Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Friday, August 27, 2010

"MOVIE" Souvenir Playing Cards

Try to imagine a time when a deck of cards with movie star pictures was a novelty. It's not easy, is it? We can hardly even imagine a time when a movie star was such a novelty that the word "movie" itself was in quotes. But here it is, courtesy of a certain Mr. M.J. Moriarty and the Movie Souvenir Card Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio.

When I got this deck of cards as an opening-night gift from the director of a show I was in, about 40 years ago, I thought it was something really rare -- all 54 cards (including the Joker and the descriptor card shown at right) complete and unblemished, with even the gilded edges of the cards reasonably intact after who knew how many years. Yes, a singular rarity, I thought. I know better now. These Moriarty movie cards are collectible, but they don't seem to be particularly rare. Collector-dealer Cliff Aliperti says these decks can sell
for anywhere from $75 to $150, depending on condition, but I've seen more than one in dealers' rooms with an asking price of $40 or less -- which, adjusting for inflation, may not be much more than they cost when they were new (whatever that was).

The relative common-ness of these decks at collector shows suggests to me that they were probably treated as collectibles from day one; people bought them to keep and look at the pictures, not to face the wear and tear of their Tuesday night whist clubs. (When was the last time you saw a 90-year-old deck of cards in perfect condition?)

That may be about to change. It's becoming common practice among dealers now to break up the decks and sell the cards individually. As I write this, one seller on eBay is offering some 74 of these cards, one at a time, at prices ranging from five to ten dollars. At that rate, a deck that Cliff Aliperti says is worth no more than $150 (and which I've seen much lower) can bring a dealer as much as $375 or more. (Some cards are worth more than others, like this Charlie Chaplin Joker; it brings a premium because it's the one instance where the card and the personality are perfectly matched -- and probably also because Chaplin is the one person in the deck whom pretty much everybody recognizes.) This deck-splitting makes good business sense, but it probably means that decks that survived the last 90 years in near-mint condition are going to have a tough time making it through the next ten.

These decks first appeared in 1916 -- at least that's the copyright date on the card backing. Stars came, went, and changed positions in the deck, and some people (at this site, for example) have made a study of comparing and contrasting the decks that can still be found. Certain evidence of the cards themselves suggests that that they stopped production in 1922 at the latest: Wallace Reid appears on the 4 of Spades, and Reid died in January 1923; that's not conclusive, though, because two other actors (Nicholas Dunaew and Richard C. Travers) occupied that card at one time or another. More persuasive is the case of Mary Miles Minter, the only occupant (so far known) of the 9 of Diamonds. Minter's career was wrecked in the backwash of the William Desmond Taylor murder in February 1922, when her indiscreet love letters to the late director (30 years her senior) shattered her virgin-pure screen image. But even if the cards were still in production in 1922 (probably unlikely), they stopped pretty early. Many of the stars most associated with the silent era -- Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Colleen Moore, Harry Langdon, Ramon Novarro, Bebe Daniels, Bessie Love -- hadn't made their big splash yet and don't appear in any version of the deck.

Others might be expected to show up but don't.
Conspicuous by their absence are the King and
Queen of Hollywood (even before their marriage
made it official), Douglas Fairbanks and Mary
Pickford -- although their colleague in United
Artists Chaplin is Clown Prince of the Deck.
Dorothy Gish (5 of Clubs) appears, but not
her sister Lillian, much the bigger star. And
we have Mabel Normand (10 of Clubs)
but not her teammate Roscoe Arbuckle,
with whom she made dozens of popular
Sennett comedies between 1912 and '16.
When these cards hit the market, Arbuckle's
legal troubles were still five years in the
future, but he appears in no extant version
of the deck, although "Fatty and Mabel"
were as much a team as Laurel and Hardy
would later be.

Now a word about the card backing -- "the famous painting, 'The Chariot Race,'" as the descriptor card says. The cards show only a detail; here's a more complete look at the painting. Contrary to what some have said, it does not reproduce a scene from Ben-Hur, and may even have been painted before Ben-Hur was published (reports vary). In any case, it depicts a race presided over by the Emperor Domitian in Rome, several decades after Judah Ben-Hur and Messala had their fateful showdown in Antioch's Circus Maximus. The painting was indeed pretty famous around the turn of the last century, and was the work of the Hungarian Alexander von Wagner (1838-1919); it hangs today in the Manchester Art Gallery in England.

But back to those 53 faces -- "every one a favorite of yours," according to the deck's promo. So many of those favorites are forgotten today -- victims of fickle audiences even in their own lifetimes, then victimized again by the passage of time and Hollywood's too-little-much-too-late attitude toward film preservation. I thought it would be a fun project to take these cards one at a time and review what we can know now of the lives and careers behind those "beautiful halftone portraits." Chaplin hardly needs it, of course, but what about House Peters, Mildred Harris, Wanda Hawley, George Larkin? I'll be shuffling the deck from time to time, cutting the cards and seeing what comes up. Maybe we can uncover some sense of why these cards were bought, and enjoyed, and even cherished and preserved so carefully for the better part of a century.

King of Hearts - H.B. Warner

Here's an easy one for starters. Every true film buff
knows Henry Byron Charles Stewart Warner-Lickford,
although they might have to look twice to recognize
the H.B. Warner they remember in this dapper,
Arrow-collared, surprisingly youthful gent-about-town.
This portrait may date from Warner's entry into
movies, when he was 38; that would have made the
picture a couple of years old when the deck was
published, but that sort of thing is not unheard of
among actors' head shots.

So film buffs know the name, even if the face comes
as a bit of a surprise -- but what about those less
devout moviegoers, who don't make a practice of
memorizing the name of every Thurston Hall or
J. Edward Bromberg who marches across the
screen? Well, I'm going to go out on a limb here:
I think it just may be that H.B. Warner's work has
been seen by more people alive today than anyone
else in the M.J. Moriarty deck. Yes, maybe even
more than Charlie Chaplin.

Note I said "seen by," not "familiar to." So take
another look. Try to add, oh, maybe 30 years
to that face. Look especially at the eyes. Ring any bells? Well...

How about this? That's right, H.B. Warner was old Mr. Gower, the druggist who slaps young George Bailey around the back room of his store in It's a Wonderful Life, and who, in the world where George was never born, is the "rummy" who "spent twenty years in prison for poisonin' a kid." I'll just bet that anyone who ever saw Warner's performance in It's a Wonderful Life has never forgotten it, even if they never took the trouble to find out the actor's name.

By 1946, the year of Wonderful Life, Warner had become a steady member of Frank Capra's informal stock company. This was the fifth of his six pictures for Capra, and those six are a major reason why I suggest H.B. Warner's work has been seen by so many. He played the judge hearing Gary Cooper's case in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) -- "Not only are you not insane -- you're the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom!" It's a hallelujah moment, provided by writer Robert Riskin 
and delivered by H.B. Warner.

In 1937, Capra gave Warner the opportunity to
deliver probably his best screen performance.
The picture was Lost Horizon, from James
Hilton's utopian romance about a group of
refugees from war-torn "civilization" who find
themselves in the remote Himalayan paradise
of  Shangri-La. Warner was Chang, their
mysterious escort from the snowbound
wreck of their plane to the Edenic Valley
of the Blue Moon, and their host after
they arrive. Endlessly cordial, welcoming
and polite, he nevertheless is inscrutably
vague about when and how they will ever
be able to return to their homes. Warner
got an Oscar nomination as best
supporting actor, but he didn't win;
he lost out to Joseph Schildkraut as
Alfred Dreyfus in Warner Bros.' The Life of 
Emile Zola. That's a worthy performance, but I'm not at all sure the Academy made the right call. H.B. Warner's other pictures for Capra were You Can't Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington  (1939, as the Senate majority leader) and Here Comes the Groom (1951).

But you don't get your picture on a deck of cards for supporting and character roles in your twilight years, however memorable. What about his career earlier, when he appeared on the King of Hearts sometime between 1916 and 1920? Well, unfortunately, that's something we're going to bump up against over and over as we discuss this antique deck of cards -- and for that matter, anything else about the silent era. The survival rate of movies made between 1890 and and 1920 is only a cut or two above snowball-in-hell level; for much of Warner's career we have to piece together what information we can from secondary sources.

We know that he made his Broadway debut on November 24, 1902 at the age of 27 (billed as "Harry Warner"), in Audrey by Harriet Ford and E.F. Boddington. In 1910 he appeared in Alias Jimmy Valentine, one of the smash hits of the early 20th century stage, adapted from the O. Henry story "A Retrieved Reformation." He must have made quite an impression in that, because in 1914, when he filmed another one of his stage successes, The Ghost Breaker, the laudatory review in Variety mentioned him as "he of 'Jimmy Valentine' fame." The Ghost Breaker was his third picture in 1914, and was co-directed by Cecil B. DeMille. They would work together again, and would in fact make their last picture together -- but more of that anon.

Warner was a veteran stage star by the time his movie career really got underway in the mid 'teens, and he established himself (if we can believe his Variety reviews) as an appealing romantic lead in titles like The Raiders, Shell 43 and The Vagabond Prince (all 1916), Danger Trail ('17) and The Pagan God ('19). He continued to appear on Broadway until Silence in the winter of 1924-25 (which he also filmed in 1926); after that he was a Hollywood actor for good.

At least one of H.B. Warner's silent movies has 
survived intact, and it's a biggie: Cecil B. DeMille's 
spectacularly reverent The King of Kings (1927), 
in which Warner played the title role. The movie 
was a triumph of prestige and box office for 
DeMille; in reviewing it, Variety's legendary 
editor Sime Silverman was quite tongue-tied 
with awe; in 24 column inches, Silverman 
(normally so terse and pithy) fairly stumbles 
over himself groping for superlatives. 
The movie is a bit too earnestly pious for 
modern tastes, but its appeal for 1927 
audiences is still understandable, and 
DeMille's showmanship is at its smoothest. 
Most memorably, Warner's performance, in an 
age when accusations of sacrilege were a very real 
concern, is excellent. Here's a strikingly dramatic 
shot of him at the Crucifixion, seen from 
the viewpoint of Jesus's mother Mary 
mourning at the foot of the Cross.

And here, just to give a flavor of the lavishness 
of DeMille's picture, is a frame from one of King 
of Kings's two Technicolor sequences, showing 
the resurrrected Christ comforting Mary 
Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) at the opening 
to the tomb on Easter morning. (On a curious
side note: in King of Kings Judas Iscariot was
played by none other than the self-same Joseph
Schildkraut who ten years later would
ace Warner out of that Oscar.)

With the coming of sound, H.B. Warner was well into his fifties, so character parts became his lot as they do for nearly all actors as they age. And it proved to be a fertile field for him; after King of Kings there were well over a hundred film appearances in the 29 years that remained to him. Here's one that cineastes particularly cherish: Warner playing himself in 1950's Sunset Blvd. (though unidentified until the closing credits), as one of the has-been "waxworks" playing bridge with Gloria Swanson's mad Norma Desmond. Staring him down is, of course, Buster Keaton. (And on a cautionary note, here's an example of what a decade of sodden alcoholism can do to you: Warner and Keaton look about the same age; actually, Keaton was twenty years younger, almost to the day.)

H.B. Warner's final screen appearance was a poignant one. He was approaching 80 and living at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills in 1955 when the call came from his old friend Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille was planning a massive spectacle expanding the Biblical section of his 1923 hit The Ten Commandments, and he had a part for H.B. if he felt up to it. The role was identified in the script as "Amminadab," an aging Israelite setting out on the Exodus from Egypt, even though he knows he'll never see the Promised Land -- indeed, probably won't live out the day. The actor carrying him in this shot, Donald Curtis, remembered that Warner weighed no more 
than a child, and carrying him wasn't merely in the script, it was a necessity: "It was clear H.B. couldn't walk -- could barely breathe." He had come to the set in an ambulance and lay on a stretcher, breathing through an oxygen mask, until the cameras were ready to roll. In the script, he had a rather complex speech adapted from Psalm 22, but he couldn't manage it, so DeMille told him to say whatever he wanted, and Curtis and Nina Foch would work with it. H.B. Warner's last words in his 135th movie, after 53 years as an actor, were: "I am poured out like water, my strength dried up into the dust of death." 

Donald Curtis believed the old boy could only have weeks to live, but he was wrong. In fact, H.B. Warner died on December 21, 1958, 56 days after his 83rd birthday.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Items from the Scrapbook of Cosmo Brown

(With Apologies to Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

I'm not at liberty to disclose how the following documents came into my possession. I think they pretty much speak for themselves.

Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1928

Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1928

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Rex the First

Hollywood had two Rex Ingrams. Maybe someday I'll write about the fine African American actor who played De Lawd in The Green Pastures, Lucifer Jr. in Cabin in the Sky and the Genie in 1940's The Thief of Bagdad. But today I'm writing about the other Rex Ingram, who was born Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock in Dublin, Ireland on January 15, 1893.

I've been wrestling with this post much too long, trying to get some feeling for what this man was like beyond what we can see in his movies: an artist's sense of composition, a tasteful eye for the telling detail, a delicate touch with actors, and a sure hand with both intimacy and epic sweep.

There's only one biography of him, Rex Ingram: Master of the Silent Cinema by the late Liam O'Leary, and unfortunately it's not much help. I know it sounds presumptuous for an armchair historian like me to pass judgment on a man like O'Leary -- actor, director, archivist, official with both the Irish Film Society and London's National Film Archive. But the fact is, his biography of Ingram is long on facts and short on insight, and it raises more questions than it answers.

Did Ingram ever graduate from Yale, where he studied sculpture? Michael Powell, whom Ingram inspired to become a movie director himself, says Ingram was a Yale grad, but O'Leary's book isn't clear. If Ingram didn't graduate, did he drop out to work in pictures for the Edison Company, or did he flunk out and turn to pictures when he needed a job? He was obviously intelligent even in his youth, but he wouldn't be the smartest student who ever grew bored and careless in his studies. Either way, O'Leary doesn't say; one moment Ingram is at Yale, the next at Edison.

We know Ingram loathed Louis B. Mayer (he was neither the first nor the last to do that), and seethed when Mayer became his boss (Ingram had been Metro's star director before the merger with Goldwyn and Mayer that formed MGM). But why? Given the effect on Ingram's career, and possibly on Hollywood itself, it would be useful to have more of an inkling why Ingram couldn't work with Mayer while directors like Clarence Brown and Sidney Franklin could.

Did Ingram ever convert to Islam, or didn't he? It's reported in Wikipedia that he did, along with a claim that he co-directed the silent Ben-Hur (which he didn't). O'Leary cites the periodic allegations, and Ingram's demurrals, then finally concludes "there may have been something to it." A definite maybe.

Most frustrating of all, what exactly was Ingram's relationship with June Mathis? This remarkable woman was one of the earliest power figures as Hollywood entered the 1920s. A writer with ambitions to produce, she went on to do just that (or "supervise," as the jargon of the day had it) and might have risen even higher if she hadn't died suddenly of a heart attack in 1927, age 40 (or 38, or 35, depending on whom you believe as to when she was born). There were rumors at the time that Mathis and Ingram were romantically involved, and that he threw her over when he eloped with Alice Terry during shooting of The Prisoner of Zenda in 1921. If true, that could explain the alienation between them that festered after The Conquering Power that same year, causing Ingram later to miss out on his dream project, Ben-Hur, when production supervisor Mathis pointedly gave the director's megaphone to somebody else.

But there's an alternate explanation, too: that the two clashed over Ingram's direction of Mathis's protege Rudolph Valentino in Conquering Power, the follow-up to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the picture in which she and Ingram had launched Valentino to stardom. Mathis believed that Ingram was being high-handed with Valentino, while Ingram believed that he was directing the same way he always had, but that Valentino's sudden fame had gone to his head and made him too big for his britches. Either story makes sense -- the woman scorned or artistic differences -- and it would be nice to know which is closer to the truth.

Ingram and Alice Terry at the time of their marriage in November 1921

Liam O'Leary became good friends with Alice Terry, Ingram's widow, and she was still alive in 1980 when O'Leary's biography of Ingram was published. I suppose it's only natural that he might be too tactful to explore any rumors about Terry's late husband and a woman dead more than fifty years, but you don't dispel gossip by ignoring it. O'Leary does concede that Mathis may well have been in love with Ingram (as she clearly was with Valentino), but insists that Rex only had eyes for Alice; even Ingram's first (apparently unhappy) marriage is dispensed with in two hasty paragraphs.

In any event, Mathis was there to give Ingram's career a huge boost by choosing him to direct The Four Horsemen, her pet project at Metro, from the international bestseller by Vicente Blasco Ibanez. Ingram had been building a name for himself for some time, but that was the picture that catapulted him to Hollywood's front rank.

Ingram began in movies in 1913 at the Edison Co. studio in the Bronx. He did a little bit of everything in those unregimented early days -- advising on intertitles, set decoration, painting portraits of Edison's prominent players, pitching in on scenario writing, and so forth. With his matinee-idol good looks (Erich von Stroheim said he looked like a Greek god), it was inevitable he'd end up on screen as well, but he was a self-conscious actor -- and never much interested in that side of the camera anyway. After a few months at Edison he went to Vitagraph as an actor and writer for a year or so, then in June 1915 on to the Wm. Fox Film Corp. as a writer and assistant director. It was about this time that Rex Hitchcock dropped his last two names and became Rex Ingram for the rest of his life. After a year at Fox, he moved on to Carl Laemmle's Universal, where he finally got his first opportunities to direct at the young age of 23 (like William Wyler nine years later). In 1917, When Uncle Carl moved his production operations to the new Universal City in Hollywood, Ingram went west as well.

In 1918, after America's entry into World 
War I, Ingram enlisted in the Royal Canadian
Flying Corps (he was still technically a British 
subject, his U.S. citizenship papers not
having been finalized yet). But his service
wasn't long; he was honorably discharged
after only ten weeks, possibly as a result
of injuries incurred in a plane crash during
training. In any case, in January 1919 he 
was back in Hollywood in very poor health,
nearly broke, and out of a job. For months
he was dependent on the kindness of friends;
he was able to find some work as a set 
decorator at Lasky Studios, but it wasn't easy to
hold on even to that while he convalesced
from whatever had washed
him out of uniform.

It probably didn't help his morale to return to
Universal seeking his old job back, only to be
told that the vacancy had been filled, and by
the Vienna-born Erich von Stroheim -- the
"enemy" Ingram had gone off to fight.
Stroheim went out of his way to be cordial
when he found Ingram lurking around the set
("What's that sonofabitch doing? He's got my
job!"); Stroheim brought out a bottle of scotch
and after ten or twelve drinks "we were very
palsy-walsy." The friendship took hold and
endured for the rest of Ingram's life; Stroheim
once called Ingram "the world's greatest

In short order Ingram's health and his job prospects
improved. He managed after all to pick up a couple of directing
jobs for Universal (including helming a screen test for a
hopeful newcomer named Rudolph Valentino, who impressed
Ingram as having possibilities), then in late 1919 landed
a directing berth at $600 a week with theater magnate
Marcus Loew, who had just acquired the Metro Pictures
Corporation to supply product for his chain of cinemas.

And this is where the Rex Ingram story really begins. His job at Metro brought him into contact with two people who had an incalculable impact on Ingram's growing stature as an artist and as a maker of commercial hits. The first was John F. Seitz, the cameraman on Shore Acres, the first picture Ingram directed at Metro (though not the first released). Seitz was no inconsiderable artist himself; his career extended to 1960, and he just might be the greatest cinematographer of the sound era who never won an Academy Award (he was nominated seven times). He had begun his career as a lab assistant, so he knew how to manipulate not only lighting on the set, but the film itself in the developing process. Director Byron Haskin recalled, "Seitz was one of the true geniuses of filmmaking. Not just a photographer, he was tremendously imaginative, tremendously impressive to me as a young cameraman, and to most of the other boys in the business at the time." Seitz and Ingram connected on a joined-at-the-hip level. They made a dozen pictures together in six years; Seitz understood Ingram's pictorial sense because he shared it, and had the craftsmanship to interpret it in images that are subtly lit and strikingly textured even now, 75 and 80 years on.

The other person, of course, was June Mathis. She had been impressed with Ingram's work on his first two films at Metro and asked for him to direct The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which she was shepherding to the screen after prodding Metro to acquire the rights. Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibanez's novel had been a worldwide bestseller in 1918 and '19, and rumor had it that Fox was willing to pay $75,000 for movie rights. Metro studio chief Richard Rowland, at Mathis's urging, won the bid with a $20,000 advance against ten percent of the profits.

The Four Horsemen told the story of two branches of an Argentine family that diverge after the death of the patriarch around 1900. One daughter returns with her German husband to his fatherland, the other with her husband to his native France, and their sons end up on opposite sides in the Great War. Early scenes set in Argentina were filmed on the 250-acre Gilmore Ranch in what is now Los Angeles's Fairfax District; elaborate action scenes set in a French village caught in the Battle of the Marne were shot in the hills behind Griffith Park, overlooking what are now Burbank, the Warner Bros. Studios and Forest Lawn. The visionary/symbolic scenes of the Four Horsemen themselves (Conquest, War, Pestilence and Death) were staged on Pico Boulevard, then little more than a country lane running from the seaside village of Santa Monica into downtown L.A. Shooting lasted from July to December 1920, at a cost of $1 million, 40 times the cost of the average Metro picture to date.

The result of Ingram, Mathis and Seitz's efforts opened in New York on March 6, 1921, and was a sensation even greater than the novel that inspired it. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was the first box-office blockbuster to come from the Hollywood studio system. Marcus Loew made enough profit off this one picture to reimburse him for the entire cost of purchasing the studio. Richard Rowland bought out Blasco Ibanez's interest in the movie for $170,000 (thereby saving Metro $40,000). June Mathis became the most powerful woman in Hollywood. And Rex Ingram, just turned 28, was hailed as the peer of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.

The biggest sensation of The Four Horsemen, as all the world knows by now, was 25-year-old Rudolph Valentino as Julio Desnoyers, the idle playboy whose belated patriotism to his father's France leads to his death in the trenches of the Western Front. Mathis favored him for the role over a number of better-known actors, and Ingram -- no doubt recalling that screen test at Universal -- readily agreed. Valentino justified their faith in him, but as I said before (and assuming there was nothing more personal between Mathis and Ingram than their professional work together), he may have caused the rift that erupted between them. The Conquering Power was Ingram's last collaboration with Mathis. The script for his next picture, Turn to the Right was taken over from Mathis by Mary O'Hara (later a novelist and author of My Friend Flicka). We don't know why; had Mathis and Ingram already washed their hands of each other?

The Four Horsemen was Ingram's biggest artistic and commercial success, but it wasn't his only one. The Conquering Power could hardly miss, with Valentino starring. Turn to the Right was indifferently received (and led to rumors that Mathis had been the real genius behind Valentino), but The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche ('23) -- both with Ramon Novarro, a Latin Lover rising on Valentino's coattails -- cemented Ingram's prestige. (Another picture, 1922's Trifling Women, is now apparently lost.)

For his next picture, Ingram persuaded Metro to let him shoot on location: Tunisia for exteriors and a Paris studio for interiors. The Arab was intended to do for Novarro what The Sheik had done for Valentino (which, to a lesser extent, it did). Although Ingram did not stay away from Hollywood for good (he died there in 1950), he never worked there again. He moved his operations to the Victorine Studios in Nice, on the French Riviera, and his remaining five pictures were all made there. 

This is where we enter the realm of speculation, wondering why Rex Ingram, sitting on top of the world, preferred to work 6,000 miles away from his studio's base of operations. "As we have seen," Liam O'Leary writes, "Ingram had longed for the day he could get away from Hollywood, its coteries, gossip, and inevitable scramble for power, increasing bureaucracy and production controls." With all due respect, by that point in O'Leary's biography, we've seen nothing of the kind. So what did prompt Ingram to this quixotic drive to create a New Hollywood in the south of France? I think the straw that broke this Irish-American camel's back was Ben-Hur

Lew Wallace's book had been the best-selling novel of the 19th century, and a lavish stage production in 1900 had toured the U.S. for twenty years. It was only a matter of time before a movie would be made. In fact, strictly speaking, one already had been: a cheap and short quickie in 1907, produced by the Kalem Company without bothering to consult either the Wallace estate or Klaw and Erlanger, the stage producers. That sneaky piece of work had resulted in a landmark copyright lawsuit, and the rights were jealously guarded thereafter. Still, this was a plum property, and sooner or later someone was going to pick it. Ingram yearned to direct Ben-Hur, and had it written into his contract that if Metro finally landed the rights, he would get the job; if another studio did, he would be loaned out to do it. In the end, the Goldwyn Company got the rights, with June Mathis in charge of production and writing the script. After The Four Horsemen, Zenda and Scaramouche, Ingram was the obvious front-runner, but Mathis froze him out; she gave the assignment to Charles Brabin. 

By all accounts, Ingram went into a serious depression at missing out on what at the time promised to be one of the biggest pictures of all time; even casual acquaintances noticed a distinct change in his character. It was about that time that he went to North Africa to shoot The Arab, and while he was there another blow fell. His home studio Metro merged with the Goldwyn Company, and Louis B. Mayer came aboard to be head of production at the new conglomerate. 

We may not know exactly why Ingram despised L.B. Mayer -- their paths don't seem to have crossed in Hollywood -- but we know he did. Ingram had left for Tunisia an employee of the Metro Pictures Corporation; now suddenly he was working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He had a new clause inserted into his contract: he would answer to Marcus Loew and Nicholas Schenck, not Mayer; his pictures would have the billing, "Metro-Goldwyn presents a Rex Ingram production." He literally did not want Mayer's name mentioned in the same breath with his own.

With the MGM merger, Loew's Inc. had inherited Ben-Hur, shooting in Mussolini's Italy at the same time Ingram was in Tunisia with The Arab. By mid-1924 the Ben-Hur production had degenerated into a shambling fiasco (for the juicy, fascinating details, see Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By). Mayer and Irving Thalberg assessed the situation, and were appalled. June Mathis, Charles Brabin and leading man George Walsh were all summarily fired. And at this point, evidently, Rex Ingram missed out on directing his dream picture once again. O'Leary reports that Mayer invited Ingram to take over the production, "but Ingram made so many conditions that Mayer refused to consider them." What conditions? For that matter, if Ingram was so depressed when he lost out the first time, why were there any conditions? I suspect one condition might have been that "Metro-Goldwyn" business; Ingram wanted Ben-Hur, but not if it was to be a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture. Also, Ingram may have wanted to shoot at Victorine, while Mayer may already have decided to bring this runaway disaster home to Hollywood where he could keep an eye on it; besides, an epic like this could never be done at Ingram's quaint little boutique studio on the Mediterranean coast.

This double miss is one of the great what-ifs of Hollywood. As good as the 1925 Ben-Hur is -- and it's very good indeed, far superior to its more famous remake -- it surely would have been even better in Ingram's hands, even if he'd had to make it without his alter ego John Seitz.

For a few years in the 1920s Ingram operated in a manner Stanley Kubrick would later duplicate (albeit for a much longer time), staying within his own workspace far from studio higher-ups, keeping his own counsel and pursuing his own course, telling the home office when he had a movie ready for them. After The Arab he made three more pictures for MGM -- or rather, Metro-Goldwyn -- Mare Nostrum (1926), from another Blasco Ibanez novel set during the Great War; The Magician (also '26), from a bizarre story by Somerset Maugham, with stylistic elements that clearly influenced James Whale's later Frankenstein pictures at Universal; and The Garden of Allah in 1927. This last picture completed his contract with Metro, and when Ingram refused to return to Hollywood to work, MGM declined to renew.

Meanwhile, Ingram had somehow managed to lose control of his Nice studios. He sued his French lawyer, claiming that the attorney had fraudulently maneuvered ownership of the studio away from him (and alleging that the studio manager had swiped documents from Ingram's office that would prove his charge). The case dragged on until 1936, and Ingram lost every step of the way. His opponent was a powerful and influential man in French law and politics; Ingram may have come to reflect that he hadn't left chicanery and the "inevitable scramble for power" behind in California after all.

After that there were only two more pictures, The Three Passions ('29) and Baroud ('32). His only talkie, Baroud was planned in English, French, Spanish and Arabic versions, but only the English and French were ever shot. Released in America as Love in Morocco, it was curtly dismissed by Variety as "A dull story, badly handled and acted."

That has a certain how-the-mighty-have-fallen ring, doesn't it? Ingram didn't see it that way at the time, he simply moved on from what he'd been doing. He welcomed talkies ("Silent pictures are finished and a good thing too"), but visual artist that he was, was never entirely comfortable with them -- understandably, being an American working in France with polyglot actors and crews. He basked a while on the beaches of Nice, sojourned in North Africa, where his affinity for Arab culture gave rise to those rumors that he had embraced Islam. While in Egypt, O'Leary reports, he contracted an unnamed illness that left him with high blood pressure for the rest of his life (which no doubt brought on his early death at 57 of a cerebral hemmorage).

In 1936 Ingram and Alice Terry settled again in Hollywood, where he lived in modest comfort, writing two novels and several short stories, sculpting, painting, traveling occasionally (Hawaii, Mexico, London, Egypt), and perusing a succession of scripts forwarded to him by his old pal Eddie Mannix at MGM, just in case there was that one he simply had to direct. (In 1942, when he heard Paramount was planning to make For Whom the Bell Tolls, he was interested, but nothing ever came of it; another what-if.) And so it was on July 21, 1950, that the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse came for Rex Ingram himself.

Rex Ingram's output was impressive while it lasted -- 27 pictures in just under 16 years. Unfortunately, few of his pictures are readily available to help us appraise his full career. Many (if not all) of his pre-1920 pictures are lost forever, and others are preserved only in archives and seldom shown. Fortunately -- and it is good fortune indeed -- the handful to be found on home video are among his best, and preserve the record of a great director at the pinnacle of his career.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, make no mistake, is every bit the masterpiece it was in 1921, and can be shown today to anyone without explanation or apology -- anyone, that is, who doesn't blindly and rigidly refuse to abide silent movies. There's a reason this one made a star of Valentino (it's probably still his best performance), but he's far from the only reason to see it, and not even the best reason at that. Alice Terry (not yet Ingram's wife) is radiant as Valentino's married lover, and veteran Joseph Swickard as Valentino's father gives one of the great performances of the silent era; it is in fact Swickard who carries more of the film than any single player. And over it all is Ingram's amazing command of pacing, epic sweep, and depth of emotion, while underpinning it is June Mathis's literate distillation of Blasco Ibanez's sprawling novel.

Scaramouche (available here in a gorgeous transfer from the Warner Archive) has nearly the epic sweep of Four Horsemen, and John Seitz's camerawork is little short of astonishing. Rafael Sabatini's novel is faithfully and intelligently followed (unlike the 1950 remake, which made major changes), and the settings, costumes and faces of the characters have the realism of a trip in a time machine to Revolutionary France.

The Prisoner of Zenda, at least in the version I've been able to track down, does murky damage to Seitz's photography, but Ingram's subtlety, eye for detail and sense of pace survive, as does Lewis Stone's performance in the lead (Ronald Colman obviously emulated him in the 1937 remake) and Ramon Novarro's delightful turn as the likeable villain Rupert of Hentzau.

In the final analysis -- and I admit, this is the rankest barstool psychology -- I think Rex Ingram was an artist who fought against the constraints of the nascent studio system without realizing how much its support and resources helped him achieve what he was after. He worked best at the controls of a well-oiled machine with a complement of crack mechanics who understood how the machine worked and where Ingram wanted it to go. At its best, that machine and that crew gave shape to what Michael Powell called "Rex's extravagant dreams;" when the crew started to fall away and Ingram tried to do more of the work alone or with substitutes, then came what Powell in the same sentence called his "thundering mistakes."

Ingram had Irish charm, but arrogance as well, and he made enemies as easily as friends (though not as often). When he fell out with June Mathis, I'm sure it never occurred to him that it might backfire later on. And when she was mulling who would direct Ben-Hur, I suspect he thought something like, I'm the best choice for this job and she knows it. When Mathis chose Charles Brabin, he probably thought Mathis was being petty and vindictive and -- maybe even -- just like a woman. This created such a disgust in him -- that she would wound him and the picture, simply out of spite -- that it drove him out of Hollywood altogether, as far as he could go and still breathe the air.

In Nice he found a studio where, he thought, he needn't wrangle with or truckle to anyone, smaller and more manageable than the factories that were coalescing in Hollywood, more like the heady, footloose atmosphere at Edison and Vitagraph where he started, but better equipped and up to date. But there was still wrangling to be done, and what he thought of as truckling we might now call networking. Off there in the Mediterranean, to the moguls back in Hollywood he was out of sight, out of mind. MGM indulged him because his movies were good, even excellent. And while there were no more blockbusters like Four Horsemen, there were no calamities either; his pictures made money, and even the least successful (The Magician) broke even. But when his time-out was up and Ingram still wouldn't come home and play well with others, Metro-Goldwyn and Mayer sighed and cut him loose. Ingram, for his part, shrugged and got on with his life.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Finally, two quotes. First, Grant Whytock, editor on eleven of Ingram's best pictures: "Rex worked harder than anyone I've ever seen. He used to run to the set."

And one more from Byron Haskin: "Ingram's work forecast the coming of finesse in movies. I would rank Ingram as number one director, number one in the business. He had traces of sophistication that were not seen in films, that's all there was to it. Films were just a child-like, fairy-tale quality about most of them; they were made to entertain, and that's that. But Ingram got into nuances and values of the story, of the characters that -- I don't really know any other director who reached that deeply."

And here's a parting look at the Victorine Studios as Ingram knew them in 1928. They still stand, though much changed, having weathered bankruptcies, fires, and World War II. Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief was shot there, and Truffaut's Day for Night, and even Mr. Bean's Holiday. They are now run by Euro Media Television, the name changed to Studios Riviera. Ownership of the property will revert to the City of Nice in 2018, at which time the property may be cleared, subdivided and redeveloped. Some people say the ghost of Rex Ingram still walks there. They say he doesn't want the place to close.

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