December 15, 2019
Beyond the Rocks – US, 1922
To be able to fully appreciate Sam Woods’s 1922 film Beyond the Rocks, it would be wise to reflect upon the qualities of Charles Dickens’s and Jane Austen’s novels. From Dickens, we must absorb the notions of a great and final chivalrous act, one done at the benefit of another but at great peril to oneself; from Austen, we must remember those ideal worlds where a young woman can be pursued by two young men – one from a wealthy family and the other from an even wealthier one. And to these common narrative elements, we must off course add Hollywood’s propensity to portray physical attraction as real love and to depict it as only requiring a paucity of time to develop. In other words, it takes a real suspension of disbelief. Then again, what are movies if not the creation of worlds with their own rules, many of which require viewers simply to let go of rationale thought and enjoy the ride?
In Beyond the Rocks, Gloria Swanson plays Theodora Fitzgerald, the youngest daughter of an aging widower and the half-sister of his two opportunistic daughters. Early on, we eavesdrop on a conversation in which they talk about needing Theodora to marry rich for both theirs and their father’s sake. Fortunately, fate – or is it destiny? – takes the wheel and tosses Theodora into the young playboy hands of Lord Hector Brocandale. I mean this literally, for on a boating excursion, Theodora is flung from her paddle boat into the sea, and it is Hector’s strong hands that pull her to safety. Fate sees fit to intervene again later on when Theodora, now on her honeymoon, finds herself hanging precipitously from the side of a mountain after take one step too many behind her. Again, it is Hector to the rescue, and you know what happens when a male character risks death for the sake of a damsel in distress? Feelings can’t be too far behind.
And here is where the film takes the easy way out and “Jane Austen” events begin to occur. In this kind of world, love, no matter how illogical or poorly developed it is – simply must develop, and it cannot be a puppy-dog kind of love; instead, it must be the genuine, powerful kind, the kind that makes you ache when you think of what cannot be. The problem is that Hector does not seem to have that as his motivating force; instead, he seems like your average horny adult male who, when alone with a woman in a semi-romantic environment, can’t resist the urge to hit on the beautiful woman in his company – regardless of her unavailability. He even seems to be using a well-worn tale of forbidden love that he considers too powerful to resist as a means of putting Theodora in a more suggestive state.
Here again, we must remember that we are in something akin to Austenland, a place where lust simply cannot exist in the male protagonist, so no sooner does Hector make his unsuccessful move, he dons the expression of a heartbroken, mortified man, thus re-establishing his noble character. Perhaps it was simply the wrong era for a movie about two people brought together solely by their immense physical attraction. That said, the film would have made more sense if that indeed had been the way events played out. This is not a knock on what follows, for the film hits its stride when depicting the agony and anguish of a love denied. Still, one wonders at the masterpiece that could have been.
Unfortunately, the film enters Silly-land in its final act and requires a suspension of disbelief that many will find impossible to muster up. Here is where we must remember our literature, for many early films drew upon the classics for inspiration. And we must also remember the world available to a divorced woman in the 1920’s. Seen in this context, the actions of Theodora’s husband are no less ridiculous, but at least they are somewhat logical, as well as commendable.
I’m left with a mostly positive opinion of Beyond the Rocks. I quite enjoyed the set-up to the love affair, yet felt letdown by the need to make what is clearly attraction into something more. However, the film does an excellent job of detailing how hard it is to let a love like theirs go, and Swanson and Valentino are stunning in these moments. I also liked the way the film handles Theodora’s husband – he is neither vengeful nor idiotic. Rather, he’s just too old for her, and his mannerisms around her are those of a gentle man comfortable with his life. He has everything he wants – he just doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body. A later scene involving correspondences is sweet and heartfelt, and it excellently established that neither man in Theodora’s life is the villain of the picture. Things like this just happen. And then, sadly, there’s the ending, that ludicrous, predictable, problematic conclusion that employs the oldest play in the books. Perhaps the less said about it, the better. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars
*Beyond the Rocks is a silent film.