Paul Leni was born on July 8, 1885 in Stuttgart, Germany and died on September 2, 1929 in Los Angeles, California.
Paul Leni’s directorial career, although it spanned more than ten years, feels relatively brief and full of untapped promise considering how many more films he worked on as art director and his early death at age 44. A student of avant-garde painting, Leni moved on to being a designer of theatrical sets after his time at Berlin’s Academy of Fine Arts. He began working in the German film industry in 1913, and was an art director for a number of films directed by the likes of Joe May and Ernst Lubitsch through the rest of his time in Germany. Leni began directing his own movies in 1917, and moved to Hollywood in 1927, where he made four movies before that aforementioned early death; it was caused by sepsis from a tooth infection. His legacy, however, is tied to the legacy of many German directors brought to Hollywood. The transition of Expressionistic ideas and visuals began to define the Hollywood artifice of the late ’20s and ’30s, and beyond I suppose. But even more specifically, Leni helped form the horror-adventure films of Universal Studios, a sub-genre ultimately referred to as “haunted house” movies. But I’ll speak to that more below, where I’ve ranked his six extant and easily accessible films.
#6 — BACKSTAIRS (1921)
Co-director: Leopold Jessner
Perhaps more properly attributed to Leopold Jessner, who contributed to the kammerspielfilm sub-genre of German film (chamber dramas), BACKSTAIRS fittingly used stairways to great effect. As opposed to the extraordinary Expressionist films, kammerspielfilme were otherwise sparsely decorated and intimate. F.W. Murnau’s TARTUFFE (1925) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s MASTER OF THE HOUSE (1925, even though it’s not German) are great examples of this genre, but BACKSTAIRS is otherwise a primordial film; interesting, but not refined into something spectacular.
#5 — REBUS-FILM NO. 1 (1925)
The REBUS-FILM series of avant-garde/animated shorts, of which I can only find the first installment, is an incredible offshoot of the rest of Leni’s work. Little animated interludes present a crossword puzzle that represents avante-garde, live action renderings as clues. It’s an incredible concept, and NO. 1 functions as a kaleidoscope of disparate images and cultures.
#4 — THE LAST WARNING (1928)
Variably listed as a 1928 or 1929 production, THE LAST WARNING is regardless a continuation of the theme set by Leni with his first American film, THE CAT AND THE CANARY. A mystery-comedy that transposed the “haunted” house into a “haunted” theater, THE LAST WARNING sees an actor murdered on stage during a performance. Years after the theater has closed, the principle characters in the drama arrive at the decrepit institution for various reasons. Yeah, it’s a lot like THE CAT AND THE CANARY, but less funny, spooky, or visually distinct; perhaps it was the print I was watching. In any event, it’s an interesting relic and follow up, and it was in fact Leni’s final film.
#3 — WAXWORKS (1924)
Leni’s anthology horror film presents wax figures of three historical “monsters” as portals to period storytelling about the Caliph of Baghdad (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss). William Dieterle is the hero of our frame story, heading up this quartet of incredible actors and spinning off into paranoia in his own commendable performance. The disparate stories are visually united by Leni’s Expressionist-ish period design and a general atmosphere of dark fantasy and the macabre. WAXWORKS is just a really entertaining curio, not unlike the wax figures the film revolves around.
#2 — THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)
Perhaps most often argued as Leni’s masterwork, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS is a sort of logical progression of what was done with WAXWORKS, and not just because Conrad Veidt stars in both films. No, it’s because Leni enters a period tale with a modern sense of design. But unlike WAXWORKS, Leni imparts a much more human period tale using the tragic figure of Veidt’s Gwynplaine. THE MAN WHO LAUGHS is not a true horror film, which WAXWORKS, of all of Leni’s films, was probably the closest to being. It’s true that Veidt’s make up is convincingly macabre, and the set designs echo later Universal horror pictures, but otherwise, it’s a melodramatic adventure film. And it succeeds tremendously in marrying that aesthetic with that mode of storytelling.
#1 — THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)
But I just can’t resist the well-scripted mystery, comedy, and characters of THE CAT AND THE CANARY, perhaps Leni’s most important film. The “haunted house” tropes it carried from the films of Roland West (THE MONSTER  and THE BAT ) were more effectively fused to comedy, which is perhaps why the film was remade in 1939 with Bob Hope. Creighton Hale plays a tremendous nerdy coward type. But all of the characters in the film you’ve seen before, since THE CAT AND THE CANARY helped to set a collection of cliches that made their way into pulp stories and comic books and television (think Scooby-Doo), beyond film. But this is not a static representation of the play on which the movie was based; Leni employed more interesting effects and lighting. THE CAT AND THE CANARY is a tremendously entertaining movie, and best encapsulates the tremendous skill Leni possessed in bringing his Expressionist background into mainstream Hollywood fare.