Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Love Gone Wrong for Valentine's Day

I love a theme and apparently the folks at Kino Video do, too. In order to celebrate the "romance and heartbreak" of Valentine's Day they're taking 30% off their series of "Love Gone Wrong" films. Included are the G. W. Pabst/Louise Brooks classic Diary of a Lost Girl, Fritz Lang's 1945 noir Scarlet Street, and the 1924 Carl Dreyer silent Michael, as well as more contemporary films, such as Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together, Rajiv Menon's I Have Found It, and Claude Chabrol's Betty. So if Valentine's Day soppiness leaves you feeling bitter and mildly ill, at least you know that the understanding film hounds at Kino Video are thinking of you.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

All Through the Night

All Through the Night (1941) is a delightful romp through wartime propaganda. A comedy thriller with Bogart as a wisecracking New York gambler who stumbles onto a group of Nazi fifth colmunists who are planning to sabotage a battleship anchored in the harbor. Bogart rallies his small group of lovable underworld gangsters in a sudden burst of patriotism to overthrow a rather large group of Nazi operatives. All Through the Night is a rather generic wartime film that relies almost completely on its major characters playing parts they'd played in many films before. Conrad Veidt is the suave, almost friendly, but dangerous Nazi leader, Bogart plays his usual fast talking tough guy slightly more tongue in cheek than usual, and Lorre is a somewhat scummy lower echelon bad guy in the vein of Joe Cairo or Senor Ugarte. Likewise, Judith Anderson, Jane Darwell, Frank McHugh, and William Demerest all play parts we've all seen them play in better films. As a result, All Through the Night is a very comfortable, familiar experience, along the lines of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movies they used to show on Tom Hatten's Family Film Festival when I was a kid. There are several good lines in the film, mostly spoken by Bogart and his cronies, which taken with the performances themselves make the film worthwhile.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

My obsession with Conrad Veidt continues

In an attempt to deny the fact that school has started again I have provided myself with a pointless obsession, the films of Conrad Veidt. Between those crazy kids at netflix and the used VHS tapes to be found on amazon, I am racking up quite a number of wasted hours watching movies no one even seems to know exist. So far, since The Man Who Laughs, I have seen Different From the Others (Germany, 1919) and All Through the Night (US, 1941). There's a contrast for you! Different From the Others is about a gay concert violinist Paul Korner (Conrad Veidt) who falls in love with one of his students and is blackmailed by a predatory criminal (Reinhold Schunzel) who threatens to expose him to the police. (Under Paragraph 175, Germany's anti-gay legislation, homosexuals could by imprisoned for up to five years) A sort of sex hygiene film, the well meant but didactic lecturing of "Dr. Magnus Hirschfield of the Institute for Sexual Science" tends to interfere with the storyline, being, as it is, only halfheartedly integrated into the plot. It's an interesting film, however, primarily because it reflects that brief moment of openness in Weimar Germany before Hitler came to power. The acting tends to be rather melodramatic by today's standards (Veidt spends rather a lot of time looking woebegone and lost with a hand to his head) and the makeup is a scream (I think we are supposed to intuit from the dark circles around his eyes that Reinhold Schunzel is the bad guy) but there are aspects of the film which make it worth seeing. Censored by the German government and later burned by the Nazis as "degenerate," a print of the film was found in the Ukraine and restored by the Filmmuseum Munchen. Missing sections of the film have been replaced with explanatory intertitles and still photos.

Tomorrow: All Through the Night

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Conrad Veidt: The Man Who Laughs

If you’re like me, you’ve only seen Conrad Veidt in a couple of films: as the sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), as the mean, nasty Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942), and the equally evil Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Until now, I had never seen any of the films he’d made in the twenty years between making a groundbreaking German Expressionist silent and playing smug bad guys in British and Hollywood movies. I had some recollection that he’d made some spy flicks for Michael Powell at some point, but I’d never seen them. So while looking for silent horror movies to watch on Netflix, I found the 1928 American silent horror classic The Man Who Laughs.

An adaptation of a Victor Hugo novel, Veidt plays the role of Gwynplaine, a nobleman's son, who is kidnapped by a political enemy and mutilated by a gypsy "surgeon" who carves his mouth into a hideous grin. Left behind by the gypsies as the flee the country, Gwynplaine wanders through a landscape of hangman’s gallows and snowy cliffs surrounding by poor people freezing to death in the snow. After rescuing a baby from her dead mother’s arms, he finds shelter with an old man who takes pity on him and his charge. Years later, Gwynplaine and his “family” have become a traveling circus act, in which he plays a clown, laughed at and taunted by the audience. He and the blind girl (Mary Philbin The Phantom of the Opera) fall in love, but they almost lose each other when Gwynplaine is drawn back into the world of political intrigue. He becomes the plaything of a jaded duchess (Olga Baclanova Freaks), and his enemies renew their efforts to control him.

If silent movies are too remote and melodramatic for you, this film may change your mind. Like many films of the time, it does seem to move rather slowly since we are used to a faster pace and more action, but The Man Who Laughs is visually quite beautiful in the way that German Expressionist films always are and Veidt’s portrayal of Gwynplaine is impressive. Considering that the only tools a silent actor really had were his facial expressions and his body language, Veidt managed to convey a great emotional expressiveness through only his eyes and hands, much of his face maintaining a continuous smile throughout the film. (From the photo, you can see how Veidt’s Gwynplaine must have been the origin for the Batman character The Joker).

Created in the same vein as other Universal successes like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera (adaptations of other French novels in which a disfigured man looks for love from a sympathetic woman), Carl Laemmle hired two influential artists of the German Expressionist School: actor Conrad Veidt and director Paul Leni (Waxworks). German Expressionist aesthetics, as seen in The Man Who Laughs, laid the foundation for several popular American film genres such as noir and Universal horror films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man.

The Kino DVD has several extras, but for me the most intriguing was a German short entitled “Filmstadt Hollywood” which contains home movies of Conrad Veidt relaxing with fellow European emigres Greta Garbo, Emil Jannings, Paul Leni, Carl Laemmle, and Camilla Horn.

The German Hollywood Connection