Expressionism for the Masses

The cinematic evocation of Madison Avenue mastication (“It’s so delicious, you’ll never know it’s good for you!”), the American works of Paul Leni deserve not only the current restorations they are receiving but a wider audience for his amazing celluloid magic.  Two recent Blu-Rays, from Flicker Alley, are dedicated to exactly this task, and I’m so delighted to be able to announce and comment on the releases of 1928’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS and 1929’s THE LAST WARNING, both now available in stunning 4K High Def transfers.

Leni, perhaps one of the least known of the many great German emigres, who relocated to Hollywood during and directly after the silent era, nevertheless had a string of major successes.  Key to his rising stature in the West Coast community was the box-office smash The Cat and the Canary, the ultimate “old dark house” thriller that reached the screens in 1927.  It’s relevant to note that Leni was not grabbed up by MGM, Paramount, Fox or even Warners, but the (even then) major-minor po’ cousin Universal.

Leni, born Paul Josef Levi, began as an art director for the great Max Reinhardt.  He is generally considered by many to be (along with F.W. Murnau) the genius who brought gothic horror to cinema via his grasp of set and art design and lighting to create emotion, atmosphere and suspense.  The pic that got America interested in Leni was the 1924 horror masterpiece Waxworks.  Sadly, in late 1929, just as Leni was enjoying the fantastic successes of his brief Hollywood period, he died of blood poisoning.

It was the enthusiastic U.S. audience response to Cat (the accompanying critical kudos didn’t hurt either) that prompted Universal to give Leni full rein on a dream project, an opulent rendition of Victor Hugo’s disturbing 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs.

For Universal, this really wasn’t that much of a gamble.  The Laemlles (Carl and Carl, Jr.) were eager to flex their money muscles in competition with the big boys; more importantly, they had scored a super blockbuster epic with their 1923 adaptation of Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of the instantly recognizable silent film iconic go-to titles.

While there is much to recommend the earlier Hugo pic, Leni easily outdistances himself artistically from that movie’s director, Wallace Worsley.  The production values, under Paul Kohner’s supervision (with Leni personally working with Charles D. Hall, Thomas F. O’Neill and Joseph Wright, as well as costume designers Vera West and David Cox), like Hunchback’s, are spectacular.  While no doubt Lon Chaney was presumably (at least early on) the front runner to play the vital, contradictory proud-pathetic protagonist Gwynplaine (he had another sensational hit for Universal with their 1925 horror show Phantom of the Opera), his now superstar status at MGM likely made him unattainable.  Leni certainly wasn’t stymied and probably already had his fellow countryman Conrad Veidt in mind for the lead; Veidt, after all had become an international sensation with the release of 1919’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and later starred in Leni’s aforementioned Waxworks.  With Euro imports all the rage (Garbo, Emil Jannings, Pola Negi), convincing Universal of Veidt’s talents didn’t take too much prompting.  It is, to put it mildly, one of the great performances in cinema – be it silent or sound.

The story of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (often erroneously credited as a precursor to William Castle’s 1961’s faux Hammeresque Mr. Sardonicus) is a sad one, fitting in with classic French-set/sourced screen tragedies (Hunchback, Orphans of the Storm, etc).  In 1690, evil, corrupt and stupid King James (silent villain Sam de Grasse) captures his enemy – a noble of the Clancharlie family; before having him executed, his repugnant court jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) comes up with a horrific fate for the prisoner’s child, his beloved son Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar, Jr).  They sell the boy to gypsies, on the specific proviso that he’s turned over to “Dr.” Hardquannone (George Siegmann), a maniacal pedophile whose specialty is disfiguring children by carving their facial muscles into a permanent skull-like grimace.  Victim Gwynplaine escapes into a blizzard, coming across the frozen body of a young woman; there, nestled in the dead mother’s arms, is an infant girl – alive, but blinded.  Gwynplaine takes the baby under his wing and roams the wilderness, looking for shelter; he eventually comes across a hideous but kindly circus showman Ursus (von Stroheim favorite Cesare Gravina).  He takes the children in, and raises them as his own – an act of goodness that pays off handsomely.  As the children reach adulthood, they become star attractions in his traveling caravan: Gwynplaine (Veidt) as “the man who laughs,” and Dea, now a gorgeous young woman (Phantom of the Opera‘s Mary Philbin) as the blind angel (she initially loves her childhood savior because she cannot see him, but soon, that doesn’t matter). As a triangular pinch of sadistic spice, Freaks’ Olga Baclanova is astoundingly nasty as a gorgeous nympho duchess with a jones for lowlife coitus; her “romantic” night with Gwynplaine is, to put it mildly, an eye-opener.

How this all twists and turns toward its breathtaking climax is movie-making at its ultimate peak.  Aside from Leni’s magnificent direction, the heart-wrenching screenplay/adaptation by J. Grubb Alexander (with assist from May McLean, Marion Ward, and Charles E. Whittaker; titles by Walter Anthony) and the outstanding photography of Gilbert Warrenton, the driving force of Nature that propels THE MAN WHO LAUGHS to immortal classic par exellence is the acting of Veidt.  Often seen only as a pair of eyes covered by a lower kerchief/mask, one is treated to brilliant screen emoting as never before witnessed.  Veidt’s eyes do it all, laying forth a myriad of emotions:  sadness, joy, anger, love, hate…I’ve never experienced anything like it.

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS was a terrific success in 1928; so much so that when sound began making serious inroads into the industry, Universal pulled the title, and commissioned a Movietone score to be composed by Dr. William Axt.  This track, which includes sound effects, is available on this restoration, as well as an excellent, new score by Sonia Coronado.  There are also numerous other enticing extras, including a booklet by Kevin Brownlow, a visual essay on Leni at Universal by author John Soister, and a gallery of stills and promotional materials.

Frequently included as part of Universal’s classic horror catalogue (usually by folks who never saw it), THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, essentially because of the frightening imagery of Veidt in makeup, has, as indicated, been grouped in with the Castle flick (although it undoubtedly did have a visual influence).  More importantly, the grinning lead character was the impetus for Batman creator Bob Kane’s creation of The Joker.  The look of the movie, too, instantly places it in the James Whale/Robert Florey goth universe (some imagery was too gruesome for 1928; a sequence surrounding a colony of deformed grinning children was cut before the release). Of course, the fact that Gwynplaine isn’t a monster is beside the point.  That said, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, in a totally other way, earns a place in horror cinema, if only to underline that the true demons are the “normal” humans, who persecute anyone (be it for ethnicity, skin color, religion, gender or sexual orientation) simply because they’re different.


In comparison to the above, 1929’s THE LAST WARNING may seem minor.  But leave us look again.  True, it takes a basically B-movie murder mystery plot (Universal remade the title in 1939 as The House of Fear) and elevates it to high art entirely via Leni’s mastery of direction, camera and lighting.

The final work before his death in 1929, THE LAST WARNING sets its macabre Jazz Age tale of homicide within Broadway’s show business community. In fact, the murder in question (as adapted/scripted by Alfred Cohn, J.G. Hawks and Tom Reed, based upon Thomas F. Fallon’s play from Wadsworth Camp’s novel) takes place during the five-year anniversary presentation of the play where an identical killing occurred! Prime suspect/victim/heroine is Leni’s underrated lead from Cat and the Canary, Laura La Plante.  La Plante, who had a decidedly atypical look from the barrage of flapper femmes of the era, was always a personal favorite of mine.  While her name is so 1920s silent, her abilities aren’t; she smoothly made the transition to talkies, handling dialog with comic, sexy and snarky aplomb.  Yet, the fickle audiences left her in the dust.  La Plante ended up in the UK (where she made a delightful 1935 comedy, Man of the Moment).

Weaving in and out of the kaleidoscopic camera moves and compositions (some incorporating existing theater sets from Phantom of the Opera) are Montagu Love, Roy D’Arcy, Margaret Livingston, Burr McIntosh, Mack Swain, Charles K. French, Bert Roach, Slim Summerville and Fred Kelsey (as, what else?, a dumb detective).  The thrills are ever-present and fun, certainly a way-diverse Leni approach to storytelling from THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (which only further heralds the director’s outstanding hold on the medium).  Another perk of this 78-minute gem is Hal Mohr’s authentic location montage of New York City nightlife in the 1920s.  I’m agog by the nocturne montages of Times Square and Broadway; they’re absolutely jaw-dropping with wow factor enchantment.

Flicker Alley and Universal Pictures are to be duly (and dually) congratulated for their making available these silent treasures (they’re part of an on-going restoration series that Universal is engaged in with the Cinematheque francaise and The Packard Humanities Institute in the UCLA Film & Television Archive).  They look wonderful (although WARNING includes some brief 16MM footage); in keeping with company’s growing Blu-Ray catalog, the combi B-D/DVD set includes an addictive array of extras/supplements, including a visual essay by John Soister, a stills and promotion gallery, and a newly commissioned score by Arthur Barrow.  Murder was never so much of a hoot…and a holler!

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.  Black and white [full frame; 1.21:1; 1080p High Definition; also includes DVD]; 2.0 mono audio [1928 Movietone track] or DTS-HD MA [new score].  CAT # FA0062.  SRP: $39.95.

THE LAST WARNING. Black and white [full frame; 1.33:1; 1080p High Definition; also includes DVD]; DTS-HD-MA.  CAT # FA0063. SRP: $39.95.

Both titles released through Flicker Alley/Universal Home Video.



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