A summary of the The Sheik Screening and Discussion

Posted by Sarah

We started with an introduction to the film and its significance for the group’s interest in melodrama research.

The Sheik (George Melford, 1921) is clearly very different from the thrilling ‘suspense melodrama’ The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952) which we screened a fortnight ago.  I feel, however, discussion on genre definitions follows on from that session quite nicely. To recap, last time we looked at Steve Neale’s work on melodrama definitions. He noted that in the 1930s and 1940s the term ‘melodrama’ was used by the trade press to describe films which we might now refer to as film noir. Such films included elements of ‘action, adventure and thrills’ and predominately belonged in the genres of war, adventure, horror and thriller (1993, p. 69). These were ‘traditionally thought of as, if anything, “male”’ (ibid) . This is quite different to how the 1970s feminist film academics (notably Laura Mulvey 1963 and 1986 and Christine Gledhill 1987) and other writers on film melodrama used it. Their definition of melodrama was closely tied to melodrama’s rejection of realism, its relation to the ‘woman’s film’, and its debt to Victorian theatrical melodrama (Neale, 1993, pp. 66-7).

I have found the definition used by the American Film Institute (the AFI) useful, even though it is of course retrospectively fitted to films.  This is because it ties in well with what most people would understand the term ‘melodrama’ to mean. The AFI defines melodramas as ‘fictional films that revolve around suffering protagonists victimized by situations or events related to social distinctions, family and/or sexuality, emphasizing emotion’. (http://afi.chadwyck.com/about/genre.htm)

While The Sheik is not categorised as melodrama by the AFI I have chosen it for several reasons. Firstly my research focuses on Hollywood stars, although admittedly mostly star couples, and Valentino was a huge star. This film ‘made him’ as it was very popular. Emily W Leider in Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino (2004) notes that the film broke attendance records at two major New York theatres (The Rialto and the Rivoli) and that the New York Telegraph estimated that in the first few weeks 125,000 people had seen the film (p. 154). The Sheik was also popular abroad.  It was in circulation in Sydney for six months, and ran for 42 weeks at a theatre in France (ibid). Within its first year it grossed $1m worldwide, having cost just $200, 000 to make (ibid).

I also think the fact The Sheik was produced in 1921 is important. During 1921, according to my trawling of the AFI catalog, there was a huge upsurge in the number of film melodramas produced in the US.  In 1920 melodramas accounted for 1.75% of films produced in the US. By 1921 the figure was 49.63% – very nearly half of all US productions. In addition, by 1922, according to figures compiled by Mark Purcell and quoted by Richard Koszarski in his contribution to The History of the American Cinema series, half of the top 10 box office hits were melodramas (p. 33). The melodramas (according to the AFI) were:  2: D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm –starring the Gish sisters, 3: John S Robertson’s Tess of the Storm Country starring Mary Pickford, 5: Frank Lloyd’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist starring Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney 8: D. W. Griffith’s  One Exciting Night, 9: Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. (As a side note Fred Niblo’s Blood and Sand starring Valentino was no. 4. Although this was given the broader category of drama by the AFI.) Melodramas weren’t just being produced in large numbers then, but attracting huge audiences too. I’m intrigued as to why they exploded at this point, since films had become feature length some time earlier. It wasn’t the case that they only became able to relate complex melodramatic plots to an audience.  I am particularly interested in film melodrama’s relation to stage melodrama, literature, and other social and cultural factors of the period.


Gledhill, Christine. Home is where the Heart is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. British Film Inst, 1987.

 Koszarski, Richard. An evening’s entertainment: The age of the silent feature picture, 1915-1928. Vol. 3. University of California Press, 1994.

 Leider, Emily W. Dark lover: the Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004.

 Mulvey, Laura. Notes on Sirk and melodrama. 1963. (Reprinted in Gledhill, 1987).

 Mulvey, Laura. “Melodrama in and out of the home.” High Theory/Low Culture: Analyzing Popular Television and Film (1986).

 Neale, Steve. “Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term ‘Melodrama’ in the American Trade Press.” Velvet Light Trap 32 (1993): 66-89.

Discussion after the screening

The discussion ranged widely and included: the fact that both protagonists suffered; the romantic comedy elements of The Sheik– especially in relation to the possible categorisation of the film as melodrama; the film’s interesting gender politics – particularly in reference to ‘Stockholm Syndrome melodrama’ and racist overtones; acting styles and melodrama.

Further reading

 Hansen, Miriam, and Miriam Hansen. Babel and Babylon: spectatorship in American silent film. Harvard University Press, 1991.

 Studlar, Gaylyn. This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. Columbia University Press, 1996.

If anyone would like to take these thoughts further, or mention anything omitted here (or indeed anything else melodrama-related), please comment or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk

5 thoughts on “A summary of the The Sheik Screening and Discussion

  1. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for choosing this film, it was great to watch and the discussion was really interesting.

    I’ve been thinking about the links to theatrical melodrama, in more than just the acting style. The idea of a secret which provides the (inevitably!) happy ending was one that seems common across the genre. Another is the importance of family – in this instance, it’s the Sheik’s real parentage, revealed near the end which changes the audience’s understanding of who he is, as well as making it acceptable for Diana to fall in love with him! In several stage melodramas, the idea of fractured families, people who don’t know their relatives or who have been separated from them seems to be an important theme.

    The other idea which crossed my mind is whether melodrama, by appealing to the popular audience, must also reflect prevailing tensions in society. So, The Sheik has plenty to say about independent women, but perhaps also about changes to various nineteenth century Empires at the beginning of the twentieth. Several of the stage melodramas I’ve looked at have had themes such as urbanisation, the perils of drunkenness and depictions of the slave trade.

    Just some ideas that I’ve been meaning to put down for a while!


  2. Hi Lies. Thanks for your comment.

    You make a very interesting point about the Payne Fund Studies assessment of 1920 (i.e. pre the seeming melodrama explosion of 1921) films. And whether the presence of the theme of love means they might also belong to melodrama. I think it’s likely that many of these will include suffering – i.e. melodramatic elements. I find the detail provided by the AFI catalog very compelling though.

    I look forward to hearing more about the PFS at your WIP. I’m also excited about the screening of The Divorcee on the 20th. Do let me have some blurb to advertise the film, and perhaps a suggestion of which areas you’d like us to discuss so I can post it on the blog.


  3. Oh yes, that’s what I meant – that the large amount of romance movies in 1920 would indicate a potentially higher number of films that could be classified as melodrama (since as you said, plenty of romance films have a good amount of weeping and suffering!). But you’re right, at least the AFI is presumably consistent in their classification – which means the 1920-1921 transition remains a bit mysterious. I agree, by the way, that it’s quite odd not to classify Gaslight as a melodrama. It’s so filled with suffering and paranoia and victimization that it’s almost hard to watch!

    The PFS are fascinating and will be the basis of my WIP seminar paper, so you’ll find out more than you’ve ever wanted to know about them quite soon. 😀 I’m always willing to discuss them sometime, though, they’re really interesting in so many ways. They don’t actually use the term melodrama but they did take a random selection of 500 films from 1920, 1925 and 1930 each and then put them into ten or so set categories. Love, sex and crime constitute about 60-70 % of the films each of those years – it’s a pretty rough classification, but it’s interesting nonetheless.


  4. Hi Lies. Thanks for the comment. 1921 does indeed seem like an exciting year for melodrama.

    I worked out the 1.75% and 49.63% statistics myself from the AFI catalog. I noted the total amount of films the AFI recorded as being produced in the US for the year in question. Then I trawled through each year noting how many they designated as melodrama. I started looking decade by decade and unsurprisingly the 1920s showed a peak in melodramas. I then investigated this in more detail. Intererstingly I’d say some later films I would presume were melodramas (Gaslight for example) are not given that label by the AFI. This points to the fact that the figure may even be higher than 50% for 1921.

    Of course this means that you are dependent on the AFI definition of melodrama, and on their retrospective application. But they are at least consistent in this. And they provide you with details of their methods which is nice.

    Another issue is the number of films which have been lost. But the AFI do manage to use contemporaneous material (reviews etc) for films they do not have access to, or they have not yet watched.

    On your final point, I’m not sure that the designation of a film as romance necessarily means it cannot also be designated as melodrama. As long as lots of suffering is involved! I’d be very keen to discuss this, and the Payne Fund Studies, more. Where do they, for example, get their genre definition from? Were their records as complete then as they are now? Just one or two preliminary thoughts!


  5. I too am really interested in why melodrama exploded in 1921, and I can’t really think of a reason why. Could it be that it is in part a statistical issue – as in, the numbers before and after 1921 come from different sources? After all, melodrama is (as we’ve seen by now!) a fairly “blurry” term.

    According to “The Content of Motion Pictures” (one of the Payne Fund Studies, from 1933), 44,6% all films made in 1920 had love as a major theme, which makes me wonder if many of those would qualify as melodrama (in the traditional sense)? Do you know where the AFI found the 1,75% number?


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