Camp David

CAMP DAVID MARCH 2010: PAUL, ALEISTER, REX AND ALICE

By • Mar 25th, 2010 •

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PAUL, ALEISTER, REX AND ALICE

Aleister Crowley.

One of the most fascinating legends regarding the life and times of “the wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley, involves his attempts to evoke the Great God Pan in Paris with the aid of his disciple Victor Nueberg. The result nearly drove Crowley mad. He was discovered unconscious with hoof prints marked on his forehead like those of a goat. The Crowley legend is filled with such tales involving rituals of black magic across Europe, his devotion to Pan well known among his loyal followers at the time. Pan, the son of Hermes, was the Arcadian god of lust, a symbol, if you will, of the libido, a seducer of both sexes, something that definitely appealed to Crowley, whose sex magic was infamous in his day with both his female as well as male disciples. Horror cinema has delved into this material at least once every decade, the first being Rex Ingram’s film THE MAGICIAN, adapted from a novel by Somerset Maugham.

Maugham had actually encountered Crowley during his heyday in London where the two men enjoyed (at least it seemed they did) each other’s company, since Maugham had later remarked to friends that he found Crowley to be a fascinating conversationalist, and very well read. However the novel Maugham chose to write depicted Crowley as a latter day Svengali with a touch of Dracula in the mix. This homage so infuriated Crowley that he reviewed it in that year’s Vanity Fair, calling it rubbish, which of course it was.

Paul Wegener as Oliver Haddo.

In 1926 Rex Ingram decided it would be an ideal project for his newly acquired studios in Nice, bankrolled by MGM no less, and to star his beautiful wife Alice Terry and the legendary Paul Wegener, the sensational creator of THE GOLEM, as Oliver Haddo, the Crowley clone of the piece. Wegener was an ideal choice for the role since he was a larger than life character in his own right. One of the leading actors of his generation in Germany, he was perhaps their first bonafide auteurs since he was much more than merely a star. He was also a writer and director whose talents paved the way for the fantastic cinema in all its aspects to evolve into the genre we know today. THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE was his pet project, and his love of trick photography was historic at the time of cinema’s infancy.

This is not the film by which we should remember Rex Ingram, since his reputation was made on the international success of THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE which catapulted Valentino into a screen icon for eternity. Ingram also directed the first version of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA as well as SCARAMOUCHE, both with Alice Terry. THE MAGICIAN came back into the limelight early in 2010 when Turner Classic Movies screened it on their Sunday silent film series, allowing countless horror fans to tape the beautiful print they ran and making the film at last accessible for study. While the film boasts a fantastic Infernal fantasy about 20 minutes in, where Haddo arrives unannounced at Terry’s home and, through magic, allows her a glimpse into a Hellish tableau of dammed souls at the mercy of a faun, or is it the great God Pan himself, since Ingram was influenced by Arthur Machen’s THE GREAT GOD PAN as well. If not for the aforementioned sequence and the presence of Paul Wegener (who owns the screen whenever he appears – a true horror star in the Lugosi/Atwill/Karloff tradition) this film would hardly be worth recommending. The good news is that being able to see it without the disadvantage of bootlegs and fuzzy dupe prints, it holds up better than I would have expected. The tinting of the different sequences involving fire are now bright red, and one can really appreciate John Seitz’s beautiful photography for the first time.

Premier dancer Hubert Stowitts as the faun/Pan  in the Hades sequence.

When I first came across this film, thanks to the late Carlos Clarens, he always remembered THE MAGICIAN as we all have – from the stunning stills of one Hubert Stowitts 1892-1953, a premier dancer who performed with the legendary Pavlova, and whose tour de force as the faun/Pan figure is unforgettable. It has always been the still of Stowitts holding Alice Terry in his arms that was used to advertise the film, more so than its real star Paul Wegener, yet the other positively outre photo from that moment is Wegener with his hair made to look like horns and his eyes evil incarnate, seated under a burnt out tree in Hell as if he is the one in charge.

The Infernal sequence as it unfolded on TCM seemed a bit short, as did other elements in the print, especially the film’s title cards. What remains however is a visual feast . One of the eye-witnesses to the filming was director Michael Powell, who also had a small part in the film. Powell revealed that the Hades footage was organized by the film’s still photographer Harry Lachman, although I am sure the concept belonged to Ingram, whose Irish heritage was in full bloom during the making of this film. He even flew the Irish flag over the studio so all of inhabitants of Nice were aware of his Irish pride. The locals were also aware of the semi-nude dancers seen cavorting about the Hades set presided over by Stowitts, who was a last minute replacement for the legendary dancer Serge Lifar whose commitments with the ballet prevented him from accepting the role.

Stowitts in make up as a faun/Pan and director Rex Ingram on the Hell set.

Among the other artisans involved in the making of THE MAGICIAN were Henri Menessier, a protage of Nazimova, who did the art direction. He had been a part of Ingram’s inner circle since the end of MARE NOSTRUM. The noted artist Paul Darde was responsible for the mammoth statue of the faun that Alice Terry is nearly crushed by in the film’s opening sequence. The Sorcerer’s tower was created near the village of Sospel in the mountains below Nice and is almost identical to the Frankenstein tower in James Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANENSTEIN (it has been said that Whale screened THE MAGICIAN several times while making FRANKENSTEIN.) This comparison is but one of many influences Ingram’s film is noted for now that THE MAGICIAN is finally available for study after decades of being a “lost film”. Anyone familiar with the Universal horror films of the 1930’s will notice the plot points later used in THE MUMMY, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and THE RAVEN.

The casting of Paul Wegener in his only American film seemed providential, since he remains one of the pioneers of the genre, not only as the creator of THE GOLEM, but as a champion of the fantastic in all that is cinema. Ingram and Wegener were both enamored with writers like Poe and Hoffmann, not to mention their mutual fascination with Eastern mysticism and the occult. Looking at his performance by today’s standards it seems more comic than horrific since Ingram chose to dress him in loud checkered suits which, by the way, is not unlike the wardrobe Sidney Blackmer’s Roman Castevet wears in Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY. Wegener is every inch the showman in his performance, so much so that Ingram sends him up with the card “He appears to have stepped out of a melodrama.” One must appreciate Wegener’s swagger in every gesture he makes, sweeping his black cape up into his arms at every opportunity. He reminded me a bit of Lugosi in WHITE ZOMBIE with his melodramatic gestures and intense eye movement. Perhaps the most obvious comparison is with the Satanic character Karoff plays in THE BLACK CAT, which as we all know is yet another thinly veiled portrait of Crowley, however when Ulmer’s writers named his character Poelzig, the connection to German expressionism came full circle since designer Hans Poelzig was an active force in that period of cinema, having worked on Wegerer’s GOLEM as well.

Paul Wegener and Alice Terry in the dream sequence in Hell (notice the devil horn hairdo on Wegener).

The unveiling of THE MAGICIAN on TCM was for me very much like finally getting to see LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT after decades of imagining what it was like based on all the fantastic stills we’ve seen published over the years. This of course sets us up for disappointment: as with all the films of the silent era, not every moment is a golden one, and THE MAGICIAN is for the most part slow and confusing, with lackluster performances from the secondary actors leaving Paul Wegener standing tall, if not in a different film altogether. Alice Terry is not used to her best advantage, considering her fine work opposite Valentino and Ramon Navarro. I think I know the real reason for this since I had chance to ask the lady herself in 1979 when John Kobal was in LA researching one of his photo books, and allowed me to join him in meeting Alice Terry in the flesh.

One of the disadvantages of youth is not taking advantage of a golden opportunity when it is presented to you, as my encounter with Alice Terry would prove in 1979. At this time in my life I was collecting movie material more than commenting on it, and in spite of meeting Mae West face to face, I never took her sage advice to keep a diary since, as she wisely pointed out, it might one day keep me. John was forever in the habit of interviewing Hollywood personalities from both era’s. He had amazing luck, especially with legends like Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth – with whom he did a biography. I was already somewhat familiar with Alice Terry as the damsel in distress in THE MAGICIAN, and when faced with the prospect of meeting her all I could think of was this woman acted with The Golem! I knew very little about her body of work in silent films, or her importance as a MGM star.

Paul Wegener in his hill top castle laboratory at the climax of THE MAGICIAN.

In those days John always liked to have someone along when he did these interviews to carry his tape recorders and keep him amused as well as driving him around town since he hated to drive himself. I wish I could remember more details of that afternoon so long ago, and why I didn’t bring my camera as I did when I stayed with him in London. As I remember it, John was working on a photo exhibit that included several images of Valentino and Ramon Navarro from films like THE FOUR HORSEMEN and BEN-HUR. Alice Terry was a leading lady to both stars, as well as being a star herself, so John was very pleased she had consented to an interview to take place at her home in the most rural part of the San Fernando Valley.

On the drive up we speculated if she would be anything like Norma Desmond in SUNSET BLVD, as John made the point that her husband’s cameraman, John Seitz, photographed Billy Wilder’s film as well. We drove for the longest time, getting lost several times in the process, until we finally reached the road that lead up to two large houses separated by trees and a driveway. Alice Terry was around 79 at the time, still handsome, with a regal bearing one would expect from a movie star, yet there was nothing of Norma Desmond in this woman, since she was without any vanity regarding her time in the spotlight. In fact she laughed a great deal during our time with her about both Hollywood and her role in it as a film star.

Alice Terry seated with her husband Rex Ingram just before filming THE MAGICIAN in Nice.

The first thing you noticed about her surroundings was just how much art figured into her world. She still painted, but was charmingly modest about her work, preferring to show off her collection of other painters, of which there was a good representation on every wall of the house. Her sister lived with her and made a brief appearance before drifting off to other parts of the house as John began preparing to show Alice Terry the prints he brought from the exhibit. You got a sense from her that the past was something she had put to rest with no regrets, yet her love and respect for her husband was always forefront when dealing with historians like John. When he displayed a print of Ramon Navarro she was visibly touched, saying he had been a close personal friend and his needless death in 1968 was still a subject best left untouched.

I had asked John to please include a question or two regarding THE MAGICIAN and he kept his word, asking her during a moment when she was recalling her days with Ingram in Nice, which she described as being his most productive of their time together. My partner, Chris Dietrich, transcribed the following from John’s tapes and this is the first opportunity I have had to share them, since John never got around to using the material himself.

Peter Lorre with Rex Ingram and his wife on the set of CRACK-UP at FOX in 1936.

JK: What was it like working as well as living in Nice ?

AT: It was a very creative period for Rex. I remember we lived in a wonderful hotel called the Negresco filled with the most charming and talented people including, at the time, Isadora Duncan. She was living at the hotel without any money yet the innkeepers never said a word about her bill because she was such an attraction – a true force of nature that the locals adored her free spirit . One afternoon Rex invited Matisse to lunch just to meet her and of course he was charmed. We all were…

JK: Could you talk for a moment about the film you made with Paul Wegener while you were there?

AT: You mean of course THE MAGICIAN…well this was never a favorite of mine since I really had very little to do except either look mesmerized by Mr. Wegener or be frightened to death by what he was about to do to me…. The atmosphere of that film was rather otherworldly because Mr. Wegener was always somewhat in his character. Rex was quite taken with his face, which was remarkable, his eyes were positively demonic when he focused them on you. He was quite a star in Germany and of course we all had seen THE GOLEM.

JK: Did you enjoy working with him?

AT: Well yes and no, I mean he was very kind towards me and took direction beautifully from Rex. Since they were both of the same mind about his character, their working relationship was good. Mr. Wegener was a great star in his native land and this was the only film he ever made outside of Germany. The crew was put off by his pomposity, especially John {Seitz} who photographed the film. Mr Wegener was, shall we say, a prima donna who insisted on being treated with great respect. He lost his temper quite a bit, always dressing down his servant, and especially his long suffering make-up man who one could not help but feel sorry for. Mr Wegener brought along his personal valet as well.

JK: Did this behavior ever bother your husband?

AT: Not really, you see Rex always knew what he wanted as a director. I mean he visualized the whole film well in advance. The structure of it was fully realized before the cameras ever rolled. He wanted Paul Wegener from the beginning and visualized it with his personality and especially his physical appearance, which was commanding at all times.

JK: Was the film well received?

AT: No it was not well received, not by Rex’s standard not at all… His relationship to the author, Mr. Maugham, was non-existent by the time the film premiered. He did not like Rex’s adaptation in the least. Rex found Maugham’s novel lacking in many ways and thought to improve on it, and this drew a wedge between them that was never removed. THE MAGICIAN was never a favorite of mine, nor did Rex think much of it afterwards.

I wish I had been more agressive in asking John if I could do a separate interview, yet looking back on that afternoon, I think Alice Terry said about as much as she cared to on the subject, even as an eye witness to film history. She was more then content to let the past remain exactly that and simply move on with her life, which was as peaceful and content as I ever saw for anyone who had such an active part in the film making process on two continents.

Last year I saw yet another film taking on the Crowley legend, only this time the man himself was front and center as his unholy spirit is brought back into the 21st century by computer technology in a CHEMICAL WEDDING. The always-entertaining Simon Callow played Crowley to perfection in my opinion. It was unfortunate that the script he was given let him down. For me the project is not without its guilty pleasures, not the least of which was the name the screenwriter gave for Callow’s character – OLIVER HADDO.

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3 Responses »

  1. Printed in his excellent “THE DEVIL AND ALL HIS WORKS”, Dennis Wheatley wrote of meeting and dining with Aleister Crowley several times (which he also wrote in a few letters to me when I cooesponded with him many times before his death), finding the man a fascinating conversationalist and had an intellect of the first order. He told Wheatley that it was during his time at Cambridge he became interested in the occult and even put a spell on the Master of John’s!

  2. Just a comment on Crowley. A few years ago, the Banrnes and Noble in Union Square, NYC had an author present to promote the book that he had written on the subject of the Occult with emphasis on H.P. Lovecraft. Many present confused Lovecraft with Aleister Crowley. To his dismay, the author revealed that this is quite common.
    My earliest memories of Crowley were in a store in Greenwich Village called, Magickal Childe.
    As a child I was draged there by my mother, a witch. Discomforting to say the least was the human sized devil that hung from the ceiling, the odd candles and smell from the herbs, and this room with some sort of altar. Crowleys was often the topic. I suppose this fueld my appetite for horror films.

  3. Crowley got, and continues to get, an incredibly bad rap. When you actually read his stuff– as opposed to reading stuff others have written about him– there is nothing of the grandiose evil sorceror. What he understood was pretty clear and simple– which is why he perversely clouded it in his writings with puns, double-meanings, and intentional obfuscations. He felt the average jerk on the street could not handle illumination, no more than a chimpanzee should be trusted with car keys. He was right.

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