Two of the greatest stars of the silent movies - Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino - will be seen on screen again for the first time in more than 80 years, after their only film together was rediscovered.
The movie, a melodrama called Beyond the Rocks and made in 1922, is regarded as one of the most important "lost" movies of early cinema. Only a one-minute fragment of the film was previously thought to have survived. Its historic value for movie buffs is immense, since it was the only time that Swanson and Valentino, two of the greatest icons and best-paid stars of the silent era, played opposite each other.
News of its rediscovery by film archivists in the Netherlands was greeted with delight and surprise yesterday by one of the world's leading experts on silent movies, the London-based film historian and film-maker Kevin Brownlow.
"Good heavens," he said. "It's a major Hollywood feature which has been missing. You have to remember, 80 per cent of silent films are lost, so it's very important. And the fact it's a major Valentino film is tremendous. It's a very important find, and a thrill for Valentino fans."
Beyond the Rocks, filmed in California with lavish sets showing exotic locations in the Alps and Africa, was a melodramatic "tale of true love, baronial halls and treacherous Alps with Gloria's make-up whiter than the snow". Swanson played a woman pushed into an unhappy marriage, who fell for Valentino's handsome nobleman.
The studio, Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), wanted to see if Swanson and Valentino, then commanding fees of $12,500 and $1,000 a week, had the right on-screen chemistry.
In her autobiography published in 1980, Swanson summed up the formula. "Everyone wanted Beyond the Rocks to be every luscious thing that Hollywood could serve up in a single picture: the sultry glamour of Gloria Swanson, the steamy Latin magic of Rudolph Valentino, a rapturous love story by Elinor Glyn and the tango as it was meant to be - danced by the master himself," she said.
Yet it met a muted and catty response from the critics. Photoplay Magazine, the top-selling movie magazine in the US at the time, said in July 1922 it was "a little unreal and hectic" and didn't even rate it among the top six movies of the month.
Later that year, Motion Picture Classic magazine said: "The illicit love affair was also a prophylactic passion, being confined to burning glances and heaving bosoms and a long-distance liaison."
The criticisms would have disappointed the studio's bosses, including Cecil B DeMille. Both actors were great box office. Swanson was on her way to being Hollywood's highest-paid female star. Valentino, by then an established heart-throb, had just made Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - his greatest success to date.
The film came to light after the death of an anonymous, wealthy Dutch collector from Haarlem, who had secretly amassed a large hoard of old films, totalling more than 2,000 reels.
Many of the films were illegally held and should have been destroyed after their cinema run finished. He did not have their maker's permission to have them. After he died in 2001, his family gave the films to the Nederlands Filmmuseum.
Now restored, the 82-minute film is in good condition. Only a few seconds are missing. It will be screened by the museum next year - probably for the first time in 82 years.
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