Thursday, May 31, 2018

Jason goes to SilentFest--Opening Night

Even when it was just 3 days, I was consistently more exhausted after the San Francisco Silent Film Festival than I was after any other 2+ week long festival. Now that they've expanded to 5 days, let's find out if I can even survive. 

After some obligatory introductions and thank-yous (especially, thank you to Universal, as this is part of their project to restore their silent films, which they announced tonight they have expanded by 10 more) we got on with the program.


This is my second time seeing this film, but the first time in this restored version. The first time was back in 2011, when it was the Halloween show at the Niles Film Museum. Here's what I wrote then:
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.
Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, looking really Shadow-y (Still courtesy of Universal Studios)
I'll stick by that plot synopsis, although I'll say that this time it didn't seem quite so dark and I picked up more on the comedy, particularly broad satire of the nobility. Perhaps that's because of the restoration, or perhaps that had to do with the excellent score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, who got that it was a melodrama more than a horror film, and played it for high drama and comedy, as appropriate.

Running Time: 110 minutes
My Total Minutes: 480,223

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