BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS

By • Apr 16th, 2003 •

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(Kino Video/Universal) 1928
B&W / 110 mins / 1.33:1 aspect ratio

John Soister’s liner notes suggest that any problems with this film lie with interfering studio brass after test screenings gave them wet feet. Even at 110 minutes, it does feel like there’s important footage missing, vital plot elements that we need to see in order to fully embrace the narrative turns.

Nonetheless, this is a remarkably perverse piece of work to come from a major, and the twisted sexual relationship between Olga Baclanova (the Madonna of the ‘20s) and Conrad Veidt’s grotesque title character is a bit mind-boggling. A piece of promotional art in the Supplemental Section asks “Why Do Sexy Women Like Homely Men?” That well-intentioned stab falls far from doing the emotions on display justice.

Taken from a Hugo novel that I hope was based on factual knowledge of a group called the ‘Comprachicos’ who practiced medical mutilation on children with the intent of turning them into circus freaks in maturity – a kind of poor man’s ‘castradi’ – the subject was so distasteful that the author himself changed the setting from France to England. Still it was not embraced on his home soil, and was considered a lesser novel in his cannon. Two hundred years later, Universal’s Carl Laemmle was looking for a suitable followup to his studio’s successful Hugo translation of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, and though not mentioned, I suspect he was looking for a new Lon Chaney as well, and this was the project that evolved.

It took a virtual foreign migration to make it happen: Director Paul Leni fresh from WAXWORKS and THE CAT AND THE CANARY, Conrad Veidt of CABINET OF CALIGARI fame, Veidt’s recommendation of Russian actress Olga Baclanova, and Norwegian actor Albert Gran (who was jettisoned a few weeks into shooting and replaced by Cesare Gravina). The one big American name was Mary Philbin, essential – to Laemmle’s thinking – because of her association with 1925’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. She is the slightest element in the production, but in no way detrimental. Oh yes, there is also ‘Zimbo‘, playing ‘Homo the Wolf’. Talk about a name taking on unintended yok-potential for modern audiences.

Judging what remains of the film elements for such a critique as this, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS appears a more luscious film than either of Universal’s two previous horror classics – HUNCHBACK and PHANTOM. Not more grandiose, nor more memorable, just more sensuously Germanic in its sets and lighting design, and in its directorial style. It’s as much a bizarre tragedy as it is a horror film, and Veidt, wearing the eternal caricature of a Chaplinesque smile, still manages to act up a storm of pathos. He shies away from the camera early on, a canny decision, as if too humiliated to let the lens see him. He uses his hands and his clothing to further camouflage the makeup results (which were so mesmerizing that they were acknowledged to have influenced the creation of The Joker in the Batman comics).

By far the most fortuitous element of the production was the necessity for, and subsequent appearance of, Jack Pierce to create the special makeup, since Chaney – the unrivalled master of the art – wasn’t involved. Pierce, who brilliantly fulfilled the promise of the film’s title, stayed on at Universal – never financially compensated as befit his contributions – and proceeded to design the looks of the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and The Wolfman, among many others. He was as important to the Universal roster of horrors, and to the studio’s ongoing success, as were Karloff, Lugosi, Rains, Price, Chaney Jr., and Acquinetta. Pierce’s name, incidentally, is not even listed in the credits for THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.

Terrific supplementals accompany the main feature. An excerpt from a documentary made at the time, showing German emigre filmmakers relaxing in their adopted land, features Veidt’s bewildered child, Kiki, who stares at the camera, and is unsuccessfully entertained by Greta Garbo.

Kino’s release, another superb silent classic following their METROPOLIS earlier this year, comes from a Cineteca del Comune di Bolgna restoration. The score is the original Movietone soundtrack, including an operatic song which drew mixed reactions at the time, and I’m sure still will. But one of the main themes is quite beautiful, and the score in general is a superior example of the silent era.


Special Features:
20 min doc on making of film. Home movies featuring Conrad Veidt, Greta Garbo, etc. Gallery of phtos and art. Booklet essay. Excerpt of Italian release with hand-painted title cards.

Credits:
Presented by Carl Laemmle.
Directed by Paul Leni.
Screenplay by J. Grubb Alexander, from the novel by Victor Hugo.
Photographed by Gilbert Warrenton.
Makeup Effects by Jack Pierce.
Production Supervisor: Paul Kohner.

Cast:
Conrad Veidt, Olga Baclanova, Mary Philbin, Cesare Gravina.

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