The Man Who Laughs

Man, it's really humid and gross out right now. I didn't realize this until just a few moments ago, since I was down in my nice, icy-cold basement watching today's movie. I spent most of my day running errands, and everywhere I had to go was over 40 minutes away! Lots of driving, but that meant lots of loud music on the expressway. :)

Today I watched The Man Who Laughs, directed by Paul Leni in 1928. It's a silent movie, but made during the time when sound was just coming into play. It has some little crowd noises and such, but it is pretty typical otherwise. My mom came down during the end of the movie, and at first decided that it looked boring, but ended up sitting and watching the last 20 minutes or so with me. I really like silent film, so I was happy that she gave it a chance -  and when it was over, she said she really enjoyed the parts that she saw.  I definitely think that more people should at least give silent movies a chance, they can be surprisingly fun to watch (well, for me, at least). 

The movie is about Gwynplaine, who was disfigured as a young boy. He face was cut so that he smiles permanently. When he was young, he found a tiny baby girl that he rescued from death, and he brought her to the caravan of the only person nearby - Ursus. Her name is Dea (goddess), and she is blind. They grow up together and travel to fairs and carnivals to make a living, and Gwynplaine profits off of his deformity. Dea loves Gwynplaine, able to focus on his kind, gentle personality instead of his disfigurement. Soon, we start to figure out that Gwynplaine is actually the son of Lord Clancharlie, disfigured as a child because his father committed treason. He is actually the rightful heir to the throne. He is supposed to give up the life he knows and the people who care for him to inherit the throne and a court of people who simply laugh at (and in) his face.

I don't want to spoil the ending, but if you do want to read about it, you can check it out on Wikipedia. It's definitely a little bit of a contrived plot, but it worked really well here. There are of course other movies that focus on "pure" women and men with deformities, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but I really liked this one. I only saw the Phantom with Gerard Butler, where he's mostly just a creeper and not a romantic character at all, so I didn't like that too much. I liked that Gwynplaine was such a good person, and I really felt involved in the romance that he had with Dea. He had a deformity, but certainly was not nearly as creepy as the Phantom. He didn't just sulk around in the shadows, peeping and becoming angry, and I much preferred this story.

The whole tone of the movie is interesting. I actually thought this was a horror movie at first. When I saw Gwynplaine's face and some of the posters for the film, it looked scary. Even IMDB tags it as horror (amongst other tags). Gwynplaine obviously inspired the character of The Joker in Batman, and it's hard to break that association, I guess. Despite my initial thoughts, the movie was definitely not a horror movie - it's a dramatic film, even a romance. It was a little challenging to watch, because I do strongly associate creepy smiling with villains, but once I got to know the character of Gwynplaine, I was able to start putting away my prejudices and actually accept the character for who he is.
This is one of the first posters I saw for this film, which is pretty creepy looking.
I was so impressed by Veidt's acting as Gwynplaine. He covers his mouth for much of the film, so that you can focus on his emotions and expressions. However, even when he does uncover it, you can see his wrinkled forehead or his sad eyes. The contrast between his grin and his expression is really jarring at times. Ebert writes about this as well, saying, "Veidt wore a makeup device that distended his mouth while supplying grotesque teeth. It was horribly uncomfortable, making it even harder for him to project emotions only with his eyes. And yet there are scenes where we sense love, fear, pity and lust..."(Great Movies II, 271). I was really impressed when I learned that he wore an awful, uncomfortable device to create his grin. I couldn't believe how clear and great his expressions were. I felt like I never questioned what the character was feeling - it was always so easy to simply observe, grin or no grin. It was wonderful to be able to see such a talented actor.

I loved this film, but I personally love silent film. I like that there is something...otherworldly about it. It feels so dreamlike to me, and I get so lost in it. I like that you have to actually put in effort to watch the film, not just sit back and fade out. You have to work with silent film a little, and I find it oddly gratifying. I hope that some of you give it a chance and rent it. It's a really great movie, and deserves attention.

Have any of you seen The Man Who Laughs? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Man Who Laughs
Buy it at Amazon

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