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  Man Who Laughs, The Smile Though Your Heart Is Breaking
Year: 1928
Director: Paul Leni
Stars: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Julius Molnar, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Sam De Grasse, Heorge Siegmann, Josephine Crowell, Karoly Huszar
Genre: Horror, Drama, Romance, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: In the late seventeen-hundreds, King James II has been on the throne overseeing a cruel and despotic reign, where all must kowtow to his demands or face terrible consequences. One nobleman, Lord Clancharlie, refuses to do so and pays the heavy price: his lands seized and himself locked inside an iron maiden to die, though not before he hears the news from the King and his wicked jester that the Lord's son, Gwynplaine, has been given to the worst gypsies so they can perform an operation on the little boy's face to give him a permanent, rictus grin. So it is that the years go by and the boy becomes a man...

There's a lot of nasty pieces of work in this adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel, often en masse, but not, it may surprise some to learn, Gwynplaine himself. The reason they may think he was a baddie was down to the most famous item of trivia associated with the film: star Conrad Veidt's makeup inspired the character of Batman's nemesis The Joker when Bob Kane and Bill Finger concocted him around ten years later. But the source was a good guy throughout, just think of the title character of Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and you get the idea, a heroic soul in the body of a traditionally horror-styled countenance.

Veidt was about as good in his role as Charles Laughton had been as Quasimodo, which was very good indeed, both needing to apply layers of pathos to their readings while not making the part too pathetic to be engaged with. Lon Chaney, who also played the Hunchback, though in the silent, may have been mentioned in that level of achievement as well, and you could well believe that he would have loved to play Gwynplaine given the amount of contorting makeup he would have had to wear, but for whatever reason director Paul Leni recruited his old associate Veidt instead, now they had both moved to Hollywood from Weimar Germany in the nineteen-twenties.

Leni is an intriguing figure, as much, maybe more, for what he did not do than what he did. With a set of horror-inflected pictures under his belt such as the still-influential The Cat and the Canary, he was all geared up to tackle the era of talkies with considerable promise, yet alas, it was not to be, for he fell ill with blood poisoning in 1929 and tragically died while still in his forties. Would he have been the go-to man for the thirties' horror boom? It seems probable, though on this evidence he could have just as easily mastered adventure flicks and historical epics with the same aplomb, and it is undeniably disappointing to know we will never find out, but he did place Veidt, one of the first half of the twentieth century's earliest cult stars, on his way to stardom after a fashion, and we owe him a debt for that as well as his artistic accomplishments.

Back at the plot and those nasty pieces of work, Gwynplaine has to put up with being a figure of fun for his ill fortune, making his living as a clown in a troupe of travelling players, though he has some comfort by being loved by the blind girl he saved as a baby, Mary Philbin (also Chaney's doll-like co-star in The Phantom of the Opera). She didn't get a whole lot to do except patiently appear beatifically kind, but at least she was preferable to Olga Baclanova, in blonde temptress mode as she would be in Freaks a few years later, whose big scene comes as the Duchess of the nation where she realises she has to seduce our hero to marry him and keep her family on the throne, for Gwynplaine is the true heir to the kingdom: the look of disgust that passes on her face as she plants kisses on him sums up the mood of the piece. Yes, it was exciting, especially in the action-packed climax (credit also to Zimbo the Dog as the dashing ally Homo - back when that meant "man"), but what you take away is the mockery, the enthusiastic victimisation and humiliation landed on an unlucky soul from the masses who care nothing for empathy. It's a stirring tale, but also queasily unsettling in its way, hence its not quite apt, though not inaccurate either, categorisation as horror.

[Eureka release this on Blu-ray with the following features:

LIMITED EDITION O CARD (2000 UNITS)
1080p presentation on Blu-ray from Universal's 4K restoration
Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 (stereo) score by the Berklee School of Music
Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 (mono) 1928 movietone score
A brand new interview with author and horror expert Kim Newman
A brand new video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson
Paul Leni and "The Man Who Laughs" featurette on the production of the film
Rare stills gallery
A collector's booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford, and Richard Combs.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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