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The Young Rajah

June 11th, 2006 (03:23 pm)

current mood: satisfied

So I finally saw The Young Rajah.

Maybe "saw" is too strong a word – the only known copy, from an Italian archive, was significantly damaged years ago. The movie is in better shape than I'd thought; I'd heard only two minutes existed. But a good third of the film is gone.

Not a total loss: using the surviving footage, stills, and existing production records, Jeff Masino of Flicker Alley pieced the story back together into an hour-long film. There are necessarily more intertitles than originally; but there is a complete, recognizable film.

Amos Judd, the book that the movie is based on[1], was extremely popular around the turn of the 20th century, and also led to a play (predating the movie). It's been out of print a good eighty years, but ridiculously easy to find (less than $5 on eBay / Amazon). In a fit of lost-film frustration a year or so ago, I bought a copy. It's a great story and could easily be filmed today - if done properly (more on the story below).

This stars Rudolph Valentino, with Wanda Hawley as his love interest (and his real-life love interest, Natacha Rambova - the irrepressible Winifred Shaughnessy Hudnut - as costume designer). Contemporary reviews panned the film and the actors; while the movie's sometimes stiff, panning is an overreaction. This isn't Rudy's career-defining performance, but he does perform admirably. Unfortunately, enough of the film is missing that we'll probably never know if the criticism is unfair and/or dated (just read a 1929 review of Pandora's Box sometime). This version is by necessity a different experience than the actual movie would have been, and several actors' performances are now nothing more than photos. From what I've seen, however, my guess is that at the very least they did a respectable job.

The best part of the film, though, is the plot. Rudy plays an Indian prince, forced out of his country as a boy due to a coup, who has a date with destiny. It's a wonderful, mystical story: a touch of the supernatural, a hint of fate. That story gets transferred fairly completely to the film, with one major change at the end. The change is pretty significant, especially since a good portion of the original audience would have known either the book or the play (I don't know how the play ends). The movie's ending is slightly weaker than the book's, but it does work quite well.

There's a plot complication, in which Amos's love interest Molly refuses him at first because he's... half Indian. This was handled very well: she was shown to be foolish for denying her feelings and Amos's character because of his skin. (And this is before she finds out he's a prince, to boot.) It doesn't take too long for her to come to her senses and accept Amos. Pretty encouraging for seven years after The Birth of a Nation.

This is likely the best we'll do for seeing this movie. It's not the original experience, but the kernel of the story is still very visible – and hasn't dated. I thought the book was a more solid story, but that might be the effect of the lost footage / use of stills. I'm still very glad I got the chance to see what's left - and I don't feel the loss of the full film anywhere as keenly as before.

I'm told there's a possible DVD release for this in the August / September 2006 timeframe (possibly part of a box). Something to look out for. I've been looking out for way too much lately, but eh - eating's overrated.

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[1] J.A. Mitchell, who wrote the book, also founded Life Magazine. Althea Luce wrote the play; however, I haven't been able to find a copy of it... so far.