The Man Who Laughs (1928) the last of the great silent era genre pictures. My boy Leni adds the horror elements to this historical melodrama by portraying the barbarity of the age in which it is set. It starts with guy getting perforated to death, a child given a Glasgow smile so he can beg for money, and a woman with a suckling baby being frozen to death and that’s reel one. Veidt’s scarred but noble hero is haunted by his self-loathing, secretly of noble birth, doesn’t actually WANT to be a carny, and yet the woman enjoying his title and lands is a Libertine who goes carnival slumming in disguise to let drunk peasants feel her up….as one does. (creepiest nipple slip ever)
Leni’s raucous carnival scenes combine all the epic crowd work of Hunchback with all the voyuerism of Browning’s Freaks. He uses real sword swallowers and fire eaters, elephants and dwarves but you never really DO get to see the 5 legged cow, whose marquee is on screen quite a bit….maybe it’s a joke for the audience I don’t get. Watch quick where Leni mounts a camera on a ferris wheel to put you in the scene. Pierce’s makeup for Veidt has become iconic, by not adding actual scars to the face, it emphasizes the unhappy clown aspect, especially in scenes where he is surrounded by actual clowns in greasepaint. I think Philbin’s saintly blind girl is the least interesting character, but then I suspect she’s more of a plot device. You can have Love with Girl A who can’t see your scars, or you can have sex with girl B who is using you to keep from ACTUALLY becoming the peasant she pretends to be….when the audience just wants to be titilated by Choice B.
I don’t watch this film much anymore, the plot kinda bores me, Hugo was trying to say something about the blurry line between the classes and telling truth to power… and that’s when I got bored. I do like the carnival chaos, and angry crowds with torches but I don’t care about the people individually. There are more satisfying Veidt performances out there, and I like other Leni films better. The dog gives a great performance, so does the wig maker. There is a 2012 French version out there I would like to see just for giggles, pardon the pun.