the silent screen, including Theda Bara and Mary Pickford, Valentino’s individual films are not always as well remembered as they might be. Aside from THE SHEIK (1921), perhaps his most famous role (even though its 1926 sequel, SON OF THE SHEIK, is probably an even better film), Valentino is not known specifically for one “great” film.

If any one Valentino film can be cited as the strongest in his body of work, it would have to be THE EAGLE, directed by Clarence Brown in 1925 for United Artists. A delicious blend of romantic comedy and period adventure, it provided Rudolph Valentino with a strong story and production values, as well as a role tailor-made to his screen image. The moments of comedy allowed Valentino to display the full range of his acting talents, and he delivers one of his most natural, relaxed performances in this film.

This “Russian Robin Hood” story tells the adventures of Lt. Vladimir Dubrovsky, a Cossack in the Czarina’s army. After bravely rescuing Mascha (Vilma Banky) and her aunt when the horses pulling their carriage get out of control, the Czarina (Louise Dresser) recognizes his valor and the young lieutenant is summoned to the Czarina’s chambers. When he refuses the Czarina’s romantic advances, Dubrovsky is ordered to be shot. He escapes, however, and learns from his dying father that a local tyrant, Kyrilla (James A. Marcus), is spreading terror across the land. Dubrovsky then learns that the object of his desire, Mascha, is Kyrilla’s daughter, and poses as her tutor to infiltrate their home and seek revenge for the death of his father.

Aside from THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921), which had been directed by Rex Ingram, THE EAGLE represents a rare collaboration between Valentino and a particularly distinctive director, in this case Clarence Brown. Brown would later become one of MGM’s most reliable house directors, but he had a distinctive eye for visual detail, something which is present in THE EAGLE. Most famous is the celebrated tracking shot in which the camera pulls back across the entire length of a banquet table, requiring extreme precision and careful choreography of both actors and equipment.

The production itself is quite sumptuous, with staggering sets designed by William Cameron Menzies (some of which look like they could have been reused the following year in THE DUCHESS OF BUFFALO). The film’s cinematography, by George Barnes, provides some excellent innovations (such as the above-mentioned tracking shot) along with well-lit nighttime interiors inside Kyrilla’s castle. The costume design, by an uncredited Adrian, supplies the production and cast with just the right period flavor.

Sadly, THE EAGLE was to be the second-to-last film for Valentino before his untimely death. It’s particularly ashame since both this film and his next, THE SON OF THE SHEIK, rank among the very best he ever made, and it would have been interesting to see what vehicles Valentino would have starred in during those final glory days of the silent era.

THE EAGLE (United Artists, 1925). Produced by John W. Considine Jr., directed by Clarence Brown. Screenplay by Hans Kraly from the story by Alexander Pushkin. Photography by George Barnes. Sets, William Cameron Menzies.

Cast: Rudolph Valentino,  Louise Dresser, Vilma Banky, James Marcus, Albert Conti, George Nichols, Carrie Clark Ward.