Not the most original storyline, but fairly enjoyable anyhow
First of all, if you're not familiar with the slang of the 1920s, the title of this film requires a little explanation: a "sheik" was a suave, sexy and smoothly self-confident ladies' man -- or at least, someone who'd convinced himself he had those qualities. The term grew out of Rudolph Valentino's great success as an exotic matinée idol, which meant in turn that an aspiring American "sheik" required an air of continental sophistication (usually faked), and, most important of all, hair slicked down with oily pomade. But seeing as how the leading man of this comedy is Valentino's polar opposite Will Rogers, it's safe to say that the title phrase was meant as something of an inside joke, sure to produce a chuckle in viewers familiar with his screen persona. Will Rogers was a cowboy, all right, but he was no sheik! At this point in his film career, especially in these two-reel comedies made for the Hal Roach Studio, Will usually played rural simpletons who were shy and awkward with women, and indeed, in The Cowboy Sheik he plays this role to the hilt. From his opening scene, in which Will practices his romantic technique on a log which is dressed in ladies' clothing (so help me!), he commands our sympathy.
Unfortunately, in this case sympathy doesn't translate into laughs, for the material Will was given to work with was already pretty tired, stale stuff in 1924. Here he portrays ranch hand "Two-Straw" Bill, so named because of his habit of drawing long and short straws whenever he's faced with a difficult decision. Two-Straw would like to take the pretty school teacher to an upcoming party, but he's shouldered out of the way by the local bully, "Slicky," who forces his unwelcome attentions on the young lady. Eventually, after a few minor run-ins, our timid hero finds the gumption to publicly confront the bully, and all ends happily. Story-wise, Shakespeare it ain't.
There are times when the film plays more like a melodrama than a comedy, suggesting the Weak Boy Who Becomes a Man scenarios D.W. Griffith occasionally made with Bobby Harron at Biograph, and one wishes that Roach's scenarists had dropped the feeble gags and allowed their star to play it straight, which might have resulted in an interesting departure. Instead, we're given gags like this: at one point Two-Straw intends to present the school teacher with a bouquet of flowers, but while he's briefly (and unconvincingly) distracted, Slicky steps between them, and Two-Straw turns and accidentally presents the bully with the bouquet. Instead of thrashing him, Slicky presents the bouquet to the lady as his own gift, and she accepts it as such while Two-Straw fumes. Sheesh, Ben Turpin made wittier comedies than this one!
Beyond the half-hearted attempts at humor, the deeper problem here is one the movie shares with other comedies of its era in which a passive, put-upon guy eventually fights back (such as W.C. Fields' Running Wild, or Harry Langdon's The Shrimp): that is, for most of the running time, our hero is such a hopeless wussy we steadily lose patience with him -- but then, when the change comes, it takes the form of a new-found enthusiasm for violence, leading to a finale in which our freshly pumped-up hero beats the crap out of his tormentor(s) and impresses the girl, or at least cows her into submission. So, the guy starts out a wimp and winds up a bully, and maybe we don't like him much either way. In the case of The Cowboy Sheik, Will's last-minute conversion to action hero results in what must have been the most violent sequence in his entire film career, a raucous fight for which, it appears, no double was employed. The bully certainly deserves a comeuppance, and Two-Straw certainly needed to assert himself, but it's too bad the filmmakers couldn't have employed more imagination to bring this about.
As slight as it is, The Cowboy Sheik is not without its modest virtues, especially for the historically-minded viewer. While its style isn't exactly realistic, I think it's safe to say that many of the details of prairie life presented here are accurately observed. Will Rogers wasn't a ranch hand, himself: his father was a wealthy cattleman with extensive property holdings in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), but Will knew what life on the plains was like. The dusty shack shared by the hands, the modest home where the party takes place, and the tiny one-room school house all have an authentic feel. Two-Straw's fascination with a Sears-Roebuck catalog -- which, for him, in this isolated place, represents the epitome of big city class and elegance -- feels as authentic as the sets. For what it's worth, this short comedy is a preserved slice of Western Americana, and if that sounds interesting to you, you may well enjoy it. But for Will Rogers at his best, try to see the talkie features he made in the early 1930s for Fox, where the humor is a little more fresh and the filmmakers allowed Will to be himself.
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