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The Man Who LaughsThe Man Who Laughs

(American, 1928, 110 minutes, b&w, 16mm, silent)

Directed by Paul Leni

Conrad Veidt . . . . . . . . . . Gwynplaine
Mary Philban . . . . . . . . . . Dea
Olga Baclanova . . . . . . . . . .Duchess Josiana
Josephine Crowell . . . . . . . . . . Queen Anne
George Siegmann . . . . . . . . . . Dr. Hardqucinnone

Live piano accompaniment provided by Mike Schiffer

The silent years in Hollywood witnessed several tragic deaths in the Hollywood film community, deaths whose circumstances were, at best, ambiguous. The brilliant young actor in D.W. Griffith's company, Bobby Harron, was killed in 1920 when a gun he had in a coat pocket went off as he took the coat off. Philandering director William Desmond Taylor was shot to death in 1922 after a quarrel provoked by his liaison with actress Mary Miles Minter. Then there was matinee idol Wallace Reid's 1923 agonized death during morphine withdrawal. In 1924, Thomas Ince died aboard a yacht in a crime involving Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst, and Marion Davies. Rudolph Valentino died of peritonitis in 1926. F.W. Murnau, the German director of the silent masterwork Sunrise, was killed in a bizarre car accident in 1931. Each of these passings was, in the truest sense, untimely, for each signified a theft of a unique talent which the maturing American cinema could ill afford. Each death was a moment of morality fraught with irony and pathos, deaths whose melodrama and mystery made them seem as if they were written by a demented screenwriter.

But perhaps no death in these years was as a great a loss for the aesthetics of the cinema as that of German-born director Paul Leni. Leni died in 1929. His vision was one of the most terrifying and influential in the cinema in his day, and yet now, it is almost a forgotten one.

Leni began his career associated with the influential 1910's German avant-garde journal Der Sturm. A writer and illustrator, Leni found a spiritual home for his dark, fantastic visions in the German film industry of the post-World War I years. Beginning with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1919, the German cinema embarked on a period of narrative and visual experimentation that helped to analyze, if never fully explain, the epochal madness of World War I and the dismaying inhumanity of modern life. Leni's gloomily beautiful worldview found a home in the cinema, and as a production designer, and soon a director, Leni was associated with some of the most characteristic films of the early-to-mid 1920's in Germany. Two of his German films, 1921's Hintertreppe and particularly 1924's Waxworks, remain foundation stones of that weird, canted cinematic structure of the 1920's known as German Expressionism. Waxworks' was a triptych of horror tales, and its horrifying Jack the Ripper story was one of the most starkly disturbing narratives of the Expressionist era. Leni's unique ability to design and direct his own productions made them at once painterly and plastic, and made Leni the very incarnation of the Expressionist auteur. Leni was brought to America by Universal on the strength of Waxworks, and was to be that studio's Murnau, its Fritz Lang, its Ernst Lubitsch, each also recent imports from the German cinema. When he died, Leni had just completed his fourth American film, and was embarked on a career that, like Murnau's, Lang's and Lubitsch's, promised to invigorate the screen. And, for a brief moment, only four films, it did just that. Leni's The Cat and the Canary (1927) was perhaps the most brilliant "old dark house" story mounted on the American screen before Robert Wise's The Haunting, with its Gothic images of vast, empty hallways, their curtains billowing atmospherically, the film's pretty heroine always a glimmer in the unseen eye of the eerie force that follows her down the mansion's dark, grand stairways...

The Cat and the Canary was one of the most popular films of its year, and Leni won critical acclaim as well. He followed it with The Man Who Laughs, a story of mad love nominally set in the reign of James II, but in practice a strange allegory of obsessive love, set in a monarchy of fright and suspense. The Man Who Laughs is the story of the tortured "Gwynplaine," as played by Conrad Veidt, the star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and "Jack the Ripper" in Leni's Waxworks. Gwynplaine, once a peer, is now a famous clown, by virtue of his huge, twisted grin forced on him by his political outspokenness by a jealous king. Gwynplaine's love for the blind "Dea" (Mary Philbin), opens a treacherous pathway out of his bitter celebrity. Leni seems to have designed the production from scratch; the film's set renderings bear the mark of Leni's artistry and endless capacity for invention, and the settings are bizarre, overstuffed, rococo. Over the whole amalgam of fear and desire looms Veidt's excruciating grin, as ghoulish and repulsive as it is entrancing. Along with Sunrise, The Man Who Laughs may be the most unadulterated importation of the Expressionist style ever seen in the American cinema. Sound was coming in, but Leni did not fear the new medium. His first talkie, The Last Warning, another suspense thriller on the order of The Cat and the Canary, showed the same command of the medium he had always had. The great age of the American horror film was dawning at Universal studios; Paul Leni might well have joined the ranks of the genre's first masters, directors Karl Freund, Tod Browning, and James Whale.

But it was not to be. Instead, Paul Leni died suddenly, in September, 1929, at the age of 45. The cause of death was one that Leni himself might have scripted in one of his Expressionist chillers: blood poisoning.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

The following is taken from a review by Stephen D. Smith that appeared in the first issue of Monsterzine (Fall 2000), an online magazine of the horror movie genre:

Based on Victor Hugo’s politically-grounded tragedy, L’Homme Qui Rit, this 1928 film was released with due fanfare and critical praise for the grand spectacle it was. It could truly boast a cast of thousands, as well as a roster of key players led by German actor extraordinaire, Conrad Veidt, who for one rare film was allowed to play not the villain, but the victim, the horribly disfigured Gwynplaine. Mary Philbin, whom genre fans remember as the beautiful ingenue in Lon Chaney’s classic 1925 film, Phantom of the Opera, played the leading lady, Dea, a blind sideshow performer. Produced for Universal, the film was supervised by Carl Laemmle, who had personally invited German director Paul Leni to "come on over" to the U.S. In sharp contrast to his stage-like setting of Universal’s 1927 The Cat and the Canary, his first American film, Leni returned to the rich, gothic, Expressionist style of his German films, most notably Waxworks (1924), which also starred Veidt…. The elaborate sets and multitudes of period-dressed extras fattened the crowd scenes, transforming them into grand and claustrophobic compositions.

The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama focusing on one young man, the tragic Gwynplaine, a boy forced to watch the execution of his father, a 17th century Scottish nobleman (also portrayed by Veidt) who has rebelled against the tyrannical King James II. To avoid more unrest, the King spares the life of the tortured boy, but not before ordering that his face be carved into a permanent smile. In this wounded state, young Gwynplaine is placed in the charge of a band of gypsies who are to take him to exile in France. The motley group abandon him during a severe snowstorm in the French countryside….

Twenty years later, Gwynplaine is known as "The Man Who Laughs," a popular clown. Though the jeers of the crowd pierce his heart, his popularity brings prosperity. He is in love with Dea, the blind sideshow performer, and she with him. While touring in England, Gwynplaine is discovered by the nobility and restored to his proper position, but this is no typical Cinderella story. As in most of Hugo’s work, the hero seldom wins.

Veidt’s acting brings Gwynplaine to life, much more than the make-up designed by Jack Pierce. The overall image provided Batman-cartoonist Bob Kane with the model for his best-known villain, The Joker.

The Man Who Laughs is without doubt one of Leni’s best films. The director unfortunately died the year after it was made at the age of 44 from blood poisoning, leaving us to wonder what he might have accomplished with the medium of sound and the other advances of the 1930s.

The following is excerpted from a biography of director Paul Leni that appears in the British e-zine, Missing Link:

The Man Who Laughs (1928) was an attempt to duplicate the success of Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, the film lacked popular appeal even though a grand music score and synchronized sound effects were added to boost its competitive edge against the fast growing popularity of the "talkies". Universal also added a happy ending and a chase scene to Victor Hugo’s most macabre novel—one that had seen the silver screen before as L’Homme Qui Rit (1909) and as Das Grinsende Gesicht (The Smirking Face) (1921) directed by Julius Herzka in Austria for Olympic Films.

After completion of the film, Conrad Veidt decided to refrain from portraying any more grotesque characters. A remake was reportedly to star Kirk Douglas. However, after tracking down a print of the original and viewing it, Douglas decided it was not as suitable a star vehicle as he had imagined.

The following appeared in a 1999 review by Donato Totaro in the Quebec journal of film criticism, Off Screen:

The Man Who Laughs, though sometimes mentioned as a horror film, is actually an historical-romance costume drama. Its closest ally in this sense is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, also from a novel by Victor Hugo, and a film that it borrows from quite liberally in its use of sets, crowd scenes, and theme of "beauty" (Philbin/Baclanova) and the "beast" (Veidt). The main difference between the two, and where this one has more claim to being a horror film, is that The Hunchback of Notre Dame sticks closer to historical-realist authenticity, while this one, though a period piece, plays the baroque-gothic note more prominently. This is nowhere stronger than in the opening prologue where an evil King Jacques the 2nd (Sam de Grasse) and his henchmen/jester Barkilphedro (played by Brandon Hurst) execute a nobleman (Conrad Veidt) in an iron lady, and then have his young son scarred for life by sending him to the gypsy’s to have his face surgically deformed into a permanent smile ("so he can always remember what a fool his father was").

The prologue contains a series of strikingly expressionistic scenes: An eerie right to left, low angle tracking shot (about 15 seconds) follows the king and jester as they gleefully march toward the torture room. The execution is staged against a stark black background. The [setting] of these and other tortures is seen in the following scene where bodies looking like cardboard cutouts lifelessly swing from gallows; this is followed by a stark winter scene of the scarred boy being left behind on the dock while a ship leaves the port; the boy then rescues a baby girl left behind to die and, as Everson noted in Classics of the Horror Film, a scene of a tomb-like shadow emerging from a prison that recalls the introduction of the vampire up from the hull of the ship in Nosferatu (1922). The film returns to such stark expressionism only near the end… but always remains vivid and exciting in the circus scenes.

It is fascinating to see just how much more sympathy director Paul Leni holds for the circus world/characters than the world of the royal court, whose members are made up and costumed to look either utterly ludicrous or insane. This theme of insanity within royal blood (incest, inbreeding, rape) is quite common in the historical genre. As examples, look no further than Sam Jaffe’s dumbfounded expressions in The Scarlet Empress, the duchess’ son Vladimir in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Pt. 1 and, most recently, The Madness of King George. With such a sympathetic depiction of the underclass circus world, I would hazard a guess that Tod Browning was influenced by The Man Who Laughs for Freaks, which he made four years later and which stars Olga Baclanova as the female lead….

The film is a testament to that wonderful yet brief period between 1926 and 1929 when the American film industry was smitten by all things German, and lured many of its greatest talents across the Atlantic to make remarkable films that blended American technology and resources with Teutonic/expressionist sensibility (The Magician by Rex Ingram, Sunrise and Four Devils by F.W. Murnau, Four Sons and The Hangman’s House by John Ford, The Last Warning and The Cat and the Canary by Paul Leni, Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and The River by Frank Borzage, The Docks of New York by Joseph Von Sternberg, The Third Degree by Michael Curtiz, and The Crowd by King Vidor).

The following is taken from a contemporary review of Victor Hugo’s novel, L’Homme Qui Rit, by critic and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. The review appeared in Appletons’ Journal, July 31, 1869.

The mighty manner of Victor Hugo has given to this ghastly matter something even of a horrible charm—a shocking splendor of effect. The rhythmic horror of the thing penetrates us not with loathing, but with a tragic awe and terror as at… an actual caprice of the night’s, a portion of the tempest of things. So it is always; handle what he may, the touch of a great poet will leave upon it a spell to consume and transmute whatever a weaker touch would leave in it of repulsion.

If the style be overcharged and overshining with bright sharp strokes and points, these are no fireworks of any mechanic's fashion: these are the phosphoric flashes of the sea-fire running on the depth of the limitless and living sea. Enough, that the book is great and heroic, tender and strong; full from end to end of divine and passionate love, of holy and ardent pity for men that suffer wrong at the hands of men; full, not less, of lyric loveliness and lyric force; and I for one am content to be simply glad and grateful: content in that simplicity of spirit to accept it as one more benefit at the hands of the supreme singer now living among us the beautiful and lofty life of one loving the race of men he serves, and of them in all time to be beloved.

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