Backed by ethereal, moody themes produced by the aptly titled Ragged Ragtime Band, Rex Ingram’s silent film version of The Magician was brought up from the vault to revel in the colonial hunting tent/scary uncle’s trophy room that was Hendrick’s Library of Delightfully Peculiar Writings. And delightfully peculiar it was. The soundtrack, courtesy of keyboard, guitar, bass, theremin and electronic pings and echoes, bathed ‘20s Paris in a surreal postmodern light where black magic and science horrifyingly collide.
If Dracula had a less suave, occult-dabbling brother, magician Oliver Haddo would be it. In fact, the movie’s parallels with Dracula, and at times, Frankenstein, are too obvious to outline. Part mad doctor, part evil alchemist, Haddo gets up to all sorts of bad boy stuff like inducing snakebites, stealing maidens and holding general delusions of grandeur. Paul Wegener’s Haddo is also scarily watchable, exercising the rubber-faced expressions Jim Carrey’s been emulating ever since. Sadly, Wegener never made it as far in Hollywood as he did with the Nazi Party.
The Magician deals in genius and its consequences when someone decides to try their hand at playing God. All of the female characters have artsy jobs – one’s a sculptress, one’s a (fatally bad) snake charmer and another creates dour Cubist paintings. In a sense, they create life in other forms. The men, on the other hand, strive for credible success as surgeons and professors, using their skills to save lives that are broken. At one point Haddo states, ‘Saving lives is no great accomplishment. Creating life – that requires real magic.’ Props to the ladies, then, for attempting this kind of magic through their art, even when it attempts to crush you. And props to Haddo for giving it a go, as everyone likes a ritual sacrifice.
The movie wears its ‘20s values on its sleeve, promulgating marriage as a means to ownership, championing the dashing, conventional Dr Arthur Burdon to Haddo’s renegade. Part of the fun are these blatant messages about good and evil; even though we’re not so uptight about ‘carnal behaviour’ now, this movie helps us to understand ambivalence about progress, both social and technological. The Ragged Ragtime Band managed to convey this uncertainty through its discordant score, creating the perfect melancholy ambiance.