Film-Forward Review: [BEYOND THE ROCKS (1922)]

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Directed by: Sam Wood.
Produced by: Jesse Lasky for Paramount Pictures & Famous Players-Lasky.
Written by: Jack Cunningham, based on the novel by Elinor Glyn.
Director of Photography: Alfred Gilks.
Music by: Henny Vrienten.
Released by: Milestone.
Country of Origin: USA. 85 min. Not Rated.
With: Rudolph Valentino & Gloria Swanson.
DVD Features: Video introduction by Martin Scorsese. The Delicious LIttle Devil (1919, with Rudolph Valentino & Mae Murray, 54 min., score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Stills gallery from Gloria Swanson's personal collection. 85-minute audio recording of Gloria Swanson from 1955. Featurettes: "Henny Vrienten Composes Beyond the Rocks"; "Giovanna Fossati on the Restoration of Beyond the Rocks"; "VPRO Dutch TV on the Finding of Beyond the Rocks". Rudolph Valentino trailers. Stereo orchestral score by Henny Vrienten; alternate 5.1 orchestral score by Vrienten with sound effects. CD-ROM

Rediscovered in 2003, this 1922 superstar pairing of Gloria Swanson and Rudolf Valentino was lost for over 70 years. Its scattered reels were donated to the Nederlands Filmmuseum after the death of its eclectic collector (whose hermitic life is recounted in the featurette of the film's finding). With only one scene jarringly missing and two sequences damaged beyond repair, Beyond the Rocks is virtually intact. A romantic potboiler set all over the map, it opens on the Dorset coast, moves to the Swiss Alps, then to Paris, and finally climaxing at a buried Ancient Egyptian archeological site.

When a rowboat capsizes, tossing ingénue Theodora (Swanson) into the sea, Hector (Valentino), the earl of Bracondale, comes to her rescue, jumping into the water from his nearby yacht. She offers him her wilted narcissus in gratitude (though soggy, it still has its fragrance). Her older sister privately warns her that the earl is not the marrying kind. But any thought of romantic love is soon dispelled when Theodora becomes engaged to the elderly and homely millionaire Josiah Brown, the most feasible solution to solve her father’s financial crisis. “Love for dear papa is Theodora’s religion,” reads a title card.

After her marriage of convenience, the dutiful daughter and her new husband honeymoon in Switzerland. At her hotel, she unknowingly drops her handkerchief, scented with narcissus perfume. It lands near the table of pleasure-hopping Hector, who intrigued, pursues to find the owner. (Erich von Stroheim, Swanson’s director in the extravagant and risqué Queen Kelly, must have seen this film. In the uncut version of that film, Swanson, as the title character, also accidentally leaves behind an article of clothing for her romantic pursuer to remember her by – a pair of panties.) The new beautifully melancholic score by Henny Vrienten greatly adds to the atmosphere, with its jazz undertones and seafaring ditties, and sounding at times like a fairy tale gone awry.

Another find in this DVD is Mae Murray, the comedic star of The Delicious Little Devil, featuring Valentino in a supporting role before his breakout success in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Murray plays the plucky and hard-working Mary McGuire, the sole breadwinner in her family. She answers an ad for a dancer (“A good future for the girl with a past”), using a name she has lifted from the newspapers, the scandal-making celebrity Gloria Du Moine. Of course, she gets the job, becoming a star and winning the attention of Jimmy Calhoun (Valentino) despite the disapproval of his millionaire father. With her bee-stung lips and exaggerated swivel, Murray’s the precursor to Betty Boop. (Murray's most famous film is von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow.) Unlike most romantic melodramas, which are now relegated to soap operas, the Devil’s farce of mistaken identity is probably as appealing now as it was 87 years ago.

But this disc is still a showcase for Gloria Swanson. Although her billing follows Valentino’s on the DVD packaging, her name appears above the title, without Valentino, in most of the posters at the time of Rocks’ release; they’re included among the publicity materials in the stills gallery. In her audio conversation, apparently meant for a book, she reminisces on when Hollywood was made up of mostly orange groves, giving a first-hand history of the film industry’s rise. She also offers pointers to the silent acting technique: hold back on the emotion until after the dialogue, otherwise it will wind up on the editing room’s floor to make way for the title card. In chapter nine of her dialogue, she mentions her teaming with Valentino for Rocks. A gifted businesswoman, Swanson got a trip to Europe, on salary, in exchange for teaming with a fellow star.

In discussing acting, Swanson dismisses the similar stoic acting choices made by the cast of 1953’s Titanic, singling out star Clifton Webb. Coincidentally back in the 1910’s, Valentino replaced Webb as a dancer in New York before heading west and eventually to Hollywood. And during this time, Valentino also performed with dancer and former Ziegfeld girl Mae Murray. By this reckoning, Swanson was right; early Hollywood was, indeed, a very small, tight-knit community. Kent Turner
July 11, 2006



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