The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Reviewed on 2013 January 9
Hav you ever had one of those days, where digging up one thing on the Internet leads you to look up something else? That’s how I stumbled onto this silent movie, based on the Victor Hugo novel and featuring good acting from the leads. Despite it being a silent movie, they didn’t lay it on too thick. I forget what I was researching to begin with, but this movie will stay with me for a long time.
Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt as an adult, and an amazing child named Julius Molnar Jr. as a little boy) was punished because his father wouldn’t kiss the hand of King James circa the late 17th century. The snubbed king slays the father and subjects little Gwynplaine to an arguably worse fate, given social mores and infection rates of the times. Gwynplaine has a permanent smile carved onto his sweet face and is then abandoned to the elements by the Camprachicos, a group of scumbags who offer punitive amateur surgery as just one of their services.
He survives, joining a troupe of performers and earning a rough living as “The Man Who Laughs”, the clown whose grin entertains the masses. The pain of this existence is softened by his love for Dea (Mary Philbin), a lovely blind woman who cares only for Gwynplaine’s good heart and nothing else. This should progress easily and naturally to “and they lived happily ever after,” but then it wouldn’t be a Victor Hugo story.
Good acting teamed with a story from the likes of Hugo would seem like a can’t-fail recipe, but the remake, from what I’ve read, dropped the ball. This 1928 version was good. If you like the old silents, you should check this one out. Veidt was wonderful as Gwynplaine, portraying pain with his eyes when his mouth could not. It’s also interesting to compare Seventeenth Century society and what they deemed as entertaining, with what passes for entertainment now. On one hand, the people laughed at a man who couldn’t take off his smile, ever. On the other hand, today we have Jerry Springer and reality TV.