No Laughing Matter: Victor Hugo’s Cruel Romance “L’homme qui rit”

March 17, 2018 | By

Back in late February I posted an interview with composer Marilyn Lerner, who performed her improvised score for Paul Leni’s unforgettable 1928 version of Victor Hugo’s emotionally brutal novel L’homme qui rit, aka The Man Who Laughs at the Revue Cinema on Sunday February 25th, 2018.

Hugo’s story of a child scarred with a grotesque smile by criminals, and as a young man, forced to perform as a clown under the pretense of terrifying makeup is already the premise for the perfect horror film, but both Leni’s silent classic and Jean-Pierre Améris 2012 version aren’t horror per se, but social critiques masquerading as horror, romance, and melodrama – quite a bundle, plus a lead character that poses unique challenges given a wrong interpretation could plunge the drama into bathos.


The great Conrad Veidt.


Conrad Veidt was a marvelous actor, gifted with a slender, malleable physique, a knack for pantomime, and above all, fiery eyes that made the long-suffering Gwynplaine a magnetic, sympathetic character. Yes, the extreme grin is horrific – the makeup reportedly inspired the design of Jack Nicholson’s version of The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) – but it’s Veidt’s eyes that keep us glued to the wild drama that takes a clown to the heights of Britain’s House of Lords, and back again to the grimy streets in a finale more prolonged and outrageous than The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal’s previous shocker that also co-starred Mary Philbin as the heroine / ingenue / pure-at-heart love interest.


Conrad Veidt as the magnetic sorcerer in one of my eternal desert island picks, The Thief of Bagdad (1940).


My favourite Veidt performance is still the eeevil sorcerer in The Thief of Bagdad (1940), one of the greatest Technicolor productions. Co-director Michael Powell exploited Veidt’s fiery eyes in magnificent close-ups, perhaps out of directorial instinct, or maybe having seen the powerful way Veidt conveyed Gwynplaine’s suffering almost exclusively through his eyes.

Universal recorded a kind of ‘safely’ audio track on disc that featured music & sound effects but no sync dialogue, just in case talkies would take over the film business, but with intertitles and a reliance on performance, Laughs is still a classic silent which provides a composer with a unique set of characters, circumstances, conflicts, and time period to craft an original score. Marilyn Lerner’s music deserves to be married to the film on a needed Blu-ray release, which hopefully is in Kino’s sights as they gradually remaster their silent film catalogue in HD.

Hugo’s story was remade in 2012, but it’s a very different creature that’s reportedly more faithful to the novel, but does pays homage now and then to the 1928 film. It’s in colour and features a good cast, but director Améris also seemed to borrow a little bit from Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) – or perhaps Burton borrowed a bit from Leni’s film, if not Hugo’s tale of a social outcast struggling to find love and happiness in an alien ‘civilized’ world.

The Revue’s ongoing series of silents + live music continues Sunday March 25 with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 boxing film (!) The Ring, with music by Tania Gill, and I hope to have a podcast interview with composer / performer Jeff Rapsis up by next week, in which we discuss his live performances to silents such as The Golden Clown / Klovnen (1926), which screened at the Revue back in January.

Coming next: the preposterous giallo Eye in the LabyrinthL’occhio nel labirinto (1972) from Code Red and the neo-giallo What the Peeper Saw (1972) from VCI, plus Larry Peerce’s brutal urban terror drama The Incident (1967) from Twilight Time.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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