In the 1921 film version of Vicente Blasco Ibañez’s epic novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Rudolph Valentino became an overnight star. Valentino’s smoldering good looks and untimely death made him a legend, and his name is still a synonym for “Latin lover.” Rex Ingram, the director of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is nearly forgotten today. Yet Ingram’s life was as flamboyant as Valentino’s, and his talent as extraordinary.
Valentino was born Rodolfo Pietro Filiberto Raffaele Guglielmi in Castellaneta, Italy, in 1895. Arriving in New York in 1913, the young immigrant toiled at a series of menial jobs until his dancing skill landed him work as a partner for society ladies who frequented nightclubs and dance palaces. Soon, Valentino began to perform as an exhibition dancer, demonstrating the latest dance crazes. He also worked occasionally as a movie extra. In 1917, Valentino headed west with a touring musical and left the show in San Francisco, where he settled in North Beach. Scenes for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American (1917) were being filmed in town, and the cast included Norman Kerry, whom Valentino knew from New York. Kerry suggested that Valentino try his luck in Hollywood.
Like Valentino, director Rex Ingram was a European immigrant. Born Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock in Ireland in 1893, Ingram was the son of a clergyman. A talented artist, Ingram studied sculpture at Yale, until a chance meeting with the son of Thomas Edison led him into films as a writer and set designer.
He also acted under the name “Rex Hitchcock,” but soon realized that he belonged on the other side of the camera. He changed his name to Rex Ingram and, at the age of 23, directed his first film, The Great Problem (1916). After serving in World War I, Ingram returned to filmmaking. In 1920 he joined Metro Pictures, where he found his greatest success.
The creative dynamo who put Ingram, Valentino, and Blasco Ibañez together was Metro’s top screenwriter, June Mathis. Mathis, who was in all but title a producer, had read Blasco Ibañez’s popular novel and persuaded her bosses to buy the book, negotiating a favorable deal with the Spanish author. She wrote the screenplay, and selected Rex Ingram to direct. Having noticed the dancer and minor actor whose dark good looks had typecast him as a villain or gigolo, Mathis felt that Rudolph Valentino had the sexual magnetism the leading role of Julio required. Ingram had to be convinced to cast the unknown actor, but Mathis was adamant, and she worked with Ingram to draw a nuanced performance out of Valentino. Alice Terry, who was romantically involved with Ingram and married him in 1921, was chosen to play Julio’s aristocratic lover.
Filming of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse got underway in July of 1920 and lasted six months. It was production on a grand scale. The family castle and its surrounding village were constructed in the hills above Griffith Park at a cost of $25,000, which had been the entire budget of some Metro films. Twelve thousand people were involved in production, including 14 cameramen and 12 assistant directors. A meticulous craftsman, Ingram paid careful attention to every detail. In his quest for authenticity, he insisted that Valentino and Terry speak their lines in French. Ingram worked closely with cinematographer John Seitz to develop the visual style of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Ingram’s painterly eye and Seitz’s technical skill at creating low-key lighting produced ravishing images. Total cost of the production was $1 million, a huge amount in 1921. But it was a gamble that paid off. By the end of 1925, the film had grossed $4 million.
Most reviews were excellent. Playwright Robert E. Sherwood wrote in Life magazine, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a living, breathing answer to those who still refuse to take motion pictures seriously. Its production lifts the silent drama to an artistic plane that it has never touched before.” A few critics found the film static and overlong, and some complained that its depiction of Germans was too one-sided. But about Valentino, critics and public agreed: he was new kind of star. There had been romantic leading men before him, but Valentino’s appeal was erotic.
Before The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse opened, actress-producer Alla Nazimova cast Valentino as Armand in her version of Camille (1921). The art director and costume designer was Natacha Rambova, a former ballerina whose aristocratic aloofness belied her origins as Winifred Shaughnessy of Salt Lake City. Valentino fell for Rambova, and after initial resistance, she eventually warmed to him. Rambova would become Valentino’s second wife, muse, and greatest creative influence.
Valentino’s next project reteamed him with Ingram and Terry for The Conquering Power (1921). He was now a major star, yet he was still making only $350 a week. In addition, under Rambova’s influence, Valentino resisted Ingram’s direction and wardrobe decisions, which led to clashes with the autocratic director. Once the film was finished, Valentino moved to Famous Players-Lasky. His first film at the new studio, The Sheik (1921), was a popular, if not critical success. Valentino instantly became the movies’ most exotic sex symbol, and “sheik” became 1920’s slang for a ladies’ man. But as Rambova began to take firmer control of his career, Valentino’s roles became more effete and his films less successful. Studio bosses resented Rambova’s interference, and when Valentino’s new contract with United Artists banned the participation of his wife, the tensions between the couple came to head, contributing to the end of the marriage. On his own, Valentino came roaring back with a crowd-pleaser, The Eagle (1925). While in New York on a publicity tour for what became another success, The Son of the Sheik (1926), he suddenly became ill. On August 23, 1926, Rudolph Valentino died, of a perforated ulcer and peritonitis.
The hysteria surrounding Valentino’s death and funeral was unprecedented. Crowds began gathering before dawn on the morning he was to be displayed lying in state. When the doors opened, a mob of 30,000 stampeded the chapel, breaking windows, overturning cars, and injuring more than 100 people. As many as 9,000 mourners an hour filed past the bier, ten hours a day for three days. Valentino was buried in June Mathis’s family crypt. Over the years, the cult of Valentino has been kept alive by mourners at his grave, including a mysterious, veiled “Lady in Black.”
Rex Ingram’s star also rose and descended. With the success of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Ingram became the top director at Metro. He set up his own production unit, making his films without studio interference. In 1924, Metro merged to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Ingram so loathed Louis B. Mayer that he did not permit Mayer’s name to appear on his films, billing them as Metro-Goldwyn productions. Finally, a disillusioned Ingram left Hollywood. His next three films were still MGM productions, but he made them abroad, at his Victorine Studios in Nice, France. By 1927, Ingram’s films were losing money, and MGM did not renew his contract. Ingram leased out his studio, devoted himself to sculpting, and hobnobbed with artists like Matisse. When he lost control of Victorine, he gave up films, traveled, and wrote a novel, while Alice Terry returned to the United States. He joined her in California in 1936 and continued to travel the world until his death in 1947.
Presented at SFSFF 2004 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer