The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928)

Much of it was parlor politics, rightful heir, inheritance bullshit I couldn’t be bothered to care about, but my god Conrad Veidt was amazing. Sure his performance is aided by a prosthetic, much like Lon Chaney’s performance in The Penalty, but even then, you consider the way he had to emote solely with his eyes as his mouth was stuck in that haunting uber-smile, and he passed with flying colors. This film is awash with swashbuckling melodrama, especially towards the end when Homo the dog comes to the rescue, but there’s something awfully moving and relatable about the plight that Veidt’s Gwynplaine has been put in. Granted, the job market for men with severe facial deformities probably wasn’t very expansive in the 17th century, so performing as a sideshow attraction was the only way to go, and the show proprietor Ursus, though pretty much exploiting the poor man is kind and like a father to both Gwynplaine and his beloved, the blind Dea, and the common folk laugh at Gwynplaine but almost in a loving, entertained sort of way, but it’s still sad that a very real romance between the smiling freak and the blind girl can only be seen through the prism of a comical side show. The way Veidt and Mary Philbin share a tender moment, only to be interrupted by laughter from the unknowing crowd, and how Veidt crudely uses his hands to try to cover his ever-smiling mouth while his eyes convey more sadness than I may have ever seen before in a film performance, is just as, if not even more melodramatic yet unfathomably moving than the way Lillian Gish uses her fingers to force a smile on to her despaired face in Broken Blossoms. There’s also plenty of weird stuff going on, with the Duchess forced to marry Gwynplaine to retain her fortune – upset with the prospect of being made to look a fool, but also clearly intrigued and even sexually titillated by the deformed man in a disturbing scene that must have been very edgy and questionable in 1928. That scene, and the just as bizarre scene where Gwynplaine, decked out in regal, lordly attire, is introduced to the royal court, are the ones in which this film transcends the quasi-horror, common melodrama to come before and afterwards in the story, and the way Conrad Veidt’s eyes express unfathomable embarrassment, fear, and despair behind that eternal smile make this performance, and this film, into something special.


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