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The Man Who Laughs (1928)
~Review by Grawlix (November 2019)
I haven’t watched a huge number of silent films, though the ones I have seen have usually been pretty memorable. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising; if a movie endures for close to a hundred years, there’s bound to be something compelling about it. These days, of course, The Man Who Laughs is probably best known for providing the inspiration for Batman archvillain, The Joker, and while it wasn’t initially my intention to review this so soon after the latest Joker film, we’ll just call it a happy coincidence that things worked out that way.
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo and set in 17th Century England, The Man Who Laughs tells the story of Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), the son of a disgraced nobleman who, after his father is executed for insulting the king, is sold to a tribe of Comprachicos (literally: “child-buyers”) – gypsies who maim children in creative and highly visible ways in order to make them more effective beggars. When the Comprachicos are subsequently exiled en masse from England, young Gwynplaine is left to die in a blizzard, but, in a stroke of good fortune, he happens upon an infant girl, still in the arms of her frozen mother, and the pair stumble into the abode of a man named Ursus (Cesare Gravina, a veteran of silent short subjects who retired the year this film was released). Ursus makes two discoveries about his new young charges: 1) the little girl, whom he names Dea, is totally blind and 2) that Gwynplaine’s mouth has been scarred into a permanent rictus.
This ends up working out better than expected as Ursus is the proprietor of a traveling circus troupe, and Gwynplaine grows up to be his star attraction: The Man Who Laughs. Gwynplaine also falls in love with Dea, and though she reciprocates his feelings, he still feels unworthy of them due to his deformity, even though she’ll never see it.
But I think I’ve mentioned before about how missing nobles tend to not stay missing forever. In the intervening years, what would have been Gwynplaine’s estate has come into possession of Duchess Josiana (Olga Baklanova) the very definition of an idle rich socialite who would much rather cavort with commoners, flirting with rough men and generally causing a ruckus, instead of attending court functions. So annoyed is the queen by Josiana’s behavior that, when she learns of Gwynplaine’s existence, she is willing to reinstate his peerage and order Josiana to marry him just to knock the Dutchess down a peg. To this end, she enlists Barkilphedro, a minor noble and former court jester (who, in fact, was the one to suggest Gwynplaine’s punishment to the late king) to handle the details. But Gwynplaine would be a poor fit for nobility even without the scars, and of course this unexpected betrothal complicates his planned future with Dea.
Olga Baklanova, a Hollywood newcomer following a promising early career in her native Russia, plays Josiana as a stereotypical Hollywood vamp, though the screenplay unsubtly helps this along given that her introductory scene has her emerging from a bath and subsequently acting in only a towel. It was an archetype that she would make her own in subsequent years, though her career took a sizeable hit when films moved to sound due to her Russian accent. She would later appear as another memorable vamp in Tod Browning’s masterpiece, Freaks though at the time of its release the role did her no favors and she would be long retired before that film got the belated recognition it deserved.
Dea is played by Mary Philbin as a standard ingenue character. It was a role that came naturally to her, though she had little formal acting training, as it mirrored her real-life personality, being that she was both naturally soft spoken and deeply religious (typecasting was apparently not so much of a concern in those days). Moreover, she’d already played Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera opposite Lon Chaney a few years prior, so she was firmly in her comfort zone as Dea, who had many of the same qualities as the previous role, only adding the blindness. As such, it’s not the most demanding performance, but she’s note-perfect with it, and the innocent benevolence of her character practically radiates from the screen. Alas, the move to talking films proved to be a difficult one for her as well, as her high and light “girlish” voice was ill suited to the rudimentary sound recording equipment of the day. Due in part to this, and in part to a failed engagement that seemed break her spirit, she retired roughly a year after this film was released and effectively vanished from public life.
And of course, Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplaine, the titular Man Who Laughs. Veidt was already a well-established star in his native Germany, having previously appeared in another silent classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Apparently, the studio would’ve preferred Lon Chaney (which would’ve made this movie practically a remake of The Phantom of the Opera) but this was never a serious possibility as Chaney was under contract to a different studio. Veidt spoke no English when The Man Who Laughs was in production (one of those odd advantages of silent filmmaking that you’d never think about otherwise) but you’d never know it as he totally owns the role, conveying, through expressions and body language alone, a surprising range of emotion around what was definitely an extremely uncomfortable prosthesis, one which he wore in virtually every scene, even when his face was covered. Ironically, Veidt would weather the transition to sound films better than most, appearing in Casablanca, among others, a few years later.
I find it almost impossible to effectively criticize The Man Who Laughs, or any silent movie, really, considering the youth of the film medium and the vastly different expectations and social climate in which these films were made. Still, there are certain elements that aren’t so easily overlooked. For example, one of the prime movers of the plot in the latter portion of the film is, if you can believe it, Ursus’s pet dog (the credits refer to him as a wolf, but come on), who jumps into the action more than once in some pretty significant ways. Not to suggest the movie suddenly turns into Air Bud or anything, but the canis ex machina plot twists did come as quite a surprise. These developments aren’t helped by the fact that the dog is named Homo, apparently as a play on the latin phrase Homo homini lupus (“Man is wolf to man”) but boy does it scan strangely to modern viewers in the intertitles. Anyway, I’ll grant that this probably worked far better with the audiences of the time since Lassie, Benji and even Toto were (cinematically speaking) decades away, and for all I know this is how the story played out in the novel, but still, using a dog to push the action forward every time the plot lulls just seems like lazy writing even back then. Also, the final reel of the movie involves a chase and even a sword fight that come out of absolutely nowhere and really runs counter to the more measured pace and quiet melancholy that characterizes the rest of the film. This is a bit easier to understand, though, since the movie obviously needed some sort of dramatic turn for the climax and the delivery of a moving, Shakespearian-style monologue was obviously not in the cards.
At its heart, The Man Who Laughs features the largely standard plotting of a lover’s triangle mixed with the duty-versus-passion elements of a romance that crosses the boundaries of social class. Gwynplaine’s abnormalities add the extra layer, of course, but even this peculiar type of melodrama was an oddly popular subject for film adaptations around this time a la The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (also from a Hugo novel) or even, arguably, King Kong, in which a misshapen, tormented man is smitten with a warm-hearted but seemingly unattainable beauty. But it’s the little things that put it over the top, from a scene in which the circus players attempt to simulate a raucous performance in order to spare Dea’s feelings after Gwynplaine is hauled off to prison, to a scene in which Josiana attempts to seduce Gwynplaine, apparently solely for the novelty, before she is made aware of his lineage and commanded to marry him, a suggestion from which she recoils in horror. There’s also something to be said for how the movie demonstrates how the whims of nobility can so casually upend the lives of common folk. And, of course, there will always be something poignant about a tormented clown, crying through his smile (more literally in this case than most. See also: Pagliacci).
As for things that Batman fans would recognize, well, they’re there if you look for them. Gwynplaine’s general look is the most obvious, of course, but it’s pretty obvious that Batman writers have returned to the film for inspiration from time to time. There’s an early scene in which Barkilphedro uses his fingers to pull his mouth into a smile that seemed to have been recreated exactly for the new Joker movie, and the makeup patterns of some of the other clowns in the circus certainly seem familiar, though theatrical facepaint has its own long history with certain designs and traditions going back hundreds of years.
It’s tough to give The Man Who Laughs an unequivocal recommendation since, by their very nature, silent films aren’t going to be for everyone, but I will reiterate my point from the introduction that if a movie is still being revisited a century after it’s release, there’s probably a reason. There are certain elements of The Man Who Laughs that remain relatable, even if the details are unfamiliar, and the committed performances of the three leads have universal qualities that can’t be denied. If you’re into it, it would make a solid double feature with Lon Chaney’s 1924 He Who Gets Slapped, another classic about a mirthless clown. Just dim the oil lamps, throw some Leoncavallo on the phonograph, and embrace the thematic suffering. It’s good for you.
Final Grade: B+
Even making allowances for its age, The Man Who Laughs is not a perfect film. There’re some odd plot contrivances that range from implausible to ridiculous, and though they’re kept to a minimum overall, they do land oddly when they appear. That said, The Man Who Laughs is a character driven film, and the character work is pretty much flawless. Keep a respectful distance from the details and appreciate the piece as a whole and you’ll see why this movie absolutely refuses to be forgotten.
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