REDISCOVERY - BEYOND THE ROCKS

by David Robinson


Superstars never die.   Who could have anticipated, for example, that in April 2005 hoardings in Amsterdam would be plastered with glamorous posters of Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson in a sensuous embrace, or that the film in which they starred together 83 years ago. Beyond the Rocks . would be resurrected for a black-tie gala in Europe's most glamorous art-deco twenties movie palace, Amsterdam's Tuschinski Theatre?   Following the premiere there is a special screening at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, before the film is released theatrically and on television.

What makes the furore more surprising is that the film can in no way claim a place among the pantheon of movie classics.   In fact it disappeared rapidly after its inauspicious first release in 1922, and its name rapidly vanished from the pages of film history.   One of the few people to remember it was Gloria Swanson, who outlived her co-star Valentino, to achieve new fame long after her youthful triumphs, as the one-time silent diva Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. She was always hoping to find a print of Beyond the Rocks again, she said, not because she had any illusions about its being a great film, but because she and Valentino had such a good time making it.   He was 27, she was 25, both were bored by the demands of super-stardom.   Gloria remembered how they would escape from the set to ride, play tennis, and commiserate about their disastrous marriages.   Gossips even hinted at a romance.

Gloria never achieved her ambition to see the film again. Not until 22 years after her death - and almost 80 after that of her co-star - has the film resurfaced. Much of the excitement over the rediscovery is undoubtedly generated by the romance of buried treasure.   In 2000 the Netherlands Film Museum inherited the collection of the 87-year-old Joop Van Liempd, which turned out to consist of 2000 rusty cans of film. Few were labelled, and those that were were generally wrongly identified.   The process of identifying and cataloguing the cans was slow; but at an early stage researchers were intrigued to find one or two reels of the long-lost Beyond the Rocks .   It was almost three years however before the rest - comprising almost the entire film - finally came to light, and the laborious and costly process of restoration - handsomely sponsored by the Amsterdam financiers ING - could begin.  

The Nederlands Film Museum carried out an exemplary job of restoration on a film that was already showing signs of deterioration - one or two sequences are obscured by the scintillating fog that is the sign of irretrievably decaying film emulsion.   The film was copied both by the traditional method of making a duplicate 35mm film negative, and also by digital techniques, which permit the correction of image defects from dust or damage.   Aiming to reach a wider audience through theatrical release, the Film Museum made another version, "stretch"-printed so that it could be projected at the now-conventional 24 frames per second instead of the 1922 standard of 16 or 18 frames per second.   This made it possible to add a sound track with musical accompaniment by the Dutch composer Henny Frienten, who has also introduced incidental sound effects - every foot-fall, slammed door or rustling newspaper - which stimulate fierce debate among silent movie purists.

The film that finally emerges from its eight-decade hibernation is definitely not one of the great classics of cinema.   It is adapted from a best-seller by Elinor Glyn , the English novelist with red hair, powder-white face and notoriety as the mistress of Lord Curzon.   Hollywood welcomed her as the exemplar of European sophistication, particularly in the field of sexuality. Her biggest media triumph came with her definition of sex appeal as "It", which gave the title to a major Hollywood hit of 1927, and launched Clara Bow as "The 'It' Girl"   Elinor was immortalised in doggerel inspired by her 1906 novel Three Weeks , with its scene of passion on a tigerskin rug: "Would you like to sin/With Elinor Glyn/On a tiger skin?/Or would you prefer/To err with her/On some other fur?"

Madame Glyn's literary genre was torrid tosh, and Beyond the Rocks does her ample justice. Theodora Fitzgerald (Gloria Swanson) is an English rose, who marries an elderly millionaire for the sake of her impoverished family, but really loves the handsome Lord Bracondale (Valentino).   They endeavour to suppress their illicit though fervent passion.   When Theodora's husband discovers the truth he decides to sacrifice himself on a dangerous North African expedition where he is obligingly assassinated by bandits. As he dies he tenderly joins the hands of Theodora and Bracondale.

Some of the elaborations of the film script were too much even for Madame Glyn, who told journalists in 1929, "I was so disgusted with the changes made to the picture that I went back to Europe ... I will never make another picture with somebody else's ideas disrupting the clarity of my characters.   I object to comic opera being put where it does not belong.   It is up to the director to get over the psychology of the characters and not place a totally false interpretation on them". The director of Beyond the Rocks was Sam Wood.

Paramount advertised the picture as "an enthralling procession of stirring incidents, marvellous gowns and startling settings."   Reviewers of the time were not kind, dismissing it as "garish ... a glynish tale of true love, baronial halls, and the treacherous Alps" (Photoplay). It was reported that audiences laughed and jeered when Valentino saved Gloria's life just once too often, on the pasteboard Alps.   The New York Times was severe: "If the leading characters do little else but wear clothes, and if, also, much of the action takes place on apparently artificial mountains and before what seem to be painted backdrops, can the result be called an interesting photoplay? Not by those who want a little character and a little truth in their entertainment, anyhow"

For all that, the rediscovered film proves remarkably watchable.   What most strikes a modern viewer is that, tosh though it may be, Beyond the Rocks is played with skill and sincerity which actually compel respect for the story. Valentino is the great discovery, with a sensitive, restrained and thoroughly modern acting style.   Swanson   is occasionally misled into silent diva excess ("We had faces then", said Norma Desmond) but at her best is a wonderfully expressive actress - and an incomparable clothes horse.

The electricity between these attractive and charismatic young beauties is still real.   And the rediscovered print brings a special bonus.   As Gloria Swanson recalled, the love scenes were all shot twice - appropriately chaste for the American version, a good deal more voluptuous for continental distribution.   The restored print is from the continental negative, so in 2005 we can congratulate ourselves that we have at last the less restrained - if not actually unrestrained - amorous encounter of the super-stars.