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.

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.

Old dark house meets German Expressionism

Together with The Bat and The MonsterThe Cat and the Canary is one of the Big Three old dark house plays which were made into films during the silent era. Old dark house stories feature people stuck overnight in a strange, creepy, old house. Frequently, the reason for the gathering is the reading of an old eccentric’s will, and there’s at least one murder or mysterious disappearance.

The play was written by John Willard in 1921, and premièred 7 February 1922 on Broadway. It ran for 349 performances, till 2 December, and returned for 40 performances from 23 April–26 May 1923.

The first film adaptation premièred 9 September 1927 by New York’s Colony Theatre. In addition to films by the same name in 1939 (starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard) and 1979, 0ther filmed versions include The Cat Creeps (1930, lost); La Voluntad del Muerto (1930); and Katten och Kanariefågeln (1961 Swedish TV movie).

Carl Laemmle, the German-born head of Universal Pictures, invited German Expressionist director Paul Leni to do the honors for The Cat and the Canary after seeing his impressive mixing of comedy and playfulness with the grotesque in Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett) (1924). Laemmle also wanted to capitalize upon the Gothic horror film trend.

Leni provided a masterful mixing of German Expressionism and comedy, tailoring that style to American audiences. A hand wiping away cobwebs to reveal the opening credits is just the beginning. Leni also created the trademark Expressionist mood through shadows, lighting, and camera angles.

The film was very financially successful, and has received mostly positive reviews both then and now.

Millionaire Cyrus West, who lives in a decaying old mansion over the Hudson, has been driven crazy by his greedy relatives. He feels like a canary surrounded by cats. To keep them away from his money for as long as possible, he locks his last will and testament in a safe, with instructions to be read on his 20th Jahrzeit (death anniversary).

If and only if the conditions of the will can’t be fulfilled, a second note is to be opened.

Cyrus’s lawyer, Roger Crosby (veteran character actor Tully Marshall), discovers a live moth and the second will when he opens the safe. He asks caretaker Mammy Pleasant who else has been in the house, but she insists she’s been alone for twenty years. Crosby is also the only one who knows the safe’s combination.

As midnight approaches, the relatives start arriving—his nephews Paul Jones (Creighton Hale), Harry Blythe, and Charles Wilder; his sister Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch); and his nieces Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor) and Annabelle West (Laura La Plante). Susan is convinced Annabelle is crazy, but Paul has a big crush on her.

Because Cyrus hated his family so much, he’s given his fortune to Annabelle, his most distant relative. However, before she can inherit anything, she has to be judged sane by a doctor named in the will, who’s due to pay a visit that night. If she doesn’t pass muster, the money goes to the person named in the second will.

Cyrus’s painting falls off the wall, which is interpreted as a very bad omen. Now everyone is even more eager to get out of there, as much as they all want a piece of the fortune. However, they’re prevented from leaving when a guard enters and announces he’s looking for an escaped lunatic, “who thinks he’s a cat, and tears his victims like they were canaries!”

No one wants to sleep alone after this.

Crosby pulls Annabelle aside to read the alternate will, so she’ll know who might be trying to get between her and the inheritance. Before he can read the name, a claw-like hand emerges from a secret panel and absconds with him. When Annabelle tells the others, they all think she’s crazy, except the smitten Paul.

In Cyrus’s room, Annabelle reads a third note, which has instructions for finding the West diamonds. She’s delighted to discover a beautiful diamond necklace, but while she’s sleeping, the clawed hand snatches it. Once again, no one believes her but Paul.

The mysterious, creepy events don’t stop there.

Of the Big Three old dark house films of the Twenties, I like this one best. I’d highly recommend it if you’re a fan of classic horror.