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|
|Conrad Veidt as Lord Clancharlie|
|Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin|
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.
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|
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...|
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.