Considering Alice Terry’s (1899 – 1987)
career in the American film industry
both in front of and behind the camera.
By Ruth Barton
No account of Alice Terry’s substantial career as a Hollywood silent era actor ever fails to mention the fact that she was married to one of that period’s most celebrated directors, Irishman Rex Ingram. It was undoubtedly Ingram who discovered the former Inceville bit-player, then known as Alice Taaffe, and who insisted that he could make a star of her. This he did, hiring her as an extra in The Day She Paid (1919) and ensuring her stardom several years later by casting her as Marguerite Laurier in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), the film that made the careers of many of those involved in its production, not least Valentino.
Alice Terry, now made over as a blonde, and apparently under strict instructions to work on her weight, continued to take the lead female roles in Ingram’s films, only retiring after The Three Passions (1929). She had never enjoyed acting, she later told Liam O’Leary:
“I was always the ingénue, that misunderstood everything, who always had to have an argument, so stupid […] With me pictures were just a matter of getting through the day, getting it over with, and I would see a script and look ahead and see that it was going to take a month and I would say ‘Oh God’, I would think ‘can I stand this?’ and suddenly the month would be over and the horror was past and I would say ‘I hope I don’t have to do another one’, but there always seemed to be another until you finally say no”.
The historical record has been somewhat less forthcoming when it comes to acknowledging Alice Terry’s work behind the camera. What is certain is that around 1918 she landed a job in the editing room at Famous Players Lasky. She was delighted to be able to quit acting, which, even then, she hated. However, the ether that constantly hung in the air from the equipment affected her lungs and she had to leave her job and return to performing. Later, in 1923, when Ingram finally discovered that Charles Brabin, not he, had been selected to direct Ben Hur (1925), we learn that he threw a fit and refused to have anything more to do with the film on which he was currently working, Where the Pavement Ends. Alice Terry took over direction in his place. On her husband’s final film, Baroud (1933), she receives screen credit as co-director. Ingram cast himself in the lead for the English version of this dual-language talkie, appearing in nearly every scene. One imagines then that Alice Terry played a significant role in Baroud’s filming. Archived home movie footage of the Ingrams at play with their famous friends is also likely shot by her. Even this is anonymous work, the focus always on the star, Rex Ingram.
Before her death, many of the key silent era film historians made the pilgrimage to Alice Terry’s bungalow in Studio City. They were there, of course, to ask her about her husband’s life and work. After some reluctance, she was most obliging, providing them with invaluable information about Rex Ingram’s filmmaking practice. She even sat down and penned a thirteen-page memoir about the man to whom she was married for 29 years, speaking of him with a combination of love and exasperation. If those who knew her – Kevin Brownlow, Liam O’Leary, Anthony Slide, and others – omitted to ask her what part she had played in the making of the films, it was as much because she didn’t consider it worth mentioning, as for lack of interest on their parts.
The screen has left us with an image of Alice Terry as a demure blonde, often partnered with Ingram’s Latin lover of the day. Just occasionally she stepped out of the shadows of her volatile paramours, notably playing the spy, Freya, in Mare Nostrum (1926) opposite Antonio Moreno. Those who met her after her retirement found a woman with a quiet sense of humour, who reflected with amusement on her industry career. Just how much of that career was spent behind the camera, or otherwise working on the masterpieces that constitute the legacy of Rex Ingram, is a mystery that time may never solve.
Ruth Barton is lecturer in Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin and
Ireland Liaison for the WFTHN. She is author of Jim Sheridan:
Framing the Nation (The Liffey Press, 2002), Irish National Cinema
(Routledge, 2004), Acting Irish in Hollywood (Irish Academic Press,
2006), Hedy Lamarr: the most beautiful woman in film (University
Press of Kentucky, 2010); co-editor (with Harvey O’Brien) of Keeping
it Real: Irish Film and Television (Wallflower Press, 2004) and editor
of Screening Irish-America (Irish Academic Press, 2009).
Her new book on Rex Ingram will be published by University Press
of Kentucky in 2015.
Images in this blog post are provided courtesy of the National Library of Ireland (‘Alice Terry postcard’) and Trinity College Dublin archives, TCD MS 11448 (‘Glam shot Rex and Alice’ and ‘Glamour shot Alice’).
Visit the Rex Ingram project website
 Liam O’Leary, ‘Interview with Alice Terry’, undated transcript, Liam O’Leary archive (uncatalogued collection), National Library of Ireland.