Monday, August 11, 2008

#44: The Man Who Laughs


The Man Who Laughs
Directed by Paul Leni
Written by J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, May McLean, Marion Ward and Charles E. Whittaker (from the Victor Hugo novel)
Released November 4, 1928

I was at first hesitant to watch The Man Who Laughs, a bit wary of taking in my first "silent" movie (I'm putting silent in quotes because the movie comes accompanied with a soundtrack of choreographed music and sound effects, along with background dialogue; the movie was completed just as movie houses were beginning to be equipped for sound). Part of what made me leery was, aside from my curiosity at how I'd respond to a movie with no dialogue, the movie's near 2-hour run time. Good god, that's a long time to go in silence.

Surprisingly, once I'd settled in to the idea, I found watching The Man Who Laughs almost soothing to watch, like a strange mixture of movie and novel (while there is no spoken dialogue, there are still a number of title cards interspersed throughout the movie).

It didn't hurt that the production value was pretty much as top notch as you can find for a movie of this era. Universal Pictures reportedly spent three years and upwards of $1,000,000 making it, essentially making it the Spider-Man 3 of its era. While I'm on the subject of comic book superheroes, I should mention my true motivation for renting The Man Who Laughs: the main character of Gwynplaine was the inspiration for the look (and in some cases, the backstory) of Batman's #1 enemy, The Joker.

As the story goes, Gwynplaine is the son of Lord Clancharlie, a political enemy of King James II. To lure Clancharlie, James kidnaps Gwynplaine. When the Lord comes out of hiding to retrieve his son, he is told -- before being executed -- that James has sold his son to gypsies, who have surgically carved a permanent grin on the boy's face so that he will always be laughing at his foolish father. Clancharlie is killed and Gwynplaine is abandoned by the gypsies in the midst of a horrible snowstorm. He saves an abandoned child and finds the doorstep of a philosopher and playwright named Ursus, who takes the children in and raises them.

The film flashes forward to find Gwynplaine and Dea (the abandoned child, who is blind) travelling with Ursus and performing plays for commoners who find absurd joy in his permanent disfigurment. Dea is in love with Gwynplaine, but he fears he is not worthy of her love because in her blindness, she does not know his true face. Gwynplaine's true identity is learned and his royalty is reinstated by Queen Anne, but for nefarious purposes.

The role of Gwynplaine is performed by Conrad Veidt, who makes the most of a performance where he is forced to show incredible sadness with a massive grin on his face (Veidt wore dentures with hooks in the corner of his mouth to produce the disturbing grin). Other actors turning in impressive performances are Phantom of the Opera's Mary Philbin as the blind Dea, Freaks' Olga Baclanova as the duchess who tries to seduce Gwynplaine, and Cesare Gravina as the fatherly Ursus.

While there remain very few silent movies of my list of "must see films," I'm open to any suggestions after catching The Man Who Laughs. I was definitely impressed with the craft (especially the stunt-filled finale, which includes a fairly gnarly attack from a dog named Homo, who may have given the film's best performance), the direction and the editing, especially considering the limitations and lack of technology of the era.

Sometimes you have to go back in time about 80 years to be able to see cinema in a "new" light.

For more on The Man Who Laughs:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Roger Ebert's 2004 review of the movie. I hadn't read it before writing my review, but Ebert really nails some of the thoughts I had while watching, namely, "Silent films, like black-and-white films, add by subtracting. What they do not have enhances what is there, by focusing on it and making it do more work. When images cannot be discussed, they must explain themselves; when no colors are visible, all colors are potential. Watching the film again last night, I fell into a reverie, sometimes moved, sometimes amused, sometimes involved in a strange dreamlike way."

Since there is no official trailer, here's someone's homemade preview for the movie:

No comments: