The Magician (1926)

The Magician (1926)‘If you wish to see strange things, I have the power to show them to you.’

A beautiful sculptress living in Paris is saved from paralysis by a handsome American doctor. The two fall in love, but she has become the obsession of a charismatic mystic with plans to create life using sorcery.

Writer-director and actor Rex Ingram was one of the first auteurs in the history of cinema. His films were released through MGM, but he had full creative control and usually filmed at his own studios in France, despite legendary arguments with the studio head Louis B. Mayer. Why was he allowed such unprecedented artistic freedom? Because he had delivered the most successful silent movie of all time (adjusted for inflation!) It was called ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ (1921) and gave the world Rudolph Valentino. Another film with the legendary screen idol followed before Ingram pulled the trick again (admittedly to a slightly lesser extent) by making a star out of Ramon Novarro. In 1922, Ingram married his perennial leading lady, and big star, Alice Terry. They were as much Hollywood royalty as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Unfortunately, everything started to unravel for Ingram with the big budget ‘Mare Nostrum’ (1926), and the deterioration continued with this project, loosely based on the novel W Somerset Maugham.

Having said that, the film’s opening is undeniably impressive. We join Terry in her Left Bank studio working on a giant bust of a faun’s head. It’s a striking creation, and actually the work of famous artist Paul Dardé commissioned especially for the film. Unfortunately, the statue falls apart as soon as it’s finished and one of the larger fragments crushes her spine. Enter stage right Ivàn Petrovich as super young, super handsome super surgeon Arthur Burdon who fixes her up with an operation under the watchful eyes of a roomful of medical students. One of these is a rather mature Paul Wegener: hypnotist, mystic and all round crazy man. He takes quite a fancy to Terry, as does Petrovich, but while the medicos intentions are romantic, his are far more sinister.

Terry recovers from the op without a scratch and starts making the old goo-goo eyes with Petrovich, but Wegener soon has her under his dastardly spell. This involves showing her a vision of hell, which is rather near the knuckle, given the vintage of the production. Actually, it’s the film’s most impressive sequence, and an obvious influence on the later Spencer Tracy vehicle ‘Dante’s Inferno’ (1935), mainly because both were shot by producer Harry Lachman after Ingram became bored with the sequence and left the set (as he often did apparently!) From there, it’s rather a roundabout trip to the watchtower filled with strange equipment and a dwarf assistant (UniversaI’s ‘Frankenstein’ series, anyone?) via an entirely pointless diversion to the gaming houses of Monte Carlo.

Ingram was obviously minded to make a surrealistic horror in the mould of German expressionist classics such as ‘The Cabinet of Dr CaIigari’ (1919), and F W Murnau’s monumental ‘Nosferatu’ (1922) and ‘Faust’ (1926). He also may have intended some subtext regarding the theme of ‘alchemy versus science’ (the villain in the original novel was allegedly based on notorious occultist Aleister Crowley) but, the hell sequence apart, his film is far too conventional to achieve such levels of meaning or intensity.

Even having Wegener in the title role is a mistake, although it must have seemed like a tremendous coup at first. The German writer-director-star had delivered what was arguably the world’s first feature length horror film with ‘The Student of Prague’ (1913), and had followed that with a trilogy about ‘The Golem’, a giant clay statue brought to life by means of magic. Wegener’s acting style suited those projects perfectly, but it’s simply too theatrical here, and at odds with the more naturalistic approach of the remainder of the cast. This leads one character to remark that the hypnotist is like ‘something out of an old melodrama’, a title card possibly introduced at a later date to explain Wegener’s histrionic performance.

Also appearing here in a bit part is a young Michael Powell. Serving initially as Lachman’s gopher, the world famous film director got his start in the business as a member of Ingram’s company. Recalling his experiences on this film in his essential memoir ‘A Life In Movies’, Powell reveals he worked in many minor capacities behind the scenes, learning the business from the bottom up. He also paints an unflattering portrait of Wegener as inflexible, arrogant and condescending, constantly disappearing in a cloud of foul cigar smoke.

The Magician (1926)

‘Hell’s Kitchen’ had a new contestant…

Ultimately, Powell did not rate the finished product and audiences were also less than enthusiastic. lngram made only two more silent pictures and one talkie (‘Baroud’ (1932)), but never came close to emulating his earlier success. Difficult relationships with producers and studios, combined with these latter poor box office returns meant that his career was effectively over only a decade after he was one of the most successful filmmakers in the world.

Of undoubted historical interest, this is unfortunately a fairly dull experience, particularly in the middle third. However, it is worth watching for the stand out sequences, which proved highly influential on the development of the supernatural film in the 1930s and beyond.

The Mysterious Island (1929)

Mysterious_Island_(1929)‘We may even reopen the lower depths and see the people of the abyss…’

Scientist and inventor Count Dahkar works at his island fortress on a new deep sea submarine. Unfortunately, one of his friends is a ruthless politician who sees the invention as the perfect means to take control of the government.

Filming on this high profile, big budget production from MGM began in 1926. It had precious little to do with Jules Verne, with the only similarities to his novel being the presence of a sophisticated submarine and the title. Lionel Barrymore, one of the biggest stars of the era, top lined as the heroic Count and the film was shot in colour, a rare and expensive process at the time. In all aspects, the considerable financial weight of the studio was behind it.

Unfortunately, things went badly wrong toward the end of filming. The blame didn’t rest on original director Lucien Hubbard, or his technical crew. It was outside their control completely. Sound had arrived. Audiences were queueing around the world to see Al Jolson speak in ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927), and MGM blinked first. Unhappy with the prospects of losing their shirts on a silent picture, they ordered reshoots with sound. The technology was brand new, and there were inevitable delays as the filmmakers struggled to get to grips with it. Then the studio decided that they weren’t happy with the underwater model work and SFX, so they ordered everything redone. The shoot dragged on…and on. Costs spiralled out of control.

Eventually, the film crawled out onto screens more than 3 years after filming had begun, an unprecedented length of time for the era when it was made. Studio executives held their breath. And it flopped. Massively. So great was the financial disaster that the major studios stayed away from Science Fiction for years afterwards, believing it to be box office poison.

So exactly how bad is it? Well, not that bad at all, really. Sure, it’s no classic, but, as early Science Fiction goes it’s fairly decent, and the studio’s decision to retool the SFX was perhaps justifiable, given the more than acceptable results. These include a visit to the ‘depths of the abyss’ where our heroes tangle with an underwater dragon and a strange race of small humanoids. These sequences are the best in the film, and provide a good level of action and entertainment. Back on land, however, things are a little soggier with character interactions completely predictable and the inevitable half-baked romance between the Count’s daughter and the brave, but low born, chief engineer. The villain has designs on her as well, of course.

The Mysterious Island (1929)

‘It’s a sign!’

The addition of the dialogue sequences into the picture is a little clumsy and it does make for a strange viewing experience today. It would undoubtedly have been better to leave the film completely silent or reshoot it all with sound. But, to be fair to the studio, this piecemeal approach hadn’t harmed the box office of Jolson’s triumph and, with sound pictures still a somewhat unknown quantity, it’s an understandable decision.

For many years it was thought that only slightly incomplete black and white prints of the film had survived, and indeed that was the version that I saw. However, a colour print surfaced recently in Eastern Europe and it can be hoped that this more accurate vision of the filmmaker’s intentions will be made available for general viewing in the future.

High Treason (1929)

High Treason (1929)‘I can’t possibly come out tonight, we’ve got to stop this war.’

In the near future, the world is ruled by two superpowers; the Atlantic States and the Federated States of Europe. Relations between the two are already tense and, behind the scenes, a cartel of arms manufacturers plan to escalate the situation into all-out war.

This slice of early British prophetic Science Fiction was filmed in both silent and ‘talking’ versions, the latter of which was thought lost for many years. The action begins on the border between the two superpowers, where an incident with rum runners sparks a shootout between the border guards on either side. We assume that this is the U.S./Canadian border (where else could it be?), although that would mean that Canada is now part of Europe. Well, it’s possible I guess; it is a member of the Commonwealth, after all. Hell of a job policing that border, though, which begs the question why don’t the smugglers simply walk across somewhere else? Anyway, everyone has fold-out passports, which look pretty cool, although probably quite impractical.

Caught up in these international ramifications are dashing Airforce officer Basil Gill and his gal Benita Hume. There are problems with the relationship already, though; she’s the pretty daughter of the leader of the World Peace Movement, a highly influential organisation that wield almost as much global power as the two governments in question. The story develops with the embers of War being stoked by leaders of the international arms trade, who actually perform acts of terrorism to provoke the conflict. Now, why would that sound kind of familiar?

Unfortunately, the straight-laced, moralistic tone of the film is rather overbearing, and there’s little audience investment possible in our star-crossed leads. Hume and Gill are just too stilted and unconvincing, although it can’t have been easy playing a scene for the silent version, and then attempting the unfamiliar talking medium a few moments later. A tense aerodrome stand-off between regular troops and conscripted women who refuse to fight is the films’ most effective sequence, even if it is too conveniently resolved. Curiously, the silent version is set in 1950, but the talking one takes place 10 years earlier! It’s a strange decision on the part of the filmmakers. There are a few other differences too; most notably that the attack on London and the Peace HQ is real in one version; but only part of a vision in the other. This may have been down to the territories in which each version was released, of course.

High_Treason (1929)

‘These speakers go up to 11 you know…’

Most of the enjoyment a contemporary audience will derive is by comparing the filmmaker’s vision with how things actually turned out. The City of London is all skyscrapers, elevated motorways and monorails, with lots of small planes buzzing between. Yes, it’s a cut-price ‘Metropolis’ (1926) but with poorer model work. There are daily television news broadcasts though, and we have the Channel Tunnel and Videophones. The technology isn’t always reliable though, which is where the film is at its most accurate!

On the other hand, detachable sleeves and hairdryers on rubber tubes haven’t really caught on, although the walk in shower/drying/dressing unit probably still could. There’s a full band playing at a nightclub dance, with all instruments operated by one man at a keyboard, and a President of Europe is something that looks less likely with every passing year.

But I think the film’s most interesting for a few seconds that happen in each version just before the half hour. Our handsome hero walks through the Peace Headquarters on his way to meet his gal, and all the secretaries in the main hall follow him with their eyes. There’s a brief mid-shot of one of them fixing her makeup. But, hang on a moment, isn’t that film icon Louise Brooks?! Surely that’s her! What other woman of the time had THAT haircut? Or that face?! And the shot is completely unnecessary, and doesn’t really ‘fit’. It looks spliced in from another source.

Circumstantial evidence backs the notion; Brooks had been filming in Europe in the late 1920s and may well have stopped off in the U.K. on her way back home. She was arguing vociferously with MGM at the time, and it would have been typical of her to do a bit of moonlighting just to assert her independence and spite the studio. Sadly, I can find absolutely no corroboration of my assertion anywhere at all, not on the web or in any literature about her. But I’m almost positive.

A somewhat creaky enterprise all told; worth watching to compare this ‘future’ with the real thing. And worth watching for that brief appearance by Louise Brooks!