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EbertFest 2006  



Review of ""The Eagle"" (1925)
By Wm. Charles Morrow
Billy Rose Theatre Division
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

I rarely see this title mentioned on lists of great silent  films, and perhaps it doesn't belong in the same heady company with  the works of Murnau and Eisenstein, but surely "The Eagle" belongs on anyone's list of the most entertaining movies made during the silent era. It is first-rate escapism, a real "movie-movie" that can hold 
its own with the best swashbuckling sagas of Douglas Fairbanks and  Errol Flynn, and that counts for a lot in my book. It's also one of the best movies Rudolph Valentino appeared in (along with his next  film, "The Son of the Sheik," which unfortunately proved to be his last), or in any case it's one that holds up well for modern viewers,  offering just the right blend of action, suspense, comedy, and romance, all presented at a brisk tempo. Valentino rapidly improved as an actor during his brief career, so that in these last 
appearances there is no trace of the nostril-flaring histrionics on display in some of his early performances. At the pinnacle of his career as a movie star, Valentino is at the top of his game in this action hero role, charismatic and self-assured, but displaying just a touch of self-mockery to keep things in perspective.

Rudy plays a Cossack officer, Lieutenant Dubrovsky, stationed in the court of Catherine the Great. (The Czarina is played by Louise Dresser in a brief but memorable turn.) Dubrovsky catches the Czarina's eye when he manages to regain control of a runaway carriage  just outside the palace gates, and in this way he also meets a  beautiful young lady named Mascha (Vilma Banky), with whom he becomes involved. The plot kicks into gear when Dubrovsky rejects the Czarina's advances and soon afterward assumes the persona of the Black Eagle, an outlaw devoted to avenging his father, whose lands have been appropriated by an evil count named Kyrilla-- who just happens to be Mascha's father. Valentino's character in this film is often described as a "Russian Robin Hood" but the parallel with Zorro is stronger, especially when he manages to operate under the very nose of his arch enemy in the guise of a foppish French tutor, Monsieur Le Blanc. Much of the film's humor comes from these scenes, but when the time comes for action The Black Eagle is all business, and Valentino proves himself as dashing and gallant as Douglas Fairbanks while cutting a more romantic figure.

"The Eagle" points up the importance of silence in Valentino's career, for while he was said to have a pleasant voice there's no way audiences could have accepted him as a Russian officer in a talkie; let's face it, Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaele Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentino d'Antonguolla would have a hard time persuading anyone of his Russian heritage if we could hear him speak. Leading lady Vilma  Banky, who was as beautiful as Rudy was handsome, spoke limited 
English with such a thick Hungarian accent that talkies ended her American film career, so a version of this movie with full sound  could never have been made with the same cast, even if Valentino had  survived into the '30s. Then again, the highly stylized 19th century "Russia" of this film is very much a Hollywood fantasy concoction anyhow, and the sort of thing that worked best in silent cinema. One of my favorite aspects of "The Eagle" is the elaborate Art Deco 
design scheme by William Cameron Menzies, which at times almost suggests the world of Dr. Seuss (a bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much). Combine Menzies' sets with the stylish cinematography of George Barnes, spice the mix with George Marion Jr.'s witty title cards, top it off with the slyly tongue-in-cheek performances, and you have all the ingredients for a cinematic feast.

In sum, I feel it's the comic elements of "The Eagle" that make it  such a winning film, the sense that the filmmakers are discreetly giving us a little wink to let us know they're well aware this is all 
cotton candy. And speaking of comedy, the cast features a couple of  Keystone veterans in supporting roles: Mack Swain, who was so 
memorable as the delusional prospector in Chaplin's The Gold Rush has a brief unbilled bit as an inn-keeper who misunderstands Monsieur Le Blanc's needs; and veteran character actor George Nichols, who plays the corrupt judge, also directed a few of Chaplin's earliest comedies, including The Star Boarder and Cruel, Cruel Love. Maybe 
it's the Keystone pedigree that boosts the comedy content here, but whatever the case this film stands as a highly enjoyable example of what Hollywood craftsmen were capable of when the silent cinema was in its prime.

(Reprinted with permission)

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