An Irishman's Diary


I SUGGESTED yesterday that, except for a plaque on the house he grew up in (and a passing mention in Finnegans Wake), the pioneering silent-movie director Rex Ingram is largely forgotten in the country of his birth. But the country he became famous in has been even more negligent, as a story in this week’s Washington Postreminds us.

No sooner had I written about Ingram than, in a happy coincidence, the Post was reporting that a digital copy of his 1924 film The Arabis one of 10 silent-era movies recently presented by Russia to the US Library of Congress.

Like the other nine, it had come to Russia from America in the first place. But the originals had all long since been lost in the US, because the silver nitrate stock on which they were recorded degenerates unless stored carefully, and conservation was not a priority in the early days of Hollywood.

Luckily – in at least this respect – the birth of the American film industry was followed soon afterwards by the Russian Revolution. And if communists were good at anything, it was filing stuff away for future reference. Not only that, but from the start, the Bolsheviks were also very conscious of the importance of cinema.

Lenin himself predicted it would be their key propaganda tool; although in his most visionary moments he could hardly have foreseen that, 60 years later, a retired Hollywood B-movie cowboy would become US president and help bring about the Soviet Union’s final defeat.

In any case, while being wary of their content and sometimes labelling them with moral health warnings, the Soviets preserved US films assiduously. And so, now, post-Soviet Russia can present the careless Americans with pristine copies of these pieces of their cultural heritage, complete with dialogue boards in Cyrillic script that will now have to be translated back into the original English It must be a bitter irony for any old communist to ponder. If Lenin were not preserved in a glass case in Red Square, he would surely be turning in his grave.

The Arab’simportance as a film aside, it marked a watershed in Ingram’s life. Always drawn to the exotic, he filmed many of the scenes on location in Algeria. And through this and later movies, including Baroud, he appears gradually to have “gone native”, as they used to say in the foreign service: in the process leaving his career in cinema behind.

The ruling classes of his generation – and Ingram was very much of Ireland’s old ascendancy stock – were particularly susceptible to this sort of thing: TE Lawrence (of Arabia) being only the most famous example.

Thus, although as we have noted, the adult Ingram adopted his mother’s surname, in place of the “Hitchcock” he had inherited from his father, this was not his last name-change. Nor was it his most dramatic. The Irish Timesobituary, in 1950, notes that shortly after making his last movie, in the early 1930s, Ingram had become a “Mohammadan”. Thenceforth, he styled himself Ben Alaam Nacir Ed, or “son of the savant of faith”.

THAT FORMER B-movie cowboy alluded to above – Ronald Reagan – would have turned 100 on Sunday last, had he still been alive. And other political anniversaries this week include that of Roddy Connolly, son of the 1916 leader and later a leading socialist himself, who was born 110 years ago today. Which fact reminds me of a fascinating (at least I think so) fact about the aforementioned Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: namely that he spoke English with a Dublin accent. As regular readers of this column may recall, we owe this nugget of information to the same Roddy Connolly, who met the famous communist while visiting Petrograd in 1920.

More precisely, Connolly claimed that Lenin had a “Rathmines” accent, and that this was “the product of his Irish tutor, who had lived in Leinster Road”. This in turn might help explain why Lenin and his wife – according to her memoirs – found it very hard to make themselves understood when they first visited London and why, listening to speakers in Hyde Park, they found the Irish ones easier to follow.

But then again, the paradox of the Rathmines accent – now extinct, at least in Dublin 6, although some would argue that it has merely migrated to leafier suburbs, especially ones with Dart stations – is that it was lampooned by other Dubliners as being anything but Irish. It was considered a genteel, Anglofied affectation. Hence Sean O’Casey’s “lady from Rathmines” who provides comic relief in The Plough and the Starsby getting lost in the city centre during Easter 1916.

Anyway, I only bring the subject up again because it strikes me that if, in a parallel universe, Rex Ingram were to meet Lenin today and thank him for his role in saving the original print of The Arab, the two men would have no problem communicating.

As noted yesterday, Ingram was himself from Rathmines. Indeed, the plaque-bearing house of his childhood is in Grosvenor Square: from which if you shouted – in however genteel an accent – they could still hear you on Leinster Road.