The University of British Columbia, Canada
Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2014.
ISBN 978-0-8131-4709-3 (Ebook also available)
Hardback, 320pp. 74 b/w photos
Picking through the paper and visual trail of anyone’s life is fraught with pitfalls and necessitates calculated guesswork and an informed sense of historical time and place. In her new critical biography of Rex Ingram, Ruth Barton proves to be a prudent guide to the past and makes an excellent case that we should as film historians have a closer look at this filmmaker’s overall achievements. Barton’s task in establishing plausible scenarios from the voluminous mythmaking surrounding this Irish-born director has been a challenging one, but she succeeds in completing it and in convincing the reader that Ingram was a complex figure who cannot be easily categorized. He is best known today as the director of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino, a film regularly listed among the top fifty silent era productions ever made, and while Barton gives this film its due, she invites us to unfurl a larger canvas to appreciate Ingram’s overall aesthetic. While some of his films remain lost or reside in poor condition with limited access, the bulk of his major work can be viewed with some effort, and future digital developments along with this bio-critical text may excite new scholarly interest.
Rex Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock (1893-1950) was born in Dublin into a family whose patriarch would become a Church of Ireland rector in County Tipperary. A middle-class Protestant in southern Ireland meant he led a relatively privileged life, exploring freely castles and grand old Irish houses and mansions. His first experience of cinema, if his unpublished memoir is to be believed, was part of Cleary’s touring circus. Sent off to boarding school before even a teenager, he was to suffer, at the tender age of fifteen, the death of his sickly mother. Barton naturally gives some thought to this sad event and its impact on the sensitive Rex. It is possible that this short-circuiting of his relationship with his mother led, as the biographer suggests, to his too quickly seeing women as either pure-hearted souls or tempting sirens. Certainly, his female characters tend to be one-dimensional, as if he sculpted them in time as essentially static. In 1915, he took his mother’s name, Ingram, as his surname. One wonders what his father felt about that, even if they appeared to have a respectful close relationship down the years despite their later religious differences.
As Woody Allen has famously said, most success is simply due to turning up on time and enduring hard work, but timing is also key. This fact appears to be very true of Rex Ingram ̶ he was late joining up for the First World War (though he may have nearly been shipped to France as a barely competent pilot), too old for the Second World War, and out of the country for all the heady Irish matters between 1916 and 1922. Yet, his timing was impeccable to advance a film career in the United States. After failing to get into Trinity College Dublin, much to his father’s shame, he left Ireland for the USA in 1911, and after a period studying sculpture with Lee Lawrie at Yale, his scenarios and sketches gave him a calling card to begin work with a variety of studios – Edison, Vitagraph, Fox, Universal and, by 1920, Metro. He worked on scenarios, acted a bit, and began to receive opportunities to direct.
His temperament was volatile as evidenced by the short periods at these studios, as he invariably fell out with numerous superiors and co-workers. He came across as a talented but difficult and demanding artist.
Fortunately, at Metro Ingram flourished with equally talented artists, technicians, and producers around him. Barton deftly reveals how actress Alice Terry, scenarist June Mathis, cameraman John Seitz and editor Grant Whytock together kept the tyrannical perfectionist Ingram on track. He followed up the huge success of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with further blockbusters, such as The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923). All of these films have been remade over the years. Critics were deeply impressed by the pictorial qualities of Ingram’s cinema ̶ his choice of locations, his understanding of utilizing depth within the frame, his set decoration, and appreciation for the lit human figure in moving pictures. Stunning images, yes, but comments that would eventually emerge again and again in the critiques of his films were the lack of dramatic pacing and the unrounded characterization.
Barton draws attention to this weakness late in her book by analyzing the two novels and occasional short stories Ingram wrote or published after his film career was over. He was not a gifted writer, but he could compose beautiful shots. Rather like a sculpture, Ingram did not move his rather static aesthetic with the trends of the time. This explains why his career petered out after 1926 and was over as a filmmaker by 1933 when he was forty years old. Like many early cinema artists, he did not take to the “talkies”. Only his last picture, Baroud, was a sound film. Other reasons for his fall from favour were self-inflicted ones ̶ he left for France in the mid twenties and set up his own studio in Nice from where he produced his films for MGM. His European aesthetic was critically popular in France but did not play as well in the United States. His obsession with North Africa was overdone by the late 1920s. But it may well have been the case that Ingram, always a restless soul, had simply lost interest in the movies. He did not suffer financially from the Wall Street Crash, and enjoyed travelling across North Africa. Eventually, in 1933 he converted to Islam, further alienating him from Western culture. His last seventeen years are taken up with constant movement, work as a sculptor and writer, and taking numerous extended vacations. It is hard not to see him as a (soft) Orientalist; as Barton suggests, there was always something Victorian about his values and instincts. He certainly became an avid collector of ancient artifacts, a common Victorian obsession.
Apart from a recent general book by Leonard Gmuer in 2013 on the same subject, which I have not yet had the opportunity to read, Barton’s only real critical precursor was Liam O’Leary whose book on Ingram was published initially in 1980. Lavishly illustrated, O’Leary’s text is still worth reading today as his overall judgments on Ingram as a romantic artist are perfectly reasonable and not too far from Barton’s own considered views. Both Barton and O’Leary, for example, see major critical worth in the lesser-known features Mare Nostrum (1925) and The Magician (1926). Though an avid collector of things related to Irish and early cinema, O’Leary was not a career academic (although he also wrote a useful volume on silent cinema in 1965) and so Barton’s work usefully goes over the same ground in a more rigorous and exacting manner, teasing out the man and his work, warts and all. And there are certainly warts to be treated here. We learn from Barton that Ingram had at least four mistresses (all invited by his second wife Alice Terry to his funeral) and that he occasionally frequented prostitutes; however, these dalliances do not seem to have caused too much disruption to his married life, and Barton does not spend much time on them. Theirs was perhaps a modern open marriage since Alice Terry was not averse to having a lover herself. Parenting was not high on Alice Terry or Rex Ingram’s agenda ̶ after spontaneously adopting a North African child, he was given some money and sent back when they tired of him. Ingram had an odd tendency to have dwarfs in and around his films that would not pass any political correctness test today. Perhaps of more historical and critical interest are his anti-Semitic views that he seemed to have held fairly consistently throughout his life, exacerbated by his disagreements with movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. Ingram would routinely ensure Mayer’s name did not appear on his film’s credits ̶ only Metro-Goldwyn was allowed. Ingram also seemed to some to hold grudges and was not shy of using the courts to fight for what he considered his property.
Barton’s book is magnificently illustrated with seventy-four black and white photos of Ingram’s film work, his sketches, and sculptures. She has drawn on apt material from numerous archives ̶ the Liam O’Leary Film Archive in the National Library of Ireland (still, sadly, uncatalogued), the Trinity College Dublin archives, The Library of Congress, and private collections. One passing regret, I think, is that the reader would have benefited from a stronger overall sense of his sculptures, and how they relate or not to his film work, since this aspect seems key to his art. The sculptures were sold off years after Ingram’s death; they are widely dispersed and in private hands for the most part. A full visual inventory may thus be elusive to analyze.
Barton makes the interesting critical comment that there is something ghostly about Ingram’s cinema, and she links it to a gothic sensibility (which, of course, emanates from Irish Protestant figures ̶ Charles Maturin, Bram Stoker et al), a vague kind of desperation or existential dread which might also be linked to the fact that many of his schoolmates in Ireland, including his brother Frank, fought in the hell of the trenches in WW1. Rex’s brother had to recover from being gassed, but survived the war and indeed lived until 1972. It would not be unreasonable for Rex to see his generation as a lost one ̶ not just from the war, but from Ireland (both his brother and father left Ireland to settle in England in the 1920s). It would help to explain the restlessness that Ingram exhibited. Barton includes a reproduction of Alice Terry’s portrait of Rex Ingram in the last decade of his life. It captures his movie-star looks and strong features, and yet there is a melancholy that pervades the image. Given the constant debate today about Islam and pictorial representations, perhaps it is no accident that Ingram’s giving up a film career coincided with his religious conversion. We can only speculate. In the meantime, Barton’s assured and elegant work will allow future critics to begin with confidence to interrogate the mystique of this Irish-born and Euro-American filmmaker.
Leonard Gmuer. 2013. Rex Ingram: Hollywood’s Rebel of the Silver Screen. Epubli GmbH.
O’Leary, Liam. 1965. The Silent Cinema. New York: E.P. Dutton.
O’Leary, Liam. 1980. Rex Ingram: Master of the Silent Cinema. Dublin: Academy Press.