Love and revenge in The Eagle (1925)

Agata Frymus, University of York

23 January 2018

Big budget costume dramas were a prominent fixture in the changing landscape of early and mid-1920s Hollywood. Such productions were instructive in responding to ‘a specific spectatorial desire for escapism into an ahistorical time of myth and magic, inured to the ravages of urbanization [and] industrialization.’[1] In other words, silent historical epics were tailored to cater to audiences’ desire for spectacle, whilst also providing a conceptualisation of chivalry and romance untarnished by the shifting gender discourse of the time of their production. Vilma Bánky’s stardom was constructed around the notions of respectable (and largely passive) femininity, concepts which were easily accommodated by this type of drama. Because it was one of the most conservative genres, at least as far as gender portrayal is concerned, it gave its female protagonist a chance to fulfil the role of damsel in distress.

Figure 1: Rudolph Valentino’s star appeal was used in The Eagle’s publicity campaign.

The opening sequence of The Eagle (1925) depicts the first encounter between Lieutenant Dubrovsky (Rudolph Valentino) and Masha (Vilma Bánky) as the handsome man saves her from being kidnapped. One might extrapolate the significance of their meeting for the further development of the plot, given that the motion picture builds upon the trope of the ‘damsel in distress’, a patriarchal fantasy that has long foregrounded the depictions of love in mainstream art. In accordance with this representational pattern, the act of rescue perpetuated by the hero equates Bánky’s character with the trophy awarded for his exceptional bravery. At that point, Dubrovsky is unaware of Masha’s precarious status as the daughter of the man who had seized Dubrovsky’s dying father’s familial estate. Whilst Bánky exchanges the look of the film’s protagonist, her ‘to-be-lookedness’ within the scene is counterbalanced by the negative position appointed to Catherine the Great, who observes the rescue action unacknowledged by Valentino’s gaze, with her face ‘momentarily transfigured in desire.’[2]

Figures 2 and 3: Seducer and seduced: Valentino as Dubrovsky with Masha (left) and Catherine the Great (right).

Portraying Catherine the Great in terms of sexual insatiability was by no means a development pioneered by The Eagle, but a long-standing tactic that has persisted across a plethora of other cultural texts.[3] Suggesting debauchery in relation to the monarch operated to highlight the notion that female political power constitutes an ultimate reversal of the ascribed gender positions. Much of the film’s comedic potential is built around the juxtaposition between the young, seemingly inaccessible Masha and Czarina, an older and sexually aggressive woman who pursues soldiers in her own guard in exchange for military status. Masha’s standing as a representational antithesis to the Czarina is inadvertly highlighted through visual means, particularly by costume: whilst the former wears delicate gowns and elaborate Russian dress, the latter is seen mostly in military uniform.

Moreover, Bánky’s heroine gains in moral stature because she is constructed in opposition to the corporeal aspects emblematised by the Czarina and, by extension, in referencing the idealistic notions of the spirit rather than the body. Historian Arthur Marwick has traced some aspects of this discourse back to the body vs. mind philosophy of the nineteenth century, which supported the notion that female beauty is evaluated in the context of the emotions it invokes in a heterosexual man; if the feeling is lustful, then the woman cannot be morally virtuous.[4] Confronted with this notorious man-eater, Dubrovsky chooses to desert the army rather than to conform to Czarina’s advances, eventually assuming a new identity as a Robin Hood-esque hero, the defender of the downtrodden, by the name of Black Eagle. ‘I enlisted for war service only’ proclaims the proud lieutenant, as he leaves the Czarina’s chamber in haste. To paraphrase Wood, The Eagle testifies to the universality of Western fantasy because it reduces two major female characters to archetypes of the Mother and the Whore, which embody the two fundamental myths of women continually re-inforced within patriarchal society. In the initial scenes of The Eagle Valentino is defined as a target of seduction, a ‘reluctant male trapped by the lustful designs of a female seductress’, which constitutes an ultimate reversion of his most famous role of predatory lover in The Sheik.[5]

The main challenge encountered by Dubrovsky in his quest to challenge Kirilla ? the corrupt man who robbed him of his inheritance ?  is the fact that the villain has a familial relationship with his love interest. One might argue that this obstacle naturally falls into the remit of ‘courtly love’, [6] in the sense that Masha’s inaccessibility not only elevates her status as an object of desire, but also creates the chief force driving the narrative forward. For Lacanian theorists, this is a culturally persistent trope, where hindrances and complications function to strengthen the desire to attain one’s goal. ‘Obstacles’, writes John Richardson, ‘are necessary in this understanding to preserve the illusion that without them the object would be instantly accessible.[7]

Masha’s initial rejection of Black Eagle’s advances (‘I don’t associate with masked men as a rule’) is hardly surprising, given the representation of romantic courtship in the bulk of popular Hollywood productions, as well as within Western cultural texts more broadly. Popular fictions on page and screen have long favoured a narrative contrivance in which heteronormative unity is achieved through the process of deferred courtship; that is, where the heroine is initially reluctant to fall under the hero’s spell, but does so eventually after he proves himself worthy of her affection. The ‘seduction plot’, was one of the central motifs of eighteenth-century sentimental literature that has been successfully disseminated across s great number of films, albeit in varying forms.[8]

As the action moves on, Dubrovsky gets closer to his arch nemesis – and, most significantly, to his daughter – by applying for the position of a French teacher in Kyrilla’s household. Bánky’s character resents Black Eagle at first, thinking very little of his chivalry and compliments. After she discovers the real identity of her French teacher, the narrative trajectory moves to emphasise Masha’s internal conflict: ‘I hate you!’, she screams. Eventually, she can no longer maintain the distance between herself and Dubrovsky, admitting that ‘Day and night I have fought against loving you – fought and lost!’

Figure 4: A still promoting the film seems to emphasise the semi-tragic aspect of Masha’s love for Dubrovsky, the nemesis of her father.

Of course, Masha wields little power on her own, being defined primarily through her relationship with the film’s chief antagonist. Eventually, the masked hero forsakes the oath of vengeance he has taken, concluding that ‘Revenge is sweet, but sometimes a girl is sweeter.’ In its critical appraisal of the film The New York Times deliberated that this dramatic shift is understandable, given the astonishingly good looks of Bánky’s character; ‘her beauty makes the hero’s gallantry all the more convincing.’[9] Thus, The Eagle culminates with the assumption that romantic fulfilment is a panacea for virtually all societal problems, including class struggle. The fight between the underprivileged citizens of the Russian state and the landowning class, epitomised here by Kirilla, is effectively eclipsed by the nuances of heteronormative romance.


[1] Diana Anselmo- Sequeira, ‘Blue Bloods, Movie Queens and Jane Does: Or How Princess Culture, American Film, and Girl Fandom Came Together in the 1910s’, in Princess Cultures: Mediating Girls’ Imaginations and Identities, ed. Miriam Forman-Brunell and Rebecca C. Hans (New York: Peter Lang Press, 2014): 169.

[2] Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994): 269.

[3] Peter Bondanella, Hollywood Italians. Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys and Sopranos (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006): 139.

[4] Sarah Berry, ‘Hollywood Exoticism’, in Stars: The Film Reader, ed. Lucy Fisher and Marcia Landy (London: Routledge, 2004): 183.

[5] Bondanella, Hollywood Italians, 138.

[6] The term is theorised by Slavoj Zizek in his The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality (London and New York: Verso, 2005): 89 – 91.

[7] John Richardson, ‘The Neosurrealist Musical and Tsai Ming-Laing’s The Wayward Cloud’, in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, ed. John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman and Carol Vernallis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 300.

[8][8] Lea Jacobs, The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008): 181.

[9] Mordaunt Hall, ‘Movie Review. The Screen,’ The New York Times, 9th November 1925, page unknown, available at [accessed 10/04/2017]

Agata Frymus is a PhD candidate at University of York and a recipient of White Rose Scholarship of Arts and Humanities. Her PhD thesis explores the star personae of three silent stars: Pola Negri, Jetta Goudal and Vilma Bánky. Her work has been published in Celebrity Studies Journal and Early Popular Visual Culture; she has an upcoming publication in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Film Finances: Making Hollywood Happen

Charles Drazin, Queen Mary – University of London

4 July 2017

As I begin to write this blog on the world’s first completion guarantor Film Finances, I can’t help wondering what the company’s founder Bobby Garrett would have made of today’s online world. During World War II, he had been deputy head of the Air Section at Bletchley Park. When the war was over, he returned to the publicity-hungry movie industry, but ran his little-known corner of that industry with all the tact, discretion and knack for eluding attention that characterised his previous career in secret intelligence.

I was recently amused to find in the company’s archive a letter from the early 1970s that explained to a new business partner: “Our UK and European operation as far as we are concerned has been restricted within a very confined area; bankers, distributors, etc, are aware of our function within the Industry. Therefore, we have found that there has been no need for any publicity.” It was perhaps some left-over from Garrett’s day that helped to explain why, when I was first invited to explore Film Finances’ archive in 2009, I had not heard of the company and had no idea what a completion guarantor did. The fact that the IAMHIST conference will be hosting a panel on Film Finances offers some index of the increased awareness eight years on of this company’s crucial importance to post-war film history.

Founded in London in 1950, Film Finances pioneered a system of guaranteeing budget overcosts, as well as the certainty of completion and delivery by a specified date, which facilitated the financing of independent production. By “independent production” I mean a film that is not funded directly by a major studio but requires its producer to raise its budget from separate, independent financiers. In order to obtain a guarantee that Film Finances would meet any extra costs, a producer had to provide not only a plan of production but also regular reports on progress. Once the film had been completed and delivered to its distributor, Film Finances would then archive the paperwork relating to the project.

Over the nearly seventy years of its existence, Film Finances was an important catalyst in the spread of independent film-making from Britain and Europe to Canada, Australia and Hollywood. The result today is a vast collection of papers –  including correspondence, scripts, budgets, schedules, call sheets and progress reports –  that detail the behind-the-scenes production of thousands of feature films, including some of the most celebrated ever made –  The African Queen (1951), Dr No (1962), Cabaret (1972), Terminator (1984), Pulp Fiction (1994) and so on all the way to La La Land (2016). It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of an archive that encompasses so many industries and so many significant films.

In 2012 Film Finances agreed to grant scholars access to the papers relating to the first thirty years of its history. A special issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television in 2014 offered a taste to the academic community of the archive’s treasures. Since then the company has continued to facilitate research, most recently welcoming researchers from the BFI/AHRC project, “Transformation and Tradition in Sixties British Cinema”. In the long term, Film Finances plans to work with institutions that can help to develop the research potential of the archive, whether through digital access, cataloguing the collection or arranging exhibitions.

When Bobby Garrett retired in 1982, the British film industry was in the doldrums. In a difficult climate, publicity became important even to Film Finances, as Garrett’s successor, the much more gregarious Richard Soames, sought to explain the value of what the company did to new markets that had not previously been aware of its function. The biggest of those new markets was Hollywood, where the advent of video distribution was fuelling the growth of independently financed films.

My paper at the IAMHIST conference will tell the story of how Film Finances came to Hollywood. Drawing on original documents in the Film Finances Archive, it will focus on Francis Ford Coppola’s Outsiders (1983), which Film Finances took the risk of guaranteeing even though the director’s previous two films, Apocalypse Now (1979) and One From the Heart (1982), had incurred massive overcosts. The production turned out to be the perfect calling card, as Film Finances took out a full-page advert in Variety to congratulate Coppola on finishing the film “on schedule and on budget”.

Opening an office on Sunset Boulevard only weeks later, Film Finances was keen during its early years in Hollywood to explain what it could offer to an industry that was still unfamiliar with how the completion guarantee worked. In an article that appeared in the Hollywood Reporter in 1985 Soames discussed the difference that Film Finances might have made if only it had been around to provide a completion guarantee for Heaven’s Gate (1980).

Budgeted at $11.5m, the film notoriously ended up costing over $40m and nearly ruined United Artists.  “The big advantage that the production would have had if we’d been there would have been to have an objective party who was involved in the creative aspects and who could point out where the film was really going.” In another interview with a trade journal called The Business of Film, Soames pointed out that over more than three decades “practically every set of circumstances in the making of a film has come past our door”. There were few other companies that could match the experience it had accumulated in solving the problems of production. “The very fact that there are problems with pictures is the reason that we’re in business.”

When a special issue of the Hollywood Reporter celebrated Film Finances’ fiftieth anniversary in 2000, the company had guaranteed approximately 3,000 films. Although the Hollywood office was now the headquarters of the company, the last page of the issue offered a nod to its British origins.

“Excellent Batsman for 50 years,” declared the advertisement from Merchant Ivory Productions. “May you continue for the next 50.”  It will be some time until scholars can hope to have access to the papers relating to films that Film Finances guaranteed after its arrival in Hollywood in 1982, but meanwhile the first thirty years of Film Finances’ history, relating chiefly to the British film industry, are likely to keep researchers busy for quite some time.

Charles Drazin is Senior Lecturer in Film at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (1998), In Search of ‘The Third Man’ (1999) and Korda: Britain’s Only Movie Mogul (2002). Charles will be presenting a paper, ‘Film Finances goes to Hollywood’, at this year’s IAMHIST Conference.


The Hollywood Glamour Photograph

Ellen Wright, De Montfort University

6 June 2017

Considering Hollywood’s reliance upon photography between the teens and the 1960s, as a means of promoting, shaping and altering star images, the photographic representation of stars remains a peculiarly underdeveloped area of star studies. This is a real missed opportunity, as these images can offer considerable insights into the construction of film stardom and the pleasures of film fandom during the American cinema’s classical era.

Developments at the start of the twentieth century, in studio, lens and lighting technologies, made effective sharp focus, short depth-of-field and close-up shots all possible, and consequently the iconic Hollywood glamour photograph format, exemplified by the work of photographers such as George Hurrell and Ruth Harriet Louise, quickly became both popular and codified during this period.

Greta Garbo photographed for Wild Orchids (Ruth Harriet Louise, 1929)

Greta Garbo (George Hurrell, 1930)

Identifying characteristics of the glamour image include dramatic, exaggerated gestures and posturing, a monochrome colour pallet and expressionistic Chiascuro-style lighting to create heavy theatrical shadows and imply danger, emotional ambiguity or depth of character, ‘dramatizing and conferring an atmosphere of sexual allure on the subjects.’[1]

Rather than being a relatively realist rendering of the film star subjects’ body, the glamour photograph fixated upon the star’s physical form as exceptionally desirable, graceful, exotic or spectacular. Using techniques similar to those developed by the earliest of experimental photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, they drew specific attention to singular details (for example, in facial close ups it was the eyes, ‘the window to the soul’) and these were often the only element which appeared in sharp relief. [2]

A truncated depth-of-field imbued the glamour photograph with an unreal, insubstantial and dreamlike aura, and an emphasis upon textures such as reflective surfaces (gelled hair, mirrors, rhinestones, jewels), smooth complexions, wisps of cigarette smoke and translucent fabrics all helped to suggest a sensory excess.

In light of such conventions and considering the tendency to carefully light actresses hair or backlight subjects in such images, producing a halo of light behind the stars head, it is not surprising that such images and the stars they depict have often discussed within a psychoanalytical framework and why the film stars of this era came to be known in the popular consciousness as enviable screen ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses.’ [3]

The epitome of the exotic, revered Hollywood goddess, and possibly the most obvious choice for an example of a Hollywood glamour image subject is Marlene Dietrich, an actress whose close, collaborative relationship with Svengali director Joseph Von Sternberg resulted in an expert ability to utilise light in order to sculpt her own appearance and a close association with the medium close-up.

In a 1937 promotional image for the Ernst Lubitsch film Angel, Dietrich is shot in medium close-up, in a spectacular, white, feather headdress, her bare right shoulder in the foreground, presented directly to the lens.

Marlene Dietrich (George Hurrell, 1937)

Her left hand with its long, dark, gleaming fingernails, stroke her bare shoulder, inviting the spectator to contemplate the sensual experience of caressing Dietrich’s flesh. Furthermore, the composition, with the subject framed horizontally across the image, invites the spectator to read across the picture, left to right, head, to face, to shoulder, to hand. And as there is no sign of clothing in this image, presumably they are invited to imagine what falls below Dietrich’s shoulders and beyond the camera’s gaze.

The combination of feather headdress and the talon-like nails, carry a primal or animalistic implication. Dietrich is an exotic ‘creature,’ to be admired in her plush habitat. Here she is posed against satin upholstery, presumably either an approximation of luxurious booth seating in a high-class night club or an index for an opulent boudoir setting.

She tilts her head to her right, provocatively revealing her bare neck, allowing the chiaroscuro lighting to catch her cheekbones and the long, dark lashes of her heavily made-up eyes. The tilt of her head also suggests she is lost in reverie. Despite repeatedly playing fallen or sexually ambiguous women who were often brought low within film narratives, Dietrich herself had an aloof, untouchable quality. In line with that established star persona, and with a broader art tradition of iconic female archetypes such as the muse and the Madonna, Dietrich may be presented here as an object of desire but her facial expression, her pose, the short depth of field and the way she is lit, in that classic three-point style which created the ‘virtual aura’ identified by Dyer as being typical in such imagery, make her appear beatific, distant and ethereal.

The key appeal of the glamour photograph appears to have been the flagrant glorification of its film star subjects, the way these images allowed the player to demonstrate both their ‘personality’ and their acting range (see for example images produced of Garbo or Crawford by Ruth Harriet Louise) through the emphasis upon their invariably flawless visage (the face in glamour photography performs a metonymical function; carrying the burden of the star persona through feature or expression) as well as the ‘closer’ emotional access that these images purported to offer audiences to the pictured star, precisely because of the images’ facial/emotional preoccupation.

Both exoticised and, in some ways, legitimised by being ‘artful’ in form, the glamour photograph may have appeared to offer privileged access but it often concealed as much as it revealed. Its mise-en-scéne was meticulously crafted to project an air of sophisticated modernity, an image of glamorous perfection entirely denuded of any extraneous mundane details that may link its ethereal subject to humdrum reality.

 Unfortunately, this contrivance also had the added consequence of heightening the potential for the film star subject to be perceived as a malleable element within the photographic mise-en-scéne and as a result it is also not unusual for classical era Hollywood stars and the fans who enjoyed and collected these images to be discussed in passive terms, as victims of an exploitative industrial system and for the glamour photograph and the industry who produced them to be treated as suspect.

Certainly, the stars’ eyes, lips, lashes, coiffure, eyebrows, cheekbones, complexion, jewellery, clothing, were all subject to sculpting, editing or (what was referred to in the Hollywood’s burgeoning cosmetics industry as) ‘glamorisation’ in pre-production, and post-production by the notorious airbrush. The glamour image conveyed a stars’ emotional authenticity or integrity, but its conspicuous and careful construction simultaneously suggested inauthenticity or even deception or trickery. As a product intended for mass reproduction and distribution which lacked a true ‘original’ (with the exception of the negative – in itself a questionable original), the glamour photograph lacks an ‘aura’ and thus artistic legitimacy. [4] As Benjamin notes:

The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity. [5]

Benjamin’s use of the term ‘spell’ here alludes to a notion of misdirection or glamour (the word ‘glamour’ being etymologically linked with witchcraft), whilst marking the star phenomenon as a ‘cult’ and a ‘commodity’ suggests an industry cynicism and that followers are devotees, lured by a heady combination of aspiration and sex appeal. This interpretation is not unreasonable, considering the plethora of monochrome images featuring stars in exotic, utopic or sumptuous settings (signified though palms and bamboo shutters, satin sheets, draped furs, modern art deco lobbies), reclining or recumbent, in poses that carry implications of passivity and/or eroticism whilst also suggest an enviable lifestyle of comfort and idling.

For me these images’ complex, deliberately multi-layered mise-en-scéne and overt contrivance, whilst simultaneously claiming to reveal an impossible level of access to ‘stars’ who somehow managed to possess what Dyer terms as ‘extraordinary ordinariness,’ their insistence upon authenticity despite overwhelming evidence of fabrication, is what makes the glamour photograph so fascinating. [6] These images perfectly encapsulate how Hollywood saw itself, and how we, the audiences saw, and still see Hollywood, as a place of ostentatious, extraordinary excess, whose idols were painstakingly fashioned through cosmetics, costuming, training and manner, situation and perhaps most importantly, soft focus.

[1] Gundle, S and Castelli, C.T. The Glamour System (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) p. 71

[2] Whose work comprised of religious, mythical and romantic iconography and tableau vivants.

[3] As Dyer notes ‘Glamour of the Classical Hollywood period relied on creating a glowing image for the female star – the convention of three types of lighting, key, fill and back, established in the 1920’s, created a virtual aura around the female stars.’ Dyer, R. White: Essays on Race and Culture. (London: Routledge, 1997). p.87.  Carol Dyhouse’s brief discussion of the black and white photography of Hollywood cinema also identifies some key characteristics of the photographic genre. See Dyhouse, C. Glamour: Women History, Feminism (London: Zed books, 2010) p.30-33

[4] As Benjamin observes ‘aura is tied to… presence; there can be no replica of it.’ Benjamin, W. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ Holmes, S and Redmond, S (eds) Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader (London: Sage, 2007) p.8

[5] ibid. p.9

[6] A paradox whereby in short Hollywood stars ‘live more expensively than the rest of us, but are not essentially transformed by this’ See Dyer, R. Stars (London: BFI, 1979) p.43

Dr Ellen Wright is the VC2020 Lecturer in Cinema and Television History at De Montfort University, Leicester. She has taught film studies, media studies, and photographic theory, and specializes in the representation of femininity in the leisure industries, consumer culture, and broader social contexts, surrounding classical Hollywood cinema. Her academic publications include ‘Spectacular Bodies: The Swimsuit, Sexuality and Hollywood,’ special edition on leisure industries, Sport in History 35, no. 3 (2015) and ‘Having her Cheesecake and Eating It: Performance, Professionalism and the Politics of the Gaze in the Pin-Up Self-Portraiture and Celebrity of Bunny Yeager’ Feminist Media Histories Special Edition ‘Histories of Celebrity’ (Fall, 2016). She is currently working on a series of public engagement events linked to her research on the media representation of the women who performed at the Windmill Theatre in London.


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