Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees THE MAN WHO LAUGHS

But of course, first some shorts, in the packed Halloween weekend program.

THE FORTUNE TELLER (1923): The first of two Koko the Clown shorts tonight. Koko and his creator Max Fleischer mix it up with a gypsy fortune teller who tells them they are both haunted by evil spirits. For Koko, it's the ghost in a deck of cards who haunts him.

THE OUIJA BOARD (1920): The other Koko the Clown short. This time while Max Fleischer torments Koko with a haunted house, his assistants play with a Ouija board. But when Koko jumps off the page and hides under the Ouija marker, he scares the bejeezus out of them.

HER BRIDAL NIGHT-MARE (1920): Coleen Moore in a comic love triangle. She is engaged, but her unsuccessful suitor has a plan to break up the marriage. Ultimately her fiancee is arrested, she's left at the altar, all the presents are stolen, and more wacky hijinx ensue. Mistaken identity, costumes, lots of physical comedy and running around, and ultimately the bad guys lose and love conquers all. Nice.

Then the intermission, and the feature presentation.

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928): I'd never seen this classic Paul Leni directed Conrad Veidt starring film. It's an adaptation of a lesser-known Victor Hugo (Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) novel. And it's a shockingly grim story, even for today (it's especially bleak for the audiences of 1928, it didn't do well on the initial release). Gwynplaine is the son of a nobleman who has displeased King James II. So while his father is sentenced to death in the Iron Lady, Gwynplaine is surgically altered so his face is in a permanent grin--as the king say, "So he will always be laughing at his fool of a father." He's abandoned, and in his wanderings in the snow he encounters hanged corpses in a rather shockingly grim scene (oh yeah, it's a very German expressionist style) and then he comes across the corpse of a mother with a baby girl in her arms. The baby is still alive, so Gwynplaine rescues her, and eventually finds himself at the home of the philosopher (i.e., playwright/mountebank) Ursus. There we find out the little girl (who they name Dea) is blind. Years later they are travelling performers, and Gwynplaine (now played by Conrad Veidt) is known as The Man Who Laughs. It's a very popular show, and he and Dea are falling in love. And then his noble birth becomes known, and he's drawn into palace intrigue with the Queen (King James' heir), the seductive Duchess Josiana (who is living in his rightful family home), and especially the evil jester/power behind the throne Barkilphedro. Amazing story, very melodramatic and dark. And just an amazing movie.

Oh yeah, and a lot has been made about Conrad Veidt's performance being at least part of the inspiration of The Joker in the Batman comics. This might or might not be true, allegedly there are no accounts of Batman creator Bob Kane ever claiming this. Maybe it's true, maybe the coincidence is just so striking that it's impossible to believe there's no connection. Certainly, the similarities are absolutely there, and it's become enough of Batman lore that if the original connection wasn't there it's certainly been put in there since. But while we're comparing him to famous pop culture characters, with his angular nose and covering his mouth with a scarf so often, I also saw a bit of The Shadow in him.

Total Running Time (estimated): 148 minutes
My Total Minutes: 253,719

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