BEYOND THE ROCKS, 1922
Starring Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Edythe Chapman, Alec B Francis
Love, duty, and the scent of narcissus. Theodora, a young and penniless aristocrat, marries a much older man, self-made millionaire grocer Josiah Brown, so that her father and spinster sisters can live comfortably. Soon after the wedding, she finds herself falling in love with Hector, the Tenth Earl of Bracondale, a playboy she encounters on the social circuit of the very rich -- in the Swiss Alps, Paris, London, and the English countryside. Hector is attracted to her as well. Theodora must choose between love and duty, and then Josiah and Hector must make choices of their own.
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There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Gloria Swanson being cast in Beyond the Rocks. She had allegedly been indulging in some diva behavior, an accusation which is often producer speak for requesting a raise or better scripts. One can almost hear her pleading: “Oh no, please, Mr. Lasky, anything but Valentino!”
If true, she got her revenge several times over. She and Valentino shared a warm friendship. Lasky and Paramount had to pay two star salaries for one film, a practice they avoided till the Thirties. She certainly got a well-written scenario. And the costumes!
The discovery and restoration of Beyond the Rocks almost reads like an apocryphal story itself. One day a private collector donates his stash of reels to the Nederlands Filmmuseum. As preservationists poke through the collection, they discover the gunky, damaged reels of a long-lost gem. The museum painstakingly restores a print and Milestone Films distributes the film in 2005 to a buzz worthy of an original release. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The plot is a simple one. Swanson plays Theodora Fitzgerald, a teenager who lives in the English countryside with her impoverished family. Valentino plays the playboy Hector, the tenth Earl of Bracondale, who, the card tells us, inherited his title from a long line of English noblemen and his passionate love of life and beauty from a high-born Italian grandmother.
The film opens with Theodora capsizing the small boat she is rowing. Without a moment’s hesitation, the tenth Earl of Bracondale jumps in, fully dressed, to save her. This brief encounter is soon forgotten and another man, an older millionaire, Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder), enters her life. Theodora doesn’t love him, but she will do anything to help restore her beloved father’s fortune. In perfect consistency with the values of that era, she marries Brown.
Then, on her honeymoon at a Swiss chalet, she slips while climbing the Alps. Lord Hector rescues her once more, this time from considerable danger as she dangles from the rocks. Smitten, he follows her to London and asks his sister (June Elvidge) to befriend her. Their feelings deepen until finally, at his sister’s house party, Hector pleads with Theodora to go away with him. She confesses her love, but will not compromise her honor.
When Brown is called to London on business, with her willpower waning, she decides to join her husband. She writes two letters, one to Hector, one to Brown, both of which she puts in a small mail box on a table in the foyer.
But she is being watched by a woman (Gertrude Astor) who bears an unrequited flame for Hector; she filches the letters and switches the envelopes. After receiving the wrong letter, Valentino bravely goes to Brown and says that he is leaving England for a long time. But Brown writes a letter of his own, telling Theodora that he has decided to join an archaeology dig that he has funded in hopes of earning a title.
Despite her great love for Hector, Theodora is shocked that her husband has left on the dangerous expedition. She and Hector follow Brown to the Sahara (can’t get away from those burning sands). Not wanting to spoil the ending, let’s leave at the final title card: “Darling, we have passed the rocks and there are the safe waters beyond.” You’ll have to watch the film to learn which of her lovers speaks these words to her.
Except for the dated plot, no silent screen excesses mar this movie. Both Swanson and Valentino were capable of giving subtle, nuanced performances, and under Wood’s direction, they did. There was a certain lack of fire between the two leads, very similar to Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. But like Roberts and Grant, both stars glowed enough on their ownand make it easy to see why they were two of the top actors of their day.