In 17th century England, James II has a rebellious nobleman executed and his young son disinherited. As a sick joke, the boy, Gwynplaine, is given over to a notorious band of gypsies, the Comprachico – who buy and mutilate children to display in their travelling freak shows – and his mouth carved into a permanent, ghastly grin.
The Comprachico are then exiled from England but leave Gwynplaine behind to fend for himself. Wandering in the snow, he rescues a blind baby girl from the arms of a frozen, dead mother, and the two are are taken in by a kindly travelling philosopher, Ursus.
Years later, Gwynplaine and Dea, the girl, are grown up and still living with Ursus in a modestly successful travelling show, with Gwynplaine as their leading clown, “The Man Who Laughs”. The two are in love but Gwynplaine holds back, afraid that Dea would be repelled if she understood his true appearance.
Meanwhile King James’s former jester, the devious Barkilphedro, has learned that Gwynplaine is alive and in England, and schemes to profit from revealing this to the new monarch, Queen Anne.
He has Gwyplaine arrested and later tells Ursus’s company that he is dead….
Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel, and an early entry in Universal Studios’ horror tradition that led from “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1925 to the Dracula/Frankenstein/Wolf Man ‘monster movies’ of the 30s and 40s. “The Man Who Laughs” was directed by Paul Leni, who arrived in Hollywood from Germany in 1926 and tragically died of sepsis in 1929, just as he seemed to be getting into his stride.
This film is unusual in Hollywood horror in that the monstrous-looking character is monstrous in no other way. Gwynplaine is tortured, certainly – doomed to show a grotesque grinning face to a world that only wants to laugh at him, while feeling forced to distance himself from the girl he loves, but unlike, say, Dracula, who is pure evil, or the unhinged Phantom of the Opera (also a Victor Hugo creation, incidentally), he’s a pure, gentle soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly. The horror of this film lies in his isolation from the rest of mankind, portrayed in the form of Stuart England at its most hostile, brutal and capricious – the winters are cold and merciless but at least the executions are summary.
Gwynplaine is played by Conrad Veidt, already a big name in horror from his performance as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Less menacing here, but no less powerful, with the same intense aura of inner torture.
It’s largely forgotten now that during the two or three years that straddled the transition from silent to sound films, many pictures were presented with a synchronised soundtrack – a recorded track of music and, to an extent, sound effects, but no dialogue, and no sound recorded on-set. This was the technique used in the more clunky sound parts of “The Jazz Singer”. It’s a slightly awkward halfway-house between silent and sound pictures, and wasn’t in use long enough for it ever to be mastered. The soundtrack for “The Man who Laughs” is of this type, and it’s a pity really because it’s a great film and deserves better. It’s crying out for a modern orchestral score by Carl Davis – as well as a decent restoration. I watched on Amazon Instant Video, which was watchable but not great.
ALSO FROM 1928:
STEAMBOAT BILL JR: One of Keaton’s last great silent features, but fairly undistinguished for most of its length, until the climactic storm that features the iconic shot of the end of a house falling on Buster, but narrowly missing him because he’s standing under the window.
Since the title of the film was inspired by the song “Steamboat Bill”, itself inspired by a great steamboat race of 1870, it’s easy to imagine that Keaton originally had something very different in mind – perhaps a climactic steamboat race on the scale of “the General” – but had to drop the idea for budget reasons. Certainly most of the plot looks to be building up to something along those lines, and the storm sequence looks a bit tacked-on. Pure speculation, but what a film that could have been.
STEAMBOAT WILLIE: Another sound revolution – not the first sound cartoon but the first to ‘get it’, and integrate images with music to wonderful effect as Mickey Mouse plays the tune ‘Steamboat Bill’ by abusing the anatomies of various farm animals – using a cat as bagpipes, the teeth of a cow as a xylophone and so on. Not a cartoon that would get made today, because of course we’d all be inspired to go right out and do the same thing.
SPEEDY: Harold Lloyd’s silent swan song shows him still at the top of his game as an eternal optimist who can’t hold down a job. A vintage set piece shows him trying to last a day as a cab driver despite an escalating series of mishaps. The de rigeur climatic cross-town chase has him desperately trying to complete a run on New York’s last horsedrawn tramcar to save it from being taken over by unscrupulous developers. In true silent movie tradition, a spectacular, unscripted mishap when the tramcar collides with a pole and loses a wheel is retained in the finished film, and the story adjusted to accommodate it. Also there’s some historic images of Coney Island in the 1920s.
THE CIRCUS: Chaplin’s first film since 1925’s “The Gold Rush” shows him at his best in every respect – expect perhaps for the maudlin theme song on the 1970 soundtrack. It’s the usual setup – tramp falls for girl but inevitably she just sees him as a rather sweet friend. Many sequences are Chaplin at his absolute best – trying to escape from a policeman through the circus fun-house, trying to walk a hire-wire while being harassed by monkeys. The ending is unusually poignant even for Chaplin because of the role the tramp actively plays in his own fate, and for a fleeting moment as he watches the circus depart, his expression of regret and controlled despair is just a little bit more real than usual, and makes one wonder all the more why he never mentioned this film in his autobiography.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC: Director Carl Dreyer enraged his sponsors – who were expecting a spectacular epic – by instead filming the story of Joan of Arc as an intimate courtroom drama consisting almost entirely of close-ups. The result is generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Renee Maria Falconetti’s performance as the strong but terrified Joan is compelling from her first appearance, no less so because you know where it’s going.
THE WIND: Lillian Gish stars in – and produced – this claustrophobic tale of a naive Virginia girl who moves out west to join her rancher cousin’s family and start a new life. Expecting a rural idyll, she instead finds a bleak, sandblasted world of tumbledown shacks, rough cattlemen and the incessant, brutal wind – depicted as a giant, bucking ghost horse in the sky – that threatens to drive her mad… and perhaps does. Another one that’s deserving of a remastered release – in spite of the jarring, studio-sanctioned happy ending. I had to watch a copy made from an 80s off-air VHS recording – but at least it had the superb Carl Davis score.
SHOOTING STARS: British silent films are often dismissed as cheap and clunky compared to the budget of Hollywood and the artistry of Europe, but Anthony Asquith’s first film of many (although A V Bramble is credited as director) shows that wasn’t always the case. Only 26 when he made this, it’s a very assured and polished work. A story of romantic intrigue and jealousy at a film studio, it gives an interesting glimpse into the workings of such a place at that time.