Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Man Who Laughs

With so much talk about Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” (2008), it seemed the time to re-visit what many people consider the inspiration for the Joker, Conrad Veidt’s indelible portrayal of Gwynplaine in “The Man Who Laughs” (1928).

Was the Joker based on Gwynplaine? Certainly not the character, as Gwynplaine is a highly sympathetic character. But the look of The Joker can be traced back to Conrad Veidt, as Batman creator Bob Kane admitted in interviews. The Joker was first introduced in Batman comics in 1940, and I can easily see how someone seeing “The Man Who Laughs” at a young age could have been left with an indelible impression.

Based on a novel by Victor Hugo, “The Man Who Laughs” is a rousing melodrama in the best sense. Visually stunning in the way so many silent films are just before talkies took over, “The Man Who Laughs” even today can grip audiences with its visual style, lavish sets, dramatic storyline and its unforgettable main character Gwynplaine. Universal spent almost a million dollars on this production, a huge cash outlay in 1928 dollars, and every penny is on the screen.

The roots of the famous Universal horror film can be found here. Jack Pierce, famed make up man who gave us Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Kharis the Mummy and so many others, provides the haunting look of Gwynplaine.

Set in England during the reign of James II, James has one of his court enemies, a baron, abducted and killed. His only heir, a son, is kidnapped and sold to a group of gypsies known as comprachios, who mutilate and disfigure children, thus forcing them to toil as carnival workers and freaks.

The boy, known as Gwynplaine, has his mouth carved into a permanent, ear to ear smile. His is abandoned to die in a winter storm by the gypsies. While trudging through the snow, he comes across a dead woman with an infant in her arms. He takes the baby and eventually they take shelter with a carnival philosopher, the kindly Ursus and his dog Homo. The infant girl grows up to be the lovely Dea (Mary Philbin, leading lady to Lon Chaney in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). Dea is blind but grows to love the gentle nature of Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), known throughout the countryside as the greatest carnival clown of all, The Man Who Laughs.

The carnival scenes are marvelously cinematic, with the camera traveling up and down and sideways in motion with the primitive ferris wheels and merry go rounds. At one of the carnival stops is the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a woman with a decidedly perverse sexual streak. She is equal parts attracted and repulsed by Gwynplaine and wants him for her bed. The scenes of her caressing and kissing the eternally grinning Gwynplaine are pretty unnerving.

Veidt is a wonder in these scenes. Because it’s a silent movie there’s no dialogue, and because the lower half of his face is paralyzed, his acting is all body language and eyes. The look in his eyes as Josiana comes closer and closer is a mixture of fear and wonderment. Of course she’s just in it for the cheap thrill it gives her.

The Russian actress Olga Baclanova is best known for her role in Tod Browning’s classic horror film “Freaks” (1932), where she again causes all sorts of mayhem. In this film, she looks eerily like Madonna in several scenes.

More royal intrigue follows, and there’s plenty of good scenes of debauchery in the English court. In one scene a nobleman practically tears Josiana’s top off, and she just laughs it off. Gwynplaine is identified as the heir to the barony, so Josiana is told she needs to marry him to help claim the estate. What was a passing thrill is now something more permanent.

The innocent Gwynplaine is now a pawn in the royal court’s skullduggery. There’s an exciting climax complete with a last minute rescue by Homo the faithful dog. I don’t know if the climax comes from Hugo, or if the Rin Tin Tin influence was strong at Universal.

“The Man Who Laughs” was directed by Paul Leni, who died much, much too soon in 1929 of blood poisoning. On the basis of this and the hugely enjoyable old dark house mystery “The Cat and the Canary” (1927), Leni would have given us some marvelously entertaining horror and mystery films. He has a unique eye, heavy with German expressionism. I love the scenes of the hanging men swinging from the gallows, set amidst the snow and wind. Haunting and unforgettable.

Leni also directed one of my Holy Grails of missing films, “The Chinese Parrot” (1927), a silent Charlie Chan film starring Sojin, so memorable as the villain in Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924). Based on his silent melodramas, I bet “The Chinese Parrot” is a real corker.

The DVD version of “The Man Who Laughs” on the Kino label is glorious to behold. Being a super production of 1928, just a year after “The Jazz Singer” but before talking pictures were the norm, Universal put a primitive soundtrack on the film with a music score and crowd noises. The drawback of the film is the contemporary song “When Love Comes Stealing” which is sung over several scenes. Even in 1928, movie producers were looking for a hit song from a movie to boost the box office. It comes off more than a little corny.

But that’s a small criticism about an otherwise sterling production. Anyone curious about silent films but are hesitant to get their feet wet would do well to start with “The Man Who Laughs.” It’s a winner in every way.

Rating for “The Man Who Laughs”: Three and a half stars.

No comments: