by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This year marks the centennial of America’s entry into what was then called the Great War, and then later World War I. The museum will, in several ways, commemorate this in programming during the next two years, including on this blog.
This post in the That’s a Wrap series on 1920s film looks at a deluxe program published to accompany Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, released by Metro Pictures in spring 1921. The program, from the Homestead’s collection, and the movie reflect the growing complexity and sophistication of the motion picture industry as the new decade dawned.
First, the film was essentially made possible by one of the first women to achieve a position of responsibility in a film studio. June Mathis (1887-1927), a native of Colorado, was a actress in the theater who was determined to became a screenwriter (often called a “scenario writer” in the silent film era). By 1917, she was working for Metro, whose heads Marcus Loew and Richard Rowland gave Mathis unprecedented power for a woman in a major studio.
In 1918, the English translation of Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s 1916 novel, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, was published. which told of the effects of fighting in the European theater by members of an Argentinian family who fought for both the French and the Germans during the Great War.
Mathis, who had a strong spiritual bent, was taken with the book and determined to reproduce it for the screen, receiving Metro’s approval. Rex Ingram (1892-1950) was brought in by Mathis to direct and the two developed a short romantic liaison. For the key role of Julio Desnoyers, who fought for the French, Mathis secured the services of a little-known actor, Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926).
The leading lady, Alice Terry, became director Ingram’s romantic partner and soon his wife. Other notable actors in the film were Alan Hale, later Little John to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood in the 1930s and father of the actor who played the Skipper on the 1960s television comedy Gilligan’s Island, and Noah Beery, who had a long career as a highly regarded character actor.
The film version of Four Horsemen was an enormous undertaking by the standards of the period. Production took place over a full year and costs topped $1 million, a huge sum. 12,500 actors and extras and another 12,000 persons were involved in all aspects of the making of the movie.
Ingram shot over a half million feet of film, of which only a little more than 20% was used in the final cut and the editorial crew undoubtedly deserved much credit for putting together a final product out of 85 miles of film worked over in eighteen days of eight-hour shifts. The final running time of 134 minutes was also exceptionally long for a feature film of the day. 125,000 tons of building materials were used for sets that included a French village said to be large enough for 6,000 people and with fully finished houses–all of this was destroyed in war scenes.
There were structures built specially for the film for costume, food service, machining and an armory. Art works used in the staging were said to have been “valued beyond price” and was insured for $375,000. Ingram worked with over a dozen assistants and cinematographers on the massive shooting site near Griffith Park and it was said that a telephone system was established so he could communicate with them during the battle scenes. Finally, it was stated, “several new mechanical devices for special photographic effects” were patented and used for the first time in filmmaking.
Released on 6 March 1921, the film became an instant sensation, with the vast spectacle, wartime action scenes, and romance attracting huge audiences. Four Horsemen grossed $4.5 million and was one of the highest grossing releases of the silent era. It also garnered mainly positive and sometimes ecstatic reviews, especially for Valentino.
For June Mathis, her place as a powerful female figure in Hollywood (along with a few others like Frances Mation, Anita Loos and Elinor Glyn) was established and she went on to do several more films with Valentino, including Blood and Sand (1922), another Ibáñez adaptation, as well as the acclaimed 1925 film Ben-Hur. She also was a major supporter of German auteur Erich von Stroheim’s monumental classic Greed (1924), but has been criticized for her editing of the sprawling 6-hour epic to less than half that length. In 1928, Mathis died at age 40 of a heart attack while attending a play in New York and she was largely forgotten for decades afterward.
Ingram achieved renown with his work on Four Horsemen, but he was also a volatile personality, even in an industry full of them. He was in conflict with his studio bosses, including Louis B. Mayer, when Metro became part of the amalgamated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio. Mayer offered him the job of directing Ben-Hur, but Ingram’s demands led to the hiring of another director, Fred Niblo, instead. Ingram and Terry moved to France and made films for MGM on their timeframe and whim for a period, but declining box office receipts and critical attention essentially ended his career by the early 1930s and the dawn of the sound era.
As for Valentino, his story is well known. Four Horsemen made him one of the greatest stars of his era and propelled him from the $350 a week he earned making this movie to thousands per week later. He left Metro over finances for Famous Players-Lasky, soon Paramount Pictures and made The Sheik, also released in 1921, which cemented his legend. This was followed by another massive success, 1922’s Blood and Sand, also with Mathis as writer.
Conflicts, personal and professional, ensued, though, and Valentino had mixed success over the next few years. Joining Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin in their artist-owned United Artists studio, his second film there was the Son of the Sheik which revisited a famed role he’d rather have left behind. The film opened to great success in July 1926. Just weeks later, the actor died of peritonitis following an outbreak of gastric ulcers and appendicitis. He was 31 years old. A press photo of his remains being brought by train to Los Angeles was featured on this blog some months ago.
As mentioned at the outset, 2017 will find the Homestead offering commemorations of World War I, including this year’s lecture series based on war-related themes, and other program elements. Check back here for posts based on the Great War, as well.