Archive for The Man Who Laughs

The Project Fear Intertitles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 27, 2019 by dcairns

“The tenacity of Hansen has borne fruit. A heartbeat, a cry, the homunculus is born!”

From HOMUNCULUS (1916). HOMUNCULUS, which deals with a man without a soul, created by chemistry, is a strange film, and time has treated it… strangely. Asides from the chunks which remain missing, there are passages in which film decay and tinting and toning appear to have interacted willy-nilly to produce psychedelic solarisation effects unknown to both the Kubrick of 2001 and the Jack Cardiff of GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE. While clearly not what Otto Rippert likely had in mind, these unintended effects are certainly beautiful:

I would like to wander through these chrono-chromatic effulgences, so long as I could do it without, you know, getting any on me. I’m not sure it washes off.

Some of the original colour effects do survive, at least in part, and are stunning:

My blog-voodoo spell may have worked — it seems as if Boris Johnson’s dark pledge to effect Brexit by Halloween, via a magickal ritual known as the Westminster Working, has been thwarted. You’re welcome. But we must see this thing through to the end. Project Fear will continue to celebrate the dark side of European filmmaking — which still includes Britain — for one week.

“Take me… to her!” Here’s Faust in Murnau’s FAUST responding appropriately to a sexy vision.

“Your wife has a lovely neck.” NOSFERATU gets frisky. Have European horror films always been sexier than American ones? I want to say YES. Hammer would be a prime example — lustier than the Corman equivalents, though Hazel Court in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH does not lack in what Billy Wilder called “flesh-impact.”

And finally, Contrad Veidt in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS reacts to the sight of his beloved dog, which has the most problematic name of any screen canine outside of DAMBUSTERS.

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 Batman

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2015 by dcairns

The Batman from David Cairns on Vimeo.

This is from the Robert Florey-directed THE PREVIEW MURDER MYSTERY (1936). At a certain point in the story, we get glimpses of different movies being shot on different stages of a studio which is being targeted by a murderer/terrorist, who turns out to be… well, I won’t spoil it. But we get to see Hank Mann and Snub Pollard as clowns doing crosstalk patter instead of the slapstick they were famed for (Mann plays the drunken millionaire in CITY LIGHTS, among many other roles through a long career beginning at Keystone), but much more interestingly we witness the shooting of an expressionist horror movie, featuring a character called The Batman. He wears a dark cape and is accompanied by a grotesque figure with a painted grin.

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THE BAT WHISPERS

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THE MAN WHO LAUGHS

This is all very interesting as the DC Comics Batman (known as THE Batman in his early appearances) didn’t make his first appearance until 1939. Creators Bill Finger & Bob Kane always credited the movies, though they mentioned THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) and THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928). And indeed, the Bat and Gwynplaine look a lot more like the comic book characters than these doofuses, with the quaint twist that the Bat was a villain and Gwynplaine a hero, rather than the other way around.

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I’m also slightly amused that The Batman in Florey’s film looks so much like Brandon Lee in THE CROW, a much later descendant of the costumed crime fighter.

Florey, of course, directed for-real horror movie MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and *nearly* got to do FRANKENSTEIN, but for me the more relevant credits are his early shorts, THE LOVE OF ZERO and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413, A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA. Both are made in a Caligariesque kind of cardboard expressionism, and the latter is even a behind-the-screen story of moviemaking like THE PREVIEW MURDER MYSTERY.

As for the actors — the screen’s first Batman turns out to have been German character player Henry Brandon, best known for playing Scar in THE SEARCHERS. IMDb refers to his sidekick as “the gnome,” and the actor is my hero, John George, from TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS. A dynamic duo by anybody’s standards!