Though it's a little on the rickety side, Judge Bill Gibron says there's still a lot to like about the legendary pairing of silent film superstars.
Silent superstars unite!
Theodora (Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard) is the wayward daughter of retired Captain Fitzgerald. Trying to get by on a meager pension and caring for his two other spinster daughters, the entire Fitzgerald family is in dire straights. They want Theodora to marry a fat, elderly millionaire named Josiah Brown. Recently, though, Theodora has met Lord Hector Bracondale (Rudolph Valentino, Son of the Sheik), a playboy cad whose rowdy reputation precedes him. Naturally, she ends up with Mr. Brown to save the family. Finding herself traveling in higher social circles, Theodora is constantly running into Lord Bracondale. He rescues her from a near fatal fall in the Alps and makes sure to have her invited to a swanky countryside estate. Though she feels deeply for the nobleman, she cannot break her marriage vow. Writing letters to both her spouse and platonic lover, she hopes to settle all her personal troubles once and for all. Unfortunately, fate—and a former fiancé of Bracondale's—thwart her plans. Feeling betrayed, Josiah heads off on a dangerous expedition to the Sahara, with Theodora and Lord Bracondale close behind. All three are desperate to know their place in this lamentable lover's triangle. Sadly, it may take the death of one or more to secure the story of what happened, one day, so long ago, Beyond the Rocks.
Though it marked the one and only time silent film superstars Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson appeared together onscreen, there is more of note regarding the old-fashioned melodramatic mastery of Beyond the Rocks than this one-off pairing. For decades it was considered lost, a mere few seconds of footage remaining from the nearly 90-minute movie. When a print finally turned up in a private collection in 2000, it was considered something of a cinematic miracle. Aside from two sequences and a missing last reel, the nitrate was generally intact. After the discovery of the remaining material in 2004, a meticulous restoration process by the Netherlands Filmmuseum resulted in this DVD release by Milestone Film and Video. Yet, that's still only part of the story. Aside from the celebrated combination of Valentino and Swanson, director Sam Wood utilized exotic locales (Paris, London, The Alps, and the Sahara) to tell a sweeping tale of romance, star-crossed lovers, and the epic depths of the human heart. While hokey and formulaic, Rocks rejects the notion that all silent film was hysterical, overdone, and cartoonish. Both Valentino and Swanson give subtle, shaded performances, and Wood keeps the screen alive with electrifying compositions, fantastic narrative control, and some incredibly stunning visuals.
Indeed, the first thing you notice about Beyond the Rocks is how vast and open its imagery is. Wood chose to recreate many of the more impressive vistas in camera, utilizing then-impressive effects techniques such as rear projection (for a trip to Versailles), forced perception (for the Alps mountain climbing scenes), and miniatures (for the discovery of ancient ruins in the Sahara) to broaden his scope. While the third act does deteriorate into a standard romantic triangle with its misunderstandings and martyrdom, the overall goodwill the film has built up over the previous four reels keeps us engaged and interested. Sure, we want to see Valentino and Swanson together and happy, but the storyline never makes them out to be completely destined. No, Swanson often pleads for her moral responsibility to her marriage and her vows, while Valentino is occasionally cast as a cad who doesn't know his place in proper wedded society. It's this layered look at love and commitment that makes Beyond the Rocks so special. Instead of sticking with the standard resolution, Wood juggles the possible outcomes right up to the very end.
As a cinematic caveat, it has to be said that the look of the actors here is so arcane and bizarre that it takes a little getting used to. Both Valentino and Swanson have huge, drawn-on eyebrows that seem to flow all the way to their jaw line and their makeup is so heavy and dense that their faces are rendered flat and near featureless. At the beginning, when both are supposedly younger, all we see are kewpie-doll lips and big black spot eyes, and during the scenes with her gout-laden husband Josiah, both Swanson and actor Robert Holder look like ghosts. Granted, the weird lighting at the time and the film stock used required such kabuki-like preparation, but for filmgoers used to a more lifelike sense of realism, Beyond the Rocks will resemble a clown's attempt at serious acting. Also, not everyone has Valentino and Swanson's knack for downplaying their parts. Some of the company still come from the over-the-top school of performance; the contrast is intriguing, if not a little surreal. Still, this is a fine film, not quite the lost masterpiece some would call it, but a breezy and entertaining romantic romp containing all the good and all the bad that the genre has to offer.
Milestone, who made a name for themselves a couple of months back with the stellar release of British roadshow films from the turn of the century entitled Electric Edwardians, does itself proud once again with this spectacular title. Again, the image is far from perfect, but what is presented here in the 1.33:1 transfer is terrific in its clarity and crispness. Stabilized to remove the occasionally irritating rapid-motion elements from the image, and tinted to reflect the filmmakers' visual cues, the picture here is pretty damn good. Again, with something as rare as this film, the frequent glitches and missing frames are forgivable. On the sound side, Milestone has also excelled at delivering a definitive presentation. We are treated to three different soundtracks—a new orchestral score by Henny Vrienten (very ambient and quite exceptional), a 5.1 mix with Vrienten's music and sound effects, and a 1955 wire recording of Gloria Swanson (more career overview than scene-specific commentary). As usually, the Dolby Digital technology captures all of these aural elements in crystal clear beauty.
As for additional extras, we get a two-minute intro by Martin Scorsese, a look at Vrienten's work on the score, a detailed description on how the restoration was done, a Dutch TV presentation on the discovery of the film, a still gallery and a collection of Valentino trailers. Perhaps the biggest added treat is the 57-minute silent comedy The Delicious Little Devil. Co-starring Valentino and featuring the incredibly talented Mae Murray as the poor hat check girl who must get a job as a roadhouse dancer to support her family, this is a wonderful little farce. Murray mugs shamelessly, and uses all parts of her presence—body and mannerism—to sell the silliness. Valentino does little except look macho, yet it's all in service of Murray's substantial star power. It makes for a nice complement to the serious story at the fore.
For fans of silent cinema, Beyond the Rocks will be a must-see or must-own title of cinematic significance. Yet even if you aren't in tune with the subtle joys of early filmmaking, one should give this movie a chance. It may not be the most complex or compelling story ever told, but it does argue for the movie's place in our collective cultural consciousness. Corny but considered, it's great to have this artifact available after years missing in action. Art needs preservation to establish its heritage. Beyond the Rocks is another viable stone in cinema's shrine of importance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
• Introduction by Martin Scorsese
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