Monday, 11 July 2011

The Last Warning (1929)

Directed by: Paul Leni
Starring: Laura LaPlante
              Montagu Love
              Roy D'Arcy
              John Boyles
Run time: 88 mins
Studio:    Universal
Black & White

The Last Warning was Universal Studio’s unsubtle but entirely understandable attempt to cash in on the huge success of 1927’s The Cat and the Canary. Unfortunately, however, as a follow-up to the earlier film, The Last Warning can only really be regarded as a qualified success. Indeed, if truth be told, it’s something of a disappointment. This is doubly sad when you consider that it was director Paul Leni’s last film (tragically, he died of blood poisoning not long after it was made). I should make it clear from the outset, however, that the disappointment doesn't stem from any lack of ability on Leni's part - he remained to the end one of early Hollywood's most inventive directors. No, the problem lies entirely with the script (and yes, you guessed it - it's another stage play adaptation!).

The film opens with a dizzying montage sequence depicting 1920s Broadway - the so-called “electric highway of happiness” - with its bright lights, limousines, dancing girls and blackface minstrels. We arrive at the Woodford Theatre (in reality the re-used Paris Opera House set from Phantom of the Opera) on the opening night of a play called The Snare; but there is panic in the stalls -  John Woodford (D'Arcy Corrigan), leading light of the Broadway stage, has been murdered during a mysterious blackout in the play's first scene (the obvious joke about actors dying on stage is mercifully resisted) and his fellow actors are in the process of being questioned backstage by the police. The theatre's owners, Josiah and Robert Bunce (Burr McIntosh and Mack Swain), brothers who speak in unison, are also in attendance. During the questioning, Irish stage manager Mike Brady (Bert Roach) reveals how he overheard a terrible argument between the play's director, Richard Quayle (John Boles) and Woodford coming from the leading lady's dressing room the night before. It turns out that the leading lady, Miss Doris Terry (Laura La Plante) is a very popular young lady indeed - not only is her dressing room filled with ostentatious floral bouquets from John Woodford (who apparently considered Terry the love of his life), but there are roses from Richard Quayle, too. In addition, there is a framed photograph of caddish-looking fellow actor Harvey Carleton (Reg D'Arcy) inscribed with Carleton's own message of adoration.  The film is barely fifteen minutes old and already the suspects are lining up. Things become even more suspicious when the Coroner (Harry Northrup) arrives and discovers that while everyone has been talking, Woodford's body has mysteriously disappeared. So far, so good - it looks as if we might have a decent mystery on our hands.