Flickhead
Film Review
By Ray Young

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Beyond the Rocks

Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson in a long-lost love story

Available on DVD from Milestone Films, $29.95. Call them at (800) 603-1104.

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    Once believed to be lost and gone for good, the 1922 film Beyond the Rocks resurfaced in 2005 after a print was discovered in the Netherlands. Newly restored and accompanied by an excellent musical score by Henny Vrienten, this 1922 romantic adventure based on a novel by Elinor Glyn is chiefly of interest for the one-time casting of Gloria Swanson with Rudolph Valentino, and as an early example of the work of director Sam Wood.
    Famous for coining the term ‘It’ as a euphemism for sex appeal, Elinor Glyn specialized in novels about infidelity and lust from an Edwardian perspective. Published in 1906, Beyond the Rocks follows a young woman in her prearranged marriage to a wealthy older man, and her scheme to restore her family’s lost fortune. Soon after the wedding, however, she’s drawn to a nobleman nearer her age who fires her libido, at which point the author explores the dividing line separating need from want. In actuality, Glyn had ingratiated herself among the upper class, and was known to dine, party and travel with royalty even though her own personal finances were modest by comparison. Her stories often reflect the longing of the outsider for acceptance among the bourgeoisie.
    Most of these traces of autobiography were dismissed in the screenplay by Jack Cunningham. Instead he fashioned the main character, Theodora (Swanson), as a martyr willing to marry a rich industrialist to provide her father with a cushy retirement. This takes a lot of the edge off of Glyn’s original intentions, transforming Theodora into a victim of circumstance, especially when she’s caught gawking at the younger Lord Bracondale (Valentino). Quite unlike the saucy 1927 film of Glyn’s It starring Clara Bow, Beyond the Rocks handles sexual desire from a distance.
    Known for the high romanticism of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Our Town (1940), King’s Row (1942) and Pride of the Yankees (1942), Sam Wood rarely scrutinized the shades, colors or foibles of his characters. That he directed the Marx Brothers to great success in A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937) almost seems an aberration. Made very early in his career, Beyond the Rocks tiptoes around the story’s class discrepancies and erotic urges.
    Swanson’s passion for Valentino comes to life in momentary spurts. But her sexless marriage to the older man, and the guilt and longing involved, is barely mined for its potential. In the hands of Erich von Stroheim or King Vidor, Glyn’s story would have supplied a wealth of heated innuendo. But Wood and Cunningham bypass such volatility. Approaching the role as an innocent confused by her own lustful yearning, Swanson makes it work in an understated performance.
    At the time of its release, Valentino was on a rapid ascent: The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were popular the year before, but his subsequent pictures—Monsieur Beaucaire (1924), The Eagle (1925), and The Son of the Sheik (1926)—fixed him among the Hollywood legends. (Blood poisoning from a perforated ulcer led to his death at age 31 in 1926, the height of his popularity.)
    The DVD comes with a section detailing the film’s restoration, a brief introduction by Martin Scorsese, Valentino’s The Delicious Little Devil (1919), and a wire recording of Swanson from 1955. It’s another exceptional presentation from Milestone, a company with an unflagging devotion to the preservation of early cinema.

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