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The Man Who Laughs (Classic Movie Series #2)

This is the second entry in my ongoing series on Classics. For other reviews of classic movies, click here.

One of the most influential moments in early filmmaking must have been the moment Paul Leni decided to move from Germany, home of the great Expressionists, to Hollywood. Leni, who was known at home primarily for his set design and art direction, would direct only a few films for Universal in Hollywood before his tragic death, but those films would leave an indelible print on what became known as “Universal Horror.” These are the movies you think of when you think old, campy, scary movies — “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” and “The Mummy” and “Werewolf in London.” In a way, Paul Leni’s “The Man Who Laughs” is the father of them all. (on a barely related note, It’s also the father of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker.)

What Leni did was to take the art of German Expressionism – the lighting that obscures more than it illuminates, the bizarre sets that instill a feeling of vertigo, the nightmarish feeling of the whole thing — and apply it to genre films, namely, horror films. Those early Expressionist films, by folks like FW Murnau and Fritz Lang were clearly, purposefully, sometimes pretentiously Art with a capital A. They are chock full of symbolism and subtext. Leni took the same methods, and made Entertainment. Sometimes he kept the symbolism and subtext — read on, and you’ll see that I find plenty of it in “The Man Who Laughs” — but his focus was creeping people out. And he was good at it.

“The Man Who Laughs,” based on a little known novel by Victor Hugo, is the story of a man, named Gwynplaine, whose face was cut up by gypsies (Comprachicos, to be exact,) when he was a child. He cannot stop smiling. His lips never meet. Pure at heart, he is a clown in a travelling sideshow — until the Queen of England discovers he is of noble blood, and attempts to make him a Lord, and to marry a Lady.

Leni takes this story and makes a parable out of it through the use of his camera. Gwynplaine is the disfigured one, but almost everyone who steps in front of the camera appears grotesque, ugly, and in some unidentifiable way, disfigured. Gwynplaine becomes our hero because it is easy to identify exactly what is wrong with his face. Everyone else is… unsettling.

The first twelve minutes are absolutely horrifying. We witness the death of Gwynplaine’s father, at the hands of a sadistic king and grotesque court jester named Barkilphedro. Then the poor boy with the disfigured face is abandoned by the Comprachicos, and there is a chilling scene of him wandering in the snow, stumbling past rows of hanging corpses and finding a mother and child. The mother has frozen to death. Gwynplaine rescues the child. Then he stumbles upon Ursus the philosopher, and the soft music starts.

Cut to the children grown up, still in the care of Ursus, who is a travelling performer. The child in the snow has become blind Dea, a vision of purity in blonde tresses. Dressed in a flowing white gown, she is an angel. Gwynplaineand Dea are in love, but Gwynplaine feels unlovable. How can Dea love him if she cannot see his horrible face?

There is a parable about love here – some deeper truths. Gwynplaine cannot accept the love of Dea because she hasn’t seen his ugliness. He asks her, “You would marry me, then Dea, without seeing me?” It is incomprehensible. To love someone is to accept them with full knowledge of just how ugly they are. Ignorance is no way out. Gwynplaine knows about his ugliness, so he feels he can only be truly loved by someone who knows it with him. Love is about dealing with ugliness.

Then we are introduced to the Duchess Josiana. She is a perfect foil to Dea – both blonde, both beautiful, but Josiana is tawdry and bold. Her opening scene is incredibly risque, and reminds us that this was filmed before the 1930 production code. How long would it be before you would see this much skin onscreen? And it is uncanny how much Olga Baclanova looks like Madonna, 30 years before the singer was even born.

The Duchess Josiana sees Gwynplaine at a carnival, and is intrigued — or aroused – by his disfigurement. She sends him a note, inviting him to a tryst. Gwynplaine sees it as a way to find out if he is worthy of Dea’s love; if a woman who can see him can love him, he is lovable. Thus “The Man Who Laughs” takes what is really it’s first misstep. Gwynplaine’s dilemma may be easy enough to understand, but his solution is beyond belief. To leave the one you love for another in order to find out if you’re really worthy of the one you love? Give me a break.

It becomes clear in the bedroom scene (which is a masterpiece of disturbed sexuality) that Lady Josianna, and the whole world, are not laughing at Gwynplaine because he is disfigured, but because he isn’t — because he is so innocent, pure and naive in such a world of beasts and intrigue. And now we see what this movie really is going to be about. Only a man of incredible, unbelievable naivete would think that going to visit another woman would prove his love for Dea. But this is exactly who we must believe Gwynplaine to be: he is beyond a good man – he is a pure man in the most impure of worlds. The crowds are full of beasts and bawdy women; the courts full of crows and cronies. Only Gwynplaine and Dea are pure and innocent. They don’t belong in this world.

Inevitably, Gwynplaine gets sucked into this world, and his purity must be tested. I’m not talking about the bedroom scene, but about what follows. The court discovers his is of noble blood, and tries to make a nobleman out of him. When Gwynplaine is taken to the court, his concern – and that of Ursa — is that Dea never find out. According to the plot, this is because they think he is being taken to prison. But if we look a little deeper, we see that it is because Gwynplaine is becoming a part of the impure world. It is not until he utterly rejects the aristocrats and their world that he has any hope of being reunited with Dea.

As far as the plot goes, things get pretty implausible at this point. Why would you throw a guy in prison one day if you meant to make him a Peer of England the next? And why would you tell the only family he’s got he’s dead – and then banish them from England? Won’t his first act as a man of power be to bring his loved ones near to him? And when that’s not possible, to punish those who made it impossible? And then there’s a dog as smart as Lassie (and a killer too!) and a daring escape, and a swordfight… yeah. The film really unravel in its last reel. I don’t think Paul Leni really knew what to do with Gwynplaine once he got him into the court. Or maybe it’s the fault of Hugo – seems like his strength was always setting up the big scene, and his weakness was delivering the big scene. Naturally, the movie has a happy, if unsatisfying, ending; Gwynplaine and Dea, together again, the world behind them, love before them. Naturally.

But don’t let the bad ending deter you from enjoying this film. There is plenty here to like, and plenty to ponder. Paul Leni, mainly through photography, lighting, and makeup, makes a point about the depravity and disfigurement of the whole world, and uses a literally disfigured man as his foil. It’s a genius move, and a movie worth seeing.

Is it great” because it’s important? Yes. “The Man Who Laughs” influenced a whole generation of horror flicks, and marks the transition from German Expressionism to Universal Horror.

Is it great because it’s fun to watch? Mostly. Some parts are awfully cheesy and it’s hard to swallow the overacting that carried over from Expressionist works, but the storyline has depth and insight and that makes it a memorable movie experience.

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