Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni) ***

Director: Paul Leni

Cast: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina

Background: Producer Carl Laemmle chose director Paul Leni to direct this Victor Hugo adaptation based on unique style of Leni's 1926 picture Waxworks. Conrad Veidt (chosen because Lon Chaney was under contract to MGM) had gained fame almost a decade earlier by co-starring in the classic silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Story: King James II has young boy Gwynplaine (Veidt) disfigured so he will have a permnanent smile on his face, a cruel act of retribution against the boy's father. He is taken in by the owner of a travelling show and his disfigured face is a huge attraction. Years later he is discovered by the Queen's advisors, and the Queen orders a marriage between Gwynplaine and Duchess Josiana so he can claim his late father's estate.

Thoughts: Some very interesting stuff going on here, even if it never comes together in a completely satisfying way. Conrad Veidt's performance in the lead role is powerful and he gives us a memorable character to follow. The rest of the cast is also excellent. It's beautifully shot and contains some fascinatingly grim subject matter. The problem is, like many other films this year, the story just doesn't flow very well. Scenes that need to be explored more are too short and other scenes are too long. Leni is clearly a good director and he's got some good stuff here, perhaps just enough for it to work, but it leaves the impression that it could have been so much more, especially if they had kept the original ending of the novel.

Postscript: The film was a success despite mixed critical reaction. More notably, Conrad Veidt's Gwynplaine is one of the inspirations for the creation of Batman's arch nemesis The Joker.

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