Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Random Movie Report #51: The Man Who Laughs

This is unfortunate. Because this blog’s had a spate of perhaps unusually positive reviews as of late, I suppose you’re all wondering where the vitriol went if there ever was any. Some of it has gone into another project, where it’ll have to wait, but that’s not my decision. And I really didn’t want it to be this movie.

Make no mistake, I am not the sort of person who cannot appreciate silent films. I enjoy a lot of them; the pure visual storytelling and the creative freedom of pre-sound cinema (which took decades to recover) have a unique appeal, and though you have to roll the dice when it comes to whatever the distributor has put on the soundtrack sometimes you get lucky. (Goodtimes Home Video, of all places, put a really evocative score on an old VHS release of THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD which I treasure dearly.) My problems with THE MAN WHO LAUGHS don’t entirely stem from its age, either. It’s a melodrama, of course, so it hasn’t aged that well, but beyond that there’s a narrative clumsiness that works against the film’s visual style and fine performances, and really makes it hard to get absorbed at all. Perhaps audiences of the day expected this sort of thing or were willing to look beyond it to enjoy the spectacle, but THE MAN WHO LAUGHS simply places too many obstacles in front of what should be a compelling story.

Conrad Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, the lost heir of English nobility, his face carved into a perpetual grin by gypsy surgeons under the order of King James II (Sam De Grasse) and his scheming jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst.) He’s raised by a philosopher named Ursus (Cesare Gravina), and travels with him and the blind, beautiful Dea (Mary Philbin), an orphaned blind girl whom our hero brought to Ursus’ door. They follow carnivals and such, Gwynplaine appearing as The Laughing Man, an acclaimed clown. One of the gypsy surgeon people (George Siegmann) who abandoned Gwynplaine in the rush to get out of England before sees him at the carnival, and this information gets into the hands of Barkilphedro again, who this time is working for the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), who inherited the lands that rightfully belong to Gwynplaine. She happens to see the Man Who Laughs at the carnival and even tries to seduce him, but when word gets back that she’ll have to marry this man to keep her fortune, she breaks down and shuns him. He, meanwhile, is really in love with Dea, but is ashamed of his deformity which she can’t see. Meanwhile, Barkilphedro is planning... something, and complications abound.

The whole film starts promisingly enough, and the basic premise is a good one. But Victor Hugo was writing at a time when the novel was expected to pile on as many complications as the manuscript could contain, and very little seems to have been cut. There is so much going on here, which I would usually class under “good”, but so little of it actually adds anything. The characters remain two-dimensional at best; the Duchess is spoiled and shallow, Dea is sweet and pure, Barkilphedro is Just Plain Evil, etc. The whole virgin/whore thing works against the “don’t judge people by their appearances” moral, at least in the sense that we’re told we don’t have to extend our empathy to those bastards and really only need care about our protagonist and his one true love.

The major problem of all the pageantry and coming and going from court to carnival is simply this: for huge stretches of time the film fails to be about Gwynplaine at all. Now, I understand Conrad Veidt had to apply a pretty painful appliance to keep his face locked in a grotesque toothy grin, and it shows to great effect. Perhaps this limited how much they could actually show him- not to mention, contemporary audiences were easily disturbed by anything freakish, as Tod Browning would discover a few years later. But Gwynplaine is off screen so much that we genuinely run the risk of forgetting about him, and the sense of his loneliness and anxiety, which should be the focus, is diluted by everything else going on.

The first encounter between him and Josiana takes place nearly halfway into the film, and then she disappears until the third act. Particularly maddening, and probably the breaking point for me, is a stretch of film after Gwynplaine is hauled off to jail for some reason. Ursus follows him there, sees a coffin carried out of the prison, and assumes without asking anyone who might know anything that they’ve killed his adopted son. On this assumption he runs distraught back to the carnival, and in some attempt to keep from breaking the news to Dea, he pretends to put on the show with the other clowns impersonating audience members and cheering for Gwynplaine. This is actually a very well-staged scene in some ways, with great acting and some neat camera tricks (including the multiple fade technique popular at the time, superimposing transparent faces on the background as they tell for Gwynplaine), but it’s undermined by the fact that in order for it to happen you have to assume that A) Ursus is prone to leaping to wild conclusions and not bothering to double-check anything and B) Dea is not only blind but possesses the IQ of a pigeon.

Not helping anything is the soundtrack. This is for all intents and purposes a silent picture, but in 1928 those were starting to go out of fashion, and for this and future releases Universal added a sort of psuedo-track including the score, a number of sound effects, some indistinct voices (including many calling for Gwynplaine in the scene mentioned above), and a song. The kind of really slow boring love song that became a SIMPSONS joke, and which I instantly muted. And really, little of the sound works; the carnival sequences become insufferable because the track is full of high pitched bells and yells and other shrill tones that take the whole thing from “potentially good montage” to “DEAR GOD MAKE IT STOP.” The music is nondescript at best and at worst just as shrill as the sound effects- all quavering strings and the occasional hit of brass, it runs wall to wall without ever adding anything. Perhaps my viewing experience would have been improved if I’d muted the sound and put on something I liked better, but this is what Universal wanted us to hear and I can’t give the film a pass for this.

Of course, I’m looking at this logically. Perhaps this is my problem. Most of the praise for this film is for the material that has nothing to do with the plot. To be sure, director Paul Leni knows what he is doing. The film looks great, it’s well-shot and sumptuously produced. Leni was of the Expressionist school and the film was at times criticized for being the most German-looking film ever set in England, but that’s okay. And he’s good with the actors too- Veidt is marvelous, Baclanova is so sultry and compelling I wish the story didn’t hate her character so much, and Philbin doesn’t get much to do but embodies that ancient kind of movie star glamour where just sitting in place and being photographed was enough to astound anyone setting foot inside a cinema. For me, all the moodiness wasn’t quite enough, because the clunky story kept intruding (whereas in similarly story-light and melodramatic silent films like METROPOLIS or CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI the plot knows well enough to step back and let us be dazzled.)

What Leni and writer J. Grubb Alexander ought to have done at an early stage is gone in and taken an axe to the story. Some really merciless hacking and rearranging would possibly result in a compelling narrative focused on the travails of a man made a freak and his search for love and happiness in the world. It would have been just as melodramatic and shameless in its tearjerking- more so, even, because there’d be less in the way. At an hour and fifty minutes the film was easily long enough and some of the complications of the final act are so arbitrary and require not just Dea but Gwynplaine to so completely lack all powers of perception that it’s obvious they’re just trying to drag this out. A good melodrama does not have to do this, or at least if it does, the audience doesn’t notice because the writers have retroactively made these complications natural and intuitive. I actually have to say that in the last fifteen minutes or so the film does actually get going; Gwynplaine gets a nice speech (or the closest you can get to a speech in a silent), suddenly action and swashbuckling breaks out, townsfolk get in a huff, it’s the sort of thing Old Hollywood was really good at. It’s just not enough to redeem the movie.

I was a bit shocked to find out that the acclaim for this film was as unanimous as it is, and again, I see where everyone else is coming from. There’s a lot of skill on display here, from Paul Leni, from the actors, from the cinematographer and editor, etc. Now, of course, when I defend an underrated film I will hold to the premise that I am right and everyone else is Wrong Wrong Wrong because that sort of argument requires conviction. Going after a film everyone likes is harder, I feel like a bastard doing it and in this case, I’m dealing with an old classic and have to wonder if I’m not too modern-minded to get it. But of course, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS doesn’t need my support and if you like silent movies you’ve either seen this already or you’ll want to for reference. (Also, this movie is apparently where they got the idea for Batman’s archnemesis the Joker, so respect for that is due.)

Nonetheless, as far as I can see, this is a bad film. A bad film made by very talented people, mind you, at some expense, but with a storyline that feels free to completely leave its most interesting character out for long stretches of time and lead him by the nose at others. It is the natural inclination of the melodramatic tearjerker to have a number of really important things going on all at once, but this time the point of the picture gets lost in the confusion. Sometimes great acting or great visuals can indeed make up for problems in a film’s story; here, the problems are just too fundamental. I’d love a movie with the same characters, same actors, same director, etc. in a plot that could do them all justice. This isn’t it.

From the novel by Victor Hugo
Adaptation by J. Grubb Alexander
Directed by Paul Leni

Grade: D+

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