Put On A Happy Face

Showed Paul Leni’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS to students — not absolutely sure what they made of it, they were mostly kind of quiet afterwards — but I certainly enjoyed it. The imagery crowded my head for hours, like a dark carnival.

All accompanied by the lovely crackly MovieTone score, which recycles the seduction theme from SUNRISE and God knows what all else. The attempts at sound effects, produced with whistling wind-sheets and bells, are somewhat primitive, which is fine, but sometimes a little intrusive, which is less fine. The decision to accompany Conrad Veidt’s first love scene with Mary Philbin (from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) with bangers, whistles and random rhubarbing from offscreen to simulate all the fun of Southwark Fayre, was perhaps a mistake.

I may have mentioned that Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies lists this one as “lost”, which it was, for years. A very happy rediscovery: Ray Bradbury, who was moved by it as a kid, saw it again  and proclaimed, “The damn thing still works.”

I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel, and in fact I’ve never even seen a translation of it, which is crazy because he and it obviously used to be very popular in the English-speaking world. Anyhow, I bet everyone dies in the end. In the movie, this being Hollywood, everyone lives, except the evil jester who is gored by Homo the wolf, then drowned. The happy ending provides a nice symmetry: Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), the man with the permanent smile carved in his face, begins the film by missing a boat out of England, and ends it by catching one, reuniting him with Dea, the blind girl who loves him, Ursus the kindly philosopher, and of course the faithful Homo. (The names are a source of deep joy: Hugo’s idea of credible-but-interesting English names includes “Lord Clancharlie,” “Lord Dirry-Moir,” and “Dr. Hardquanonne.” Plus Homo the Wolf.)

Meanwhile the faithless Duchess (Olga Baclanova from FREAKS) is presumably left to cry into her monkey.

Apart from the pomp and grotesquerie, there’s  the powerful pathos of Veidt’s sensational performance — deprived of his voice by silent cinema, and his facial expressivity by the forced grin, he further reduces his dramatic toolkit by avoiding the precise, eloquent gestures of which we know him to be capable: in moments of strong emotion, Gwynplaine’s hands seem to become as helpless as his smile, twisting into arthritic knots or folding up like flippers. While his tortured eyes gaze from that face as if from within an iron maiden.

13 Responses to “Put On A Happy Face”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    The only problem for the suspension of my disbelief: Veidt doesn’t have a convincing permanent smile carved into his face; his mouth is just stretched out with a giant pair of choppers.

    Otherwise, one of the summits of late silent film.

  2. Oh, I bought the smile. It’s better than Jack Nicholson’s Batman makeup, although admittedly Veidt doesn’t have to talk.

  3. Christopher Says:

    Can’t get over how much Olga Baclanova looks like Madonna in this…I love Mary Philbin in this one..I like the images and music and sound effects in the opening scenes..creates a sort of bizarre artistic tension..I wasn’t expecting it to turn into so much of a romantic melodrama.I enjoyed it more the second time around…Some of the voices in the carnival scene are funny…oooo look it that elephant!”…Can’t imagine a movie like this being funded today..A trio of freaks for the leads..Smiley,Blindy and homo!..the wolf!…I do recall seeing a remake of this in the 60s tho..a foreign dubbed in english i think.

  4. Link doesn’t work!

    Yes, there’s a 1966 Italian movie dubbed into English, with Jean Sorel and Edmund Purdom. They get the Borgias into it somehow too. Sergio Corbucci directed, before he got into his western phase.

  5. The opening scenes of this are so amazing — the king and jester creeping along that cave-like corridor, the iron maiden floating up (who would think of filming an IRON maiden like that?), and the boy wandering through a landscape with gibbets instead of trees. The swashbuckling at the end is a bit of a letdown in comparison, but there’s a completely extraneous moment during the chase on the wharf — someone falls into the water and struggles out of it — when you feel like you’re looking at a Brueghel painting for about two seconds.

    Out of the good supporting cast, I particularly liked Brandon Hurst as Conrad Veidt’s evil doppelganger, a role usually filled by Conrad Veidt.

    I gather that Gwynplaine, at least, does die at the end of the novel. But in this case the Hollywood ending is probably the better one.

  6. One wants him to succeed… It’s even kind of disappointing that James II dies of presumably natural causes in between the prologue and the main story, because you’d like to see him get his comeuppance too. One third year student was very impressed with the way Homo deals with the jester. Just as He Who Gets Slapped draws a connection between the laugh of the clown and the roar of the lion, here we get another kind of smile: when Homo bares his teeth, it’s not in friendship!

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    You’ve guseed right David C. The novel does have an unhappy ending just like the original events behind the climax of THE HEROES OF TELEMARK.

  8. Even more unhappily, the Germans had taken a wrong turn in their atomic researches and weren’t close to developing an A-bomb, making the heroes’ efforts redundant.

    La Reine Margot is the only Hugo adaptation I’ve seen to end with a proper Hugo-style massacre of 90% of the cast.

  9. The URL given by Christopher should work if copied-and-asted into the URI filed, as opposed to attempting to invoke it as a link per se.

    The site in question isn’t allowing deep-linking (absurdly called “hot-linking” by some) by other, unauthorized sites.

    (When a URL won’t work as a link, it’s best to thwart the auto-linkage of a comment system by replacing the initial character with an escape-codde, as here: http://cache4.asset-cache.net/xc/3251574.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=45B0EB3381F7834D14C3DEECAE8AEBC19512E718ED42CDD5E23FEF406871B787 )

  10. Thanks! And there she is.

  11. This is a brilliant and gripping film…but whenever the dog ‘Homo’ came on, my partner and I fell on the floor laughing.

    “Homo! Homo! Come, my brave Homo!” It could be a Stonewall or ACT-UP rally.

  12. My students were terribly well-behaved, I must say. After telling them they might feel the need to laugh at the dog’s name, I cautioned them against the kind of laughter that expresses assumed superiority over the movie, but it may not have even been necessary because they were as good as gold.

  13. david wingrove Says:

    If we’re gay, aren’t we allowed to laugh?

    And surely Conrad Veidt, of all people, was in a position to warn them about the double meaning? According to Christopher Isherwood, he was the guest of honour at Berlin’s annual drag ball!

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