|Filming The Arab. Click to enlarge.|
Viewed at Sala Mastroianni (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Albert Samama Chikly, principe dei pionieri), earphone translation in Italian and English, Stephen Horne at the grand piano and Frank Bockius at percussions, introduced by Kevin Brownlow, 29 June 2015.
Mariann Lewinsky (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "The photographic evidence was there, in the book of Guillemette Mansour: a film still featuring Ramón Novarro, in his sheikh costume and beside him Haydée Chikly, costumed as a desert girl. So she had a role in The Arab, a film by Rex Ingram? Her name doesn’t appear in the credits, it could have been a small role as an extra, or more likely, as an extra guest. Of course – her father must have been involved in what was a major foreign film production on location in Tunisia, and it is easy to imagine how things went: Rex invited to dinner by his new best friend Albert... beautiful daughter with acting experience... “Oh, but you must be in my picture!”... and Albert insisting that Rex study at length all the photographs documenting the making of Zohra...."
"To our good fortune a print of The Arab was known to exist, preserved by Gosfilmofond. With Russian intertitles. Very incomplete. We have yet to discover during the festival screening if Haydée Chikly actually appears in the remaining 1200 meters or if she appeared, that is, disappeared, in the missing 800. "
"Whether with her or without her, there are many reasons why The Arab, hailed by “Variety” as “the finest sheik film of them all”, fits perfectly into this year’s Cinema Ritrovato. Rex Ingram was one of greatest visual talents of his generation, and three of his films, The Arab (1924, partly shot in Tunisia), The Garden of Allah (1927, partly shot in Algeria) and Baroud (1933, shot in Morocco) testify to his deep fascination for North African landscapes and towns, resulting in location footage of outstanding beauty. Ingram spent much time in the Maghreb and converted to Islam in 1933."
"In The Arab, conversions to or from Islam briefly seem real options for the American girl and the Arab boy. The plot revolves around an orphanage in Syria run by American missionaries, with the children in danger to be handed over, deported and killed by the attacking Turks (see section Armenia. Genocide and After). The actor playing Hossein is Jean de Limur, who would in 1930 direct Mon gosse de père, scripted by Mary Murillo (see section The Velle Connection)."
"Ingram himself spent his formative first years as a young film director working for Bluebird Photoplays in 1916-1917 (see section Beloved Bluebirds). It all connects, inexplicably." (Mariann Lewinsky)
AA: Kevin Brownlow in his introduction lamented the status of the surviving print which he compared to the look of a copy from a first generation Xerox machine whereas Rex Ingram was known as the master of the visual. He told us about his visit to Alice Terry when he was given access to Rex Ingram's memoirs and a treasure trove of correspondence including letters from Lawrence of Arabia. The Arab was produced between two masterpieces. Ingram insisted on shooting on location in Tunisia. Ingram discovered a strange affinity with the Arab culture, its passive attitude to life. He made a formula picture with a weak and turgid story. During the filming the MGM merger took place. Louis B. Mayer Ingram could not stand. It was written on the contract that the picture would be an Ingram - Metro Goldwyn production. Critics admired the documentary sequences. Ingram was a Flaherty devotee. In the Czech film archive there survive four reels of The Arab for future possible reconstruction. One critic claimed that Ingram made authentic backgrounds look like movie sets. With Mare Nostrum Ingram was back on form again.
From the fragmentary print it seems that this is the story of Jamil Abdullah Azam (Ramon Novarro) caught between two worlds: his own Bedouin world with its military and religious commitments, and the Christian world to which he starts immediately to convert having fallen in love with Mary Hilbert (Alice Terry). The epic background is the intelligence and strategy plotting for a war against the infidels. The protagonist falls between the camps, trusted by neither. There are epic shots of the charging Bedouins of the desert. This print ends abruptly to a scene where it is planned to hide in an ancient Roman fortress.
The scenes on location are beautiful and impressive and they do not look like movie sets: the camels in the desert, the muezzin in the tower, the morning prayer juxtaposing Muslims and missionaries, the wonderful dresses of the women, the dances, the games, the pipe smoking, the thieves, cooking coffee in little kettles, sheep led down flights of stairs, children's play during the recess. There are touches of comedy as Azam learns to read English and keeps the book upside down yet realizes that his place is elsewhere ("gave me a Bible, asked for a rifle").
Visual quality: not good, much duped and incomplete, it fails to do justice to the cinematography of John F. Seitz, yet watchable, better than what we were expecting.