The Man Who Laughs (1928) **** Bluray release

August 11th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir Paul Leni | Silent Drama, 100′

This visually remarkable late silent film is an adaptation of a French novel (by Victor Hugo) within an English setting, directed by a German filmmaker (Paul Leni) in an American studio. By the end of the 1980s critics were complaining that cultural identity in Trans-euro pudding films was neither one thing nor the other. Yet in 1928 the ingredients were well-baked: The Man who Laughs is no flat hybrid, but a splendidly risen cake. And the icing on top is the charismatic actor Conrad Veidt.

England in the 1680s and King James II has had his political enemy Lord Clancharlie killed. His son Gwynplaine is disfigured by Dr. Hardquannone who works as a comprachico (a dealer in mutilated children intended to play fools or dwarfs at Court.) The grown-up Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) now has a permanent fixed grin, due to his disfigurement, and is reduced to working as a clown in a freak show carnival. He falls in love with a blind actress named Dea (Mary Philbin.) Meanwhile, a jester at the Court of Queen Anne, ‘discovers’ Gwynplaine and reveals his royal lineage and inheritance. Yet the estate is now owned by a seductive vamp, the despised Duchess Josiana (Olga V. Baklanova.). And when Gwynplaine is bought to Court, emotional and political turmoil ensues.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way. The Man Who Laughs is today seen as an influence on the Joker character in the Batman comics and movies. However, the only resemblance between Conrad Veidt and all the actors who’ve played The Joker, is the fixity of that grotesque grin. Unlike Batman’s adversary Veidt’s Gwynplaine is not malicious and wears no  pronounced makeup: in other words the two characters have nothing in common with each other. 

Conrad Veidt uses his hypnotic eyes to convey a complex personality that both attracts and repels women. Veidt was a highly intelligent and subtle actor: throughout The Man Who Laughs he evokes the anguish and joy of Gwynplane’s thoughts – his performance is an master class in how the eyes can be used to express deep emotion. Writer Daniella Sannwald cleverly puts this into words in an extract from The Oxford History of World Cinema:

‘Veidt’s face reveals much of the inner life of his characters. The play of muscles beneath the taut skin, the lips pressed together, a vein on his temple visibly protruding, nostrils flaring in concentration and self discipline. These physical aspects characterise the artists, sovereigns and strangers of the German silent film…’

Of course, no film is solely the landscape of a great actor’s face. The design and spatial excitement of Paul Leni’s film, a German silent tradition enriching American silent cinema (often as lyrical as Murnau’s Sunrise), is considerably enhanced by his spry and stylish direction. The Southwark fair scenes; the chase at the London harbour and the episodes at Court are full of exciting mobile camerawork and editing.

The Man Who Laughs is more of a tender love story than a horror film. Veidt’s scenes with Mary Philbin (the heroine of the silent The Phantom of the Opera) are genuinely touching and steer well clear of sentimentality. Their romance is unconsummated yet charged with erotic tension– how far does Gwynplaine want to go in the relationship? He is terrified that Dea might just possibly regain her sight and then see how strange he looks. 

Gwynplaine’s frustration is put to the test in a deliciously sexy scene where Duchess Josiana (perversely attracted to Gwynplaine’s grin) attempts to seduce him. Here Conrad Veidt’s placing of a face cloth over his lips is in order to resist temptation. Whereas when with Dea, he does it to hide his shame. Olga V.Baklanova really lets rip, giving a glowingly photographed scene much sexual animalism. There are even some earlier nude-back scenes of her emerging from a bath, risqué for 1928, or maybe not given what Eric Von Stroheim was up to in his 1928/29 Queen Kelly.) 

Of course the film changes Victor Hugo’s ending. Best not to divulge, and it really doesn’t matter, for it perfectly suits the fate of the two romantic leads (who we really care for.) My one complaint about The Man who Laughs is the over-use of a faithful dog with the obvious name of Homo the Wolf,  played by a dog called Zimbo: it’s a case of a canine melodramatic over-drive.

But the case for Paul Leni’s film (for me his greatest) doesn’t need to be argued, just experienced. And in this beautiful restoration from a 4k source I was enthralled by the passion of The Man Who Laughs. ALAN PRICE©2020   


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