Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It's indeed a rare thing when an entire silent film lost for over 80 years shows up in screenable condition, and that's exactly what the Nederlands Filmmuseum discovered just a couple of seasons ago. Milestone has secured the R1 rights resulting in this amusing and thoughtful DVD release. In this case, it isn't just a silent movie, it's a gushy romance starring two Hollywood greats, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. Not a whole lot of film from the early 1920s still exists of either of these stars.
The museum's restoration was accomplished with the help of ING Real Estate and Turner Classic Movies. Milestone sweetens the deal with a number of attractive extras, including an entire second feature (more below).
Theodora Fitzgerald (Gloria Swanson) loves her father, the Captain (Alec B. Francis) and is impressed when the dashing Lord Hector Bracondale (Rudolph Valentino) leaps from his yacht to rescue her when her skiff capsizes. But Theodora's relatives think Bracondale is too much of a playboy and arrange her marriage with the much older self-made businessman, Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder). Bracondale again rescues Theodora on a cliff in the Swiss Alps, which leads to serious overtures in Paris. When Theodora's husband finds out how she feels, he foolishly goes along on a dangerous Arabian adventure he's bankrolled, with a guilty Theodora and Bracondale in pursuit.
Devotées of silent drama will probably take Beyond the Rocks in stride, but the rest of us are going to need to do some adjusting, as Elinor Glyn's romantic fantasy definitely belongs to the tastes and manners of another age. Silent movie expert Robert S. Birchard used to describe 'naíeve' silent dramas as "simple stories for simple people," and that's exactly what Miss Glynn delivers. Beyond the Rocks gathers together several desired romantic clichés and doesn't waste time with psychological complexity or literary sophistication.
Actually, it's more like a fairy tale. The sweet young Theodora lives in a charming seaside cottage, thinks only of her father and romance, and is barely aware of the mercenary intentions of her female relatives. The film presumes that there is no life below a certain income level; one either has money or doesn't really exist. Theodora is tricked into thinking her father wants her to marry the portly and unromantic Josiah Brown.
But Fate cannot separate Theodora and Lord Bracondale; whenever one is near the other can think of nothing else. Bracondale dashes to her rescue not once but twice. He worships her favorite flower. She tries to send him away. He manages to take a role opposite her in a pageant-like outdoor play. Theodora finally writes two letters, one telling Bracondale that she loves him but must never see him again, and one to her husband saying she's hurrying to his side. A troublemaking friend switches the letters.
Beyond the Rocks is finely attuned to the expectations of the 1922 audience. Gloria Swanson's Theodora's typical "will she or won't she" dilemma is accompanied by much emotional suffering, in high-fashion gowns, of course. When the subject of conversation turns to romance in the time of King Louis, we're offered a brief 'reverie' scene of Rudolph and Gloria posed romantically in elaborate costumes from the French court. Rudolph's character is conceived completely from the female point of view. Always well dressed, he exists only to be handsome and seek the woman of his dreams. His love for Theodora is a refined impulse: Yes, he'd like to take her away, but only when she's ready. Watching Valentino's quietly simmering bedroom eyes, we understand completely the appeal of George Raft a decade later. In his early pictures the American actor seems to be consciously imitating Valentino's screen image.
Sam Wood (For Whom the Bell Tolls, King's Row) directs efficiently but without much of a hint of his later style. Exteriors are in general more expressive than the standard interior work. Mattes and good art direction suggest the various international locales. In the Sahara, Josiah Brown sees a few pillars in the sand dunes and remarks bitterly that his expedition hardly seems worth it. The cutaway shot that looks like a backyard miniature, but a few moments later we discover that the 'ancient ruins' are actually a full-sized set.
Beyond the Rocks also takes pains to work its way out of a story situation that censors might interpret as immoral. The cure for the technically unconsummated adulterous situation is a heavy dose of sacrifice all around. Discovering that Theodora's love is an illusion, the husband Josiah rushes off to the Sahara (exotic location #4) so as to become a victim of 'marauding Arabs.' Theodora and Bracondale catch up just in time to receive Josiah's blessing as he succumbs. The lovers are therefore left to pursue a presumably idyllic future. This rosy fantasy stands in strong contrast to the later fatalistic look at adultery in F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. In that classic a dripping inter-title suggests a solution for an adulterous couple worrying about his wife: "She could get drowned."
Milestone and New Yorker's DVD of Beyond the Rocks is a fine transfer of the recovered film, 95% of which is in great shape. A few scenes are a bit shrunken, two brief sequences are marred by partial decomposition, and one scene is missing completely. An extra shows us that we needn't miss it -- it's the part of the outdoor play where Theodora discovers that Bracondale has replaced her 'co-star.'
Martin Scorsese is on camera to introduce the recovered and restored film. Composer Henny Vrienten has two different scores for the film, one with added sound effects. Beyond the expected galleries of art and stills are a docu on the restoration and on about the eccentric Dutch film collector in whose cache of films the feature was found. The collector's hobby elicits mixed feelings. On one hand we're grateful that the man preserved the films but on the other we have to realize that it was almost accidental: The collector's prints were in a disorganized state and haphazardly stored. That the 80 year-old film wasn't reduced to nitrate powder is a real fluke.
Milestone adds two more attractive extras. A 1955 audio recording of Gloria Swanson lasts a full 85 minutes as she talks about various aspects of her life and career. And the disc offers a second feature as well, a 54-minute 1919 Mae Murray comedy also co-starring Rudolph Valentino, The Delicious Little Devil. It has a newly recorded score.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Beyond the Rocks rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent (from a good surviving copy)
Supplements: Martin Scorsese introduction, artwork, stills, audio recording of Gloria Swanson, docus, bonus feature
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 21, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson