Old Movies: The Man Who Laughs

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Halloween is closing in, so it’s time for our old movies column to take a look at the spooky side of silent cinema with The Man Who Laughs. 

Tis the season for all things horror! Now that October has rolled around, lots of us are looking towards the dark heart of cinema. As the dark draws in, we delight in these devilish depictions and gravitate towards more ghoulish tales. Rejoice, for October is the season for all things spooky.

So, with that in mind, I am going to go in a completely different direction this week and talk about a film that is much misaligned as a horror film. With the recent release of the (definite) horror film Smile, I thought I’d look into the ghoulish grinning great – The Man Who Laughs.

Directed by German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni and based on a book by Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs (1928) is a silent film that plays more as a moody melodrama than a scary outing. Still, there’s a Gothic pathology weaved into the story and the chilling famed imagery does stick in the mind.

The Man Who Laughs sees Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine. As a young boy, our poor eponymous hero was disfigured at a young age by the King. After saving a blind baby from freezing to death, Gwynplaine is adopted by Ursus, who runs a travelling circus. His facial scarring makes Gwynplaine a side-show attraction but as he grows into a man, he has grown weary of all the mockery. The baby he saved has grown into a young woman named Dea and the pair fall in love. But a fiendish plot by a conniving Duchess sees Gwynplaine and Dea thrown into dangerous circumstances. Can our lovers survive such schemes, and battle against a world that sees them as less than?

Leni’s film is a sentimental romance as well as a political commentary. At the time of its release, it received poor reviews but has since become one of most celebrated tales of prejudice and pain. Following the success of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, studios were keen for an equal romp and used Hugo’s lesser received novel as inspiration. Leni weaved a tale that was less a frightful film and more satire of the brutish elite. The crowds in their swathes – both poor and rich – came in droves to mock, showing that no class is indeed better than the other.

In the heart of this story is Gwynplaine and Dea, a love that starts strong and only continues throughout as they battle the powers that be. Actress Mary Philbin was not adverse to stories of this kind, having previously starred alongside Lon Chaney in The Phantom Of The Opera (1925). She’s sweet and tender as Dea, and is an alluring presence.

What is most impressive about The Man Who Laughs is Veidt’s performance as Gwynplaine. The man has, essentially, one expression to work with – the garish grin that plagues his characters entire life. It makes your cheeks ache just staring at it. But Veidt’s brilliantly expressive eyes showcase an entire emotional story. From pain to anger to fear, Veidt captures Gwynplaine’s troubled and anguished existence as well as his enduring love for Dea.

Leni’s direction is admirable and absolutely gorgeous in places, especially when it comes to conveying the madness of the mob. One particular moment haunts – when the Duchess is watching our hero from the balcony. The director makes these moments claustrophobic and damning, feeling as torturous as it would be to Gwynplaine.

The Man Who Laughs isn’t necessarily a horror, and whilst Veidt is captivating, it does circle the same idea over and over again. This repetition does wane the attention before it is grasped again thanks to the swashbuckling finale. Leni’s artistic direction and the performances keep it together. There is also great support by Olga Baclanova as the fiendish Duchess. Baclanova played a similarly scheming character in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).

Plus, whilst it may not be a horror, The Man Who Laughs did inspire one of comics greatest villains – The Joker. So perhaps this week, you should pair Smile with The Man Who Laugh. My cheeks ache just thinking about it.

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