One antique horror short and a trifecta of lost features

La Folie du Docteur Tube, released 1915 in France, was directed by cinematic pioneer Abel Gance. It seems to fall within the parameters of sci-fi horror, and features a mad scientist who creates a white powder causing hallucinations. He gives the powder to a dog first, then his assistant, a boy in the lab, himself, two young ladies, and their fiancés. The two couples are so upset by these distorted images, a fight breaks out, and it’s up to Dr. Tube to restore order and peace.

These crazed sights, which appear like images from a funhouse mirror, were created with distorting lenses.

Albert Dieudonné, who started acting in 1908 and went on to play the title role of Gance’s 1927 epic Napoléon, appears as one of the young men.

Mortmain, which premièred 29 August 1915 and went into general release 6 September 1915, is one of the all too many lost films of the silent era. It was based on Arthur C. Train’s 1907 novel of the same name, which was originally released in serial form on The Saturday Evening Post on 2 June and 9 June 1906.

This was one of the very first entries in the alien hand subgenre of body horror, in which one’s hands act of their own volition, as if they’re possessed or transplanted from another body.

Dr. Pennison Crisp (what an unfortunate forename!) proves limb-grafting is possible by showing friends and students a cat with a grafted paw. His buddy Mortmain, a rare art collector and talented musician, is very impressed.

Meanwhile, Mortmain is deep in debt to banker Gordon Russell, the ward of his fiancée Bella Forsythe. Predictably, Gordon is also in love with Bella. (This might be a lost film, but I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he’s old enough to be her dad, seeing as he’s her ward. That trope creeps me out so much!)

Gordon makes Bella’s brother Tom disgrace himself and forces Mortmain into bankruptcy. Flaggs, who works for Gordon’s lawyer, overhears Mortmain saying he’d like to kill Gordon. Mortmain then learns Gordon was murdered. This news so shocks him, he faints and hurts his hand.

Dr. Crisp has to amputate, and grafts on Tom’s hand. Tom agrees to this macabre operation because he’s suspected of the murder and offered $10,000 for his hand. He dies during the surgery, but Mortmain survives, and gradually goes insane as Flaggs bankrupts him and Bella is afraid to be touched by him. The transplanted hand also goes nuts.

Then Mortmain wakes up from the fog of anesthesia, and sees Tom’s hand choking Flaggs. It was only a dream!

The Head of Janus (Der Janus-Kopf), also lost, premièred 26 August 1920 and went into general release 17 September 1920. It starred the incredible Conrad Veidt and was directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau. This was an unauthorized adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Just as with Murnau’s unauthorized screen adaptation of Dracula two years later, names were changed.

Dr. Warren (Veidt) buys a bust of Janus, the two-headed Roman god of doorways, for his girlfriend Jane Lanyon (Margarete Schlegel, who escaped to England with her Jewish husband and son in 1935). When Jane refuses the gift, Dr. Warren is compelled to keep it in his own home.

This bust proceeds to transforms Dr. Warren into Mr. O’Connor, and whips him up into a rage. While acting as Mr. O’Connor, he storms over to Jane’s house, kidnaps her, and drags her back to his lab.

Dr. Warren is really ashamed and horrified when he comes back to himself and realises what he did. To prevent this from happening again, he attempts to sell the bust at auction, but it’s already too late. The bust has him under such hypnotic power, he buys it back himself.

During his second transformation as Mr. O’Connor, he runs amok, committing wanton acts of violence in the streets. Just like in all other versions of this famous story, there isn’t a very happy ending.

Béla Lugosi appears as Dr. Warren’s butler.

The House of Whispers, our final lost film this year, released October 1920. It tells the story of Spaulding Nelson, who moves into an apartment his uncle vacated due to phantom screams and whispers. While investigating, Spaulding meets neighbour Barbara Bradford. Her sister Clara is going crazy from the constant sound of her dead husband Roldo’s voice.

It turns out Roldo’s still alive and in league with Henry Kent, architect of this House of Whispers. This house is full of secret passageways enabling him to access all the apartments. When Spaulding finds the secret doors, he’s arrested for murdering actress Daisy Luton.

Spaulding flees via one of the passageways, where he finds and captures Roldo (the real murderer), Roldo’s first wife Nettie Kelly, and Henry Kent. Nettie confesses what really happened, and Clara is granted a divorce so she can marry her fiancé. Spaulding also marries Barbara.

Horrifying history in wax comes to life

Premièring 6 October 1924 in Vienna and 13 November 1924 in Berlin, anthology film Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) was director Paul Leni’s final feature film in his native Germany (though he continued working as an art director there till 1926). His directing career began anew in Hollywood with The Cat and the Canary.

A nameless poet (William Dieterle) responds to an ad seeking an imaginative publicity writer for a waxworks exhibit. The proprietor (John Gottowt), who works with his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), asks the poet if he can write startling stories about three figures—Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid, Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan Grozniy, whose Russian epithet does NOT mean “Terrible”), and Spring-Heeled Jack (a terrifying figure in Victorian folklore).

The poet writes himself into al-Rashid’s story as pie-baker Assad, and Eva becomes his wife Maimune. Trouble starts when a blanket of smoke from the pie oven causes al-Rashid (Emil Jannings) to lose a game of chess.

The Grand Vizier is dispatched to find the guilty party and kill him, but loses sight of his mission when he sees the beautiful Maimune. Upon his return to the palace, the Grand Vizier suggests al-Rashid take her for himself.

That night, al-Rashid mingles among his subjects incognito, in search of this great beauty. Outside the house, al-Rashid overhears an argument between the couple, culminating in Assad’s promise to prove his manhood by stealing al-Rashid’s wishing ring before dawn.

While Assad is away on this foolish, dangerous mission, al-Rashid enters the house and makes sure the door locks behind him. Maimune is terrified to see this intruder, even after he tells her he’s the Caliph.

Al-Rashid returns to the palace after putting the moves on Maimune, and is in a deep sleep when Assad slips into his bedroom and cuts off his arm. As we learnt in the opening segment, al-Rashid’s wax figure is missing an arm, and the poet wants to write a story explaining how that came to be.

But, as so often happens in horror and fantasy, not everything is always as it seems to be.

The poet then begins writing a story about Tsar Ivan IV (Conrad Veidt) stealing into the Kreml with his astrologer to gloat over his poisoned victims’ deaths. He particularly enjoys watching the last sand in the hourglass run out for each new victim.

Ivan’s astrologer warns him the poison-maker might write his name on the next hourglass. Given how increasingly paranoid Ivan was during the latter portion of his reign, one can predict his reaction!

The poison-maker has pity on one of the victims, and instead does exactly as the astrologer predicted.

Next day, a nobleman visits to remind Ivan he promised to attend his (the nobleman’s) daughter’s wedding. Ever-paranoid, Ivan changes places with the nobleman and arrives at the wedding as the driver.

Far from being a happy, joyful occasion, this wedding turns into a nonstop parade of horrors, esp. for the couple (Dieterle and Belajeff). One of the accurate translations of Ivan’s epithet, Grozniy, is Dreadsome, and he indeed lives up to it here.

The poet falls asleep while writing the final story (by far the shortest) about Spring-Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss), and dreams his wax figure comes to life to stalk him and Eva through the fairgrounds. Just as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, our sense of reality is put to the test.

A fourth story was in the original script, about Rinaldo Rinaldini (to be played by Dieterle). Though this story was cut for budgetary reasons, Rinaldi still appears with the other wax figures. Rinaldini is an elegant robber captain in Christian August Vulpius’s 1797 novel of the same name.

No one can escape the hands of Orlac!

Released 6 May 1924 in Austria, The Hands of Orlac (Orlac’s Hände) was based on French writer Maurice Renard’s 1920 fantasy-horror novel Les Mains d’Orlac, part of a subgenre now termed body horror. As its name suggests, body horror involves violations of the body through mutilation, disease, extreme violence, mutation, unnatural movements, etc.

Germany approved the film for release on 24 September 1924, for adults only. In January 1925, Saxony’s Ministry of the Interior filed a censorship petition which was rightly rejected as ridiculous.

The Hands of Orlac didn’t reach the U.S. till 1928.

The film was directly remade in 1935 and 1960, in addition to inspiring many other films and TV shows.

The film opens with Paul Orlac’s wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina, née Aleksandra Tsvikevich) reading a letter where he promises he’ll be home soon. In an obvious bit of foreshadowing, Orlac proclaims how he can’t wait to run his hands through her hair and over her body again.

We then meet Orlac (Conrad Veidt), a successful concert pianist who’s concluding a tour. Disaster strikes when his train home gets into a very serious accident. Though Orlac is among the survivors pulled from the wreckage, he suffers a fractured skull and the loss of his precious hands.

Yvonne begs the surgeon, Dr. Serral (Hans Homma), to save her husband’s hands, which are more valuable to him than his life. Towards this end, Dr. Serral transplants the hands of a recently executed criminal.

Orlac suspects something funny is up even before the bulky bandages come off, and the funny feeling continues after he sees “his” hands again. When Orlac awakes from a horrific nightmare, he finds a note in his lap admitting the terrible truth.

He goes to confront Dr. Serral, who confirms this disturbing information.

Orlac vows to never let these criminal hands touch another person, a resolve which is put to the test when he returns home to his loving wife. He can barely even bring himself to touch his beloved piano.

Orlac is even more horrified when he learns more about Vasseur, the criminal whose hands he now bears, since Vasseur’s guilt was conclusively established by fingerprints all over everything.

It gets worse when Orlac finds a knife in his house identical to the one Vasseur used. He’s now convinced these hands have given him a propensity to violence, though that’s never been in his nature.

A phantom force compels Orlac towards the knife he hid in the piano, and Yvonne catches him stabbing at the air in the middle of the night. Orlac orders her to stay away from him, and she retreats in fear.

Orlac’s next move is to try cutting his hands off, but he regains his senses. He then gets into trouble with the maid, Regine (Carmen Cartellieri), who just feuded with her lover. Orlac puts his hands on her head, and she says they feel like the hands of a killer.

Orlac goes to confront Dr. Serral, begging him to remove the cursed hands, but Dr. Serral tries to tell him the body is ruled by one’s head and heart, not the hands.

Meanwhile, creditors are hassling Yvonne. Since Orlac refuses to play the piano with criminal hands, there’s no money coming in. Yvonne begs for a month, but they only give her till tomorrow. She wants to go to her rich father-in-law for help, but Regine says he’s an awful person who hates their family.

Just as Regine predicted, Orlac, Sr. refuses to help.

Regine says Orlac must go to his dad to beg. Though this greatly upsets Yvonne, she knows there’s no choice.

When Orlac arrives at his dad’s house, the greatest horrors of all begin unfolding.

Real-life horror: Fritz Strassny, né Straßni (Orlac’s dad), who was Jewish, was dismissed from Austria’s venerable Burgtheater in 1938. He was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and murdered two and a half weeks later.

Conrad Veidt, who was strongly anti-Nazi, escaped to England with his Jewish wife just ahead of a Gestapo death squad’s arrival at their house in 1933.

Conrad Veidt

My Masquerade Ball Blog Hop post is here.

This is significantly expanded from the concluding section of a post I wrote in October 2015. The source material focused on Conrad Veidt’s strong anti-Nazi stance, not his overall life and career.

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt (22 January 1893–3 April 1943) was born in Berlin, to Lutheran parents Amalie Marie Gohtz and Phillip Heinrich Veidt. He attended the Sophien-Gymnasium until 1912, when he graduated last in his class, sans diploma.

In 1913, Conrad took up volunteer acting at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater, gradually moving up from bit parts to medium roles. His budding acting career was interrupted by WWI.

Conrad was sent to the brutal Eastern Front, where he caught jaundice and pneumonia. His poor health earned him a discharge in January 1917.

After recovering, Conrad resumed acting. Some of his films had a socially-conscious message and were quite ahead of their time, like Victims of Society, The Diary of a Lost, Dida Ibsen’s Story, Prostitution, and Different from the Others.

The lattermost is the world’s first known film to openly, positively depict homosexuality. Though it came out (no pun intended) after the abolition of film censorship, it was quickly banned after censorship returned in 1920.

In 1919, Conrad formed his own company, so he could choose his own roles. He acted, produced, and directed during this era.

His big break came in 1920, when he starred as creepy somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This first German Expressionist film made a huge international impact, though owing to lingering anti-German sentiment, many theatres didn’t immediately screen it.

Conrad went on to star in several other major German Expressionist films, such as Waxworks, Orlac’s Hands, and The Student of Prague (a remake of the 1913 original). He made dozens of films during this heyday of German Expressionist cinema, often typecast in eccentric, mischievous, or menacing roles.

In 1927, he was invited to Hollywood. Probably his best-known films from this period are The Beloved Rogue (with John Barrymore) and The Man Who Laughs (whose title character became the Joker’s genesis).

The arrival of sound compelled Conrad back to his native Germany. His thick German accent and poor English spelled the end of his Hollywood career, but he did wonderfully in sound films in his mother tongue.

Conrad wasn’t to stay in his homeland for long, since he strongly opposed Naziism and anti-Semitism. His new love, Ilona Prager (Lily), who soon became his third and final wife, was also Jewish.

When Conrad filled out a mandatory racial questionnaire, he falsely listed his “race” as Jewish. He stood in solidarity with his homeland’s beleaguered Jewish community, and couldn’t fling Lily to the wolves.

Goebbels, who wanted to keep this very successful actor in Germany, told Conrad to divorce Lily and declare support for the new régime. If he did this, Goebbels would give Lily false Aryan papers.

Not only did Conrad refuse to do either, he also took the lead in British film Jud Süß (NOT to be confused with the anti-Semitic German film of the same name). He knew this would end his German film career and possibly result in a death warrant.

Conrad was put under house arrest, and there were rumours of a Gestapo plot to murder him. He and Lily fled to England one week after their marriage, just ahead of the death squad’s arrival.

When Conrad finally became fluent in English, he began starring in anti-Nazi films. He also starred in several films in his third language, French.

Though he became a British subject in 1938, he returned to the U.S. in 1940. Before he left, he gave most of his fortune to the British government to help the war effort. 

Conrad hoped his anti-Nazi films would inspire Americans to end their neutrality.

Since he knew he’d be typecast as a Nazi, due to his German accent, he put a clause in his contract specifying he only play villains. He didn’t want anyone to think Nazis were harmless or that he supported such a foul ideology.

Conrad died of a massive heart attack while playing golf at an L.A. country club. He was only fifty.

Conrad Veidt was more than just a great actor, but an incredible lion of a human being, representing the best of what we’re capable of.

The Joker’s genesis

The Man Who Laughs, released 27 April 1928, was the third Hollywood film for both German director Paul Leni and wonderful actor Conrad Veidt. Universal Pictures gave Lon Chaney, Sr., a contract to play the lead role of Gwynplaine, but failed to acquire film rights to Victor’s Hugo’s least-successful novel from Sociéte Générale des Films. Lon’s contract was amended to release him from this obligation, and let him name its replacement (1925’s The Phantom of the Opera).

By the time studio boss Carl Laemmle returned to The Man Who Laughs, Lon was under contract to MGM.

Lord Clancharlie is sentenced to death in an iron maiden by King James II in January 1690, and his son Gwynplaine has a permanent grin carved into his face by a Comprachico surgeon. Shortly afterwards, all Comprachicos are banished from England for trading in stolen children and performing unlawful surgeries transforming children into monsters.

Gwynplaine, who’s been with them since his capture, is ordered left behind. Dr. Hardquanonne, who performed the macabre surgery, demands he come with them, but another Comprachico says they want no victims to convict them of their trade. Dr. Hardquanonne says Gwynplaine is theirs by the King’s orders, and means money to them, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.

While Gwynplaine, his grin covered by a scarf, is wandering in the snow afterwards, he finds a woman frozen to death and saves her baby. Gwynplaine stumbles across Ursus, a philosopher, and his trained wolf with the unfortunate name Homo (dog Zimbo). Ursus is annoyed to be disturbed, but ultimately invites Gwynplaine into his little green van.

Ursus is stunned anew to discover there are two of them, and quickly determines the baby is blind. He thinks Gwynplaine is laughing about this, but soon realises this was done by Comprachicos.

Many years pass, and Gwynplaine is now a successful travelling performer, The Laughing Man. Who should Ursus meet during one of these stops but Dr. Hardquanonne!

Also rather predictably, Gwynplaine and the blind Dea (Mary Philbin) have fallen in love.

Dr. Hardquanonne has a message delivered to Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova, who played the two-faced Cleopatra in Freaks). It first gets to Barkilphedro, the jester who kidnapped Gwynplaine and had him mutilated all those years ago. He shows it to Queen Anne.

After Josiana attends Gwynplaine’s show, she has a message delivered to him, saying she was the one who wasn’t laughing, and that her page will come for him at midnight. Gwynplaine is thrilled, and tells Ursus if a sighted woman might love him, he may now have the right to marry Dea. He’s always felt unworthy of her love.

Josiana puts the moves on Gwynplaine, which thrills him. During their meeting, Josiana reads a letter from the Queen, saying Lord Clancharlie’s heir, whose estates she now enjoys, has been found and identified as Gwynplaine. Her betrothal is thus annulled, and she must marry Gwynplaine, who’ll be restored to his heritage. Josiana breaks out laughing.

Gwynplaine returns home to find Dea asleep outside the wagon, where she was waiting up for him. The letter from Josiana is in her hands, which Gwynplaine rips up. He now realises Dea truly loves him, since she’s never laughed at him and accepts him just as he is.

Gwynplaine is arrested in the morning, and Ursus follows him. Ursus is told not to wait, since those who enter Chatham Prison never return, but he’s undeterred.

The Queen tells Barkilphedro Dr. Hardquanonne died in Chatham Prison, and his confession proved beyond a shadow of a doubt Gwynplaine is indeed Lord Clancharlie’s son. It grieves her to know Josiana must marry a clown, but after Gwynplaine is released, he’ll be made a Peer in the House of Lords.

Ursus tells all the other performers Dea must not know, and that the show must go on. More trouble comes when Barkilphedro interrupts the show to inform Ursus he’s banished from England, and lies Gwynplaine is dead.

Will Gwynplaine escape marrying Josiana and find Dea and Ursus in time?

This film had a budget of over $1,000,000, and was a huge success. Opening night proceeds went to American Friends of Blérancourt. Many critics, however, panned it, finding the subject matter too dark and depressing, and feeling the German Expressionistic style didn’t evoke 17th and 18th century England. As recently as the Seventies, many critics still hated it, but today it’s rightly recognised as a beautiful masterpiece.

Like many films of the late silent era, TMWL is a hybrid, with a synchronised sountrack, sound effects (including crowd noises and the calling of Gwynplaine’s name), and a song, “When Love Comes Stealing.”

The themes, style, and set designs were major influences on Universal’s classic horror movies of the Thirties.

And, of course, Gwynplaine’s exaggerated grin was The Joker’s genesis.