29 August 2019

Was Rex Ingram a visionary film maker or a dangerous maverick?

After a hickup last Thursday, we continue our Summer series on more or less recent film books. In 'Rex Ingram - Visionary director of the Silent Screen' (2014), Irish scholar Ruth Barton explores the life and legacy of the pioneering filmmaker Rex Ingram (1893-1950). Alongside D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille, and Erich von Stroheim, he was one of the greatest artists of silent Hollywood. Ingram directed such smash hits as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), and Scaramouche (1923). His films made stars of Rudolph Valentino, Ramón Novarro, and Alice Terry ― who also became his second wife. After Scaramouche, Ingram went into a self-imposed exile on the French Riviera. Thanks to his box office successes, Ingram's career flourished throughout the 1920s, although Louis B. Mayer regarded him as a dangerous maverick. Or was he a visionary film maker?

Ruth Barton, Rex Ingram visionary director of the silent screen
Book cover for Ruth Barton, 'Rex Ingram - Visionary director of the silent screen' (2014). Publisher: University Press of Kentucky.

Rex Ingram
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 137.

Rex Ingram and Alice Terry
Rex Ingram and Alice Terry. German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 807/1, 1925-1926. Photo: Bafag.

Rex Ingram
Italian postcard by Ed. A. Traldi, no. 88. Photo: Le grandi films Virginio Rebua, Milano. The postcard claims this is Ramon Novarro, but it is Rex Ingram. Ingram directed Novarro in various early 1920s films, such as The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Where the Pavement Ends (1923), Scaramouche (1923), and The Arab (1924).

Rex Ingram
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 137a.

A fascination for the bizarre and the grotesque

Rex Ingram was born in 1893 as Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock in Rathmines, now part of Dublin, Ireland. He spent much of his adolescence living in the Old Rectory, Kinnitty, Birr, County Offaly where his father was the Church of Ireland rector. When the sensitive Rex was 15, his sickly mother died. Biographer Ruth Barton suggests that this lead to his later portraying women as either pure-hearted souls or tempting sirens. Barton had access to Ingram's memoirs which gave her insight into his life. Her book focuses on telling the compelling narrative of Ingram’s life and links it often with his work.

Ingram's father tried to push him into business, but Rex wanted to be an artist. After failing to get into Trinity College Dublin, much to his father’s shame, he emigrated in 1911 to the United States. He was 18 and studied briefly sculpture at the Yale University School of Art, where he also contributed to The Yale Record, a campus humour magazine. In New York, Rex met the son of inventor and film pioneer Thomas Edison, and he decided to move into the new movie business. From 1913, the handsome young Irishman acted in silent films for the Edison studios, and in 1915, he took his mother’s name, Ingram, as his surname. So interestingly he changed his name Hitchcock in order to break into the cinema! Barton however suggests that the name change was meant as a firm break with his father's ambitions for him.

After Edison, he worked with legendary director D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Studios for a while. Ingram later also worked for Vitagraph, Fox and Universal. Soon he took on writing, producing and directing jobs, directing mainly action or supernatural films. His first film as producer-director was the romantic drama The Great Problem (Rex Ingram, 1916) with Violet Mersereau. In his following films such as Black Orchids (Rex Ingram, 1917) with Cleo Madison, The Little Terror (Rex Ingram, 1917) and The Flower of Doom (Rex Ingram, 1917), he showed a fascination for the bizarre and the grotesque.

In 1920, Rex Ingram moved to Metro. There, he was under supervision of executive June Mathis. Together, they hired young Italian immigrant dancer Rudolph Valentino to star in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram, 1921) opposite Alice Terry. Valentino's film's sizzling tango sequence turned the film into a smash hit. Mathis and Ingram would make four films together, also Hearts are Trump (Rex Ingram, 1920) again with Alice Terry, The Conquering Power (Rex Ingram, 1921) with Valentino and Terry, and Turn to the Right (Rex Ingram, 1922).

After Valentino left Metro for Paramount, Rex Ingram needed a new leading man, and took a chance on a young, handsome Mexican, who would become Ramon Novarro. With his role as the villain Rupert von Hentzau in The Prisoner of Zenda (Rex Ingram, 1922) he became Ingram's new star. Ingram also gathered a steady technical crew around him. Very important for his films would be cameraman John Seitz, who invented the matte painting. Also important for Ingram's films was his editor, Grant Whytock.

Ruth Barton describes how Ingram and his crew worked. The Prisoner of Zenda features careful lighting, well-placed props, and a novel 3-D effect. In one shot, two soldiers drink and play cards. Behind them, to the right, a military statue stands out, in focus. Still farther back in the room, and to the left, a young man plays piano. It is Ramon Novarro. Almost a painting, the effect is multi-dimensional.

On 5 November 1921, Ingram and Alice Terry were married in Adobe Flores in South Pasadena. It was on a Saturday and they sneaked off the set of The Prisoner of Zenda (Rex Ingram, 1922) without telling anyone. The next day they saw three films and went back to work on Monday. When the film was completed, they went to San Francisco for their honeymoon. Ruth Barton speaks of his rumoured bisexuality, but it remains unconfirmed. In his work you can see undertones of what was probably an actively bisexual life.

Ingram's films contain splendid flashes of macabre fantasy, such as the ride of the Four Horsemen in the Valentino epic, or the 'ghoul visions' that bring about the death of the miser in The Conquering Power (Rex Ingram, 1921). His more or less mystical bent was later apparent in Mare Nostrum (Rex Ingram, 1926) and The Garden of Allah (Rex Ingram, 1927), which he filmed in the Mediterranean and North Africa, respectively.

Colecciones Amatller, Rex Ingram
Spanish collectors card by Chocolate Amatller, Series EE, artist no. 40, no. 82.

Colecciones Amatller, Lewis Stone, The Prisoner of Zenda
Spanish collectors card by Chocolate Amatller, Series EE, artist no. 41, no. 83. Lewis Stone In The Prisoner of Zenda (Rex Ingram, 1922).

Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry in The Conquering Power (1921)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 748/1. Photo: Bafag. Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry in The Conquering Power (Rex Ingram, 1921).

Alice Terry and Lewis Stone in The Prisoner of Zenda
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 679/4. Photo: Bafag. Lewis Stone as Rudolph Rassendyll and Alice Terry as Princess Flavia in The Prisoner of Zenda (Rex Ingram, 1922). Stuart Holmes is the man in black on the right. The Bismarck-like guy behind Terry is the actor Robert Edeson, who plays Colonel Sapt. Behind him is actor Malcolm McGregor, who plays Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. Both are the loyal aids of the King, defending him against his evil half-brother Michael (Stuart Holmes) and his plotting cronies: his mistress Antoinette (Barbara la Marr) and Rupert von Hentzau (Ramon Novarro). Trying to stop a coup by Michael, who has abducted and imprisoned the real king, Sapt and Tarlenheim arrange a lookalike cousin of the king to be crowned (which we see on this card). The substitute king falls in love with Princess Flavia but he cannot tell the truth... Stone played both the King and his lookalike.

Ramon Novaro and Alice Terry in Scaramouche (1923)
Italian postcard by G.B. Falci, Milano, no. 447. Ramon Novarro and Alice Terry in the Metro Pictures production Scaramouche (Rex Ingram, 1923).

Ramon Novaro in Scaramouche (1923)
Italian postcard by G.B. Falci, Milano, no. 457. Ramon Novaro in Scaramouche (Rex Ingram, 1923).

Converting to the Islam

In 1923, the restless Rex Ingram and Alice Terry relocated to the French Riviera. They hired the Victorine Studio, a small studio in Nice and made several films on location in North Africa, Spain, and Italy for MGM and other studios. Outside the view of Louis B. Mayer, the new head of MGM, and the movie moguls he created such films as Mare Nostrum (Rex Ingram, 1926), The Garden of Allah (Rex Ingram, 1927) and The Three Passions (Rex Ingram, 1929).

Was Ingram indeed the dangerous maverick which Mayer saw in him? Or was he the true visionary, as Ruth Barton claims. To be honest, I personally can't judge this while I did not see enough films by Ingram yet. During the 1920s, film critics praised the pictorial qualities of his work but also commented on the lack of dramatic pacing and the unrounded characterisation. These faults were more and more apparent is his last films.

Barton convinced me that Ingram was a complex figure who cannot be easily categorised. His temperament was volatile and his working periods at the various studios were short. Invariably, he fell out with superiors and co-workers.  Barton describes him as a charming, talented but also difficult and demanding artist. The more earth-bound Alice Terry kept the tyrannical perfectionist on track. She even co-directed his films in difficult periods.

In 1926, Ingram made The Magician, starring Paul 'Der Golem' Wegener. Although Wegener's acting was already old-fashioned, Ingram slowly builds the film to a rousing climax. Flashing lightning surrounds an old castle, where the magician battles the young hero (Ivan Petrovich). Earlier, the young heroine (Alice Terry) is transported to an underworld dream-land, complete with Pan, the Devil, and a host of partially dressed dancers. The Magician was successful, but Louis B. Mayer ended Ingram's career at MGM.

Amongst those who worked for Ingram at MGM on the Riviera during this period was the young Michael Powell, who later went on to direct (with Emeric PressburgerThe Red Shoes (1948) and other classics, and technician Leonti Planskoy. By Powell's own account, Ingram was a major influence on him, especially in its themes in illusion, dreaming, magic and the surreal. Also director David Lean said he was indebted to Ingram. And MGM studio chief Dore Schary listed the top creative people in Hollywood as D. W. Griffith, Ingram, Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim (in declining order of importance). Von Stroheim however called Ingram the "world's greatest director..."

The coming of sound forced Ingram to relinquish his studios in Nice. Rather than equip them for talking pictures, he chose instead to travel and pursue a writing career. Rex Ingram made only one sound film, Baroud/Love in Morocco (Rex Ingram, Alice Terry, 1932-1933) with Pierre Batcheff, filmed for Gaumont British Pictures in Morocco. The film was not a commercial success and Ingram, only forty years old, left the film business. He returned to Los Angeles to work as a sculptor and writer.

Interested in Islam as early as 1927, Rex Ingram converted to the faith in 1933. He spent his later years travelling across the wind-swept North African desert, often alone. He also became an avid collector of ancient artifacts. In his last years he also planned a biography on the life of Haitian leader Toussaint, but it was never filmed. Ironically, Sergei M. Eisenstein, who was planning a biopic on Toussaint, also didn't make his film.

Suffering from high blood pressure, Rex Ingram died in 1950 of a cerebral hemorrhage in North Hollywood, at the age of 58. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Ingram married twice, first to actress Doris Pawn in 1917; this ended in divorce in 1920. He then married Alice Terry in 1921, with whom he remained for the rest of his life. Both marriages were childless. Terry inherited his estate of $200,000, including rare art works, old swords, and ancient guns.

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Rex Ingram has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1651 Vine Street. And there is this insightful and entertaining biography by Ruth Barton, it's a joy to read. Dangerous maverick or visionary film director? I guess he was both, with Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles to keep him excellent company.

Next Tuesday, EFSP has a film special on Mare Nostrum (Rex Ingram, 1926).

Alice Terry in Scaramouche (1923)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1033/2. Photo: Phoebus Film. Alice Terry in Scaramouche (Rex Ingram, 1923).

Scene from Scaramouche (1923)
German postcard by Ross Verlag. Photo: Metro / Phoebus. A scene from Scaramouche (Rex Ingram, 1923), depicting the French Revolution: Danton (George Siegmann) leading the mob.

Antonio Moreno and Alice Terry in Mare Nostrum
Italian postcard by Ballerini & Fratini, Florence, no. 426. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn, Roma. Antonio Moreno and Alice Terry in Mare Nostrum (Rex Ingram, 1926).

Antonio Moreno and Alice Terry in Mare Nostrum
Romanian postcard. Antonio Moreno and Alice Terry in Mare Nostrum (Rex Ingram, 1926).

Iván Petrovich in The Magician (1926)
French postcard by Cinémagazine-Edition, no. 132. Photo: Ivan Petrovich in The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926).

Paul Wegener in The Magician (1926)
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazines, no. 161. Paul Wegener in The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926).

Alice Terry in The Garden of Allah
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, no. 193. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Alice Terry in The Garden of Allah (Rex Ingram, 1927).

Alice Terry and Ivan Petrovich in The Garden of Allah (1927)
British postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3538/1. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Alice Terry and Ivan Petrovich in The Garden of Allah (Rex Ingram, 1927).

Ivan Petrovich and Alice Terry in The Three Passions (1928)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4854/1, 1929-1930. Photo: United Artists. Ivan Petrovich and Alice Terry in The Three Passions (Rex Ingram, 1928). Collection: Geoffrey Donaldson Institute.

Sources: Book, Brian McIlroy (Estudiosirlandeses), Stephen Totterdell (Film Ireland), Rex Ingram website, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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