Author Ruth Barton says in her biography of silent film director Rex Ingram that he’s a name all but forgotten; if it is remembered, he’s erroneously mistaken for the African-American actor of the same name. Predominately known for his direction of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), and propelling Rudolph Valentino into superstardom, Barton paints a portrait of a true blue Irishman able who made films he wanted, although that might bore those expecting the typical Hollywood biography.
There’s no ignoring Ingram was a true blue Irishman, with Barton using the first few chapters exploring his upbringing as the son of a Protestant minister. Although necessary in cementing his capricious and desire at tackling history, the opening sections take some getting used to, especially in Barton’s somewhat academic presentation. Much of her source material comes straight from the horse’s mouth – Ingram’s unpublished memoirs. Barton parcels out these moments since Ingram tends to self-aggrandize himself, but it gives us a true feeling of collaboration between the subject and its author.
Barton seems more comfortable exploring Ingram once he enters the world of silent Hollywood filmmaking. Because the territory has been written on expansively, Barton eschews reiterating how Hollywood came to create silent cinema and the changes therein. Her eye remains firmly focused on Ingram, documenting his filmmaking including visual trickery in the likes of Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927).
Ingram’s greatest accomplishment, though, has to be the casting of Rudolph Valentino in Four Horsemen. Valentino’s working relationship with Ingram (and Ingram’s wife, actress Alice Terry) gets several pages devoted to it. It was Valentino’s defection that ended up hurting Ingram the most, as he assumed Valentino would press for their reteaming, leaving Ingram to discover the Valentino copy, Ramon Novarro. There’s also some great discussion about Ingram’s tendency of hiring disabled actors, and while their oddities were exploited, it was groundbreaking in his thinking.
With such a finite amount of information readily available, it’s understandable that Barton’s tome feels underwhelming, but that’s made up for with a true voice shining through, both hers and Ingram’s. Barton’s unfettered access to Ingram’s memoirs fills in as many of the holes as possible, and for those who have never heard his name or watched his films, this is probably the best detailing of his life story as we’ll see and deftly explains why Ingram defines the term “visionary.”
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