Failure Proof: April 16-30, 1922

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley and the audience had pretty good time at the movies, even if she had some reservations:

Valentino’s vogue, Elinor’s Eros, Gloria’s gowns—that’s the blessed triumvirate which seems to be entirely failure proof. They’re on again at Grauman’s Rialto. Valentino and Gloria are appearing in Elinor Glyn’s Beyond the Rocks, which opened yesterday to tremendous business.

Beyond the Rocks will not, I fear, be beyond the rhetorical rocks of the critics. The story is commonplace, and might have been written by any Trotty Two-Shoes of the scenario department.

On the other hand, it is without the special Glyn tang; it’s a de-nogged egg-nogg. Rudy Valentino kisses with the meter on. In short, it’s quite entirely censor-proof, and any girl may safely take her mother to see it.

The story is as romantic as a Bertha M. Clay* yarn. It concerns the eternal triangle. A beautiful young girl marries an old millionaire. Then she meets Rudy, and it’s all off with Josiah. But they battle nobly against their love, and the most Rudy accomplishes is a chaste kiss on his lady’s fingertips.

Much too chaste!

Kingsley was very clear on what she wanted from a Valentino movie. Her point that the film wasn’t dirty enough was unique among the critics, who, just as she predicted, had plenty of other complaints. The unsigned review in the New York Times was particularly scathing:

Gloria Swanson can wear clothes. So can Rodolph Valentino. And the talents of each are given full play in the Elinor Glyn story, Beyond the Rocks, as it has been screened and brought to the Rivoli this week…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, anyway. (May 8, 1922)

One of the beautiful gowns.

The costumes were certainly part of why audiences enjoyed the movie; Kingsley mentioned “Gloria Swanson does good work and suffers in about 500 beautiful gowns.” However, underlying most of the commentary was the usual contempt for the people the movie was designed to appeal to: female movie fans. Film Daily thought it was a “first-rate production” despite  its “very obvious plot, one in which you can see the ending the minute you meet all the characters and you aren’t disappointed in your conjectures,” but then the writer condescendingly quoted observations from women in the audience: “Miss Swanson’s close fitting gowns were harshly judged and an audible preference for a soft coiffure was expressed, while they didn’t seem to think Valentino photographed as well in this one. He still insists on making his black hair shine.”

His hair did shine.

The writer failed to say what was wrong with chatting about that. People take their fun from seeing movies in all kinds of ways. Kingsley wasn’t immune from this sort of distain; she called the story “an opus in servant-girl literature” and quoted the final title card as an example: “Then only thing eternal and divine in this old world is the love that beautifies.” OK, it wasn’t Shakespeare. Nevertheless, she didn’t look down on audiences who enjoy a melodrama involving two attractive actors. Different people bring a variety of perspectives, and that’s why we need diverse film critics.

One point the critics agreed on was that Beyond the Rocks was going to be a great big hit. Film Daily described standing room only crowds in New York. Exhibitor’s Herald managed to be a bit nasty even with that expectation, saying it “will undoubtably prove one of the season’s most successful attractions. At least with feminine fans.” They were correct about the ticket sales. According to Variety, it set a record at the Rivoli in New York City, grossing $28,750 in its first week. Nobody minded taking feminine fans’ money!

In the “Alps”

Now Beyond the Rocks is also remembered in histories of special effects because it included travelling matte shots in the scenes in which Valentino rescues Swanson in the Swiss Alps. This was the earliest notable use of the process invented by Frank Williams. While keeping his day job as a cameraman, he had been working on his traveling matte idea since 1912, usually in the bathroom of wherever he was living.  Stationary mattes had been used in filmmaking since the earliest days; it was a technique borrowed from still photography.  Actors were filmed with part of the negative blocked and left unexposed, then the film was re-wound and another image was shot on the unexposed area.  The two images formed a composite.  However, actors had to stay within a set portion of the image.  With the Williams Process, the whole background could be replaced, and the actors could move freely.

Williams shot some of Chaplin’s earliest films

In 1917, Adolf Zuckor of Paramount Studios gave him space in his lab to work on it, but he couldn’t overcome the problems of inaccurate cameras and printers and crude film stocks.  But then he had a breakthrough: he built his own printer, accurate to one ten-thousandth of an inch, used a motor-cranked camera and a better grade of film, and it worked. He was granted a patent on the process and he opened his own film lab, becoming one of the first businesses dedicated to special effects.

Apparently the technique wasn’t a complete success yet — the New York Times critic thought the scenes looked artificial in this film. However, Williams was able to improve his process and provided spectacular scenes in The Lost World (1925) of dinosaurs roaming London.  The destruction of Pontius Pilate’s palace in Ben Hur (1925) was also Williams’ work, as were the battle scenes in The Big Parade (1925). 

Beyond the Rocks was thought to have been lost until it was found in 2003 in a private collection. It was restored by the Nederlands Film Museum and the Hagheflim Conservation and is now available on DVD.

*Bertha M. Clay was the pen name of Charlotte M. Brame (1836-1884), a tremendously popular romance writer. She was best known for Dora Thorne, which most reviewers on Good Reads gave four or five stars.

“Beyond the Rocks,” Exhibitors’ Herald, May 27, 1922, p.47.

“Beyond the Rocks,” New York Times, May 8, 1922.

“First Joint Appearance of Swanson and Valentino Looks Like a Box Office Bet,” Film Daily, May 14, 1922, p. 3.

“Glyn Story with Valentino Pulls Record for Rivoli,” Variety, May 19, 1922, p.44.

Curran D. Swint, “Beyond the Rocks is California Magnet,” San Francisco Call and Post, May 8, 1922.

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