I had the great fortune to catch this on the big screen, with the wonderful Ben Model accompanying on the Mighty Miditzer. Before I even get into the film I have to give Ben accolades - he never fails to give his all and treat us to a masterful performance. Well done!
Now, onto the picture...
Conrad Veidt is Gwynplaine, the son of a disgraced nobleman disfigured by decree of King James II in retribution. After his father's death, Gwynplaine is abandoned, doomed to wander the snowbound countryside...until he finds an infant nestled in her dead mother's arms. Gwynplaine takes the child and eventually finds the home of Ursus, who takes both of them in and discovers the infant is blind.
Years pass and both Gwynplaine and Dea (the blind infant, now played by Mary Philbin) are now part of a traveling showm run by Ursus, centering around Gwynplaine's horrific visage. This upsets him afresh every night, because he is in love with the beautiful and kind Dea, but will not marry her, refusing to burden her with his horror. One day they play at a fair near the Royal Court, and the Queen's jester discovers that The Man Who Laughs is actually the son of a nobleman. Only problem is, his rightful inheritance is now owned by Duchess Josiana (an almost unrecognizable Olga Baclanova). Queen Anne decides Gwynplaine must marry the Duchess in order to restore things to propriety.
Does Gwynplaine actually marry the Duchess, a highly sensual woman simultaneously aroused and digusted by his face? Does he stay with the angelic Dea, who loves him regardless of his appearance? Or does something else happen entirely? You'll have to watch the film and see.
Veidt is heartbreaking as The Man Who Laughs, managing to move the audience with a variety of emotions - all while his face is contorted into a perpetual smile. His anguish is palpable and at times it is difficult to look into his eyes (shades of Chaney, who was unable to star due to contractual obligations). Philbin has one or two instances where she does a fine job, particularly when in pain over Gwynplaine, but otherwise spends most of the role looking lovely (and rather like Mary Pickford, in my opinion). The picture itself was stretched a little long in spots - I felt that most of the action at court could've been condensed without affecting the story or it's outcome. Otherwise, a very good film. And three cheers for Homo the Wolf!
I give this one:
*"The Man Who Laughs" was indeed noted as one of the inspirations for The Joker. You can read an interesting blog entry about it here.