I had originally scheduled a huge silent film epic for review in this space today. (Okay, it’s not that epic—it was gonna be Way Down East .) But since my Tales of Wells Fargo DVR project continues apace, I decided to grab something short and sweet for the blog’s silent movie spotlight today…and that’s when I came across a DVD of The Eagle (1925), an Image Entertainment disc that I purchased back in 2009 and have now freed from its shrink wrap exile. (Do not judge me.)
The movie tells the tale of one Vladimir Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino), a lieutenant in Russia’s Imperial Guard during the reign of Catherine the Great. A heroic rescue of Mascha Troekouroff (Vilma Banky) and her Aunt Aurelia (Carrie Clark Ward), who are at the mercy of a runaway carriage, does not escape the notice of the Czarina (Louise Dresser)—who rewards Vlad with one of her prized horses (coincidentally, the one he jumped on to save Mascha and Auntie) and is prepared to repay him with much, much more (she can make him a general!) if he only acquiesces to her request that he join her for a royal roll in the hay. When he politely spurns her advances, she puts a price of 5000 rubles on his head.
Mascha is the beautiful daughter of nobleman Kyrilla Troekouroff (James A. Marcus), a despotic nobleman who has “liberated” the lands and wealth of Dubrovsky’s father (Spottiswoode Aiken). Returning home when he receives word that his father is practically through Death’s Door, Vlad arrives just in time to witness the old man snuff it…and makes a solemn vow to avenge the death of the senior Dubrovsky. In addition, he will assist the victimized peasantry by donning a mask to become Zorro The Black Eagle! (Music sting)
Dubrovsky gains entry into the House of Troekouroff by posing as Marcel Le Blanc, a tutor hired to help daughter Mascha in French. (I am not going to lie to you. I giggled when the title cards referred to “Professor Le Blanc,” for obvious reasons.) Vladimir is torn between his passionate love for Mascha and his pledged allegiance to bring down her father. After all, you can’t kill your father-in-law before the wedding—that’s usually reserved for the reception!
My CMBA colleague Fritzi of Movies Silently fame declares that The Eagle is “highly recommended for people who think they don’t like Valentino.” I think she’s on target with that; I don’t dislike Rudy, but I’ll readily admit that he ranks a little further down on my list of favorite silent movie actors. But I enjoyed The Eagle so much that I downloaded Valentino’s penultimate film, Cobra (1925), from Epix on Demand during our past freeview weekend and I plan to put that on when I get an opportunity. (Trying to expand my silent cinema education, as it were.)
What I appreciated so much about The Eagle is that it’s infused with a good deal of whimsy; true to its Robin Hood-like plot, the movie insists on not taking things too seriously and the action-adventure-romance aspects are lightly leavened with humor. Valentino displays a rather deft touch with comedy in something as simple as attempting to remove a ring from his finger. The acting highlights in Eagle belong to Louise Dresser, who is fantastic as Czarina Catherine; I just about spit Crystal Light Fruit Punch across the room watching her “seduce” Vladimir (she slyly pours out the wine she’s supposed to be drinking and then pantomimes downing her glass of vino…and Valentino does the same). (It was Fritzi that reminded me that Dresser is also in another Catherine the Great picture, 1934’s The Scarlet Empress, as Empress Elizabeth; I need to revisit that one sometime soon.)
The laugh-out-loud moment belongs to Albert Conti as Kuschka, Vladimir’s fellow comrade-at-arms; when Dubrovsky runs for the tall grass to put as much distance between himself and the Czarina as possible, Kuschka gladly steps in to become Catherine’s “kept man.” He even intervenes on his friend’s behalf when Vlad’s captured by Catherine’s soldiers and is scheduled to be executed—Kuschka owes a lot to Dubrovsky because, after all, Vladimir made him a general! There’s also much hilarity in the sequences where visitors to Kyrilla’s wine cellar find themselves greeted by a formidable pet bear…though admittedly, I couldn’t stop thinking “What happened to the gas man?” since I had just finished that Radio Spirits Jack Benny project last week.
The Eagle was a shot-in-the-arm to Rudolph Valentino’s flagging film career at the time of its release…but sadly, after only two more pictures (Cobra and 1926’s Son of the Sheik), Rudy would leave this world for a better one at the age of 31 in 1926. He was most fortunate to have worked with Vilma Banky as his co-star in this film (Banky is drop dead gorgeous, no getting around it—but she’s also able to keep from being overshadowed by “The Sheik”) as well as director Clarence Brown, who later oversaw some of Greta Garbo’s most memorable silents (Flesh and the Devil, A Woman of Affairs) as well as later classics like National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling (1946).
At the risk of sounding like I’m beginning a slow march to fogeydom, I particularly enjoyed this DVD version of The Eagle (I believe the Image disc is now OOP) because it was one of the many movies released under the banner of “The (Paul) Killiam Collection.” This is how I watched movies in the days before TCM (and we were damned lucky to have them!); on public television (part of The Silent Years), before it was inundated by oil company advertising.