Director: Paul Leni
Writer: J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Charles E. Whittaker, Mary McLean
Cinematographer: Gilbert Warrenton
by Jon Cvack
I was expecting a bit more horror from this Universal Pictures “Classic Horror” film. I've seen it listed on countless Best Of lists - Silent Films, Horror Films, etc. I suppose most of the hype's based on its impact on one of the most iconic villains of all time - The Joker, who much like his modern addition, also deals with a smile cut into his face. And yet this story doesn’t really offer any of the thrills or chills you'd expect. You wait and wait and it never occurs, which then makes me wonder if even calling this a horror film is a suggestive and innate form of bigotry, as the movie is really just about one man’s handicap, where if it wasn’t in the film would take out the only horrific element the entire story contains, thus shifting it to the dramatic category. I admire the German Expressionistic set pieces, and the way the film was butting up right against the edge of sound, including some interesting design work, involving the roar of the crowds and other subtle effects. The film is actually very very good, and probably one of the top silent films I’ve ever seen. It’s just not a horror film.
So going off the idea that this is more about an individual’s handicap, I have to say it’s an incredibly moving picture. The Laughing Man is Gwynplain (Conrad Veidt), who has joined a traveling circus, working alongside the very pretty and blind Dea (Mary Philbin) who therefore has no idea about Gwynplain’s deformity. She loves him for the man he is, which Gymplain has a difficult time understanding, as he’s chronically embarrassed by others.
Gwynplain’s smile was carved in after his father was sentenced to an Iron Maiden by King James II, who then had a doctor carve the child’s face as well. Nevertheless, the King’s successor Queen Anne and her Jester discover the lineage and hunt for his return into the Lord’s Court. The Estate is currently owned by the gorgeous (and spot on Madonna look alike) Duchess Josiana (Olga Baklanova) who exudes sensuality, and is probably one of the sexiest silent film stars I’ve ever come across. It’s no wonder that Gwynplain falls so hard for her. In one of the most moving scenes, after meeting the Duchess, Dea asks Gwynplain if the Duchess is really as beautiful as people are saying. In close-up we see Conrad’s ability to use his eyes to displaying an overwhelming conflict - between the loyal love that Dea feels and the burning licentious desire he has for the Duchess, who knows if they don’t marry she’ll lose everything. Gwynplain struggles toward honesty, with lust and love ripping him in completely different directions. In terms of the nascent period’s development of film language, this is one of the finest moments.
The film is hardly similar to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis or Faust. It’s a love triangle involving an image that would evolve to influence some of the most important pieces of popular media of all time. I just wish it was scarier.
BELOW: Pretty much the only 'scary' scene from the film, which by the end, will make you feel bad for feeling scared
Thoughts on films, old and new
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