Little is known about the
life of Paul Leni. The Missing Link explores this director's
horror movies to find out more about this master film maker.
Paul Leni - The Forgotten Master
Paul Leni's contribution to the motion picture industry has been
notable, yet very little information is known about his life outside the medium in which
he worked. Consequently, his output is about the only thing that we have to delve deeper
into this master craftsman's ability as a set designer, director, and as a human being.
Leni was tipped by film critics as possessing a bright future ahead in his relocation to
Hollywood, but unfortunately his death prevented us from experiencing his talents into the
sound era. One is left to speculate whether his craft had fully developed with his later
work in America, or would he have become one of the greatest directors the industry had
known? Leni passed away in 1929, during the troublesome transitional period of the cinema
where silent pictures had been perfected, and the demand of the talkies had alienated many
actors and actresses from ever working again.
Leni was born in July of
1885, and at the age of twenty-six he worked as a stage designer for Max Reinhart's
Theatre Company in Berlin, where many people in the arts learnt their trade; F.W. Murnau, Conrad Veidt, Ernst Lubitsch, to name but a few. Leni designed the
company's posters along with Ernst Deutsch and Josef Fenniker.
In one of his first assignments, Paul Leni worked as the art designer on the melodrama set
in India DAS RATSEL VON BANGALORE (The Mystery of Bangalore) in 1917 with Harry Liedtke
and Gilda Langer, two famous screen players of that era. In a supporting role was a
twenty-four year old Conrad Veidt making one of his first motion screen appearances as
Count Dinja, a maniacal Hindu. Leni then directed DORNROSCHEN (1918), an adaptation of
'Sleeping Beauty', and then worked again as a set designer on VERITAS VINCIT produced
between 1918 and 1919, directed by Joe May. May had begun work in the second decade of the
century and had directed Fritz Lang, then a fledgling actor and scenario writer in Hilde Warren und der Tod (1917).
Leni worked again in the director's chair for Gloria-Film with PRINZ KUCUCK (Prince
Cuckoo) (1919), and also created the set design for this effective satire about a rich man
nicknamed Prince Cuckoo who abuses his power of wealth on those around him. Again, Veidt
was in the cast, portraying Karl Kraker, a poor but honest relative of the power-mad
In 1920 Leni directed and designed DIE VERSCHWORUNG VON GENUA (The Genoa Conspiracy),
and PATIENCE, starring Marga Kierska, Felix Basch, Adele Sandrock and Conrad Veidt who
portrayed Sir Percy Parker.
HINTERTREPPE (Backstairs) from 1921 found Paul Leni credited as co-director with
Leopold Jessner, a man whose use of stylised staircases for his productions became known
in the industry as "Jessnertreppen", used later to full effect in Murnau's Faust (1926). Leni utilised a script written
by the illustrious Carl Mayer; a distinguished screenwriter who earlier had penned The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), and later
concocted scripts for Murnau's DER LETZTE MANN (1924), TARTUFFE (1925) and his
spell-binding SUNRISE (1927).
HINTERTREPPE concerned a maid (Henny Porten), whose letters from her lover, (Wilhelm
Dieterle), are intercepted by the postman, (Fritz Kortner), himself in love with the maid,
who learns that she has been abandoned. It is a slow and heavy drama due mainly to the
theatrical conventions imposed by Jessner, a director of mainly stage plays. Even so,
Kortner shines in a virtuoso performance.
Leni's most recognised work came
with Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks) (1924),
a production patterned on the successful The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Both used
the locale of a fairground for its ambience, a place so rich and ripe for the setting of a
mystery. Made as an omnibus film, following a formula set down by Fritz Lang's Der Mude Tod (Destiny) three years earlier.
In the 1924 film a fairground booth displays a host of wax figures and a young poet is
commissioned to write stories about these figures.
The young writer is portrayed by Wilhelm Dieterle, a future director of note who relocated
to Hollywood and gave us a grandiose remake of The
Hunchback of Notre Dame casting Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in 1939. Dieterle also
collaborated with his mentor Max Reinhardt who received his only screen direction credit
on A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM for Warner Brothers in 1935. Dieterle went on to direct the
superb All That Money Can Buy in 1940, a
Faustian tale transferred to rural New England.
DAS WACHFIGURENKABINETT begins with a tale set in surrealistic Bagdad with Emil Jannings portraying the overfed,
barrel-bellied Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid who lost his arm during one of his amorous
advances towards a baker's wife, (Olga Belajeff). The stylised interiors are very
reminiscent of Paul Wegener's Der Golem of
The second tale involves the sadistic Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), who leaves his restrictive quarters to frequent the
tortures taking place in the diabolical melieu of dungeons. Veidt gave what was considered
a tour de force performance, especially at the story's
climax when Ivan believes himself to be fatally poisoned and he is forced to watch the
dropping sands of an hourglass with his name on it. Driven insane, Ivan repeatedly turns
the hourglass over and over again in a hope of delaying his death.
Russian director Sergei Eisenstein was to later use Leni's DAS WACHSFIGURENKABINETT as a
model for his own rendition of the insane Ivan in 1946.
Henrik Galeen's script was to include another tale of Rinaldo Rinaldini, to be played
by Dieterle, but Leni decided to substitute this for a short tale of Spring-Heeled Jack
(Werner Krauss), when the young poet falls asleep and suffers a nightmare filmed in a full
Leni was credited with full direction, although Leo Birinski is said to have actually
directed the actors. Leni most certainly was responsible for the settings with the
assistance of Fritz Maurischat. In an article Leni wrote for the Berlin
"Kinematograph" in 1924 he states:
"If the designer merely imitated photography to construct his sets, the film
would remain faceless and impersonal. There has to be the possibility of bringing out an
objects essential attributes so as to give the image style and colour... This is
particulary necessary for films set wholly in a world of unreality. For my film DAS
WACHSFIGURENKABINETT. I have tried to create sets so stylised that they evince no idea of
reality. My fairground is sketched in with an utter renunciation of detail. All it seeks
to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines and
curves. It is not extreme reality that the camera percieves, but the reality of the inner
event, which is more profound, effective and moving that what we see through everyday
eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can reproduce this truth, heightened
I may perhaps cite the example of CALIGARI... and DER GOLEM, in which Hans Poelzig created
a town's image. I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun
the world seen everyday and to attain its true sinews... It will be seen that a designer
must not construct 'fine' sets. He must penetrate the surface of things and reach their
heart. He must create mood, even though he has to safeguard his independence with regard
to the object seen merely through everydays eyes. It is this which makes him an artist.
Otherwise I can see no reason why he should not be replaced by an adroit apprentice
Between 1925 and 1926, Paul Leni provided his services as an art designer for Ewald A.
DuPont's VARIETE and MANON LESCAUT, directed by Arthur Robison for UFA. with a young
Marlene Dietrich in a miniscule role. By now, the Germanic influence had its effect on
Hollywood, and studios competed with cold hard cash to import various German talent. Carl
Laemmle, head of Universal Studios, held the strongest connections with the old country,
and amongst his imports was Paul Leni who would join a whole host of emigres from both
sides of the camera. Others would follow his steps during the 30's, which would prove to
be a considerable loss for Germany's own cinema industry.
Leni's first assignment in America was an adaptation of John Willard's
successful 1922 play The Cat and the Canary that
with James Whales' The Old Dark House and Roland West's The Bat became the blueprint for the many mystery melodramas to
Heiress Annabelle West (Laura La Plante), is
forced to spend the night at the house of eccentric millionaire Cyrus West, after the
reading of his will. The gathering of highly suspicious relatives would all benefit from
the will if the young heiress lost her sanity.
Lucien Littlefield who had worked in Hollywood since 1913 was made up to resemble Doctor
Caligari; and Creighton Hale appears as the unassuming hero. Bob Hope would be better in
his film debut for Paramount's commendable remake of 1939.
Among the cast is Arthur Edmund Carewe, a
stalwart of the horror genre who appears as Svengali in George Du Maurier's Trilby (1923), Universal's The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and later in Dr. X (1932), and as a dope fiend in Mystery of the Wax Museum the following
year, both for Warner Brothers/First National.
With such a classy treatment given to a horror film, including an exceptional use of light
and shadow; flowing camerawork care of Gilbert Warrenton and its animated title cards; it
comes as no suprise why many other studios were eager to jump on the successful bandwagon.
A remake surfaced in 1930 entitled The Cat Creeps,
directed by Rupert Julian for Universal that was also made in a Spanish language version
supervised by Paul Kohner titled, LA VOLUNTAD DEL MUERTO, with alterations made to the
cast. Sadly, both versions still seem to remain lost, and only the recently discovered
eight sound discs remain.
Kohner, the man in charge of all foreign language productions, also
worked on The Man Who Laughs (1928), Paul Leni's second film in his adopted country.
This was an attempt to duplicate the success of Universal's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, however, the film lacked popular appeal
even though a grand music score and synchronised sound effects were added to boost its
competitive edge against the fast growing popularity of the "talkies". Universal
also added a happy ending and a chase scene to Victor Hugo's most macabre novel that had
seen the silver screen before as L'Homme Qui Rit
(1909) and as Das Grinsende Gesicht (The
Smirking Face) (1921) directed by Julius Herzka in Austria for Olympic Films.
Set in 17th century England, Gwymplaine, the son of a nobleman who was executed for his
rebellion against King James II, is kidnapped by gypsies, who carve a perpetual grin into
his face to be left abandoned during a raging snowstorm. It is then that Gwymplaine
stumbles upon the body of a frozen mother cradling a young blind child named Dea, (Mary Philbin). After saving the child's life,
many years later they are taken in by a travelling troupe of circus performers. Gwymplaine
is exhibited as a freak and scorned with derision and laughter by paying patrons of the
circus. Dea, oblivious to Gwymplaine's frozen grin, falls in love with him, seeing only
the goodness in his soul. Later, Gwymplaine learns of his noble heritage and is offered a
hand in marriage by the flirtatious Duchess Josiana, portrayed wonderfully by Olga
Baclanova. Gwymplaine renounces his title and his engagement, so that he can be with Dea,
who loves him for who he really is. Together they sail to an island to find peace and
After completion of the film, Conrad Veidt decided to refrain
from portraying any more grotesque characters.
A remake was reportedly to star Kirk Douglas, however, after tracking down a print of the
original and viewing it Douglas decided it was not as suitable a star vehicle as he had
imagined. Again Leni's overall contribution to the look and the feel of the film was
evident. Although almost two hours in length, the narrative avoids dragging its heels
through the appealing use of light and shadow and an infusion of decidedly grotesque
characters to add a satisfying morbidity.
Leni's third film for Universal studios was an adaptation of a novel by Earl Derr
Biggers. THE CHINESE PARROT (1928) was the first feature film appearance of Charlie Chan,
although he had surfaced in a serial made the year before. Sojin Kamiyama, a Japanese actor simply known as Sojin was born during
1890 in Sendai, Japan, had appeared in The Thief of
Bagdad (1925), Roland West's The Bat
(1926) and OLD SAN FRANCISCO (1927), portrays Chan, the inspector of the Honolulu police
solving the riddle of a jewel robbery. Marian Dixon appears as the heroine, but the
mystery is solved by a parrot, who gives an important clue to Charlie Chan.
Leni's next film, that would unfortunately be his last
feature, was ironically titled The Last Warning
(1929) a plot with allusions to The Cat and the Canary
set in a theatre. Universal ordered Leni to include several sound sequences to this
The body of John Woodford, (Montague Love),
goes missing after he collapses on stage during a production titled "Dangerous
Currents". A year passes when adventurous producer Arthur McHugh, reopens the theatre
with a production of the same play employing the majority of the original cast. Woodford's
ghost is rumoured to haunt the theatre after the ensuing unexplained lethal mishaps and
several seemingly ghostly threats. Later it is revealed that Woodford was killed with a
poisonous dart shot into him by someone who wanted the theatre to close so that he could
sell the valuable real estate.
This part-talkie evolved from the play "The Last Warning" by Thomas F. Fallon
and the 1916 novel "Backstage Phantom" by Henry S. Wadsworth Camp.
Amongst the cast was Laura LaPlante, John Boles, Roy D'Arcy and comedy veterans Mack Swain
and Slim Summerville. THE LAST WARNING was remade in 1939 as House of Fear directed by Joe May as part of Universal's second horror
Paul Leni at this time was single-handedly creating a whole new style for himself,
emphasising the moody and macabre. Lang, Murnau and Lubitsch would all work successfully
in their new homeland,
but Leni would be the only emigre to bring with him part of the great German horror
tradition. He was considered to be Universal's top horror specialist when rumours began to
circulate that Universal had acquired the rights to Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', and Conrad
Veidt was to be the film's star. Without a doubt, the restored partnership of Leni and
Veidt, which had already been proven, would have indeed given us a Dracula produced on a far grander scale.
Leni's last work had been an experimental short, with synchronised sound titled PUZZLES,
then Universal's Dracula was shelved for another
year when Paul Leni prematurely passed away from blood poisoning caused by a neglected
ulcerated tooth on September 2nd 1929, at the age of forty-four.
An outstanding talent was brought to an abrupt halt. His direction would surely have
stretched out beyond the confines of the horror genre, although one hopes not completely,
and he would have had a major influence on the shape of motion pictures throughout the
30's and beyond.
Like F.W. Murnau, Leni was tragically lost to us at the height of his career. Murnau
has rightfully received a generous amount of reappraisal, with publications chronicling
his life and work. Surely the time is now ripe for Paul Leni to receive the same.
Poster and lobby card stills courtesy of Ronald V. Borst
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