Ruth Barton introduces us to the work of one of Hollywood’s greatest silent era directors, the Irish exile, Rex Ingram, and ponders why he was so forgotten.
In 1920s Hollywood, a handful of directors vied for top spot – Cecil B. deMille, D.W. Griffith, James Cruze, and an Irishman, Rex Ingram. In 1921, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse made a star of its young male lead, Rudolph Valentino. It also propelled its director, Ingram, from the ranks of the quietly appreciated to extraordinary fame. The film was in today’s terms a blockbuster. Its cost was staggering, somewhere in the region of $640,000. Thousands of extras played in the battle scenes, the settings moved from continent to continent to follow the story of young Julio Desnoyers, Valentino’s character, as, in one of the film’s most famous sequences, he dances the tango in the Argentine Boca, before chancing his fortunes as a gigolo in Paris and finally redeeming himself on the battlefields of World War One.
Ingram followed this film with one more Valentino vehicle, the adaptation of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, now retitled The Conquering Power, before the two men fell out and Ingram moved on to discover another Latin lover, Ramón Novarro, and elevate him to stardom in The Prisoner of Zenda.
Novarro went on to star in Trifling Women (1922), Where The Pavement Ends (1923), Scaramouche (1923), and The Arab (1924).
He only stopped working with Ingram when the latter finally and irrevocably fell out with Louis B. Mayer and decamped to The Victorine Studios in Nice. There Ingram made his second World War One drama, Mare Nostrum, now starring Antonio Moreno as the honourable sea captain who is lured into the enemy camp by Freya Talberg, a seductive Mata Hari figure played by Ingram’s wife and the star of nearly every one of his films, Alice Terry.
In Nice, Ingram was persuaded to hire as an apprentice a young man named Michael Powell who yearned to join the movie business. Powell worked on Mare Nostrum and has a cameo part in Ingram’s next film, the Gothic horror, The Magician, also of 1926.
This was to be the last of the great Ingram works. His final French films (The Garden of Allah, 1927, The Three Passions, 1929, and his only ‘talkie’, Baroud or Love in Morocco, 1932, in which he also starred), were to succumb to his elevation of image over narrative. Baroud contains wonderful sequences of the Arabs lining up on horseback to do battle, and of the narrow streets of their villages, but its plot was rudimentary, and its command of the new technologies of sound poor.
After its release, Rex Ingram retired from moving pictures, aged only 40, converted to Islam, and spent the remainder of his days travelling, writing, and sculpting, only occasionally and reluctantly returning to Alice Terry and their home in Studio City. Ill health dogged him and he died, aged just 57 years old, in 1950.
Put it this way, Rex Ingram was our Steven Spielberg, our Ang Lee, our Christopher Nolan. He was the most famous Irish-born director in Hollywood in the 1920s and since. So, why was he so forgotten?
In part, the answer has to be because he made no Irish-themed films. Unusually for early cinema, his films never included Irish characters. Yet, Rex Ingram’s cinema is replete with Gothic motifs that are easily traceable to his upbringing in Ireland, particularly in the Midlands. In 1903, Rex Ingram, or Rex Hitchcock as he was still known, moved with his family from Borrisokane to Kinnitty, where he would spend many happy years until he emigrated to the United States. There he became friendly with the Darbys of Leap Castle, one of Ireland’s most famous haunted castles. Mildred Darby, the English-born wife of the incumbent, Jonathan, was a writer (under the name of Andrew Merry) of occult tales and believed that she saw and felt the presence of a supernatural being who entered the house driving the dogs crazy and terrifying overnight visitors. Mildred Darby evidently suffered deeply from colonial guilt and in this sense was just part of a lineage of Anglo-Irish Gothic writers. This sense of inexplicable guilt and evil, of a threat that comes from beyond the boundaries of the rational, permeates Ingram’s films. Visually, they are filled with dark shadows, slightly unhinged characters, and cluttered interiors that bear the traces of history in every item. Most turn on a supernatural intervention, or as the New York Times reviewer said of his Trifling Women, it contains: ‘pictures of a Circean woman, of men made foolish and mad by her, of queer medieval towers and castles, of dark dungeons and cellars, of duels and murders, and of characters, definitely stamped and oddly real characters, passing through it all to give it the passing semblance of reality.’
The final set piece of The Conquering Power sees the miser, Père Grandet (Ralph Lewis), finally driven crazy by his own miserliness. The old man can only watch in horror as the cradle holding his gold begins to rock of its own accord. Ghostly emanations of those he has wronged start to materialize around him. Grandet hurls himself against the walls, tearing his hair, as the cradle keeps up its demented rocking. Two skeletal hands emerge from the cradle, then through the bars of the window. The walls of the room begin to close in on the miser and the ghostly figure reveals itself to him announcing, “I am gold! All your life you have sought me – now you are mine!” Grandet collapses to the floor, pulling the coins down on top of him as he breathes his last.
In his memoirs, Ingram writes of a dream he had after his mother’s death when he was a child. In it he is back at his relatives, the Lamberts’, home:
And we saw the family vault outside the windows where Uncle John and Aunt Anna were buried, and there were rabbit hutches beside them that I had never noticed before at Aggart. And then we passed the house where the miser my uncle John had told me about used to rock the cradle, and there was a light in one window, and Brian Boru [the wolfhound] began to bay, and his coat bristled, and we tried to look in through the window, but there were cobwebs on the other side of the panes and we could see nothing. But we could hear a sound like the slow tock-tock of a grandfather clock, only there was a creak to it, and occasionally the clink of something that hit the floor. And I knew it was the miser rocking the cradle full of gold coins. And, as can happen in dreams, the cobwebs disappeared suddenly and we saw in, and there was the miser on his knees rocking the cradle full of gold just as my uncle John had seen him. And as he rocked it the layer of coins on the top of the cradle began to undulate and two gold hands, that looked more like the claws of bats than hands, pushed up through the gold and seized the miser by the throat. Then the girl screamed and ran back, calling to me to come away. When I came to her she caught hold of me, but I was not feeling afraid myself, only a little creepy.
Not only did Ingram feed back the Gothic influences of his childhood into his films but he also breathed a Yeatsian sense of doom into his greatest work, The Four Horsemen. He worked closely on this with June Mathis, the scenarist who was, at that time, considered one of the most influential women in the film industry. Indeed it is Mathis who was chiefly instrumental in putting together the personnel behind the film and seeing it through to production. In an interview afterwards, she commented: “we will probably never be able to appreciate the terrible beauty of a great tragedy as the Europeans do because we can’t understand it. For you see we do not feel the great hatreds and the great loves which call forth tragedy. We refuse to play on our emotions.” It is hard to read the phrase ‘terrible beauty’ without asking ourselves just what Mathis had been reading. We know that Ingram read Yeats, and that he, of course, came from that generation of young men who lost their lives in such numbers in the Great War. Many of his own school friends from St Columba’s College in Rathfarnham were to die in that war, and those that returned found themselves in a country where they had somehow becomes ghosts – of a time and social order that was now over. Rex’s own brother, Frank Hitchcock, served with distinction in the 2nd Leinsters, and survived, but so badly gassed that he never fully recovered.
We can read Irish themes and motifs into much of Rex Ingram’s work. The Magician particularly lends itself to a Gothic reading.
But we may also imagine that Ingram, with his circle of gay friends, his love of exotic places, his pleasure in Islamic culture, and his eventual conversion to Islam, did not quite chime with the notion of manliness and identity that came to dominate the country to which he never returned. He was a sophisticated cosmopolitan, a friend to many of the leading artists and thinkers of his times, a free spirit. He also believed, in the early days of cinema, that art and commerce might be indistinguishable, and that the movies were the greatest commonly shared artform of the new century.
My book was written to retrieve Rex Ingram for film history, but most particularly for Irish film history. I like to think of Ingram having given birth to an Irish art cinema that may struggle but is somehow never quite extinguished.
Ruth Barton will introduce a screening of Mare Nostrum at the IFI on Tuesday, 9th December. The film will be accompanied by a specially created score by 3epkano which will be performed live.
Ruth Barton’s book Rex Ingram Visionary Director of the Silent Screen is published by University Press of Kentucky.