The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
In 1928, on the success of the recent Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, another Victor Hugo tome about gypsies and outcasts, set in Restoration England, came to the silver screen. It was L’homme qui rit, or The Man Who Laughs. A heartbreaking fable of extreme monarchical corruption and cruelty, the film is less a piece of populist propaganda (like the novel) than it is an agonizing love story between two very attractive disabled people who travel in a van from town to town performing with a carnival. So, yes, by that I mean they’re part of a freak show.
The titular character is Gwynplaine, a softhearted young man who is known throughout the land as the best clown ever, and that’s mostly because his face has been surgically altered to always wear a smile. The disfigurement happened as a child, when Gwynplaine’s father, the Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, Marquis of Corleone, rebelled against the crown in favor of the English Republic. Before he was captured, his child was found and mutilated at the hands of a mercenary gypsy surgeon, so that he would always seem to be laughing derisively at the folly of his father’s hopeless political maneuvers.
Gwynplaine is played by one of the greatest character actors of all time, Conrad Veidt. Yes, we’ve visited Veidt before in the Alexander Korda production of The Thief of Bagdad. You’ve probably also seen him as another freak, somnambulist Cesare, in the German creep-out classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. If you know that movie, then you know how wonderfully suited Veidt is for silent film—his face possesses a thousand expressions, even when he’s supposed to have none, and he flits around the screen with trembling, controlled movements, like a damned ballerina.
Veidt was a fascinating human in addition to being a bang-up performer. A noteworthy German citizen, he emigrated to the U.K. with his Jewish wife at the beginning of the Weimar Republic. In his immigration papers, he cited the reason for his departure as being of Jewish faith. There’s no record of Veidt having any Jewish heritage, though, so it’s implicit that he lied in solidarity with his wife. Unfortunately, because of his super-thick German accent, for most of his talkie career, he was reduced to playing German spies, U-boat captains, and, eventually, Nazis, in the bulk of his British and American work. Incidentally, his most recognizable role is the villain commander Major Heinrich Strasser, who sneers about the tables at Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.
But that’s not even everything. Early on in his career, Veidt played the role of Paul Körner, a professional violinist who begins an innocent love affair with his male pupil, in the German proto–gay rights film, Anders als die Andern, or Different from the Others. This role is largely considered the first openly homosexual (as in, no smoke-and-mirrors bowdlerizing) character to appear on-screen in the history of Western cinema.
But back to Gwynplaine, our sweet freak. Veidt really showcases his talents here, because, as you can imagine, he can’t act with his mouth; it’s frozen! And this is a silent film, which naturally requires the greatest of pantomime skills. Instead, Gwynplaine’s emotion is communicated entirely through his eyes, eyebrows, and forehead. Forehead acting—who would have thought? It’s kind of a triumph, actually, and the sort of thing Oscar committees would drool over these days. If the character’s physical deformity sounds familiar, it’s because this performance is credited by Batman creator Bob Kane as the inspiration for the Joker. Indeed, Veidt’s wide, unflinching smile and pale face are possibly as upsetting as the Batman villain—but there’s absolutely no capacity for revenge in this guy’s soul, and that’s what makes the film so stirring. Gwynplaine has other problems besides being deformed, mind you—he’s in love with another carnival performer, Dea, a gorgeous blind orphan whom he rescued as a baby, and he’s the legitimate heir of the deposed baron, and as such, power and loads of money will be coming to him, though he doesn’t know that yet.
In addition to what you may expect from this kind of silent epic (the film clocks in at around three hours)—swashbuckling, physical comedy, desperate romance—there is a strange kind of sexiness. Many silent films are known for their sexiness, sure, but it’s harder to imagine it in a sad, wholesome story like this one. When the greedy, depraved Duchess Josiana, who currently sits on Gwynplaine’s pile of money, goes to see his show, she’s overtaken with extreme pity and a smoldering attraction to him. Everyone else, all of the peasants in the audience, are cackling and rolling in the aisles like crazy people, but the Duchess sees something quite beyond the face-painted exterior. She summons Gwynplaine immediately to her chambers, in the middle of the night, where she will presumably seduce him. Gwynplaine, who is so tragically insecure that he can’t even believe darling Dea would want to marry him if she could see his face, responds favorably to the siren song, thinking that if the Duchess would want him, then perhaps other women would.
It doesn’t matter to me, really, if this plot twist is predicated entirely on the fact that the Duchess (whom we see naked, taking a bath!) is a vile slutty pervert because it’s interesting and kind of sums up the whole of Veidt’s appeal as an actor. How could someone who looks so terrifying be so compelling? If you don’t have a goth bone in your body, this question probably doesn’t come up too much. I wish I could say that she’s attracted to him for his sense of humor, but the film makes it pretty clear that’s not what’s going on. Of course, nothing happens—in the very moment of near-consummation, the Duchess receives word that he’s the rightful heir to her money and becomes visibly frightened, enough to convince Gwynplaine she’s actually appalled by him, just like everyone else.
I confess: I have a predilection for freaks. I watch them with careful admiration as they work the shoppers on the street. I read books that celebrate their specious lives. So, films where the smudgy-faced or ugly poor person marries well and gets all the money mean a lot to me. When Cesare first carried off that flailing Jane Olsen, and perhaps frightened her to death, I felt really bad for him. He was in love with her, and as Dr. Caligari’s sedated slave, he was barely capable of making decisions for himself. It was that moment that led me to seek out Gwynplaine.
Modern-day versions of this theme give us stuff like Mask and Edward Scissorhands (in fact, I’d argue that all of early Conrad Veidt gives us all of early Johnny Depp) more than it gives us the Joker.
If you looked at Netflix right now, The Man Who Laughs is categorized as a “Horror Classic.” If you did a Google image search, you’d find hundreds of scary pictures of just Veidt’s head in full makeup, glassy-eyed and sinister, in pose that doesn’t even appear in the film. The subtitle on the first page of Hugo’s novel reads “A Romance of English History,” and, as dry and deceptive as that may be, it sounds much more accurate to me.