US (1925) Dir. Clarence Brown
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – especially if she is an Empress who can have your guts for garters on a whim. It is hard to believe with such a coquettish opening act that this silent romantic comic-drama of love and vengeance uses Alexander Pushkin’s novel Dubrovsky as its foundation, but that’s Hollywood for you.
Set in Russia during the late 18th century, the Czarina (Louise Dresser) is impressed by one of her Cossacks Vladimir Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino) stopping a runaway coach containing young noble woman Mascha (Vilma Bánky) and her aunt. The Czarina tries to seduce Dubrovsky by offering him the position of General, but Dubrovsky flees the chamber instead.
Offended, the Czarina puts a bounty on Dubrovsky’s head forcing him to flee back home to his father, who dies shortly after his land is stolen by the evil Kyrilla Troekouroff (James A. Marcus). Dubrovsky, hiding under a mask as The Black Eagle, raises a people’s army to get revenge, robbing the rich to help the poor. To get to Kyrilla, he poses as a French tutor for his daughter – unaware it is Mascha.
It is amazing what you can let slip through your fingers. In 1919, Dorothy Gish suggested to D.W Griffith that a handsome foreign extra in her current film would be the perfect lead for Griffith’s next project, a western set in Mexico. Griffith’s response to Gish’s choice: “American women aren’t interested in foreign men.”
That extra was Rudolph Valentino, international heartthrob and icon of the silent days of cinema despite a short career, ending with his untimely death in 1926 aged just 31. By 1925 however Valentino’s box office appeal was in decline due to personal issues and numerous disputes with different film studios blighting his output.
Now under the auspices of United Artists, it befell to producer John Considine to set the Valentino revival into motion and had Pushkin’s story adapted into the sort of feature his fans would go for. Only the central plot of Dubrovsky’s vengeance for his father’s death and his love for Mascha is taken from the novel; the surrounding events involving the Czarina and the Black Eagle are exclusive to this film.
Dubrovsky’s masked vigilante was inspired by Douglas Fairbanks’ turn as Zorro in The Mark Of Zorro in 1920. Valentino doesn’t exactly get to leap from tall balconies or engage in thrilling sword fights, but his horse riding skills are put to good use, along with his acting chops in adopting three different personae here.
First he is the dutiful and fearless Cossack, then the embittered and daring Black Eagle (the mask is hardly an effective disguise but hey ho) and finally he is the charming and graceful French tutor Marcel LeBlanc, the real LeBlanc having been intercepted and dealt with.
Director Clarence Brown, whose thirty-plus career saw him work with many of the greats, including some of Garbo’s silent classics, smartly plays each scene as it comes given their various shades. When humour is required, the tongue is firmly in cheek but never aspires beyond a wry giggle; the drama largely avoids some of the attendant clichés of silent film histrionics and the romantic frissons are surprisingly subtle and underplayed.
Making this final aspect more interesting than usual is the character of Mascha. Very strong willed and hardly a damsel in distress, she doesn’t melt at Dubrovsky’s feet as romantic heroines normally do. If anything, Mascha is largely resistant to his charms and deflects them with a pithy put down or two, and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself physically either.
Because the film (or what’s left of it) only runs for 72 minutes, Mascha’s eventual falling for Dubrovsky resolves itself rather quickly but not before she susses out that her French tutor and the dreaded Black Eagle are one in the same. For Dubrovsky, his plan for vengeance is scuppered when he falls for Mascha, and his merry men are not so merry sitting twiddling their thumbs waiting to strike.
The swiftness of the pace means nary a dull moment is found in this film; everything is made to count, no matter how obscure or incongruent in may seem – even the cheeky portrayal of Catherine The Great’s noted promiscuity – and we get a good enough feel for the characters to prevent us from questioning their protean behaviour, a mark of attentive writing by screenwriters Hans Kraly and George Marion Jr.
Exposing the lack of knowledge in foreign detail of 1920’s Hollywood, the sets and wardrobe are far from accurate for the period setting but suggest Russian successfully without having to signpost it. The camerawork is typically competent for the era, save for one standout moment of a single tracking shot from a close-up of Kyrilla revealing just how long and populated his dinner table is.
Admittedly this is my first Valentino film and I wasn’t sure what to expect, given his legend for being eye candy for the ladies, but he really surprised me. Naturally dashing and possessing a magnetic screen presence, this role allows Valentino to indulge in his comic side, revealing quite a flair for it. He neither overacts of underplays, getting the balance right in making his character credible and accessible to both genders.
Hungarian actress Vilma Bánky is also a joy to watch, creating a natural chemistry with Valentino (too natural if rumours were to be believed) both in the humorous and romantic scenes. She too relies on subtlety and nuance to convey Mascha’s feelings whilst demonstrations of her feisty side are quite progressive for the era.
The Eagle was successful enough to warrant Valentino continuing working with UA, but sadly Valentino wasn’t able to enjoy the success of his next film The Son Of The Sheik, released two months after his passing. This hugely enjoyable and over performing penultimate outing serves as a great intro for newcomers to Valentino and a treat for his existing fans.