100 years have passed since Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino worked together, but their production story is still fascinating today.
By Emily Kubincanek Published 14 February 2022
Beyond the classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek spotlights lesser-known old films and examines what makes them memorable. In this episode, she tells the story of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino’s only film together, Beyond the Rocks.
Rarely have two mega movie stars appeared in the same movie in Hollywood’s silent era. Someone’s name always had to appear below the other’s in the credits, and many stars were unhappy with a second billing. An exception is when Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino appeared together in Beyond the rocks in 1922. This rare collaboration was lost to history for decades. However, a copy has since been found and restored so we can see how two stars navigated captivating an audience together. The diversion of career paths that Valentino and Swanson took immediately after Beyond the Rocks is even more interesting than the movie itselfaffecting how we see this film today.
In 1922 when Beyond the rocks was released, Gloria Swanson was an established player in Hollywood power plays. Since the early days, she was part of the cinema and had become her own type of star apart from the archetypes of her competitors. Swanson was not just a vampire or a saint, but still a fascinating and glamorous woman. She outgrew the roles legendary director Cecil B. DeMille gave her early in her career and moved to what would become Paramount Pictures in hopes of having more control over the films she starred in.
At that time and for decades after, stars rarely had much power within the studio system, and Swanson was always beholden to studio executives. When she was cast in the lead role in the adaptation of Elinor Glyn’s scandalous novel Beyond the rocks, Paramount thought it was forcing her to abandon her diva mentality to make way for a star she didn’t love. However, she and co-star Valentino had been friends for years, and both looked forward to finally being able to work together.
Although Valentino’s career was not a steady rise to stardom like Swanson’s had been. Valentino was on the peak of overnight success from his two successes in 1921, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Sheikh, when signing to do Beyond the rocks. Her status as Hollywood’s leading sex symbol was aggravated by her early involvement with costume designer Natacha Rambova, who immediately believed her future husband needed better roles and more money. They quickly became the “It” couple of Hollywood’s Jazz Age, but their relationship was not a dream come true for Valentino’s collaborators.
Rambova designed the costumes for Beyond the rocks and contributed to its lavish styling, which is easily one of the film’s best aspects. However, she also caused friction on set with Valentino and everyone else working on the film. While many expected Swanson to be the diva and cause trouble during filming, Rambova openly expressed how much she hated the movie. She thought Glyn’s story was “trash costume drama” and “completely unworthy of Valentino”, but produced fantastic work on her costumes nonetheless.
His control over Valentino and his work began to interfere with filming, and studio head Jesse Lasky received several complaints from director Sam Wood and other film technicians. No matter how well Valentino performed or how much money his appearance brought in the studio, Rambova’s personality would affect the direction of his career after. Beyond the rocks. Thanks to his rude displays on set, Swanson and Wood told Valentino opposite that they would never work with him again.
Beyond the rocks is a cut and dry melodramatic romance, probably like many you’ve seen since early Hollywood. Swanson plays Theodora, a young woman who marries an older man for his money. However, she can’t shake a previous encounter with the man of her dreams. While on a boat ride one day, Valentino’s character Lord Hector saves Theodora from drowning. She falls overboard and the two gorgeous people naturally fall in love. Their affair is kept secret for a time to ensure Schuyler maintains her husband’s fortune and can provide for her family. However, her husband eventually finds out and voluntarily leaves for a dangerous expedition to Africa, where he dies, freeing the lovers to marry.
If you approach this movie for the story, you might be disappointed, but its lukewarm story ends up leaving audiences focused on the two stars and the atmosphere they create onscreen. Every time Swanson blinks or Valentino hugs her, the circumstances of their relationship are an afterthought. Everyone rushing to theaters to see Swanson and Valentino together was there for the chemistry and a luscious romantic world to get away from it all for a bit, which is precisely what Beyond the rocks delivered.
Although somewhat tame compared to the Pre-Code films that would follow the silent era, director Sam Wood was acutely aware of the impending threat of the Hays’ Code while filming Valentino and Swanson’s love scenes. . After all, sex appeal was what everyone watched Valentino films for, but the United States could only stand such sensuality. Kisses could only take ten feet of film at the time, but Wood filmed longer kisses for European audiences. Glyn took pride in her coaching of the stars, giving them advice on portraying “psychological realism” in her novels. However, Americans found this film far less sexy than other Valentino films, perhaps because of the cuts made for the censors.
Neither star would ever see their work in Beyond the rocks again after his initial release, and their careers took drastically different directions after 1922. Although he remained a national celebrity, Valentino was unable to maintain a stable career. Shortly after this movie was released, Valentino hired a manager who convinced him to go on a dance tour to capitalize on his legions of female fans across the country. This further emphasized his sexuality rather than his acting ability. Rambova continued to maintain control of her career, negotiating her subsequent projects, which did poorly in the United States. They struggled to find films that would advance his career, and the stress of sustaining his deteriorating public image caused Valentino to develop life-threatening ulcers.
What helped propel him to stardom ultimately became his downfall. His sex appeal limited him to typography, and his sensational personal life was wrought with rumors even more outrageous than his on-screen love scenes. He made his last film in 1926 before falling unexpectedly ill and dying at age 31. His death was a national tragedy, and today we look back with sadness as we remember his short career, especially comparing it to Swanson’s career.
Swanson continued to make successful films until the sound became commonplace in 1928. She initially adapted well to the sound, even earning an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1929 sound film. the Intruder. However, her over-the-top acting quickly went out of fashion, and Hollywood was not kind to older actresses. Her career decline was not permanent, however, as she made a comeback with her fantastic performance in sunset boulevard. Now considered her finest work, Swanson capitalized on the mythos of her Hollywood career and decline for her role as silent star Norma Desmond. Like many other old Hollywood stars of her time, she moved into television and theater later in life. This kept her stardom alive and she passed away as a respected and renowned star in 1983.
Before passing away, Swanson expressed her desire to find one of her favorite films that she worked on, Beyond the rocks. However, Beyond the rocks was considered a lost film for the rest of its life. For much of 80 years, only a snippet of the film remained until two reels of a nitrate print were discovered in a museum in the Netherlands in 2003. A restored print was screened at the Festival de Cannes in 2005, bringing one of Swanson’s favorite films to major film festivals.
When Beyond the rocks first released in 1922, it was far from considered the kind of groundbreaking arthouse film that screens at Cannes today. But finding a lost film means more than the content of the film itself. Discovering a lost film from a bygone era of cinema helps us visualize the legends and stories that remain from that era. Martin Scorsese talks about the value of finding Beyond the rocks best in his introduction to the restored version, “Each film found restores another piece of our collective memory, our sense of our past and our history. The greatest actors of the silent era had a rare intensity, emotional, physical , almost spiritual. They must have grabbed us from the start, with their own inner power and luminosity. As you’ll see, that’s exactly what Valentino and Swanson, both at the top of their game, are doing in Beyond the rocks.”
One hundred years have passed since Swanson and Valentino first and last worked together. Even though the surviving film is deteriorating and still missing a scene that Swanson talked about before his death, the radiance of the two stars is still felt today when watching the restored version. It’s easy to read how fascinating Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino were, but watching it is an entirely different experience, one that can’t be taken for granted, as more stories from the cinema continue to disappear every day. .
you can rent Beyond the rocks on Kino Now.
Related Subjects: Beyond the Classics
Emily Kubincanek is a senior contributor for Film School Rejects and a resident classic Hollywood fan. When not writing about old films, she works as a film librarian and archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_