The Man Who Laughs (1928) Starring Conrad Veidt, Directed by Paul Leni
My rating: 10/10
I had the pleasure of viewing this film over the weekend. It is a later silent film and as such the cinematography was much better than a lot of silents that I’ve seen.
The story focuses on the life of Gwynplaine, the son of a rebel nobleman in 17th Century England who was disfigured as a child by the evil jester Barkilphedro, “whose laughs are cruel and smiles false.” Gwynplaine’s face is contorted into a permanent horrible, wide grin. I don’t want to focus on the plot. That is available elsewhere, and I believe I’ve already said enough.
This film is simply incredible, filled with many wonderfully shot scenes. It is considered a horror film, but the horror is much more subtle. Gwynplaine’s pain is conveyed through his ever smiling face throughout the film so intensely that you can’t help but feel it yourself. He is crying and he is smiling. When he is suffering, he must still smile.
One scene stands out to me. A clown, who is wiping his makeup off after his performance, comments to Gwynplaine, “You’re lucky, you never have to wipe your makeup off.” Gwynplaine just stares back at him with his ever present grin. The clown is completely unaware of the look.
The supporting cast cannot be neglected. Olga Baclanova as the scandalous Dutchess Josiana and Mary Philbin as the lovable blind Dea are unmatched by any actress of today’s shallow and anorexic Hollywood. The fact that Mary Philbin’s real life story is nearly as tragic as the film’s protagonist, although her face would never inspire fear or ridicule, most likely adds to the overall morose feel of the film on some unconscious level. Olga Baclanova portrayed the seductress in many film before and after this one and her performance is certainly at the top of her game.
It is also well known that Gwynplaine was the inspiration for The Joker of Batman’s Gotham City, but I believe that the personality of the Joker could possibly be based on the cruel jester Barkilphedro. After all, Gwynplaine is not evil even though he certainly looks the part. It is Barkilphedro who thought it funny to have a smile cut into a child’s face and who manipulates everyone throughout the film. In this light, I feel that Barkilphedro is really the Jokers’ inspiration with only Gwynplaine’s face.