Archive for Conrad Veidt

Put On A Happy Face

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on October 9, 2010 by dcairns

Showed Paul Leni’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS to students — not absolutely sure what they made of it, they were mostly kind of quiet afterwards — but I certainly enjoyed it. The imagery crowded my head for hours, like a dark carnival.

All accompanied by the lovely crackly MovieTone score, which recycles the seduction theme from SUNRISE and God knows what all else. The attempts at sound effects, produced with whistling wind-sheets and bells, are somewhat primitive, which is fine, but sometimes a little intrusive, which is less fine. The decision to accompany Conrad Veidt’s first love scene with Mary Philbin (from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) with bangers, whistles and random rhubarbing from offscreen to simulate all the fun of Southwark Fayre, was perhaps a mistake.

I may have mentioned that Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies lists this one as “lost”, which it was, for years. A very happy rediscovery: Ray Bradbury, who was moved by it as a kid, saw it again  and proclaimed, “The damn thing still works.”

I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel, and in fact I’ve never even seen a translation of it, which is crazy because he and it obviously used to be very popular in the English-speaking world. Anyhow, I bet everyone dies in the end. In the movie, this being Hollywood, everyone lives, except the evil jester who is gored by Homo the wolf, then drowned. The happy ending provides a nice symmetry: Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), the man with the permanent smile carved in his face, begins the film by missing a boat out of England, and ends it by catching one, reuniting him with Dea, the blind girl who loves him, Ursus the kindly philosopher, and of course the faithful Homo. (The names are a source of deep joy: Hugo’s idea of credible-but-interesting English names includes “Lord Clancharlie,” “Lord Dirry-Moir,” and “Dr. Hardquanonne.” Plus Homo the Wolf.)

Meanwhile the faithless Duchess (Olga Baclanova from FREAKS) is presumably left to cry into her monkey.

Apart from the pomp and grotesquerie, there’s  the powerful pathos of Veidt’s sensational performance — deprived of his voice by silent cinema, and his facial expressivity by the forced grin, he further reduces his dramatic toolkit by avoiding the precise, eloquent gestures of which we know him to be capable: in moments of strong emotion, Gwynplaine’s hands seem to become as helpless as his smile, twisting into arthritic knots or folding up like flippers. While his tortured eyes gaze from that face as if from within an iron maiden.


The Sunday Intertitle: Rogue Statesman

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2010 by dcairns

THE BELOVED ROGUE, in which John Barrymore embodies swashbuckling poet François Villon, had haunted my imagination for almost thirty years when I finally saw it. My earliest definite encounter with the movie was in Brownlow and Gill’s epic documentary series Hollywood, where one episode examined the art of special effects in the twenties, and dissected a marvelous stunt where Barrymore is apparently catapulted across the rooftops of Paris and into his romantic interest’s bedroom. I was entranced by the panache and the artifice — amazing sets by William Cameron Menzies, presenting a skewed, expressionistic medieval city like something out of a Maurice Noble Bugs Bunny background, and zesty performances from a cluster of extreme physical types.

Now, I have an even earlier memory which may relate to this film: as a kid, I was excited by an extract from a silent adventure movie which featured a group of heroes of varying physical dimensions_- I think one was a dwarf. As I grooved to Barrymore’s athletic romp, I started to suspect that this movie, released by the Killiam Collection, was the source of that that same long-forgotten clip: Killiam did create a TV series out of sequences from notable silent movies… But I can’t be sure.

Barrymore’s buddies in his Robin Hoodesque capers are played by Slim Summerville (slim), Mack Swain (fat) and Angelo Rossitto (short), three noteworthy thesps with striking bodies and striking bodies of work. Slim made his debut as a Keystone Cop and racked up two hundred pictures, including outings for John Ford and Fritz Lang. Swain was Chaplin’s co-star in THE GOLD RUSH, sharing a meal made from a boot, the role for which he’ll always be remembered, but he too had a long history at Keystone, continuing into talkies as a but-part player. Angelo Rossitto is most celebrated for his work in FREAKS, where he seems to be the leader of the troupe, although this is more to do with his natural authority than with any textual evidence to be found in the script. He certainly has more authority than you’d expect in a man of 2’11 in height, with legs curved fantastically outwards as if his bean-shaped torso rested upon a horseshoe. Discovered for the movies by Barrymore, he makes his debit here aged 19, and would keep acting until 1987, although he had to support himself most of that time by running a newsstand.

This startling gang of misfits are given nothing to work with save their outlandish appearances, and serve basically to support the dashing Barrymore and make him look more handsome. And Barrymore IS startlingly impressive as a leading man, before cynicism and alcohol got the better of him: not only a Great profile, but a Great Physique.

Lovely Legs Night in the Pit of Despair.

Every player in the movie is a beautifully designed caricature, from the charming Marceline Day, who even manages to project innocent allure while wearing a hat that looks like a cross between a tea-cosy and a wasp’s face. The slender but inventive plot involves Villon protecting Paris from the depredations of the Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt), but his real enemy is the King whose interests he protects. As Louis XI, Conrad Veidt does such a great job of portraying a craven halfwit in thrall to superstition that he risks capsizing the whole movie — it’s impossible to care about the political issues covered in the story since it’s almost certain that France would be in safer hands with the sadistic Burgundy in charge rather than the moronic Louis. But one can’t begrudge Veidt his fervid overplaying, which makes all his scenes thrilling and neurotically warped. His entrance, a long tracking shot in which he creeps forward into the shadowy and tilting set, sporting a creepy centre-parting of the kind favoured by the late John Cazale, has a crazy splendour.

The Big Shave.

Remarkable how a combination of unnecessarily gargantuan talents (at least three geniuses: Barrymore, Veidt, Menzies), voluminous production values, and sheer energy, can rescue  a pretty straightahead cut-and-paste job in which highlights from the Dwan-Fairbanks ROBIN HOOD jostle with set-pieces from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (the Feast of Fools, the Court of Miracles). I mean, such a cheeky combo was always going to be fun, but this movie is like a Superman comic drawn by Daumier.

The Sunday Intertitle: Jesus Speaks

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by dcairns

I know, I know. Not great quality.

From THE WANDERING JEW (1933), directed by Maurice Elvey, who’s best known for THE CLAIRVOYANT (Claude Rains and Fay Wray) and a lively silent version of HINDLE WAKES, a much-filmed regional comedy. By the end of his career, Elvey had declined to slapstick comedies with Tommy Trinder.

But THE WANDERING JEW is another kettle of fish and loaves. Conrad Veidt gives it his all as the titular semitic itinerant, in a tale which takes its starting point from the medieval yarn about the Jew cursed to walk the earth, immortal, until the Second Coming, his punishment for spitting on Christ. The story is obviously anti-semitic at heart, but the filmmakers try to turn things around and make Veidt an analogue for the suffering of the Jewish people. He is redeemed during the Spanish Inquisition (helmed by reliable fat baddie Francis L Sullivan, whose work here may have landed him a similar role of corpulent corruption in Sternberg’s abortive I, CLAUDIUS) where the film seems to be taking aim at the modern embodiments of prejudice and hatred. A pity they didn’t go all the way and bring the WJ into modern times, where he could denounce Hitler and Goebbels. But I guess in 1933 Britain was in a more… placatory mood.

Of course, the implicit and explicit Christianity of the story kind of warps the pro-semitic good intentions, but you can see somebody meant well, meant to make a brave and powerful statement, and then just kind of got a bit lost.

Anyway, the image above demonstrates Jesus cursing the WJ — we never see the Christ directly, and even his speech is represented by an intertitle, or, more correctly, a surtitle, which shrinks onto the screen until we can read it, or almost. “I will not wait on you, but you shall wait for me until I come to you again.” Conrad then helpfully repeats the text for the benefit of any slow readers, and for those future generations viewing on a ratty copy with image so degraded you can hardly see anything. I like the idea that Jesus is so holy he can’t be seen directly by movie cameras (cf Wyler’s BEN HUR), and am even more impressed by the notion that his speech can only be represented through superimposed text. That’s some messiah! On the other hand, I am slightly surprised at the notion of Christ going around cursing people. That’s not how I imagined him, somehow.

Elsewhere in the movie, Peggy Ashcroft is a young Spanish hottie, and Hugo Riesenfeld contributes a striking score — 30s British movies have their own very different musical sound — which, unfortunately, never seems to shut up for a minute.