Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It's not often that one gets a chance to discover a great silent movie in good condition.
The Man Who Laughs is a superior costume drama with macabre overtones; it's an
excellent example of the artistic silent cinema that was wiped out by the coming of sound. Direction,
design and acting are superb. Conrad Veidt's performance is the equal of Lon Chaney and the film
as a whole much more satisfying than Universal's earlier Hunchback of Notre Dame and
The Phantom of the Opera.
Kino enhances its stable of quality silents with this 1999 Italian reconstruction.
Pulling from European sources, the restorers have pieced together a good-looking version complete
with risqué material not shown in the United States.
When gypsies called Comprachicos are expelled from England, an executed nobleman's
abandoned son, Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr.) is left to the snowdrifts. The Comprachico
doctor Hardquanonne (George Siegmann) is the only one who knows Gwynplaine's royal bloodline: it was
he who surgically carved the boy's face into a permanent grimace as an added punishment for his
Gywnplaine rescues a tiny baby from its dead mother's arms and finds refuge in the caravan of
showman Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Years later, Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) is in love with the now-grown
baby, Dea (Mary Philbin). She's blind and doesn't know of his face, a secret that keeps Gwynplaine
from asking for her hand in marriage. But Hardquanonne has returned to blackmail the inheritor of
Gwynplaine's father's estates, now owned by the dissolute Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova). She toys
with the performing artist, known as 'The Laughing Man', not realizing she may soon lose her property
to him. But the scheming Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) uses Gwynplaine to humble Josiana, by first
having the disfigured actor imprisoned, and then elevated to his proper place in the house of Lords.
But Gwynplaine's appearance draws outrage from the assembly, and he revolts at his new Queen's orders:
marry Duchess Josiana.
Carl Laemmle's brand of Universal Horror really began with this classy costume drama, which gathered
an excellent cross section of talent both European and American for a hybrid German Expressionist
scare picture. Whereas most of Universal's later horror films would be affected by one kind of
compromise or another, The Man Who Laughs received
the benefit of the Studio's absolute faith. There's no need for excuses here.
Laemmle returned once more to a French classic by Victor Hugo, about another
grotesque character struggling for happiness in a historic setting. The notion that roving gypsies
called 'Comprachicos' steal children is combined with a cruel royal punishment to provide an unnatural
plight for young Gwynplaine. His lips have been cut away to leave his face in a permanent open-mouthed
Yet Gwynplaine grows to adulthood as a noble fellow, a performer for the warm-hearted Ursus. The
pathos stems from his doubts about whether he should marry the blind Dea (top-billed Mary Philbin).
She's unaware of his appearance. How can he be sure she loves him for who he is?
The main plot is an exciting swirl of decadence and deceit among the upper classes. Gwynplaine's
existence is an opportunity for court schemers to discredit Duchess Josiana, a wanton noblewoman
who bathes in the nude (a surprising sight in this 1928 film) and entertains herself by being
pawed by 'ruffians' at a public fair. Olga Bacalanova of Freaks plays her with an ample dose of
heavy-breathing sensuality. Her perverse delight at the sight of Gwynplaine is as morbid as anything in
The Man Who Laughs has a good story and acting combined with superior direction that has none
of the creakiness of ordinary silent film fare. Ace director Paul Leni
(Waxworks) knows how to balance
impressive static compositions with dynamic motion. His camera moves with mobs of people at the
public fair, and stays locked in formal rigidity at Queen Anne's court. Camera angles are too
expressive of character emotion and period atmosphere to be merely decorative, as is the case with
much of the earlier Phantom of the Opera.
Conrad Veidt's Gywnplaine is treated by Leni with a strange ambivalence. His appearance is partially
hidden yet never used for shock value. Jack Pierce's makeup consists mainly of a set of slightly
oversized teeth with a wire rig to hold Veidt's mouth in a painful-looking grimace. Just as we think
used to it, another disturbing angle comes along. It's not as extreme as the frightening face of
Mr. Sardonicus, a film clearly
inspired by this one. But there's still the creepy disconnect between Veidt's mouth and eyes
to keep us off balance. Gwynplaine's eyes go through a range of expressions, but his mouth remains
fixed in a disturbing, Joker-like grin; it's as if the face is saying two things at the same time.
King James said he had this atrocity done to a small boy so that he would spend his life 'laughing' at his
condemned father. The story contrasts a corrupt nobility with the more caring common life, and
the tension between the two worlds is built into Gwynplaine's countenance.
The gimmick of Gwynplaine's disfigured face therefore makes perfect thematic sense. In classic
German Expressionism, physical deformity is a
manifestation of inner complexity, a kind of expressive character shorthand, as with Rotwang's
gloved fist in Metropolis. Like Orlac's hands, Gwynplaine's face is the key to his conflicted
soul. He lives by exploiting his appearance on stage, but his face betrays him at court when his
peers in the House of Lords immediately decide that he's scorning both them and the Queen. Leni
perfectly directs Gwynplaine's moment of exalted self-affirmation, when he rears up against the
assembly and declares himself a man first and a Queen's subject second. It's a great moment.
The story has melodramatic twists that are as fun as anything in Orphans of the
Storm. Gwynplaine is arrested, and Dea & Ursus are banished. Gwynplaine's installation in the
House of Lords is a grand & lavish ceremony that turns into a chase scene. The blind Dea intuits
when her love is near and falls into despondency when she thinks he's dead. Mary Philbin's sincere
offsets the illogic of Dea somehow never finding out about Gwynplaine's face: she intuits minute
emotional problems but doesn't notice anything different about the man she embraces daily. Silent
audiences surely liked the welcome cliché of Gwynplaine's dog coming to the rescue at
opportune moments. He must have been concocted by Victor Hugo for the same reasons that made Rin Tin Tin
so popular. 2
Cesare Gravina gives a hearty performance as Gwynplaine's benefactor, sort of a Gepetto character
who keeps the heart of the film going. The odd family of Ursus, Dea and Gwynplaine is as emotionally
satisfying as anything in D.W. Griffith. Olga Baclanova is a good deal plumper than she is four
years later in Freaks, but she mangages to be convincingly seductive without looking
ridiculous, even 75 years later.
Kino's DVD of The Man Who Laughs comes appointed with extras that give us the history and
context around the film. Bret Wood's informative mini docu relates the film to German Expressionism
and makes a good case for it being the first exemplar of the Universal style that would
soon result in Dracula and Frankenstein. Writer/historian Wood pitches his arguments for
the film perfectly; it's a rare thing when a film scholar shows such good documentary instincts.
An insert essay by John Soister adds to the
historical detail, including the sad fact that the great director Leni died of blood poisoning only a
year later. Home movies show 'Connie' Veidt at home with his daughter Kiki and guests Emil Jannings
and Greta Garbo. There's a text section with the concluding chapter of Hugo's book (it ends rather
differently) and large galleries of stills and ad materials. Finally, a comparison feature shows us
how the domestic and export versions of the film differed, especially in Olga Baclanova's racy
The picture quality is good, almost always steady and sharp, and with only fleeting bits of damage.
The restoration is from Italy, and the master here may be a converted PAL transfer as the blurring
and motion artifacts can be a bit distracting. At 110 minutes, the film speed looks correct; the
movie is synchronized with its Universal part-sound audio track that includes carefully cued music,
sound effects and crowd walla - and also a pop song near the ending. The studio involvement is
signalled by an additional Uni logo next to Kino's on the DVD case; the cover illustration by Vince
Evans should be made into a poster.
Kino's dedication to silent film raises one's hopes that more legendary masterpieces will surface
on DVD. The European restorers in Germany and Italy have done us a great service, and I hope the
success of these Region One DVDs will encourage new versions of other great pictures presently viewable only
in poor quality. Tops on Savant's wish list? Pabst's Pandora's Box, a powerful film that
looks radiant in stills, but drab in contrasty 16mm prints.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Man Who Laughs rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Docu, home movies, stills & ads, version comparison, novel excerpt
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 30, 2003
1. I suppose the gypsies are
Spanish in origin, as 'comprachicos' literally means 'purchase children'.
2. The dog's name is Homo, which makes for some inadvertently bizarre
intertitles. I guess this proves that in 1928 'homo' wasn't a common slur - or does it?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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