Some Ladies Prefer Ben Turpin: February 16-28, 1923

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley was still annoyed that The Sheik (1921) wasn’t dirty enough, but she was happy to see one of her favorite actors spoof it in the latest Mack Sennett feature, The Shriek of Araby:

I used to wonder why The Sheik, all denatured, was ever put on the screen. Now I know. It was so Ben Turpin could make a burlesque of it! Ben Turpin is an artist. When I say that, I can just see Ben’s pathetic eyes reproaching me.  But I mean nothing highbrow. Ben, I just mean you have a huge sense of comedy, and know how to make every move, every look count in putting it over. Your comedy goes a lot deeper than just your erratic eyes.

Kathryn McGuire and Ben Turpin

There’s a good deal more action in The Shriek than there was in The Sheik. And yet, good as it all is, the subtitles add another 100 percent to the fun…In short, if you want to laugh and forget your troubles, be sure and see The Shriek of Araby.

Plenty of action!

Kingsley always did appreciate a good laugh (and a good comic). Not too many other reviewers wrote about the film, but Exhibitors’ Herald called it “a delightfully funny farce comedy and while it has been some time since we’ve seen Ben Turpin, he’s just as amusing as ever…There are bathing girls and swimming pools and everything a Sennett comedy usually has and the action is fast and furious.” However, now it isn’t well-regarded; Sennett historian Brent Walker wrote “The Shriek of Araby is not particularly noteworthy as a comedy feature.” However, he probably hadn’t been seeing a bunch of desert movies in desperate need of deflating recently.

The original had been a huge hit, making it ripe for imitators

For Kingsley, she wasn’t only happy to laugh at Turpin, she got to laugh at tropes that had begun to irritate her. She had aired out her grievances with Sahara melodramas in August 1922 after “quite a crowd of these bush-league sheiks have been showing up in the movies lately.” Kingsley questioned how romantic life in the desert would be, because it would involve a lack of soap and toothbrushes and too many mosquitos and (especially) fleas. She also objected to the difference between ‘real’ and ‘movie’ sheiks: “In real life, the sheik is probably a pretty fresh fellow. But in the pictures he is a cross between a Sunday-school superintendent and a minor poet. When he starts making love to the girl, but finds her refractory, he merely wipes away a tear and goes forth nobly, conquering his baser self.”

The knock-offs pretty much used the same plot as The Sheik. The young woman tries to escape, he finds her and:

“then suddenly—she knows! For no reason whatever he now looks good to her. But love is as hectic as a midsummer magazine cover. She carefully conceals her love—so as to make the picture last five reels—until one day somebody comes to rescue her. The sheik looks into her eyes and then it is his turn to know.”

At that point the censor-ordered minster turns up, and “they put five dots after the subtitle.” And then, “next time you see the pair, there is a little stranger running about the hot sands.”

In Sherlock, Jr., Buster Keaton wondered how that happened, too

So Kingsley was all ready to see Ben Turpin romp around the sands. Nevertheless, before the countless bush-league sheiks, film writers liked The Sheik well enough. As usual, Kingsley didn’t get to review such a major film when it debuted in Los Angeles on October 30, 1921. Her editor Edwin Schallert went, and he thought the attack on the walled city at the climax was “the best stuff of its kind that has been seen on the screen in some time.” He liked the rest of the movie less: “you wait, however, an interminable length for the action of the climax to get there. For compensation you are allowed to watch the stupid love affair between an English girl and a desert chieftain. I suppose that this love affair was intended to be a superheated affair, but as actually viewed on the screen it is as tame as a school child’s romance.” He didn’t blame the star for the dull bits, saying “Rudolph Valentino appears as the chieftain and plays the part with probably as much conviction as the part allows.”

Rudolph Valentino: not a bush-league sheik

The trade reviews praised the action scenes and the way the film looked over the love scenes, too. Lillian R. Gale in Motion Picture News, “As a spectacle, The Sheik is delightful, the photography exceptional. Indeed, it is unquestionably picturesque…Rather than a love tale, the picture is one of adventure, romance playing second in interest.” Exhibitors’ Trade Review agreed that there were plenty of thrills, saying “there is enough combat stuff, hair-breadth escapes and gallant rescues to please the most ardent lover of fervid melodrama.”

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the famous backlash against Valentino and his movies came a bit later.  At this moment, Ben Turpin was only having some silly fun, not making some kind of statement about supposed threats to American masculinity.

Lillian R. Gale, “The Sheik,” Motion Picture News, October 29, 1921, p. 2343.

“Good Production But Not The Sheik as E.M. Hull Wrote It,” Film Daily, November 13, 1921, p. 5.

Grace Kingsley, “Arabian Togs Have a Charm,” Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1922.

Grace Kingsley, “De-Fleaing the Sheiks,” Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1922.

Charles Larkin, “The Shreik of Araby,” Motion Picture News, March 2, 1923, p. 1056.

“Reviews,” Exhibitors’ Herald, March 24, 1923, p. 45.

Edwin Schallert, “Reviews,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1921.

“The Screen,” New York Times, November 7, 1921.

The Sheik,Exhibitors’ Herald, November 12, 1921, p. 54.

The Sheik,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, November 19, 1921, p. 1763.

Brent Walker, Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.

Edward Weitzel, “The Sheik,” November 19, 1921, Moving Picture World, p. 336.

2 thoughts on “Some Ladies Prefer Ben Turpin: February 16-28, 1923”

  1. Hi Lisle. this comment is for the Jackson Rose cinematographer article you wrote (but there was not a comment field). I had some old documents scanned from an Essanay/Vitagraph director’s movie studio farmhouse in CT. I just read one letter that was from Jackson J Rose to Joseph Byron Totten in Aug 1916. He is negotiating higher pay (and a Bell & Howell outfit) to work on some films with JBT in Connecticut. He had just fallen with his camera and broke some ribs while filming THE PRINCE OF GRAUSTARK. I’d love to email you this typewritten letter with a handwritten address in Chicago. I just subscribed to your blog. SH

    Liked by 1 person

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