If you can imagine every print of Titanic disappearing, never to be seen again for 60 years or so, then you might get an idea of how monumental the discovery of Beyond the Rocks is. This 1922 silent weeper paired known commodity Gloria Swanson with the just-starting-out Rudolph Valentino, casting them as star-crossed lovers kept apart by distance, marriages of obligation and ultimately their own morality. With mega-director Sam Wood at the helm, the melodrama was destined to be a hit. But by the end of the 20th century, just about every print had either disintegrated or vanished.
Unearthed from a Dutch film library and restored by a team of historians, Beyond the Rocks is back in a stunningly crisp new print, and audiences weaned on Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts owe it to themselves to get an idea of what real star power once was. As they surmount various hair-raising obstacles including a boat capsizing and a literal cliffhanger in the Swiss Alps the two lovers ooze the kind of unrequited desire modern films barely suggest. Wood takes them from stunning, on-location exteriors to opulent parlors and ballrooms, and even indulges in the occasional lavish, fanciful fantasy sequence, as when the two lovers imagine themselves to be royalty.
Valentinos chiseled features and effortless poise put contemporary heartthrobs like Jude Law to shame, while Swanson, with her long black tresses and ivory skin, suggests what Meg White mightve been like were she a silent film star. Theyre far more than just glamorous, however. The acting relies on pantomime less than most silent flicks did, and compared to, say, the performances in a D.W. Griffith film, Swanson is downright subtle.
This remastered version includes a gorgeous new score from Henny Vrienten. Although not all portions of the print could be saved, even the damaged moments are fascinating to watch; when a train disappears into a tunnel, the celluloid looks like its dissolving before our eyes.
Thankfully, though, most of Beyond the Rocks is so sharp and clear, its like watching a modern production that just happens to have been shot in a classy, old-fashioned style.
At the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237. 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 28.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].