Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Man Who Laughs, Clown, Laugh

I got a wild hair, and decided to watch a double-feature (with a six hour intermission for sleep). Late last night I watched 'The Man Who Laughs', and early this morning I woke up and watched 'Laugh, Clown, Laugh' - Both silent films from 1928. Apparently, 1928 was a huge year for fucked-up tortured clown movies.
I've been watching a lot of silent films lately, and couldn't resist watching these two films back-to-back. Bill was kind enough to send me a copy of 'TMWL', and I'd been hesitant to open up My Lon Chaney collection (with 'LCL') until I had a good reason. After watching 'THWL' I had my reason.
Here's the breakdown:

The Man Who Laughs
Directed by Paul Leni, and based on the novel by Victor Hugo.I first became acquainted with the protagonist of this film, Gwynplaine, from James Elroy's book Black Dahlia, wherein a painting of Gwynplaine factors heavily into the storyline. I was intrigued and began to research the character. I was blown away by Hugo's premise.
The basis of this story is that a young son of a defiant nobleman is mutilated under order of King James II as retribution for his father's impudence. The king hires Gypsy surgeons to carve a gaping macabre smile across the child's face, regardless of Gwynplaine's emotion it looks as if he's laughing. The child is abandoned by the Gypsys and, while wandering, finds a blind infant, Dea, in the arms of her dead mother beneath her (presumably) father's gallow. The two orphans find shelter with the philosopher, Ursus (bear), and his wolf, Homo (man).
Flash forward 15 years - Gwynplaine is one of the most celebrated performers in England, and the whole lot of 'em are touring the countryside, performing. The film deals with Gwynplaine's desires for Dea, his shame over his appearance, and his quest for acceptance. Furthermore, within the royal court it is discovered that Gwynplaine is the rightful heir to his father's estate. The royals battle amongst each other wielding this new information as a weapon, all unbeknown to Gwynplaine and his 'family'.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film. This movie was absolutely beautiful, and I found myself pausing the DVD and taking photos of the screen at several points in the movie (probably 'cause I was drinking).

This seems to be Madonna's acting debut. She played the evil Duchess, Josiana:
With a character named 'Homo' in a silent film, you get some pretty awesome placards:
Bonus Fact: Bob Kane used the character of Gwynplaine as inspiration for Batman's nemesis, The Joker. Here's a close-up shot of Gwynplaine from the film:
Laugh, Clown, Laugh
Directed by Herbert Brenon, and based on a play by David Belasco & Tom Cushing.
I'm a huge fan of the old Lon Cheney films, and had been wanting to see this one for awhile. I really enjoyed the film and (especially) Chaney's performance, but after watching 'TMWL' it just kinda fell flat. This one's a story of a couple of traveling performers that find an abandoned little girl (Simonetta) and bring her in.
Flash forward 15 years (give or take) - Tito (Cheney) is one of the most celebrated performers in Italy, and the whole lot of 'em are touring through the countryside, performing. The film deals with Tito's desires for Simonetta, his shame over his attraction to the younger girl, and his quest for the acceptance of her love. Yeah, I just cut and pasted the preceding sentences from the earlier review and altered a couple of things, but it fits. While seeking help from a therapist, Tito befriends a Count (who is also smitten with Simonella). Love triangle hijinks/conflicts ensue.

It's amazing that two movies so similar were released in the same year. I guess that's just the way of Hollywood (Deep Impact -vs- Armageddon, Bug's Life -vs- Antz, etc.). They were probably filmed within 5 miles of each other, but 'The Man Who Laughs' had much more of a European feel to it due to Leni's expressionist style. 'TMWL' had a few surprisingly risque scenes, and was much darker in nature when compared to 'LCL'. 'Laugh, Clown, Laugh' had a more refined "Hollywood" feel to it. It was a charming little film, but failed to reach the depth of 'TMWL'.
I think that the bigger issue that these movies address is the sheer volumes of abandoned children floating around in the silent-film era. Hell, within the last week I've watched Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and Fritz Lang films that were all littered with transient waifs. Those little bastards must have been EVERYWHERE.
So that this plague doesn't haunt our society once again, please be sure to spay and neuter your children. Thank you for your cooperation.


garv said...

Glad you enjoyed TMWL. It's one of my favorite silent dramas, and I couldn't help but think of Madonna as well.

Everyone always talks about the early 70's being a golden age for film (and of course it was), but the late 20's were just as interesting--THE GENERAL, SUNRISE, THE GOLD RUSH, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, and the "Citizen Kane" of silents, Abel Gance's NAPOLEON. Unfortunately, sound hit just as silents were hitting an artistic peak.

DC Liar said...

The one thing I love about silent films is that the actors ACT. It's amazing how much physical exertion is involved in some of the roles, especially the vaudevillesque comedic actors.
Lately, I've been absolutely in awe of Harold Lloyd. In his films the man is climbing up the side of damned buildings, when he's not being towed behind a car while standing on a bicycle and swinging a lasso.
Let's see Tom Fucking Cruise do that.

garv said...

And Cruise has all his fingers. Harold Lloyd couldn't say the same.

DC Liar said...

re: Cruise has all his fingers

And that's why he's not an (all-caps) ACTOR.

edP said...

These are beautiful photos of horrible characters.

garv said...

If you like silents, you should check out the CINEVENT in Columbus, OH sometime. It's a rinky-dink little convention, but they often screen films that will likely never be commercially available. Kay and I have attended a couple of the past conventions.

Columbus also has drive-through liquor stores.

Ayrton Mugnaini Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ayrton Mugnaini Jr. said...

>Late last night I watched 'The Man Who Laughs', and early this morning I woke up and watched 'Laugh, Clown, Laugh' - Both silent films from 1928. Apparently, 1928 was a huge year for fucked-up tortured clown movies.<

Indeed, these two movies can be considered "twins". Moreover, they have an older sibling, He Who Gets Slapped, from 1924, directed by Victor Sjöström and starring the same Lon Chaney who would star in LCL. Like TMWL, HWGS was based on a major literary piece (a play by Russian author Leonid Andreyev). These films also demonstrate that the circus is a most democratic form or art and entertainment, what with the villains, wealthy and noble as they are, getting good laughs off "lowly" acts like clowns who does almost nothing but laugh and get slapped - and these clowns are rebels who would rather keep getting laughed at and slapped than belong to hypocrite aristocracy environments.

Oh, two more things: congratulations on your blog - and merry Xmas and a "10" year to all!