The Sunday Intertitle: An Unwanted Child

Thanks, Flicker Alley! THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, restored. From Paul Leni’s last, remarkable year of filmmaking, along with THE LAST WARNING, before his untimely death.

Always knew this would be a gorgeous movie — it’s darker scenes did somewhat survive the accumulated grim of decades, the fuzzing of poor dupes and transfers — all that obfuscatory neglect merging with the cinematography.

Sharpened up, it’s the brighter scenes that really get the benefit, and the film seems hugely more modern.

The happy ending — which one roots for like crazy — still leaves the story feeling a bit trivial. You can tamper with Victor Hugo up to a point — nearly all versions of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME leave the protagonists alive — but Quasi doesn’t get the girl. (Not even in the Disney film: but Disney tries to make his romantic yearning non-tragic, and that cripples the film.) Completely excising the tragedy somewhat destroys the point.

In fact, terrific and hauntingly disturbing as Conrad Veidt’s work is, Julius Molnar, playing the same character as a child, has some of the best stuff.

Checking his credits — he has good roles in OVER THE HILL and NO GREATER GLORY, both of which I saw this year — and turns up in MAN-PROOF, which I just watched, as an office boy.

No wonder I didn’t recall him in it — he comes in the door, hands something over, visible behind Myrna Loy’s right shoulder-pad, and buggers off again, wordlessly.

His last role was as a newsboy — nobody wanted to use him as a grown-up.

A foreground miniature has hanged men dancing on their gibbets like the dolls they are. Charles D. Hall, one of the film’s designers, would go on to do DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE BLACK CAT, THE OLD DARK HOUSE…

Hugo, a highly cinematic writer but also an internal, poetic one, titles the gallows-chapter “A tree of human invention.”

Hugo describes a corpse: “It was that which is no longer.” The kind of sentence you can stare into for quite a long time: an abyss.

To spare the feelings of the audience, Paul Leni and his collaborators omit many of Hugo’s most cinematic touches. When little Gwynplaine finds a dead woman in a snowstorm, Hugo helpfully tells us that her mouth is full of snow. But someone has been crying. Excavating the corpse, he discovers a baby, still alive, which he rescues. Without sound to motivate that action, Leni has to show Molnar simply SEEING, rather than discovering, the infant.

There’s a French bande dessinée adaptation which goes even further. The woman is found dead. But her breast is exposed. On the nipple, a frozen drop of milk. From that milk, Gwynplaine infers, then uncovers, the baby.

Narrative is cause and effect. The more detailed the chain, the more well-reasoned each link, the more effective in a story.

4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: An Unwanted Child”

  1. Always wanted to double bill THE MAN WHO LAUGHS with MR. SARDONICUS. Saw MAN on the Castro’s giant screen at the SF Silent Film Festival earlier this year. Their winter one day marathon features PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with a new score by the Berklee School of Music students who always deliver top notch work.http://www.silentfilm.org/

  2. I would welcome a full Paul Leni retrospective!

  3. Simon Kane Says:

    “but Disney tries to make his romantic yearning non-tragic, and that cripples the film.” Alternate take: It’s one of the few happy endings where the guy doesn’t get the girl (because a girl is not a thing to be got) and that’s incredibly refeshing and healthy and in factalmost unique and to hell with “yearning”.

  4. Yes, it’s different. Healthy, maybe. But if I put it side by side with the 1939 film or the book…

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