Tuesday, August 6, 2013

In A Silent Way: Victor Hugo Part Two

The other Victor Hugo adaptation I watched was 1928's “The Man Who Laughs”. While it’s a lesser know story by the author it’s every bit as rich as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. This film is quite fascinating both as an entertainment as well as from a historical standpoint.

The plot concerns the tale of Qwynplaine, the only son of an English nobleman. His father has offended King James II and as part of the King's retribution he has the boy sold to a sect of gypsies who specialize in a cruel procedure where children's faces are surgically altered into extreme grins. The King has the nobleman tortured & killed, then banishes the gypsies from England. In the midst of a raging blizzard, with the boat ready to sail, they abandon the boy on the shore and leave him to freeze. But Qwynplaine is made of sturdier stuff and walks off in search of shelter.

He comes across a field of gallows to finds a prisoner's wife and baby daughter. The mother has already succumbed to her ordeal but the infant is still alive. He takes her inside his coat and continues on.

He finds an old philosopher named Ursus living in a coach and the man offers them in to be sheltered from the cold. Ursus is shocked to discover Qwynplaine's altered continence but is aware of the cult that would have done the deed. Further, when he examines the baby girl Dea, he realizes that she was born blind. He is moved by their circumstance and accepts them into his care as his new family.

As the two adoptee’s grow into adulthood, Ursus uses them by creating a freak show act and billing Qwynplaine as "the Laughing Man". Dea, meanwhile has grown up to be both beautiful and utterly devoted to Qwynplaine. He returns her feelings of love but won't marry her and condemn her to being the husband of one so hideous.

They travel to London, to exhibit at a huge fair and wind up as quite a popular entertainment. This status affords them an extended stay. However the residency leads things to become complicated, when the court of Queen Ann becomes aware of Qwynplaine's existence. Technically he has a potential claim to title and holdings.

Purely from an entertainment standpoint, this was just a marvelous film. The story was very engaging and well played. 

The title role was originally set for Lon Chaney, but Lon had already moved on to MGM from Universal. Instead the part was played by Conrad Veidt, who had garnered acclaim in his performance as the somnambulist in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Although he was the second choice, I cannot imagine anyone else but Veidt in the role. The actor was able to demonstrate complicated and conflicting emotions just through his eyes. I found his performance hugely impressive. The image of his exaggerated smile had a profound effect on a future comic book artist named Jerry Robinson, who used it in his design for the Joker.

Veidt’s co-star, as Dea, was Mary Philbin, who might be best known for her role as Christine in the Phantom of the Opera. She was a very lovely and attractive woman. Often film stars of that early era don't translate their beauty in a way that harmonizes with my contemporary sensibilities, but Philbin succeeds. In fact with the way she wore her hair, she looks an awful lot like my niece Kim and that coincidence added to my sympathy towards her character.

The director was the German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni, whose best-known film up to that point was 1926's “Waxworks”. I was very impressed with the overall look of the film as the print I saw was perhaps the best looking silent film I've yet encountered. The action didn't flicker like so many do and the lighting was very natural. It looked no different than films made in the 1930's. Leni used some extraordinary shots for this movie. For one, he did an exemplary tracking shot as the camera follows a character from an exterior into a theatre. In another scene the camera is placed in the pov of a character riding an early Ferris wheel.

I was also surprised at some of the sexuality in the film. We see one character surreptitiously peeping in on the Duchess Josiana while she bathes. This same character of the Duchess is revealed pretty much as a slut throughout the film. She also exhibits kinky desire by being both sexually attracted to and visually repelled by Qwynplaine. The actress Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova is able to transmit this complex emotion very clearly with just her face.

From the historical slant the film came out during the final period of silent film production. The public response to the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer convinced Hollywood that "talkies" were the future of the industry. To that end a little bit of sound was added to many films released in the transitional period of the late 20’s, before “talkies” fully took hold. So “The Man Who Laughs” was released with a soundtrack but without dialog. Primarily it’s a score, which is absolutely fabulous and even includes a vocal part to the love theme between the leads. This soundtrack also provides crowd noise during a few scenes.

If you have an opportunity to see this, by all means take. It's an excellent, excellent movie.



  1. Great reviews Pat. I have seen the first one but need to track down the other.

  2. Excellent overview of TMWL! I saw this recently, myself, and was struck by the almost David Lynchian theme of the Duchess's decadent repelled/turned on attraction to Gwynplaine. Ms. Baclanova was also in Freaks, if I am not mistaken.

  3. I believe you may mean countenance, "face", not continence, "voluntary control of urination and defecation".