I’m like the man who never laughs, if only people knew how much I’m laughing on the inside!
Adaptation By: J. Grubb Alexander
Directed By: Paul Leni
Lately I’ve been watching a lot of horror films that don’t come across as horror films in the traditional sense. The Man Who Laughs is yet another horror film that doesn’t come across as a horror film on first glance. Much of the film is straight drama, or even a classical romance story. Hidden behind those elements is the ugly veneer of societal horror. It is in the way that Gwynplaine is treated by society, as well as the way that the social elite in The Man Who Laughs act that provide the true horror of the film. That’s not to say that the rest of the film is bereft of horror, because throughout The Man Who Laughs there is a deeply macabre sense of humor and tragedy at play.
Paul Leni doesn’t do anything obviously flashy with his camera or his framing of scenes. However, what he does is focus extensively on the faces of his main characters and allow for their faces to tell the story. It’s fitting that a film about a man whose face has been permanently etched into a smile would focus so much on the faces of its characters. Each of the main characters has their own macabre story to tell, and it’s not in the traditional narrative that these stories can be found. Rather, it is in the faces and the way that the actors emote through their faces that the macabre tragedy of The Man Who Laughs plays out for all to see.
Gwynplaine has the most exotic face of all the characters in the film. He is forced to permanently smile and that adds an eerie air to his every moment on screen. His visage also forces the audience to take a look at themselves and decide whether they want to be associated with the social elite in the film or be different and accept Gwynplaine for who he is. There’s also a lot of acting to be found in Conrad Veidt’s eyes, as he conveys the emotions Gwynplaine is feeling almost exclusively through his eyes. He is often hurt, scared, and at times even joyful.
Dea is the lovely angel of the film, the innocent who can do no wrong. It is in her angelic features that Gwynplaine can find true acceptance. Her face may be the most macabre though, as it shows everything that was taken away from Gwynplaine when he lost his normal face. Dea’s angelic features are countered by the beautiful yet hurtful face of Duchess Josiana. There isn’t an ounce of sympathy or empathy to be found in her face. That removes all of her beauty and leaves an ugly soul whose only mission is to hurt and cause pain for her own amusement.
Ursus is kindly and yet maniacal. He very clearly has a gentle soul but is missing a few screws all the same. By closing in on his face Mr. Leni is able to highlight the insanity of his story as well as the gentleness of his main character. The side characters in the performance troupe, especially the clowns, are also important in getting across the tragically macabre atmosphere necessary to the film. The clowns all have round faces, but they are contrasted with sharp make-up. The Man Who Laughs is about the truth of what is inside a person and the offsetting make-up of the clowns belies the truth of the gentle caring people they are on the inside.
The Man Who Laughs perhaps is padded out a little too much. That being said, if that’s the only complaint I have to levy against the film then I’d say the film is certainly well above average. Mr. Leni has crafted a tragic film about the condition of the human soul and the importance that the human race puts on appearance. His focus on the faces of his actors accentuates the macabre and tragic themes of the film. The Man Who Laughs won’t leave you laughing, but it will leave you with the understanding that the horror of someone’s damaged appearance is often overshadowed by the horror of society.