Film reviews

The Man Who Laughs (1928) – Blu-ray Review

New from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema range is a release of the 1928 late silent-era film The Man Who Laughs.  From German expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni, it is a work that was hastily retooled for audiences becoming accustomed to sound – but more on that later.

Beginning in the 1680s, King James II of England sentences Lord Clancharlie to death.  Clancharlie’s son, Gwynplaine, is taken by a comprachico (effectively, a ‘child-buyer’ – a term coined in Victor Hugo’s original novel) and given the disfigurement of a permanent grin, in order that he will laugh forever at his father.  Later deserted in freezing conditions, Gwynplaine discovers a baby girl, Dea, who he finds is blind, and is an orphan.  They are taken in by a stranger, and raised together.

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Reaching adulthood, Gwynplaine (played in adulthood by Conrad Veidt) is in love with Dea (Mary Philbin).  He is the ‘Laughing Man’, a freakshow attraction in a carnival.  Gwynplaine feels unworthy of Dea’s love, due to his damaged appearance.  His rightful inheritance – his estate – is now under the ownership of the Duchess, Josiana (Olga Baklanova).  Attending the carnival, Josiana is attracted to Gwynplaine’s unique appearance, attempting, in vain, to seduce him after the show.  Gwynplaine restates his love for Dea.

Shortly after, he is arrested by guards working for Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell), and his death faked, in order to prevent any search for him.  Aware of his true lineage, Anne gives him a peerage, and seat in the House of Lords.  Josiana is ordered to marry him, so that his inheritance may be restored to him.  Rejecting the marriage, Gwynplaine renounces his seat, and escapes her guards to be reunited with his beloved Dea.  They leave England together.

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This is a high quality release, as is typical of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema line.  Attractive cover artwork is complemented by an accompanying booklet that is, it seems, designed to evoke the look of a playbill.  After the basic information about the film, it contains essays by Kevin Brownlow, Richard Combs, Travis Crawford, and Sonia Coronado, the latter of of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, who completed a brand new suite of music for the film in 2018 – one of the two music tracks on offer to accompany the main feature.  One small complaint here – a complaint typical to this line of films, as it applied also to the recent releases of both Criss Cross and The African Queen – is that the release, in general, is lacking in telling the audience something of the people speaking or writing, with, in this case, only the final essay telling us anything of the author’s background.  The same is true in the on-screen content, with Kim Newman giving a terrific, if short, interview about the film – which is great, if you know who Kim Newman is (yes, it may be on the packaging, but it should be reflected on the screen).  It is a minor flaw, but is repeating enough to be a feature, not a bug.

The content itself is as good as we could possibly expect for a 92-year old film; with the caveat that, as good as interviews and visual essays are, this is no replacement for a good, in-depth, scene-specific commentary from a knowledgeable film scholar.  Obviously, everyone involved in the making of The Man Who Laughs is long dead, but the lack of commentaries from the types of contributors who turn up to give interviews for these releases, speaks to a financial, rather than an artistic decision.

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That said, the Kim Newman interview is an extremely impressive use of a mere 12 minutes, with the film’s genesis, casting, and influence on the horror genre all explored very efficiently.  The Face Deceives is a 33 minute video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson.  After an opening couple of minutes of strangely unsettling imagery, mixing artwork and shots from the film, with a fast editing style, the work settles into a fascinating, narrated tale, taking the viewer through background to the film; the careers of the main players, the movie’s production, and what came after for the cut-short lives and careers of many involved (Leni died the following year, at the age of 44, from sepsis, caused by an untreated tooth infection, while Veidt died of a heart attack at the age of 50).  Anecdotes are given immediacy by having them retold by actors, and presented as though they are recordings from those involved, perhaps from their later years.  These actors are credited correctly, and the audience are not misled.  The performance of the film, and retooling, as the talkie era commences is covered here also.  As with the Newman interview, the use of time is efficient and impressive, with content that rivals that found in documentary features that are twice as long as this on other films.

Rounding off the documentary content is ‘Paul Leni and The Man Who Laughs’, a slightly-under-14-minute feature on the film’s director.  His place in German film history, and the expressionism style, is discussed here.  Again, in such a brief running time, much detail is revealed; a fine feat, given expressionism is a difficult style to define.  The disc is complemented with a stills gallery, which is broken down into different areas – such as production still, make-up tests, posters, and memorabilia.  This is perhaps the one time such a feature has really added something, with the artwork for this film being a thing of beauty.

The film itself is presented with a choice of scores.  As background, we learn that it was originally released as a silent work, to be accompanied by a pianist in cinemas.  As the era of sound began, the film was quickly reissued with a Movietone score.  This is provided here in mono.  As a piece of film music it is a disjointed mess, taking cues from other films, and representing crowds scenes with a bizarre hubbub of noise that sort of sounds like dialogue, but sort of doesn’t.  As a marker along the development of film history, it is truly fascinating; with it being released to make a silent film evoke the sounds we’d expect, but having those sounds rather indistinct.  It has its moments, though, with a general whimsy in evidence regularly, and ‘When Love Comes Stealing’ a beautiful piece of work.  In general it is presented with a background hiss that plays as something somewhere between vinyl and AM radio.

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The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra score is the other offering.  Presented in stereo, it is a far lusher score, and benefits from the clearer, fuller sound quality.  Somehow The Man Who Laughs is granted more gravitas accompanied by this more grown-up music.  The film’s picture is clear, and undamaged.  It is rare, now, to view a film in this aspect ratio, presented, as it is in 1.2:1 – Academy Ratio not having become the default until around 1932.  Set design does not evoke England in any way, but make-up, costuming and lighting are years ahead of their time, and complement acting performances that are wonderfully expressive.

The Man Who Laughs is best known today as the inspiration for the look of Batman antagonist The Joker.  The expressionist stylings have even made their way into that universe, with the 1989 Tim Burton film heavily influenced in its other-worldliness and presenting of a look that is believable, yet not quite a literal translation of our world.  The make-up is directly referenced in the 2019 movie Joker.  It is something of a mixed legacy for a film to be more famous for that which it influenced than its own qualities, but The Man Who Laughs being such a key pop-cultural bellwether does not denigrate a work that has outlasted most of its peers; one that is presented here with a fine, respectful release.

The Man Who Laughs is out on Blu-ray on 17th August from Eureka Entertainment.

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