Rudolph Valentino's breakout role was in 1921's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, playing a spoiled rich boy who grew up fast on the WWI battlefields. His tango scene early in the film (watch it here) captured the attention of female moviegoers, but it wasn't until later that same year, with The Shiek, that he became the very first matinee idol. Suddenly, women everywhere wanted graceful, passionate men with dark, smoldering good looks. It seems that American men may have felt threatened by how strongly their women responded to this Latin Lover -- at any rate, critics pooh-poohed Valentino and maligned his masculinity. Valentino, only 26 at the time, was very offended, and Moran of the Lady Letty is something of a rebuttal of those aspersions. (If you want to know more, I totally recommend the Valentino biography Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider.)
Here's the story:
Ramon Laredo (Rudolph Valentino) is a wealthy young man of leisure. And he's bored. Women fawn all over him at cotillions and salons (and it's no mystery why), but he doesn't care. Then one day, Ramon decides to go for a sail on the family yacht. He meets some passersby, who laugh at him behind his back for being a pretty boy pretending to be a sailor.
|Ramon in his natty sailing togs.|
But instead of going for a sail, Ramon gets shanghaied! One minute, he's sharing a friendly drink with some old codger, and the next thing he knows, he's on a smuggling ship setting sail for who-knows-where. The men on the ship mock him for his nice clothes and refined ways, nicknaming him Lillee of the Vallee (their spelling, not mine). But before long, Ramon earns acceptance with his ready fists (Valentino boxed in real life too) and his navigational abilities. Captain "Slippery" Kitchell (Walter Long) even makes Ramon his first mate, and tells him he'll get a share in whatever money they make, be it from scavenging ships or stealing pearls or anything else.
|Ramon getting laughed at.|
And now we get to the titular character, Moran Sternersen (Dorothy Dalton), daughter of the captain of the Lady Letty, a Scandinavian cargo ship. Her mother is dead, and her father raised her at sea -- Moran can sail with the best of them, and generally dresses in sailor clothes (even though they make her look like a hippopotamus from behind -- but she doesn't seem to care). But the cargo of coal aboard the Lady Letty catches fire, and most of the crew deserts it, leaving only Moran and her father and their faithful first mate. The smoke and fumes overcome all three.
Then the smuggler happens along and the crew boards the Lady Letty to see if they can steal anything. Ramon finds the only survivor, Moran, and takes her back to the smuggling ship. He realizes she's a girl, but tries to conceal that fact from Captain Kitchell, with the assistance of the ship's Chinese cook, Charlie (George Kuwa). But Kitchell finds out, and of course has designs on her virtue, so to speak. Ramon stands up to him and defends her, and several members of the crew back him up because they knew Moran before.
|Ramon and Moran|
Ramon has a bit of a spark for Moran, and when they land in Mexico to sell the guns they're smuggling, the two of them go for a walk on the beach. Ramon tries professing his love for Moran, but she rebuffs him, saying that she's got no use for men that way, and that she wishes she'd been born a boy instead because she hates being a girl.
Ramon looks more sad than shocked, but accepts her answer.
Charlie, the cook, buys a dress for Moran because he has decided that if two young people try to fall in love, one of them should be wearing a dress. (He doesn't specify which, interestingly.) Kitchell bargains with a his Mexican cohorts to sell them Moran, but Charlie overhears and warns Moran and the rest of the sailors, and a heroic gun battle ensues.
Moran reverses all her ideas about men and falls in love with Ramon. They sail the ship back to California, where Ramon reunites with his former friends, defends Moran's life and honor one last time, and they sail into the sunset, so to speak.
This isn't the greatest movie ever, and it has some pretty big holes, like how Ramon felt about the smugglers' illegal activities. And Moran seems pretty unaffected by her father's death after the first couple of minutes. But it's a lot of fun, and gives Valentino a chance to show off his muscles, his shooting and fighting skills, and his ability to convince even man-hating women to love him.
It also raises some really interesting questions about the views on sexuality and gender people had in the 1920s. Ramon goes from a dandy to a manly sailor. Moran goes from a mannish girl in pants to a dress-wearing woman. Their very names mirror each other! Clearly, people were accepted if they behaved differently than what was "normal" for their gender, but the message here seems to be that they can't be happy unless they conform.
Anyway, my copy of this was recorded off TV, so my screencaps aren't very clear, and I couldn't get really good ones of various costumes. Here's how Rudy looks in the beginning, in spiffy formal wear:
Here are Moran and Ramon aboard ship, in simpler garb:
Is this a family-friendly movie? There are a couple mild curses in the titles cards (this is a silent film, of course), and there are a couple of fist fights and the aforementioned gun battle. That's about all that might be objectionable.
I'll leave you with this very sweet photo of the birthday boy: