One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on how one director responded to the pressure to follow-up a great big hit:
If the famous boy director, Rex Ingram, hasn’t got gray hair I don’t know why. No sooner does he finish and launch The Four Horsemen than he is scheduled at once to begin work on another important production. The new picture will be a film version of one of the famous Balzac novels, but which one he refuses to tell at the present time. However, there’s an interesting yarn in connection, inasmuch as it is a story which Ingram has wanted to do ever since he first became a director. But never before has he been in a position to film it just as he wanted to.
Mr. Ingram’s leading woman in the Balzac story will once more be Alice Terry, who plays the feminine lead in The Four Horsemen. The remainder of the cast is to be selected within a week. In the meantime Miss June Mathis, who has reached the top pinnacle of scenario writing fame with The Four Horsemen, when she also, you remember, assisted in directing, is busy finishing the script of the French story.
The famous Balzac novel was Eugenie Grandet (1833) and Ingram called his modern-dress version of it The Conquering Power. Nowadays a hugely successful film would demand a sequel (perhaps about the reform and self-sacrifice of Julio’s long-lost wastrel identical twin), but they did things differently then. Ingram instead re-assembled the team that made Four Horsemen a success for a new project; in addition to Mathis and Terry he hired Rudolph Valentino as the leading man and John F. Seitz as the director of photography.
The Conquering Power told the story of a rich but miserly man (Ralph Lewis) who refuses to allow his daughter (Alice Terry) to marry his foppish nephew Charles (Rudolph Valentino). You get one guess about how it ends. It was speedily completed (it was in New York theaters by July), and it got terrific reviews. Edwin Schallert in the L.A. Times wrote: “If true art be determined by its symbols of beauty, its rhythm, it’s formal perfection and its reality, The Conquering Power is the great artistic picture of the year. I might even go further than this and say that because of its failure at any point to offend the esthetic sense—pictorially speaking—it is the one really artistic picture.” (August 11, 1921)
The New York Times admired it even more than the earlier film: “But The Four Horsemen was originally a novel, and, despite Mr. Ingram, it remained a good deal of a novel, rather than a photoplay, on the screen. He showed what he could do in independent cinematography, he did not do all that seemed possible to him. So the production was a fresh promise, as well as a fulfillment – and now comes The Conquering Power to realize much that it foreshadowed.” (“Screen,” July 17, 1921) The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures also thought it outdid the earlier film, saying “The Conquering Power is one of the most consistently beautiful things the motion picture makers have yet shown.” (“In Conquering Power Ingram outdoes Four Horsemen Says the National Board of Review,” Moving Picture World, November 19, 1921, p. 317)
The Conquering Power also did quite well at the box office. Motion Picture News reported that the 37 Loew’s theaters in Greater New York did the biggest business in their history when it played. [“Ingram Picture Goes Big,” November 26, 1921, p.2836]
However, now you probably know of Four Horsemen but might never have heard of The Conquering Power. Added to the Library of Congresses National Film Registry in 1995, Four Horsemen is remembered for its cultural impact: not only did it feature Rudolph Valentino’s star-making role, but it also inspired the tango craze. Most of all, it’s regarded as the first antiwar film (correction: it wasn’t the first, it was only an early anti-war film). You really can’t predict what future audiences will think. It’s a rare film that’s remembered 100 years after it is made.
Ingram didn’t reassemble the team a third time. However, they all went on to do memorable work. Valentino left Metro after the studio refused to raise his salary, according to his biographer Donna L. Hill; additionally he had many disagreements with Ingram. Of course, he went on to star in The Sheik (1921) and The Eagle (1925), which are still enjoyed today. June Mathis continued to be a freelance screenwriter, but she also didn’t work with Ingram again. She wrote two more great parts for Valentino in Blood and Sand (1922) and The Young Rajah (1922), as well as writing the screenplays for Ben Hur (1925) and Greed (1924). Alice Terry married Ingram later in 1921, and they continued to make films together such as The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923). They both retired from film when sound came.
However, the crewmember who made the most movies that will be watched on their 100th anniversaries and beyond is the cinematographer, John F. Seitz. During his impressive career (he shot over 160 films) his work included Sullivan’s Travels(1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Blvd. (1950). You can find an appreciation of his work on the later by David Williams on the American Society of Cinematographer’s website.
John Francis Seitz was born June 23, 1892 in Chicago, and in 1909 he went to work for Essanay as a lab tech. In 1916, he became a cinematographer, and he was signed by Metro in 1920. He was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but he never won. In 1960, he retired to work on photographic inventions; he held 18 patents. Karl Brown wrote a charming summation of his character in 1922:
John F. Seitz, A.S.C., is the student type of cinematographer and he is as quiet and self-effacing as a cuckoo clock when it isn’t cuckooing. If you want to know anything about Seitz you have to ask Roy Klaffki, John Arnold, Al Siegler or some of the other members of the Metro staff, for John is too busy doping out the next scene to talk about Seitz…Compared to John F. the oyster is an orator and the starfish a noisy roisterer, but he did loosen up enough to acknowledge that it really was he who photographed The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.