The Fall of the House of Usher times two

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1928 saw the release of two film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” One was a French feature; the other was an American short. Poe’s story is told by an unnamed narrator who arrives at his friend Roderick Usher’s house, after getting a letter mentioning illness and asking for help.

Roderick is suffering from what we now call hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to light, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes), severe anxiety, and hypochondria. His twin sister Madeline is ill too, and frequently falls into death-like trances. The twins are the only surviving members of their family line.

The narrator loves Roderick’s paintings, and agrees to listen to his impromptu musical compositions for the guitar. The narrator also reads with Roderick. After Roderick sings “The Haunted Palace,” a 48-line poem, he says he believes the house is alive, and that his fate is connected to the house.

Roderick later says Madeline is dead, and insists she can’t be buried until she’s been in the family tomb in the house for two weeks. The narrator notices her rosy cheeks as they’re putting her in the tomb. During the following week, both of them become very agitated for no apparent reason.

When a storm strikes, Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom, right above Madeline’s tomb, and opens the window. The lake around the house glows in the dark, just as it does in Roderick’s paintings.

The narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading The Mad Trist, a novel about a knight named Ethelred, also set during a storm. When Ethelred breaks into a hermit’s home, he finds a piece of gold guarded by a dragon.

Cracking and ripping sounds are heard as the narrator reads about Ethelred breaking and entering. When he describes the dragon’s shrieks, a real shriek is heard in the house. Finally, when the narrator reads about a shield falling off the wall, a hollow, metallic reverberation is heard.

Roderick becomes more and more hysterical, and claims Madeline is still alive. Even more horrors follow, as the promise of the title becomes reality.

The American film (which I can’t find the release date for) runs 13 minutes, and was directed by James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Folsom Webber. It stars Webber (the narrator), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline), and Herbert Stern (Roderick). In 1959, composer Alec Wilder (a friend of Watson and Webber) wrote a soundtrack.

The film was shot in a very avant-garde style, with its lighting, shadows, reflections through prisms, movement of objects, and letters and words floating across the screen. There are no intertitles. As someone who’s seen a lot of silent avant-garde films, I know this is an acquired taste for most people.

In 2000, the Library of Congress deemed it a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film,” and preserved it in the National Film Registry.

The French version, released 5 October 1928, was directed by Jean Epstein, and stars Marguerite Gance, Jean Debucourt (Roderick), and Charles Lamy (Allan). The screenplay was co-written by Epstein and Luis Buñuel. Like the American film, it’s very avant-garde.

Allan gets a letter from Roderick, urging him to come to the House of Usher. Allan’s companions are horrified when he asks if anyone can give him a ride, but he eventually gets a volunteer.

Allan’s driver refuses to take him all the way to the door, so terrified by the spectre of the gloomy, horrific house.

In the film, Madeline is Roderick’s wife. He’s holding her in the house in a derelict manner, dominated by his tyrannical nervousness. Scientists and doctors are baffled by her illness, and Roderick is driven to painting her portrait.

Allan notices Roderick has a fever, which Roderick brushes off. Roderick plays his guitar for awhile, until he’s absorbed once again by the thought of painting Madeline, and how to dismiss Allan. He tells Allan he’s touched by his concern, but begs Allan not to trouble himself. Roderick suggests he take a walk before retiring.

Like a magic wand, Roderick’s paintbrush makes Madeline’s image grow ever more vivid, while she herself grows weaker. The portrait draws from her vitality.

Roderick is stunned and in disbelief when Madeline expires. He insists she not leave the house, and forbids his servants to nail the coffin shut, but his orders aren’t obeyed.

Days and weeks pass in monotony, as Roderick waits, on-edge, for any little sign, exacerbating his nervous condition.

Then the night storm hits.

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The Joker’s genesis

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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.

A paralytic’s quest for revenge

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Released 24 November 1928, West of Zanzibar was the penultimate of the ten films Lon Chaney, Sr., made with director Tod Browning. It’s based on a 1926 Broadway play, Kongo, which starred Walter Huston. (Huston later starred in a 1932 remake under the original name.)

Unfortunately, due to censorship, the known surviving print runs only 65 minutes. Among the scenes Browning was forced to edit out include Phroso as a duckman in a sideshow, and Phroso and his troupe arriving in Zanzibar.

Circus performer Phroso (Lon) suffers the ultimate heartache when his wife Anna leaves him for his partner Crane (Lionel Barrymore). Crane says they’re going to Africa, and pushes Phroso over a railing. This fall paralyses Phroso.

A year later, word reaches Phroso that Anna has returned with a baby. He crawls into the church where she was reported, and finds her dead. Phroso tells her he never followed her because Crane told him she loved him (Crane). He was man enough to let the woman he loved go to his rival.

He then vows, “For all the suffering he brought her…he’s going to pay! I’ll find him! I’ll make him pay! He and his brat will pay!”

Eighteen years later, Phroso has established himself west of Zanzibar, and is using the native Africans (who, typically for the era, are portrayed as cannibals and superstitious) to steal Crane’s ivory. It’s part of a plot to lure Crane and his daughter into Phroso’s clutches.

Crane’s daughter Maizie (Mary Nolan), who works at a very sleazy bar, is reluctant to leave her job and surrogate mother, but is persuaded when told she’s going to meet her father. All these years, Phroso has been paying for her upkeep there.

Maizie is horrified to encounter Phroso and his troupe, but relieved when Phroso reassures her he’s not her father. She wants to know what the game is, since the gentleman who brought her there claimed he was taking her to meet her father. Phroso says he’ll tell her when he’s good and ready.

Phroso puts on a mask for a big funeral, in which the deceased’s wife or daughter is burnt on his funeral pyre. One of Phroso’s troupe tells her it’s the law of the Congo, and nothing can ever change it.

Phroso’s alcoholic buddy Doc (Warner Baxter) offers Maizie a drink, but Phroso won’t hear of anyone treating her nicely. He makes her break the glass and eat on the floor. Doc announces he’ll eat with her. Maizie then discovers Phroso gave her clothes to the natives.

When Phroso’s ivory theft is discovered, he tells a native to report to the trader that his daughter is there. Crane comes immediately, and Phroso tells him he intends to pay for everything. When Phroso opens a coffin with a skeleton inside, Crane instantly recognises his old partner, and has a good laugh.

Phroso opens the revolving door coffin again, and reveals Maizie. Crane doesn’t make the connection, and thinks she’s Phroso’s lover or assistant.

Maizie has turned into an alcoholic, which greatly upsets Doc. To absolutely no one’s surprise, he’s fallen in instalove with her. After Doc carries her out of the bar, Phroso tells Crane Maizie is his daughter.

Crane reacts with laughter, and Phroso orders his assistant Bumbu to take care of his orders. He tells Crane he had Maizie raised in the lowest dive in Zanzibar so he could be proud of her. Now both father and daughter will pay for Crane’s betrayal.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but I will say there are some very emotional, intense, horrific twists and turns. As always, Lon stirs so much emotion for someone most people would never feel sympathy for. He truly excelled at playing outcasts.

Since his parents were Deaf-mutes, his first language was Sign. Lon knew how to talk with his hands and face before he could speak.

Celebrating lost and rare silent horror

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Three of the films I had on my list for October turned out to be lost, and another is only available at the George Eastman House. It’s always frustrating to review a lost, archive-only, or incomplete film, since I can only go by what other people have said about it. I can’t provide my own opinions or plot summary.

The Bells, released 15 September 1918, was a very popular story in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s based on a play of the same name, by Leopold Davis Lewis. In turn, that play was based on 1867’s Le Juif Polonais (The Polish Jew), by Émile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian (who co-wrote almost all their novels, stories, and plays as Erckmann-Chatrian). After Sir Henry Irving made the lead role of Mathias famous in 1871, every actor wanted to play him. Sir Henry played the role until the night before his death in 1905.

The story is set over 24 and 26 December 1833, in Alsace (a border area between France and Germany). Fifteen years before, on the night of Christmas Eve 1818, burgomaster Mathias robbed and horrifically murdered a Jewish seed merchant, Koveski, to pay off his mortgage.

Gradually, Mathias has gone insane with guilt, and begins hallucinating Koveski’s ghost. He also hears Koveski’s phantom sleigh bells. Mathias later dreams he’s on trial for the murder, confesses, and is hanged. When he wakes up, he tries to pull the phantom noose off, and dies of a heart attack.

In the film version, Mathias’s conscience begins torturing him with renewed vigour when he counts out the gold coins for his daughter Annette’s dowry. She’s engaged to Christian, the captain of the local gendarmes.

After a hypnotist wedding guest, Gari, puts the town fool under his spell, Mathias runs upstairs, falls asleep, and dreams of his trial. Gari wrings the confession from him, and he wakes hysterical. Mathias runs downstairs and dies in his wife’s arms.

The film was remade in 1926 with Lionel Barrymore, and again in 1931.

Sorry about the annoying watermark on this public domain image, but this was the best one I could find to illustrate the subject.

Alraune, die Henkerstochter, genannt die rote Hanne (Alraune, the Hangman’s Daughter, Named Red Hanna), released December 1918, is not to be confused with the Hungarian film of the same name from the same year. It was released as Sacrifice in the U.S.

Alraune is a sci-fi horror story very loosely based on Hanns Heinz Ewers’s 1911 novel of the same name. The only similarity is the use of a mandrake root to save a dying child.

A mad doctor (are there any other types in horror films?!) uses a dead man’s sperm to impregnate a prostitute. This child grows up to turn against her creator.

This film can be viewed at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.

The Last Moment, released 15 February 1928, was directed by Paul Fejos (né Pál Fejős), who fled Hungary in 1923 to escape the White Terror and Horthy régime. It was made on a budget of $13,000.

Like F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) and Schatten, this story too is told without any intertitles. It had a German Expressionistic style, and, unusually for the time, featured double- and triple-exposures.

Charlie Chaplin absolutely loved it, and after a private screening, arranged for United Artists to theatrically release it.

Director Paul Fejos

An unnamed man decides to drown himself in a lake. Before that final, irreversible step, he flashes back on pivotal moments of his life and the incidents which led up to his suicide—his unhappy childhood; his decision to leave home and stow away on an ocean freighter; his failed attempts to break into acting; his two drama-filled marriages.

The film ends as he walks towards the lake and wades in deeper and deeper, till he’s no longer visible from shore.

Though While Paris Sleeps released 21 January 1923, it was actually filmed in 1920. It stars two of my favouritest actors, Lon Chaney, Sr., and John Gilbert, and was based on Leslie Beresford’s novel The Glory of Love.

Henri Santados (Lon) is a sculptor in unrequited love with his model, Bebe Lavarche. He becomes extremely jealous when Bebe falls in love with rich American Dennis O’Keefe (Jack). Henri joins forces with Father Marionette, a wax museum owner, to get rid of Dennis.

Dennis’s father also disapproves of the relationship, and convinces him to leave Bebe, who asks for a goodbye at Mardi Gras. When Dennis comes to pick her up, Henri tricks her into a compromising position and makes Dennis think she’s cheating.

Dennis leaves heartbroken, and is kidnapped by Father Marionette. He’s tortured in the wax museum. When Father Marionette calls Henri with a report, Bebe hears Dennis over the phone. One of Dennis’s friends rescues him and rushes him to hospital, where his father consents to the marriage.

A night of hallucinations

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Schatten – Eine Nächtliche Halluzination (Shadows—A Nocturnal Hallucination), known in the U.S. as Warning Shadows, released 16 October 1923 in Germany; 5 September 1924 in France; 27 April 1925 in Finland; 9 August 1927 in the U.S.; and 16 January 1928 in Portugal. Like just about all German films from the Twenties, it too is part of the most venerable German Expressionism canon.

The Expressionism kicks off with hands and the actors appearing across a silhouette screen as they’re introduced. I love how many silent and early sound films have credits with the actors in motion, not just as a list of names.

A 19th century count (prolific actor Fritz Kortner) and his wife (Ruth Weyher) hold a dinner party which four of her suitors attend. Not only are they fighting for her attention, they’re also fighting with one another. When the count spies on them behind a curtain, the shadows fool him into believing she’s being felt up by the suitors, though they haven’t touched her. Clearly, this marriage is in deep trouble.

A shadow-player (Alexander Granach) arrives and begins showing off his skills to those in attendance. He then hypnotizes everyone and gives them a vision of what might happen if the suitors don’t quit their amorous schemes, and if the count remains jealous.

This hypnotic vision speaks to their very real fears, obsessions, jealousies, and erotic desires, and heads in a more and more horrific trajectory. Or is it just a vision?

The shadow-play was designed, produced, and presented by silhouettist, painter, and graphic artist Ernest Moritz Engert (who was born in Japan).

Besides the obvious artistic, atmospheric use of light and shadows, this film is very artsy for its complete lack of intertitles. All we get are the credits introducing each character and her or his role. Even F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), which is famous for telling an entire story without intertitles, gives us the courtesy of one at the beginning of the Epilogue.

While I would’ve appreciated at least a few intertitles, for a basic grounding in exactly what’s going on, the story nevertheless flows very well without them. The total lack of intertitles also helps to create a very atmospheric, foreboding mood. So much of silent and early sound horror is more about the overall mood, not in-your-face screams. The mood is what creates the feeling of horror.

I wouldn’t recommend this as an ideal first or early silent, but for those who are long-established connoisseurs of the artform, it’s well-worth checking out. It was my 1,181st silent.