The Man Who Laughs
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After Universal Pictures hit the jackpot with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), they encouraged producer Carl Laemmle to create a worthy follow up in the gothic horror vein. Laemmle decided to film Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs, but who would direct and star?

Being of German ancestry, Laemmle had connections with the fatherland, which gave him an inside track when negotiating with some of Germany's finest filmmakers and actors. Laemmle had seen director Paul Leni's Waxworks (1926) and was impressed with the movie's marvelous sets, ominous stylistics, and dark sense of horror. Laemmle thought Leni would be the ideal choice to accept the challenge of crafting the next installment in Universal's burgeoning stable of horrific dramas. In addition, Laemmle pursued Conrad Veidt to star. Leni and Veidt had already worked together in Waxworks. In addition, Veidt had starred in the classic of German expressionism The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).

Universal lavished over $1,000,000 on The Man Who Laughs (a tremendous sum in 1928), and you see the result of that generous budget, and director Paul Leni's genius, in virtually every frame of the movie. This is a stunning movie -- one of the great Hollywood dramas of the silent era.

Conrad Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, a disfigured man with a wide grin forever stretched across his face. He is featured in a carnival sideshow, where large audiences laugh heartily at his on-stage antics. In the prologue, we learn how Gwynplaine came to be disfigured: it was revenge for his father's rebellion against King James. As a boy, Gwynplaine was captured by the King's henchmen and handed over to the Comprachios, a band of gypsies notorious for kidnapping children and operating on their faces to create horrible disfigurements -- and thus potential carnival sideshow attractions. After the boy is callously left behind by the Comprachios during a winter storm, he wanders across the land, finding a baby clutched in the arms of its frozen mother. Gwynplaine takes the baby and shields it from the elements. Eventually, he finds someone who will help him -- a self-billed "philosopher" in a carnival, who pronounces that the girl baby is blind. As adults, Gwynplaine and the girl (now named Dea) are boyfriend and girlfriend. She, of course, can't see his disfigurement and instead senses his kind, gentle character. Everything is fine (well ... tolerable enough anyway) in their world until Queen Anne learns that an heir of Lord Clancharlie (Gwynplaine's father) survives -- which throws the Duchess Josiana's wealth into question. Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) takes muted pleasure in this fact, for the Duchess's wanton behavior has been a source of embarrassment and irritation. Therefore Gwynplaine is pulled into this squabble among royalty.

On the surface the film bears some resemblance to The Phantom of the Opera -- principally through the central role of disfigurement. In addition, Mary Philbin, who found cinematic immortality as the woman who rips the mask off of Lon Chaney's Phantom, takes the starring role opposite Conrad Veidt as Dea, the blind girl.

Initially, reaction to The Man Who Laughs was mediocre, with some critics complaining about the morbidity of the subject matter and others complaining about the Germanic influenced sets that are supposed to evoke 17th century England. In the ensuing decades, however, the movie's reputation has steadily climbed. Frequently, it was difficult to view. While Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula films have scarcely been out of print on home video, and almost always available for theatrical rental, The Man Who Laughs has only recently become available -- thanks to Kino On Video, which has arranged with Universal to release a restored version on DVD. This version utilizes film elements from both an English print and an Italian print that have been restored by Cineteca del Commune di Bologna. In addition, the original 1928 orchestral score has been remastered by Universal Studios to remove pops and scratches and enhance the aural clarity. (The soundtrack also contains synchronized sound effects.) This is likely the best The Man Who Laughs has looked since its original release in America.

I was taken by surprise by The Man Who Laughs. I knew it only by reputation and from several tantalizing stills of Conrad Veidt (with makeup courtesy of Jack Pierce -- his first job at Universal). So when I popped Kino's disc into my DVD player I was watching the movie for the first time -- and I was totally captivated. This is one of the all-time great silent movies. With incredible sets (that prefigure Universal's fondness for Germanic design in the Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolf Man films) and atmospheric cinematography (the camera dips low, peers through windows, and prowls down hallways), this is the kind of movie that makes you understand why so many filmmakers bemoaned the coming sound revolution as the end of an art form. This is one of the most visually rich movies ever made. (In contrast, it would take the better part of a decade before the sound era camera would become free to move and provide the variety of visuals provided by Leni's camera.) And the visuals in The Man Who Laughs aren't just eye candy. Take, for example, the sequence where Queen Anne sits at a music recital. Members of the royal family and court dutifully listen, sitting rigidly as they yawn and feign interest. However, Duchess Josiana's chair is empty. Where is she? Leni contrasts the music recital scene with the events at Southwark Fair -- which is a commotion of activity with people laughing, a ferris wheel spinning, and people merrily flocking to sideshows. There is little doubt where Leni's sympathies lie. (We see the Duchess at the fair, where she allows drunken commoners to paw her. They practically rip away her bodice!) In another example, during the movie's prologue, King James is roused from his sleep, by the court jester, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), who tells him Lord Clancharlie has been captured. The jester leads the King through a secret door and into a hallway where the jester prances beside the mincing gait of the King. Leni drops his camera low to emphasize their delight, and then contrasts their behavior with the horrendous tortures they then order in the following scene.

The Man Who Laughs is very nearly a masterpiece. It's flawed by the unfortunate inclusion of a song during a romantic interlude between Gwynplaine and Dea. Much like Hollywood studios of today inject musical interludes to accommodate soundtrack sales, studios of the late '20s and '30s frequently forced songs upon movies in order to bolster sheet music sales. Unfortunately, the song "When Love Comes Stealing" belabors the obvious to the nth degree. Leni undoubtedly had nothing to do with the song's inclusion. His choices for the movie's visual texture aren't entirely above reproach. Many critics have complained that this is the most German looking film ever to have been set in England. But I love the movie's audacious visuals -- such as the magnificent row of life-size statues that line the King's chambers and the horrendous gallows from which the King's enemies hang. (Their bodies twist in the harsh blasts of winter winds.) And I love Leni's attraction to the debauchery of the royal family. In one scene, the jester (now promoted to the King's advisor) convinces a courier to turn over a letter meant for the Duchess (played by Olga Baclanova of Freaks) by leading the courier to her bathroom door and allowing him to peer through a keyhole as the Duchess cavorts in a bathtub. (Leni provides several seconds of fleeting nudity through the keyhole.) Immediately afterwards the duchess gives the advisor a peek into her boudoir as she opens her towel and grins lasciviously while he drops low and peers into her nether regions. Most importantly, however, Leni focuses upon the Duchess's perverse attraction to Gwynplaine. His deformity provides her with a thrill, and in a telling scene, she orders him brought to her parlor -- where she squirms in delight before him. (Here, Baclanova looks much more beautiful than she would just four years later in Freaks. She looks sort of like pop star Madonna.)

Kino's disc comes with several extras, including a 20-minute documentary on the making of the film (produced by Bret Wood), home movie footage of Conrad Veidt and fellow European emigres Greta Garbo and Emil Jannings, and lengthy collections of stills and production materials. In addition, the disc includes an excerpt from the final pages of Victor Hugo's novel (which is shockingly melodramatic).

The digital video transfer is generally fine. The best known surviving positive elements have been used. But by no means is this a pristine print. You'll see many specks of dust and even a few fibers/hairs accumulating at the lower edges of the frame. In addition, at one point, an untranslated Italian title card slips through. So while Kino has provided an excellent DVD edition of The Man Who Laughs, there is still room for improving the quality of the transfer (as you might expect if the Criterion Collection, for example, were to get hold of the film elements).

Overall, this is one of the year's best DVD releases. Kino is to be commended for making this gem from the silent era available on home video. Now, The Man Who Laughs can be appreciated as one of the classic gothic dramas of the '20s and a formative influence on Universal's horror films of the '30s.

The Man Who Laughs is now available on DVD from Kino on Video. The disc includes several extras, including an original 20-minute documentary about The Man Who Laughs; rare footage of Conrad Veidt at home with his family, as well as fellow European emigres Great Garbo, Emil Jannings, and Camilla Horn; a gallery of stills and a gallery of publicity materials; and an excerpt from the final pages of Victor Hugo's original novel. Suggested retail price: $29.95. The Man Who Laughs is also available on VHS for $24.95. For more information, check out the Kino International Web site.


Above photo: Conrad Veidt stars as Gwynplaine and Olga Baclanova stars as Duchess Josiana in The Man Who Laughs. (Photo courtesy of Kino International.)