Review – THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (Paul Leni, 1928, USA)

ManWhoLaughsposterPaul Leni was part of a nouvelle vague of German and Austro-Hungarian directors who were lured to America in the 1920s and ’30s by the promise of artistic freedom, economic opportunities and the use of advanced technologies. In return, they led to the foundation and establishment of an international style of American cinema that would make it the most successful one in the world. By the time Leni arrived in America, he had already been a key figure of German Expressionism, directing such films as Backstairs (1921) and Waxworks (1924). By the time he directed The Man Who Laughs in 1928, he had already made one American masterpiece, The Cat and the Canary (1927). However, The Man Who Laughs is the work of a man at a creative peak, and it has been suggested that the reason why it is not mentioned as much as other works by other émigrés from the time, such as F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) is because it was widely unavailable for many years. Sadly, Leni would die a year later, from blood poisoning, at the age of 44.

The Man Who Laughs followed the success of other similar Universal Pictures produced by German-born studio head and founder Carl Laemmle that featured protagonists with disfigurements – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Leni had been given an over-one-million-dollar-budget to make the picture, and the money was well-spent on the creation of sets depicting both the lower and upper classes of seventeenth-century England. However, no effect of the movie was as breathtaking and heartbreaking as the landmark performance of its leading heavy Conrad Veidt. In fact, the film itself was based on a lesser work by Victor Hugo, and can easily be considered as one of the first works where the movie was better than the book because cinema was able to successfully show something that could otherwise hardly be imagined.

The film begins with the execution of Lord Clancharlie (Veidt, in his second smaller role of the movie), ordered by King James II (Samuel de Grasse). Clancharlie’s son, Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr.) is sold to child smugglers known as “comprachicos,” who disfigure him, cutting a permanent grin on his face. Later, when the “comprachicos” are exiled, he is deserted. He rescues an abandoned blind child named Dea, and they are both taken in by a kind-hearted charlatan named Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Years later, Gwynplaine (Veidt) is a star of Ursus’ traveling freak show. He and Dea (Mary Philbin) are in love. Meanwhile, a court jester who had been involved in Lord Clancharlie’s execution comes across documentation that proves that reveals Gwynplaine’s rightful lineage and inheritance. Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) grants Gwynplaine his peerage and a seat in the House of Lords and orders Duchess Josiana (Olga Baklanova), a temptress, to marry him for selfish motives. Social status is reinstated, but personal happiness is at stake, as Gwynplaine is kidnapped and separated from Dea, the lady he loves.

Veidt is arguably the greatest expressionist actor and his performance as Gwynplaine is just as iconic as his previous turn as the somnambulistic Cesare of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920). He had also been impressive as Jack the Ripper in the third part of Waxworks – in both Caligari and Waxworks, his expression evoked an ambiguity that compromised the natural reaction of the spectator in the face of the characters’ terrible and villainous deeds. Also, the premise is understandably quite challenging: The Man Who Laughs is a historic melodrama with a perennially smiling protagonist. It is only when Gwynplaine covers his mouth with his hands, or an old scarf, that we see with our eyes the depth of his sorrow and the bane of his existance. The challenge is overcome thanks in no small part to its star’s immense abilities.

Understanding the power of the tragic spectacle of his central character and Veidt’s masterful performance – a feat of facial musculature – he uses Gwynplaine sparingly. He also distorts the spectator’s attention away from him by chronicling aristocratic intrigues and even by daring to use comic relief. This is done in two ways: through editing and characterization. Heartbreaking scenes might be followed by shots or sequences depicting a completely different atmosphere. For instance, the painstaking sequence in which the Duchess encounters Gwynplaine for the first time is immediately followed by the scene of a concert – a shot of musicians followed by the audience yawning in unison. It is impossible not to appreciate the subtle break in tension of these moments. And while the visual effect of Gwynplaine’s face is so powerful that it appears to linger on the screen even when the actor is nowhere near the scene portrayed, the strong emotions he evokes are balanced by the the cast of upper class characters who are, on the other hand comic and caricatural (laughable, though never funny). This, of course, also reveals the members of the villanous, manipulative and selfish upper class as the real “freaks” of the story. The greatest challenge of the movie may be posed by the possibly of letting down the expectations of a viewer who is encouraged to watch the film on the strength of a single films till depicting the predecessor of Batman’s antagonist, the Joker. However, the film is not at all dated. Leni’s command of atmosphere and mood is so skillful that the film actually comes across as a classy melodrama rather than a freaky gothic exploitation movie. The Man Who Laughs could easily be recommended to a viewer not used to watching silent movies. It feels absolutely contemporary. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine it working with sound: what is more spontanously joyous than laughter, and what is more unnatural than seeing a perennial smile on a face without hearing the familiar sound of laughter? Furthermore, its immortal message surpasses a call of self-acceptance. The romance between Gwyneplaine and Dea is very inspiring. By being each other’s strength, they manage to overpower afflictions that they have no control over. Their love is rebellious against the unfairness of class division (the political) and against predetermined forces they have no control over (the genetic and the spiritual). In one touching sequence, Gwyneplaine has another breakdown as a result of the laughter he provokes from a bullish clown. Dea embraces him and tells him: “it’s wonderful how my Gwynplaine makes people laugh – even when he is sad.” Life is always a matter of perspective.

The greatest challenge of the movie may be posed by the possibility of letting down the expectations of a viewer who is encouraged to watch the film on the strength of a single film still depicting the predecessor of Batman’s antagonist, the Joker. However, the film is not at all dated. Leni’s command of atmosphere and mood is so skillful that his work actually comes across as a classy gothic melodrama rather than a freaky exploitation movie. The Man Who Laughs could easily be recommended to a viewer not used to watching silent movies. It feels absolutely contemporary. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine it working with sound – what is more spontaneously joyous than laughter? And what is more unnatural than seeing a perennial smile on a face without hearing the familiar sound of laughter?

Furthermore, its immortal feelgood message surpasses that of self-acceptance. The romance between Gwyneplain and Dea is very inspiring. By being each other’s strength, they manage to overpower afflictions that they have no control over. Their love is rebellious against the unfairness of class division (the political) and against predetermined forces they have no control over (the genetic and the spiritual). In one touching sequence, Gwyneplain has another breakdown as a result of the laughter he provokes from a bullish crowd. Dea embraces him and tells him: “it’s wonderful how my Gwynplaine makes people laugh – even when he is sad.” Life is always a matter of perspective. – ★★★★★

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS || 1928, USA || Drama || Directed by – Paul Leni / Produced by – Paul Kohner / Screenplay by – J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Mary McLean, Charles E. Whitaker (based on the novel The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo) / Cinematography – Gilbert Warrenton / Edited by – Edward L. Cahn, Maurice Pivar / Starring – Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Brandon Hurst, Olga V. Baklanova, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Samuel de Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell / Running time: 110 mins. (10 reels)

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