Ingram, Rex 1895–1969
Rex Ingram 1895–1969
When Rex Ingram returned to the stage after what seemed to be a final tumble from the heights of his career, his audience welcomed him back with a memorable, glorious reception. In his essay, “I Came Back from the Dead,” published in Ebony, Ingram recalled his first opening night since the beginning of his absence three years earlier: “It came and I stepped out on that stage with a cold sweat breaking out all over me. I will never forget the reception that audience gave me. It was deafening. They roared, clapped, cheered, and whistled for nearly two minutes, yelling ‘come on, REX.’ I felt good. I was crying inside but couldn’t show it in my eyes. When the cheering stopped I began my lines.… I knew then that I was not dead.”
That night in 1951 in the Las Palmas Theater in Los Angeles, Ingram began acting once again. Before his swift fall, he had established himself as a favorite among both black and white audiences of his time. Throughout his career, he struggled to eradicate the stereotypical roles usually given to African American actors both in the theater and particularly in Hollywood. His resources in the struggle to broaden the range of parts for blacks were his forceful acting style and his increasingly selective standards for his own roles as he gained fame and notoriety. “For black audiences of that time [the 1930s and 1940s], he was clearly an emblem of pride and assertion,” wrote Donald Bogle in his 1988 book Blacks in American Film and Television.
Ingram met with brilliant success on screen. He gained an early and enduring fame with his portrayal of De Lawd in the 1936 film The Green Pastures, which became a box office hit and remained Hollywood’s most successful film with an all-black cast for many years. Bogle, however, criticized the film as a “fraud” in its claims to represent genuine black folk culture. The film depicts an all-black heaven that, Bogle wrote, “ultimately becomes a perpetual Negro holiday, a church picnic, one everlasting weekend fish fry.” The critic added that the religion represented in the film amounts to a caricature of the religion of people of color. Furthermore, the humor of the film depends on the assumption that early twentieth-century blacks—with their “lowly language and folkways”—were out of place in the high, classical, biblical world before the flood. Nevertheless, The Green Pastures proved to be a successful career advance for Rex Ingram, who played the lead role of God in heaven, as well as two other roles. Bogle wrote that “the actors… transcend[ed] the trash,” and added that Ingram interpreted De Lawd as stately, bringing “substance, weight, and durability” to the role.
Born October 20, 1895, on a houseboat on the Mississippi River near Cairo, IL; died of a heart attack, September 19, 1969, in Hollywood, CA; son of Robert E. Lee (a fireman on the steamer); twice married, with children. Education: Received degrees from Northwestern University.
Began acting career with role in Tarzan of the Apes, 1918; appeared in silent films The Ten Commandments, 1923, and The Big Parade, 1925; major screen roles in motion pictures, including The Green Pastures, 1936; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1939; The Thief of Bagdad, 1940; Sahara, 1943; Cabin in the Sky, 1943; Moonrise, 1949; and Anna Lucasta, 1958. Roles in stage productions, including Lulu Belle, Broadway, 1929; Porgy, Broadway; Stevedore, The Theater Union, 1933; The Emperor Jones, Suffern, 1933; Haiti, Federal Theater Project, 1938; Waiting for Godot, Broadway, 1957; and a number of plays in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other regional theaters. Roles on television shows, including Daktari, I Spy, Gunsmoke, and The Bill Cosby Show.
Member: Phi Beta Kappa.
Early Hollywood was racist to the core and offered virtually no opportunities for black actors or actresses. Although The Green Pastures and 1934’s Imitation of Life —two early Hollywood films that focused on black life—had been box office successes, Hollywood still did not produce another major film about black culture and people until World War II.
From the beginnings of the film industry through the 1920s, the roles available to African American actors and actresses replicated common racial stereotypes, including “gentle Toms, doomed mulattoes, comic coons, overstuffed mammies, and mean, menacing, violent black bucks,” Bogle commented. To the extent to which any of these roles could be considered important, the more significant roles were played by white actors “in blackface.” There was the exception of notable film director Erich Von Stroheim, who in defiance of the censors cast a black actor as a priest delivering the last rites to a dying white woman in an African brothel; but aside from this one casting decision, black actors were excluded from all but the most stereotypical, insignificant roles. Films from the period that are serious about racial issues can be found in abundance only from the host of relatively low-budget, independent black film companies, which, despite their limited resources, provided the beginnings of an ongoing tradition of quality films by black artists about black life.
Not until the 1930s, after the advent of sound pictures and the all-black musical, did black actors begin to appear regularly on screen, although still in slurred, formulaic roles. Bogle credited these actors with altering the character of their roles, however: “Through style the black actors turned their cheap, trashy, demeaning stereotyped roles inside out, refining, transforming, and transcending them. The great black performers did not simply play characters. Rather they played against their roles.” In this context, even if the God of The Green Pastures inhabited a heaven based on a caricature of religious belief, the role still might afford an actor like Ingram the opportunity to influence the perception of African Americans in film.
In The Green Pastures, the role of De Lawd provided ample scope to elevate the character to stateliness. Ingram aspired to play the role since he had seen it performed on stage by Richard B. Harrison with “majestic presence and beautiful sincerity,” he wrote in the Ebony essay. Also, while working on the part, Ingram gained faith in his own abilities as an actor and in his potential power as an individual. He recalled his work on this role in these words: “My faith in my own ability to portray God as a fictional character gradually rose. When it was all over I found that I had come through a remarkable spiritual experience. It was the most wonderfully moving thing that has ever happened to me.”
His success in The Green Pastures led him to more challenging film roles. Through his forceful acting style, Ingram championed improved race relations and offered a powerful call for black liberation. His role as Jim in the 1939 MGM production Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “spelled out in theatrical terms the powerful message of human brotherhood,” the actor noted in Ebony. The following year, he played the Genie of the Lamp in the British technicolor production of The Thief of Bagdad. In that part, Ingram as the Genie exclaims his joy at being freed after centuries of entrapment in the bottle. Bogle reported that this exclamation for freedom struck a chord among black audiences “that went beyond the bounds of the movie.” Ingram was also compensated well for the role, earning $2,500 each week for fourteen months from 1940 to 1941.
In Hollywood in 1943, Ingram played a heroic Sudanese soldier sacrificing his life for the troops in the film Sahara. That same year, he also portrayed the mischievous Lucifer, Jr., who schemes the downfall of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in Cabin in the Sky. Finally, in Moonrise in 1949, Ingram played a wizened outcast who helps a young white man grow to maturity. Bogle championed Ingram’s ability to “act against” his roles throughout his entire film career: “In all these films [The Green Pastures, Thief of Bagdad, Sahara, Cabin in the Sky, and Moonrise] and so many more, Rex Ingram seems to stand apart from the Hollywood system, repeatedly refusing to let himself be demeaned by a role.”
If Rex Ingram was able to achieve relative success in struggling for dignity through his film roles, his stage roles afforded him much more room for expression. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson’s review of Ingram’s performance in a Federal Theater Project play was quoted in the paper’s obituary for Ingram years later. The actor had played the leading role of Christophe, the Black Napolean, in the 1938 Federal Theater Project play Haiti, which depicted the black Haitian insurrection of 1802. Atkinson wrote, “Mr. Ingram has been a good actor for a long time. It is not very often, however, that he finds a heroic part like that of Christophe, the leader of a cause. Mr. Ingram gives a rattling good performance.” In 1938, Ingram had by then acted in The Green Pastures and in a few Broadway plays, but not yet in his other major film roles. His meatiest early parts, however, were for the stage.
Ingram had made his Broadway debut in the 1929 show Lulu Belle, produced by a leading figure in American theater, David Belasco. After his debut, Ingram appeared as Crown in DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, upon which the later Porgy and Bess was based, and then in Stevedore, a Theater Union production, in 1933. These parts were not particularly heroic and did not entirely escape from common stereotypes of the day, but in his later stage roles—as the Emperor in the 1933 touring production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and as Christophe in Haiti— Ingram found opportunities to portray heroic characters who exploded common racial stereotypes. The actor was quoted in the New York Times as having praised his role in The Emperor Jones as his favorite among all he had ever acted. “I‘d rather play the emperor than any other part ever written. I can get way into that part and give it the gun. You know, I love a good fight and anything that’s blood and thunder,” he said.
After acting in the parts of the Emperor and De Lawd and gaining self-confidence from each experience, Ingram decided not to work again in roles that he considered demeaning to African Americans. In the New York Times in 1938, he described his watershed personal decision: “I decided [two years ago] to help our cause to the best of my ability. I wouldn’t take parts which didn’t at least do us justice.” No longer would he play every kind of porter and butler and native, as he had since his beginnings in 1918 as an actor in a variety of films, including the original Tarzan of the Apes. As a result of this decision—even after having played the lead in the successful film The Green Pastures —Ingram found himself unemployed for the following two years. He went bankrupt and was dispossessed of all his belongings. After persisting in his decision through this difficult time, however, he was offered the part of Christophe in Haiti, followed soon after by major roles in British and American mainstream film and continuing opportunities in the theater in New York, San Francisco, and across the United States. Ingram did not merely transcend whatever role he was given; as soon as his career gained steam, he chose the roles he would transform and enliven.
In 1948, Ingram’s career was interrupted once more, although this time not for decisions based on noble principles. This time he pleaded guilty to charges under the Mann Act that he transported a 15-year-old girl from Kansas to New York “for immoral purposes.” He served over nine months in prison before being released on parole from an 18-month sentence. In his Ebony essay, Ingram set out his side of the story: “My trouble arose from a casual, genuinely warm friendship with a young woman. That friendship was distorted and misunderstood. Because the woman happened to be white I was persecuted and made a target of charges and innuendoes.” Still he perceived the event as his mistake: “Like anybody else I made a few mistakes; a couple might be termed major ones. We have to pay for our mistakes in this life and I have certainly paid for mine.” Instead of specifying his mistake, however, he continued to offer a defense of this “casual, genuinely warm friendship.” Ingram’s career suffered a devastating blow as a result.
The actor’s personal life had been somewhat turbulent before: his wife had divorced him when he went bankrupt during an earlier period of unemployment. He had also been arrested twice in Harlem on assault charges and had served a brief jail sentence in New Jersey for multiple driving violations. None of this earlier personal turbulence had interrupted his career, however.
It was after his 1948 indiscretion, the subsequent jail term, and his three-year absence from the entertainment industry that Rex Ingram received the glorious welcoming reception back to the stage from the Los Angeles theater audience in 1951. From then on, Ingram continued to work on stage, screen, and later on television. His most notable achievement in this last phase of his career was his portrayal in 1957 of Pozzo in an all-black stage production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. He appeared in a number of television shows in the 1960s, including Daktari, I Spy, Gunsmoke, and The Bill Cosby Show. He also starred as an incestuous father in the 1958 film Anna Lucasta, an adaptation of the earlier Broadway show.
Bogle believed Ingram’s part in Anna Lucasta to be his final major film role, stating in Blacks in American Film and Television that in this and subsequent roles, Ingram’s characterizations seemed to reveal “the pressure and perhaps the disillusionment, too” of the professional and personal stresses the actor had experienced through the course of his life. Bogle reprinted at length the lavish praise Ingram received from Variety for his creation of the old man in Anna Lucasta: “Ingram as old Joe Lucasta is excellent from start to finish. As the story develops, it is made clear that under his pretense of detesting a daughter who has become a streetwalker, he is also fighting off his own temptations, for Joe is in love with his own daughter. Fogged by age and alcohol, stubborn and stern, Ingram creates a vivid portrait of the old man, and to a large extent he steals the show.”
Ingram kept acting into 1969, the year of his death at age 73. The 1976 edition of The Oxford Companion to Film esteemed Ingram, along with the legendary Paul Robeson, as “the only black actors to attain a degree of stardom in the thirties and forties and to escape, to some extent, the permissible racial stereotype.”
Bawden, Liz-Anne, editor, The Oxford Companion to Film, Oxford University Press, 1976.
Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing, 1988.
Ebony, March 1955, pp. 48-58.
New York Times, July 24, 1938; September 20,1969, p. 29.
—Nicholas S. Patti
Nationality: Irish/American. Born: Reginald Ingram Montgomery Hitchcock in Dublin, 15 January 1893. Education: Saint Columba's College, Dublin; studied sculpture at Yale, 1911. Military Service: Served in Canadian Air Force (wounded in action), 1918. Family: Married 1) actress Doris Pawn, 1917 (divorced 1920); 2) Alice Terry, 1921. Career: Immigrated to United States, 1911; actor in England, 1912; assistant for Edison Co., New York, also scenario writer for Stuart Blackton and screen actor, 1913; moved to Vitagraph, 1914; hired by Fox, changed name to Rex Ingram, 1915; director for Universal, 1916; contracted by Paralta-W.W. Hodkinson Corp., 1918; joined Metro Pictures, 1920; moved to France, 1923; modernized Studios de la Victorine de Saint-Augustin, Nice, 1924; established Ingram Hamilton Syndicated Ltd. production company, London, 1928; moved to Egypt, 1934; returned to Hollywood, 1936. Awards: Honorary degree, Yale University; Légion d'honneur française. Died: In California, 1950.
Films as Director:
The Great Problem (Truth) (+ sc); Broken Fetters (A Human Pawn) (+ sc); Chalice of Sorrow (The Fatal Promise) (+ sc); Black Orchids (The Fatal Orchids) (+ sc)
The Reward of the Faithless (The Ruling Passion) (+ sc); The Pulse of Life (+ sc); The Flower of Doom (+ sc); Little Terror (+ sc)
His Robe of Honor; Humdrum Brown
The Day She Paid
Under Crimson Skies (The Beach Comber); Shore Acres; Hearts Are Trumps
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (+ pr); The Conquering Power (Eugenie Grandet); Turn to the Right
The Prisoner of Zenda; Trifling Women (+ sc) (remake of Black Orchids); Where the Pavement Ends (+ sc)
Scaramouche (+ pr)
The Arab (L'Arabe) (+ sc)
Mare Nostrum (+ co-pr)
The Magician (+ co-pr, sc)
The Garden of Allah
The Three Passions (Les Trois Passions) (+ sc)
Baroud (Love in Morocco; Passion in the Desert) (+ pr, co-sc)
Hard Cash (Reid) (role, sc); The Family's Honor (Ridgely) (sc); Beau Brummel (Young) (role); The Artist's Great Madonna (Young) (role); A Tudor Princess (Dawley) (role)
Witness to the Will (Lessey) (role); The Necklace of Ramses (Brabin) (role); The Price of the Necklace (Brabin) (role); The Borrowed Finery (role); Her Great Scoop (Costello and Gaillord) (role); The Spirit and the Clay (Lambart) (role); The Southerners (Ridgely and Collins) (role); Eve's Daughter (North) (role); The Crime of Cain (Marston) (role); The Circus and the Boy (Johnson) (role); David Garrick (Young) (role); The Upper Hand (Humphrey) (role); Fine Feathers Make Fine Birds (Humphrey) (role); His Wedded Wife (Humphrey) (role); Goodbye, Summer (Brooke) (role); The Moonshine Maid and the Man (Gaskill) (role)
Should a Mother Tell? (Edwards) (sc); The Song of Hate (Edwards) (sc, role); The Wonderful Adventure (Thompson) (sc); The Blindness of Devotion (Edwards) (sc); A Woman's Past (Powell) (sc); The Galley Slave (Edwards) (co-sc, uncredited); The Evil Men Do (Costello and Gaillord) (role); Snatched from a Burning Death (Gaskill) (role)
The Cup of Bitterness (sc)
Mary of the Movies (McDermot) (role as a guest)
Greed (von Stroheim) (co-ed 2nd cut)
By INGRAM: articles—
Interview with L. Montanye, in Motion Picture Classic (Brooklyn), July 1921.
Interview with J. Robinson, in Photoplay (New York), August 1921.
Article in Motion Picture Directing, by Peter Milne, New York, 1922.
On INGRAM: books—
Predal, Rene, Rex Ingram, Paris, 1970.
O'Leary, Liam, Rex Ingram, Master of the Silent Cinema, Dublin, 1980.
On INGRAM: articles—
Obituary in New York Times, 23 July 1950.
Geltzer, George, "Hollywood's Handsomest Director," in Films in Review (New York), May 1952.
O'Laoghaire, Liam, "Rex Ingram and the Nice Studios," in Cinema Studies (England), December 1961.
Bodeen, Dewitt, "Rex Ingram and Alice Terry," in two parts in Films in Review (New York), February and March 1975.
O'Leary, Liam, "Rex Ingram," in Film Dope (London), July 1983.
Graham, Ian, "Rex Ingram: A Seminal Influence, Unfairly Obscured," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 74, no. 4, April 1993.
Bourget, J.-L., "Entre Stroheim et David Lean: le roi Ingram," in Positif (Paris), no. 404, October 1994.
On INGRAM: film—
Graham, Dan, The Conquering Power: Rex Ingram 1893–1950, 1990.* * *
Rex Ingram's work has tended to be overlooked and forgotten as a result of his retirement from films in the early 1930s, an era when sound had taken over the world of cinema. He began his career in films in 1913, working as designer, scriptwriter, and actor for Edison, Vitagraph, and Fox. In 1916 he directed his own story, The Great Problem, for Universal at the age of only twenty-three. His educational background was that of an Irish country rectory and the Yale School of Fine Arts, where he studied sculpture under Lee Lawrie and developed an aesthetic sense which informed all his films.
The early films Ingram made for Universal have disappeared. His version of La Tosca, transferred to a Mexican setting as Chalice of Sorrow, and a 1922 remake of Black Orchids titled Trifling Women, earned critical attention for the quality of the acting and their visual beauty. Cleo Madison starred in both these films. The fragment that exists of The Reward of the Faithless shows a realism that is reminiscent of von Stroheim, who was later to acknowledge his indebtedness by allowing Ingram to do the second cutting on Greed. It may be noted also that greed was the theme of The Conquering Power. A characteristic element of Ingram's work was the use of grotesque figures like dwarfs and hunchbacks to offset the glamour of his heroes. After a period of ups and downs, he made another film for Universal in 1920, Under Crimson Skies, which won critical acclaim.
With the release of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921 Ingram achieved top status in his profession. Ordinarily, Valentino dominates discussion of this film, but Ingram's work on the feature is of the highest quality. Armed with his team of cameraman John Seitz and editor Grant Whytock, Ingram went on to make a dazzlingly successful series of films for Metro. His financial and artistic success gave him carte blanche and his name became a box-office draw. The Conquering Power, The Prisoner of Zenda, and Scaramouche featured his wife, the beautiful and talented Alice Terry, and the latter two films introduced a new star, Ramon Novarro, who also played with Alice Terry in the South Seas romance Where the Pavement Ends. Ingram made stars and knew how to get the best out of players. He came to be considered the equal of Griffith, von Stroheim, and DeMille.
In 1924 the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer saw a tightening up of front office control over the creative director and Ingram sought fresh fields to conquer. He made The Arab with Terry and Novarro in North Africa, a region that he fell in love with. He next moved to Nice, where he founded the Rex Ingram Studios and released his masterpiece Mare Nostrum in 1926 for "Metro-Goldwyn." (He would never allow his arch-enemy Louis B. Mayer to have a credit.) In this work Alice Terry gave her best performance as the Mata Hari-like heroine. This film as well as The Four Horsemen, both of which were authored by Blasco Ibañez, were later suppressed because of its anti-German sentiments.
The German-inspired The Magician featured Paul Wegener (the original Golem) and was based on a Somerset Maugham story. After The Garden of Allah Ingram broke with MGM in 1926. The Three Passions, with an industrial background, followed in 1929. His last film, Baroud, a sound film in which he himself played the lead, completed a distinguished career.
Ingram sold his studios in Nice, where he had reigned as an uncrowned king; as the Victorine Studios they were to become an important element in French film production. Ingram retired to North Africa and later rejoined his wife Alice Terry in Hollywood. He indulged his hobbies of sculpture, writing, and travel.
Ingram was the supreme pictorialist of the screen, a great director of actors, a perfectionist whose influence was felt not least in the films of David Lean and Michael Powell. The themes of his films ranged over many locations but his careful research gave them a realism and authenticity that balanced the essential romanticism of his work.