By Tony Williams.
While we lament today current low standards represented by mainstream Hollywood cinema, those of us resilient enough to resist the temptations of the “new” and ignore the uneducated comments of ungrateful, social media-addicted 100-level students complaining about the fact that they have to see “old films” (despite the quality!), can retreat to the past with DVD restorations. These two restored Paul Leni silent films are two such examples. While neither avoid particular flaws and fail to live up to their potential, especially the first derived from an important source novel, they do evoke a time when entertainment had a genuine aura of not insulting viewer intelligence. Neither film condescends to its audience. Nor do they overpower by excessive special effects designed to cover inherent deficiencies. The problems are clearly there for any aware audience member, but spectacle is not used in a bludgeoning manner to numb audience awareness. Instead, thanks to the pioneering role of Flicker Alley, The Man Who Laughs and The Last Warning reveal what the past was capable of and what our contemporary, miserably technological, “developed” cinematic apparatus lacks.
Already celebrated for his work in Weimar Cinema, such as Backstairs (1921), and Waxworks (1924), Paul Leni (1885-1929) belonged to that group of German artists Hollywood attracted during the 1920s. Had he lived, Paul Josef Levi would probably have continued working as a Hollywood exile like Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947), knowing that a return home would soon become impossible. Before directing during World War I, he achieved fame as an art director and costume designer. He undoubtedly welcomed the opportunity to continue working as a director in Hollywood after filming short prologues for films by other directors, such as Lubitsch and E.A. Dupont (1891-1956) during 1924-125. His three-part film Waxworks already displayed distinctive visual talents and facility in directing major actors. These included Emil Jannings (1884-1950), Conrad Veidt (1893-1943), and Werner Kraus (1884-1959) in the respective roles of Harun Al-Rashid, Ivan the Terrible, and Spring-Heeled Jack (1), not to be confused with “Jack the Ripper” (as one 1960s review erroneously suggested) as well as future director William Dieterle (1893-1972) in the connecting role of The Poet. Summoned to Universal by Carl Laemmle, Leni’s first film was The Cat and The Canary (1927) starring Laura La Plante (1904-1996), a Gothic House detective mystery with comic overtones present in The Last Warning (1929). The now-lost The Chinese Parrot (1927), the second silent Charlie Chan film, followed before Leni reunited with Veidt for The Man Who Laughs.
Derived from a Victor Hugo novel, originally titled as the more ironically appropriate On The King’s Command, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (filmed by Universal in 1923 with Lon Chaney, who was originally envisaged for Veidt’s role in the later film) it followed the patterns of most film versions of Hugo’s novels. Universal disavowed the historical and social grimness of Hugo’s vision for one more acceptable to Hollywood audiences, providing a successful conclusion as well as spectacular sequences. Although the creators of the Batman comic strip borrowed Hugo’s character for the menacing Joker, ironically the most successful Hollywood appropriation of the disfigured Gwynplaine appeared in Brian De Palma’s 2006 underappreciated film version of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987) that even has a scene from the original Hollywood silent film in a narrative set in the late 1940s. Original Black Dahlia Elizabeth Short (1924-1947) is as much a tragic victim of oppressive political and social forces in her era as Gwynplaine is in his. They are pawns of different types of entertainment machines that exploit emotional vulnerabilities in different ways. While Leni could not explicitly develop these aspects of Hugo’s original novel, De Palma does in his own way. He relates them to Ellroy’s exposure of the dark underside of America’s fascination with Fascism and Racism in 30s and 40s American society seen in the role of the American Nazi Party, Japanese internment policies, the Zoot Suit riots provoked by anti-Hispanic groups, police corruption, betrayal, and the continuing facility of the American ruling class to get away with murder.
Although unable to realize similar potentially significant elements in Hugo’s original novel, Leni and his collaborators produce a relatively unchallenging but accomplished studio production merging Expressionist grotesque with (sometimes unnecessary) humor. In a touching love story between a physically scarred Beast and a Blind Beauty, Veidt (or his stand-in) becomes subordinated to Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s acrobatics in the penultimate scenes as well as dispatching a secondary villain in a swordfight, and faithful Rin-Tin-Tin pup Wolf finishes off the villain in true heroic fashion allowing hero and heroine to reunite. Another pleasure is the performance of former Moscow Arts Theatre graduate Olga Baclanova (1893-1974) in the role of decadent Duchess Josiana who’s sexually slumming with the Southwark proletariat during carnival-time, with Baclanova combining images of Theda Bara, Pola Negri, and Clara Bow. Her lascivious attraction towards Gwynplaine, whom she also uses and abuses until she uses scornful laughter against him once Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) disinherits her, belongs to the best thespian traditions of silent cinema. So does Veidt’s performance, which conveys agony, vulnerable emotion, and tears beneath his distorted features as he realizes that Josiana belongs to an all too common world that regards disabled people as “freaks,” no matter how much they are not responsible for their condition.
While an accomplished Universal studio production, the film avoids themes the system cannot fully realize, such as the role of the grotesque, social criticism, and a dark world of exploitation and poverty. Significantly, several actors associated with Erich Von Stroheim appear in this film and one behind-the scene still shows him with Veidt, Philbin, and Leni that raises the tantalizing possibility of how would he have directed the film. They include Sam De Grasse (1875-1953) from Blind Husbands (1918), Cesare Gravina (1854-1954) from Foolish Wives (1922) ,Merry Go-Round (1923), Greed (1924), and The Wedding March (1928), Mary Philbin (1902-1993) from Merry Go-Round, George Siegman (1882-1928) from Merry Go-Round, and Josephine Crowell (1859-1932) from The Merry Widow (1925). It is almost as if Stroheim had some undisclosed relationship to this film and could have emphasized the social grotesque even more than Leni, had the former directed.
Bonus material includes a new booklet essay by Kevin Brownlow, “Celebrating Universal’s Masterpiece,” accompanied by a short study of the specially composed score by Sonia Coronado of the Berklee School of Music. Another addition to this DVD is the optional 1928 Movietone score that listeners can compare to the new version. While many soundtracks added in the transition to silent-to-sound period have not survived, this release offers the rare opportunity of witnessing audio-techniques in this transitional period. While no inserted actor voices occur in this version, those of extras in crowd scenes are added to the musical score. In the opening scene when Gywnplaine suffers abandonment by the Comprachico (2) group who have altered his features for mercenary gain “On the King’s Command,” namely James II (De Grasse), sounds of the screeching wind in the storm as sails roll down acoustically supplement eerie stylistic expressionist lighting. The Southwark fairground scenes involve a cacophony of voices and trumpet sounds with brief sentences such as “Look at the elephants walking up and down” barely heard above the noise, as they would be in real life. Musical motifs borrowed from “The British Grenadiers”, Sunrise’s (1927) imposed musical score, chiming clocks, tolling bells, and gunshots occur. This brief, but significant, moment involving the change from one predominant cinematic technique to another needs more research and dissemination to the general reader. (3) An informative 13.42 minute visual essay by Veidt scholar John Soister, “Paul Leni and The Man Who Laughs,” completes the additional material on the DVD.
The Last Warning is a little known Leni film but a welcome restoration also from Flicker Alley. Starring Laura La Plante, it belongs to that haunted house comic-mystery genre associated with The Cat and the Canary that would perhaps realize its most macabre expression in James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932). In this case, the house is a theater and the murder of its leading man occurs in a play whose title “The Snare” becomes obvious in the second part of the film. The death results in its closure on the part of cast and producers who clearly believe that “the show can not go on.” Years later, a mysterious impresario Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love) reunites the surviving members of the cast to perform once again the play that concluded in a deadly manner. Despite having traumatized production members in different ways McHugh clearly believes that the “show must go on” to solve the mystery. In the last year before full transition to sound, The Last Warning is notable for its silent film sophisticated pyrotechnics that also extend to titles clearly showing the influence of Eisenstein titles in exaggerating certain moments. Unstable titles graphically articulate a scary moment with “WHAT WAS THAT?” answered by “IT SCREECHED PAST MY EAR.” So do the titles “BUT WE SAW THE GHOST ON STAGE.” Titles become reproduced in several, ingenious ways such as the introduction of the two impresario brothers portrayed by comedy veterans Bert Roach and Mack Swain that move into double imagery before blurring back again, graphically emphasizing both the mystery confronting them as well as the very different character types both exhibit. Other titles blur frequently again emphasizing the lack of direct perception when confronting mysterious events.
La Plante again reproduces her familiar “Lady in Distress” role from The Cat and Canary, while John Boles (1895-1969) proves himself to be yet again another boring romantic lead as he will be in Frankenstein (1931) and Stella Dallas (1937). Margaret Livingston (1895-1984) proves herself as adept a scene-stealer as Olga Baclanova was in The Man Who Laughs playing an aspiring “flapper” actress evoking her role as the “City Woman” in Sunrise. Yet the plot of The Last Warning is creaky. It relies too much on visual effects that characterize Leni’s work as well as elements of the last major achievements of silent cinema to distract viewers from its deficiencies. A camera p.o.v. shot from the perspective of a masked character swinging on a rope echoes the more realized Convention scenes from Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Opening scenes echo the city depictions of Sunrise with an extended kaleidoscope montage of Broadway marquees, one showing Howard Hawks’s Fazil (1928). Another shows a blackface performer while other scenes depict montages of chorus girl legs and bright lights before a police car escorted by motorcycles proceed to the scene of the crime. As Soister notes in his booklet, “an early example of deep focus allows us to peer over the shoulders of audience members as a fabulously bearded man announces to the house ‘John Woodford is dead’” (7). The camera also moves over the heads of audience members to approach those who will announce that the evening’s entertainment is now over. In several ways, during its sporadic moments, The Last Warning resembles a Citizen Kane box of cinematic tricks. However, they need appropriation into a more coherent narrative structure rather than just visually enlivening a mostly tedious film with the exception of Leni’s scary monsters, hidden rooms, and clawed hands repertoire effects from The Cat and the Canary. Climbing down the interior façade and swinging on a rope, Leni’s “scary monster” bears more than a passing resemblance to Chaney in Universal’s previous success The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
Bonus materials include John Soister’s 9.54-minute visual essay “Paul Leni and The Last Warning” by John Soister and rare image galley. The booklet includes an extract from Soister’s study Of Gods and Monsters (1998) dealing with The Last Warning. Composer Arthur Barrow supplies “Notes on the New Score” in which he mentions his decision “to compose music that would utilize instruments that would have been available in 1929 and in styles that could have been known to a composer from that time” (18).
Flicker Alley has again performed a valuable service to discerning viewers by these two restorations. They also raise questions as to how Leni would have adapted to developing Hollywood techniques had he lived and worked further. Undoubtedly, he would have continued since he revealed an ability to adapt to the new system, unlike F.W. Murnau (1888-1931) and Mauritz Stiller (1883-1928). Would he have overcome deficiencies present in these two films and move towards a much more coherent form of cinema? His art direction background and collaboration with set designers reveals his cinematic competence. Could he have moved towards capturing some of the radical elements present in the work of Erich von Stroheim, whose grotesque cinematic realism certainly haunts key sections of The Man Who Laughs? Would he have moved away from the already stifling confines of the haunted house, comic mystery thriller he had contributed to in 1927 and woven those scattered aspects of visual experimentation in The Last Warning towards a more cohesive structure? Unfortunately, we will never know.
- On the derivation of this term and its use by Hugo, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comprachicos.
- For one example of this development see Tony Williams, “Before Dietrich: Sound Technique and Thunderbolt,” Senses of Cinema 50, April 2009. http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/cteq/thunderbolt/ .
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a contributing Editor to Film International.