Synopsis/Commentary

Ritz-Carlton Pictures, Inc.

Cast: Rudolph Valentino (Count Rodrigo Torriani), Gertrude Olmsted (Mary Drake), Casson Ferguson (Jack Dorning), Nita Naldi (Elise Van Zile), Hector Sarno (Vitorrio Minardi), Claire de Lopez (Rosa Minardi), Henry Barrows (Henry Madison), Lillian Langdon (Mrs. Huntington Palmer), Eileen Percy (Sophie Binner)


Count Rodrigo Torriani is a financially-strapped womanizer who has only inherited his ancestors' "debt-ridden palace" and their weakness for women. He meets New York antiques dealer Jack Dorning who is on a business trip to Italy. Dorning helps Torriani pay off the father of a "wronged" young woman by buying one of the antiques from the Torriani palace. The two men hit it off, and Torriani is offered a job at the Dorning antiques business in New York.

Although the move to New York is meant to get Torriani away from women, it, instead, leads to an infatuation with Mary Drake, a secretary in the antiques office, who does not return Torriani's interest. He is introduced to Elise Van Zant by her aunt, an elderly customer. Torriani is not interested, and she easily turns her interest to Dorning when she learns that Dorning is the wealthy one.

Dorning and Elise are married, and the marriage works well for a year. Torriani's interest in Mary continues, but her latest rebuff leaves him feeling low. That same evening, while Torriani is working late and alone at the office, Elise comes in to seduce him. Reluctantly, he goes with her to a local hotel leading to a tragic outcome.


"Cobra" has gotten a bad rap over the years. Wedged between two wonderful costume dramas, "The Eagle" (which was actually made after "Cobra" but released before it) and "Son of the Sheik," it's easy to look back at Valentino's career and dismiss this film in favor of the others. Also, coupled with the accepted opinion that Natacha Rambova had her fingers in this production, thereby stifling any efforts for commercial appeal, make it an easy target for critics.

That's not to say the critics liked the film when it was released. They didn't. The New York Times reviewer said the film was "moderately entertaining until the director and his henchmen decide to include a fang or two of the poisonous reptile. It then becomes quite absurd and the accompanying captions assist in the general decline." Motion Picture magazine (March, 1926) said, ". . . the picture is a sort of hybrid vehicle which hasn't any glamour left to attract public favors."

"Cobra" was Valentino's first independent production under J.D. Williams' Ritz-Carlton Pictures Incorporated after his contract ended with Famous Players-Lasky. The first picture was supposed to be from a scenario by Rambova entitled "The Hooded Falcon," but the script still needed work, and the costume spectacle would take months of preparation. Williams told the Valentinos that his company could not remain idle that long and urged Valentino to film a successful stage play he had purchased entitled "Cobra." Both Valentino and Rambova gave an emphatic "no!" in the beginning, but finally gave in after much pressure from Williams on the condition that the film would not be released until after "The Hooded Falcon."

Although screenplay credit is given to Anthony Coldewey, Valentino and Rambova had full rights to story approval, so the finished story has many changes insisted upon by the couple. For example, the film does not show Count Torriani (Valentino) "making love" to any of his conquests. All lovemaking takes place off-screen. Also, a fight scene that was a part of the play was deleted so that Valentino's athleticism could be saved for "The Hooded Falcon." Obviously there was much more changed from the original play. As for the set designs, Rambova said she had no interest in a modern story and declined. Instead the services of set designer William Cameron Menzies, fresh from Douglas Fairbanks' "The Thief of Bagdad," and costumer designer Adrian were secured, two of the best in the business. Reportedly, they were personally chosen by Rambova.

Because Valentino could not work for anyone else until his contract dispute with Famous Players-Lasky was settled, he was off the screen for quite a long time. When the legal battles were over, everyone was glad to see the Great Lover back on the screen. Although "The Eagle" received glowing reviews in late 1925, as noted above, everyone jumped on the bandwagon to criticize Valentino in early 1926 when "Cobra" hit the movie screens . . . with the exception of Motion Picture Classic publisher Eugene V. Brewster. "'The Eagle' was the better picture of the two and this was naturally shown first," he said. "It looked as tho Valentino was making his way back, but nobody could be quite sure of this. Was it idle curiosity?

"Had his popularity waned after all? 'The Eagle' cold not answer this, but 'Cobra' could come pretty near doing it," Brewster wrote. "'The Eagle' was a romantic picture showing Valentino in his famous and natural role of a great lover, and it had the beautiful Vilma Banky playing opposite. 'Cobra' was an inferior story and had a decidedly inferior cast. Why Nita Naldi was ever chosen to play the part nobody knows. She simply did not belong. And Valentino had no love-making to do whatever. In fact, he was nothing but an ordinary walking gentleman thruout, with little opportunity to display emotions.

"I collected over a dozen reviews of 'Cobra' from the New York newspapers and periodicals," Brewster continued, "and I believe there was not one kind word said for 'Cobra' or for Valentino. Why? Each critic had his own excuse and his own way of looking at things, but in my humble opinion, they were all wrong. I admit that the picture was draggy. I admit that the cast was poor, but otherwise I praise it as a very fair picture indeed, and I am perfectly willing to go on record as stating that Mr. Valentino does some excellent work in this picture. In fact, it would be difficult to find any actor to do the part as well."

Certainly, Brewster gives a fairer view of "Cobra" than those who preferred to bash it. More than likely, had it been anyone other than Valentino, the critics would have been kinder. Judged on its own merits and not using "The Eagle" or "Son of the Sheik" as measuring sticks, it is, as Brewster said, a "fair" film. There is enough story there to stir our emotions. To its credit, it starts off with some excitement as Torriani is pursued by an angry father who wants restitution for this "wronged" daughter. There is a neat mix-up of mistaken identities when Jack Dorning comes along that adds a comical flavor to the incident, as well.

Having Torriani fall for Mary Drake who knows of his womanizing and, therefore, rebuffs him, it not the most original boy-girl scenario, but it works. The friendship between Dorning and Torriani is interesting, and we are glad to see two such diverse personalities hit it off and complement one another. Tension arises, too, as this friendship is put to the test when Elise, now married to Dorning, still pursues Torriani.

The New York Times reviewer, however, was exactly right when he criticized some of the later title writing, although "overly melodramatic" may be a better description than "absurd." For example, Torriani rants at Elise, "You are infamous, you are poisonous, like a cobra!" or "A moment's hesitation - and Rodrigo determined to sacrifice the one pure, clean love he had ever known."

The reviewer is also correct when he notes that the film is entertaining but is less effective in the final portions. It seems likely the story became too entangled for the scenarist and/or director to provide a satisfying conclusion.

Valentino gives a good performance regardless of the shortcomings of the story. He is self-assured ladies' man, very well-dressed and comfortable in the part of a handsome man-about-town and equally effective in the more emotional scenes trying to spare the feelings of his best friend or giving up the girl he loves.

Nita Naldi's dark looks and half-closed eyes are typical of a twenties vamp/seductress, and, to disagree with Brewster's editorial above, she meets the requirements of the part in all respects. Naldi's restrained manner implies a self-assuredness that Elise Van Zile should possess in order to be the devious, amoral person she is. To dislike her is to react exactly as one should . . . to her character, that is. Admittedly, she was better as the prostitute in John Barrymore's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920).

Gertrude Olmsted oozes sweetness, and for the "pure, clean," love Torriani so desired, she is excellently cast. Olmsted was also capable of combining sexiness with her innocence as seen in Lon Chaney's "The Monster" (1925), released earlier that same year. Unfortunately, her role calls for little emotion. Her best scene is when she and Torriani leave work one evening in his car. He is embarrassed when a girl recognizes him and waves. When he realizes Mary is not angry, they both laugh, and we get a glimpse of Olmsted's beauty at its best.

As for Casson Ferguson, he is appropriately cast as the "old-fashioned," reserved and dignified owner of the antique business. We imagine his involvement with Elise is the first time he has been in love, and he plays the giddy, lovesick young man well. He also touching as the distraught husband who doesn't know where his wife is.

By the way, Eileen Percy, best remembered as Douglas Fairbanks' leading lady during the 'teens, does a good turn as one of Torriani's doomed affairs who comes to Torriani's and Dorning's apartment demanding satisfaction, monetary, that is.

When watching the film, the viewer does not think in terms of it being "bad." Rather, there is a feeling of frustration at the story's potential and how much better it could be. As noted, the critics would probably not have been as harsh if this weren't a Valentino movie. So, rather than compare it to his costume dramas, one may find it well-above average when compared with other silent movies of the day.

Of course, one significant attraction of "Cobra" is the fact that it is available on DVD in an exquisite print mastered from a mint-condition 35mm master positive with another wonderful score by the Mont Alto Theater Orchestra.


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