The Man Who Laughs - 1928
Based on the novel of the same name written by Victor Hugo
Directed by Paul Leni
Conrad Veidt (as Lord Clancharlie and his son Gwynplaine, The Laughing Man)
Mary Philbin (as Dea, the blind girl)
Olga Baclanova (as Duchess Josiana)
Premiere: New York November 4, 1928
Few movies seem to have struck Mr. Doctor's spirit more than The Man Who Laughs, a 1928 melodrama which was filmed exactly during the transition between silent and spoken cinema and is an odd but charming mixture of both. Devil Doll enthusiasts surely remember that a shot from The Man Who Laughs was put by THE MAN among the stalls of ELIOGABALUS' crazy theatre and another shot from the movie had appeared on THE GIRL WHO WAS DEATH's inlay card. But the biggest "tribute" from Mr. Doctor to The Man Who Laughs came with the release of DIES IRAE which included a majestic re-working of a theme (originally composed by William Axt) which can be heard in the film climax. The motif (which is very short in The Man Who Laughs and soon evolves into a completely different melody) is given a new life by Mr. Doctor (DIES IRAE: track 1, 1:30"/ 2:44") and is divided in three parts: the first led by English Horn, the second for String Orchestra, while the final one is an explosive march for full Orchestra and Group which ends the record's "overture" and leads to DIES IRAE's first words "Oyez! Oyez!! This Is A Gala Evening!". It is quite obvious by now that our section dedicated to "The world of Mr. Doctor" must include a short analysis of The Man Who Laughs!
The film's main actors need no introduction as they are well-known to most Devil Doll experts via their performances on other Devil Doll-related movies:
Conrad VEIDT had been the somnambulist Cesare in Robert Wiene's expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1919), Mary PHILBIN, the unforgettable Christine who unmasked Lon Chaney sr. in 1925 definitive version of The Phantom Of The Opera, and Olga BACLANOVA would later offer her perverse beauty to Cleopatra, the victim of the revenge of the Freaks in Tod Browning's "cursed" movie of the same name (1932).
The Man Who Laughs is directed by Paul LENI, who had directed the expressionist semi-masterpiece Wachsfigurenkabinett/Waxworks (1924: which put together the three brightest stars of German silent movies: Conrad Veidt, Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss) before re-locating to Hollywood and making the best spoof-horror movie ever : The Cat And The Canary (1927). Leni would die in 1929, just one year after The Man Who Laughs, by blood poisoning: he was only 44 years old.
Although Philbin and Baclanova are truly excellent in their roles, the real highlight of the movie is Conrad Veidt, whose blinding virtuosity and in-born charisma eclipse everything and everybody else: Gwynplaine's grin [when still a child his mouth had been carved into a permanent smile as a punishment to his father] allows him to express emotions only through his (Mr. Doctor-esque) EYES. In a 1929 interview Veidt says: "To play Gwynplaine was the dream of my boyhood. I have been fascinated by this character ever since I read Victor Hugo's novel in high school. One has to feel pity for Gwynplaine, as he is mutilated, but the result of that mutilation ? the laughing, grotesque face ? looks funny. For a film actor, that presents an artistic challenge that could hardly be more complicated. So what did I have left as my main means of communication? The eyes!". Well, Veidt gives such a deep performance of pure poetry, his eyes simply: TALK!: that words and other facial movements are superfluous.
Equally unforgettable is the wandering of the child Gwynplaine in the snow and his coming across the body of a woman, frozen to death in her attempt to shield her infant daughter. Wonderfully photographed by cameraman Gilbert Warrenton, the sequence has an otherworldly atmosphere which must be seen to be believed.
Despite slow action, a few dull scenes and a (stereo)typical-Hollywood happy ending, The Man Who Laughs is guaranteed to remain permanently engraved in the heart of any viewer and is another must-see to anybody interested in detecting the world of Mr. Doctor!.
-Jane and Francis-
Click here to see and hear the original part Mr.Doctor re-made for Dies Irae
Publicity still for The Man Who Laughs, this is the original of the image used for the inlay card for "The Girl Who Was Death"