Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Magician (Rex Ingram/Metro-Goldwyn, 1926)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was a movie I was startled to see on TCM’s schedule last Sunday because I’d thought (based on Carlos Clarens’ 1967 book on horror films) that it was lost: The Magician, second of Rex Ingram’s three independent productions for MGM in the mid-1920’s. Ingram was born Reginald Ingram Hitchcock (so two of the all-time greatest movie directors were born with the name “Hitchcock”!) in Dublin in 1892, and in the 1920’s he was the star director for Metro Pictures and made some of the biggest blockbusters of the era, including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the silent versions of Scaramouche and The Prisoner of Zenda. Marcus Loew, founder of the Loew’s theatre chain and owner of Metro, rightly recognized Ingram as one of his company’s biggest assets, especially since two of the biggest male stars of the 1920’s got their big breaks in Ingram’s films: Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro. Then, in 1924, Loew arranged a merger between Metro, the Goldwyn studio (two years after founder Sam Goldwyn had been driven out in a stock battle) and Louis B. Mayer’s independent outfit on Mission Road in Hollywood.

Loew put Mayer and his right-hand man, Irving Thalberg, in charge of the combined company, and Ingram — a star director on the level of D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim — insisted that he wouldn’t work under their strict supervision and control. Fine, said Loew, you don’t have to; he gave Ingram his own production company and allowed him to make his films in Europe, at the Vittorine studio in Nice on the south coast of France. (Indeed, Ingram hated Mayer so much that The Magician’s credits list it as a “Metro-Goldwyn” release; he didn’t want Mayer’s name on his film!) Ingram took his wife, Alice Terry, who almost always played the female leads in their films, and at the Nice studios he made three films: Mare Nostrum (1925), The Magician (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927). Mare Nostrum and The Magician weren’t the enormously successful blockbusters Ingram’s previous productions had been, but at least they made money; The Garden of Allah, however, was a major flop — and just at that time Marcus Loew suddenly died. Without his protector, Ingram lost his independence; Mayer and Thalberg ordered him to shut his European studio and work in Hollywood under the factory system like all their other directors — and instead Ingram chose to retire, making only one other movie (Love in Morocco, 1933) and spending his remaining years writing, living in the Middle East and ultimately converting to Islam. He died in 1949.

The Magician was based on a successful 1908 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, who based his central character, Oliver Haddo, on the already notorious Aleister Crowley, British occultist, magician and founder of several quasi-religious movements. Crowley made the mistake of publishing an article in Vanity Fair magazine claiming that the book had defamed him (at least that’s what Robert Osborne said introducing the movie on TCM; Crowley’s Wikipedia page says he was flattered by the book and publicly endorsed it), which of course only increased the publicity surrounding it and boosted its sales. The story deals with Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry), a successful sculptor in Paris who’s nearly killed when a giant statue she’s constructed in her studio breaks apart (there’s a marvelous scene in which the statue’s head begins to turn — and we briefly wonder if it’s going to come to life supernaturally — and then we realize that it’s only the inner stresses within the object that twisted its head before the whole thing collapsed) and she’s struck and pinned down by its torso. She’s paralyzed and the only thing that can save her is an operation by American doctor Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich); he performs it in one of those bizarre operating theatres where a whole bunch of other doctors can watch, and among the spectators is the mysterious Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener, the great German actor whose most famous previous credit was as the Golem in the 1920 German film that was one of the key precursors to Frankenstein).

Burdon stays with Margaret to supervise her recovery and, of course, falls in love with her. She reciprocates his affections and they actually set a date for their wedding — only Oliver Haddo has decided that she’s the perfect “maiden” (i.e., virgin) whose “heart’s blood” he needs to create his own Frankenstein- or Golem-style monster, based on a recipe he’s found in an old alchemical book. Using his hypnotic powers, Haddo puts Margaret in a trance and shows her a vision of hell probably inspired by the previous vision sequence Ingram had staged in Four Horsemen, in which the lead character is a “faun” played by the German male ballet dancer Stowitts. (He had a first name — Hubert — but he’s billed only by the last name.) It’s actually a rather decorous version of hell — we’ve seen farther-out ones in other silent films, including Murnau’s contemporaneous Faust — but it’s thrilling and pictorially gorgeous, like much of this movie. (The cinematographer — one of the few people, besides his wife, whom Ingram brought out from Hollywood — is John F. Seitz, whose professional standing took a tumble in the 1930’s but who made a major comeback in Hollywood shooting Billy Wilder’s 1940’s masterpieces, including Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.)

On the day of their wedding Burdon gets a note from Margaret’s uncle, Dr. Porhoët (Firmin Gémier), which Margaret left behind announcing that she won’t be able to marry him because she’s already married Haddo — who takes her to Monte Carlo, whereby through his hypnotic powers he’s able to make her a whiz at the gaming table; and then to a redoubt in the hills outside Nice, an old alchemist’s lab he’s outfitted for his own Frankenstein-style experiment. The influence might have gone both ways — after all, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein 80 years before Maugham wrote the source novel for The Magician — but it’s pretty clear James Whale and others at Universal saw The Magician and used it, along with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, as inspiration for the first two movies in the Frankenstein cycle: the old tower within which the mad monster-maker works is almost identical-looking; he has a gnomic assistant (though a dwarf instead of a hunchback), and though he doesn’t need lightning as a power source — Haddo intends to create his homunculus via chemistry rather than electricity (closer to Mary Shelley’s conception than the film versions of Frankenstein) — the creation attempt even takes place on a dark and stormy night, with the hero and the heroine’s uncle (fulfilling the function of the Edward Van Sloan character in Frankenstein) crashing the place and rescuing the heroine just before Haddo is about to slice her chest open to extract her “heart’s blood” for the formula. (A furious Haddo responds to the hero’s incursion by throwing his knife at him, missing him by the usual inches.)

One wonders what’s the point of creating the artificial human if you have to sacrifice a real, living human every time you do it, but The Magician — aside from its influence on subsequent films (not only the Frankenstein movies but the pin-spots in Paul Wegener’s eyes indicating he’s using his hypnotic powers — an effect that got done to death in Bela Lugosi’s films — and the Lewton-esque uncertainty as to whether Haddo actually has supernatural powers or is just an incredibly good hypnotist) — is itself a haunting melodrama. There are flaws, and most of them are in the acting; Wegener’s performance dominates the competition, mainly because (odd given the reputation silent films have in general of being relentlessly overacted) Ingram has his other performers remain so quiet and understated that Wegener can shine by comparison.

Alice Terry clearly got all these plum roles in Ingram’s movies more due to their relationship than any quality on her part (his insistence on using his wife probably explains why he never discovered any major female stars); like other directors personally involved with their actors (including Jules Dassin, who followed up Melina Mercouri’s role as an earthy, unashamed prostitute in Never on Sunday by casting her as a glacial, Dietrich-esque jewel thief in Topkapi, a role for which she was as wrong as she’d been right for the part in Never on Sunday), Ingram apparently way overestimated the range of Terry’s acting skills. She gets one haunting close-up in the Monte Carlo casino (and given that his base of operations was in the south of France, instead of having to build the casino on the backlot the way Stroheim had done for Foolish Wives, Ingram was able to film at the real one), where Wegener as Haddo is looming behind her and her impassivity takes on a Dietrich-esque world-weary cast — but through the rest of the film her impassivity is just that, not restrained acting but non-acting.

But the whole concept of The Magician is so audacious, and Wegener so utterly right for his part (interestingly the sound-era horror actor he resembles most is not Karloff or Lugosi but Lionel Atwill, who would have probably been the best choice if MGM had remade The Magician in the 1930’s — which they should have; it probably would have given them a better run at the horror audience than The Mask of Fu Manchu or Freaks), that the movie has a haunting quality and (unlike the disappointing 1922 Sherlock Holmes with John Barrymore) is one long thought lost, newly rediscovered film that turns out to be well worth the wait.