Saturday, October 26, 2013
31 Days of Halloween - Day 26 - Movie 2
In order to punish a disobedient noble, King James has the man's son disfigured. The boy, Gwynplaine, cast out into the world saves a blind infant, Dea, before finding shelter for them both with a traveling showman. The boy grows up to become incredibly popular as "the Laughing Man," but is tormented by the love he feels for Dea, fearing she can't truly love him back because of how he looks. Meanwhile, the aristocrats discover that Gwynplaine is the rightful heir to a fortune and title, and much scheming transpires in an attempt to control it, and Gwynplaine. When the plans fall apart, the decision to destroy Gwynplaine is made and soon the Laughing Man is fleeing for his life and the woman he loves.
In my previous entry I questioned the inclusion (and later removal) of Quasimodo and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) as a cornerstone of the Universal Horror films and monsters. Amazingly, The Man Who Laughs (1928) has never been listed (as far as I know) as one of the important Universal Horrors, and Gwynplaine has never been considered as one of the Universal Monsters. While being more of a historical melodrama (based on a novel by Victor Hugo, as was The Hunchback of Notre Dame) it certainly contains much more horror imagery and content than Hunchback. The idea of a group of people who surgically disfigure children for entertainment purposes is horrible enough, but there are also bodies swinging from gallows, a frozen woman, crows feeding on bodies, clowns, and other horrors, and while Gwynplaine is entirely sympathetic, likable, and deserving of pity, his disfigured visage surely ranks alongside the disfigured Phantom of the Opera. While the Phantom became a true monster, murdering, terrorizing and kidnapping, Gwynplaine is simply a tormented victim of circumstance and not a malevolent human. That perpetually smiling face of his is so iconic though. There's no way that anyone watching this movie can fail to recognize Gwynplaine as the inspiration for Batman's nemesis, the Joker, which may be part of the reason why Universal failed to push him as one of their own icons of horror.
At any rate this movie is fantastic. I think it is a much more solid film than either Phantom of the Opera (1925) or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and deserves to be considered one of Universal's classic horror films. Conrad Veidt is riveting as Gwynplaine. The tormented facial expressions which dominate the upper half of his face while his mouth is perpetually grinning really gets across his interior anguish.