Early on in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, the surgically perma-grinning Gwynplaine looks at his dressing-room mirror. A one-time son of English royalty who as a boy was turned into a carnie freakshow by political enemies, Gwynplaine spends his time as a travelling performer whose wide crescent smile sends the great unwashed into tizzies of both horror and, eventually, delight. As he looks at himself in the mirror, he is struck with the hollow ghastliness of his life, and his face sags into a visage of misery, with the exception of his continued grin. A moment of bravura acting by Conrad Veidt (already famous for his portrayal of Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it is topped by a wonderful cinematic grace note when Gwynplaine closes the doors of the mirror and finds them ironically painted with the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy. Whether it was because Lon Chaney had recently signed a contract at MGM and was unavailable for work at Universal, or because the movie mogul Carl Laemmle had a great eye for German expressionism, The Man Who Laughs took the Universal “super jewel” series of gothic horror to new and unparalleled heights in cinematic intelligence. Like many a German expressionist nightmare, The Man Who Laughs (based on a novel by Victor Hugo) is a collision of non-complementary angles and framing that confuses as often as it elucidates. At the same time—and unlike Caligari or Leni’s own Waxworks—it is also remarkably clean in its delineation of action. In the same manner that Veidt is both the film’s central monster as well as its main source of pathos (all but laying out the blueprint for James Whale’s Frankenstein), the film’s fascination with bric-a-brac and its tendency toward spare, minimalist compositions is evidence of a stylistic schism. This obsessive dualism that runs throughout the film also informs the love triangle between Gwynplaine, his blind co-star girlfriend Dea (the Madonna, played by Phantom of the Opera‘s Mary Philbin) and the Duchess (Ms. Ciccone lookalike Ogla Baclanova, whose most famous role would come a few years later as the ill-fated femme fatale of Tod Browning’s Freaks). It’s a little off-putting (and probably also a function of Laemmle’s insistence that The Man Who Laughs rival Phantom‘s phenomenal box-office success) that all superfluous characters basically adhere faithfully to one of two sides of the classic good-evil dichotomy, but even that framework could be taken as a critique on Leni’s part of Hollywood’s psychologically limiting archetypes. Conrad Veidt’s terrifying grin masks the horror of having one’s looks be objectified at the expense of their humanity.
- Universal Pictures
- 110 min
- Paul Leni
- J. Grubb Alexander
- Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst, Julius Molnar Jr., Sam De Grasse, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes
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