Conrad Veidt is an illusionist who is in love with his assistant. Unfortunately, she falls for another, leaving Veidt in the dust. Now what will he do about that? Did I mention that he has an act that involves stabbing a trunk (and the person inside) with twelve sharp swords? You know, I think this just might figure into the story at some point.
The Veidt Stuff!
Conrad Veidt’s first session in Hollywood lasted just two years and four films but it resulted in one masterpiece of gothic drama (The Man Who Laughs) and one masterpiece of kitsch (The Beloved Rogue). A Man’s Past is considered a lost film (please ignore the spurious review on IMDB from F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre) and the fourth film is the one we will be reviewing today, The Last Performance.
The story concerns Erik (Conrad Veidt), a superstar European illusionist who is about to embark on an American tour. Erik has two assistants, Julie (Mary Philbin) and Buffo (Leslie Fenton). Erik is in love with Julie and has proposed marriage. She has accepted him but does not seem overly thrilled with the prospect of being Mrs. Erik.
After a successful evening show, Erik and his crew return to their hotel. Erik surprises a burglar named Mark (Fred MacKaye), who has broken in and is stealing his supper. As Mark was stealing food and not jewels, Erik decides to let him go and not press charges. The look on Julie’s face makes him pause. She feels sorry for the young thief and wants him to join their troupe. Erik cannot deny Julie anything and he allows it.
Of course, there is more to that look than sympathy. Soon, Julie and Mark are canoodling and Buffo is looking for the perfect time to disclose the news to Erik. He is doing it not out of friendship but hatred. He wants to break Erik’s heart.
He succeeds when he unveils Julie and Mark holding hands just before Erik was to announce his engagement. Erik does not lose his temper. Instead, he announces the engagement of Mark and Julie. Julie thinks he has forgiven her and all in well.
Meanwhile, Erik has been hard at work creating the newest act. It involves a chest, an assistant and twelve razor sharp swords…
What could possibly go wrong?
The Last Performance was aptly named. It was the last film that Veidt released during his first stint in America. It was also one of Philbin’s last movies for Universal. Both she and Veidt were cut from the roster with the coming of sound. Veidt had a career to return to in Germany, a much better prospect than cramming to learn English and being typecast as The Guy with the Accent, which was the fate that awaited Bela Lugosi. Philbin, like fellow Universal star Laura La Plante, seems to have been cut to make way for the younger and/or stage-trained talent that was flooding Hollywood.
(The idea that silent stars were fired because they had bizarre voices is fiction. Many simply were cut to save salaries. Others had normal voices but could not adjust to speaking on a microphone, which is a skill in itself. Still others chose not to learn a completely new style of acting. It may be a comedy but Singin’ in the Rain has a lot to answer for.)
While Mary Philbin was one of Universal’s top stars, she did not have the acting chops to become a legend. Frankly, casting her in a movie meant a whole lot of extra work for the rest of the cast. She wholly relied on her costars to guide her through her scenes, which was forgivable when she was a raw kid barely out of her teens. By 1927, she had been a top leading lady for almost five years and really needed to start standing on her own two feet.
That being said, Philbin seems to have given her most effective performances opposite Conrad Veidt. By all accounts an incredibly nice man, Veidt was also known for offering his assistance to his less-experienced co-stars. Simply put, Veidt viewed himself as the cast’s den mother and worked hard to make his colleagues look good. While there was almost certainly a language barrier, Veidt’s kindly manner seems to have inspired Philbin to give her best.
The pair had played lovers in The Man Who Laughs. In that film, most of Philbin’s scenes were with Veidt. In The Last Performance, she has quite a few moments to herself and with her other co-stars. It’s quite remarkable. Without Veidt in the frame, she wilts. With him, her eyes take on new life and new complexity. Watch them closely next time you see the film. It is quite fascinating.
Lon Chaney tried his best to help Philbin on the set of The Phantom of the Opera but she was distracted by the incessant groping of Rupert Julian and Norman Kerry. Ivan Mosjoukine was paired with her in Surrender and both gave the worst performances of their careers (at least from what I have viewed). Mosjoukine was used to working with leading ladies who were his equal in either age (fancy that!) or acting experience and he clearly had no idea what to do with the shy, nervous Philbin. I think Erich von Stroheim might have gotten something good out of Philbin eventually if he had continued at Universal, look what he did for Mae Murray. (Von Stroheim was famously fired from Philbin’s star-making vehicle, The Merry-Go-Round, and replaced by… Rupert Julian.)
Mary Philbin was a lovely creature but if I were a leading man, I doubt I would have the patience to draw her out. Veidt was a saint.
Please don’t get the impression that I dislike Miss Philbin. On the contrary, she sounded like a very gentle, soft-spoken woman and I would love to have talked with her over a very, very quiet cup of herbal tea. But as a co-worker? No, thank you!
In addition to a pleasant personality and professionalism, Veidt also possessed some serious acting chops. While the plot and the characters are hardly original, Veidt knocks this one out of the park. He brings his usual intensity to the role and his scenes of heartbreak are devastating.
Neither of the supporting actors can really hold a candle to Veidt. Fred MacKaye comes off as both petulant and presumptuous. Leslie Fenton acts so… weird that one wonders why Erik and Julie put up with him. Plus, they have to play all of their on-stage scenes in little waiter jackets and satin panties. Oh dear. Let’s just say there are more dignified ensembles in the world. Like, you know, anything else.
One aspect of the story that I found odd was its insistence that Julie was seventeen going on eighteen. (No singing!) When this movies was released in 1929 (and there is some question as to when, exactly, it was filmed), Mary Philbin was exactly a decade older. Veidt, on the other hand, is supposed to be her senior by some considerable amount of years, at least judging from the whiteness of his hair. In reality, Veidt was only thirty-six.
I think the point of all this was to eliminate any possibly sympathy for Erik by indicating he is chasing a girl who is far too young for him. The problem is that Mary Philbin looks like she is in her twenties and Veidt, in spite of the white added to his hair, looks like he is in his thirties. Connie was hardly robbing the cradle. (Does anyone else find it ironic that Hollywood is always pairing young women with much older men and being all, “Move along, nothing to see here!” And the one time when the age difference is important, they cast a guy who is just nine years older. D’oh!)
The Last Performance was clearly written with Lon Chaney in mind. This sort of story was his bread and butter. We always sympathized with our beloved monster but we didn’t really want him to end up with the object of his affections. (Don’t believe me? Watch the disastrous Nomads of the North, in which he actually does get the girl.)
Veidt is another matter entirely. While Chaney’s craggy features condemned him to a mostly loveless onscreen life, Veidt’s androgynous beauty meant that he quite often managed to win over his beloved and even enjoy the occasional happy ending. He was also much more comfortable in non-warped love scenes than Chaney ever managed to be. (Again, see Nomads of the North.)
What this all adds up to is that Julie’s behavior is not really sympathetic. In the first half of the movie, Veidt comes off less of a creepy cradle-robber and more of a kindly eccentric. Everyone is entitled to change their minds but Julie never really shows why she is hesitant to marry him. That wouldn’t matter so much except for the way she carries on with Mark. They are almost instantly canoodling behind Erik’s back.
Of course, scenes leading up to the romance may have been cut from this print but that does not change the basic problem with the story. Regretting an engagement and calling things off? Understandable. Regretting an engagement, starting an illicit affair with a co-worker and then wondering why your ex-fiancé is a little upset? Obnoxious.
On the plus side, Veidt never looked better. The greying temples suit him to a T and his heavy, semi-Cesare makeup adds just the right touch. Swoon!
I was so rooting for the bad guy in this! (Spoiler: Yes, I know that his trying to get Mark convicted of murder was a Very Bad Thing and that he did murder Buffo. But if you managed to get through this movie without wanting someone to kill Buffo, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.)
The Last Performance opened to mixed reviews. And when I say mixed, I mean mixed. Even the critics who had something good to say about the film could not agree on what that good area was. Was the direction flashy fun or kitschy? Was the acting overdone, underdone or just right? Was the climax a high point or a disappointment?
(In case you were wondering about the varying release years for this film, The Last Performance languished on a shelf for a while as the talkies took over. It was released in 1929 in both part-talkie and silent versions. The inserted talking sequences are lost and only the all-silent version survives.)
Everyone will have to decide for themselves but I enjoyed the gaudy direction from Paul Fejos. Considering the characters and setting, I thought it was both appropriate and added to the story. The biggest reason to see the film, though, is Conrad Veidt. He looks great, his performance has all the intensity we have come to expect and he walks away with the picture.
The Last Performance is essential viewing for Veidt fans but it is also an interesting (if by the numbers) mystery. Good stuff.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Last Performance is available on DVD and Blu-ray as an extra for the Paul Fejos part-talkie, Lonesome. It comes with an absolutely smashing piano score from Donald Sosin, which helps things along considerably. The set also includes a reconstruction of Fejos’ expensive sound extravaganza, Broadway. I enthusiastically recommend the entire release as a treasure trove of late silent and early talkie spectacle.