For many years, Universal has been associated with horror. This began with two Lon Chaney vehicles in the silent period, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). It continued with the groundbreaking features Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), then through the 1940s “horror rallies,” into the big bug science fiction features of the 1950s.
This consolidation of horror at Universal was helped along by many artists, including German expatriate director Paul Leni (1885-1929). One of the many Europeans who came to America during the 1920s, Leni first gained fame as a set designer and art director, and subsequently, a director. The owner of Universal, Carl Laemmle, became aware of his talents when he saw Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, a.k.a. Waxworks (1923), in which Leni atmospherically conjured up the nefarious exploits of Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper.
Unlike many in the émigré community, Leni acclimated to Hollywood with apparent ease. The fact that the staff at Universal was filled with fellow Germans certainly helped. His first effort, The Cat and the Canary (1927), broke ground as the primal haunted house narrative. The establishing sequence remains undeniably spooky, as a tracking shot down an empty hallway resonates with impending calamity.
Sadly, Leni’s residence in Hollywood was brought to a premature end in 1929, when he died from blood poisoning brought on by an untreated ulcerated tooth. Had he lived, one imagines he would have directed Universal’s horror features during the early ’30s. Instead, the pinnacle of his American career was the ornate and expert adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel, The Man Who Laughs. Kino Video has made this tour de force available on a DVD that includes a reconstructed and restored print made from film elements found in European archives. It illustrates, particularly for those unfamiliar with Leni’s work or silent films generally, the level of technical sophistication filmmakers achieved before the advent of sound.
For the film, Laemmle paired Leni with another preeminent German émigré, Conrad Veidt, who had appeared in a number of classic films, including The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919). His costar was the demure heroine from The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Philbin. The actors worked with the studio’s most talented and influential technicians, including production designer Charles Hall, who began his association with Leni on The Cat and the Canary. The Man Who Laughs also marked the first makeup assignment for Jack Pierce, the maestro who subsequently sculpted the features of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr.
Hugo’s narrative details the exploits of Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), the son of an English nobleman who has offended King James II. The monarch sentences the parent to death in an iron maiden and the son to a lifetime of public humiliation through extraordinary mutilation. Calling upon the skills of a surgeon, Dr. Hardquannone (George Siegman), associated with a band of ostracized and feared gypsies, the Campracichos, the boy’s face is horribly fixed into a permanent rictus grin. As a title card states, the King condemns him “to laugh forever at his fool of a father.”
Grief-stricken and homeless, Gwynplaine wanders around in a snowstorm and discovers an abandoned baby girl, the blind Dea. They chance upon the itinerant performer Ursus (Cesare Gravin), who rescues them from the elements. Years pass, and, the children now grown, Gwynplaine, Dea (grown up to be Philbin), and Ursus becomes a kind of surrogate family earning its living through plays predicated upon the public’s voyeuristic fascination with Gwynplaine’s fearsome features. Their travels bring them back into the orbit of the deceased King’s successor, Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). Records are discovered which reveal Gwynplaine’s lineage and his potential inheritance of his father’s position in the court.
The deceased nobleman’s estates have reverted to the possession of the sexually aggressive Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova). The Queen decrees the she must marry Gwynplaine. Restored to his former position in the social hierarchy, Gwynplaine must either resume his title despite the antagonism of other members of the court or reject that position and return to the humble company and uncertain future of Dea and Ursus. This inner conflict leads to a rousing conclusion that incorporates a spirited chase and a neat narrative closure that ties up the many knots of Hugo’s narrative.
Film historian Carlos Clarens calls The Man Who Laughs “the most relentlessly Germanic film to come out of Hollywood,” though that attribution calls to mind a more slowly paced, histrionic, and self-conscious film than the one Leni directed. He did draw upon the kind of subtle lighting effects and declamatory acting style one finds in German films, yet Leni integrates those techniques with the demands of the Hollywood system without compromising their effectiveness.
Any instance of chiaroscuro lighting, oppressively ornate decoration, or artificial composition works toward the film’s themes. The initial sequences that delineate the death of Gwynplaine’s father, his abandonment to the elements, and discovery of Dea, masterfully convey his oppression and catastrophe.
Leni proved himself to be equally skilled with actors. Veidt commands the screen; equipped with a set of oversized dentures that did not permit him to speak, he employs his eyes and stance to convey emotions, as well as the import of the subtitled dialogue. Baclanova, a veteran of the Russian stage, oozes unrestrained passion as the Duchess, and reminds us that much latitude for sensuality existed in Hollywood prior to the 1934 Production Code.
Leni’s premature death coincided with the wholesale abandonment of silent filmmaking in Hollywood. You get the feeling when watching certain late silent films, that some very skilled technicians were wringing out all that was possible with a form of expression soon to be outmoded. The Man Who Laughs demonstrates that, however much we gained with sound, we lost opportunities that arise when storytelling prioritizes vision.