Monday, May 06, 2013

"Moran of the Lady Letty" (1922)

Today is Rudolph Valentino's 118th birthday!  Happy birthday, dear Rudy!

To celebrate, I watched one of my favorites of his movies, Moran of the Lady Letty (1922).  It's not what you probably imagine a Valentino movie to be like.  It has no exotic locations, no fabulous costumes.  Instead, it has sailing ships and heroics.  Part of the reason Valentino made this movie was to do a little damage control for his image.  Before I get into the movie itself, I'll give you a little background on that stage in his career.

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:


  1. Interesting!

    That is so cool that you like silent films! Was Valentino ever in any movies with sound? Isn't it odd how actors and actresses wore their makeup in silent films?

    I am so amazed that the whole gender roles subject was kind of a point in this movie! Isn't it weird how that was an issue even in the 1920s?

    1. No, Valentino never made any sound films -- he died in 1926 at the age of 31 :-( As far as I know, the only surviving recording of his voice is on a record of a couple love songs that he made (listen here). He had a fairly thick Italian accent, and who knows if he would have even survived the transition to sound -- audiences may have found him too hard to understand or too foreign-sounding, who knows.

      The makeup is definitely a hoot! Especially the heavy lipstick on the guys, a trend that continued into the sound movies in the '30s. I should do a post sometime comparing Rudy with the other male stars of the era, because it becomes very obvious why he was such a heartthrob.

      I think there are a lot of similarities between society in the '20s and now -- a lot of hedonism, discontent, disillusionment... pretty fascinating.

    2. Hello, on many accounts about his voice, they said that he had a musical baritone type and his Italian accent was actually quite faded and he in fact had a midatlantic accent with a slight Italian accent by the time he died in 1926.

      I also read that bio book of his, he is quite a method actor too!

    3. Hi, Elena! Thanks for that info -- I've listened to the songs he recorded, and he had a very pleasant singing voice, but it was hard to tell anything about an accent from them. It would make sense, though, that after living in the US for many years, he wouldn't have an accent that was too hard to understand.

    4. I also read the Dark Lover and I did enjoy the book but sometimes I wonder if the authoress' impressions and interpretations of certain situations may impede how something comes across so I do wonder.

      I have listened to the 2 recorded songs and the Kashmiri particularly, I like imagining that as he sang it in The Sheik. But I wish we had more to go on what he sounded like, like an actual recording of him talking.

      From the bio book, he seems to have been one of the earliest practioners of method acting and I'd like to think that perhaps as he got older and could rely more on his skills and not be expected to look dashing all the time, he could've wowed us by skillful performances and I don't doubt his magnetism and intensity would ever diminish. I saw Dracula (1931) with Legosi a month or 2 ago and I can't help but think that Valentino would've been perfect for it. Lugosi is charismatic and intense but never sensual or seductive. Valentino otoh, is both charismatic and intense, while also being both sensual and seductive. Plus even in Dark Lover, in his school days, his classmates called him a vampire with his pointed ears, he has that feral dark sensual quality that Lugosi doesn't really embody imo.

    5. Elena, yes, it's true that any author is going to interpret things to fit with their own ideas to some extent, so we have to keep that in mind.

      I would love to have seen Rudy play some more mature roles -- the closest we get is him as the older Ahmed Ben Hassan in Son of the Shiek. He's certainly dashing even in grey hair and beard.

      I have a fondness for vampires, and now you've got me imagining him as one, which is quite delicious! You're right, he could have rocked Dracula.

    6. I have a spot for vampires too Hamlette! :)

      Coppola's Dracula is one of my favorites! I love the style and look, it's like an updated film from the 20s!

      After I saw Dracula (1931), I kept thinking and imagining Valentino as a vampire. I also like thinking of him as a gangster like in The Godfather films. I think Valentino would suit well in TGF world than a Scorsese world, there is something very operatic and old school to TGF that other gangster films don't have.

      Look at these vampiric pics of Valentino's I found! ;)

    7. & check out this Valentino quote, his views on death:

      ^^^Sounds very Vampiric to me!

    8. Haha! Those are some exceedingly vampiric photos. Too bad we don't have a time machine to go back and suggest this to some studio heads!

      My favorite version of Dracula is actually Dracula Untold, which has nothing to do with the book, but is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of why a person might want to become a vampire. And they have some cool twists on vampirism too. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. (Not to mention, Luke Evans is very easy on the eyes.)

  2. Rudy is a cutie. I like his voice. He had a nice sounding voice and I think he would have transitioned nicely to sound movies if he had lived longer.

    1. Isn't he delectable? Mmmmrrrrrrrrrrow. I like his voice too, though it is not at all what I imagine when I watch his movies.


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