May 20, 2015

SIFF 2015: The Son of the Sheik (1926) with Alloy Orchestra

I've had the good fortune to see a lot of silent movies with live musical accompaniment, and I can't think of anything that has thrilled me as much as The Alloy Orchestra's performance at SIFF Cinema Uptown did last night. The group's exciting, dramatic score was the perfect complement to Valentino's final film.

Valentino would attend the premiere of The Son of the Sheik, but he did not live to see the release of the film. While he would not likely have turned into an acting heavyweight, and perhaps the talkies would have destroyed him, in a dual role as father and son, he demonstrates ability for something more than wild eyes and flaring nostrils. He was clearly developing his craft, something he had done for the most part in front of the camera.

The Son of the Sheik was one of the first Hollywood sequels. It revisits one of Valentino's most famous roles, as the titular The Sheik (1921), which was about a wealthy middle eastern who snatches a prim lady and claims her for his own, to her horrified delight. (This so titillated the star's fans that women would travel to the Middle East in search of their own sheik.) 

Now the sheik from that film has a grown son of his own, named Ahmed, who is just as willing to take a woman by force, despite his father's hypocritical disapproval. Valentino plays both roles, and while he sometimes looks into his Dad's navel instead of his face, for the most part the technical aspects of their dual screen performances are smoothly executed.

The Ahmed becomes entranced by a young dancer (Vilma Banky). When he believes she has betrayed him to the more unscrupulous members of her troupe so that he can be robbed and tortured, he furiously takes his revenge upon her. This means kidnapping, a frenzied ride through the desert to a lavish tent, and a scene that ends with the angry young man slowly walking towards the dancer as she cowers on a bed.

When papa sheik finds out about his son's hijinks, he demands that he release the dancer. After his attempts to influence Ahmed have failed, he goes home to mama sheik (Agnes Ayres), who happens to be the lady he kidnapped in the previous film.They have now apparently been happily married for several years.

It's funny to see this pair so domesticated. There's a flashback to the day papa Sheik snatched his wife-to-be off her horse and barked out the famous command, "lie still, you little fool!" They cozily discuss the event as if it were a charming interlude. The matronly Ayres practically coos, "now remember the time you raped me honey?" as she defends her son.

Aside from all these shockingly un-PC moments, the whole purpose of the film seems to be to provide Valentino with plenty of opportunities to smolder, glower and move his flashing eyes from left to right. While some of that posturing did draw a couple of giggles from the audience, there's no denying that whatever power he had over his fans still endures to some degree today. He has a timeless magnetism that I sometimes found literally breathtaking, and it was even more exciting to see on the big screen.

Alloy Orchestra provided its own restoration print for the screening, and while it didn't have the pristine sheen of some of the silent restorations I've seen lately, it was of decent quality. Not quite clean, but sharp enough to allow undistracted enjoyment of the film.

I forgot my camera, so here's my dim phone shot of "the contraption"
I had heard amazing things about Alloy Orchestra, a Cambridge, MA-based trio, and they more than lived up to my expectations. Keyboard player Roger Miller performed to the left of the screen, while musicians Terry Donahue and Ken Winokur sat in a crazy contraption to the right of the screen that held chimes, drums, an accordion, a clarinet and all sorts of other instruments I couldn’t make out. I sometimes found it difficult to watch the movie because it was so much fun to watch the musicians play, but the marriage of music and action was so exciting in the final scenes that I finally glued my eyes to the screen.

Possibly due to a slightly higher ticket price and the midweek screening, the house was not quite packed, but there was a great, appreciative crowd--much of it on its feet to applaud the musicians at the end.

Alloy Orchestra sells a DVD of the film in which the group performs its accompaniment for the film on its website. Take a look at the other titles they have to offer as well; there are lots of interesting releases, including several from Kino.


The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.


  1. This sounds like a lot of fun! I read the books the two movies were based on many years ago and would enjoy checking out the films.

    So glad you have some really special film events right there in Seattle!

    Best wishes,

  2. It's been amazing this year Laura! I wish you and the gang could check it out. Interesting that you read the books the movies were based on.Were they any good? I'm curious to check them out now. I'd say of the two movies, that this is the most entertaining, but I haven't seen the first one for quite a while.

  3. I enjoyed the books although I suspect, decades later, that they were fairly hokey and, like the film, un-PC LOL. I remember them being quite entertaining, though. I stumbled across them in a used bookstore, as I recall. They're still here on my shelves, I should pull them down and have a fresh look when I get a chance to see the movies.

    The festival sounds fantastic!

    Best wishes,

  4. The Sheik movies are my biggest cinematic guilty pleasures. Very un-PC, but very entertaining, I do confess lmao. Valentino was not the best actor in the world and suffered from being saddled with poor vehicles, but when he had a good director and a smart script, he was magic.

  5. The book is even more un-PC, to a crazy degree!