DVD: Man Who Laughs, The (1928)

March 17, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Very Good

Label:  KINO

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  September 30, 2003

Genre:  Silent / Melodrama / Romance

Synopsis: Disfigured as a child, a clown falls for a corrupt duchess and discovers his noble lineage to an executed marquise.

Special Features:  Featurette: “The Story Behind the Man Who Laughs” (14:30) / “At Home with Conrad Veidt”  excerpt from “Die Filmstadt Hollywood” (3:00) / Excerpt of the Italian version (4:30) / Excerpt of Hugo’s novel / About the Restoration / Photo Gallery / Promotional Gallery




Cited as a strong influence on Universal’s expressionistic horror films of the 1930s, The Man Who Laughs was the first major film version of Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel that told the truly horrible tale of a disfigured child adopted by a small-time circus owner, and years later, becomes a celebrity of sorts when his disfigurement enthralls locals, unaware the ever-smiling clown is the victim of cruel revenge dating back to his noble father.

It’s also a very pre-Code film, and still startles for the overt sexuality that simmers between disfigured clown Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) and skank Duchess Josiana (Freaks star and striking Madonna clone Olga Baclanova), the temptress who admits to being drawn to his mystique and surreal grin.

The elaborate tale begins with a slight prologue in which a royal jester and all-around scumbag Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) awakening King James II (Sam De Grasse) from his deep sleep to preside over the execution of political rival Lord Clancharlie (also played by Veidt), who’s told by the king that his son’s been disfigured by criminals known as comprachicos. King James grins when Clancharlie begs for his son’s safety, but his efforts are futile: after he’s told of his son’s mutilation, guards escort Clancharlie to an adjacent (and highly convenient) torture chamber, where he eases himself into an Iron Maiden for a slow demise.

The term comprachicos reportedly refers to 17th century crooks who abducted children and created disfigurement to con people for alms, or after raising them with customized deformities sold the little people to royals for court amusement. Gwynplaine is money to his new owners, but perhaps due to his lineage, he’s shoved aside at the dock and misses the last boat expunging the criminals and their creations from merry England by royal decree.

Left to die in the frozen terrain, the boy finds a dead mother and still alive infant, and takes the little girl (Dea) to the shack of a tawdry showman named Ursus (Cesare Gravina), where he finds a new home. Roughly a decade later Gwynplaine is billed as the Man Who Laughs, and appears in a ‘play’ penned by showmaster Ursus, in which he fights off creatures and saves blind Dea (Mary Philbin).

When Duchess Josiana sees sneaks out from her royal environs to see the new local sideshows, she’s quickly smitten by Gwynplaine, and later attempts to seduce him in a scene that’s far ahead of its time in tone and overt sexual behaviour.

The final act is a complex, over-wrought series of events, missed opportunities, confusions, near-encounters, chases, emotional debasements, treachery, and flight to freedom that is interminable, but orchestrated with such artistry that it’s unbearable for those caught in what’s essentially a romance between a disfigured, decent soul and a blind woman drawn to his gift to elicit laughter and joy from audiences. Josiana’s the foil for the couple’s upcoming nuptials, and worked into the finale is the discovery by the Queen (Josephine Crowell) of Gwynplain ‘s noble lineage and unclaimed estate, an arranged marriage, and the intervention of Josiana’s jilted fiance, Lord Dirry-Moir (Stuart Holmes).

Much has been written about Leni’s extraordinary use of lighting and set design – the German émigré began his career as a set designer before transitioning to directing, making three films with Veidt – but it’s the fine visual nuances that add layers to an already dramatic tale.

Dea remains an innocent – a bit of a cliché – but she’s the antithesis to Duchess Josiana, a bored disgraced, rebellious illegitimate daughter of King James whose sexuality is impossible for men to ignore. When Barkilphedro meets with Josiana, she’s wearing a loose robe, and when he crawls to her for attention, the camera is supposed to suggest he’s tempted by her exposed legs, but the performances and blocking make it clear she’s briefly revealing her nether regions for the little Iago.

Where Dea is starchly innocent and pure at heart, sheltered in her horse-drawn van where she shares a partitioned bedroom with Gwynplaine and a loyal German Shepherd named Homo, Josiana seeks utter pleasure, and much to the ire of the Queen, eschews all her expected royal duties and proper comportment. Fiancé Dirry-Moir suggests she seek out the Laughing Man for kicks, and as she makes her way to the tent, a team of men repeatedly grope her body with little objections from Josiana.

Leni cements her fascination with Gwynplaine by not only having their eyes lock during a performance, but superimposing a medium shot of Josiana that’s framed by a blurred shot of the audience. Leni also intercuts close-ups of the two lovers that emphasize her glazed eyes and heaving bosom, showing Gwynplaine (and us) she’s getting an erotic charge from his performance.

When he takes a secret cab to her boudoir, the two seem to share a mix of curiosity and magnetic attraction. Gwynplaine’s love for angelic, blind Dea is being temporarily superseded by a hunger to have a beautiful seeing woman appreciate him in spite of his disfigurement. As they get close to each other, Leni lets Baclanova play the scene in a long, close-up that has her mouth breathing millimeters from Gwynplain’s covered grin, and to accentuate the cruelty of his actions, he intercuts shots of Dea waking up at night alone, and later seated with the dog, waiting for Gwynplaine’s faithful return.

Leni also incorporates dry humour which largely shows the rich, the privileged and society’s royal guardians as pompous, oversexed, bored asses. Even among themselves, the upper class loathe each other: during the Queen’s royal concert, almost every gilded patron is struggling to remain awake, and Dirry-Moir makes a point of startling a snoozer by jabbing a finger into the man’s snoring maw.

Dirry-Moir is first glimpsed in Josiana’s cameo as an enlarged, bug-eyed fop, resembling a satirical illustration found in MAD magazine cartoons than a royal  mini-portrait – but as played by Stuart Holmes, Dirry-Moir is as dumb-looking as his portrait; like Barkilphedro, however, he’s also savvy and does his best to embarrass Gwynplaine after the Queen decrees Josiana will marry the new marquise instead.

The ludicrously prolonged finale is artful in its cruelty: fans of melodrama will find the denouement masochistically engrossing as more near-misses follow, whereas those less tolerant will feel the whole wrap-up overblown and insufferable.



In Hugo’s original novel, the good lovers die and the dog (a wolf) howls in sadness, but after putting Gwynplaine through so much torment from childhood to adulthood, and being brutally separated from Dea for so long, things have to end on some positive note! So Leni offers a series of cheats: Ursus thinking Gwynplaine is dead but seeing him alive; Dea fainting in a faux death collapse but reawakening as Homo’s bark alters her and Ursus as they’re already departing from the dock; and the dog not only coming to Gwynplaine, but going straight for Barkilphedro’s neck (!) in a lethal bit that has audiences applauding for the audacity of the kill, the sweetness of the revenge; and the final shot that reunites the quartet on a boat headed for what has to be a better place. (In the novel, their intended freedom land is Holland.)

Gwynplaine’s rush to reach the boat harkens back to the film’s early scene as a child in which he’s literally shoved aside and watches the boat leave him to the cold elements; the finale represents a second chance, and there’s no way Gwynplaine will allow himself to miss that boat, hence his repeated near-death encounters before he’s once again embraced by Dea.

Had Leni stuck with Hugo’s ending, audiences would’ve been catatonic by such cruelty, but throughout the drama Leni doesn’t shy away from depicting physical and emotional torment. At the end of the prologue where Clancharlie eases into the iron maiden, we’re still shown a little bit of his ghostly expression as the maiden’s doors are about to close in and impale him.

Gwynplaine’s extreme grin is sparingly shown and is often kept covered, forcing Veidt to use pantomime to display anguish, and tearing eyes to convey he’s in utter hell. Gwynplaine’s worst moment comes during the Josiana seduction scene where the duchess laughs at a letter telling her she must wed him, but Gwynplaine misinterprets her laughter for ridicule and leaves humiliated.

Veidt is very compelling in a roll originally planned for Lon Chaney, after the latter’s iron-clad contract to MGM forced Universal to find a viable substitute. Philbin had previously appeared with Cesare Gravina in Universal’s 1925 blockbuster The Phantom of the Opera, but this is a more precious, innocent creature compared to spunkier heroine Christine who dares to remove the Phantom’s mask in spite of the consequences (and schmonsequences).

In Laughs, the horror is more emotional, but both tales deal with social outcasts forced to find some way to survive in a cruel world: Gwynplaine performs the noble fool for audiences using his very real disfigurement but finds peace from the love of a woman who’s unable to see the horror carved into his face; the masked Phantom is initially protective and tender towards Christine, but nurturing her talent and courting her spirit are junked when jealousy brings up the sadism within his messed up psyche.

As Kino’s short making-of featurette details, Laughs wasn’t designed to be a sound film, but the studio protected its investment by recording a music and slight sound effects track to ensure it was ‘future-proofed’ if the transition to sound became permanent and long-lasting. (A greater example of future-proofing lay in Phantom, which wasn’t just reshot after poor test screenings, but larded with striking 2-colour Technicolor scenes and later upgraded with new sync sound scenes.)

Why Laughs disappeared from circulation is a fresh mystery, but the coordinated restoration yields a complete version snipped together using scenes from English and Italian prints, using the M&E mix as a guide track. One critic called the final results a “Frankenstein” cobbled from extant sources, but it is more than watchable; the only time Italian text appears is during a brief superimposition over a chiming bell near the end, as the footage seemed cleaner than the English counterparts.

With the original restoration 20 years old – and the 2003 DVD now very OOP – this is certainly a film ready for a Blu-ray upgrade. Perhaps like Criterion’s release of Pandora’s Box (1929), Kino might consider the inclusion of multiple music scores, spanning Universal’s music & effects track and newly recorded music in different idioms. (A personal favourite would be Marilyn Lerner’s fine score, as performed Feb. 25th, 2017, at Toronto’s Revue Cinema. An interview with Lerner is also available.)

The DVD’s extras include an excerpt from a rare promo short Die Filmstadt Hollywood (1928) which presents German talent living cozily in the film capital. New English intertitles show Veidt with his wife and son, guests in the pool, and a visiting Greta Garbo (Grand Hotel) playing with son Nicki, plus ‘visiting star’ Dolores Del Rio (Bird of Paradise, Journey Into Fear, Flaming Star). The home of Emil Jannings (Faust: A German Folk Legend, The Way of All Flesh) shows the actor carrying two dogs towards his wife Gussy, rejecting a glass of milk (‘blacch!’ says his face), and playing tennis under the hot California sun. Other stars that appeared in the full version reportedly include director F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, Sunrise) and Charlie Chaplin.

Filling out the extras is a brief excerpt from the prologue of the Italian version; an English translation of the novel’s ending in which Dea’s heart gives out and Gwynplaine drowns himself to be with his beloved; and further details on the restoration. Two galleries are packed with production stills and original p.r. material, and a making-of featurette provides needed backstory on the film’s production, and Leni’s seven collaborations with Veidt, of which this was their last. Both talents would die shockingly young: Leni at 44 from a tooth infection after completing The Last Warning (1929), and Veidt at 50 of a heart attack. The actor would leave a substantive filmography in silent (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Indian Tomb, Waxworks) and sound films (F.P.1, The Thief of Bagdad, and Casablanca).

Co-star Philbin would make a quartet of films before retiring from acting, and exotic Baclanova appeared in several sound films but made few appearances after 1936. To horror fans Baclanova is best remembered as the vain temptress in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) whose shocking transformation closes the film.

Victor Hugo’s novel has been adapted several times, including a 1966 Italian production, a French 1971 TV production and a 2012 film.



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan



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