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An Irishman in Hollywood

Harvey O’Brien

Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen, by Ruth Barton, University Press of Kentucky, 262 pp, $40, ISBN: 978-0813147093

Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock was born in Dublin into the home of Francis Ryan Montgomery Hitchcock and his wife Kathleen (née Ingram) in 1893. By birth a member of the Protestant middle class of late colonial Ireland, he was part of a milieu that was increasingly alienated from national (and nationalist) identity as twentieth century Irish history took its course. Even the label attached to this grouping, “Anglo-Irish”, connoted only a partial, even tenuous, grasp of the jealously primordial “Irishness” that would define popular cultural conceptions of what constituted an Irishman in the twentieth century. Yet when he achieved fame in Hollywood in the 1920s under the name Rex Ingram, he would widely be identified as just that: an Irishman.

Ingram even wore the badge of Irish ethnicity insofar as it suited him to situate his bullheaded eccentricity and refusal to conform to authority in a cultural stereotype. His reputation was, as Ruth Barton tells us in this new biography, “charming to some, offensive to others, unforgiving, contradictory”. Metro studio publicist Herbert Howe described him as “Irish in whim and daring” and director Eric Von Stroheim, himself a man of no small reputation for stubbornness, said: “He was a very proud man and wouldn’t have done the things I did. He never stooped, never gave any publicity, and was a little huffy … he was very Irish.” He was also known more generally and colloquially in Hollywood as a “crazy” Irishman. In a business where conformity to front office command was increasingly expected, Ingram fought back, and this made him “Irish”.

Yet Ingram never returned to Ireland after he left it in 1911 as a teenage scholar and aspiring sculptor bound (ultimately) for Yale. Much as his success as a filmmaker, including direction of popular versions of The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923), was lauded in its day by the Irish press as that of a true native son, the director has never featured as a canonical figure in the history of Irish cinema. He never directed a film with explicitly Irish content. By the time of his death the indigenous Irish film industry was itself barely a blip on the international scale, and its definitions of “Irishness” were firmly intertextual with the cultural nationalism with which Ingram never had any connection.

Barton’s stated intention with this biography is to at least partly rectify the historical oversight. She seeks to claim Ingram for a more multi-dimensional Ireland by situating him within an exilic Anglo-Irish tradition of culturally disenfranchised late colonial Irish. She cites the satirical reference to sectarianism about Ingram in the recent Irish film Stella Days, where he is sceptically referred to as “The Protestant rector’s son who went off to be a director”.

The book is also clearly an attempt to reclaim Ingram for film history more generally. Once a figure associated with Rudolph Valentino, Theda Bara, June Mathis, Irving Thalberg, and Louis B Mayer, married to silent star Alice Terry, latterly socially connected with F Scott Fitzgerald and referenced in Finnegans Wake as “pageant-master”, he was considered one of the most bankable and respected directors in the business during the silent era. He essentially launched Valentino as a star with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and The Conquering Power (1921), and was famously the only person Von Stroheim trusted with the editing of Greed (1924) when Irving Thalberg insisted the Austrian director cut his ten-hour naturalist masterpiece into a useable commodity.

Throughout the 1920s Ingram’s reputation for high-quality hits afforded him sufficient protection to establish himself as a kind of proto-independent in a business increasingly defined by executive-led thinking. He established a private studio facility in the south of France, where he resided in bohemian luxury surrounded by actors, literati, and, as his protégé, English film director Michael Powell, would put it “a court of odd-balls, among them dwarfs, hunchbacks, apes and clowns” (a possibly apocryphal anecdote has him also meeting a young Alfred Hitchcock (no relation) and advising him “You’ll never get anywhere with a name like that”). His later work would include the espionage yarn Mare Nostrum (1926), shot on location at various points throughout Europe and after which he would receive the French Légion d’honneur, and the Somerset Maugham adaptation The Magician (1926), on which he worked with legendary German actor/director Paul Wegener. His last films turned towards North Africa and the Arab world, including The Garden of Allah (1927), and his only sound film, Baroud (1933), in which he also played the lead. A brief correspondence with a languidly self-deprecating TE Lawrence, whose book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom Ingram had subscribed to upon first publication, proved a prelude to Ingram’s eventual conversion to Islam, which followed his abandonment of the film industry altogether for a life of travel, writing and sculpting.

Ingram died in 1950 at the age of only fifty-seven and at a time when the mythology of Hollywood held the silent era as a romantic but prehistoric prelude. When a Valentino biopic was made in 1951, Ingram’s fictive counterpart was, Barton says “a bland, pipe-smoking All-American” called William King, quite unrecognisable from the complex Irish bohemian nonconformist described in this book. As Barton tells us in her introduction, Ingram’s story is located at a very particular moment in film history; a razor’s edge upon which the values of art and commerce were in unsteady balance. Ingram was never a modernist or truly avant-garde, and yet he defended films with “sincerity and an individual touch” and was capable of bringing that touch even to nominally commercial projects like The Prisoner of Zenda and Scaramouche. His sculptor’s eye saw characters and their environments in reflective relief, giving even the blandest plots an aesthetic edge that bordered on art film and, ironically, gave his work a somewhat “European” timbre.

Writing on the film that remains his greatest legacy, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Barton observes: “Its technological innovations are few, but its execution is extraordinary. It was as if Rex and his youthful companions in adventure had taken the tools crafted by their elders and determined that everything they wrought was to be more beautiful, more brilliant, more moving than anything that had come before.” She interlinks his “vision” with his individualist, artistic eye honed through years of steadfastly refusing to conform to his father’s ambitions for him as a child in Ireland.

Always sketching, often joking, fascinated with the larger world beyond the horizons laid out by education and social expectation, Ingram’s dreams were impractical. Barton also ventures the opinion that his life was haunted by “ghosts”: gothic dreams and imaginings inspired by the life of the Anglo-Irish in decline. As a child he visits crumbling estates and elderly aunts, his father despairs of the decline in Christian friendship between Catholics and Protestants: the world is changing and his place in it is uncertain. As Ingram enters the film industry in New York, Ireland is torn by the chaos of rebellion. His brother goes to fight for the Crown in the Great War. As he achieves his greatest successes as a director, the War of Independence drives the last of his family out of Ireland altogether. He dies just as the Republic is finally established. The degree to which these events are mere historical coincidences or to which they may have formed part of a spiritual alienation and psychological disconnectedness from homeland and a sense of origin is a theme Barton returns to with not-incidental references to the politics and poetry of twentieth century Ireland’s tumultuous birth. She likens him to Yeats in having a vision of humanity veering from fascination to revulsion, almost living by the watchwords of “The Second Coming” where “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”. In this sense Ingram’s fierce determination, driven by his sense of defiant otherness in Hollywood, becomes “Irish” by being “not-Irish”, insofar as his identity transcended the nationalist paradigm but shared its refusal of constraint and sense of the possibility of self-creation in the face of overwhelming domination.

Ingram’s actual connection to Ireland was avowedly limited, and his empathy with it questionable. His father was taking an MA at Trinity College, where he had previously taken a BA in divinity and won the Berkeley Medal for Greek, when Reggie (as he was known to family) was born. Barton describes Reverend Hitchcock as “a formidable personality, intellectually and physically domineering”. She describes the distant but largely respectful relationship between father and son, sometimes touched by unexpected sentiment such as when it was found upon his death that the elder Hitchcock had kept in his wallet a photograph of a sculpture in progress that his son had sent him in 1949. Ingram grew up in both urban and rural environs around Ireland as the family moved with his father’s appointments to various rural dioceses. He took holidays around the country, and was formally educated at St Columba’s College, from where he wrote letters to his beloved mother. Ingram was close to “Mumsy”, whose maiden name he took as his professional moniker after dropping out of Yale to write scripts for motion pictures. She died in 1908 to become one of many spirits Barton claims haunted Ingram’s artistic and cinematic vision. Ingram’s memoirs, to which Barton had access in the preparation of this book, are, she says, filled with descriptions of his life which draw on his mother’s absence and presence: “Soon the girls of his dreams of childhood will reappear, first as a brunette and then made over as a blonde and later as his wife. His was a Victorian imagination in many ways, a world of virgins and whores, fallen women waiting to be rescued.” Ingram’s films are filled with such ghosts, she claims: echoes, shadows, and impressions of almost mystical dimensionality. Sometimes these were fairly literal, such the recurrence of imagery from a childhood dream of a spectral miser in one of his films, or the gothic castle interiors of The Magician, which reflect the crumbling Anglo-Irish homes he would have visited as a child. At other times it was the more general sense of a life lived both connected to and distant from the expectations he bore as the son of Reverend Hitchcock, affecting both his career and his personal relationships.

Barton doesn’t tell Ingram’s story entirely within the domain of psychoanalysis and paternalist anxiety. She cleanly narrates a distinctive and interesting story of entry to the film industry during its formative years. Her subject journeys from college dropout to scriptwriter at a time when the boundary lines between scenarist and director are easily crossed. In the early years, he worked at Edison, Vitagraph and Fox, each an important company with notable history in the annals of film production. Ingram’s scenarios, she says, “demonstrate an ease with cinematic language, short, fast-paced scenes, elaborate camera and lighting instructions, and directions to cast secondary characters according to their looks”, and he would quickly ascend to direction. His grasp of the practical fundamentals and his determination to bring an aesthete’s eye to his framing and compositions resulted in solid hits strong enough to earn him a contract at Universal Pictures for $300 a week by 1917. Barton describes each film, both extant and lost, in close detail that gives a strong sense of Ingram’s working methods and specific achievements even as a young man on the cusp of a breakthrough. A mysterious period of service with the Canadian Air Force (still shrouded in factual uncertainty: military records do not quite bear out the anecdotal evidence) interrupted his career, but he resumed work in film after the war with the establishment of some key personal and professional relationships: his contract with Metro, where he would make his greatest films, including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, his working partnerships with cinematographer John F Seitz and editor Grant Whytlock, who operated with him throughout his best years, and his marriage to Alice Terry.

Barton consistently tracks the interpersonal relationships that defined Ingram’s private life, and naturally in this Alice Terry looms large. Terry was herself of an Irish background (née Taaffe) and had begun her career as an actor with Thomas Ince after the family moved from Kildare to California. The only previous biography of Rex Ingram was published in 1980, written by Irish film archivist and historian Liam O’Leary. O’Leary interviewed the rather modest Terry directly, and his biography takes a more uncritical approach to reporting the facts of how husband and wife operated as director and leading lady from her first person accounts. Barton, conscious of gendering patterns in film history more broadly and from quite a different academic generation, devotes separate sections to Terry’s identity and her role in the film business. Rather famously, Terry was forced to take over direction of Where the Sidewalk Ends (1923) when Ingram imploded after being dropped by producer June Mathis from consideration for Ben Hur. Barton does concede that Terry suffered from extremely low self-esteem for a movie star, and acknowledges that her career was closely tied to Ingram’s success. However, in spite of the gossipy innuendo that dogged their relationship throughout both of their careers, clearly they worked closely together and shared a sometimes exotic and nonconformist lifestyle. Barton touchingly describes (and reproduces in the illustrations) Terry’s late-life painting of Rex in which “he is gazing beyond the frame with a look that is serious, almost sad, as if something he had wished for had not come to pass” and suggests an enduring if not always easy partnership.

Ingram’s most significant contribution to cinema history remains the war epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Barton gives a detailed account of its production and exhibition. She also lovingly describes the film’s most famous scene, in which Rudolph Valentino makes one of the cinema’s most unforgettable entrances, performing a scorching tango in a dingy Argentinian bar. “Seitz lit Valentino so softly that his features seem rounded and youthful and almost feminine, before teasing the viewer with cigarette smoke that drifts across the set, temporarily obscuring them. Now the camera cuts in closer, first to Julio’s face as he pulls the young woman in to him, then to his shoes, their heels glittering with sharp spurs, a suggestive complement to the whip, and to the hint of femininity. Finally, the dance ends, and Julio reaches in and in close-up kisses his partner with a proprietorial vigor, as if she were his prize, before leading her back to her table and seating her on his lap as he draws on his glass.” Though there is no question that Valentino is a magnetic screen presence, what this description (and the broader account of the making of the film) makes clear is the degree to which this sequence was stage-managed by Ingram, working with Seitz and Whytlock, to achieve that moment of magic. Nothing was an accident in Ingram’s vision.

Actors were clay in his sculptor’s hands, and his desire to shape and control every detail of his films had both positive artistic and inevitably negative interpersonal dimensions. When Valentino became a star attraction, he rejected Ingram’s control of his image. They worked together on one other film, The Conquering Power, before an acrimonious professional split that saw Valentino move on to legend in The Sheik (1921) and Ingram quickly replacing him with another Latin leading man, Ramón Novarro in The Arab (1924). As Barton observes, Ingram had a preference for casting “Latin lovers” whose look and manner challenged conventional masculinities, and yet there was never a suggestion that the director himself was of anything other than heterosexual orientation, eccentric or no. It seems “Irish” may also connoted “straight” in that context.

It is notable that without ever being truly innovative, Ingram was able to deploy and refine elements of the art and practice of movie making that kept him at the top flight of the craft. He was hailed as “the world’s greatest director” in studio publicity materials, and became in some ways a successor to DW Griffith ‑ in whose wake he often rode with films with similar themes or elements ‑ but a safer bet than Erich Von Stroheim or Cecil B DeMille. He became a figure of great influence, particularly through his time at Metro. Barton’s book details each of these productions with fine attention to both critical analysis and factual detail, building a thorough portrait of Ingram’s body of work in context.

Barton also highlights Ingram’s working relationship with the formidable producer June Mathis at Metro. She disagrees with O’Leary in her reading of some key events and rumours of lingering romantic or sexual entanglements or expectations in that relationship, but she does not deny the difficulties that presented themselves exceeded the boundaries of pure professionalism. She differs from O’Leary in the reading of the exact circumstances. Either way, Ingram was an autocrat whose clashes were as much personal as professional, even when cloaked in the rhetoric of artistic freedom. His struggles with Mathis, Valentino, and even more particularly with Louis B Mayer, had a strong personal dimension. According to Barton, Ingram was certainly “irrevocably anti-Semitic”, and his hatred of Mayer (occasionally rising to “fury”), though it enabled his independent spirit, was not altogether one of a noble anticapitalist nature.

In fact, Barton remarks that achieving freedom from Mayer as an independent producer did not serve him well. His 1928 melodrama The Three Passions was written off in Hollywood as something of a shadow of former greatness, and the trajectory of his reputation was downward as his last films competed with wholesale changes in the industry, including the coming of sound. Baroud, from Barton’s account, revealed not only his fading powers as a director but his questionable judgment in casting himself as the lead, although this did give him the opportunity for a literal ride into the sunset at the film’s conclusion. As Barton puts it “as so many others were to discover, losing the structure of the studio system, with its regime of control, was not always the catalyst for the future greatness that they had imagined”.

Ingram’s final years are less extensively documented than those he spent making films (being mainly private ones), although there were nearly two more decades during which he travelled, wrote, and made sculpture. Barton gives us far more than O’Leary was able to in 1980, though it is still a much smaller portion of the book. Ingram was beset by ill health throughout this final period, partly brought on by his travels in North Africa. He never made the pilgrimage to Mecca, though he did seek and was granted permission to do so following his conversion to Islam. He took the name Ben Aalem Nacir ed’ Deen, and there is evidence enough to suggest his Orientalist leanings may simply have taken him down this spiritual path in a true search for a life of value, or another vision of civilisation with even more ancient roots. Yet conversion to Islam can also be seen as yet another defiant rejection of his father. Barton recounts Reverend Hitchcock’s 1927 fractious encounter with Rex’s sculpture of Christ in the arms of Buddha in Ingram’s French villa (described by columnist Gladys Hall): “Yet we wonder whether some of Rex’ atheism – or it is agnosticism? May not have come as a reaction, from the very fundamentalism, the very rock-bound rigour of the elder man’s beliefs.” Barton remarks that Islam offered Ingram a “luxurious exoticism” that suited his predilection for the pleasures of otherness, and that “For Rex conversion was not just a moral choice, but an aesthetic one”. Ingram did not become any kind of activist or evangelist for his new religion, and ultimately returned to the United States, where he became a citizen in 1941. Barton describes his final years as comparatively leisured, though dogged by illness, right up to his unexpected death while undergoing routine health checks. She also notes that by then Ingram had been so far forgotten by the film industry that his death was misreported as being that of a working actor with the same name.

Ingram’s passion for art as a type of transcendence was unblemished by his abandoning of one kind of artistic expression for others. His was a search for meaning outside of ideology, a level of expression of self not through the blunt rhetoric of dogma like his father, but through esoteric aesthetics. In a sense the cinema had failed him in this regard, gradually evolving as an industrial activity away from the borderlines between art and commerce Ingram had so gleefully crossed in the 1920s. There is a kind of sad prophecy in his pronouncement as early as 1922 that “I think the real hope of the motion picture is in the establishment of separate theatres for adults and children. We cannot go on limiting our entertainment to the intellectual level of a twelve year old child” that proves that declarations of infantilism in Hollywood are far from new. Barton tells us that for Ingram, cinema was potentially “the foundation for civilization”, and it seems that by every act and phase in his life Ingram’s search for that civilisation was ongoing, outward and away from the country in which he was born and to which he never returned. In that perhaps Ingram’s is very much another type of Irish story, and a familiar one, of the native that leaves and never looks back, but yet never quite leaves it behind.

Harvey O'Brien teaches film studies in UCD. He is the author of Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back (Columbia, 2012) and The Real Ireland: The Evolution of Ireland in Documentary (Manchester, 2004). He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Irish Film Institute and former Associate Director of the Boston Irish Film Festival.

1/2/2015

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