I had been in on the creation of the Witch’s Sabbath in Rex Ingram’s The Magician, based on Somerset Maugham’s short novel, in which the portrait of the magician was based on Aleister Crowley. In the film Alice Terry has a vision in which she is raped by a faun, danced by Stowitts who was one of Anna Pavlova’s partners. It had been an elaborate sequence, but Rex had not made the most of it because he was so disappointed in Paul Wegener, the German actor who played the magician. They didn’t get on at all. Rex had admired him in The Golem. He should have given him his head.
Million-Dollar Movie (Michael Powell)
The head of the company was Rex Ingram, then one of the most recognized directors in the world, the equal of DW Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Ingram first gained fame directing Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, then for a series of films featuring his wife Alice Terry. Scaramouche and Where the Pavement Ends solidified his critical and commercial reputation, but he still held differences with the management of MGM. In 1925, he left the United States to escape the presence of Louis B. Mayer and began filming Mare Nostrum, the film on which Powell first found work. It was based on a novel by Vincente Blasco-Ibanez, who had also written The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. At first no one knew what to do with the eager employee, but Powell was finally placed in the stills department. It was a tremendous learning experience for Powell, as it was a lavish spectacle, “full of enormous tricks with a great theme and an international cast. It was the kind of film that gives you ideas that stay with you all your life. Ingram had an epic style. He also had the grand manner. These are things if you see them when you’re young you don’t forget them.”
Although Powell barely survived the first week of production, particularly after making a costly mistake, he would remain with Ingram’s unit for his next two films, The Magician and The Garden of Allah. Mare Nostrum was a tale of spies and betrayal and, as would be many of Powell’s own films, had a wartime setting. If this film anticipated the milieu for many of Powell’s films, The Magician predicted a recurring motif, the power of gazing. The antagonist of the film is a magician who hypnotizes a young woman and takes her away from her lover. Unlike Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad, however, the magician is not in love with the woman but needs her heart to rejuvenate a corpse. The magician’s laboratory was set on the edge of a mountain, perhaps influencing the locale of Black Narcissus. The Magician would be a commercial and critical failure, but from it Powell would learn one lesson that would influence his later films, which was to “distrust, in films of imaginative power, a mixture of studio settings and location shooting”. Thus, twenty years later when he was to codirect a film set in India, he would film the work entirely in the studio.
The Garden of Allah, Powell’s last film with Ingram, could have also served as an influence on Black Narcissus, with its story of a Trappist monk falling in love with a young woman. As with all three of the works Ingram directed in Europe, the film was a failure, and he was forced to disband his European unit. Not for the last time, Powell found himself out of work. The Garden of Allah, however, had provided him with a second career, albeit a short-lived one, for among his many duties on that film was playing the part of an English tourist, providing some comic relief. Harry Lachman, who had served as an assistant director to Ingram, initiated a series of two-reel comedies to be called Travelaughs starring Powell in a similar role. The format for each was to remain the same: a group of tourists bumbling through some exotic locale, such as North Africa, the setting for Camels to Cannibals. It’s not known how many of these comedies were filmed, but the arrival of sound seemed to end this stage of Powell’s career. Except for an occasional cameo in his own films, Powell would remain safely behind the camera.
The films of Michael Powell and the Archers (Scott Salwolke)
… In 1926, I was working with Rex Ingram in the south of France; he was making a great film, The Magician, with Paul Wegener, the German star. It was a very interesting film about witchcraft, and already I was getting familiar with all the cultures and the aspects of Europe that usually an Englishman with his bloody island never knows. Already I was full of dreams of wonderful scenes and wonderful creations. It was only 1926, and I was only 21.
What was it about Ingram in particular that excited you so much?
Powell:Well, then he was the great director. He was for the Americans, too. One of my friends that year, 1925, was Walter Strohm who came from a Los Angeles family and would become chief of production for MGM all through the stormy years, you know, the Wallace Beery-Jean Harlow. And Walter just adored Rex. Rex was an Irishman, appeared quite quiet but actually rather wild, and very intolerant, very well educated, and very theatrical in his tastes. He had the grand manner, the grand theatre manner. In those days, his pictures like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Scaramouche were huge successes and I used to think of them only as films. But now when I look back, , I realize the thing he had, which was extraordinary, was this sense of theatre, sense of timing, sense of staging. He brought this into films. Griffith was rather a sort of tumultuous, epic sort of man. His pictures rolled. Ingram’s were carefully composed, and built up to climaxes, and all the young men and women in Hollywood just adored him. When he came to France to make this film Mare Nostrum, he decided to stay and make two more pictures. I stayed with him all that time. They missed him badly in Hollywood because he was a man who went his own way and said what he thought at a time when the whole picture business was being formed.
Do you think he might have had a more successful or longer career had he stayed in Hollywood and been sort of subject to the dictates of the front office but had still made more films?
Powell: I think possibly, yes, because I don’t think he ever would have been subject. But I think he’d have fought back. Of course, so long as he made box office pictures, they wouldn’t mind.
Was it your idea or his to put you in those two Ingram films as an English kind of comedy relief, The Magician, particularly?
Powell: Oh, it was just one of his ideas. I think Ingram’s sense of humor was pretty rudimentary and my idea of being a comedian was equally rudimentary. But you know, as a young man with a big company and with famous people, you just did whatever they suggested.
Michael Powell: Interviews