Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Silent Horrors: Waxworks (1924)

Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, 1924) tells three tales surrounding the figures in a wax museum—the owner of which has hired a writer-poet (William Dieterle) to come up with some “ballyhoo” to promote the exhibits. The first figure is Middle Eastern despot Harun el Raschid (Emil Jannings), a powerful caliph who decrees that a baker (also Dieterle) be destroyed when the smoke from his bakery causes him to continually lose in games of chess. The baker, Assad, is married to a woman (Olga Belajeff) who has a bit of a wandering eye, and while Assad sneaks into the potentate’s palace to swipe a ring bestowed with magic powers, Raschid pays Mrs. Assad a visit (on the advice of his Grand Wizier, who has assured his master she’s a-hunk, a-hunk of burnin’ love). As Assad beats a hasty retreat with the precious jewel (he cut off the caliph’s hand to retrieve it, unaware that the figure in bed is actually a wax dummy) from the Caliph’s guards, the Caliph himself must come up with a quick story to explain his presence in Mrs. Assad’s boudoir.

Story two takes us to Czarist Russia, where the infamous Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) amuses himself by torturing and poisoning his enemies. Little does he realize that an ironic comeuppance is in store for him. Finally, the writer dozes off in the museum and awakens to an all-too-realistic nightmare where Spring-Heeled Jack (Warner Krauss)—better known to one and all as Jack the Ripper—steals the wax museum owner’s daughter (Belajeff) away from him and plans to carryout mischievous plans to commit mayhem upon her person until the writer awakens from his dream.

I sort of went into Waxworks with high expectations because I had read a good many essays on what a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema its director had created. But truth be told, I was more than a little disappointed—the finished product was all icing and no cake. The movie has some breathtakingly haunting scenes (particularly in the final Ripper sequence) but overall the story is way too thin; a shame, really, since the premise is so rife with possibilities. I think the reason for this was that the production wasn’t all smooth-sailing; there had been plans for a fourth vignette (“Rinaldo Rinaldini”) but that was scrapped once the movie’s till had become emptied.

The best of the three episodes is the Ivan the Terrible tale; Veidt executes an incredible turn as the cruel despot—so much so that director Sergei Eisenstein supposedly patterned his Ivan the Terrible after Veidt’s performance. The actor had quite the career in silent films, including memorable appearances in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. (1920) and Leni’s later The Man Who Laughs (1928), and also provided suitable menace upon the advent of sound pictures with roles in Contraband (1940), Escape (1940), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Whistling in the Dark (1941) and All Through the Night (1942). (Oh yeah—and there’s that one where Humphrey Bogart tries to convince Ingrid Bergman to get on that plane…)

The first of Waxworks’ vignettes—the Harun el Raschid sequence—is the longest of the three, something that I would have preferred to have transferred to the Ivan the Terrible tale. The Raschid story is played for humor—and I can certainly see why Leni would want to pace the movie by starting off with something light before getting a bit darker—but to be honest, it doesn’t generate too many laughs…and allowing Jannings to play the caliph as a buffoonish sort robs the story of any real dramatic impact. The only positive thoughts I can offer is that this sequence had an enormous influence on actor Douglas Fairbanks, who was so impressed with the backgrounds that he adopted a similar look in his version of The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

This was my first experience watching a film by director Leni, a man who, like F.W. Murnau, went to his greater reward (he died in 1929 from blood poisoning) before realizing his full potential—it was Waxworks, however, that made his reputation and allowed him to go to Hollywood (at the behest of Universal’s Carl Laemmle) where he would make two more sensational horror pictures, The Cat and the Canary (1927, which I’ll talk about tomorrow) and the previously mentioned Man Who Laughs, which will close out my Silent Horrors series on Friday. He also held the reins on The Chinese Parrot (1927), based on one of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels (Leni’s friend Veidt was at one time considered for the Chan role), and The Last Warning (1929), a companion piece to Canary. (Sadly, Parrot has apparently been lost to the neglect and ravages of time—what a pity it did not survive to be seen today!)

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KC said...

I was also disappointed in this movie. It had a lot going for it visually, but like you said--all icing. However, I can't get enough of Veidt these days. Even when he goes over-the-top (as I felt he did in "The Hands of Orlac"), he is mesmerizing. Another great Veidt performance: "A Woman's Face", with Joan Crawford.

mgconlan said...

I liked "Waxworks" and if it seemed disappointing, it was probably only because the other three movies in the Kino boxed set of German horror silents — "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "The Golem" (the 1920 version) and "Nosferatu" — were even better. It's historically important as the first horror film set in a wax museum, and also for its influence on subsequent filmakers: not only Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible" but even "The Wizard of Oz." (The high, vaulted ceiling of Haroun al-Raschid's palace was copied for the great hall in which the Wizard receives Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion; and "Wizard" also copied the scene in which an hourglass marks Ivan the Terrible's doom.)

Incidentally, regarding Paul Leni's other films: like the first Charlie Chan movie, "The House Without a Key," Leni's "The Chinese Parrot" cast a Japanese actor as Chan (so the first two Chans, if not Chinese, were at least Asian: a fact worth mentioning given the ongoing criticism of the Chan movies of the 1930's and 1940's for using white actors in the role). Leni's Chan was Kamiyama Sojin, and while "The Chinese Parrot" is lost, MGM's early talkie "The Unholy Night" also cast Sojin as a detective and is worth seeing as an indication of how he might have played Chan.

I also watched "The Man Who Laughs" when Kino released it on DVD and quite liked it, though the part of Gwynplaine, played by Conrad Veidt, was originally intended for Lon Chaney — and I missed the pathos Chaney would have brought to the role. And it's well known that "Batman" creator Bob Kane based the character of the Joker on Veidt's appearance in "The Man Who Laughs."