Directed by Rex Ingram
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Cast: Alice Terry (Margaret Dauncey), Paul Wegener (Oliver Haddo), Ivan Petrovich (Dr. Arthur Burdon), Firmin Gemier (Dr. Porhoet), Gladys Hamer (Susie Bond)
Margaret Dauncey is a sculptress in Paris. She is hurt one day when a huge clay statue on which she is working collapses and falls on her. She is likely to be paralyzed for the rest of her life so her uncle and guardian, Dr. Porhoet, calls in the famous American surgeon Dr. Arthur Burdon who is practicing in Europe. His operation is a success. Viewed by many other interested purposed in an amphitheatre setting in the hospital, a strange occultist, Oliver Haddo, takes a special interest. Dr. Burdon and Margaret begin to see each other, and Haddo strangely shows up everywhere they go, forcing his company on them. One day when Margaret's friend, Susie, leaves the apartment-studio, Haddo lets himself in. Thus begins his hypnotism of her, and she eventually leaves Burdon a note that she has gone away and married Haddo. Porhoet and Burdon learn that Haddo was in a mental institution. He has discovered an old alchemist's book that claim to have a formula for creating life - and one of the ingredients is the blood of a maiden. Porhoet and Burdon rescue Margaret in Monte Carlo, but she, weirdly, is drawn back to Haddo. Haddo takes her to his laboratory in an old sorcerer's tower high on a hill high above a small French village. It is up to Porhoet and Burdon to find Margaret before Haddo completes his experiment.
"The Magician" will prove to be a surprising film - surprising in that is a very enjoyable and contains many good moments. Why is that surprising? Based on a W. Somerset Maugham story, it is the height of melodrama and could almost be considered "corny" in some respects. After all, the whole premise for Haddo wanting Margaret is because he found an old alchemist's formula for creating life that requires "the heartblood of a maiden." In another example of "corniness," when Haddo tells Margaret she will never marry Burdon, the next title reads, "Oh! What shall I do? What shall I do?" Even in 1926, the Trilby-Svengali story (originally written in 1894) was old hat, and "The Magician" appears at first to be an uncomfortably close rip-off.
Nevertheless, Rex Ingram was one of the top directors of the silent era. With great films such as "The Conquering Power" (1921), "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921), "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1922), and "Scaramouche" (1923) to his credit, one would expect above average results from him even with an at best, average story - and he comes through.
The film has a quality look to it. Sets are convincing with attention to detail. Having been filmed in Europe, it obviously should have a continental flavor, and it does. There are beautiful shots of Paris, Monte Carlo, and the small village of Sospel in the mountains behind Nice where the sorcerer's tower was built, in addition to the Dome, the Café Royale and the Parc Monceau in Paris which were used for location shooting. The New York Times (Oct. 25, 1926) reviewer said, "Mr. Ingram again shows his genius in bolstering up the interest in scenes by his imagination and his keen attention to detail. The accuracy of the little ideas in this film is enough to make one marvel. One appreciates that a story might be dull and ordinary, but in Mr. Ingram's hands, it appears on the screen with subtlety, polish and spark."
The film opens with a beautiful, yet very interesting, shot. From a vantage point high atop an unknown building, we can see a panoramic view of Paris in 1926 with the Eiffel Tower in the hazy distance. What is striking, and no doubt symbolic of the gothic somberness of the story, are two gargoyles on the edge of the building, arched out over the city as if they are about to take flight and wreak havoc.
Then we go to Margaret's studio in the Latin Quarter where a clay statue of a very gruesome-looking Pan - chin in hand reminiscent of "The Thinker" - is being formed. This huge piece is two to three times taller than Margaret and fills the center of the room. With her are a male assistant and Susie, who, off to the side, works on a sketch. Susie, played by Gladys Hamer, only has a small part on the film, but adds some humor as she titles her sketch "Sunset Over the Seine." After a moment of contemplation, she erases the word "Sunset" and retitles it "Sunrise Over the Seine." With that, she leans back, a smile on her face, very satisfied. Throughout the film, Ingram adds some mild humor that always is appropriate and never comes across as forced.
We see Margaret turn her back to the statue to wash her hands. Suddenly a crack appears on the back of the gargantuan figure, and the very heavy head twists under its own weight. Susie screams as the head falls. Margaret turns to see what is happening, but is unable to get out of the way. The scene is well directed by Ingram, not with a simple cutaway and then a shot of Margaret on the floor - instead, we actually see the statue fall on her. She is unconscious. Susie runs to get help, and two men come to lift her from the floor.
Did Ingram get any technical assistant from someone in the medical profession for this film? A couple of curious points would indicate he did not. For example, if someone has unknown injuries - as is the case in such an accident - it seems odd that the two men would rush in and immediately lift her - one with hands under her arms and the other holding her feet - to move her to a bed. That, alone, could be the reason for her the paralysis she suffers. Also, Dr. Porhoet calls Dr. Burdon and informs him that his niece has a spinal injury, complete paralysis. On the basis of this information alone, Burdon says he will operate tomorrow. Wouldn't an examination be in order first?
Okay, enough nit picking. The story was meant to be entertaining, not pass the common sense test. So, at the amphitheater where the operation is taking place, Ingram gives us an appropriate introduction to Oliver Haddo, our villain. We see dozens of people standing behind the glass in a circular room watching intently as Burdon performs his surgical miracle. One face, though, looks much different - because it is frightening. Haddo has his face pressed very close to the glass where his breath has fogged the area close to his mouth. Hands are up at chin level and pressed to the glass. He stares as if in a trance, mouth turned down, eyes glaring - a menacing look and pose.
Paul Wegener essentially has no top lip, so his mouth always appears to be fixed firmly. His eyes are those of a man who is angry - and Wegener is to be commended for the piercing stare that is used to hypnotize his victim. He is not tall, but he is a large man with a wide face and large bone structure which adds to the intimidation one feels. Ingram did well in casting Wegener for the part because, based on looks alone, he is well suited. Of course, Wegener's acting is also to be commended. As noted before, it is a melodramatic part, but he carries it off well with a creepiness that makes us want to cringe at the thought of this man even touching our beautiful, fair-haired heroine.
There is one bit of business that Wegener performs a few times in the film that hearkens back to earlier, melodramatic villain days - and that many viewers will find "corny." He wears a cape - which is appropriate - however, in several scenes, he raises his chin in a haughty manner and takes the right side of the cape and throws it across his left shoulder. One would expect the next gesture to be a twirling of the moustache - but, alas, Haddo does not have one to twirl. Possibly Ingram intended this bit of business to help convey Haddo's insanity - at least we hope so.
Actually, Wegener was the only member of the cast who almost consistently came in for praise. Harrison's Reports (July 17, 1926) said he "does very good work. Variety (October 27, 1926) dared to compare Wegener with the esteemed Emil Jannings. "Wegener gives that characterization a startling fidelity and there are times when his work is on a par with some of the best things that Jannings has done." The New York Times said, "Paul Wegener, with good make-up, gives a restrained but thoroughly effective performance. . ."
As for the rest of the cast, The New York Times said Terry was "beautiful and phlegmatic." Harrison's Report was harsher noting, "Alice Terry . . . stalks through the picture as Trilby without showing a single flash of fire that would be worthy of comment." Petrovich's reviews were no better.
But, as with Wegener's performance, Ingram's direction received some (but not all) good notices. In particularly, the bacchanalian dream/illusion that Haddo conjures up for Margaret is imaginative and erotic - and succeeds in adding another frightening quality to Haddo's ability to control Margaret's mind. Alone with her in her studio, he has begun to bring her under his power and tells her, "If you wish to see strange things, I have the power to show them to you." Taking a pan of water, he sprinkles a powder in it, and it bursts into flames. When the flames die down, he waves the smoking pan around so that the clouds fill the room. Suddenly, Margaret and Haddo are transported to what appears to be a subterranean place with fire all about. The bacchanalian revelry taking place is at once repulsive yet mesmerizing to Margaret as she and Haddo watch from beneath a tree - darkness all around except the light from the fires. Watching men and women dancing about, writhing, kissing - she sees one lean, muscular, gleaming Pan-like creature (played by the dancer Stowwitz) chase a woman. When he catches her, she arches backward as he leans over her, hand under her waist, and kisses her. Suddenly, he looks up and sees Margaret, He runs - ballet-like - to her, bends on one knee, then takes her in his arms - she cannot resist. Haddo watches with a wicked smile on his face as the intruder appears to bite her neck. Suddenly, she opens her eyes, and they are back in the studio. It is a stirring and disturbing scene. Haddo then gives Margaret his card. "When you want me - you can find me at this address." He leaves.
As Margaret and Burdon plan to marry in a couple of days, she expresses concern about what may happen before then. When she arrives home that evening, she has a note from Haddo requesting that she come to see him at 10:30 the next morning. She tries to resist, but goes at the appointed time. When she tells Haddo she is to be married the next day, he becomes angry saying she will never marry Arthur Burdon. The day of the wedding comes, and Susie receives a note. "Susie, this morning I was married to Oliver Haddo. Please tell Arthur. Margaret."
The film's pace picks up at this point, as all seems lost. However, Porhoet urges Arthur not to give up, and so he begins his search for Margaret eventually locating her and Haddo in Monte Carlo. There, he finds her at a roulette table winning money for Haddo as the "magician" coaches her what to do. There is a very effective scene in the casino when Arthur approaches Margaret. "Why, Margaret," Haddo says, "if it isn't your unlucky suitor, the genial Dr. Burdon." In a friendly gesture, Haddo reaches out to clasp Burdon's upper arm, and Burdon jerks it away. Unable to speak, Margaret leaves with Haddo.
It seems Arthur has succeeded in his mission the next day when he takes Margaret away while Haddo is visiting his laboratory in the village of Latourette. Dr. Porhoet has her placed in a sanitarium, and it appears she is on the road to recovery. After receiving a telegram confirming that Haddo has been an inmate of an insane asylum, Burdon and Porhoet go to the sanitarium. There, they are given a note from Haddo telling them it is ". . . dangerous as well as useless to meddle in my affairs. My compliments, Haddo."
It is difficult to believe that Universal's 1931 "Frankenstein" does not owe something to this film. The final scene takes place in the ancient tower that Haddo uses for a laboratory - very similar to Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory five years later. The camerawork is superb with a great first shot from behind the glass tubes as Haddo and his dwarf assistant (who becomes the hunchback in "Frankenstein") enter the room. Of course, it is a stormy night, and Margaret is tied to a table, gag across her mouth. To show Haddo approaching the table from Margaret's vantage point, Ingram has Wegener walk toward the camera with the evil look of which he is so capable, lit from underneath to accentuate the lines in his face - spooky, indeed!
We see Porhoet and Burdon, with a short, fat local man as their guide, approach the tower in the pouring rain. Of course, just as Haddo is about to cut into Margaret's chest, Burdon breaks in, and an exciting - and realistic - fight ensues between the two men. It becomes even more exciting when the double doors of a fiery furnace are opened, and Haddo tries to throw Burdon into the flames. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what eventually happens.
Porhoet sets the laboratory on fire as they leave. When they arrive in the village below, Ingram gives us a great shot of the flaming tower which then explodes. His last bit of humor comes next when we see the fate of the dwarf who was still in the tower - clothes torn to shreds, face, arms and legs black with smut - he is hanging by the neck of his shirt from a limb extending out from the side of the hill.
The finale is a rousing one, and in 1926, was probably more so. Call is melodramatic or what you will - Ingram makes it fine entertainment.
It is interesting to see how three of the most respected publications viewed the film differently. Variety didn't care for it at all. "Rex Ingram has turned out a very slow moving, draggy picture that has but a single thrill and that typical of the old days when the serials were the feature attractions of the average picture bills." Harrison's Reports took a middle-of-the-road stance. "From a production point of view, 'The Magician' is a big picture; from an entertainment, it is a question whether many of those who will see it will like it." Harrison's went on to recommend to exhibitors, "Before booking it, therefore, you should wait to see how it is received in the first-run houses." And, surprisingly, The New York Times gave the most praise to the film. "Although Mr. Ingram's brilliant work is the predominant feature of this subject, it is nevertheless apparent that he and Mr. Maugham make an excellent team for furnishing screen entertainment."
The Motion Picture magazine reviewer said, "('The
Magician') is remarkably good entertainment and, more so than
anyone else, probably saw in the film what it was meant to be
all along, noting, "Every once in awhile, Ingram takes time
out from his Art to have a little fun. . ." and, indeed,
it is. Get the DVD - and have a little fun. (By the way, Robert
Israel's score is, as usual, superb!)
Copyright 2011 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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