Horizons will be broadened when you watch a movie from the perspective of a master. That’s what happened to me as I watched Paul Leni’s The Last Warning recently released by Universal Pictures and Flicker Alley in a new 4K restoration deluxe Blu-ray/DVD edition. The film features Laura La Plante, Montagu Love, Margaret Livingston, and John Boles, but the star is Leni’s inventive camera, a fitting testament to extensive work as an art director.
The Last Warning tells the story of a Broadway play during the performance of which one of the actors, John Woodward, dies inexplicably in front of a packed house. The body then disappears leading everyone involved in the production – from actors to stage hands – to be suspects and there is plenty pointing in all nervous directions as the mystery unfolds. There are rumors of a love triangle involving John Woodward (the deceased played by D’Arcy Corrigan), leading lady Doris Terry (La Plante), and actor Richard Quayle (Boles). Then you have mysterious business men and suspicious investigators. No one is clear as the story makes headlines. Needless to say, the production and theater close after the unfortunate death.
Years later producer Mike Brody (Bert Roach) decides to stage the same play again in the same theater with the same cast. He hopes doing so would solve Woodward’s murder. As plans ensue so do mysterious happenings including warnings from the dead man by way of notes and telegrams, odd noises are heard everywhere, theft of belongings take place as does falling scenery. John Woodward’s ghost appears to the theater’s new owner Arthur McHugh (Love). Clearly everyone is in peril as the dead man insists no one should play his part but him. Then during the final rehearsal of the new production Harvey Carleton (Roy D’Arcy) disappears in the same manner as John Woodward did. Carleton is playing the same part as Woodward reminding everyone that whoever is warning the cast of players means business.
More mysterious mayhem ensues and on opening night police are present at the theater. The mystery is finally solved during the performance and the assailant caught before he can kill again. It’s all done with great fanfare, if a bit confusing at times. There is plenty of opportunity to show off Laura La Plante’s beauty. The veteran actor who was discovered for movies at age 15, also starred in Paul Leni’s terrific The Cat and the Canary in 1927. The talents of several other familiar faces in the cast are also spotlighted including Slim Summerville and his malleable mug, which works great in a horror setting. The award for best reaction shots in The Last Warning, however, must go to Carrie Daumery who plays Barbara Morgan, another actor in the ill-fated production. As I watched I kept thinking Daumery was a precursor to Una O’Connor’s many appearances in classic Universal horror that followed wherein she made use of her unforgettable screeches. Carrie Daumery’s screeching here is just as enjoyable.
The Last Warning is adapted from Thomas F. Fallon’s 1922 Broadway play of the same name and is based on the story The House of Fear by Wadsworth Camp. The film is one of the last silents produced by Universal, which was also later released as a partial talkie as were many others during the period. It is also Paul Leni’s final film as he died suddenly from sepsis later in 1929. The Flicker Alley set includes several informative bonus features including Paul Leni and The Last Warning, a short visual essay by author and film historian John Soister. Among the tidbits offered on the film and Leni’s career is the fact that had he not died, Leni would have directed Dracula in 1931. Knowing this director’s artistic vision I know I would have enjoyed seeing his version of the undying classic. Also included is an essay by composer Arthur Barrow on his new score for The Last Warning, which I enjoyed immensely.
Gaping plot holes aside, and The Last Warning has its share, watching this is an absolute treat. That’s particularly true if you’re a fan of Universal horror as The Last Warning is an important member of Universal’s rich film history and an absolute must-see for its visual prowess, which begins during the film’s opening with a fabulous montage of Broadway lights. This newly-minted fan loved this movie’s impressive fades, overlaid and trick shots, and terrific production design that includes studio sets from Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera. In addition to all that, Paul Leni uses what I believe is a favorite plot device of all classics fans – the newspaper! It’s all beautifully done and definitely makes the release well worth your time and money.
I must extend a couple of thank yous before I go for today. First to KT Walker-Delphonse, Marketing & Digital Distribution Strategist at Flicker Alley, for the review copy of The Last Warning and for broadening my film horizons. Ms. Walker-Delphonse also sent me the newly restored set of The Man Who Laughs (1928), which I cannot wait to see. One of my favorite bloggers, Joey of The Last Drive In, an expert on all things horror, will be reviewing that Flicker Alley release as a guest on this blog soon.
The final thank you is to Flicker Alley, Universal Pictures, and everyone involved in restoring The Last Warning and all classic films that are in danger of being lost forever. The behind-the-scenes story of how restoration experts search high and wide to find original prints in order to put these films together for future generations is ever fascinating. They need our support for future releases.