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 Ibañez. 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.
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 director.”
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.
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 Ibañez’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.
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 Ibañez 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 Ibañez’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.