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THE LAST WARNING (1929)
“I’ll open this theatre when I choose – and no ghost will stop me!”
Director: Paul Leni
Starring: Montagu Love, Laura La Plante, John Boles, Roy D’Arcy, Margaret Livingston, Burr McIntosh, Mack Swain, Bert Roach, Carrie Daumery, Tom O’Brien, Charles K. French, D’Arcy Corrigan, Harry Northrup
Screenplay: Tom Reed and Alfred A. Cohn, based upon the play by Thomas F. Fallon and a novel by Wadsworth Camp
police respond to a call from the Woodford Theatre on Broadway to
find the place in a uproar: leading actor John Woodford (D’Arcy
Corrigan) has fallen dead in the middle of a performance of his
famous play, “The Snare”. A doctor (Charles K. French), called from
the audience to attend the actor, describes to the police lieutenant
(Tom O’Brien) the events leading up to Woodford’s collapse in the
middle of a dramatic scene; that upon his character being threatened
by his romantic rival, he backed towards a mantle-piece, grasped a
candlestick there to use as a weapon – and fell dead. The doctor
then comments upon an odour of chloroform; a policemen reports that
some was found dripping onto the stage, near the spot on which
Woodford collapsed. Josiah (Burr McIntosh) and Robert Bunce (Mack
Swain), the owners of the theatre, arrive. The lieutenant begins to
interview the cast members and the stage manager, Mike Brody (Bert
Roach). Brody reluctantly reports hearing a violent altercation
between John Woodford and director Richard Quayle (John Boles),
which took place in the dressing-room of the company’s leading lady,
Miss Doris Terry (Laura La Plante). At this, a man, so far a silent
observer of the investigation, slips into the dressing-room in
question, where he finds evidence of Miss Terry’s involvement with
three men: Woodward, actor Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy) and director
Richard Quayle (John Boles). The coroner (Harry Northrup) and enters
the room in which Woodford’s body is lying – and re-emerges a minute
later, demanding angrily to know where the body has gone...? The
murder of John Woodford and the disappearance of his body creates a
terrible scandal. Driven apart by mutual suspicion, Doris Terry and
Richard Quayle separate. The Woodward Theatre is closed down,
standing dark and abandoned for years....until one day, when Mike
Brody and his reluctant assistants, Tommy (Slim Summerville) and
Buddy (Bud Phelps), open up the theatre to find it already occupied
by Woodward’s former secretary, Gene (Torben Meyer). A loud scream
then announces the presence of actress Barbara Morgan (Carrie
Daumery), who appears covered in cob-webs; moments later, Richard
Quayle arrives. All of the former theatre company and its employees
have been invited back by one Arthur McHugh, a producer – who turns
out to be the silent man from the night of Woodward’s murder. McHugh
takes Quayle aside and tells him that he was Woodford’s best
friend....then stuns him by announcing that he is not only
reassembling the company, but that he intends to produce “The
Snare”. Quayle is horrified, refusing to participate – and pointing
out that Doris Terry is in
Comments: Is it cheating to include The Last Warning in a silent movie Roundtable? Possibly. Made late in 1928 and released early the following year, in the middle of the turbulent period when silent and sound cinema battled for supremacy, the film is a textbook example of a studio hedging its bets. Universal Studios released no less than three versions of The Last Warning, each with a different sound component. One version was a partial talkie, and also featured sound effects; the second retained the sound effects, but substituted intertitles for dialogue; the third was entirely silent. The silent version, it seems, no longer exists (although there are rumours of a French print); the partial talkie does, but only in film archives. For decades, this was the only version at all available to the public, and that only in most occasional of revival screenings – until a single print of the film mysteriously turned up on video tape some years ago. This turned out to be version number two; and it is this version that still lurks in the grey market today. And given the complete lack of interest in this production evinced to date by Universal, it seems likely that it will remain the only version available for quite some time to come. It is, in any event, the subject of this review.
While the loss or unavailability of so many of
his films has prevented Paul Leni receiving his full due as a
film-maker, enough have survived to allow us to appreciate his
remarkable visual ability. Committing himself to the artistic life
at the age of only fifteen – and after undergoing the traditional
struggles and deprivations – Leni found employment as a stage
designer for Max Reinhardt, in whose company he became the friend
and collaborator of a number of individuals who would go on play a
significant role in the development of the German Expressionist
cinema. By 1913, Leni had himself become a part of the film
industry, working as an art director; his innovation impressed his
employers, and within three years he was directing, although he
continued to design his own sets throughout his German career.
During this period he reunited with one of his Reinhardt cronies,
Conrad Veidt, who he would direct in three films before the close of
the decade (all of which now seem to be lost). Leni’s critical
breakthrough came in 1924, when he helmed the anthology
Wachsfigurenkabinett, a film
influenced equally by Robert Wiene’s
Kabinet Des Dr Caligari and Fritz
Der Müde Tod.
Although the film had much to recommend it in terms of its cast (Veidt
again, along with Emil Jannings, Werner Krauss and a young William
Dieterle) and its experimental camera technique, it was Leni’s
staggering set design that captured the imagination of those who saw
it. Two years later, when the film was released in
Although the American release of
Caligari had, in an era of post-war
prejudice, been criticised and protested, during the following years
the visual inventiveness of German cinema had won it a strong
following across the country – much to the disgust of certain
factions of the local film industry. (Both the extent of the German
success, and the resentment that this success engendered, are
evident in the fact that as early as 1921, the Will Rogers short
The Ropin’ Fool
Rogers declaring that if the public doesn’t like his film, “I’ll
slap on a beard and say it’s German – then they’ll call it art.”)
The perspective of Carl Laemmle was, naturally, rather different
from that of the average film-goer, or even of the average producer.
It is one of the odd little ironies of filmdom that the head of the
studio most associated with “horror pictures” never much liked such
films, or understood them –
the public’s taste for them.
However, a taste for them the public certainly had, in spite of what
the critics said: the profits from Lon Chaney’s
offerings were proof positive of
As a matter of course, Carl Laemmle began to think of ways to better
feed that taste; and even more as a matter of course, he looked to
the Old Country for help. His viewing of
Waxworks told him that he had found
the person he wanted. Immediately, Laemmle issued to Paul Leni an
The play of which Leni’s film was based had been a success some years earlier, even though at the time this odd sub-genre was beginning to collapse under the weight of its own clichés, and perhaps from sheer exhaustion: in an era when apparently supernatural doings were invariably explained away in the last scene, stories about mysterious goings-on in old dark houses proliferated like mushrooms in mulch. The film industry re-energised this particular kind of story for a time, although by 1925 no-one was being asked to take it seriously any more, as evidenced by frank spoofs such as Roland West’s The Monster. Curiously, however, it was also West who gave this particular kind of story another shot in the arm a year later with The Bat, a film whose arresting visuals and innovative camerawork captured the imagination of audiences and critics alike. In its success we probably find the main motivation for Carl Laemmle to commission a film version of The Cat And The Canary; and as events would prove, he could hardly have found a property which would better showcase Paul Leni’s considerable talents. Although Paul Kohner is credited as “supervising producer” on the film, it seems that Leni was given an unusually free hand on his first American film. Finding a like-minded collaborator in Charles D. Hall (who would subsequently serve as art director on nearly all of the classic Universal horror movies), Leni let rip, producing a dazzling array of sets, miniatures, camera tricks, special effects and even an imaginative use of intertitles to produce a work that represents the very apex of its genre. Both artistically and commercially, The Cat And The Canary was a smashing success.
Paul Leni’s subsequent career was a
frustrating mixture of brilliance, time-marking and tragedy. His
next film, evidently lost, was
Chinese Parrot, the first feature
film version of a Charlie Chan story (there had been an earlier
serial), starring the Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin as the
detective. Leni then joined up once again with Conrad Veidt, yet
another of the numerous German artists invited to
Perhaps one of the few kind turns that fate ever did for Paul Leni was to preserve his sound-effects-only version of The Last Warning for public viewing, rather than the part-talkie. Contemporary reaction to the dialogue portion of his film was negative; and although the part-talkies were almost invariably criticised by the critics of the time, later reviews accompanying those occasional revival screenings seem to agree that the dialogue scenes are awkwardly staged, and serve primarily to bog things down. The climax of the film, however, which is all action and no talk, has been generally praised. Whether Paul Leni would in time have come to grips with the new demands of sound cinema, as many of his peers thankfully did, and master the spoken word as he had the image, must remain forever a matter of conjecture: The Last Warning would prove to be his last film.
There is a tendency for people to regard The Last Warning as an inferior semi-remake of The Cat And The Canary. It is certainly true that the two films have more in common than one would wish, but the transplantation of the action from the traditional country house on an even more traditional dark and stormy night to the heart of Broadway at the peak of the theatre season gives the later production an identity all of its own. The Last Warning positively explodes into action, giving us a sense of a feverish jazz-age Broadway, conveyed via flashing lights and marquees, and with chorus girls – their legs, at any rate – and dancers multiplied, superimposed and double exposed in a series of dazzling images; the final one broken up as a speeding police car bursts through it on its way to the Woodford Theatre. The energy of this sequence is maintained as the police force their way into the theatre, to the shocking announcement of John Woodford’s death mid-performance. It is also accompanied by a string of the film’s sound effects, some of which have also rubbed critics the wrong way over the years. The shrieks and cries with which the theatre audience greets the death of the actor are, in truth, a bit much; but the tinkling piano music and the sound of laughter and clinking glasses that accompanies that opening montage, the blare of the police siren and the initial “rhubarb, rhubarb” noises of the uneasy crowd within the theatre are much more effectively employed.
With the arrival of the police, we learn the
bizarre circumstances of John Woodford’s death, during the opening
scene of his play “The Snare”. The play is set in Napoleonic times;
the scene in question has a cuckolded husband discovering his wife
with her lover, although she tries to avoid detection by hiding in a
grandfather clock. The husband then threatens the lover with a
pistol. He in turn backs away, reaching over his head for a
candlestick with which to defend himself.... That is as much as we
ever see of this play. Even when it goes back into rehearsal, and
then into production, we never get any further. (Of course, we’ve
seen everything we
need to see.)
Upon clutching the candlestick, reports the doctor in attendance,
Woodford screamed and collapsed. Another complicating factor is the
chloroform dripping onto the stage. The police investigation then
commences, and suspicion immediately falls upon leading lady Doris
Terry and/or the director, Richard Quayle, who, upon the reluctant
testimony of stage manager Mike Brody, had a violent quarrel with
John Woodford in
Laura La Plante is another Leni carry-over
The Cat And The Canary,
but here she’s about as far from her menaced ingénue role in the
earlier film as she well could be. Her Doris Terry is A Woman With A
Past....and actually, upon the evidence of what we find in her
dressing-room, A Woman With A Present, also. Framed photographs and
flowers abound, all accompanied by impassioned declarations. It is
Richard Quayle’s photograph that has the place of honour upon
The studio-imposed use of sound effects in The Last Warning is confined to the opening sequence (as were the dialogue sequences). In contrast, one of Paul Leni’s own artistic choices, one which recurs throughout the film, is a clever re-working of the intertitles. This is an approach that the director also used in The Cat And The Canary, to avoid the monotony of the conventional card, to enhance the information being communicated, and sometimes just to amuse. Sometimes he plays with the font, increasing the suspense of a scene with “shouting” text: “CURTAIN!” comes the cry after Woodford’s collapse; while later the characters’ danger is underscored with shrieks of “SMOKE!” and “FIRE!” The simultaneously-speaking Bunce brothers get doubled-up titles; the pomposity of the police lieutenant is summed up through his reiteration of “I, myself, personally”; and the increasing fear of various individuals as they come to believe that the theatre is haunted is conveyed through the wavering of the text. Leni did not invent this particular tactic – one of his main inspirations, Fritz Lang, was also an able exponent of it – but Leni uses it so cleverly that at times you can almost hear the timbre of the characters’ voices. Leni also avoids a conventional title whenever he can: he uses flashbacks to tell parts of the story; the police lieutenant writes Richard Quayle’s name for us, rather than another title being interpolated; and newspaper headlines become a useful way of intimating the state of the murder investigation (or rather, the non-state), the separation of Doris Terry and Richard Quayle, and the passage of time.
not amused by
Leni’s manoeuvrings was
York Times cinema critic Mordaunt Hall,
who sniffed in his review of the film that
Along with an engulfing tide of headlines – which melt away in another clever visual – we get one of the most remarkable episodes in the film, with exterior shots of the abandoned theatre that give it a distinct resemblance to a malevolent face, followed, upon its inevitable re-opening, by others in which blinds are raised inside behind its small arched windows....making it look as though the building is opening its eyes. It is impossible to watch this sequence and not think forward to The Amityville Horror.
One of the most frustrating things about
American horror movies of the silent era is their stubborn refusal
to in any way actually horrify; almost inevitably, any attempt at
truly frightening the audience will be diluted and undercut by
lengthy inserts of supposed “comedy”, in episodes that, perversely,
horrifying. Of course, this fact is a reflection of the times in
which these films were made. Horror films were treated with
suspicion right from the beginning in
Which of course brings us back to The Last Warning, which is indeed a “horror-comedy” set in “an old dark house”. This film, like The Cat And The Canary before it, was based upon a play, neither of which made any attempt to get away from the clichés of the genre – and nor, it must be said, did the films. That said – and allowing that individual mileage will vary – these two films are a lot less annoying than most of their brethren, thanks to the skill of Paul Leni; and although The Cat And The Canary is a superior film to The Last Warning, one thing that the later film really does do better is to get most of its “comedy” out of the way in a single block, that portion of the film in which the cast and crew of “The Snare” are reunited in the gloomy, cobweb-draped theatre. The usual gang are all here – we recognise Tommy the electrician and his assistant, Buddy, as the Odious Comic Relief the moment we lay eyes on them, likewise Gene, Woodford’s, ahem, eccentric secretary; while Carrie Daumery’s Barbara Morgan is the Contractually Obliged hysterical spinster – and so is the usual tiresome schtick: people sneaking around inexplicably so as to terrorise their fellows, hands reaching slowly around doors for no readily apparent reason, supposedly sensible people reacting to walking into a cobweb with shattering screams, and so forth. And for those of you who thought that crude bodily humour was a recent addition to the world of cinema, think again: in The Last Warning Paul Leni makes history of a most dubious kind by stooping to a fart joke – in fact, a series of them – as Barbara Morgan is repeatedly shocked by the noises issuing from a bubbling water-cooler. (The inference being, she thinks that they’re issuing from herself. It goes without saying that this sequence is in the silent portion of the film: you can hardly imagine Leni getting away with an accompanying sound effect!)
In justice, it must be admitted that some of the comedy actually is funny. I’m particularly fond of the scene depicting the arrival of actress/vamp Evelynda Hendon, who introduces herself both to us and to a rightly impressed Robert Bunce by showing off her legs; a wonderful instance of efficiency in characterisation. (She also avoids an obvious cobweb – at last, someone with half a brain!) Most of the film’s most successful humour, however, comes more organically, through the dominating performance of Montagu Love as Arthur McHugh. One of the nice things about this film is that it assumes intelligence in its audience. It never bothers to spell out for us who Arthur McHugh actually is, for instance; it simply shows him doing things that make it clear – things that the other characters do not see, paving the way for his later reappearance as the sardonically-grinning, suspiciously-acting, cigar-chomping “producer”, who has the unfair advantage of being at least three moves ahead of all the other characters. (Although he’s not as far ahead as he thinks, as evidenced by the moment when he entrusts the care of a threatened character to---well, let’s just say he didn’t necessarily make the best choice.) Once McHugh has reassembled his team – some of whom turn up simply because they need the work, and others because they’re afraid of looking guilty if they don’t – the comedy begins to recede, and the second half of the film is played refreshingly straight, with Leni’s visual skill coming back to the fore.
Rehearsals begin, in spite of threatening letters being found – including a death threat for Harvey Carleton, taking over the leading role – of the terrified insistence of Mike Brody, Tommy and Buddy that they have seen John Woodford’s ghost; and of two near-tragedies, first when liquid smoke almost smothers those gathered in Arthur McHugh’s office, and then when a hanging piece of the set “accidentally” falls. After this last narrow escape, the traumatised Doris retires to her dressing-room....only to be further terrorised by strange noises nearby; noises emanating from, as we see, a mysterious figure in cloak and gloves, horribly deformed, lurking behind the panelling of the room; a figure that, as soon as the increasingly frightened Doris decides she’d really rather be out on stage rehearsing after all, helps itself to her handbag.
Naturally, the first thing we see during the
rehearsal is a re-enactment of that infamous opening scene, with a
marvellous moment when the distressed – or is it guilty? –
I’ve praised this film already for its willingness to assume that the audience is paying attention. It happens again here, with two details that we saw during the flashback to John Woodford’s collapse, but which were not described by the doctor in his account of events (in other words, Leni took to heart the cinematic truism, show, don’t tell): the flash of light that accompanied the grasping of the candlestick, and the dimming of the theatre lights immediately after. When the lights are switched on again, Barbara Morgan is missing – except that she reappears in one of the film’s last “comedy” moments. Harvey Carleton, on the other hand, has disappeared altogether.... Left behind him is that odour of chloroform again, the source of which is a discarded powder-puff belonging self-evidently to Doris Terry. The accusations that follow are disrupted when Doris begins screaming hysterically that she has just seen John Woodford’s ghost....but when the others look in the direction of her pointing finger, there is nothing there....
McHugh dismisses everyone but Quayle and the stage-hands, ordering the theatre locked and searched. Now the spooky business begins in earnest. Transposing an “old dark house” mystery from an eerie isolated house to a modern Broadway theatre might seem counterintuitive, but in the film version of The Last Warning, at least, it works – not unnaturally, since the interiors were filmed on the leftover sets from The Phantom Of The Opera! Leni makes wonderful use of them, too, his exploitation of their looming heights and shadows conjuring up a palpable sense of danger – even without the revelation that this particular theatre is riddled with secret passageways, sliding panels, and even – ulp! – a quicklime-pit....
enormously that throughout this sequence, the characters – including
McHugh – seem honestly, rather than “comically”,
scared. Screams and groans
accompany the searchers’ efforts, and so does the unnerving sound of
scratching nails (conveyed by superimposing a pair of clawing hands
over the increasingly frightened listeners), which turns out to be
emanating from John Woodford’s old dressing-room. Over the protests
of the others, and his own qualms, McHugh opens up the room, boarded
shut since the original tragedy, and he and Richard Quayle enter.
Quayle immediately has his appalled attention caught by
The climax of this accumulation of evidence against Doris is a defiantly loyal Quayle declaring, with twisted but oddly convincing logic, that the only way to prove his own innocence, and by extension Doris’s, is for he himself to risk his life by taking on John Woodford’s old role when the play actually opens.
In other words, The Show Must Go On.
So it does – but not until McHugh himself has received a written threat: This is THE LAST WARNING! Opening night comes accessorised by a significant police presence; and once again the play gets only so far as Quayle reaching for that fatal candlestick. (This happens, let me remind you, in the opening scene. It’s hard to know whether the theatre-goers here are best categorised as “optimistic”, “stubborn” or “bloodthirsty”.) By now McHugh is on top of events, though; his eye has caught a suspicious movement beneath the carpeting; an underling quietly reports a wire, leading from the candlestick to the grandfather clock. At the critical moment, McHugh intervenes. There is an explosion, the dispersal of the set, and a flinging open of the grandfather clock – and the discovery of a hideously deformed figure within.
A frenetic chase follows, highlighting one of the significant advantages of the silent film over sound at this time. All but a very few of the early talking pictures are leaden and immobile, their action nullified by the necessity of playing to the clumsy and inflexible recording equipment. The silent films, in contrast, move. Leni and his cinematographer, Hal Mohr, keep their film fluid and visually interesting at all times – there’s a wonderful early moment when the camera dips under a descending curtain, almost as if it were a character in its own right – and during this climactic sequence Leni wrings everything possible out of the wonderfully designed sets at his disposal, as the characters race in and out of passageways, in and out of shadows, up and down stairs, up and over balconies. At last the mysterious figure is cornered and attempts a last evasion by descending on a rope. It swings back and forth to evade its would-be captors, and the camera swings also, dizzyingly. Finally the killer is caught and, despite a desperate struggle, unmasked....
It should be emphasised that The Last Warning isn’t a “mystery” as such; there’s no real way the audience could figure out whodunnit – although by paying careful attention, it is possible to eliminate a few people as suspects, assuming that the film doesn’t cheat. There are also quite a few moments that are, retrospectively, very clever. Speaking of cheating, we do get the usual bait-and-switch at the end here, where the athletic figure we have watched darting from place to place and clambering over balconies and swinging on ropes is substituted, during the unmasking scene, for one of, shall we say, rather different physique. Still, the answer is fairly satisfactory, at least if one is willing to make allowance for the credibility gap that is generally associated with this type of story; and it does come accompanied by one genuine surprise with regard to the identity of one of the other characters. This revelation is truly one to win the heart.
The Last Warning
is not a great film, but it
highly entertaining. (That said, this film desperately needs – and
deserves – the same kind of restoration job that
Cat And The Canary was fortunate
enough to secure; the fuzzy, re-duplicated versions that are all
that are available today do Paul Leni a great injustice.) The
special effects and the photography are excellent, the action brisk,
and the contributions of the cast fairly impressive. Laura La Plante
has more opportunity to show off her range here than she did in the
earlier film. Frankly unlikeable at the outset, her
The Last Warning marks the end of an era in more ways than one. Perhaps the coming of sound would have derailed such a visually driven artist as Paul Leni; perhaps he would have taken it in his stride. We shall never know. The director died two months before the release of his final film, due to blood poisoning contracted from an infected tooth. The loss of such a talent, and from such a trivial cause, breaks the heart. This was not a good time for the film industry. Before another eighteen months had passed, the world would lose two more of the supreme artists of the silent cinema, F.W. Murnau and Lon Chaney, both of whom had begun to make the transition to new careers in the era of sound. There is no need to spell out what we lost with the deaths of those two men; the loss of Paul Leni, however, may have had a greater influence upon the history of film than has been properly realised.
At the time of the director’s death, one of the projects being considered for his next film, his first sound film, was Dracula, with Conrad Veidt in the lead. With Leni’s passing, and the coming of sound, Veidt, unsure of his English and unwilling to work with non-German speaking directors, returned to his home country, which he would leave permanently only three years later. The project in development was passed to long-time collaborators Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, only for tragedy to strike a second time. Dracula did finally see the light of day, of course (if you’ll pardon the expression); but although the importance of its place in the history of the horror film cannot be overestimated, this polite, drawing-room version of the tale is not the film it should have been; could have been.
Many have speculated upon the film that Browning and Chaney might have given us; but it is the thought of the Leni-Veidt version that keeps me awake at night. As was clearly demonstrated throughout their careers, while Browning and Chaney had a love of the macabre, they mutually shied away from the supernatural. Even conceding the abilities of the two men, jointly even more than separately, it is difficult, on the evidence of Mark Of The Vampire, and the partial (and perhaps misleading) evidence of London After Midnight, to imagine a really successful version of Dracula resulting from their collaboration. But a Leni-Veidt collaboration? Most of Leni’s films have a humorous component, granted, but with The Man Who Laughs he had shown that he could play it straight as well. With a director of Paul Leni’s visual prowess and an actor of Conrad Veidt’s power in the leading role, both men demonstrably unafraid of dealing with the frankly supernatural, their Dracula could have been a film to send the evolution of the horror movie in an altogether different direction. It is one of the most tantalising examples of cinema’s infinite Might Have Beens.
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