If one is to have an association with The Man Who Laughs it is probably due to Conrad Veidt’s freakish appearance enduring in popular memory as one of the dominant visual images to inspire the appearance of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s The Joker. Still, all pop-culture connections aside, Paul Leni’s evocative film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s story should also be remembered as an effective piece of ghoulish drama from the silent era. It is an early testament to the power not only of its leading man, but also to the dramatic impact that other aspects of the film craft (such as make-up, music and lighting) can have on enhancing the quality of the entire production.
Laughs tells the sometimes grim, sometimes joyous, and sometimes macabre story of Vedit’s Gwynplaine, the son of a nobleman whose obstinate rebuff of King James II earns him a date with the bodacious babe of all torture devices, The Iron Maiden. Poor Gwynplaine is not spared the ire of the wrathful King either, and his father’s impetuous actions result with him being placed under the knife of Gypsy child-kidnappers and subsequently having to live a life of adversity where he struggles to overcome his disfigurement in the face of society’s curiosity and ridicule.
This early section of the film (the one which charts Gwynplaine’s disfigurement and displacement) is spectacularly done and is loaded with stark, expressionistic images captured beautifully by cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton‘s lens (who is a long way from his final film Operation Bikini). Warrenton and Leni are able to accomplish something truly startling in these early sequences by setting a brutal tone for the world their characters operate in. Consider a sequence early on where a young Gwynplaine runs hopelessly through the snow drifts after being abandoned by his gypsy tormentors. Towering above him are the horrific silhouettes of emaciated corpses – hung from their necks and flapping in the wind.
With such searing imagery, the film immediately establishes a fiendish level of melodramatic power and creates a world defined by cruelty, fear and hyperbole which, while initially hypnotic, unfortunately becomes somewhat abrasive as the film goes on. As the story progresses Gwynplaine grows into adulthood and falls in with a traveling circus troop where he is accepted and loved. However, it isn’t long before various political forces begin to pull Gwynplaine from his surrogate family and back into the aristocratic world responsible for ruining him as a boy.
It is in this part of the film, which focuses on the wearisome political posturing of the English aristocracy and its attempt to captialize and manipulate Gwynplaine, where problems with the film’s pacing arise. You certainly feel the story’s length (which clocks in at over two hours) in certain segments, particularly the part of the story where Gwynplaine’s friends believe him to be dead (which stops the film cold). Also, the film attempts to build a palpable sense of romantic weight through its exploration of Gwynplaine’s relationship with a fellow member of the circus troop – the blind Dea, who is played with a hardly surprising sense of pastoral angelicness by Mary Philbin.
While it might have been perhaps more affecting at a certain time, this riff on the classic Beauty and the Beast arc now feels rather stale. The film’s saving grace on the acting circut comes from Olga Baclanova (who’s also scary good in Tod Browning’s Freaks) as the Duchess Josiana and of course Veidt as Gwynplaine whose poignant and nuanced performance stands in sharp contrast to the over-the-top acting style one typically sees in silent film.
Final Verdict: The Man Who Laughs is a stylish and powerful film which features some excellent performances and a sublime aesthetic which highlights the instrumental role of make-up (Vedit’s make-up, especially in the scene included above, stands as one of cinema’s most iconic images) and sound design (Leni utilizes music and sound effects carefully to enhance the character’s emotional states and imbue the final chase scene with scope and tension). Still, the film gets bogged down in its second and third act through drawn-out sequences that do little for the plot and a romantic relationship that in 2012 feels like an exasperating retread. These minor quibbles aside, The Man Who Laughs is a film that deserves to be seen. It is a good, albeit occasionally tiring, slice of gothic melodrama.