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The early 1930s is commonly regarded as the birth of the American horror film, with Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932). These films were able to come to fruition because a number of directors in the silent era had properly tilled the cinematic soil. Films such as Tod Browning's The Unholy Three (1925), Rupert Julian's The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Wallace Worsley's The Penalty (1920) cannot truly be called horror movies, but they were the kind of macabre melodramas that established the fertile terrain upon which the genre would flower.
Often overlooked, because it has been so rarely screened, Rex Ingram's The Magician (1926) is a particularly fascinating entry in the nascent horror cinema that reveals some of the varied influences that brought the genre into being.
The story follows Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry), a sculptress in the Latin Quarter of Paris, who is injured when one of her creations -- a huge, grotesque, crouching faun -- collapses upon her. Fortunately, she is the niece and ward of the esteemed Dr. Porhoet (Firmin Gemier), who arranges for her to be treated by a gifted surgeon, Dr. Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich). The surgeon becomes enamored with the patient, as does another scientist who observes the procedure, Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener), clearly a less desirable match. The scowling, caped Haddo (who "looks as if he had stepped out of a melodrama") practices an unconventional form of science. "Hypnotist, magician and student of medicine," Haddo devotes himself to ancient texts, seeking the alchemical formula for the creation of life.
Haddo casts a hypnotic spell over Margaret, at one point causing her to experience a vision of a nocturnal bacchanal, presided over by a faun not unlike her sculpture. Haddo marries Margaret and takes her away to "an ancient sorcerer's tower" in a seedy village near Monte Carlo. There, his plan is revealed: to dismember Margaret and use her body parts in a ritual to create life. Doctors Porhoet and Burdon uncover the plot (as well as the fact that Haddo is the former "inmate of [an] insane asylum") and launch a desperate effort to wrest Margaret from Haddo's diabolical clutches.
While it is not characterized by the distorted sets and shadows commonly associated with the genre, The Magician is certainly influenced by the German Expressionist cinema. The hypnotist/scientist is reminiscent of Dr. Caligari, while the actor who portrays Haddo, Wegener, was the star and director of the German cabalist fable The Golem (1920). The nightmarish bacchanal, meanwhile, clearly owes its origin to the witches' Sabbath in Benjamin Christensen's Haxan (1922).
Though he, like all wise filmmakers, welcomed outside influences, director Ingram had a style and voice all his own, that often delved into the macabre. His 1921 film The Conquering Power is an innovative early psychological thriller, in which he offers a potent visual representation of insanity. Ingram was also fascinated with physical deformity which, according to biographer Liam O'Leary, "amounts to an obsession in Ingram's work." O'Leary writes that, in 1917, Ingram was fired from his studio post, "because he had put every hunchback and dwarf in Hollywood on Universal's payroll." The Magician has its requisite dwarf, Haddo's diminutive assistant, played by Henry Wilson.
Ingram frequently found himself in conflict with the Hollywood studio system, even though he had created some of its biggest successes. After working on location in Italy (ultimately without credit) on MGM's colossal Ben-Hur (1925), Ingram decided to leave the U.S. and continue making films in Europe -- ostensibly in a quest for exotic locations, but just as importantly to put some miles between himself and the studio bosses. He and wife Alice Terry formed their own studio in Nice (Ingram Hamilton Syndicated Ltd.). They shot The Magician there, as well as on location in Paris and in the Maritime Alps.
One of Ingram's assistants on The Magician was a young Michael Powell, later to direct such classics as The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947).
Dublin-born Ingram had studied art at Yale, and was particularly interested in sculpture. The enormous faun statue was created by Paul Darde (1888-1963), which was reportedly almost eighteen feet tall and weighed four tons. Darde himself has a cameo appearance in The Magician, as a bearded sculptor.
The Magician was based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, who was inspired by his own experiences living the Parisian artist's life at the turn of the century, when he made the acquaintance of notorious writer and mystic Aleister Crowley. In A Fragment of Autobiography, Maugham recalled, "At the time I knew him he was dabbling in Satanism, magic and the occult. There was just then something of a vogue in Paris for that sort of thing, occasioned, I suppose, by the interest that was still taken in a book of Huysman's, L Bas. Crowley told fantastic stories of his experiences but it was hard to say whether he was telling the truth or merely pulling your leg."
Maugham's novel was published in 1908 and was the target of a dismissive review, written by Crowley himself, under the name "Oliver Haddo," that suggested the novelist had borrowed a bit too freely from real life. Maugham wrote, "Though Aleister Crowley served, as I have said, as the model for Oliver Haddo, it is by no means a portrait of him. I made my character more striking in appearance, more sinister and more ruthless than Crowley ever was. I gave him magical powers that Crowley, though he claimed them, certainly never possessed."
Upon the film's opening at the Capitol Theatre, The New York Times wrote, "Expert direction rather overshadows the fantastic narrative of The Magician...Although Mr. Ingram's brilliant work is the predominant feature of this subject, it is nevertheless apparent that he and Mr. Maugham make an excellent team for furnishing screen entertainment... One appreciates that a story might be dull and ordinary, but in Mr. Ingram's hands it appears on the screen with subtlety, polish and spark."
Director: Rex Ingram
Producer: Rex Ingram
Screenplay: Rex Ingram, Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Production Design: Henri Menessier
Music: Robert Israel (2010)
Cast: Paul Wegener (Oliver Haddo), Alice Terry (Margaret Dauncey), Ivan Petrovich (Dr. Arthur Burdon), Firmin Gemier (Dr. Porhoet), Henry Wilson (Haddo's servant), Gladys Hamer (Susie Boud).
by Bret Wood