France in the late 1600s, the son of a widowed lord is kidnapped by gypsies, who carve a permanent grin on the child's face. When the deformed boy grows up, he falls in love with a blind ... See full summary »
A producer decides to reopen a theater, that had been closed five years previously when one of the actors was murdered during a performance, by staging a production of the same play with ... See full summary »
Forever disfigured by a wide and mirthless grin on his face, the orphaned son of a nobleman, Gwynplaine, rescues the blind baby-girl, Dea, in cold seventeenth-century England. Taken in by the paternal carnival philosopher, Ursus, the unloved boy grows into a kind and honest man who chooses, however, to hide his grotesque deformity behind a black cloak, utterly convinced that the beautiful Dea will never truly love him because of his horrible secret. Feeling unworthy of Dea's noble feelings, Gwynplaine will soon cross paths with the aristocratic temptress, Duchess Josiana, as a cruel and long-standing conspiracy in the palace of Queen Anne presents him with the burden of choice. Will poor Gwynplaine, the Man who Laughs, renounce everything in the name of love?Written by
Grotesque, Macabre, and Influential Silent Classic
Like most artistic "isms," expressionism is somewhat difficult to define; in general, however, it refers to a style in which the artist is much less interested in capturing external realities than in portraying emotional and psychological states; consequently, expressionism is often fantastic in a visual sense--and when it combined with the darker edges of Germanic folklore it gave rise to a series of classic and near-classic silent films, including THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, NOSFERATU, THE GOLEM, and WAXWORKS.
Over time, the style began to creep into American film. This was most particularly true of films made at Universal Studios, which had major successes with such Gothic-inflected films as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, both of which starred Lon Chaney. Drawn from a minor work by Victor Hugo, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS was first intended as a Chaney vehicle; by the time it began production, however, Chaney had decamped to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer--and Universal assigned Conrad Veidt to the starring role under director Paul Leni. Both men had been deeply involved in the German expressionist movement, and the resulting film was a melodrama so deeply steeped in the grotesque that it came to be regarded as a horror film.
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS concerns a child named Gwynplaine who is caught up in royal intrigue and is deliberately disfigured, his mouth cut into a ghastly, inflexible grin. Abandoned, he rescues an blind infant girl; both are taken in by the kindly Ursus (Cesare Gravina.) Years later, and entirely unaware of his aristocratic origin, Gwynplaine (Veidt) and the beautiful blind maiden Dea (Mary Philbin) are popular carnival actors, appearing in a play written by Ursus--but although he loves Dea, Gwynplaine is deeply humiliated by his eternal grin and feels he can never marry. Ironically, it is not until he is once more caught up in a royal powerplay and recognized as a peer that he realizes the depth of Dea's love.
In some ways the plot is simplistic and occasionally too much so, but the look of the thing is relentlessly fascinating. Director Leni endows his world with grotesque faces, vulgar sexuality, and deliberately twisted visuals--particularly so in the first half of the film, which is greatly famous for the sequence in which the abandoned child stumbles through a snow storm beneath gallows bearing rotting corpses to find the infant Dea. Veidt's hideous grin, an early creation by make up genius Jack Pierce, is remarkably effective; the performances are memorable, and although the second half of the film is excessively predictable the whole thing goes off with a bang.
Although it was hardly a failure, in 1928 THE MAN WHO LAUGHS proved too gruesome for many audiences, and the rise of sound films drove it into a too-rapid obscurity. Even so, it would cast a very long shadow: it is an important link in the chain between German expressionism and the great Hollywood horror classics of the early 1930s. The Kino DVD presents a reasonable but far from flawless transfer of the film, along with several bonus features, most significantly a "making of" documentary that details the film's stylistic importance. Recommended for fans of classic horror.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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