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Saturday Night Cinema: The Man Who Laughs

Saturday, November 19, 2016 18:41
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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema is an adaption of literary lion and my favorite author, Victor Hugo. I am partial to his heroic portrait of man, “If you seek a glimpse of human grandeur—turn to a novel by Victor Hugo.”

The Man Who Laughs is a truly great, a devastatingly beautiful film.”

The second of German director Paul Leni’s American films (Cat and the Canary was the first), The Man Who Laughs is a lavish adaptation of the novel by Victor Hugo. The story concerns Gwynplaine, the son of an enemy of the evil King (Sam DeGrasse). Putting Gwynplaine’s father to death in his torture chamber, the King exacts a further revenge by ordering that the boy’s face be carved into a permanent, hideous smile. Abandoned in the snowy hills, Gwynplaine rescues another outcast, a blind girl named Dea. The two join a circus troupe and grow up together. The adult Gwynplaine (played by Conrad Veidt) falls in love with the sightless Dea (Mary Philbin), who “sees” only his kindnesses and not his grotesquely smiling face. When his noble heritage is revealed, Gwynplaine is presented in court before the Queen, who considers his permanent grin an insult. Once more an outcast, Gwynplaine sails to the New World, with the loving Dea at his side. While many existing prints of the silent Man Who Laughs are in washed-out black and white, it should be noted that the film was originally (and exquisitely) tinted and toned, and was also accompanied by a Fox Movietone musical track. Though the property was later optioned by Kirk Douglas, The Man Who Laughs was never remade.

The Man Who Laughs demonstrates that, however much we gained with sound, we lost opportunities that arise when storytelling prioritizes vision.” David Sanjek

Much thanks to Bradley for the video.

THE SCREEN; His Grim Grin.
Published: April 28, 1928, NY Times

Carl Laemmle, who sponsored “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and also the French film version of “Les Miserables,” last night added another pictorial translation of Victor Hugo’s works, when he presented at the Central Theatre the rather free film translation of that grim study, “L’Homme Qui Rit,” or “The Man Who Laughs.” With the exception of needless prying through keyholes and extravagant conceptions of the Duchess Josiana, this production has been fashioned with considerable skill. It is, of course, a gruesome tale in which the horror is possibly moderated but none the less disturbing. It is, however, a narrative that has served as the inspiration for more than one short story dealing with a beautiful blind girl and a frightfully ugly man.


Paul Leni, who designed the settings for “Variety,” and who directed “The Three Wax Works,” and, in this country, “The Cat and the Canary,” is responsible for this shadow transmutation of Hugo’s bludgeon attack on English rule in the Seventeenth Century. Mr. Leni’s handling of this subject is in many passages quite expert, for he revels in lights and shadows, and takes advantage of the full details of a man, who, through mutilation by the Comprachios, goes through life with a hideous grin on his countenance. This part is portrayed with astounding cleverness by Conrad Veidt, the German actor who was brought to this country by Universal Pictures Corporation. Part of the time he covers his abnormal mouth, but on other occasions, through wearing huge false teeth, Mr. Veidt sends a chill down one’s spine. His affection for Dea, the blind girl, is disquieting, but at the same time he elicits a great deal of sympathy.

The scenes in the Southwark Fair are well done and so is the enthusiasm of the crowd who come to see the laughing man, the clown, who is the mainstay of Ursus, the philosopher, and others with the little caravan. Day after day and night after night this man with the perpetual laugh affords amusement to the throngs, even when his eyes are filled with tears. Mr. Veidt dexterously conceals the lower part of his face during some scenes, so that the sympathy in his eyes, the sadness at his plight, cause one to forget momentarily his awful mouth.

There is one scene that was minutely described by the author and that is where Gwynplaine, the laughing man, is sought out by the Wapentak, tapped on the back, and taken to Chatham Prison. It is not done with quite the hush one anticipates, but the presence of Ursus, at the prison portals, distracted and terrified by the silent methods of the Wapentak and others succeeds in depicting a sketchy idea of Hugo’s pages.

Queen Anne, impersonated by the robust Josephine Crowell, is perceived during one stage of the proceedings, receiving Gwynplaine as a peer of the realm, Lord Clancharlie. She knows not of the man’s disfigurement and neither do the members of the House of Lords, and so when Gwynplaine exposes his countenance, they are at first outraged at the thought that a clown in their midst, is laughing at the Queen. The awful grin is contagious, and soon the sober and sedate Lords are themselves splitting their sides with merriment.

Mary Philbin is well cast as Dea. She is comely and calm. Olga Backanova is a little too reminiscent of Hollywood as the Duchess Josiana. Stuart Holmes injects a few brief spells of amusement by his disdain of hoi-polloi. Same De Grasse has a few short innings as James II. Cesare Gravina is excellent as Ursus, and Brandon Hurst serves well the part of Barkilphedro.

There are times when this picture is fairly close to the author’s writing, but on other occasions it is snatched away and filled with startling achievements, such as one might imagine seeing in a film with d’Artagnan. It also contains a deal of the stuff of which picture producers are so fond. On the whole, it is gruesome but interesting, and one of the few samples of pictorial work in which there is no handsome leading man.

The proceeds of last night’s performance were donated toward Amis de Blerancourt, under the auspices of the Film Bureau.

His Grim Grin.
THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, with Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova, Stuart Holmes, George Siegmann, Cesare Gravina, Josephine Crowell, Sam de Grasse, Brandon Hurst and Edgar Norton, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, “L’Homme Qui Rit,” directed by Paul Leni. At the Central Theatre.

“When Love Comes Stealing” [Love Theme from “The Man Who Laughs” (with Lyrics)]


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