Valentino and Swanson, when the pictures were big

Critics' Picks : New Dvds

July 09, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH

BEYOND THE ROCKS / / Milestone Film & Video / / $29.95

Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson were two of the silent era's most celebrated stars, and the long-thought-lost Beyond the Rocks offers not only the unique chance to see them act together, but also the welcome opportunity to see them in roles besides those for which they've come to be known.

Swanson is best remembered for her bravura performance in Billy Wilder's caustic 1950 love-letter to Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard. But that was her comeback film; as a silent-film star, she was celebrated for the opulent costume dramas she made for director Cecil B. DeMille, as well as for her on-screen fashion sense, which set trends throughout the world.

If anything, Valentino has been even more ill-treated by history. He was Hollywood's archetypal Latin lover, one of the most popular figures in the world, until his untimely death in 1926 at age 31. Today, few people know anything beyond his name and the vague assumption that he's connected somehow to Valentine's Day (he isn't).

Beyond the Rocks, released in 1922 and directed by Sam Wood -- whose long Hollywood career included The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera and uncredited work on Gone With the Wind -- is a standard silent-era melodrama. Its borderline-silly plot has to do with a young woman (Swanson) married to an older man, the British lord (Valentino) who falls in love with her and a pair of letters that are, unfortunately, sent to the wrong people. It was based on a novel by Elinor Glyn, an enormously influential pop-culture scribe of the 1920s who specialized in this sort of piffle. (She also wrote the novel on which Clara Bow's It was based.)

But watching Swanson and Valentino is a joy, as they keep in check the outsized gestures and overwrought personalities typical of so many films of the period. Swanson herself spoke longingly of the fun they had making the film; unfortunately, she died in 1983, long before it resurfaced.

Valentino, especially, plays against type; the actor known for The Sheik, in which his very gaze was said to make women shudder at what he must be thinking, proves both charming and effortlessly charismatic as the rakish Lord Hector Bracondale. Swanson is both demure and resilient as the conflicted Theodora.

The print is not in the best shape, with some scratches and a few sections where deterioration robs the frame of almost its entire image. But given its age and origins (the print was found inside a collection of rusty tin film cans donated to the Nederlands Filmmuseum by a collector), there's precious little room for complaint. As a movie, Beyond the Rocks is 81 minutes of light fun, but as an artifact of a bygone era and a window into the early days of film, it's a cause for celebration.

* Special features: There's a brief introduction to the film by Martin Scorsese, an 85-minute voice-only interview with Swanson from 1955, stills from Swanson's personal collection, a short from the Netherlands about the discovery of the film, even a second long-thought-lost Valentino film, 1919's The Delicious Little Devil, co-starring Mae Murray.

ALSO ANTICIPATED

PERRY MASON: SEASON 1, VOLUME 1 / / Paramount Home Video / / $49.95

Long before Jack McCoy was doing his bit on Law & Order, Perry Mason reigned as television's most dependable lawyer. As embodied by actor Raymond Burr, it's easy to understand Mason's appeal: He never lost a case, never seemed to sweat, never seemed less-than-confident. And wasn't it nice to think that defense attorneys like Perry Mason would always be around -- ensuring that the innocent never ended up behind bars?

This three-disc collection includes 19 first-season episodes from 1957-58, and introduces not only Burr as Mason, but also his stellar supporting cast: Barbara Hale as his secretary, Della Street; William Hopper as private eye Paul Drake; and Ray Collins as police Detective Tragg (Collins became so identified with the role that it's even inscribed on his tombstone). Then there's the series' secret weapon, William Talman as D.A. Hamilton Burger. Yes, he always lost to Mason, and he sometimes got frustrated. But the series' writers took pains to assure viewers that Mason and Burger highly respected each other -- the sort of honorably adversarial relationship that's rarely been seen on TV since.

[CHRIS KALTENBACH]

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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