Agata Frymus, University of York
23 January 2018[print-me]
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.’ 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.’
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. 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. 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.
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’,  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.
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.
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.’ 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.
 Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994): 269.
 Peter Bondanella, Hollywood Italians. Dagos, Palookas, Romeos, Wise Guys and Sopranos (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006): 139.
 Sarah Berry, ‘Hollywood Exoticism’, in Stars: The Film Reader, ed. Lucy Fisher and Marcia Landy (London: Routledge, 2004): 183.
 Bondanella, Hollywood Italians, 138.
 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.
 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.
 Lea Jacobs, The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008): 181.
 Mordaunt Hall, ‘Movie Review. The Screen,’ The New York Times, 9th November 1925, page unknown, available at http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9804E7DB1F38E233A2575AC0A9679D946495D6CF? [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.
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