A rictal dysfunction

Pub date July 8, 2008
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

According to Peter Bogdanovich, 1928 remains unique in film history as Hollywood’s greatest year. The latter-day American director cites landmark silent film contributions such as King Vidor’s The Crowd, Victor Sjöström’s The Wind, and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. as evidence that synchronized sound — first used in 1927’s The Jazz Singer — initially limited rather than expanded the cinematic medium. Alongside those celebrated pictures, Bogdanovich also praises a 1928 German Expressionist classic produced in the United States: Paul Leni’s macabre mutilation drama The Man Who Laughs.

Based on an 1869 novel by Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs is a mordant and often morose satire about a deformed clown in the Stuart Court. It follows the sad character of Gwynplaine, the son of a British duke who is orphaned and forsaken to die at the command of the British sovereign.

Gwynplaine survives, but with a horribly butchered mouth permanently twisted into a smile, He grows up amid a wandering freak show, becoming its main attraction. His only pleasure comes in the form of his adopted family — carnival mountebank Ursus the Philosopher and the blind beauty Dea, who loves Gwynplaine and remains unaffected by his strange visage. But when word reaches Queen Anne that an heir to the dead duke remains alive, she commands that Gwynplaine be installed as a lord and made to marry the reigning duchess Josiana. Forced to leave Dea and Ursus for the royal court, Gwynplaine soon bears the brunt of a royal freak show whose insidious machinations are alien to the golden-hearted clown.

The Man Who Laughs was produced by Universal in the wake of its increasingly popular horror pictures, particularly the 1925 blockbuster The Phantom of the Opera. Budgeted at the then-unprecedented amount of $1 million, Leni’s film became a flamboyant melding of costume melodrama and Expressionist mise-en-scène. It stars Mary Philbin as the blind heroine Dea and Conrad Veidt — a German Jewish actor featured in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919) — as the mutilated clown. Without reliance on dialogue, and beneath a rictus held in place by prosthetic hooks, Veidt produces an extraordinary gamut of emotion through little more than a lachrymose stare. Often mantling his disfigurement with a cape and moving with the rigid gait of a trauma victim, his Gwynplaine becomes a kind of paralytic, living and communicating only from his goitered eyes. He is a casualty of what Hugo declares "an art/science of inverted orthopedics." The film’s image of Veidt influenced comic book writer Bob Kane when he created Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker.

Leni’s film hasn’t enjoyed the immediate critical attention of Expressionist classics such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). But its anticipation of the horror genre’s waves of mutilation — from Georges Franju through to David Cronenberg — is remarkable.


Sat/12, 7:45 p.m.

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120, www.castrotheatre.com

THE 13TH SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL runs July 11–13 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF. Advance tickets (most shows $12–$17) are available by calling 1-800-838-3006 or visiting www.silentfilm.org