The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs (1928) movie poster

(1928) dir. Paul Leni
viewed: 07/12/08 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Silent film has become an increasing interest for me, as anyone who might read this may have assumed, or anyone who has spoken with me probably knows.  So, I was excited by the coming of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which ran all weekend at the Castro Theatre and showed many excellent films, restored and adored.  This was actually the most films I have seen for the festival, though I have now attended for the past 3 years.  For Saturday night, I had the double feature of The Man Who Laughs and the Lon Chaney/Tod Browning film, The Unknown (1927), a good paired billing of the bizarre and melodramatic.

For The Man Who Laughs, I’d mostly been familiar with the freakish grimace/grin and the look of star Conrad Veidt, whose physical appearance and image most notably inspired the character and design of the Batman nemesis, The Joker.  It’s almost a straight-up rip-off physically.  But, being unfamiliar with the Victor Hugo story from which the film was adapted, nor really even the content of the narrative, I had assumed that the character was a villain.  While I couldn’t have been more wrong, it ties right into the truly strange effect the make-up and visage of Veidt’s character, Gwynplaine, has in his freakish joker face, hiding the gentle, noble soul beneath the surface.

The film has a bizarre enough beginning.  King Henry II of England and his evil court jester, Barkilphedro, kill a noble who has opposed the king and send his son to the “comprachicos”, a fictionalized band of gypsies who steal children, mutilate them through surgery or other means to turn them into circus freaks, to do with what they will.  Gwynplaine is then abandoned by the comprachicos, but now and for the rest of his days to wear a grotesque, humongous smile.

But Gwynplaine is noble, rescues a blind baby from its dead mother and is taken in by a traveller who raises them and utilizes Gwynplaine at “the man who laughs”, a sideshow freak, and a very popular one.  The story’s intrigue develops as his true heritage is made known to the Queen of England and others, and the evils and machinations of the royalty and priveledged nearly destroys our hero and his life and that of his beloved.

Directed by Paul Leni, the film has a wonderful aesthetic and art design.  Conrad Veidt is brilliant as the permanently grimacing “clown”, adding a working pathos and truly appealing sympathy.  While the film in many ways is a societal critique, its bases in the darker corners of culture and the appeal of gruesomeness is strange and perhaps somewhat sublime.  The film is quite brilliant, a strange and wonderful darkness, sadness, and beauty.

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