Director Rex Ingram’s legacy has been overtaken by a single image: Rudolph Valentino dancing the tango. While he is most famous for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it is far from his sole worthwhile work. He also helmed the definitive adaptation of Scaramouche in 1923, in which Ramon Navarro gave the finest performance of his career as a charismatic young lawyer out for vengeance during the French Revolution, and often lent his films a sense of wonder and beauty without dragging down the pace too much.
The Magician is one of Ingram’s more overlooked films. If it is mentioned at all, it is in relation to James Whale’s Frankenstein which drew inspiration from Ingram’s movie. In fact, before Universal dropped the wildly successful Dracula and Frankenstein onto the scene in 1931, horror did not exist as a genre in American cinema. Fare such as The Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Cat and the Canary, The Monster, or the creepy concoctions offered up by Tod Browning during the 1920s were viewed as thrillers and melodramas which just happened to elicit a few chills in audiences. It is interesting to note that Phantom’s original cut had many more horrific elements which were taken out of the general release since Universal found the preview audience’s terror to be a negative thing!
The plot concerns a young artist, Margaret Dauncey (Ingram regular and spouse Alice Terry), who finds herself injured while sculpting. The injury is serious and threatens to cripple her for life, but the brilliant surgeon Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich) is able to repair her spine without a hitch. Several doctors and medical students have gathered to observe the operation. Everyone is impressed—everyone except Oliver Haddo (Paul Wergener, whom you might know as The Golem).
Haddo is man with bigger ambitions on his mind, specifically creating life using the black arts. While perusing through the ancient tomes at the library, he finally finds the recipe for creating life a la the Middle Ages, but there is one ingredient which he hasn’t access to: the blood of a blonde, blue-eyed, female virgin. And apparently the sole person to possess all four of those credentials is Margaret herself, who’s recently taken to dating Arthur. Haddo plans on nabbing the girl somehow, but when you look like the villain of a German Expressionistic movie (or as Arthur puts it, out of a Victorian melodrama) and your manners aren’t the best, it’s hard to convince a woman to come within ten feet of you, let alone anything else.
But Haddo is not to be deterred. Using some magic tricks and putting Margaret under hypnosis so that she imagines being part of a demonic orgy and fondled by a lusty satyr (don’t ask), Haddo convinces Margaret to abandon Arthur and marry him; however, he does not consummate the marriage, preferring to keep her virginity intact. When Arthur tries to dissuade her from the union, Margaret asserts, “I have no control. I no longer have a will… no longer a soul I can call my own.” As Arthur discovers Haddo’s intentions, he and his party must race to the Gothic tower where Haddo and his hunchbacked assistant prepare the life-creating ritual, with a bound and gagged Margaret looking on, waiting to be cut to pieces…
Doesn’t that last sentence just ooze classic Universal horror? Indeed, the best scenes of The Magician feel like prototypical horror moments. Margaret’s hypnosis-induced nightmare feels like a scene right out of The Divine Comedy, though none of the damned souls on the scene look unhappy to be there sexing things up. The climax in the tower has all the tropes, played straight and absolutely unfiltered. A wide-eyed heroine tied down and whimpering at the sight of the villain’s sharpened instruments. A dwarf assistant. Thunder crackling. The bland hero racing to the rescue. Even the final image of the tower crumbling as the lovers look on feels like a precursor to the finale of Bride of Frankenstein, after the Monster has hit the self-destruct lever and permitted Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein to escape with their lives. Of course, here there is no equivalent to Karloff’s outcast; Haddo is a ham-tastic bad guy, played with old-fashioned excess by German actor/director Paul Wegener.
Wegener was specifically sought out by Ingram, no doubt due to his immense presence in early German horror cinema. Arthur has it right on the head when he points out that Haddo comes off like an old-fashioned melodramatic villain: Wegener is brimming with theatricality and there is nothing natural about his performance whatsoever. The assistant director, a young Michael Powell of Powell and Pressburger fame, was unimpressed by Wegener both onscreen and off, but watching the film now, Wegener is the only actor who leaves any mark on the memory. Subtle he is not, but his performance is never boring.
Even so, it isn’t too hard to discern why this film is only ever mentioned in relation to Whale’s Frankenstein or the burgeoning American horror genre. While it has all the ingredients for a good thriller and is in some respects ahead of the game in regards to cinematic horror, only Margaret’s hypnotic dream and the climax in the tower are truly memorable. The heroes as played by Terry and Petrovich just aren’t interesting, though to be fair during the first American horror cycle of the 1930s, this is a trend that would live on with only the rarest of exceptions. The plot feels anemic, struggling to sustain interest in some patches of its seventy minute runtime.
Still, it’s not a bad film. One wishes Ingram and the other filmmakers would have tossed a little more of the gothic in there and created more haunting moments like Margaret’s hellish dream, but the film will be interesting to film buffs for just how much later horror films do owe it. If you wanted to make a swell double feature of it, then throw on Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 talkie masterpiece The Black Cat afterward, another film about an occultist after the blood of a virgin, or perhaps put on The Cat and the Canary from 1927, a silent horror-comedy which also influenced James Whale.
This has been part of the Silent Cinema blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. Check out the roster and spread the silent film love!