Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs; silent drama, USA, 1928; D: Paul Leni, S: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Brandon Hurst, Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova

England, 17th century. Because he refused to kiss the hand of tyrannical king James II, a nobleman is sentenced to death, while his son, Gwynplaine, is punished by having a permanent smile carved on his lips. Gwynplaine escapes and finds a blind baby, Dea, in the snow storm. Ursus takes pity in them and raises them. As grown ups, Gwynplaine performs as "the man who laughs" in the circus, since the audience is amused by his permanent smile. The blind Dea doesn't mind and is in love with him. Duchess Josiana is aroused by Gwynplaine's bizarre face, yet is surprised when Queen Anne finds out he is of noble heritage, and thus demands that he marries Josiana, who is running his late father's estate. Gwynplaine refuses and escapes. He gets reunited with Dea in a sailing ship.

Due to its bitter and pessimistic tone regarding two people who are scared by life, Victor Hugo's novel "The Man Who Laughs" was rarely adapted to the big screens, and thus Paul Leni's eponymous 1928 movie is a brave exception to that rule. Leni stays mostly true to the tone of the dark story, depicting how Gwynplaine, with a carved up, permanent smile on his face, and his blind beloved Dea are two tragic characters living on a thread, grotesquely outcast by cruel society, yet still have the courage to live on. However, overall, not much was achieved out of this premise, since it relies too much on melodrama or banal situations, mostly exhausting itself only on the dilemma that people are angry at the protagonist because he "smiles" during the most inappropriate situations, and is thus flat, rarely truly rising to the occasion. It lacks highlights, and the main tangle is not quite congruent with the first act. Leni depicts the storyline in a straight-forward, albeit standard manner, whereas the most was achieved out of the main actor, Conrad Veidt, who manages to retain his smile throughout the film, even during situations when he is obviously hurt, making his expressionistic persona allegedly an inspiration for "Batman's" Joker.


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