Vintage Entertainment

The Sheik: A 1921 Blockbuster Movie

Rudolph Valentino stares ahead of him in The Sheik, a 1921 blockbuster silent film.
Rudolph Valentino as Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik

As often as it appears in cultural references, I had never seen Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. This 1921 silent movie truly turned into a blockbuster film. It grossed over one million dollars in ticket sales in 1921. Not a bad return for a movie that cost $200,000 to make. It was touted in the newspapers as a wildly popular film after its opening in October. And this was only Valentino’s second film. By 1926 he would be dead.

A Man, a Woman, a Second Man, a Romance!

The Sheik is classified as a desert romance. This romance genre knew popularity in the past, but its fashionableness waned by 1919 and apparently needed a revival. Enter The Sheik. The movie’s action takes place in the deserts of Algeria and in the town of Biskra. (In real life, Biskra is a capital city of Algeria.) Headstrong Lady Diana Mayo determines to travel by herself over the desert. However, she fails to reckon on Ahmed Ben Hassan. She meets Hassan, the Sheik, fleetingly before she leaves Biskra and he decides that she is the one for him.

You can imagine how the rest of the story plays out. (Or, if you can’t, maybe spending an hour and a half watching the movie would prove an interesting time.) There’s a Sheik, a Lady, a Doctor, and a cast of servants and followers.

Actress Agnes Ayres plays Lady Diana Mayo in The Sheik, a 1921 blockbuster silent film.
The lovely Agnes Ayres plays Lady Diana Mayo in The Sheik.

One of the marvelous aspects of modern technology is that you can bring vintage arts easily into your life. You don’t have to wait for a Twenties revival at your nearest retro movie house, if you even have one of those nearby. You can dip into vintage life and culture any time you like. Thanks to sites like YouTube and the Internet Archive, surviving silent movies like The Sheik are only a quick click away. A click on either highlighted link takes you directly to The Sheik, a 1921 blockbuster silent movie.

Cultural Context and The Sheik

Does the movie have cultural issues? Of course it does. First of all, it was made in 1921, during a time when viewers regarded anything outside industrialized city or rural town life as exotic. Second, don’t expect this movie to present Algeria in any realistic way. This is a fantasy, borne of the author’s memories of living in Algeria as a small child in the 1890s. You will see that clearly in one of the early scenes that present two cultured British characters discussing Lady Diana’s escapades. In addition, this is the Algeria of colonialism, and you will note references made to the French language throughout the film. The French governed Algeria from 1830 until the 1960s. Therefore, anyone watching this movie in 1921 would experience no surprise that many of the characters speak French. Of course they spoke French. It was French Algeria in 1921.

If You Want to Read the Book

The movie was adapted from a book by E. M. Hull. Edith Maud Hull was a British author, and The Sheik was her first book. Several other romances followed it, but The Sheik remains her best known work. Wildly popular when it was published, the book sold millions of copies. Read it here, at Project Gutenberg.

The Vintage Bookshelf

Fred Astaire on Himself

My bookshelves are filled with vintage books. Cookbooks, novels, histories, even science. Yes, I know much of the science material is outdated. Looking up current progress is half the fun. Reading these older books gives me a unique perspective on yesteryear. 

I want to introduce the books that sit on The Vintage Bookshelf, but I want to make sure they are available to you. It’s no fun reading about a book you can’t get your hands on to enjoy yourself. Some of the books in this series will be available in hard copy, through a retailer like Amazon. Others might be available in digital format through an online library like The Internet Archive. 

Steps in Time

Photo of book Steps in Time by Fred Astaire, sitting on cutwork embroidered linen. Steps in Time is Astaire's autobiography.
Fred Astaire’s autobiography, Steps in Time, from 1959.

This month I’ve been reading Steps in Time, an autobiography by Fred Astaire. And it is an autobiography – it details Astaire’s opinions on everything! Through it, though, you glean a great understanding of vaudeville. And what those years were like from someone who grew up on the stage. Later, when live theatre blossomed and vaudeville waned, Astaire details that transition as well. You read about the ups and downs of performing live in the early to mid 1900s. 

The story goes that one time when I had gone with my mother to fetch [my sister] Adele, I put on a pair of ballet slippers. I found them in a corner while I was dawdling around the place, killing time, waiting for Adele to finish her lesson. I had seen other children walk on their toes, so I put on the slippers and walked on my toes. It was as simple as that.

Steps in Time, p. 11.

To be fully honest, I’m re-reading the book. I first read it as a young teen, and I was entranced. The only quote I remembered from it, though was Astaire’s daughter Ava’s comment about titling the book itself. She said, “I know! Call it With No Hair on My Head!” How to find a book that I only know the author and one quote? Internet to the rescue! And the book was just as delightful a read this time. 

Steps in Time details Astaire’s time working with George Gershwin… and Ginger Rogers. His time with Bing Crosby… and Noel Coward. He talks about the actors, dancers, and comedians he met in vaudeville… and then expresses his delight at working with their children on the movie set years later. He describes his experiences with golf courses, racehorses, and family — the three loves of his life apart from acting and dancing. 

In a way, this book too is a performance. Astaire glosses over the stock market crash of ’29, which actually affected him substantially (to the tune of losing about $75,000, equivalent to over a 1 million dollar loss today). He doesn’t mention any troubles with payments or much else that would mar the flow of a good showbiz story.

Taking it Further

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can see and hear material from some of Fred and Adele’s earliest shows.

  • Apple Blossoms, their 1919 vaudeville operetta, is the most available. You can read both the book (the story/spoken parts of the play) and see the songs and lyrics in sheet music form.
  • Listen to Fred and his sister Adele sing “Oh Gee Oh Gosh Oh Golly“, from For Goodness Sake/Stop Flirting in 1922/23.
  • Fred and Adele Astaire singing “The Babbit and The Bromide” from Funny Face in 1927. 
  • And although neither Astaire is on this recording, 1931’s The Band Wagon was Adele’s last show. This recording is called Gems from The Band Wagon.

Signs of the Times

The book dates from 1959. Before the civil rights movement of the 60s. Keep that in mind as you read, because once in a while a word or term turns up that today we would find offensive. 

Because it was published nearly 30 years before Astaire died, the book does not cover any details from his later life. Even so, he found enough to fill 338 pages with events from 1904-1958, which is no small feat in itself. His life was very busy, and it was quite full. 

If you read an updated edition, you’ll find a forward by Ginger Rogers that refutes one or two of Fred Astaire’s comments about her. The book should be easy to locate at a local library or on Amazon, in both the 1959 and later editions.