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.