The Magician (1926)

Director: Rex Ingram

William Everson’s book on classic horror observes of Rex Ingram that his films “invariably and automatically disappoint” these days (well, by the mid-70s). Clearly that’s why I found myself enjoying this (and why I liked three others of the six Ingram films I’ve seen) when I watched it tonight, after long years of wishing that I could… It’s adapted from Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name, based on the career of that notable early 20th century figure Aleister Crowley, which I’ve not read but I know enough of Crowley’s life to know he would’ve found it unflattering (as he did), and the equation of Oliver Haddo with uncle Al is imprecise at best anyway. Ingram was something of a prestige figure in 1920s Hollywood—James Joyce, of all people, actually namechecks him in Finnegans Wake, apparently (Ingram was Irish)—although by this time he’d set up shop in France and kept his physical distance from Tinseltown, hence the rather multinational cast, most notably Paul Wegener as Haddo. The story involves the latter working on an alchemical experiment in the creation of life, the key ingredient of which is the blood from a virgin’s heart. Young Margaret—played by Mrs Ingram, Alice Terry, who Everson rather ungraciously accuses of being too “mature” for this part—is just right for the task, he decides, and soon it’s up to Dr Arthur Burdon (Ivan Petrovich, who would soon co-star with Wegener in that other great tale of the magical creation of life Alraune) to save his beloved from Wegener’s hamming… er, machinations. Yeah, Wegener’s a bit porky in the title role, but let’s face it, The Magician is that sort of film; it’s not the high quality literary adaptation that Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was, for example, rather it’s a perfectly efficient potboiler (the original novel doesn’t appear to have been mega-high calibre stuff itself). And there’s nothing wrong with being that sort of thing, of course, when it’s done well, as I think it is here. Even if I do kind of wish Emil Jannings had played Haddo rather than Wegener, it’s a nicely executed bit of work that must’ve had at least some influence on Mr Whale’s Frankenstein a few years later; plus I got the Warner Archive disc on sale for just US$8, so no complaints in that department either…

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