Monday, December 1, 2014

Mare Nostrum (Ingram-Metro-Goldwyn, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent yesterday evening watching a quite interesting film on Turner Classic Movies’ “Silent Sunday Showcase”: Mare Nostrum, a 1925 production by director Rex Ingram. Born Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock in Dublin in 1892 (so two of the all-time greatest film directors had the original name “Hitchcock” — and though they did their work in different eras of film history Rex Ingram was only eight years older than Alfred Hitchcock), Ingram got his start as a director in 1914 with a short film called A Symphony of Souls and hit the big time in 1921 with his mega-hit The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, based on a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and introducing Rudolph Valentino, who’d been kicking around Hollywood for five years or so playing oily Latin villains but who got his big break as the hero of Ingram’s film. Ingram followed this up with another Valentino vehicle, The Conquering Power, and then when he got tired of working with Valentino he launched the career of another silent-screen idol, Ramon Novarro, in the 1922 version of Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche. All these films were made for Metro Pictures Corporation, the production arm of the Loew’s theatre chain, whose president, Marcus Loew, regarded Ingram as his company’s savior because the profits from his blockbuster hits were keeping the company alive. In 1924 Loew bought the Goldwyn Studios, which had been floundering since a boardroom coup drove Sam Goldwyn out of the company in 1922, and absorbed Louis B. Mayer’s independent production outfit (which had been releasing most of its films through Metro) to create the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer combine. The whole point of the merger that created MGM was to regularize production and ensure the Loew’s theatres an ongoing supply of quality films, and for that purpose Loew put Mayer in overall control of the company. Mayer brought along with him Irving Thalberg, whom he’d hired away from Universal, as his vice-president in charge of production. Ingram was appalled at the factory-like system Mayer and Thalberg were introducing, and he told Loew he wouldn’t work for them. Fine, said Loew; you don’t have to. Instead Loew told Ingram he could set up his own production company, and Loew would back him as long as his films were released through Metro-Goldwyn — as the company was styled on the credits of Ingram’s films since he hated Mayer so much he didn’t want Mayer’s name on them. Ingram set up shop in Nice, building his own studio (and attracting celebrity visitors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who set one scene of Tender Is the Night at Ingram’s Vittorine Studio in Nice) and looking for stories that would involve close-by European locations so he could shoot as much as possible on actual locations instead of working in the studio. For his first independent film he picked Mare Nostrum because it was a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez — whose Four Horsemen had been Ingram’s biggest hit — and also because its locales included Spain and Italy, both easily accessible from his redoubt in the south of France.

Like The Four Horsemen, Mare Nostrum is a multi-generational story set just before and during World War I (or “The Great War,” as it was usually called before there was a World War II) and dealing with divided loyalties. Ulysses Ferragut (played as a boy by Kada-Abd el-Kader, whom Ingram and his wife Alice Terry adopted, and as an adult by Antonio Moreno) is caught between his uncle, “The Triton” (Uni Apollon), who wants him to go to sea and be a sailor like most of the preceding male Ferraguts, and his father, attorney Esteban Ferragut (Alex Nova), who wants him to go into his business and become a lawyer. As a boy, Ulysses (one wonders why, if his dad did not want him to be a sailor, he gave him such a nautical first name!) is fascinated by a painting The Triton has on his wall of Amphitrate, the Greco-Roman goddess of lost sailors on the Mediterranean — also known, as the opening titles helpfully inform us, as Mare Nostrum (“our sea”). Needless to say, the sea wins out over the law as his chosen career, and when next we see him he’s saved enough money to buy his own ship, a fast freighter he names the Mare Nostrum, with a typically eccentric movie crew of whom we meet the first mate, Toni (Fredrick Mariotti), and the cook, Caragol (Hughie Mack), the closest this film has to a comic-relief character. Everything goes well until, on a routine trip to Naples, he meets Freya Talberg (Alice Terry), and immediately falls in love — or at least in lust — with her, mainly because she’s the spitting image of that painting of Amphitrate his uncle had when he was a boy. Freya is traveling with an older, stouter and severely dykey-looking woman, Dr. Fedelmann (Madame Paquerette — quite a few of Ingram’s actors, especially in his European films, were billed with only one name), an anthropologist who’s doing a tour of ancient ruins. Ulysses follows them to the ancient Greek city of Paestum — and it’s beautiful to see the actual ruins of Paestum playing themselves instead of being represented by crude studio mock-ups! — and then returns to Naples and hangs out with Freya for weeks, delaying the sailing of the Mare Nostrum and thereby putting himself and his crew in severe financial jeopardy. It gets worse: Freya and Dr. Fedelmann are actually spies — Freya is Austrian and Fedelmann is German — and they’re anxious either to get Italy in the war on their side or at least keep her neutral. (A lot of people don’t realize that Italy, an ally of Germany in World War II, was actually on the other side from Germany in World War I, fighting as part of the Entente with France, Britain, Russia and eventually the U.S.)

Toni ultimately gives up on his captain and takes the Mare Nostrum back to its home port, Barcelona, without him. Freya successfully lures Ulysses into taking a sailing ship out into the Mediterranean for some undisclosed purpose to help the German/Austrian war effort — though at the last minute, having fallen genuinely in love with him, she has a change of heart and tries to talk him out of the job he’s been given by Fedelmann and German Count Kaledine (played by French actor Fernand Mailly in obvious imitation of Ingram’s good friend, Erich von Stroheim), which it turns out is to refuel U-boats in the middle of the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Ulysses’ son Esteban (Michael Brantford) — product of a loveless marriage, arranged by Ulysses’ parents, with Doña Cinta (Mademoiselle Kithnou) — leaves Barcelona on his own and goes to Naples to find his dad, only after haunting the place where his dad is supposed to be staying — only he’s never there because he’s at Freya’s virtually 24/7 — for a week, he gives up and goes home just one day before Ulysses finally returns to his place. Ulysses gets a royal chewing-out from his housekeeper, who tells him his son “deserves a better father than you,” and with the Mare Nostrum already out to sea under Toni’s command Ulysses signs onto a tramp steamer bound for Marseilles and intends to work his way from there back home to Spain. But while he’s on his way the German U-boat he helped refuel sinks a British passenger liner, the Californian, and while the ship Ulysses is on rescues many of the passengers aboard, he learns his son was on that ocean liner and was killed by the German torpedo attack. The rest of the movie is about how Ulysses avenges himself against the members of the espionage ring; he spots Count Kaledine on the streets of Marseilles, calls him out as a “Boche spy” and organizes what amounts to a lynch mob against him — though he’s ultimately captured by the authorities instead of killed on the spot. Then he receives a note telling him to go to a certain address which “could mean much for your happiness,” and when he goes he finds Freya — who’s genuinely in love with him and is sorry for her role in the affair, and he’s ready to take her back when he sees a ghostly vision of his dead son shaking his head, whereupon he throws her to the floor and leaves.

Freya wanted his help because the Germans learned of Freya’s change of heart when Dr. Fedelmann intercepted a letter Freya had written Ulysses confessing all and pleading for his forgiveness. Crossing a line through her name on a list of active agents, Fedelmann orders that Freya be sent instructions for her next espionage assignment using a code the Germans know the French had already broken (a story detail Blasco Ibáñez and/or the film’s screenwriter, Willis Goldbeck, copied from the real-life end of Mata Hari) — and when Ulysses turns down Freya’s plea for help escaping to neutral Spain, she’s duly arrested and executed by a firing squad. In a line Josef von Sternberg and his writer, Jules Furthman, ripped off six years later for Dishonored (with Marlene Dietrich basically playing Alice Terry’s role as a woman spy trained to get secrets out of enemy men by seducing them), Freya goes to her execution wearing a fancy dress, jewels and a fur coat, announcing that these were the uniform in which she served her country. Ulysses decides to complete his revenge against the Germans by refitting the Mare Nostrum (ya remember the Mare Nostrum?) as a gunship, replacing all his crew except Caragol the comic-relief cook (ya remember Caragol the comic-relief cook?) with trained French military sailors and setting out on the Mediterranean to destroy German ships — only that pesky German U-boat ambushes the Mare Nostrum and sinks her in the middle of a storm. Luckily, Ulysses is able to get off a shot with one of the ship’s guns and sink the sub, so both ships go down with all hands and the film ends with a final vision of Ulysses and Freya, dressed as Ulysses’ boyhood vision of Amphitrate, embracing under the water as the titles explain that, like the hero and heroine of a 19th century Romantic tragedy, they have finally been united in death. (Not surprisingly, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg cabled Ingram in his Riviera redoubt and asked him if he could please, pretty please, come up with a “happy” ending. Ingram, secure in Marcus Loew’s support and already treading on thin ice by giving his villainess the last name “Talberg,” told them politely but firmly to go fuck themselves, especially since The Four Horsemen had had a similarly unhappy ending and had been an enormous hit.)

In his introduction to the TCM showing Ben Mankiewicz (whom I’ve rather contemptuously dismissed as “a nodule from one of Hollywood’s most illustrious family trees”) claimed Mare Nostrum is Ingram’s masterpiece. I’m not so sure — I’d rate The Four Horsemen, The Conquering Power and Ingram’s next independent movie, The Magician, ahead of it — but it is a brilliant film from a pioneering and long-forgotten director who deserves a place in the pantheon. As Charles (who arrived about midway through the movie, just after Ulysses’ and Freya’s first breakup) noted, it’s the sort of film that seems to exist in a dream reality of its own, equally divorced from real life and Hollywood conventions, then and now. Ingram wasn’t a particularly innovative director technically — though some of the special effects are stunning, others (particularly the staged shots of ships in the Mediterranean) are done with models of toy-ship-in-the-bathtub levels of believability — and all too often his actors resort to the sort of arm-flailing and exaggerated facial expressions a lot of people who’ve never watched a silent film start-to-finish think they were all acted like. Also, though Ingram had quite a good eye for male talent, he stuck himself with his wife Alice Terry as the female lead in film after film — and like a lot of other actresses personally involved with their directors, he had a far wider idea of her range than her talents deserved. What makes Ingram a great director, and virtually everything he made worth watching, was his combination of a pictorial sense — there are scenes here, including one of Doña Cinta dealing with the trauma of her husband’s betrayal by becoming intensely religious and going to church a lot, that have the piquant composition and delicate play of light of an Old Master painting — and a dreamlike sense of story reality that draws you in to Ingram’s world and makes you forget how realistically improbable the events of the film are. (In that regard — if in no other, though one can certainly trace a chain of influence from Mare Nostrum through Dishonored to Notorious — Ingram does remind one of the “other” Hitchcock.)

Mare Nostrum wasn’t released in the U.S. until January 1926 and, though it wasn’t a blockbuster hit like Ingram’s previous films, it did turn a profit, and Ingram was able to go on to make the even greater and more haunting The Magician (with Alice Terry and German actor Paul Wegener in a story of a mad scientist attempting to create an artificial human via an ancient alchemical recipe — it was obviously influenced by The Golem, which also starred Wegener, and was equally an influence on Frankenstein), which also was a success though not a hit. Alas, Ingram’s third film on his own, an adaptation of Robert Hichens’ novel The Garden of Allah, was a major box-office flop, and just as it was bombing his protector at the company, Marcus Loew, suddenly died. Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg gave Ingram an ultimatum — either close down his independent studio and come to work in Hollywood under the same strict rules as all MGM’s other directors, or quit. Ingram chose to quit, spending most of the rest of his life in the Middle East and becoming a writer, though he made at least two  other films, a final silent called The Three Passions produced by a British company for United Artists release in 1928 and a Gaumont-British production from 1932; lists two Ingram films after 1928, Baroud and Love in Morocco, but I suspect these are just alternative titles for the same movie. He went so “native” in the Middle East he even converted to Islam, though he eventually returned to Hollywood, gave a number of interviews about his career (in one of which he sniped at the continuing cult around Rudolph Valentino and said any decent-looking young man could have played the lead in The Four Horsemen) and died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 21, 1950, at age 58. Mare Nostrum was remade in Spain in 1948 (no U.S. studio has gone near the story again, though one can’t help wishing Sternberg would have done a talkie remake with Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant, just as one can’t help wishing Ingram would have made his version with Valentino and Garbo instead of the rather bland actors he used, Antonio Moreno and Alice Terry) and lists a 2014 project called Mare Nostrum as “in development,” though they haven’t received a report on what the story will be and therefore it’s unknown whether it will indeed be a remake of this tragic, haunting film.