The Magician (1926) A Silent Film Review

Rex Ingram dips his toes in horror with this adaptation of the novel by Somerset Maugham. Paul Wegener needs some virgin blood and Alice Terry is the unwilling donor.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Extra Virgin

Rex Ingram was one of the more interesting directors of the silent era. The Dublin native is mostly remembered today for showcasing Rudolph Valentino and his tango to best advantage in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but he was a prolific director who worked in a variety of genres and also assisted Ramon Novarro in attaining stardom.

Alice Terry in Wookie fur.

Ingram’s films are achingly beautiful; his longtime collaboration with cinematographer John F. Seitz assured that. And while he discovered two Latin Lovers, the one constant in his acting troupe was his wife, Alice Terry. Ingram and Terry and relocated to Europe by the mid-1920s and they continued to make pictures for what is now known as MGM. (The studio’s name went through a few iterations during this period, from Metro-Goldwyn to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer but I am using MGM as a catch-all for the sake of simplicity.)

Alas, Ingram’s eye for the grotesque and his attraction to the moody came at a price: his leaden pacing and his insistence on including clunky comedy relief tended to kill any momentum in his films. Like Maurice Tourneur, he was drawn to plodding beauty like a moth to flame. So, going into The Magician, I was curious to see whether the horror genre would encourage him to pick up the pace the way swashbuckling had in Scaramouche, his best film and one of my favorite silents of all time.

Just a normal medical student and not someone who partakes in mad science, nosirree.

The Magician is also interesting because it is a chance to see director-actor Paul Wegener in a Hollywood-ish picture. Already a horror icon because of The Golem, Wegener rarely ventured out of Germany.

The film opens with would-be artist Margaret Dauncey (Alice Terry) sculpting an enormous clay statue of a faun. The clay gives way and falls on her, paralyzing her. (Always make sure your armature can support your medium, people! This is Art 101 stuff.) Fortunately, her uncle Dr. Porhoet (Firmin Gémier) knows a brilliant young surgeon. Dr. Arthur Burdon (Iván Petrovich) not only heals Margaret’s injuries, he also begins to court her.

In hindsight, using dry spaghetti to hold up the statue was not the smartest move.

This may seem like a breach of medical ethics but it’s nothing compared to what Oliver Haddo (Paul Wegener) has in mind. He and Dr. Porhoet are trying to mix magic with medicine in order to create life from scratch but when Haddo finds the ancient spell, he conceals it and decides to pursue the breakthrough alone. The spell calls for all the usual things: eye of newt, pickled worms and, oh yes, the blood of a blonde, blue-eyed maiden.

These virgin blood plots always make me roll my eyes. As a medical student of some kind, Haddo would have had access to patients and their bodily fluids. Find an ill kid, pretend that you’re trying experimental treatment, boom, there’s your virgin’s blood. It’s not that difficult. But no, he sets his eyes on Margaret because a Parisian Bohemian pushing thirty with lots of friends who will miss her if she disappears and an uncle interested in the occult is clearly the best bet.

Worst. Hypnotherapist. Ever.

So, after killing off a snake charmer in order to demonstrate his powers, he sets about a campaign of mind control and psychedelic visions that culminate in Margaret dumping Arthur and marrying Haddo. The pair flee the country but Porhoet believes that there is something sinister afoot and so he and Authur pursue them, first to Monte Carlo and then to Haddo’s old family seat. It’s a gnarled tower atop a cliff, not much but he calls it home.

Will Arthur save the day in the ta-da! nick of time or will Margaret’s blood fuel Haddo’s mad science? See The Magician to find out!

Side plots that go nowhere, hurrah!

I have to say, that I have mixed feelings about this picture. There are some spectacular visual moments but the film is a bit of a slog overall and the return to damselhood for Alice Terry is disappointing after her fierce turn as a Mata Hari-like spy in Mare Nostrum, released the same year. In general, the cast is… fine? Wegener hams things up but that kind of comes with the mad science territory and I can’t fault him for it.

Unfortunately, the screenplay lacks focus and we are stuck with a meandering storyline. The sequence at Monte Carlo seems particularly odd and out of place. After establishing that Haddo was obsessed with this formula and that the virgin was the only missing component, instead of returning to his laboratory he… uses Margaret as a front for gambling? I realize magical powders and such don’t buy themselves but money never seemed to be an issue for the character.

We do, however, get lots of local color.

Frankly, this seems like the Monte sequence was a case of too many resources. There was no reason at all for the film to become a globe-trotter and, frankly, I think the changes in location spoil any momentum. (Which, being a Rex Ingram film, ain’t that great to begin with.) But Monte Carlo was there so they shot it.

Remember, The Magician was made after Rex Ingram and Alice Terry, his wife and collaborator, had quit Hollywood for Europe. The move was possibly linked to Ingram definitively losing his dream assignment of directing Ben-Hur while his cinematic discovery, Ramon Novarro, was awarded the lead role. (Though I should note that Ingram had made three straight films on location before The Magician so maybe he just liked the change of air. In any case, he didn’t like his new boss, Louis B. Mayer.)

The ideal spot for the old helium-balloon-in-a-hat trick.

Also, Rex Ingram never could manage comedy and the gags found in The Magician are among his worst attempts. During the snake charmer scene, a young musician is bitten and carried away to the hospital but in the midst of it all, a character loses his hat when he accidentally sets it on top of a helium balloon. Later, Haddo’s diminutive assistant ends up hanging from a tree by his pants while the film’s dramatic climax and blazing tower play out behind him.

The secret of Ingram is that, for all his artistic pretensions, there was a very good genre film director screaming to get out. My favorite of his films, Scaramouche, a pure blood and thunder romance of the French Revolution based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini. With no place to dawdle, Ingram finally managed to balance beauty with excitement.

Sinning, hellish ballerinas

In The Magician, There are some lovely, moody moments courtesy of cinematographer John F. Seitz, but at its heart, it’s a mad scientist movie with an orgy that would have warmed the cockles of Cecil B. DeMille’s heart. Ingram just seemed hesitant to admit this fact.

The film’s two big set pieces and its most successful scenes are the ones that embrace its genre wholeheartedly: the aforementioned orgy and the climactic battle to stop Haddo from completing his experiment. Both scenes are lit to perfection by Seitz and they have an energy that is lacking in much of the rest of the film.

Blood of a maiden, huh?

In the fantasy sequence, Margaret is hypnotized by Haddo and imagines herself about to be ravished by her own faun (famed dancer Hubert J. Stowitts). It’s pretty wild stuff and displays the kind of outrageous tastelessness that Ingram would have done well to give into more often.

The battle to rescue Margaret is your standard cross-cut race to the rescue but it’s done exceptionally well with Haddo brandishing a knife and threatening to throw Arthur into a white hot furnace. There is, of course, a raging storm outside and all the moody atmosphere you could ask for.

That’s it, Haddo gets a D in medical ethics.

There are also interesting visual details sprinkled throughout film: Haddo’s breath fogging up the operating theater glass as Margaret is undergoing surgery, gargoyles everywhere, there’s a lot to see in this picture.

We should address the question of the film’s influence. While I believe that The Magician was likely inspirational to filmmakers working in the darker genres, I am always a bit of a skeptic when too many innovations are attributed to a single picture. I should point out that moody lighting had been a Hollywood staple since at least the 1910s and The Bat, The Bells, The Cat and the Canary and The Last Warning are all examples of the merging of Hollywood and Weimar cinematic styles. In short, I would be a bit cautious about attributing every talkie era shot of a moody castle to The Magician’s influence.

It was a dark and stormy… oh, you know the rest.

There was some kind of rule that every other silent era film had to be based on a work of W. Somerset Maugham but Maugham himself didn’t find The Magician to be terribly memorable. The book was inspired by a tiff between Maugham and author and occultist Aleister Crowley, with the latter none too amused by the portrayal and taking time out of his busy schedule of killing non-white residents of the British Empire to write a rebuttal.

Crowley claimed that Maugham was a plagiarist, stealing his plot from other novels and sourcebooks. But that can really be called “research” and the notion of a mad scientist vivisecting together a new form of life cannot be considered a unique, copyright-ready idea. I have read Crowley’s piece and it’s basically quoting gigantic chunks of the allegedly plagiarized content and cherry-picking similar words and turns of phrase but there is absolutely no smoking gun and it’s a testament to Crowley’s celebrity that it was published at all.

Hey, the heart blood of a maiden is copyrighted!

In short, Maugham was no more a plagiarist that H.G. Welles was. You mad, bro? Because you seem mad.

Crowley later apparently attempted to blackmail MGM into a film deal by threatening to block the film’s release due to its using his likeness without his permission. While MGM was willing to pay him off, they did not accede to his demands for a platform and the matter fizzled. They obviously recognized that “This deranged maniac who imperils Alice Terry for nefarious, occult purposes is clearly based on me!” was not a winning legal argument.

It me.

(Seriously, though, Crowley’s tendency to leave native residents dead in his globetrotting adventures fits Haddo’s callous killing of the snake charmer to a T. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Crowley really was wandering around looking for virgin blood. And to any Aleister Crowley fans: I am still dealing with offended, sobbing Hoosiers due to my James Whitcomb Riley-based review so please form an orderly line behind the velvet rope. Thank you.)

The Maugham book has many key differences from the film, the main one being (spoiler) Margaret’s friends do not arrive to save her in the nick of time. She is murdered by Haddo and her blood used to create a new life, which is discovered by Arthur and his friends when they storm the castle:

3/4 of science is pouring bottles into other bottles.

“But what immediately attracted their attention was a row of those large glass vessels like that which they had seen in the adjoining room. Each was covered with a white cloth. They hesitated a moment, for they knew that here they were face to face with the great enigma. At last Arthur pulled away the cloth from one. None of them spoke. They stared with astonished eyes. For here, too, was a strange mass of flesh, almost as large as a new-born child, but there was in it the beginnings of something ghastly human.”

Arthur burns the laboratory and finds love with Margaret’s best friend. A subplot of the book is his finally accepting the mystical and its power in his life. Ingram, of course, opted for a Hollywood ending and a fistfight to the death with Arthur as skeptical at the end of the film as he was at the beginning.

(You can read a public domain version of the novel here.)

Decidedly unmystical.

The book isn’t really great literature but it does a better job than the film of setting up a rivalry between Arthur and Haddo and making Haddo’s pursuit of Margaret as much about revenging himself on his rival for perceived slights as it was about his experiments. The film would have you believe that Margaret was the only blonde in Paris, a strange claim at a time when the city was bursting with emigres fleeing the Russian Revolution.

Woot!

The Magician doesn’t really do it for me. There are some splendid set pieces and moody moments but for the most part, it’s the old Ingram slog. I wouldn’t classify it as terrible or anything and it’s probably worth seeing if you like the director, cast or genre, I just think it could have lost a few reels and benefited.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD by Warner Archive with a score by Robert Israel.

☙❦❧

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2 Replies to “The Magician (1926) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Once again you’ve helped me put my finger on why I ‘almost like’ a film, in this case ‘The Magician.’ I found myself saying ‘oh, yeah…’ to each of your points.

    And there’s one other thing that I recall bothered me when I first watched it a few years ago: the image of a dainty, elegant lady like Alice Terry hacking away at a hunk of stone or clay or whatever that’s four times her size. Somehow it works for Diana Rigg in ‘The Avengers,’ but I’d rather see Alice painting teacups or watercolor miniatures.

    1. I’ve never worked clay on anywhere near that scale but I would never attempt such a thing without a proper support structure. I realize that the injury was integral to the plot but it established her as a not-so-good artist from the very beginning. Agreed: teacups were more her line. (Though given her competence, I wouldn’t trust her near the kiln to fire the glaze.)

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