The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Director: Paul Leni
Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Julius Molnar
Synopsis: When a proud noble refuses to kiss the hand of the despotic King James in 1690, he is cruelly executed and his son surgically disfigured.
Following the success of Gothic dramas such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal’s Carl Laemmle decided to make a film adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs, and hired ill-fated German Expressionist director Paul Leni for the job. Leni had directed the influential German horror movie Waxworks, and it was Conrad Veidt, an actor from that movie, to whom Laemmle turned to portray the tragic figure of Gwynplaine. The atmosphere Leni created for the movie was a grim and forbidding one, although it failed to convince as a portrayal of 17th Century Britain.
In fact, the hellish landscape of the early scenes, in which we see the young Gwynplaine abandoned by the Gypsies who surgically transformed his face on the orders of vengeful King James II (Sam De Grasse), resemble some Arctic or alien wasteland more than the English countryside (well, ok, it could maybe pass for Skegness on a November night at a stretch…). The king was offended by a rebel British nobleman who refused to kneel and kiss the King’s hand, and spent an uncomfortable spell in an Iron Maiden for his rebelliousness. The king also has the gypsy Comanchicos surgically carve a permanent grin onto the nobleman’s son’s face so that ‘he might laugh forever at his fool of a father.’
Abandoned by the Comanchicos who disfigured him when the King banishes them from Britain, Gwynplaine finds Dea, a blind babe in arms, in a snowstorm, and the two of them are taken in by Ursus (Cesare Gravina), a philosopher-cum-showman. Fast forward 20 years, and Gwynplaine and Dea are now an item, even though he has somehow managed to prevent her from touching his mouth in all that time so that the blind girl is completely unaware of his affliction. The loving couple still live with Ursus, who creates popular plays — “like Shakespeare’s, but better” — built around Gwynplaine’s ever-smiling face. Although poor, they lead a settled life, but this peaceful existence comes to an end when Gwynplaine is spotted by Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), the man who operated on his face.
Knowing that the estate of Lord ClanCharlie, Gwynplaine’s father, passed to Duchess Josianna (Olga Baclanova), Hardquanonne has a feeble-minded acquaintance deliver a letter informing her of Gwynplaine’s existence. But the messenger is distracted by the wicked Barkilphredo (Brandon Hurst), former jester to King James, who appropriates the message and divulges its contents to Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell), who takes a dim view of her son’s betrothal to Josianna. Now, I can’t say I really blame her because Josianna is something of a dirty girl. A very dirty girl, in fact, and it’s fair to say that Baclanova’s performance would never have made it past the censors five or six years after The Man Who Laughs was released. We’re first introduced to her as she climbs in and out of her perfumed bath, a master class in tricking the audience into believing they’ve seen a lot more naked female flesh than they actually have. Barkilphredo gets a good eyeful, however, when she playfully flashes him immediately after her bath. It’s safe to say that Josianna likes a bit of rough — at least to tease — as we can see when she slums it with a bunch of drunken peasants at the Southwark Fair, at which Ursus’s show is the main attraction,. Entranced by Gwynplaine when she catches his performance, she invites him to her boudoir, leading him to provide cinema with one of its lamest excuses for visiting the bedroom of a woman other than the one you love…
The Man Who Laughs has a unique look about it, thanks no doubt to Leni’s knack for eye-catching visuals and atmosphere, and boasts some impressive performances, in particular from Veidt and Baclanova. The make-up Veidt wears to create the permanent grin looks both convincing and painful, and yet it never prevents him from communicating his characters emotions in the way that you could be forgiven for believing it might. Although she’s the headline act, Mary Philbin is given much less to do than her co-stars, and struggles to makes an impression, although her luminous beauty provides a sharp contrast to Baclanova’s sluttish portrayal of the Duchess.
(Reviewed 7th September 2013)