Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

So what is this one about?
Netflix tells us,
In this classic horror film based on a novel by Victor Hugo, Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), the son of an aristocrat, is kidnapped for political reasons and then disfigured by a gypsy surgeon, who leaves the boy's face paralyzed in a contorted smile. He finds refuge in a traveling theatre troupe, but his lineage is eventually discovered, and he soon finds himself being pulled back into the social and political world he was taken from as a boy.

And how much did I pay to watch?
I am still averaging $1.54 per movie this month.

And what did I think?
I have only seen a few silent films in my film watching lifetime. Frankly, they are a bit tedious, but they are always incredibly interesting if only as a way of clarifying my understanding of the history of film.

This movie is sort of reminiscent of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) because, as one person on netflix put it, "this is straight up German Impressionist." However, because I have not seen enough silent movies I can't say that all silent movies aren't like this. Because the ones I've seen are all like this...even the ones made in the current day (TCoDC (2005) and Trapped by the Mormons (2005) hmm, maybe 2005 was the year of the 1920s silent film remakes...). I guess I just prefer German expressionist movies, so I should (and did) add other types of silent films to my queue, including Russian ones (yay!).

Interestingly enough, the actor who played Gwynplaine (aka: the laughing man) was Conrad Veidt. Veidt also played Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which is something I did not know before I watched the movie.

I wondered throughout how they got his mouth to look that way.
turns out, as the ever faithful internet movie data base tells me,
Gwynplaine's grotesque grin was achieved with prosthesis. Conrad Veidt was fitted with a set of dentures that had metal hooks to pull back the corners of his mouth. The only scene in which he did not wear the prosthesis is the scene where he is ravished by the Duchess Josiana.
They then go on to tell me something I already knew, but those of your reading this may not,
Gwynplaine's fixed grin and disturbing clown-like appearance was a key inspiration for comic book talents 'Bob Kane (I)' and Jerry Robinson in creating Batman's greatest enemy, The Joker.
oh ho ho ho ho. In fact, when I heard about this on NPR that is what made me queue the film, because I was curious to see the evolution of the Joker character.

Something else I didn't know about this film was that it was based on a book by Victor Hugo. Now, Hugo wrote one of my favorite books ever, Les Miserables, which was the inspiration for one of my favorite musicals.

Now, because this is a Victor Hugo story there was part of me that wanted the ending to be devastating...Like if Dea died before she knew Gwynplaine was alive. But you know me, thats the tragic romantic in me. ACTUALLY, upon watching the extra features (which I almost always do, when I like the movie) I learned that Hugo had written a different ending than the one in the film. Hugo's ending had Dea being so happy that Gwynplaine was alive that she actually died. I guess it was death by stress of having so much happen in such a short period of time. Gwynplaine was so crushed that she died that he walked off the deck of the ship into the ocean and drowned. Now THAT is a proper Hugo ending!

I guess none of that stuff tells you what I thought about the movie though, does it? It was more just some stuff I found interesting. Well, what did I think? I thought it was pretty cool. It was really dark but it wasn't a horror movie at all. It really did feel like a Hugo story. I thought the acting was excellent. I think silent movies, or at least my understanding of them, could easily be cheesy. But even though the use of dialogue on the black screen was infrequent I feel like the story was very easy to understand. In fact, I think the sparing use of the dialogue sort of allowed the audience to make up what they think the characters were saying to each other. Sometimes you could read their lips, but it is also fun to make that stuff up.

Additionally, both Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin, Gwynplaine and Dea respectively, were wildly good looking. And I know it is shallow, but that really made you feel for these two basically pitiful characters, Gwynplaine had that hideous smile (which actually wasn't so bad) and Dea was blind.

Overall, I thought the movie was pretty awesome. It made me queue about 20 more silent classic films. So if the next few movies are silent ones, you'll have to bear with me. Or rather, maybe you should watch some of them too. They are really quite interesting.

So what is the rating? (out of 10)
When it comes time to give a rating I often have to think hard. What am I rating on after all? Whether or not I liked the movie is often less important to me that how good the movie is overall. Granted sometimes I like things, I give things 10, that aren't on the same level as movies that I rate 10 that are really extraordinary films. Like Downfall and Love Actually aren't comparable. So it makes it tough.

Then again, how am I supposed to compare a movie from 1928 to a movie made in 2008? They are completely different. It is bizarre.

I liked that this movie was dark. I chalk that up to German expressionism. I thought the characters were very sympathetic to the audience. I loved them, and yet twistedly still wanted death to befall them--though I think wanting death and heartbreak to happen to them is different than wanting bad things to happen to them...right? I thought for a movie from its time it was quite nice visually and technically. (Except when the dog bit one of the characters and it was clearly a stuffed dog the man was holding...). So why can't I rate this movie a 10?

I dunno, because it wasn't one of the most astounding film achievements I have seen. I loved watching it, but it just wasn't perfect. So, I will say that it was excellent, not perfect, but certainly good. So, I'm gonna rate it an 8.5.

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