Archive for Edgar Allan Poe

The Sunday Intertitle: Tales of Witless Madness

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2015 by dcairns

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Richard Oswald made UNHEIMLICHE GESCHICHTEN twice. The 1932 one is covered here, but for some reason it’s taken me ages to get around to the 1919 one, which stars Conrad Veidt (pre-CALIGARI), Reinhold Schunzel (better known, by me anyway, as a director of thirties comedies), and famed dancer Anita Berber. I knew it used a different sampling of spooky fiction to make up its “uncanny tales” — Poe’s Black Cat appears in both, as does a loose adaptation of Stevenson’s The Suicide Club, but the rest of the bits are different. But I didn’t know that the three actors from the framing structure –who play Death, the Devil and the Whore, coming to life from their portraits and running amok in a bookstore, before leafing through the various volumes in search of diverting yarns — also appear in all the separate storylines, in a variety of guises. It’s a nice idea to bind an anthology together.

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It does cause a slight sense of the repetitive, since nearly all the stories become romantic triangles, and for some reason Schunzel is insane, or goes insane, in most of them. But this minor problem is nullified by the film’s extraordinary tone, which is a kind of Weimar cabaret of grotesque humour. In fact, the movie plays like a spoof of its own remake. The actors are obviously having great fun at the expense of the material. Schunzel proves to be a great creepy toad, prefiguring the qualities Peter Lorre would bring to his early roles in German film, and Veidt gets to do some fine clutching hand stuff. Berber alternates between sexy and horrible at will, and in her final installment, an out-and-out parody of the form, she has a manic schoolgirl naughtiness reminiscent of Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth I in Blackadder II.

To my surprise, the first story turns out to be a variant on the story — an urban myth — that inspired both SO LONG AT THE FAIR and, less directly, THE LADY VANISHES. Schunzel plays a madman in it who turns out to be a complete red herring.

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In the second episode Schunzel kills romantic rival Veidt and is haunted by his vengeful revenant. Some nice imagery here: Veidt rehearses his HANDS OF ORLAC schtick to campy but chilling effect, becomes a huge translucent Floating Head of Death, and manifests as a series of disembodied footprints, appearing one by one in a series of jump cuts, perhaps the first time that trick was tried. Carl Hoffman’s cinematography frequently surprises and delights with its spooky low-level lighting. All the more sad that Murnau’s film of Jekyll and Hyde, DER JANUSKOPF, with Conrad Veidt, is a lost film: Hoffman shot it.

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I expect that cat’s quite old now.

Then, in The Black Cat, he kills Berber. It was her turn, I suppose. Unlike in the later version, there’s no spooky visuals of the entombed bride, but the cat is endearing, and Schunzel goes off his chump again.

In The Suicide Club, Schunzel finally gets to be hero, and in the last story he’s a cowardly knight humiliated by a fake Scooby Doo ghost show put on by Veidt to scare the interloper away from his flighty wife.

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R. Schunzel, R. Schunzel, let down your hair!

Fun stuff for your next Halloween, I would suggest. The light-hearted approach is novel, and it’s slightly surprising to see a genre being gently ribbed before it’s finished being invented.

The Sunday Intertitle: A Nervous Nellie

Posted in FILM, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on October 5, 2014 by dcairns

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SECRETS OF THE NIGHT is a 1924 comedy-thriller from Herbert Blaché, whom I was predisposed to dislike. The husband of Alice Guy, he supposedly discouraged his wife from taking part in their joint business (“Don’t come to board meetings, it puts the fellows off and they don’t feel free to spit,” kind of thing) and then bankrupted them. I get the impression they separated but I’m not sure. Blaché stayed in the business a bit longer than his wife, making his last picture in 1929.

If you’re looking for things to be offended by in Blaché’s film, you don’t have far to go — there’s a comedy negro stereotype played by a white guy in blackface, for starters. This is quite a few years after BIRTH OF A NATION, and though of course I knew that Hollywood patronized black characters and treated them as the butt of jokes for decades to come, the use of burnt cork or whatever on an actor who is blatantly the wrong race DID rather surprise me. It suggests that the director hadn’t moved with the times. (“My dear fellow, in the 1920s we degrade real negroes!”)

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BUT — the film has comedy relief also from Zasu Pitts, and has elements of what would become a staple at this studio — Universal — the fright film. Zasu is introduced as a submissive reader, after Magritte, freaking out over Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, although the sentence she reads is clearly a title-writer’s invention, and you couldn’t fill a hardback book with Poe’s short story anyway. Still, it’s nice to see the tale referenced in a film from the very studio that would adapt it in 1932.

We can easily play Zasu’s trademark “Oh de-earr-r!”  in our mental soundtrack.