Archive for Paul Leni

The Sunday Intertitle: An Unwanted Child

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2019 by dcairns

Thanks, Flicker Alley! THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, restored. From Paul Leni’s last, remarkable year of filmmaking, along with THE LAST WARNING, before his untimely death.

Always knew this would be a gorgeous movie — it’s darker scenes did somewhat survive the accumulated grim of decades, the fuzzing of poor dupes and transfers — all that obfuscatory neglect merging with the cinematography.

Sharpened up, it’s the brighter scenes that really get the benefit, and the film seems hugely more modern.

The happy ending — which one roots for like crazy — still leaves the story feeling a bit trivial. You can tamper with Victor Hugo up to a point — nearly all versions of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME leave the protagonists alive — but Quasi doesn’t get the girl. (Not even in the Disney film: but Disney tries to make his romantic yearning non-tragic, and that cripples the film.) Completely excising the tragedy somewhat destroys the point.

In fact, terrific and hauntingly disturbing as Conrad Veidt’s work is, Julius Molnar, playing the same character as a child, has some of the best stuff.

Checking his credits — he has good roles in OVER THE HILL and NO GREATER GLORY, both of which I saw this year — and turns up in MAN-PROOF, which I just watched, as an office boy.

No wonder I didn’t recall him in it — he comes in the door, hands something over, visible behind Myrna Loy’s right shoulder-pad, and buggers off again, wordlessly.

His last role was as a newsboy — nobody wanted to use him as a grown-up.

A foreground miniature has hanged men dancing on their gibbets like the dolls they are. Charles D. Hall, one of the film’s designers, would go on to do DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE BLACK CAT, THE OLD DARK HOUSE…

Hugo, a highly cinematic writer but also an internal, poetic one, titles the gallows-chapter “A tree of human invention.”

Hugo describes a corpse: “It was that which is no longer.” The kind of sentence you can stare into for quite a long time: an abyss.

To spare the feelings of the audience, Paul Leni and his collaborators omit many of Hugo’s most cinematic touches. When little Gwynplaine finds a dead woman in a snowstorm, Hugo helpfully tells us that her mouth is full of snow. But someone has been crying. Excavating the corpse, he discovers a baby, still alive, which he rescues. Without sound to motivate that action, Leni has to show Molnar simply SEEING, rather than discovering, the infant.

There’s a French bande dessinée adaptation which goes even further. The woman is found dead. But her breast is exposed. On the nipple, a frozen drop of milk. From that milk, Gwynplaine infers, then uncovers, the baby.

Narrative is cause and effect. The more detailed the chain, the more well-reasoned each link, the more effective in a story.

Old Dark House Valuation

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2019 by dcairns

These are my programme notes from Hippfest’s screening of Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY ~

John Willard’s 1922 comedy-thriller play The Cat and the Canary has been filmed four times: probably the 1939 version with Bob Hope is the most-screened; the second version, The Cat Creeps, from 1930, sadly seems to be lost, apart from a few fragments; the 1978 remake, a rare fully-clothed outing from soft-porn specialist Radley Metzger, is an oddity. But it’s this 1927 production from the German émigré director Paul Leni, that really tickles the ribs and sends shivers up the spine at the same time: a cinematic workout for the whole skeleton.

All the surviving footage from the 1930 version.

It’s also a highly cinematic spectacle, with a mobile camera that looms and lurches (at one point even taking the point-of-view of a painting as it falls from a wall), expressionistic sets, eccentric title cards and artful superimpositions – the invalid Cyrus West, encased in the medicine bottles that give him life, is attacked by giant black cats, embodiments of his greedy relatives: a startling image! And that’s just the opening sequence.

Leni had directed Waxworks in Germany, likewise a riot of visual ideas, but he had a playful side too: he seems to be the only man ever to adapt a crossword puzzle into a film. Sadly, he died too soon, but not before giving us a trio of superbly atmospheric, macabre movies, rounded out by The Last Warning (another horror-comedy) and The Man Who Laughs (indescribable: a Victor Hugo period drama which inspired Batman’s ever-grinning foe, the Joker). Another hit, the Charlie Chan thriller The Chinese Parrot, is sadly lost.

An eerie mansion; a bickering throng of relatives; a will to be read at midnight; an escaped lunatic; sliding panels and hidden passages; a vanishing corpse – the story offers a dizzying array of melodramatic clichés, sent up with gusto and presented with all the shadowy spookshow atmospherics Hollywood could muster. While Lon Chaney’s freaky revenge thrillers were certainly a major influence on the horror cycle of the thirties (Dracula, Frankenstein et al), this macabre caper provided a lot of the inspiration too. The sepulchral sets were designed by Englishman Charles D. Hall, who had come to the States to work for Chaplin and would go on to create the creaky castles for most of the later Universal Studios monster movies.

It’s very much an international affair, reminding us how Hollywood has always sucked into its orbit the top filmmaking and acting talent of the world: Irishman Creighton Hale is the timorous hero, the kind of role he would reprise several times: he’s one of the Hippodrome’s favourite actors, having previously been screened in Annie Laurie and last year’s hit Seven Footprints to Satan. Hale had played staunch leading man types in movie serials of the teens (e.g. The Exploits of Elaine) before donning Harold Lloyd specs here to embody a comic milquetoast. The glamorous Laura La Plante, former bathing beauty, a big star of the silent and early talkie era, is top-billed, but it’s the grotesque supporting players who really bring out the goose-pimply fun…

The cadaverous Tully Marshall, resembling a kind of silly-putty skeleton, makes a lugubrious lawyer; Martha Mattox as the housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant, manages to make any shot she appears in startling, then unsettling; Flora Finch flutters as daffy Aunt Susan, and even the small role of a passing milkman becomes an exercise in grotesquerie, thanks to the chinless Joe Murphy, who was best-known for embodying yokel Andy Gump, a newspaper cartoon character.

And that’s what this is, in many ways, a live-action cartoon, with animated intertitles and a painted mansion to add to the funny-pages feel. Everything, from the actors to the sets to the exciting, swooping camerawork is designed to add to a heightened sense of macabre hilarity: Leni proves that German expressionism isn’t just there for the nasty things in life, it can be good for a laugh, too.

The Sunday Intertitle: Shiver ‘n’ Shake

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 10, 2019 by dcairns

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) has many novelty intertitles. The Kino DVD has a great score by Neil Brand. And the film screens at this year’s Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness. (Line-up here.) I’m writing program notes for it so I don’t want to say too much here yet. But I’ll reproduce my notes on Shadowplay after the event.

You never saw one like THIS, did you?

SUNRISE’s famous melting murder-proposal “Couldn’t she get drowned?” comes close, I guess, but this one has the added value of dropping into frame word by word. It puts me in mind of the end credits of KISS ME DEADLY.

Now I better go write those notes.