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Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen

Ruth Barton
University Press of Kentucky



This is a book about a brief moment in film history and one of the individuals responsible for it. For a few all-too-short years, as cinema developed from a turn-of-the-century fairground attraction and before it became a full-fledged corporate enterprise, Hollywood drew to it some of the most talented individuals of the day. Fired by the idea that the movies might just be the "seventh art," they determined to test the boundaries of this new medium and to create films that would be the artistic masterpieces of their generation.

One of these visionaries was the Irishman Rex Ingram. At the height of his fame, he was ranked alongside D. W. Griffith, Marshall Neilan, and Erich von Stroheim among the greatest artists of the moving pictures. Another of his peers was French director Maurice Tourneur, whose dedication to pictorial compositions closely paralleled Rex's. His masterpiece of 1921, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, made a star of Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla, better known as Valentino. Later he went on to discover Valentino's successor as "Latin lover" of the popular imagination, Ramon Novarro. As one extraordinary film followed the other, the name Rex Ingram on the opening titles of a release was a guarantee to his studio, Metro, of box office success and to audiences worldwide of breathtaking filmmaking. Today he is all but forgotten, revered by a handful of cineastes. (Many people, if you mention Rex Ingram, confuse him with the African American actor of the same name.) Only Neilan, who too started as an actor and migrated to behind the camera, could claim to be so neglected by film history. Neilan also came from Irish stock (although born in California) and, true to stereotype, wrought his own self-destruction through his excessive predilection to drink. An aversion to authority led to his often-repeated quip "An empty taxi cab drove up to the studio today and Louis B. Mayer got out." The same characteristics saw an end to his Hollywood career. Rex Ingram, as we shall see, left on his own terms, nor did he conform so disastrously to stereotype, but he did share Neilan's views on Mayer. He also shared Neilan's matinee-idol features, and few people failed to comment on his extraordinary good looks.

Photographs show us a tall, vigorous, athletic man. Unless forced into a suit, he is dressed in an open-neck khaki shirt with a gold bracelet, sometimes two, on his wrist. He smiles into the camera somewhat self-consciously, looking as if he would rather be elsewhere; often he is a little too posed, as if too aware of the artificiality of the studio publicity shot. "His expression was one of seriousness," the English writer Sewell Stokes observed, "though no one could have called him grave. He seemed all the time to be waiting for something to happen, a trifle apprehensive, yet one felt that no matter what surprising thing did happen, he would be able to deal with it, coolly." At his side, smiling sweetly, one cannot miss his wife of many years, Alice Terry, whom he made the star of his films and who became his partner in adventure. In Hollywood in the early 1920s, they were the glamour couple, their every movement reported and photographed.

More self-contained than Neilan, less controversial than Griffith, Rex Ingram was artistically closest to his good friend and admirer Erich von Stroheim. It was to Rex that von Stroheim turned when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) rejected his four-hour masterwork Greed, secretly shipping him a copy of his film in New York for further cutting. Both men insisted on authenticity, which meant shooting on location for outdoor sequences and otherwise creating minutely detailed interiors. Yet there was a difference, for Rex was first and foremost an artist and secondly a storyteller. He was a man with a tirelessly enquiring mind, who loved travel and chance encounters, who walked down the streets of Hollywood always with an eye out for a face that might work in a film or an item in an old shop that could furnish just the kind of period detail he so loved to reproduce in his historical dramas. Later, as part of Rex's great North African adventure, his assistant then and lifelong admirer Michael Powell observed casting sessions with fascination: "Few of them were regular actors: he would bring them in off the street, from bars, from fairgrounds, from the mountains. He would coach them and costume them and insist that the cameraman light them for the effect he wanted. These flashes of human faces that belonged to people who had suffered and laboured and been through disappointment and degradation, were fascinating to this young Irish-American, with regular features and handsome as a god." The grotesque and the beautiful appealed to Rex in equal measure, and so for every Latin lover he cast in a lead role, he also included a hunchback, a dwarf, or a leering drunkard as sideshow.

To create his visual masterpieces, this pioneering filmmaker had recourse to a book of tricks that he was writing as he went along, with John Seitz, his visionary cameraman, always alongside him refining his craft. Fantasy, escapism, and magic—those were what audiences sought on the screen, Rex believed, dismissing the tendency of studios to release reports from the set that let audiences in on the secret. "To acquaint audiences with the mechanics of motion picture technique," he pronounced, "breaks down the illusions of the screen as people go to the pictures for the emotional reaction from illusions it creates." Warming to his theme, he compared filmmaking to a piano recital. No one would expect the performer to take away the casing of the piano and throw a spotlight on the wires within. "So why reveal how rain is made to order for picture scenes: how railroad wrecks are simulated? Why destroy illusion when illusion is the prime desire of the audience?"

James Joyce slipped a reference to his fellow exile into Finnegans Wake, where he appears as "Rex Ingram, pageant-master." Both men left Ireland to pursue their art in more worldly cultures than their own; neither returned. Yet both bore the imprint of their Irishness on their personalities and in their work. In Rex's case it is hidden in a series of images that hark back to growing up in rural Ireland the son of a Protestant rector. To reclaim him as an Irish director, then, entails finding clues in his films that lead back to his childhood. In other ways he was a man of his time and class, a cosmopolitan European who fell in and out of love with America, an Orientalist, a restless traveler, a man of extraordinary intellect and vision but, equally, one who vividly demonstrated the prejudices of his day. He was also born of a generation that lost so many of its young men to the Great War, and that terrible catastrophe looms large over his own work.