The Sunday Intertitle: No Great Sheikh

Why a Howard Hawks Week? It just seemed like fun, and there are enough films I’d enjoy revisiting and enough I haven’t seen. Hope you enjoy.

FAZIL is an unapologetic dose of orientalism, and a late silent/soundie — it has a recorded music score and occasional roughly-synched representations of sound effects such as horses’ hooves, plus a bit of vocalisation — a vague stab at the  call to prayer, and a gondolier’s song, complete with superimposed music and lyrics (as a guide for cinemas which can’t play sound yet?)

It may be Hawks’ only soundie, but I haven’t seen TRENT’S LAST CASE, although I long to. I’m a Raymond Griffith obsessive.

FAZIL stars the quite un-Hawksian Charles Farrell, best-known for his Borzage collaborations, as an unlikely sheikh, with all the barbarity such romantic figures are supposed to have. The culture-clash plot sends him to Venice, so even the film’s representation of the west is exotic and romantic. My fuzzy, grainy copy is just barely good enough to let you see that this is a beautifully photographed film: lots of soft lighting and soft focus and shallow focus. It’s shot by L. William O’Connell, who lensed A GIRL IN EVERY PORT for Hawks the same year, alongside Murnau’s now-lost FOUR DEVILS. Yet he seems to slide into B-pictures as soon as sound arrives, his only big picture being SCARFACE, where he’s paired with Lee Garmes who usually gets credit for the more interesting stuff (Hawks certainly stressed Garmes’ inventiveness in interviews).

That gondolier’s song has a plot role to play, accompanying the central lovers’ first glimpse of one another, from opposite windows across a canal. Hawks crosscuts reverse angles, moving closer as the love-at-first-sight builds, and throws in tracking shots drifting past each lead from the gondolier’s point of view. It’s a very elaborate set-piece, quite removed from his usual, later low-key, apparently effortless mode of presentation. Very interesting to seen him stretch himself, as with the expressionist effects in SCARFACE.

Hollywood has already caught on to the idea of selling sheet music — so that gondolier’s ditty follows the characters about from canal to soirée. where a dissolve sweeps all the other dancers from the floor, leaving Farrell and Greta Nissen alone at last. Then the dance ends and the surrounding throng fades back into existence. There’s nothing else like this in Hawks, so it’s very interesting indeed: what one wants to balance it is some trace of the filmmaker to come.

We also get Mae Busch, always welcome, and John Boles with his huge cranium. To me he has the look of a man smuggling a busby under his scalp.

Censor-baiting screen narrative — we go from Farrell & Nissen on a gondola to her lying in bed in what’s obviously his apartment or hotel suite at dawn. Quelle scandale! Some dialogue, some kisses, and then an intertitle tells us we’ve slid from Venice to Paris during the fade-out and a newspaper headline informs us that the lovers are newly wed. Sex happens during fade-outs, but a lot more than that can go on, it seems. (“At least I had some fun with that.”)

It’s interesting that these Arab barbarian lover types are never played by actual movie tough guys — from Valentino to Novarro to Farrell, they’re all elegant rather than rugged. Farrell is a great big hunk of man, but we know he’s a softy from his other movies, and though he begins this one by having an insubordinate head scimitared off, his attempts to play the master of the house come across as petulant, the result of weakness rather than strength, and I suspect Hawks saw it that way too, frowning from behind the camera. (Actual quote from Hawks on Hawks: “Christ Almighty, can you imagine Charlie Farrell as an Arabian sheikh?”)

Big harem scene, staged as a proto-Busby Berkeley sex fantasy of flesh and art direction. The lovely Nissen — vivacious in TRANSATLANTIC but merely lovely here — comes close to swooning at the perfumed horror of all those diaphanous scanties. Remember, exoticism is racism’s sexy sister. You wouldn’t be seduced by racism… but the sexy sister? You might weaken. And be lost.

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10 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: No Great Sheikh”

  1. Charles Farrell is best known for “My Little Margie”

  2. Wow, I had no idea he did anything after the early talkie period! Hard to picture him in a sitcom.

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    David E beat me to the punch…I sent you this link just a bit ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsvZciyOga8

  4. Wow. Funny how I Love Lucy is known as an iconic thing here in the UK but we never heard of any other US comedy shows from the same period. Maybe The Honeymooners, and Car 54 and Adams Family and Munsters from a little later. Or is it just me that’s ignorant?

    Still, I think Borzage’s silents represent Farrell better. His voice is so damn MILD.

  5. Randy Cook Says:

    Does this stuff have any reason to be remembered? David E and myself and others of a similar age remember it because it was part of the inescapable noise-scape of the 50’s. By the by, Gale Storm (really?) had another TV show, a bit later, where she introduced another silent star to my generation… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJ8zcPLgSfM

  6. Ohhhhh deeeear!

  7. Where did you see this, David , since some of these early Hawks are difficult to find? I did see an early episode of THE GALE STORM SHOW five years ago at the Memphis Film festival with Lisa Lu who watched it since it was one of her early appearances. Also, briefly saw Gale some 25 years ago when she was guesting there and she looked fine – great hollywood make-up job.

  8. Oh, this one just sort of fell from space onto my computer. I suspect it’s from a 16mm print, probably distributed on grey-market VHS at some point in the past.

    The one I crave to see is Trent’s Last Case, which has appeared at some fests (incomplete, I think) but not near me. If anyone out there has it, I’ll swap!

  9. Yes, David, “It fell off the back of a bus.” I heard that at a screening of the only copy of TRENT’S LAST CASE where Hawks was present he went to the projectionist afterwards and unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to destroy the film.

  10. Ahaha! Yes, I haven’t heard anything good about it. But I love Ray Griffith.

    Reminds me of Michael Powell’s “I’m not sure my reputation can survive another rediscovery.”

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