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Arabs in Hollywood Movies: Ethnic Stereotypes & European Superiority

Arabs in Hollywood: Rudolph Valentino Agnes Ayres The Sheik
Arabs in Hollywood Movies: Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres in George Melford’s 1921 hit The Sheik.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Long before they became Hollywood’s favorite terrorists, Arabs were generally portrayed as lusty, uncouth, infantile beings in myriad Hollywood movies. Turner Classic Movies returns this month with their annual “Race & Hollywood” film series. The “race” this time around: Arabs.

Frank Lloyd’s long but generally entertaining 1924 epic The Sea Hawk is almost over. TCM has shown this one before a few times; long-thought lost, The Sea Hawk was restored about a decade ago. Popular leading man Milton Sills stars.

Next are two silents starring movie idols of the 1920s: The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Sheik (1921). One of Douglas Fairbanks’ biggest hits, The Thief of Bagdad was directed by Raoul Walsh; this Arabian Nights romp is probably Fairbanks’ most enjoyable vehicle of that era. Quite possibly, it’s Fairbanks best movie, period.

Starring Rudolph Valentino, who set as many hearts aflutter as Justin Bieber, Robert Pattinson, Johnny Depp, Colin Firth, and Robert Redford (I believe I’ve covered the whole heart-afluttering range here), The Sheik has Valentino as a 1920s version of the caveman: he sees Agnes Ayres, he seizes her, he “sexes” her – and he wins her heart. But can he marry her? Yes, of course. As long as his Arab blood turns out to be … Well, I don’t want to spoil the racist fun for you.

I haven’t watched Tarzan the Fearless (1933), starring super-handsome Buster Crabbe, but the best thing about John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934) is Harold Wenstrom’s crisp cinematography.

Now, it’s really too bad that TCM will not be showing The Arab (1924). Starring Ramon Novarro, The Arab is one of the many old films recently repatriated from foreign archives. Rex Ingram, who had a close affinity to Arab and Muslim culture, directed it. A pity it remains unavailable while awaiting restoration.

Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:

8:00 PM THE SEA HAWK (1924) In this silent film, an English noble sold into slavery escapes and turns himself into a pirate king. dir: Frank Lloyd Cast: Milton Sills, Enid Bennett, Lloyd Hughes. Black and white. 124 mins

10:30 PM THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924) An Arabian thief sets out on a magical adventure to win a beautiful princess. Director: Raoul Walsh Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Snitz Edwards, Charles Belcher. Black and white. 140 mins

1:00 AM THE SHEIK (1921) An Arabian sheik kidnaps a beautiful Englishwoman to win her heart. Director: George Melford Cast: Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres, Ruth Miller. Black and white. 86 mins

2:30 AM TARZAN THE FEARLESS (1933) The jungle king helps a young woman rescue her father from the high priest of a lost city. Director: Robert F. Hill Cast: Buster Crabbe, Jacqueline Wells, Eddie Woods. Black and white. 86 mins

4:00 AM THE LOST PATROL (1934) A British army troop fights off Arab snipers while holed up in an oasis. Director: John Ford Cast: Victor McLaglen, Boris Karloff, Wallace Ford. Black and white. 72 mins


Turner Classic Movies website.

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