Monday, January 09, 2006

It Came from Netflix! The Man Who Laughs (1928)

In 1939, following in the wake of Superman, Bob Kane (along with a still largely unacknowledged Bill Finger) created Batman. Kane’s love of movies is well known, and there’s little doubt that several of them inspired his comic work. Anyone who’s seen 1930’s The Bat Whispers (or earlier versions of the same story, such as the 1926 silent film The Bat), featuring a mysterious villain in a black, winged bat suit who lowers himself hither and yon rope lines, will instantly recognize that several of his traits were borrowed for Batman.

Batman’s arch villain is, of course, the Joker. The Bat also inspired some of his traits. The first Joker story features the police gathered around a man the Joker has threatened to kill at exactly midnight. Unsurprisingly, despite the cops all over the place, he succeeds. This exact scenario is taken from The Bat, and is in fact how The Bat Whispers (I haven’t seen the earlier film) opens. The Bat Whispers is a great film, by the way, you should check it out. There’s an extremely good DVD of it out.

More obviously, even, the Joker owes a debt to Paul Leni’s silent, The Man Who Laughs. (The film obviously also inspired William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus.) Permanently afflicted with a horrifying rictus grin, the character Gwynplaine, as played by Conrad Veidt, also wears his hair swept back from his face in a high pompadour. As the accompanying photo reveals, the result is a spitting image for the Joker, especially on those occasions when Gwynplaine, as a traveling performer, is wearing whiteface.

Adapted from a typically baroque novel by Victor Hugo, the film opens with the capture and secret execution by England’s King James II of Lord Chancharlie. To intensify Chancharlie’s torment, he is informed before his death that his young son, Gwynplaine, has been sold to a group of gypsies who are infamous for their technique of surgical carving a permanent grin onto a person’s face.

In the dead of winter, Gywnplaine is left behind to die as the gypsies flee the country, and the lad stumbles across a baby in the dead, frozen arms of her mother before finding refuge in the traveling wagon of performer Ursus. Ursus quickly discovers that the baby is blind, and is shocked when he learns of Gywnplaine’s condition.

We shoot forward to Gwynplaine as a young man, and his ‘sister’ Dea now a young woman. They continue to travel with Ursus, and Gwynplaine is becoming increasingly popular with the common folk as The Man Who Laughs, as his grinning visage inspires hilarity from those who behold him. For his own part, though, Gwynplaine is tormented by his affliction, and increasingly maddened by others’ reaction to it. His only consolation is his love for Dea. She loves him as well, but he fears it is only because she is blind, and that were she able to behold him, she would react as everyone else does.

Performing at a fair, Gwynplaine draws the attention of the rather slutty (suitably, she even looks a lot like Madonna) Duchess Josiana. As befits the sort of convoluted plotlines in these things, Josiana is unwittingly the holder of the estates formerly held by Chancharlie, who the world believes disappeared along with his young son. Josiana sees through Gywnplaine’s forced smile, and decided to take him to her bed. (By this time it’s been established that she has a taste for slumming.)

Gwynplaine agrees to the assignation, but only because he wishes to know if any woman could actually look upon him and still feel love (or at least desire) for him. Should such a thing prove possible, he would feel free to finally marry Dea.

The man behind Chancharlie and Gwynplaine’s respective fates, professional toady and schemer Barkliphedro, learns of Gywnplaine’s continued existence and presents the knowledge to the current ruler, Queen Anne. The insolent Josiana is a thorn in the queen’s side, and in revenge, Anne decrees that Gwynplaine we be recognized as a Lord, but will marry Josiana. This is a pretty sly and nasty piece of payback, in that Josiana will retain her position, but only at the sufferance of the queen and at the price of being married to a freak.

Many people just aren’t interested in silent film, but for those who are, this is a pretty good one. Viedt is terrific as usual, and is as memorable in the role of Gwynplaine as he was playing Cesare the Somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (Although his most famous role was as the Nazi Maj. Strasser in Casablanca.) He ably communicates Gywnplaine’s torment.

Aside from the film, the recent Kino DVD, spiffy as usual for that company, features a short but in-depth documentary on the film. This was written by John Soister, author of the exceedingly fine book Of Gods and Monsters, one of the essential examinations of the Universal horror films of the ‘30s (this ground had been so thoroughly covered that I had little hopes for the book, but was bowled over by it), as well as the more to the point Films of Conrad Viedt. Mr. Soister is an old friend of the Jabootu site, and his tomes Claude Rains and Up from the Vault, which discusses little known silent thrillers, are also highly recommended.

The most amusing extra on the disc is a translation of the final chapter of Hugo’s novel, which aside from providing an insanely downer ending, is written in some of the most florid, turgid prose I’ve ever seen. Scanning these few pages gave me a real sense of horror regarding the prospect of ever being forced to actually read the entire 600-page book.


At 11:53 AM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

Excellent review, and damn, he sure does look like Mr. Napier.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger thanoseid said...

There was actually a prestige format (read: more expensive) comic that came out last year called "Batman: The Man Who Laughs". I guess DC finally decided to steal the movie's title as well.


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