The Man Who Laughs [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (1st September 2020).
The Film

During the rule of England's King James II (Sam De Grasse), rebel Lord Clancharlie surrenders for the sake of his son only to learn that the king – with the help of his sadistic jester Barkilphedro (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde's Brandon Hurst) – has had young Gwynplaine's (Julius Molnar) face surgically mutilated by gypsy freakmaker comprachicos into a horrific grin to mock the fate of his father who is consigned to the iron maiden. After the comprachicos have served their purpose, King James issues a decree to order the gypsies out of the country. Comprachico surgeon Dr. Hardquannone (Uncle Tom's Cabin's George Siegmann) sees money to be made in young Gwynplaine's features but his cohorts do not want the boy as evidence of their crimes wherever they next settle. Gwynplaine braves the elements and rescues a child whose mother has frozen to death. Both are taken in by Ursus the Philosopher (Cesare Gravina), and Gwynplaine becomes "The Man Who Laughs" (The Thief of Bagdad's Conrad Veidt) in his traveling show while the blind baby grows into beautiful Dea (The Phantom of the Opera's Mary Philbin) who does not understand why Gwynplaine cannot return her love even though she swears that she can see beyond what other men laugh at to his soul. Dr. Hardquannone has returned to the country and sees Gwynplaine in the village fare and tries to alert Queen Anne (The Birth of a Nation's Josephine Crowell) as to the young man's identity, but Barkilphedro, now in the Queen's court, gets to him first and sees an opportunity for reward and social-climbing when producing Gwynplaine as the rightful heir to the estate of Lord Clancharlie when Duchess Josiana (Freaks' Olga Baclanova) is on the verge of losing her claim on it. Josiana has already seen Gwynplaine while ducking her responsibilities at court and embarrassing her fiancé Lord Dirry-Moir (Stuart Holmes), and Gwynplaine at first is stirred by the idea that someone who can see him might be able to love him; however, he rebuffs Josiana when he discovers that it is his freakishness that attracts her. Gwynplaine is arrested when he refuses to marry Josiana by decree of the Queen, Ursus and Dea are ordered out of the country, and Barkilphedro plots to attain his reward and avoid the iron maiden; but spurned Dirry-Moir also has plans to upset the court.

In the early days of horror film scholarship, Universal's The Man Who Laughs – boasting as it does a lead performance by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's Veidt (before his more debonair turns in American fare like Casablanca) under Jack Pierce (Frankenstein) make-up, with direction by The Cat and the Canary's Paul Leni, and a handful of publicity photographs that suggested its strong German Expressionist visual influence – was generally regarded as an early Universal horror film; however, it has less in common with Universal's Lon Chaney vehicle The Phantom of the Opera (Chaney was originally intended to play Veidt's titular role) than Universal's previous historical epic and fellow Victor Hugo adaptation The Hunchback of Notre Dame in which Chaney's deformed protagonist, like Veidt here, is equally pitiable and heroic. After a bit of Pre-Code horror in the opening, much of the film is played for sentimentality as well as some period piece grandeur, and the climax is more serial swashbuckling that gothic chills; as such, the film is less dramatically-satisfying than as a showcase for Veidt who manages complex emotions under his make-up appliances, and a look at Universal's early attempts to set itself apart from other studios with massive productions. The film was not well-received upon release and even more contemporary reviews have been mixed apart from acknowledging Leni's German Expressionist style – honed from working as an art director under Max Reinhardt and having previously helmed the anthology Waxworks in which Veidt played Ivan the Terrible in one of the vignettes – so it is not surprising that Universal did not try to remake it as a horror film during the thirties through the fifties (although it is an acknowledged influence on William Castle's Mr. Sardonicus which is otherwise an adaptation of a Ray Russell novel).
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Video

Released theatrically by Universal Pictures in 1928, The Man Who Laughs was difficult to see until Kino on Video's 2003 DVD from a Cineteca di Bologna restoration with the original Movietone soundtrack. The film received a new 4K restoration last year which debuted on Blu-ray in the United States from Flicker Alley, and that same master has been used for Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC pillarboxed widescreen transfer with a 1.21:1 approximation of the original Movietone 1.19:1 aspect ratio. The main titles are windowboxed and the title card slightly cropped on the sides, although that may have been by design, but the results are otherwise startling for a film nearly a century old from more than one 35mm source with contrasts leaning towards the darker side rather than losing available detail in the highlights while items that should be white appear so.
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Audio

The transfer features a new Berklee School of Music Score score in LPCM 2.0 stereo, but it sounds too "clean" and lacks the chief attraction of the original 1928 Movietone score - also included here in LPCM 2.0 mono - in which the actors are silent but crowd sounds are overdubbed with what would be thought of later as "ADR group" or "walla" voices, as well as the film's theme song "When Love Comes Stealing", a vocal version of which is heard over the ending scenes.
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Extras

Extras start off with "Kim Newman on Paul Leni" (12:23) in which the author and horror expert discusses the film within the context of the output of Universal and the career of Chaney who was set to star, and in the context of Leni's filmograpahy, making the case that he was a stronger director than some of the director's Chaney hired to do his bidding on his projects, and was among his countrymen like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, the one who could have worked most successfully and creatively within the studio system were his career not cut short by blood poisoning. A similar case is made in "The Face Deceives" (33:18), video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson, and "Paul Leni and The Man Who Laughs" (13:44), a visual essay by film historian and author John Soister, with the former providing additional focus on Leni's career in Germany and his other American efforts – including the lost Charlie Chan outing The Chinese Parrot – while the latter also includes the input of Matthew Charles Hall, great grand-nephew of Universal production designer Charles D. Hall (Bride of Frankenstein), who relays recollections about Leni. The disc also includes extensive still galleries featuring behind the scenes photos, costume and make-up tests photos, exhibition and trade ads, posters and heralds, and memorabilia.
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Packaging

Packaged with the disc is a 35-page collector's booklet featuring a number of essays on the film. "The Man Who Laughs" by Kevin Brownlow which covers the film in the context of Universal's reputation at the time as a "sausage factory" of a production company, how the project was intended as a Chaney vehicle but greenlit again after Chaney left the studio after the favorable response to the studio's distribution of the epic French production of Les misérables, the hunt for "another Chaney", hiring Leni, and coming up with the look of Gwynplaine. In "Not The Haunted Screen: The Man Who Laughs" by Richard Combs discusses the film's cinematic language and makes the case that is not a horror film and has more in common with the "humanist spirit" of David Lynch's The Elephant Man with its approach to its main character. On the other hand, in "Travis Crawford on Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs", Crawford argues that it is not only a horror film but a highly influential one that shaped the studio's output in spite of the film's lack of critical or audience success. Finally, "The Man Who Laughs Experience" by Sonia Coronado is reprinted from Flicker Alley's U.S. booklet in which the author recalls her part in the new Berklee score and its first live performance.

Overall

Not really the horror film it has been thought of during its period of being near impossible to see, The Man Who Laughs film is less dramatically-satisfying than as a showcase for Veidt who manages complex emotions under his make-up appliances, and a look at Universal's early attempts to set itself apart from other studios with massive productions.

 


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