Review for The Man Who Laughs
Gwynplaine is a character who as a boy had his face mutiliated into a permanent grin by his father's enemies. He lives his life as a carnival sideshow performer as The Man Who Laughs. He struggles with this, his only true companion is the blind Dea, who is the love of his life, but though she can't see Gwynplaine's face he still feels that he is unworthy of her or anyone's love. However, when his true royal history is discovered he must decide whether to go back into this priviledged world or stay with Dea.
The Man Who Laughs is a silent film at the tail end of this era from 1928. It seems almost strange that in this time of face masks being common that this film would be re-released when the main character of Gwynplaine, played wonderfully by Conrad Veidt, spends most of his time walking around in a mask that covers his mouth. When you see the make-up for the grin for the first time it is astonishing and when you consider this was done with the basics of make-up and no touch-ups or CGI, it is an amazing creation.
It is not surprising that this character was an inspiration for DC's The Joker and in some ways if you had told me this was the origin story of that character I would believe you. Though other versions of Victor Hugo's novel have been produced, this one is the best and I think the limitations of the time gave the film even more impact. As a longer film it is also surprising that it was able to hold my attention for such a long time. In my experience, most silent films lasted no more than an hour and the fact that I was entranced the whole time shows how great it is.
The music is fantastic and this set comes with two versions and both work well and I couldn't say whether either had more of an effect than the other. It is odd at times that the soundtrack includes sound effects such as crowd noises and yet is a silent film when it came to dialogue, however on hearing Veidt's heavily accented voice in the interviews this can be understood.
The three extras that come with this film are a little disappointing and I think because the film is not well known it is not a film that I had much interest in after the fact. It is a shame that there was not more focus on the make-up of Gwynplaine as it would have been great to have seen in depth how they were able to accomplish it. It is touched upon in the three featurettes included, but this would have been better given its own separate feature.
Interview with Kim Newman is fine and he is clearly knowledgable about the film and the people who made it, but it is very quick and dry. Maybe if he had contributed a Commentary he would have been able to go more indepth. The other two featurettes are more 'Video Essays' and if you are looking at silent movies or the work of anyone involved it is good, but again I found it a little dull.
Finally we have a stills gallery which is nice, but nothing too special.
The Man Who Laughs is clearly a great film and one that very few people may be aware of. I had never seen it and had only a brief idea of who the people involved were, but I would like to go back and watch other films from this era such as Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera. If you enjoy silent movies this is one that you should watch as I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and even just for the haunting performance of Veidt it is worth watching alone. This is not a film to laugh at, but it will leave you wanting to applaud.