“I’ll open this theatre when I choose. 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
Synopsis: The police respond to a call from the Woodford Theatre on Broadway to find the place in a uproar: on the occasion of the 400th performance of the play, The Snare, leading actor John Woodford (D’Arcy Corrigan) has fallen dead. 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). One of the detecives inspects the dressing-room in question, where he finds evidence of Miss Terry’s involvement with three men: Woodward, Quayle, and cast-member Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy). 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 (Montagu Love), a producer. McHugh takes Quayle aside and tells him that he was Woodford’s best friend…then stuns him by announcing that not only is he reassembling the company, he intends to produce The Snare. Quayle is horrified, refusing to participate, and pointing out that Doris Terry is in Europe. But Quayle is wrong about that, and a difficult meeting between himself and Doris follows. The Bunce brothers are the next to arrive, followed by the one new cast member, a dashing young woman named Evelynda Hendon (Margaret Livingston), who immediately casts a predatory eye over the flattered and flustered Robert Bunce. McHugh leaves Quayle and Doris alone, only to be confronted by a furious Josiah Bunce, who reveals that he has received a telegram warning him not to re-open the theatre: a telegram signed “John Woodford”…
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, with sound effects but no dialogue; and this remains the only version of The Last Warning that is readily accessible by the public.
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 eventually 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 Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, a film influenced equally by Robert Wiene’s Das Kabinet Des Dr Caligari and Fritz Lang’s 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 America as Waxworks, one of those who did was Carl Laemmle.
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 has 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—or 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 outré offerings were proof positive of that. 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.
Laemle’s viewing of Waxworks told him that he had found the person he wanted: immediately, he issued to Paul Leni an invitation to Hollywood. Leni accepted, and in 1927 he surpassed all of his new employer’s expectations by producing the supreme example of the “old dark house” horror-comedy, The Cat And The Canary.
The stage-play on 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 spoofs such as Roland West’s The Monster, featuring Lon Chaney.
Curiously, however, it was also Roland 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 The Chinese Parrot, the first feature-film version of a Charlie Chan story (there had been an earlier serial), starring the Japanese actor Sōjin Kamiyama as the detective. Leni then joined up once again with Conrad Veidt, yet another of the numerous German artists invited to Hollywood during this era, to make The Man Who Laughs, an extraordinary exercise in the macabre whose impact upon popular culture resonates to this very day.
(And if you don’t know the specific significance of this film, well, I’m not going to spoil your fun by telling you.)
However, by the time that The Man Who Laughs – a silent film – was released, it was November of 1928. The Jazz Singer was already a year old; The Lights Of New York, the first all-talking picture, had premiered in July of that year (“It’s hear!” proclaimed the posters); and studio executives were getting increasingly nervous. At Universal, Paul Leni, visual artist supreme, was instructed to turn his new film, The Last Warning, into a part-talkie.
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 disparaged 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 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 Doris’s dressing-room shortly before the performance.
Laura La Plante is another Leni carry-over from 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, 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 Doris’s dressing-table, and his roses that she wears. Similar offerings from both John Woodford and second lead Harvey Carleton are banished to the sidelines.
(Not banished altogether, though: there is an unpleasant sense here of Doris as trophy-hunter, although eventually we are supposed to accept that Quayle is “the one”.)
Of course, what this means is that this play requires Doris’s lover-in-residence to direct a love triangle consisting of Doris and her two ex-es. One imagines a certain…tension…on the set. However, we have barely begun to grasp all the ramifications of this when the coroner, outraged by what he assumes is some kind of sick joke, emerges from John Woodford’s dressing-room demanding to know where the body is? – a body which we, the audience, were given a glimpse of only moments earlier…
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 occasionally 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 he 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.
(One person not amused by Leni’s manoeuvrings was New York Times cinema critic Mordaunt Hall, who sniffed in his review of the film that no New York newspaper would carry the kind of headlines that we see here. He’s right, of course, inasmuch as the headlines are full of exclamation points, and so on. Evidently Mr Hall’s wounded professional pride kept him from seeing that Leni was simply using these “headlines” as another witty variant on the standard intertitle.)
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, generally are pretty horrifying. Of course, this is a reflection of the times in which these films were made. Horror films were treated with suspicion right from the beginning in America, and consequently, along with their habit of explaining away anything that seemed remotely supernatural – no matter how lame the explanation – the imposition of “relief” in the form of “comedy” became almost compulsory.
(It isn’t difficult to imagine what impact the German horror films, with their willingness to deal straightforwardly with the macabre, must have had during this period; and of course, unlike most of their American competition, they maintain their power to this day.)
The worst offenders in this respect were the seemingly endless stream of “old dark house” horror-comedies, which decided, in their infinite cruelty, that nothing was funnier than cowardice, and thus mercilessly inflicted upon both their audiences and posterity cowardly domestics, cowardly spinsters, cowardly “darkies” (equality of a sort, I suppose), and even cowardly heroes—whose incessant shrieking and shivering and knee-knocking upon the slightest provocation was, we infer, intended as a real gut-buster.
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 did the films based upon them. 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 while The Cat And The Canary is usually considered the superior film (though I note that this dogma is being challenged as more people have a chance to see 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 stock-types are all present – 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…
When the rehearsal resumes, the first thing we see is – naturally – a re-enactment of that infamous opening scene; though this time around, it includes a marvellous moment when the distressed – or is it guilty? – Doris “sees” John Woodford standing on stage next to Harvey Carleton. The re-enactment becomes complete when, upon grasping that fateful candlestick, Carleton too screams and collapses…
I’ve praised The Last Warning 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: the flash of light that accompanied the grasping of the candlestick, and the dimming of the theatre lights immediately after.
(In other words, Leni took to heart the cinematic truism, show, don’t tell.)
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 which 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…
It helps 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 Doris’s missing handbag, which he conceals. He isn’t quick enough, however, to conceal her handkerchief, which McHugh finds is emitting a certain telltale odour. A significant exchange of looks between the two men is interrupted by a repetition of that scratching noise, clearly coming from behind the dressing-room. McHugh searches, and finds the catch that opens the hidden passageway behind it – only for a dazed and injured Harvey Carleton to pitch forward from it as soon as the door is opened…
McHugh and Quayle explore the passageway, where they discover John Woodford’s stage monocle, which in turn reveals the whereabouts of the quicklime-pit…gruesomely answering the question of what happened to Woodford’s body. The two men press on to the passageway’s end-point: Doris’s dressing-room where, to Quayle’s crowning dismay, they also find Doris herself.
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, sensibly enough, by a significant police presence; and once again The Snare 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 very clever indeed, considered with hindsight.
Speaking of cheating, though, 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 real 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 is highly entertaining. 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 Doris grows increasingly sympathetic over the course of the story, as circumstances begin to conspire against her, and it seems that even if the killer doesn’t get her, the police will. John Boles is an adequate leading man, and he is certainly given more to do here than he would be in Frankenstein two years later; but his overdone “shock” looks are the weak spot of the serious portion of the film.
On the other hand, Montagu Love is really good as McHugh, giving a subtle performance that indicates his understanding of what the camera could convey to the viewer. Margaret Livingston is charming as the vampish Evelynda (we don’t see nearly enough of her); and Roy D’Arcy, who some years later would be one of the few, the very few, bright spots of Revolt Of The Zombies, has his trademark smirk pleasingly in evidence as Harvey Carleton. As for the “comedy”, well, you’re free to take it or leave it.
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 – what would have been 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, the polite, drawing-room version of the tale starring Bela Lugosi 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.