With the indie-film community hell-bent on discovering what's hot and new, new, NEW, it's nice to see downtown's DMAC devoting its Christmas screening schedule to a gift from the past. Missing and presumed lost for decades, the 1922 silent feature Beyond the Rocks was found in 2003 in the Nederlands Filmmuseum and restored for theatrical distribution. Thus can modern audiences witness this rarely-seen collaboration between two of the era's greatest stars, Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson.
As film-preservation activist Martin Scorsese notes in his introductory comments, such pairings of top talent were rare in the Roaring '20s, making Rocks an added curiosity from a historical standpoint. Yet it's not long into the 81-minute film before its novelty value is eclipsed by its enduring watchability. Valentino and Swanson display the confident way with expression and gesture that silent stars had to develop to project their intentions in the absence of audio, but little about the film is especially over the top. Much of it, in fact, is downright mature.
In the story (adapted by Jack Cunningham from a novel by Elinor Glyn), a young woman named Theodora (Swanson) agrees to marry an older fuddy-duddy in order to rescue her family from financial hardship. Yet her real love is for the dashing young fellow (Valentino) who once saved her from drowning. In the course of delineating their forbidden romance, Valentino gets to flash portentous looks that all the ladies in the theater mezzanine must have felt like arrows to the heart. Swanson, whose raven-haired ingenue look is nearly proto-goth, gradually swathes herself in furry finery (advancing a distinctive personal style and inadvertently laying the groundwork for Sally Field to cry, "I look like Gloria fucking Swanson!" in 1991's Soapdish). Robert Bolder, as Theodora's tubby hubby, stretches his face to convey all manner of oafishness; balancing his fun mugging is the notably restrained and dignified work of Alec B. Francis as Theodora's gentle father, who would rather see his daughter happy than himself on Easy Street.
Sam Wood's direction is remarkably slick there's an extended scene of a mountain-climbing accident and rescue that boasts some capable effects work. And one has to admire the picture's daring in eliciting our sympathy for romantic leads who spend most of the story bordering on adultery (especially as the film was one of the first to come under the scrutiny of the puritanically minded Hays Office).
The 2005 release benefits greatly from the new score composed by Henny Vrienten, which gives pipe-organ melodramatics a pass and instead underlies the lovers' yearning with plaintive, almost New Age melodies. The music perfectly fits the script and the movie's essential fragility: The occasional sequence is obscured by rotted film stock that intrudes on the action in bizarrely attractive patterns. Even in the segments that are closer to pristine, dropped frames denote portions of the original footage that will never be seen again. The discovery of a "lost" feature is always hailed as cause for celebration, but Vrienten's understanding accompaniment will make you weep for every vanished moment.