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Valentino's Sheik: An 'Other' Made to Swoon Over

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Valentino's Sheik: An 'Other' Made to Swoon Over

Valentino's Sheik: An 'Other' Made to Swoon Over

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the early days of the last century, Americans viewed the Middle East as a romantic land of mystery inhabited by one very seductive character in particular. "The Sheik" - what we now would call the sheikh - was a silent film that smashed all attendance records when it first opened in 1921. Rudolph Valentino played the title character. The role made him one of the first great movie stars. That's part of In Character, our series exploring famous fictional characters. NPR's Neda Ulaby looks at the exotic, erotic sheik and his legacy.

NEDA ULABY: Sheikhs are Arab tribal leaders venerated for their age and wisdom. But film buffs know "The Sheik" as the defining role of Hollywood's first male sex symbol.

Ms. MARY BREWER BARKLEY(ph): He had this intent look. You would just say, oh my, look at him. Oh, it was wonderful.

ULABY: Mary Brewer Barkley was among the millions of fans who swooned over Rudolph Valentino, the smoldering Italian immigrant who embodied "The Sheik" in 1921. She was then 13 years old.

Ms. BARKLEY: His hair was so pretty, you know? And every move that he made, of course, was just - everybody was going, ooh. You know?

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: "The Sheik" was based on a bestselling romance novel from 1919. It was written by the shy wife of a British farmer. Her novel started a whole subgenre, the desert romance, in which hot swarthy Arabs kidnap reckless white women. Valentino brought a sort of playfulness to the role, and he looked like a cross between Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. He was gorgeous.

Jack Shaheen is a professor who studies Arabs in popular culture.

Professor JACK SHAHEEN (Southern Illinois University): You have to credit Valentino. I mean, it was his persona that established that image. And if you look at the film even today, I mean, he's quite, you know, he was a great lover.

(Soundbite of song, "The Sheik of Araby")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) He seems to call her to his arms. I'm the Sheik of Araby. Your love belongs to me.

Ms. BARKLEY: (Singing) I'm the Sheik of Araby. Your love belongs to me.

ULABY: Ninety-seven-year-old Mary Brewer Barkley remembered newspaper reports that young women were running off to the Middle East in the hope of being abducted by handsome Arabs. Adventurousness spoke to young women in the Roaring '20s, who were raising their hemlines, bobbing their hair, and voting for the very first time. "The Sheik" was about flirting with the forbidden. He was a fantasy of sexual extremes.

Professor JANINE BASINGER (Film Scholar): It was a household word then.

ULABY: Film scholar Janine Basinger says in the 1920's sheik became a slang term for dandies with oiled hair.

Prof. BASINGER: Young men who wished they looked like Valentino or young men who were trying to look like Valentino - I mean, that really was the standard.

(Soundbite of song, "Kashmiri Love Song")

Mr. RUDOLPH VALENTINO (Movie Star): (Singing) Pale hands I loved, beside the Shalimar. Where are you...

ULABY: This is one of only two recordings of Rudolph Valentino's voice. He sings the "Kashmiri Song" to woo the film's heroine. Of course, the movie's silent, so this was recorded later, and Kashmiri's are not Arabs. But "The Sheik" hardly bothered with authenticity, says scholar Jack Shaheen.

Prof. SHAHEEN: It sort of advanced the mythology of the Middle East as a place where there were either women walking a hundred feet behind a man, or performing as bosomy belly dancers, or just lounging around in the harem, you know, with their veils and see-through pantaloons, waiting for the men to beckon them.

ULABY: This notion, says Shaheen, of a decadent, primitive culture includes the stereotype of a savage sheikh subjugating a Western heroine.

Prof. SHAHEEN: He doesn't woo her. He takes her. And this image has been with us for more than a century. It hasn't gone away.

ULABY: The movie actually softened the novel's scenes of rape. Both ended with a proud beauty madly in love with her captor. In the 1920's that part was just fine. But a white woman was not supposed to end up with an Arab. That problem became part of the plot.

Prof. SHAHEEN: She's kneeling and she's holding his hand. And she says, my, he has a large hand for an Arab.

ULABY: And she finds out the Sheik was adopted. By blood, he's the son of an English gentleman and a Spanish lady. So he's really European. Shaheen says that ethnically acceptable happy ending underscores Western ideas about the right to empire and superior masculinity.

Prof. SHAHEEN: Actually, ever since that scene - since I have Middle East roots - I look at my hand to see whether it's the right size or not.

ULABY: Shaheen says he had never seen a feature film that challenged the mythology of "The Sheik" until three years ago.

Prof. SHAHEEN: Not until a film entitled "Yes," a Sally Potter film with Joan Allen, did we ever see an Arab man loving sincerely an American woman, and vice versa. And I think it's interesting to point out that it took nearly a century for this sort breakthrough to take place, where we could actually see and accept a man from the Middle East honestly loving an American woman.

ULABY: "The Sheik," says Shaheen, is with us still.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You'll find clips from "The Sheik," along with a video interview in which Neda Ulaby explains her personal relationship with the character, at our Web site. Just got to npr.org/incharacter.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And while you're there, go ahead and nominate your own favorite fictional character and tell us why he or she inspires you. We've received hundreds of submissions so far. Here's one example: Jeffery Alexander Brathwait(ph) from Atlanta, Georgia nominated George Jefferson from the TV show "The Jefferson."

(Soundbite of song, "Movin' on Up")

Ms. JA'NET DuBOIS (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Well, we're moving on up...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Movin' on up.

Ms. DuBOIS: (Singing) ...to the East Side.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Movin' on up.

Ms. DuBOIS: (Singing) To a deluxe apartment in the sky.

MONTAGNE: Listener Brathwait writes: As a young black boy growing up during the '70s in the South Bronx, I didn't have many role models. But in George Jefferson I witnessed the fortitude and drive of a successful black businessman.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Jeffersons")

Mr. SHERMAN HEMSLEY (Actor): (As George Jefferson) Louise (unintelligible) put food on nobody's table. I did. And I always managed to do it too. I worked a lot of jobs and saved my money and opened up a cleaning store. She married me and we drove out of the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And when confronted with racism, George Jefferson never backed down.

That's from an essay by Jeffery Alexander Brathwait, submitted to the In Character page on the NPR Web site. Next week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the series continues with Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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