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The Weekend Hobby Thread | Main | Saturday Overnight Open Thread (11/18/23)
November 18, 2023

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 11/18/2023 [TheJamesMadison]

Paul Leni

In the late silent and early sound era, one of the chief imports to Hollywood was German directors. The most important import was probably Ernst Lubitsch, but there were definitely others such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang (you could throw in Billy Wilder, but he was imported as a writer, and he struggled to get into the country and system). One of those that could have been in that top tier was Paul Leni, attracting the attention of Hollywood with his anthology film Waxworks, but he died in 1929 of sepsis from an infected tooth. I'm going to say this more than once, but go to your dentist, people.

Leni made only four movies in Hollywood before his death from 1927 to 1929 (only four in three years? Hollywood has really changed), and one of those is lost (the second Charlie Chan film, The Chinese Parrot), but he was actually rather hugely influential both in Germany and America. He's one of those filmmakers that's mostly forgotten but has fingerprints still in cinema today.

So, who was this guy? Only seven of his films survive to the current day, and yet he was formative in two major movements of film? Who did he think he was?

German Expressionism

The silent era was a quick period of learning for the entire film world. The form began in the last years of the 19th century with the work of people like the Lumiere Brothers, given life by people like Georges Melies, and given form by people like D.W. Griffith. By the time Griffith had really established what a feature film was in 1915, the medium was less than twenty years old and fourteen years away from sound completely shaking everything up. That was less than a generation to figure out what else one could do, and Germany was one of the epicenters of that discovery.

And Paul Leni was one of the originators of what became German Expressionism.

Leni worked his way up through the German film industry by becoming one of the premiere set decorators and art directors in the country. The start of German Expressionism is generally considered Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920 which was hugely influential across the German film industry, and Leni would make a serious contribution to the overall concept with his set designs in the film that he co-directed with Leopold Jessner, Hintertreppe, which translates to "the back stairs". The central set design of that film is the titular back stairs that reach up and down frame in exaggerated angles and dilapidated form, an image that became synonymous with German Expressionism in general.

What's interesting is that Leni, having helped establish one of the main visual building blocks of the movement actually barely worked in it. He only had one more German feature film, the previously mentioned Waxworks, and it's not really what I would consider to be German Expressionistic. It's more fantastical in the vein of The Thief of Baghdad than Expressionistic like Dr. Caligari, but then again, so is Faust by Murnau, and it's considered Expressionistic, so maybe my labels game is simply weak.

Anyway, there's no denying that while he wasn't the first voice in German Expressionism, as both a filmmaker who dabbled in it and a set designer who worked on the physical side more than most, he was part of that key building block that formed the edifice of German Expressionism, a film movement that really only lasted a few years.

Hollywood comes calling

And so Hollywood invited him to America to join the other German expats bringing a different and identifiable aesthetic to the twenty year old medium that people like Griffith or Chaplin didn't share. An easy way to identify the differences between the German and English speaking world is in the treatment of intertitles. Alfred Hitchcock (who started as a writer of intertitles) wrote an article very early in his career about how intertitles, the cards shown in the middle of scenes to identify characters, communicate dialogue, or just outright express exposition, should be unassuming and almost invisible. This was an effort to try and make the experience as seamless as possible.

Leni, though, thought differently and used his intertitles showily rather than plainly. His intertitles use different fonts given the circumstances, move on screen, zoom in and out, and even try to replicate the effects of sounds both through onomatopoeia as well as movement. The best example is in his final film, The Last Warning, made late enough in the silent era where it got a dedicated soundtrack of sound effects and music added to it contemporaneously (so was The Man Who Laughs, actually), and there's a moment late where a crash happens (someone gets something landing on their head), and the intertitles move in a way to imply the sound without the soundtrack's help (I assume Leni designed the intertitles without concern for sound at all, and there's a chance the soundtrack was arranged without his input, not because he died but because that's kind of how the studio system worked). It's a great moment, and a direct contrast to how Hollywood generally used the intertitles.

He did all of this and more working for Universal Studios under Carl Laemmle Jr., and he was as important to forming the foundation of the Universal Monster movie as Tod Browning, James Whale, or Laemmle himself.


It's important to realize that Laemmle's efforts to adapt Dracula and Frankenstein wasn't entirely about just bringing monsters to the screen, and it had nothing to do with an effort to create franchises. It was about adapting respected European literature, mostly from the 19th century, preferably with elements of the grotesque like in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (adapted by Laemmle, Wallace Worsley, and Universal in 1923) and Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs, adapted from the Victor Hugo novel about a man with a permanent smile surgically formed onto his face when he's a child (inspiring the look of The Joker decades later). It cannot be ignored that All Quiet on the Western Front was actually part of this effort by the younger Laemmle to greatly expand Universal's footprint into prestige pictures at the time, an effort that he'd eventually trip over by the mid-30s when his creditors would use a cash shortage during the filming of Show Boat to wrest control of the entire company from him. It wasn't an effort to build horror as the brand, but to bring prestige to Universal which, under Laemmle's father, had been known for cheap westerns more than anything else.

Into this changing machine came Leni, first to make the first adaptation of The Cat and the Canary, also part of that effort at novelistic adaptations, but mostly with The Man Who Laughs. It's a grand adaptation told on a large scale that changes certain little pieces while condensing the large story down to about two hours, and it's a consummate entertainment, a wonderful marriage of German Expressionistic visuals with Hollywood conventions around structure and emotional pathos that ups the tension by the end into a chase through the streets of Paris. More importantly for Leni and Laemmle, though, beyond the artistic merits of the film (it's really, really good) was its financial success, which was great. Made and released in 1929, right on the verge of the transition to sound (as previously noted, it does have a dedicated soundtrack from the time that even includes a sung song), The Man Who Laughs was the film that laid the groundwork for the Universal Monster films to come, moreso than The Hunchback of Notre Dame from six years prior.

It was such a success, that Laemmle had Leni lined up for the Dracula adaptation, going so far as to secure Conrad Veidt, Leni's regular leading man and star of The Man Who Laughs for the title role, except that Leni ignored the pain in his tooth, failed to go to a dentist to have it removed, and died of sepsis. The assignment passed to Tod Browning, who was only tied to the overall monster movie machine for the one film, before Laemmle got James Whale to make Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein, the latter establishing that these films could be funnier than straight adaptations, introducing the concept of camp to the endeavor.

What Could Have Been

If Leni had gotten that tooth pulled with 1920s dentistry (yeah, shudder the thought, but he died from not going), where would his career have gone? It's hard to say. He worked under two studio machines, cogs in both that worked to get levels of freedom. If I had to guess who he was as a filmmaker at heart, that which would have been the most Leni of the Leni films, it would probably be The Last Warning, his final film. It's an assumption based on the fact that The Man Who Laughs was such a success that Laemmle would have allowed him to film whatever he wanted on reused sets (they're from The Phantom of the Opera, the other major work from the late silent period that helped firm up Laemmle's early sound approach to project selection). It would have been a cheap thing, a way for Laemmle to reward Leni for his success, and what kind of film is it?

Well, it's a lot like The Cat and the Canary in terms of tone. It's a campy horror film. It doesn't make the most sense, but it's fun as its mystery plays out. It's also important to note that The Cat and the Canary was hugely influential to...James Whale, who pretty much remade it with his The Old Dark House. It's not hard to imagine Leni going in a similar direction as Whale took things, playing the first film pretty straight before going into funnier directions. Leni probably wouldn't have hired Una O'Connor to scream through two films, though (O'Connor was a fine actress, but Whale used her only one way, and that wasn't the way that John Ford used her).

So, it's not hard to imagine that the Universal monster pictures would have ended up in a similar, though not exactly the same, place, and it's doubtful that Leni would have introduced a materially different amount of financial success to help Laemmle avoid losing the company to his creditors. However, that wouldn't have been the end of his career. Considering the script deficiencies in The Last Warning, I'm not sure he would have become one of the greats, a German Hitchcock or something, but he might have been memorable. He might have become a familiar name across the height of the studio system, perhaps moving from Universal to a place like MGM or even WB with more money, and helping create the house styles of another studio. I get the sense Leni would have gotten along well professionally with someone like Irving Thalberg (better than Thalberg got along with the Viennese import Erich von Stroheim).

Dying Young

Paul Leni's legacy is scant. He's really only remembered because of the connection to Batman's arch-nemesis The Joker, inspired by the look of the eponymous man who laughs. He was following a similar path through the studio system as others of his generation, and he could have flourished. However, he simply died young before he could really gain the freedom that he was probably going to earn.

There are no great lessons to learn from his body of work, though it's worth checking out, especially the three surviving American films (The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs, and The Last Warning). However, there is one thing in particular to take away from all this.

Go to the dentist, people.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Trolls Band Together

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Terms of Endearment (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It's nice. It's a nice little film that does some comedy well, some drama well, and then just overplays its hand in its final act. It's not bad at all, and Brooks does accomplished work as a first-time director, getting very good performances from everyone involved. It's just, you know, it beat The Right Stuff." [Library]

Out of Africa (Rating 2/4) Full Review "So, I admire the technical merits and the performances, but it's all in service of a story that they take way too seriously, turning something unworthy into some effort into a grand romance. I just can't get into it. This is no David Lean." [Library]

Hintertreppe (Rating 3/4) Full Review "However, that's not to take away from the central little tragic romance. It's quite nice, and it's framed greatly in this fantastic series of sets. I think it works quite well overall. It's small, looks great, and has an ending that goes a bit too far, but it's fine." [YouTube]

Waxworks (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "It's largely uneven and not as fully successful as it probably should have been, but it definitely has some entertainments within. There are worse ways to spend 80 minutes." [YouTube]

The Cat and the Canary (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It's a fun little film. I enjoyed it a good bit." [YouTube]

The Man Who Laughs (Rating 4/4) Full Review "He continued the house style, injecting the German Expressionism is was brought over to put into the Hollywood product, worked well with the cast, and made a grand adventure melodrama on a huge scale, moving Universal's work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame forward while maintaining a technical skill that makes me think he would have done well in the sound era had he lived long enough." [Daily Motion]

Platoon (Rating 2/4) Full Review "This film, his most praised, most successful financially, and most awarded, mostly just kind of bores me because I never invest in anything beyond some details of life of a grunt in Vietnam." [Library]

Rain Man (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It ends up feeling like the safe choice for Best Picture, a crowd pleaser with little challenge and an easy message to digest, well-made by Levinson while delivering the nice moments along the way." [Library]


Email any suggestions or questions to thejamesmadison.aos at symbol gmail dot com.
I've also archived all the old posts here, by request. I'll add new posts a week after they originally post at the HQ.

My next post will be on 12/9, and it will talk about the directing career of Joe Dante.

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