Murder most theatrical! A major star dies a mysterious death on the stage but when his body is stolen, the case goes cold. Years later, his best friend gathers the entire cast to restage the play in order to unmask the killer but someone wants to make darn sure that the show never goes on and their methods are rather… permanent…
Knocking them dead.
Paul Leni is one of the least-remembered German directors in Hollywood. After wowing the world with Waxworks while still in Germany, he was invited to join Universal’s already German-centric stable. Leni had a hit from the very start with The Cat and the Canary, a stylish horror-comedy, and he followed it up with The Chinese Parrot (alas, missing and presumed lost). Next, The Man Who Laughs with Conrad Veidt proved that he could harness the angst of Victor Hugo.
The Last Warning was aptly named as it was Leni’s last film before his premature death from an abscessed tooth. (I hate the “good old days” so much I could spit! So many good people gone too young for stupid reasons.) It starred Laura La Plante, one of Universal’s biggest stars and Leni’s leading lady from The Cat and the Canary. It co-starred everybody. We’ll go through the eye-popping ensemble in just a moment. First, the plot.
After a stunning opening montage of Broadway, we jump right into the story and the story is murder. John Woodford (D’Arcy Corrigan) is starring in a production being staged in the Woodford Theater when he screams and collapses. He’s dead! The main suspects are leading lady Doris Terry (Laura La Plante) and director Richard Quayle (John Boles) as there was a bit of a love triangle going on with Woodford.
Well, love square, really. But we’ll come to that in a moment. In the meantime, someone steals Woodford’s body and no one can find it! Without the corpse, there can be no corpus delicti as the police can’t even tell if there WAS a murder. The coroner was unable to examine the body before it went AWOL, so the cause of death is a mystery.
The case goes cold but the newspapers continue to make a meal out of the love lives of Doris and Richard. She flees to Europe while he goes grey about the temples and slightly mad. Years pass.
“But wait a moment,” you’re probably saying, “I was promised a murder comedy. I have the murder, where’s the comedy?”
Hold your horses! It’s time to present that cast I was bragging about.
Roy D’Arcy as Harvey Carleton, a supporting player who also is in love with Doris and seems to take a bit too much pleasure in Quayle’s downfall.
Carrie Daumery as Barbara Morgan, one of the supporting actresses and given to panic attacks.
Mack Swain as Robert Bunce, co-owner of the theater.
Burr McIntosh as Josiah Bunce, Robert’s older brother and the other theater co-owner.
Slim Summerville as Tommy Wall, the theater’s goofy electrician.
Buddy Phelps as Buddy, Tommy’s assistant.
Bert Roach as Mike Brody, the stage manager.
Torben Meyer as Gene, Woodford’s eccentric secretary.
See? No movie with Mack Swain and Slim Summerville can be devoid of humor! Just trust me that things get funnier. Not quite as goofy as The Cat and the Canary but there are definitely some gags to enjoy.
Anyway, years pass and the murder (if it was a murder) is still unsolved. And then everyone involved in the original production received word that they must go to the Woodford Theater. Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love) claims to be John Woodford’s best friend and he means to put on a new production of the play in which Woodford died. The entire cast and crew return, they’re afraid that it will look too suspicious if they don’t.
In addition, we also have Evalynda Hendon (Margaret Livingston), a leggy flapper cast in a small supporting part. Robert Bunce takes a shine to her and the pair are quickly canoodling and planning dinner dates. You may find the combination of Livingston and Swain to be unlikely but remember that she ended up marrying Paul Whiteman.
It seems that the Bunce brothers received a telegram warning them not to reopen the theater. It is signed by John Woodford. Similar warning messages keep cropping up all over the theater, all claiming to be from the ghost of Woodford. Meanwhile, Doris has returned from Europe but she’s a nervous wreck and Richard Quayle is in no better shape. They respective sanities are hanging by threads. Gee, wouldn’t it be a shame if something snipped at those threads?
Things start going wrong immediately. Someone tries to suffocate half the cast and crew with a smoke bomb, a heavy staircase almost drops on Doris and a masked figure is lurking about the scenery. It’s only a matter of time before there’s another murder. Unfortunately, we don’t know who are the suspects and who are the detectives.
Will the Woodford murder ever be solved? Will the cast and crew make it out of the theater alive? See The Last Warning to find out!
Despite all the murdering and dark antics, Leni keeps things light with little moments of humor. Margaret Livingston is a kick as the flapper actress who is always planting lipstick kisses on Mack Swain when nobody’s looking. There is also a very cute moment where a plot point hinges on a distinct odor and we are shown the various characters sniffing the air… including Livingston’s lapdog! Just an endearing little giggle to break the tension a bit.
As far as performers are concerned, the cast is generally good. Laura La Plante isn’t given an enormous amount to do but she tries her best. Robert Boles emotes a bit too much but he’s okay. The real showstoppers are Mack Swain, Margaret Livingston, Carrie Daumery and Montagu Love, experienced performers who get into the spirit of the thing beautifully.
Honorable mention must also go to Burr McIntosh, whose makeup is positively Mabuse-esque (intentional, I’m sure) and Roy D’Arcy, who manages to give something resembling a performance instead of a series of sustained grins.
I must also praise the story. It’s based on a play (which was based on a novel) and adapted by three screenwriters. Now this may sound like too many cooks but the whole thing is an absolutely classic mystery of the finest vintage. We have a whole pile of suspects, locked rooms, secret passages, masked killers, a “Let’s search the place!” scene and a climactic chase through the inner workings of the theater. Delicious!
I am a dedicated mystery reader and I am very judgy about the quality of the whodunit. I am also very good at guessing the killer and I consider an easy mystery to be an unforgiveable sin. (My record is correctly guessing by the third paragraph of The Last Kashmiri Rose, a dreadful little turkey that also gets its Valentino references wrong. Naturally, it has a dozen sequels.)
There are some obvious red herrings in the story but the eventual solution makes sense and is reasonably unexpected. You would think these things would be essential for a proper mystery but you would be amazed at the number of times they are omitted. The Last Warning screenplay gives us just enough information for us not to feel cheated but holds its cards close to its chest until the end.
(Oh, and the novel was published in 1916 under the title The House of Fear. It was written by Wadsworth Camp, who is pretty obscure these days but you’ve probably heard of his daughter, Madeleine L’Engle.)
And now we come to the main attraction: the stylish, witty direction of Paul Leni.
As I watched The Last Warning, I couldn’t help but compare it to several other releases of 1929 that I have already reviewed: A Cottage on Dartmoor, Lady of the Pavements, The Last Performance and The Charlatan. The first two attempted to inject a ton of style into their filmmaking, while the latter are Universal offerings with a similar theme of theatrical murder.
Readers probably know that I am not as fond of Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor as other critics seem to be. In addition to the squicky victim-blaming that it seems to inspire (“Sure, he cut her new boyfriend’s throat but she led him on!”), I feel that the director’s use of camera tricks and special effects is immature and that the fancy pants fripperies are often added for their own sake and not what they bring to the story. It’s not a bad film but it is, I feel, a jejune attempt to stuff as many goodies as possible into the box regardless of how they taste together.
Lady of the Pavements is an example of an old dog learning new tricks and proving himself too clever for his own good. D.W. Griffith took a stab at the unchained camera and ended up with unintentional hilarity as his shots took on a cartoonish effect. Worse, he didn’t (or couldn’t) incorporate an overall stylistic theme into the film and just seemed to toss glitter here and there because that was what the kids seemed to like. He was not helped by conflicting styles of the staid Billy Bitzer and the modern Karl Struss as his cinematographers.
In both cases, the directors tried to replicate the flashy styles of French, German and Russian cinema but didn’t quite incorporate them correctly. Paul Leni, on the other hand, had panache but he also knew how to employ it to best advantage. The style is big but the story is glitzy enough to support its weight and Leni knows when to knock our socks off and when we would like to keep our socks on and follow the story, thank you very much. (I suppose it helped that he was German. He had the German bit down pat!)
Cinematographer Hal Mohr’s camera work is graceful and balanced; wild angles, closeups and assorted acrobatics are employed but it never feels forced. This is nicely matched with Charles D. Hall’s art direction. While the theater scenes do make use of the opera set from The Phantom of the Opera, Hall tosses around cobwebs, claustrophobic offices and a theater exterior that resembles the gaping mouth of a beast. It should be no surprise that he would go on to work on the major Universal monster films of the 1930s: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.
Fans of Leni will notice that his signature balance of light and darkness has continued to grow in sophistication between Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary and The Last Warning. His untimely death just months after this picture was released was a great loss to the art of the horror comedy.
There are some wonderfully horrid images in The Last Warning: a trapped figure’s bloody hands tearing a wall, trying desperately to escape; a hidden grave; the classic masked figure staring from slits in the wall. Brrr! Perfect dark and stormy night fare.
Now, let’s talk about those other two 1929 Universal releases. The Last Performance is another glitter bomb. Directed by Paul Fejos, it is quite audacious in its style but is let down in the end by a rather generic story and the unfortunate casting of Mary Philbin as the leading lady. If she were a cook, she could burn water and star Conrad Veidt carries her through most of her scenes. A bit more of an ensemble piece could have papered over this deficiency.
The Charlatan is probably the most obscure film that I have mentioned so far but it’s a splendidly solid Agatha Christie-style manor house murder mystery with a fake psychic as the number one suspect. It’s moody but not particularly stylish, directed by George Melford, a Hollywood veteran whose main claim to fame is helming the famous Spanish Dracula. However, even if it lacks the punch of the other films listed, it more than makes up for it with its rock-solid (if a little obvious) murder mystery. Substance over style but is works rather well.
So, you can see that what Leni pulls off in The Last Warning is no simple thing. He balanced an ensemble cast, tossed in enough confetti to keep us happy but also delivered a very serviceable mystery. The fact that he made it look so easy is a testament to his skill as a director. Critics of his day were pretty hard on the picture but it has recently emerged as a festival favorite. (I persist in my theory that silent era film critics, by and large, were dolts.)
The Last Warning is an utter delight from beginning to end. It has style, substance and a solid mystery at its center; in short, everything that makes Paul Leni one of my favorite silent film directors. I haven’t had this much fun with a silent movie in ages and give the film my highest possible recommendation.
Where can I see it?
The Last Warning has been released on DVD by Grapevine. Like many films of this period, it was released with sound sequences but the part-talkie version seems to be lost. Thank heavens! I have no love for those lurching Frankenstein creations and would much rather see a film 100% silent.
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