THE MAN WHO LAUGHS
A muddle raised up as an all-time great because of the power of one simple image. I'm here to tell you it was not enough then and it was not enough now. This is not a good movie, damn it, though it easily could have been and that's even worse.
Directed by Paul Leni
Written by J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, May McLean, Marion Ward, and Charles E. Whittaker (based on the novel by Victor Hugo)
With Conrad Veidt (Baron Gwynplaine Clancharlie), Mary Philbin (Dea), Brandon Hurst (Barkilphedro), Olga Baclanova (Duchess Josiana), Cesare Gravina (Ursus), and Josephine Cowell (Queen Anne Stuart)
The Monsters Mashed series intends to be a look back at the horror cinema of the Before Times.
Spoiler alert: severe
The Man Who Laughs isn't a horror movie, of course, despite its expressionist credentials, a leading man in uncanny makeup, and Roger Ebert's weird, baseless assertion that it "plays" like it is. Instead, it's a sad little period piece, a belle et la bete story, and, God, aren't these all? But Laughs reverses the roles of its belle and its bete, which is a nicer way of saying that it gets them ass-backwards. In theory, it concerns itself primarily with the psychosexual drama unfolding within its scarred hero's equally damaged mind. This probably makes it sound as good as it ought to be.
Laughs is a lot like an especially dark and dour Disney cartoon in its construction, though this is just the easiest and most proximate cultural reference for us: Hugo's novel, Leni's film, and Disney's fantasies all draw from the same well of fable. An even more fabulistic approach would have benefited Laughs, by excising the historically concrete out of its alternate universe; its failure to do so results in a constant dissonance between what I know of Britain circa 1705 and what Laughs thinks it knows of Britain circa 1705. Laughs believes Britain was a place where a man could be executed without trial on the same day he was arrested; that a Lord can't freely walk out of Parliament if he wants; and that Queen Anne (age 40) was a dowdy old absolute monarch with the sanction to have noblemen disappeared off the streets and the power to force peers of the realm into marriage without their consent. There's a reason Disney films usually take place in "Agraba" or "Arendelle" or "the kingdom" (I'm half-sure they even eschew naming Triton's Atlantis), and there's a reason they rarely place themselves in a definite century, let alone an exact decade and its complex, real-world environment. This iteration of the story of the child stripped of his birthright begins during the reign of that obscure and legendary king, James II, whose Wikipedia article is around 7000 words long, not including 158 footnotes.
A rebellious baron has been brought before James. Before sentence is passed upon him, the rebel inquires of his child. The boy, he learns, was sold to the Comprachicos, a band of Gypsies whose penchant for marking their child slaves with surgery is well-attested. (Like any good European fairy tale, and possibly any good Hugo novel, this one is antiziganist.) The nobleman is then dispatched within the embrace of the iron lady. His son will never know him. Years pass, and the fickle Comprachicos abandon the boy in the snow, as well as a dead mother and her barely-alive infant daughter. He rescues the infant, but cannot rescue himself. A sneering old man named Ursus takes pity, and his heart is soon melted when he realizes the baby girl is blind and as for the boy, renamed Gwynplaine... well, under the vile knife of the Comprachicos, Gwynplaine has been transformed into a Tom Cruise.
Ursus may love his urchins, but he's hardly above exploiting their disabilities in order to keep the wheels on their family wagon, using them as players in his traveling show. By the time we catch back up with them, some 20 years hence, Gwynplaine in particular has become a sensation as the man who always seems to be laughing.
And why is this? The easy answer is that humans have a need to feel superior to somebody, but the real answer is that I have no idea. While Gwynplaine is an extraordinary creation, compelling to witness in a narrative film, it has to be said that he is cursed with what may be the single dullest disfigurement in the history of carnival sideshows. We see and hear tell of the other attractions offered by rival showrunners: a pig with two snouts, a cow with five legs, a firebreather, a swordswallower. Yet the crowds cannot get their fill of Gwynplaine. We have to give any film its premise. But the premise of Laughs is that its hero has been scarred and thus suffers from feelings (or perhaps delusions) of both terrible inadequacy and alienation. Its premise is not "slack-jawed yokels are entertained by literally anything that is vaguely unusual." It doesn't help that Ursus' playlets starring Gwynplaine are—let's say—rather lacking in any kind of evident structure or inherent interest.
"You're not funny!" "I want my ha'penny back!" "This isn't better than Shakespeare at all!"
The contrast with The Phantom of the Opera, to which Laughs owes its production budget, could not be more stark; and Lon Chaney's career proves that the technique was there to render something far more grotesque. That they did not suggests a deliberate effort at making Gwynplaine ugly, but not repulsive, and in doing so quite discrediting themselves. (Chaney had been Universal's first choice for the role. Of course, MGM, who owned his soul till his death, laughed in Carl Laemmle's face.)
Paul Leni's vision seems sufficient only when we turn to the recent adaptation, featuring a gorgeous young man in the most delicate Glasgow smile makeup you might imagine, his scars designed so carefully to preserve his beauty that I must assume the 2012 French film is some kind of joke. (Just how no one, and by no one I mean Tim Burton, ever managed to remake Laughs in the 1990s with Johnny Depp is a mystery. Though after a fashion he sort of did—except Edward Scissorhands actually is a great movie. Needless to say, so is Batman, though Gwynplaine's twisted descendant is so removed from the soul of the character that other than the obvious aesthetic debt I don't see any reason to discuss the Joker.)
It's understandable that Gwynplaine is ashamed; we know why it is his custom to wear a scarf. If I couldn't hide my teeth, I'd never leave home without one. It is the image of his mouth covered, I think, more than his methamphetamine smile, that one responds to more; for there's more sadness in it, and you can imagine, as he imagines, that he is far more terrifying than he truly is.
None of this is to deplore the skill with which Conrad Veidt acts around his prosthetics. However, permit me to tip the great actor's pedestal just a little bit: Veidt's triumph is not his communication of deep emotions through his eyes, because that is simply someone doing his job. Veidt's achievement is that he's capable of acting at all with a pair of metal dentures tearing into the flesh of his mouth.
Speaking of acting, Mary Philbin plays blind without resorting to that fake-blindness that terrible actors indulge in, where they imagine the condition as some brand of catatonia. Philbin simply does not look at things, or looks in a slightly wrong direction, and it is refreshingly convincing.
Gwynplaine, however, fails to understand the concept.
So that brings you up to date on the baby girl Gwynplaine rescued: she grew up to be a beautiful blonde who cannot have any informed opinion on his face. (And isn't it funny how few of these beauty and the beast films are about ugly women? Makes you think.) Dea is her name, and she adores Gwynplaine; she would blow him on the spot if he asked, and would marry him if he could only overcome his self-loathing. He gets what he sees as a chance to do exactly that, when the voracious Duchess Josiana beholds his countenance, nurturing into life some kind of bizarre tooth fetish. One of the few credits due Laughs is that Josiana's appetites are not played as evil, only kind of gross and vulgar. Yet it's also clear that she should have been the film's villain, and that the two plot points to follow the first lock of their eyes should have been reversed, for then the necessary contrivances would have been underpinned by something I like to call "character motivation."
You may realize, at this point, less than halfway through the picture, that the authors have delivered a plot about ugliness where the ugly man's dire problem is that every hot woman he meets wants to fuck him. This merely means you've been paying attention. Laughs raises most interesting notions—allegorical hints of sexual dysfunction, questions on the nature of self-confidence, the advisability of reducing a sexual partner to a kink. It then happily abandons these ideas in favor of implausible happenstance. The plot machine creaks into gear when, as Gwynplaine is aggressively fondled in the Duchess' boudoir, Josiana must pause to receive a letter. Informed thus that the weird mountebank she's intent on mounting is the legal owner of the estate she is currently holding, she laughs. Of course she laughs—you'd have to—but Gwynplaine, overlooking the puddle she's sitting in as much as the fact she's obviously seen something amusing in her missive, has the sheer neurosis to assume she's laughing at his face, so he flees back to his caravan and his humorless true love. Ebert reads Gwynplaine's romance with Dea as one of concealment, where she does not know of his affliction, but whether it's remotely possible that Gwynplaine kept the secret of his smile from his co-star in a stage production based entirely around that smile is not something he considers. Dea's blind, not Helen Keller.
Then other things happen and make even less sense. Gwynplaine's identity is revealed to Queen Anne, and he is snatched up by the arms of her tyranny to rejoin the aristocracy, under cover of a false execution. No one seems to question this. Laughs' absurd historical liberty is only barely justified by the sequence to come, the single one that managed to pierce this black heart, when Ursus and his fellows go through the motions of their show without Gwynplaine, all in a futile but beautifully compassionate effort to keep the blind woman from knowing her lover is dead for just a few moments more.
Gwynplaine, meanwhile, is brought before Parliament, who take exception to his grinning visage, and this scene just pisses me off.
Dude, do you even know why we're here?
At this juncture, whatever blunt point Laughs was making is lost amidst swashbuckling as Gwynplaine makes his escape from Sliding Albion. Does his tale end happily and conveniently? Of course. Where would the power be in tragedy? But, Gwynplaine's dog does rather awesomely exsanguinate a villain with his teeth—and I may not have much use for it, but Laughs isn't a terrible movie.
Neither is it good. Laughs offers some memorable images, but their impact fades. It promises an interesting character study but is too gauzy to really get under Gwynplaine's skin. It has sexuality that was brazen for its time, but was rapidly superseded. Its action climax is innervating enough, but not a fraction of what could be obtained from any given Buster Keaton or Douglas Fairbanks joint. (We are also left to wonder, astonished, when exactly Gwynplaine became a master swordsman, in yet another failure of Laughs' cobbled-together script.)
Ultimately, the decision to tell a story as brittle as Gwynplaine's as a Gothic-romantic fable was a mistake. Even producing it as an almost entirely silent film might not have really been to its advantage. For though the silent form's dreamlike nature sometimes lends cover to Laughs' plausibility problems, it also forfeits the nuance of spoken language, and Gwynplaine's pathology is a nuanced one indeed. The immobility of the camera that would have been forced upon the production need not have been a burden to a film that already should have been smaller than it is, and surely somehow they could have sidestepped Veidt's enforced muteness behind his prosthetic. I even have cause to wonder if color, namely red-green Technicolor, might have rescued Laughs by generating an atmosphere of wrongness that, in Leni's mere gestures toward expressionism, never coheres about the proceedings. In any event, without such atmosphere, Laughs really is just a historically-inaccurate, mildly-diverting cartoon, and even Disney's own deeply flawed Hugo adaptation is better.
Yet for all that its direction is merely adequate, The Man Who Laughs may well be exactly what they tell you it is: Paul Leni's very best film. We'll see if Leni can top himself next time, by making a movie I actually enjoyed.