Monday 15 March 2010

The Magician (1926)

Director: Rex Ingram
Stars: Alice Terry, Paul Wegener and Iván Petrovich
This little seen silent horror film, a Metro-Goldwyn picture released in 1926, is more than a little ahead of its time and could easily claim to have directly influenced the Universal horrors that would come soon after. To be fair Universal already had a number of silent horrors behind them, not least the Lon Chaney versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 and The Phantom of the Opera two years later, but even The Cat and the Canary was still to come, let alone the sound era with Dracula, Frankenstein and all the other monsters. Yet this seems to be an primary inspiration for much of what followed. Its impact should not be ignored, regardless of how rarely seen it happens to be.

It's a gothic horror set in Paris, where we're immediately shown the sights, iconic landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and Cleopatra's Needle, from a roof that sports a few gargoyles, perhaps even Notre Dame. In the Latin Quarter, a sculptor called Margaret Dauncey has a little accident, even though she's played by Alice Terry, the wife of the director Rex Ingram, for whom she made 16 of her 39 films, most of which are sadly lost today. Hard at work on a huge statue that appears to be a demonic figure with horns and animal legs, some sort of satyr or demon, it proves as dangerous as its subject matter, the huge head shearing off and pinning Margaret to the ground.

This severely injures her spine, leaving her completely paralysed, but her uncle and guardian, Dr Porhoët, calls in an American surgeon called Dr Arthur Burdon who saves her life in a daring operation. He's played by Iván Petrovich, so hardly an American, instead being an Austro-Hungarian by birth, and I've only ever seen him at the other end of his career, in a small part in Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows in 1958. The packed house of doctors, who have travelled to Paris to watch the surgery are enthralled by him. They call him a magician because of his skill and perhaps because he manages to capture her heart afterwards, soon becoming engaged to her, but he's not the magician of the title.

That would be the suitably caped Oliver Haddo, based on the notorious English occultist Aleister Crowley, who attends the surgery and laughs at the praise being lavished on Burdon. 'Nonsense!' he says. 'The saving of human life is a comparatively simple matter. On the other hand, the scientific creation of life does indeed call for the powers of a magician.' And sure enough, that's what he's dreaming of. He's been scouring the Library of the Arsenal, a suitably Lovecraftian collection of musty volumes of ancient magic, in search of a forbidden formula, the secret of the alchemical creation of human life through magic. He finds it too, which is probably why Crowley was so upset at Maugham's novel, because while his fictional self finds such a powerful secret his real self didn't.

Just in case you're interested in trying it yourself, by the way, a list of ingredients is provided but you'd have to go talk with Oliver Haddo to find out what they are because he steals the page. Perhaps it survived the inevitable burning and castle explosion, because such things have a habit of so doing in classic horror stories. Once you have them, just keep them all at 115 degrees Fahrenheit then add in the heart blood of a maiden. Virgin's blood can still be found, even today, but you'd have to go farther afield than my neighbourhood to get it, as we later discover that it must be Aryan blood, from a maiden fair of hair and skin and with the inevitable blue eyes.

And so Haddo starts horning in on the good doctor, trying and eventually succeeding in stealing away his woman. He's there in the park where Margaret tells Arthur that she would have asked him to pick a rose for her, if only there wasn't a sign prohibiting it. Haddo picks it for her anyway, following Crowley's famous credo, 'Do what thou wilt shalt be the whole of the law.' At this point she isn't impressed with him. 'He looks as if he had stepped out of a melodrama,' she suggests, which is fair comment given his portentious demeanour and his hypnotic eyes. He's there at the Fair at the Lion de Belfort too, using his magic to protect him from harm when being deliberately bitten by a horned viper and then to even heal the wound. Now she's a little more impressed.

It's when he turns up to her house unbidden the next day that she gets hooked, albeit not in a way she would have ever wished. He's there ostensibly to apologise but really to hypnotise her with his eyes and his piano playing. 'If you wish to see strange things,' he tells her, 'I have the power to show them to you.' Sure enough he promptly turns her statue of a faun's head into a real faun, who presides over what can only be described as a debauched Bacchanalia right out of Hieronymous Bosch or perhaps Häxan, into which he conjures them both. She tries to forget him after that but he manages to summon her to him through a written invitation that seems to carry a hypnotic command. Next thing we know, she sends a note on the very morning of the wedding to her fiancé pointing out that she's just married Oliver Haddo.
While many of the Victorian gothic romances touched on many of the same subjects, this story came a little late, 1908 being technically seven years after the end of the Victorian era. Yet it still feels influential in what it put on the screen. Haddo's stronghold in Latourette in an ancient sorcerer's tower is rather reminiscent of Castle Frankenstein and the laboratory within it even more similar, not least because he has a dwarf assistant, played by Henry Wilson, who had previously appeared in a couple of Sherlock Holmes silents in 1923, as a baboon in The Speckled Band and a pygmy in The Sign of Four. Demented assistant to a crazed alchemist would therefore seem to be a step up for him, even though he ends up hanging from a tree half naked with a bat pecking at him.

I can't help but remember the Jurassic Park/Carnosaur quandary. Carnosaur the film was a rip off of Jurassic Park the film, but both were based on books and Carnosaur was written first. Similarly this seems to be an obvious inspiration for the 1931 Universal version of Frankenstein, even though both films were based on novels and Mary Shelley's predates Somerset Maugham's by a full ninety years. What's more, when Aleister Crowley accused Maugham of plaguarism in a full page article for Vanity Fair, he didn't list Frankenstein among the works he suggested Maugham stole his story from. Perhaps then Rex Ingram, best known for his silent films, is the true influence on the Universal horrors rather than the source material he used.

Another influence has to be Paul Wegener, who plays Haddo, with eyes that often remind of what Bela Lugosi would make his own only five years later. Here he's something of a cross between Lugosi's hypnotic eyes and facial features with the bulk of Tor Johnson. It's a strange and unnerving mix. He was a coup for Rex Ingram, being vastly experienced in the horror genre in Germany but appearing here in his only American film. What wonderful things Universal could have done with him in the thirties are unfortunately now confined to our imagination as he stayed in Germany throughout the Nazi era until his death in 1948.

He had appeared in The Student of Prague as far back as 1913 and began his Golem series in 1915 with The Golem, unfortunately a much sought after lost film today, then spoofed it with his wife Lyda Salmonova in 1917 as The Golem and The Dancing Girl, also lost, and then remade his own film as The Golem: How He Came into the World in 1920, one of the great German expressionist horror movies which has thankfully survived today and sits alongside The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu as the foundation of expressionistic horror. He made other films with a supernatural theme or element, such as 1916's The Yogi, 1918's The Pied Piper of Hamelin and The Lost Shadow in 1921 all predating this one with others like Svengali following afterwards.

I should also mention one other name, Michael Powell, the great English director who had such a great filmmaking partnership with Emeric Pressburger in the forties. The Magician marks his earliest work, as both assistant director and actor, given that he gets a brief comic turn in the snakecharmer's tent with a balloon and a top hat. He'd assist Ingram again on The Garden of Allah a year later, another film featuring Alice Terry and Iván Petrovich, then rack up all sorts of odd credits wherever he could find them. He was at various points an editor, a second unit director, a set designer, a still photographer, a grip, an assistant cameraman and an actor, apparently learning the trade by doing it all.

By the time he became a director, his first directorial credit coming in 1931 for Two Crowded Hours, he knew precisely what he was doing, though unfortunately most of his early films are lost. The earliest I've seen thus far is 1937's The Edge of the World. I wonder what he thought of this beginning in film given the heights to which he soon soared. His late twenties work in England included a number of films for Alfred Hitchcock. His thirties films are lesser known, mostly because many no longer exist, but his work in the forties with Pressburger includes some of the greatest movies ever to be made in England. The fifties may have been less impressive but only given what he'd done a decade earlier and it ended with the amazing but massively misunderstood psychological horror film, Peeping Tom, which singlehandedly killed his career. If only he had had one of those books of ancient lore from the Library of the Arsenal that could have alchemically hypnotised his critics into silence.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Los Angeles magician Tom Ogden was twice voted a Magician of the Year by the Magic Castle in Hollywood.