"Beyond the Rocks" was rediscovered in 2003 in the Nederlands Filmmuseum. Considered lost for decades, the rediscovered print was found to be nearly complete but with Dutch intertitles. The Dutch intertitles were replaced with English intertitles based on the original continuity script found in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.
Cast: Gloria Swanson (Theodora Fitzgerald), Rodolph Valentino (Hector, tenth Earl of Bracondale), Edythe Chapman (Lady Bracondale), Alec B. Francis (Captain Fitzgerald), Robert Bolder (Josiah Brown), Gertrude Astor (Morella Winmarleigh), Mabel Van Buren (Jane McBride), June Elvidge (Lady Anningford)
Theodora Fitzgerald, her father and two older, half sisters live modestly on the coast of England. Theodora is urged by her two sisters to marry wealthy for the sake of their father. She does just that when she marries Josiah Brown, a former grocery clerk and self-made millionaire is short, round and much older than Theodora. She meets and falls in love with the young, handsome Lord Bracondale who rescued her from her overturned boat in the harbor prior to her marriage and from a mountain-climbing accident while she was on her honeymoon in the Alps. Although they fall in love, Theodora insists that she must remain faithful to her husband, and, adds that they must not see each other again "unless we are stronger than our love." Bracondale meets her again in Paris and then during a weekend party at his sister's country home near London. Although Bracondale tries to get her to go away with him, she refuses. Brown returns to London, and Bracondale goes away. Theodora writes Bracondale a letter stating that she loves him, but they must not see each other again. At the same time, she sends a letter to her husband saying she will join him soon. Morella Winmarleigh, who hopes to marry Bracondale, is jealous of his attentions to Theodora. She discovers the two letters before they go out in the post and switches the contents. Brown receives the letter intended for Bracondale and is heartbroken. With all care about his life tossed aside, he decides to join a very dangerous expedition to Africa that he had financed. When Theodora learns of this and the mix-up of the letters, she is convinced he means to sacrifice himself for her happiness. Theodora, Bracondale and Bracondale's mother immediately set sail for Africa to stop him. Will Brown survive the trip? Will they get there in time?
Isn't it amazing that, after all these years, we still can see a "lost" film turn up from the silent era? And, as silent movie fans who so much want to see the interest in and preservation of this era perpetuated, a debt of gratitude is due to Milestone Film and Video and others who were involved in bringing this film to DVD for us to see. What an amazing treat to sit and watch a film that was made 84 years ago and, for so many years, we simply shrugged off as "lost," never to be seen again.
Of course, what makes this such a special treat is the coupling of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, two stars who represent the greatness of that era so well. Unfortunately, the story is not great. It's another Elinor Glyn yarn, so that means illicit love, tragedy, exotic locales, royalty with hard to pronounce names and melodrama, but on a very sophisticated level, of course. However, the viewer is enthralled by the pairing of these two, their on-screen chemistry (there was none off-screen; they were just friends), and the anticipation of when and how they will finally overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to live happily ever after.
The story begins by showing us Theodora's two half-sisters, Clementine and Sarah ("daughters of a misalliance of the captain's youth" - whatever that means), who appear to be older and certainly do not possess the beauty of their younger sister. One wonders why they are not married and why the family's future rests solely on Theodora's shoulders. Nevertheless, Josiah Brown, who is a short, portly older man who has "risen from grocer's assistant to multi-millionaire" and is "eager to crown his achievement by a marriage to youth and aristocracy" comes along. Theodora fits the "youth" qualification, but whatever explanation there was about an aristocratic background apparently didn't survive in this print.
Prior to our introduction to Brown, however, we are shown a scene where Theodora's small rowboat tips over, and she falls in the water. Lord Hector Bracondale, who is on a nearby yacht, jumps in and rescues her. Later when Brown comes along, we have the hope that the marriage may not occur so Theodora and Bracondale can get together. Of course, the marriage does take place - but this provides a more interesting story anyway, as we wait to see how she and Bracondale overcome this obstacle.
The question also arises as to why a father would "sacrifice" his daughter so that his fortunes could increase. Just prior to the wedding, Clementine and Sarah ask their father, "Have you seen the marriage settlement" which Theodora overhears. He quickly "shushes" the women. At this point, it all seems so mercenary, and we question the Captain's concern for the welfare of his daughter. However, he comes over to her, holds her, and says, "Darling child, you need not marry this man if you do not want to." She pauses for a moment, and we wonder if she'll take advantage of this escape, but she replies that she wants to proceed with it. That one scene changes our attitude toward the Captain completely. A somewhat poignant moment comes immediately after the wedding. As Theodora is about to leave with her husband, she embraces her father and asks, "Are you happy, papa?" This line makes it abundantly clear why Theodora proceeded with the marriage and the sacrificial drive behind her decision.
We move next to the Swiss Alps where Theodora and Brown are honeymooning, and, coincidentally, Bracondale is there, too, with his mother and Morella Winmarleigh, whom we are told the mother "hopes to have as a daughter-in-law." Although Bracondale and Theodora are dining in the same room that evening, they do not meet. The next day, Theodora and Jane McBride, "a rich American widow who has taken Theodora under her wing," go mountain climbing with a guide. They stop on a ledge, and, as Theodora is taking a photo, she backs off the ledge and is saved only by the rope that connects the three of them. She is dangling from the ledge, but McBride and the guide are unable to pull her up. Again, coincidentally, Bracondale and a friend are climbing, too, and see the catastrophe. Bracondale is lowered down and grabs Theodora just as she faints. Still the other three are not able to pull them up, so they are lowered to a ledge below until more help can arrive. Theodora awakes, and this provides an ideal moment for the lovers-to-be to get reacquainted and, of course, exchange loving looks.
The mountain climbing sequence actually works very well. Sure, the scene wasn't filmed on an actual mountain, but it's reasonably realistic (as much so as the mountain climbing sequence in Von Stroheim's "Blind Husbands"), and is suspenseful, too. We also enjoy the interplay between the two as they await the rescuers. "Fate seems to send you to me when I need you most, Lord Bracondale," Theodora says. He is unclear about what she means until she reminds him that he also rescued her from the water once before. It's as if he now sees her in a different light, and his infatuation with her begins.
Possibly the most complex character for the viewer is Josiah Brown. That is not to say there are complexities due to the depth of his character, but there are complexities as to how the viewer is supposed to receive him. It's much easier when there are "white hats" and "black hats" (to use a metaphor from the westerns), but what are we supposed to think of Josiah Brown? The story gives us no reason to dislike him whatsoever. From the Swiss Alps they go to Paris, and we are introduced to this scene with the intertitle, "Theodora has always looked forward to Paris as a playground of love and laughter, but . . .", and then we see her nursing an obviously sick Josiah. The Picture Play (August, 1922) reviewer referred to him as "a boob" who is "fat" and "vulgar." He may be fat, but he is neither portrayed as "a boob" nor "vulgar." So, are we supposed to dislike him because he is not well or because he's not a handsome, young romantic to share the gayety of Paris with her? If so, this scene does not succeed.
Of course, Brown's illness has a purpose. Theodora's father comes along and invites her to dinner, and, of course, Brown's absence makes it more convenient when Bracondale ends up joining them with the help of Jane McBride. We are not told what has happened to Bracondale's mother and Morella. Keep in mind, though, that "Beyond the Rocks" was rescued after being assumed lost for all these years, and, along with some decomposition in two places, there are obviously some bits missing. One can only assume the picture originally offered an explanation for their absence.
The only real dissatisfying sequence in the film is the next stop on their itinerary - Versailles. On their arrival, we see some buildings in the background, but the scene looks very much as if it were filmed on stage with a backdrop. The New York Times reviewer made reference to "painted backdrops," and this must certainly be the scene to which he refers. From here, the two lovers stroll through the historic gardens of the Palace and come to the Arbor of Psyche. This, too, is obviously set on a stage, and beyond the hedges in the background we see nothing - no sky, no structures - nothing. Bracondale tells her, "It was here that the gallants of long ago played their stately games of love. Suppose we call them back again - out of the past?" Then we are transported back to a 18th century scene with powdered wigs, tailcoats and stockings. It is a short sequence that adds nothing to the story other than giving the two stars an opportunity to model some fancy dress.
When we return to the present, the story begins to move along a little better because it is at this time that Bracondale finally professes his love for her. However, she reluctantly holds off his embraces stating most nobly that she could not break her marriage vows. " . . . if we are not stronger than our love, we must not meet again," she tells him.
Back in London, Bracondale confides to his sister of his unrequited love. He asks her to be a friend to Theodora, so, she invites the Browns to spend the weekend at her country estate along with some other guests. Although Bracondale wasn't originally supposed to attend, he cannot resist, and once again, professes his love for her - this time begging her to "let me take you away." Keep in mind that Brown has been portrayed as nothing but a loving, caring husband so far. However, now we see Bracondale portrayed as a "home wrecker" who has no regard for the marriage vows that Theodora took. Again, the characterizations are somewhat disconcerting. Ideally, there should be something to dislike about Brown (which there isn't) and nothing to dislike about Bracondale (which, unfortunately, there is).
The weekend party at his sister's does, however, set the scene for some very important events that come later. Brown is approached by Sir Lionel Grey to finance an expedition to Africa. Brown agrees and decides to go along. In an unexpected display of "class," Bracondale tells Brown he should not join the expedition because of the dangers involved. Brown, admitting that he was unaware of the dangers, takes Bracondale's advice.
The intensity of the film builds from this point on, and we see Morella return to play a key role. Brown had left for London earlier, and Bracondale has returned to London dejected after Theodor's latest rejection of him. While still at the country estate, Theodora writes two letters - one to Bracondale stating that, although she loves him, they must not see each other again, and, another to her husband with a very brief statement that she will join him soon. After Theodora leaves the letters on a table downstairs to be mailed, Morella sneaks them back to her room, steams the envelopes open, and switches the letters. This turn of delicious deviltry injects a little excitement and anxiety for our viewing pleasure, and we can't wait to see what will happen when Josiah opens the letter and reads Theodora's profession of love for Bracondale.
Without giving away too much of the ending, just suffice it to say that Brown, now with a careless attitude toward life and death, decides to go on the African excursion despite any dangers it may possess. When Theodora learns of this, she, Bracondale and Bracondale's mother follow after him.
To regress slightly, there is an excellent scene where Bracondale goes to Brown's apartment after realizing the mix-up in the letters. All the while we are hoping that he makes it in time to somehow retrieve the love letter unopened. The excitement and anticipation of Bracondale's rush to prevent Brown from seeing the letter is only matched by the tenseness of the meeting of the two men after Brown has actually opened and read his wife's expressions of love for another man.
The film attracted good crowds upon its release mainly because moviegoers knew an Elinor Glyn story had to be sultry and sexy (her name did retain box office appeal throughout the decade), and the idea of seeing the great Swanson and the handsome Valentino in love-making scenes was too much to pass up. In her autobiography Swanson on Swanson (Random House, 1980), Swanson noted that this film came on the heels of both the Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor scandals. As a result, the Hays office was exerting its authority with ridiculous restrictions, one of which was that kisses could last no longer than 10 feet of film. "So we shot each kiss twice, once for the version to be released in America and once for the European version," she said. "Poor Rudy could hardly get his nostrils flaring before the American version as over. Only Europeans and South Americans could see Swanson and Valentino engage in any honest-to-goodness torrid kisses." Unfortunately, there are no kisses, short or long, in the print that survives. As a side note, Swanson also refers to a tango sequence in the film which also does not appear in the surviving print.
Swanson portrays Valentino as a shy young man in her autobiography and makes it clear they were never more than friends. She said they met at the horse stable where he called her Mrs. Somborn (her married name at the time). According to Swanson, they talked and shared their problems. A problem they had in common at the time was "miserable marriages," as she called them.
She remembered how nervous she was about the scene where her rowboat overturns and she is rescued by Lord Bracondale. This was filmed at Catalina, and she gave credit to director Sam Wood and Valentino for easing her fears and getting her through it. "The nights in the hotel were great fun," she added. "We had long, wonderful dinners, and frequently afterward, pillow fights in the upstairs corridors. I never saw Rudolph Valentino so relaxed and happy."
The actors in this film all do a competent job, but everyone else is overshadowed by the two great stars. Gertrude Astor does a commendable job as the "catty" Morella Winmarleigh, although she doesn't have very much screen time. Alec Francis as Captain Fitzgerald is passable, but the acting honors, outside of Swanson and Valentino, go to Robert Bolder as Josiah Brown. Although his name is hardly recognizable to most silent movie fans, he did appear in over 40 films during the silent era starting in 1914 and including "Black Beauty" (1921), "The Sea Hawk" (1924) and "Stella Maris" (1925). He holds his own as the angry husband in the scene with Valentino after he reads the love letter Theodora wrote the young man, and the final, tragic scene is also well-played. Although Bolder gave the role a good performance, his physical appearance still seems unsuited for the part. Instead of this little, rotund man with a pleasant, grandfatherly face, we could have mustered up a little more disgust at his marrying the young and beautiful Theodora had his appearance been more repulsive either due to some combination of appearance, advanced age and/or despicable character. Instead, he is pitied rather than disliked.
As for Valentino and Swanson, what can be said about them? They both do their usual excellent job, although the material does require some melodramatic acting. Of course, Valentino was probably the best at emoting melodramatically and getting away with it. Nevertheless, it's a delight to watch these two on screen, and a particular treat knowing that it's somewhat of a miracle that we have it to view at all today.
Critics could have been more complimentary of the story,
however, they felt the pairing of the two stars would be enough
to satisfy the box office. Variety
(May 12, 1922) noted, "'Beyond the Rocks' has the customary Glyn features. It has been mentioned as a sequel to 'Three Weeks' and successfully develops the necessary action for a melodramatic love story. With the Glyn name behind the story and Valentino as the ardent lover, the production should have little difficulty in securing the necessary returns from the regular picture fans."
The Motion Picture Classic (August, 1922) reviewer said, "'Beyond the Rocks' is garish stuff. But with Gloria Swanson and Rodolph Valentino dividing the electric lights, you can count upon its being a box-office clean-up. This coupled with the fact that the pen of Elinor Glyn constructed the thing. But Mrs. Glyn did not strain her cerebral apparatus in building the tale."
Harrison's Reports (May 13 , 1922) called it "A fairly interesting domestic drama belonging to the 'eternal triangle' school. There is no doubt that the names of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino will draw the crowds. The satisfaction of the same crowds, however, after witnessing this production, is another matter."
Picture Play (August, 1922) gave a slightly more critical review. "The full title of this film should read 'Beyond the Rocks, or Around the World with Rodolph and Gloria.' Each change of background means a corresponding change of costume . . . So what with the shifting wardrobes and the shifting geography, this film cannot be said to lack excitement, which is fortunate when you consider the plot. For the story - although by the unconventional Elinor Glyn - is one of those custom-made affairs which are becoming as typical of Paramount as the "Follies" are of Ziegfeld. That this routine action is not dull, is due entirely to the personalities of the two stars. You may know exactly what is going to happen, but you don't know how Rodolph and Gloria will meet it, and this, in addition to the natural charm of the actors, keeps you interested. I shudder to think of what 'Beyond the Rocks' would be if it weren't for its two scintillating stars."
The music is provided by Dutch composer Henny Vrienten and features trumpet, accordion, zither, harp guitar, piano and strings. The score is somewhat moody and low key throughout, but it is enjoyable and sets the tone for each scene well. Occasional sound effects - dogs barking, curtains being drawn, voices in the background, silverware rattling, birds outside, horses' hooves, etc. - are included with discretion and subtlety. Unless you're a purist who feels a silent film should not have such "intrusions," you will find the effects are an acceptable enhancement to the film.
Gloria Swanson wrote in her autobiography in 1980, ". . . many of my early pictures have been shown at film festivals around the world. Each time this happens, the same sad questions are always asked: Does anyone know of a print anywhere of 'Beyond the Rocks,' the film Rudy Valentino made with me in 1921? Can anyone locate a print of 'Madame San Gene'? Does anyone have a complete copy, including the last reel, of 'Sadie Thompson'? I would love to see them again and know they're not lost forever."
As we can see, Swanson's optimism was not in vain. "Beyond the Rocks" was not lost forever. Sadly, though, she didn't live to see its rediscovery. One can only imagine the memories that would have been stirred and the delight she would have experienced being able to see this film again as we are now able to do. We can only hope now that her optimism was also correct about "Madame San Gene" and "Sadie Thompson," as well.
Copyright 2006 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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