Man Who Laughs
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In an effort to top the critical and financial success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, studio head Carl Laemmle recruited two influential artists of the German Expressionist school: actor Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and director Paul Leni (Waxworks). The shadowy exteriors, the carnival setting, the demonically misshapen "hero" made The Man Who Laughs something entirely new to American cinema-the foundation upon which the classic Universal horror films would be built. Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, a nobleman's son who is kidnapped by a political enemy, and then is mutilated by a gypsy "surgeon" who carves a monstrous smile upon his face. Finding shelter in a traveling freakshow, he falls in love with a blind girl (The Phantom Of the Opera's Mary Philbin), the one person who cannot be repulsed by his appearance. As years pass, the hand of fate draws Gwynplaine back into the world of political intrigue. He becomes the plaything of a jaded duchess (Freaks' Olga Baclanova), and his enemies renew their efforts to control him.
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Regarded as the most sparkling jewel of Universal Studios' silent canon, The Man Who Laughs was directed by the great Paul Leni, a key figure in German Expressionist cinema, and it is directed with the grace of a master. Leni tells it like a tragedy. Leni makes you never want to smile again, not unless you really mean it. As much as I like directors like Lang and Dreyer, I feel that most of their most interesting and emotional work came after the addition of sound, whereas filmmakers like Pabst, Leni, and Murnau were true silent film virtuosos who understood the language in which the era communicated itself in better than most and never quite made a film in the sound era as monumental as their silent masterworks. Some didn't live to see the light of sound. Leni never made a sound picture. Which is shame. Leni was an incredible master of film, what he would have done with the sound technology is unimaginable. His final film, The Last Warning, is telling of a director aching to get his hands dirty. Paul Leni does not usually receive proper acclaim for his contributions to early cinema. Those reservations are usually reserved for those who went on to make interesting sound pictures, like Lang or Dreyer. It's unfair. Leni is a goddamn pillar of the Silent Era, without the films of Paul Leni, German Expressionism never would have matured into a coherent platform for displaying real human emotion. The Man Who Laughs is the most mature and adult film in the Expressionist canon. It is also one of the best.
Conrad Veidt is a marvel in the film. He was born to play Gwynplaine the Smiling Clown, and I believe I was born to watch to him play it. But alas, Veidt was not Universal Mogul Carl Laemmle's first choice. Originally Lon Chaney was locked for the role, but wasn't too wowed my the material and bowed out. Lon Chaney made a splash in 1923 with another Victor Hugo screen adaptation, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, and Chaney felt the material was far too similar for his liking. Nothing against the man of a thousand faces, but thank heavens Chaney dropped the ball! Veidt delivers one of the most harrowing and affecting performances ever seen. He is both horrifying and pitiful, a monster and a victim, a smile and a gasp. It is commonly known that Bob Kane drew inspiration for the legendary comic book villain the Joker from Veidt's appearance in the film. But I think he also took some of Veidt's manic hysteria with him as well. When you watch him on stage, you forget you're watching a movie altogether. Suddenly... suddenly you're watching an artist.
Conran Veidt is wonderful in this story of love and disfigurement. Mary Philbin is still her ethereal self, but is a capable performer.
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