Archive for The Man Who Laughs


Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 9, 2010 by dcairns



I don’t think it’s that likely that this is direct influence, but it’s certainly striking. We know all about the influence of the German expressionists on Hitchcock, but I hadn’t heard of him influencing them!

Put On A Happy Face

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on October 9, 2010 by dcairns

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.

Laughing on the Outside

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2010 by dcairns

The late Fergus Gwynplaine MacIntyre, science fiction author and human enigma, died by his own hand last month. To give you an idea of his mysterious character, I should mention that nobody seems to know his real name (he took the name Gwynplaine from Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, or from Paul Leni’s film) or biographical details. The story he gives below, sometimes augmented with a claim to have webbed fingers and three ex-wives, gives you some idea of the doubt his life story encourages. All that’s known for certain is that his overstuffed Brooklyn apartment was set fire to, apparently by the man himself, and his body lies unclaimed.

One account which has sprung up has FGM jogging naked around his block, swathed in nitrate stock (attempting to stop its decomposition with his body sweat), resulting in his spontaneous human combustion when he got home (meeting a homeless man in the street he is supposed to have said, “They’re weeping, just like me.”) I strongly suspect that this is a poetic addition to the MacIntyre legend, continuing his mythomaniac lifestyle choice into the beyond.

Among FGM’s fictional activities was a project to review nearly every lost film on the IMDb, using historical research and vague claims of mysterious contacts with hidden film archives to shore up credence. The author also saw many real, surviving rare films, and used reviews of these to add plausibility to his lost film reviews. Incidentally, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED is described in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies as a lost film — it turned up, fortunately, after the book was published. Reading of its missing status as a child gave me a chill, and prompted a lifelong fascinating with the rogue fragments of film history still lurking undiscovered or lost to time.

Anyway, here’s the first of FGM’s emails to me, written after I asked him about an obsure (but not lost) William Wyler movie.

Greetings to David Cairns from Fergus (F. Gwynplaine) MacIntyre, whom you contacted about William Wyler’s film ‘A House Divided’. When I saw the name ‘Cairns’ in my email box, I thought I was getting an email from someone in Queensland, Australia. I used to live in a Queensland town called Cairns, where the chief attraction is the Sexchange Hotel. This is an hotel in the Australian sense of the term — an outback pub/trading post/meeting place — that was originally cried the Exchange Hotel, only some clever-clot climbed onto the roof and added an ‘S’. This proved to be good for business, and the Sexchange Hotel has been open for business ever since.

‘A House Divided’ is a very impressive film: a fine example of Wyler’s direction as well as Walter Huston’s acting. The early scenes strongly reminded me of several Lon Chaney films — the sort of scenario in which Chaney usually appeared, not the very few freak-show stories for which he’s remembered — so when Huston’s character became crippled in exactly the same manner as Chaney’s character in ‘West of Zanzibar’, I was gobsmacked. As I mentioned in my review, Huston had played Chaney’s ‘West of Zanzibar’ role before and after Chaney did it. (In the stage play ‘Kongo’ and the sound-film remake.)

Since this conversation, I’ve obtained a copy of the film and even watched it this week. Everything FGM says is true, but he neglects to mention the film’s most striking quality: Douglass Montgomery and Helen Chandler as the world’s most perfectly matched screen couple.

I’ve seen ‘A House Divided’ only once: in 2002 (the centenary of Wyler’s birth), Film Forum in New York City scheduled a Wyler retrospective, at which ‘A House Divided’ was shown for one day only, in a double feature with ‘Tom Brown of Culver’. An acquaintance of mine, Bob Lipton, attended the same screening that I attended, and he reviewed this film for IMDb a month earlier than I did.

The programmer at Film Forum is named Bruce Goldstein. (We’ve chatted a few times, and he knows me by face, but he probably won’t remember my name so there’s no point your mentioning me.) I have no specific contact information for him. He probably obtained his print of ‘A House Divided’ from a film archive on a rental basis.

Another person whom you might contact is Arne Andersen, and in this case you are welcome to mention my name. Three people have reviewed ‘A House Divided’ for IMDb: myself and Bob Lipton after attending the same screening, and Arne Andersen. Arne and I correspond via email: he told me that he saw ‘A House Divided’ earlier this year — not at the Film Forum screening — so he would know a source that I do not. However, I can’t guarantee that his source will make prints available to individual viewers.

Good luck! William Wyler is a sorely underrated director, and ‘A House Divided’ deserves to be much better known!

Thank you, David, for reading my IMDb reviews. I am, of course, *not* an employee of IMDb, and they don’t pay me for my reviews. I’m a full-time journalist and novelist. If you log onto and go to their Books section, then key a search for my by-line “F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre”, you’ll see the covers of two books that I wrote and illustrated. One of these is my Victorian horror/romance novel ‘The Woman Between the Worlds’, featuring Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley, GB Shaw, WB Yeats, Arthur Machen, Sir William Crookes and several other eminent Victorians united to aid an invisible she-alien during an invasion of London by alien shape-changers. This novel got rave reviews from Harlan Ellison on his Stateside cable-tv show. I’m also the author and illustrator of a humour anthology which was praised by Ray Bradbury and other authors: ‘MacIntyre’s Improbable Bestiary’, likewise available on Amazon, which contains some original material about Lon Chaney and silent films.

To whet your appetite, here’s the cover (my artwork and typography) of my anthology:


Feel free to contact me on any subject that interests you, David.

Straight on till mourning,

Fergus (F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre)

In a somewhat whimsical mood, I emailed Mr MacIntyre last week, saying I hoped he wasn’t dead, but the email bounced back: account closed.


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