Saturday, 22 November 2014

What’s so funny? The Man Who Laughs (1928)

 An American film about seventeenth century England, based on a French novel, starring one extraordinary German and directed by another, The Man Who Laughs is a truly international picture. Made at the peak of silent film technique it features a rudimentary soundtrack – in Movietone – and represents a Hollywood high-point of expressionist unease from Paul Leni, the man who directed Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary.

The boy is abandoned
It says much for contemporary sensibilities that audiences were attracted to the dark disturb of this tale. Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplaine a man scarred for life from childhood by a group of travellers led by Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann) who specialised in cosmetic disfigurement in order to create oddities suitable for circus performers. In this case, and following on neatly from Nell Gwyn and Charles II, the latter’s brother and successor James II (Samuel de Grasse ) has ordered the mutilation as revenge on the boy’s father who has displeased him. The father, Lord Clancharlie, is mercilessly squished in the Iron Lady and the boy’s face will forever be locked in an horrific grin… laughing at his father’s betrayal.

Conrad Veidt as Lord Clancharlie
Honestly, it’s five minutes in and you’re wondering whether to bail out whilst the going’s so bad… but the film’s style and substance begins to work its uncanny rhythm and hope emerges as the boy, cast adrift even from his tormentors, rescues a blind baby from the bitter cold and finds sanctuary with an itinerant circus performer called Ursus (Cesare Gravina) who lives in a caravan with his pet wolf Homo (Zimbo the Dog!). Now that’s a modern family!

Cesare Gravina
The years pass and naturally Gwynplaine’s clown-face has made him the most popular clown in town – people just can’t help but laugh when they see his hysterical smile but, in spite of the gadgetry and painful false teeth he wore, Veidt’s eyes give so much more away: pain but also something more, his love for blonde, beautiful and blind Dea (Mary Philbin) who loves him back. But she has never seen his disfigurement nor felt his smile… Gwynplaine cannot believe that she would still love him if she knew what he actually looked like.

Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin
Oh but there’s more… Gwynplaine’s father’s land and property was handed over to the family who betrayed him in the belief that he would never be seen again - he has an inheritance and a peerage he knows nothing about.  The beneficiary is one Duchess Josiana (Olga Baklanova – so good in von Sternberg’s Docks of New York and on fire in this film) who leads a life of carefree debauchery and expressive bathing as a servant’s key-hole view of her bathroom reveals…

Olga Baklanova
The troop travel to entertain the court of Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) who has succeeded twisted James II and rules with firm Stuart authority aided by the Machiavellian Lord Dirry-Moir (Stuart Holmes).  As their weird play proceeds the crowd breaks into hysterics and yet Duchess Josiana cannot decide whether to laugh or lust… there’s something more deeply intriguing about Gwynplaine’s unrelenting grin.

She orders the clown to be brought to her chambers sending him a note from the woman who did not laugh – an inversion of the film’s title: is she to be his nemesis? For his part Gwynplaine reasons that if the Duchess can fancy him in spite of his disfigurement then Dea may also… so he travels with hope in his heart.

Brandon Hurst
Meanwhile… the Queen’s aid, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), has found out that Gwynplaine is the rightful owner of the Duchess’ land: for her to retain her title and property she will need to marry him. The Queen orders his capture and immediate ennoblement.

Back in the Duchess’ boudoir, her advances have more than convinced Gwynplaine that he has appeal but his experiment over he rushes back to find Dea leaving  his noble partner confused and rather let down: not the behaviour of a gentleman…

Back in Ursus’ caravan Gwynplaine lets Dea feel the contours of his face for the first time and, in spite of her instinctive recoil on feeling the strange outlines she smiles already knowing all she need to love this man. And this would have been a happy ending were it not for the convolutions of Victor Hugo’s original plot and the relentless machinations of the Stuart state.

A guard arrives to escort Gwynplaine to the Queen’s castle… Usrus fears for the worse and the Queen’s men leave him with as clear an impression of the wrong idea as they can. The next day he and Dea are told that there man is dead and that they must leave England for good.

At the same time, Gwynplaine is dressed in ermine and fur and paraded into the House of Lords… where he will be ordered to marry the Duchess by Queen Anne herself.

No spoilers…
All looks bad for the course of true love - can Gwynplaine escape from his new found wealth and position, refuse his Queen’s instruction and go in search of Dea? Knowing Victor Hugo you’d have to say not but this is Hollywood and the unexpected is always possible if not probable.

The Man Who Laughs was completed in 1927 and waited almost a full year for the addition of its rudimentary soundtrack which, to modern ears, adds little to the suspenseful story-telling of Leni and his crew but that's business.

Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt
Mary Philbin doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves for her supporting roles to men with unusual faces, she’s as good here as I’ve seen her and has a real rapport with the remarkable Conrad Veidt. Veidt himself was an amazing physical actor who conveys so much subtle thought process even with his face half covered in that perma-grin.

The support is also excellent especially from the incredibly expressive Cesare Gravina, Brandon Hurst who oozes comic malevolence and Olga Baklanova who's very naughty throughout - were you watching William Hays?!

Olga "burns through the screen" as one reviewer exclaimed at the time...
Leni directs with gothic style and economy even confronted with the challenge of transposing Hugo’s long-form exposition into a digestible 100 minutes. He is very ably supported by head cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton and Laughs is a very good-looking film given the grim strangeness of the Veidt grin.

I watched the Kino DVD which comes complete with the soundtrack – music from William Axt , Sam Perry and Ernö Rapée along with the odd synchronised found sound and baying crowd noise… it’ll never catch on! It's available direct as part of their American Silent Horror collection and you can still find copies on Amazon.


  1. This is one of my favourites - it's quite Hollywood but it's so well-done. Well-structured plot.
    In this, Baclanova has always struck me as a dead ringer for Madonna!

    1. She does look like Madge! She tears through her scenes with abandon - pre-pre-code! I also like Brandon Hurst's performance and he plays well alongside her.

      What would Paul Leni have gone on to achieve if he hadn't passed on in 1929?