Archive for Paul Leni

The Late Show Intertitle: Curtain Up!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 12, 2010 by dcairns

From Paul Leni’s final movie, aptly titled THE LAST WARNING.

Leni, a successful director in the expressionist school, whose best-known work in his native Germany was WAXWORKS, made two celebrated films in Hollywood, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, and THE CAT AND THE CANARY. Like Murnau, he died before he could make a full sound film, but his last movie does contain a few early soundie moments: background crowd chatter and the like.

The movie is also a cornucopia of trick titles: intertitles swim into focus, zoom out at us, or appear shrouded in cobwebs, mirroring dramatic developments in the story. And the Bunce brothers, owners of the haunted theatre where the action transpires, even get a duplicate title where everything is said twice.

A proto-Una O’Connor gets some shrieking in.

THE LAST WARNING is a comedy thriller very much in the vein of THE CAT AND THE CANARY, and it stars Laura LaPlante, who appeared in THE CAT. It was apparently cited by James Whale as an influence on his comedy horror film THE OLD DARK HOUSE. Indeed, Leni has one character enter the room backwards, like Colin Clive in JOURNEY’S END and Boris Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN, and at one point shoots Laura LaPlante from three increasingly close angles, for dramatic emphasis, foreshadowing the way Whale presents the Frankenstein monster’s first appearance, and also the first entrance of THE INVISIBLE MAN in his bandages, and Colin Clive in ONE MORE RIVER.

A very BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN lighting effect.

And while THE LAST WARNING doesn’t have the same black-hearted, sepulchral wit as Whale’s best work, it’s more amusing than most horror comedies of the period, and in formal terms its very inventive indeed. As with THE CAT AND THE CANARY, Leni has fun with multiple images, spooky camera movements that creep in or out, with a slight lurch, upon his array of red herrings (Torben Meyer, Mack Swain and Slim Summerville are among the throng of grotesques and stereotypes).

Here is Laura LaPlante nude, for no real reason.

GENUINELY scary masked killer!

With its spookshow effects (at one point, the killer scales the walls of the theatre at Keystone Kop velocity, and later he appears in a balcony for an instant before dropping from view at a speed faster than gravity could account for) and florid stylistic touches, THE LAST WARNING is still a very entertaining movie, with a sensationally exciting climax, a barrage of tricks and tropes from Leni — it’s to be deeply regretted that he never got to apply his zany skills to a talking picture.

The blogathon is now open! Send me links in the comments section and I’ll make a post about them.

Scarf-Face

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

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

THE LODGER (1927)

I don’t think it’s that likely that this is direct influence, but it’s certainly striking. We know all about the influence of the German expressionists on Hitchcock, but I hadn’t heard of him influencing them!

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.

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