Defining the Latin Lover: Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921)

Defining the Latin Lover: Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921)

In Latin Lover: The Passionate South – one of the rare studies extensively dedicated to the subject— Gianni Malossi refers to a dictionary[2] in order to define the phenomenon of the Latin Lover: “passionate, but romantic, lover; it is believed, above all in Northern European countries, that they are men from Latin countries; heartbreaker, seducer” (Malossi  18-19). To provide a more elaborate, coherent definition of the phenomenon seems almost impossible as characteristics ascribed to the Latin Lover vary from his being “mute” (R. Rodriguez  107) to his ability to “use a lot of words” ( Malossi 30), from “a tendency to be short” ( Malossi  66) to his being “tall” (Limón 137), from his incarnation as “phantom, sheik or matador” (R. Rodriguez 107) to his fixed association with the cravat (Malossi  35) and the costume (Reich  35).

Opinions on the origins of the icon differ as well: whereas some consider the Latin Lover to be an archetypal figure (Thomas, 9) ranging back to Zeus (Malossi  64), Jacqueline Reich points at his historical and anthropological roots in Renaissance and Mediterranean culture (Reich  2-3). Others, such as Ramírez Berg (4), insist on his genesis in Northern conceptions of Latin otherness, which suggests an affinity with 19th-century debates on the differences between Anglo-Saxon and Latin “races” (Litvak). The one point all studies dealing with the Latin Lover have in common, however, is their abundant use of photographic materials, thereby revealing what goes almost unnoticed in the definitions: the profoundly visual nature of the stereotype. And though the pictures included show a certain disparity, limiting themselves either to actors performing roles connected to the [End Page 2] Latin Lover or expanding the notion to real-life examples such as Onassis (and even Che Guevara, to some), no disagreement exists regarding the name of the very first incarnation of the icon: Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926).[3]

This Italian immigrant to the United States, born under the name Rodolpho Guglielmi, first earned a living in the United States as a gigolo – a male dancing partner for wealthy women. However, he soon made his way to the hearts of millions of women by his dashing appearance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), where he performed a seductive dance as an Argentinian tango-dancer.[4] The association between Latin Lovers and dance will become a fixed one in the following decades. It was The Sheik (1921) in which “he began to define a new kind of screen lover and an Other way of making screen love” (Ramírez Berg 115). In spite of the paradigmatic nature of this film, books on the Latin Lover limit themselves to brief mentions of its plot and instant success. The way in which the two terms united in the expression “Latin Lover” is inscribed in this movie has not yet been the object of more extensive commentary. This is all the more striking since, according to Ramírez Berg, this movie launched “the Latin Lover [as a] remarkably consistent screen figure, played by a number of Latin actors (…), all maintaining the erotic combination of characteristics instituted by Valentino” (115).[5]

When we take a look at this famous film, we notice that nothing in the movie – at least at first sight – sustains Rodriguez’s close association of Hispanicity and Latin Lovers: an Italian actor plays the role of the Arab sheik Ahmed (Rudolph Valentino) who falls in love with the British lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres). However, the term “Latin” was used in those days in a broad sense, including all those who spoke a language derived from Latin (so also the French) and sometimes even the Greeks and all of the Mediterranean people (so also inhabitants of Arab countries).[6] In The Sheik, this broad sense of Latinness is defined by a first, major oppositional figure that establishes a difference between Northern and Southern countries as visually expressed by the two main characters: the fair-haired Anglo-Saxon young lady with the pale hands stands in opposition to the Arab sheik Ahmed with the very dark eyes. Besides this sharp contrast between North and South, there is a second one that concerns not racial features, but cultural values. On the one hand, Ahmed represents premodern patriarchal Arab values when he captures Diana during her trip through the desert in order to take her to his tent. As he explains to a friend: “When an Arab likes a woman he sees, he takes her.” On the other hand, there is a certain reticence in him because he refrains from taking Diana by force when he notices her despair at the situation she finds herself in: he has received part of his education in France and it is this European aspect in his upbringing which seems to account for a softer approach to the woman.[7] There is in fact a range of cultural differences varying from the complete Anglo-Saxon Northern values over the more mitigated European Latinity to the complete otherness of Arab Latinity. It is this “range” which grants the Sheik his erotically productive ambiguity, evoking both “suavity and sensuality, tenderness and sexual danger” (Ramírez Berg 115). In this combination, suavity and tenderness are evoked by European Latinity (France and Italy), whereas sensuality and sexual danger are projected onto the Arab world.[8]

If the tension between European and non-European Latinness, tenderness and sexual danger, is what grants the Sheik his erotic appeal throughout the movie, the film surprisingly resolves the antinomy between these opposed values in the end. The happy ending is indeed provided by a revelation concerning Ahmed’s true background: he was the [End Page 3] orphan of an English father and a Spanish mother found in the desert, after which he was adopted by an Arab sheik. This ending is doubly productive: it sanctifies the union between Ahmed and Diana as a repetition of a previous relationship between partners from the North and the South of Europe, and it clearly places Ahmed on the European side. To put it even more strongly, one could argue that Ahmed’s very ability to learn the European lessons in education and human rights is explicable by his innate European blood.[9] In a way, Ahmed is a true European, dressed up as an Arab. His clothing as a sheik is his costume. His Arab identity, his mask.

As a lover, Ahmed combines features of both forms of Latinity: he serenades Diana secretly below her window while she sleeps in the town of Biskra but he also abducts her against her will in order to possess her. He connotes softness and strength. This strength is what turns him into a dangerous man, who is able to frighten Diana and make her obey. On the other hand, it is also this capacity which turns him into her savior when she tries to escape through a desert storm, or falls into the hands of the Arab bandit Omair. Here, the sheik turns into the hero who saves the damsel in distress by plucking her from the ground and riding off with her on his horse in order to protect her.

Ahmed’s moral and physical strength functions as a token of his sexual superiority with respect to Diana as a woman. At the same time, it singles him out as “the other man” from a double perspective. First, his strength distinguishes him from the men in Diana’s own society, who appear to be too weak to control her strong character (e.g., she laughs at her brother when he tries to talk her out of her plan to travel to the desert). Second, as an Arab, he is not to be confused with other Arab men either, because he does not resort to clear violence against women, unlike the desert bandit Omair. The fact that he is neither identical with the British men – who all wear moustaches – nor the other Arabs – who all wear beards – is visually expressed by the many close-ups of his hairless face, accentuated by his turban.

Finally, the two terms under scrutiny – Latin and Lover – are of course intimately connected. What Diana is attracted by in Ahmed from the start is not only his strength, it is also his belonging to another culture: exoticism and eroticism go hand in hand. There is immediate attraction from the first time they see each other, in the town of Biskra, before Diana leaves for the desert. And when she is denied access to the Arab casino, she boldly decides to dress up as an Arab dancer, after having watched the sensuous moves of this Arab woman with fascination. She even insists on borrowing exactly the same clothes this dancer was wearing, thereby suggesting a desire to experience the Arab sensuality in person. As Said has explained, the Orient not only symbolized sexuality as such, but very often also the promise of a different kind of sexuality, generally projected onto the female body (Said 180). In The Sheik, this kind of sensuality is appropriated by Diana as she cross-dresses culturally and feels her senses aroused by the dancer. At the same time the movie performs a twist on the Orientalist discourse of its time by turning the male partner into an object of desire.

In all, the first Latin Lover can be described as a highly ambivalent figure who, in the end, reconciles the opposition between the North and the South by inscribing it into a shared feeling of Europeanness. Hispanicity here performs a syntactical gesture between North and South. In the words of Clara Rodríguez commenting upon Valentino and his imitators, “All of these stars conformed to European prototypes – perhaps to southern and eastern European prototypes, but clearly in the evolving fold of what it meant to be ‘white’ [End Page 4] (and upper class) in the United States at the time.” (C. Rodríguez 28) Latinness is therefore on the one hand the suggestion of Otherness, but at the same time based on the reassuring recognition that this Otherness is within the limits of the own identity.

Valentino’s appearances in movies such as The Sheik set in motion the so-called “Latin craze” (C. Rodríguez 28) that flourished in the Roaring Twenties. This period was characterized by major social changes brought about by World War I and the Russian Revolution, and economically beneficial to the United States until the Depression broke out. The social changes altered the position of woman and to some also implied “libertad en el amor” (Belluscio 13). Belluscio considers the Latin Lover as an expression of modernity as it manifested itself around 1900: “En esa zona del planeta [USA], los hábitos se modificaban con el automóvil, la radio en casa, la publicidad impresa, y las salas de cine simbolizaban el nuevo urbanismo yanqui. La difusión e influencia del séptimo arte creó una idolatría sin fronteras, engendrando psicosis colectivas (…) En ese momento singular, que ambulaba entre la añoranza y el futuro, el ‘latin lover’, macerado como una burbuja, surgía excitante, digno de la ostentación, el lujo y el donaire del ‘American way of life’” (13-14). At the same time, both Ahmed and Diana belong to the upper classes of their society, which might reflect the nostalgia for a vanishing aristocracy in that same period (13). This is also why other authors connect the Latin Lover to the expression of anti-modern values (Malossi 24; Reich 26). In a sense, he is both a symptom of modernity and a reaction to it. Once again, he turns out to be an ambivalent sign.



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