[LIGHT 2016] The MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)

After the first two movies fort friendly, we continue the retrospective of the series UNIVERSAL MONSTERS (our retrospective: HERE) with The MAN WHO LAUGHS, Paul Leni. Second adaptation of a novel by Victor Hugo, after Notre-Dame de Paris, the film produced by Carl Laemmle is directed by one of the first German director who managed to export to America. One could therefore hope that, like Rupert Julian , who has won distinction as the universe by adapting the Phantom of The Opera, Paul Leni then regarded as a key figure in German expressionism manages to bring his special touch to his achievement. The man who laughs would have been able to be a new step for the series, but eventually turns out to be the first big disappointment of this retrospective.

And yet everything came together for Paul Leni directed a major film that would bring the Universal Monsters to a new dimension. The first few minutes we are announcing from the outset, odyssey grandiose, and plans to Gwynphaine lost in the wilderness we strengthen quickly in the idea that we are facing an important work, and bold. If the frantic editing and the staging is much less fixed and more dynamic than the previous two works may suggest that the two hours of the film will be loaded with twists and turns, Paul Leni will soon have the spectator against the foot to make The Man who laughs an intimate drama longuet and ultimately pretty empty. If the Phantom of The Opera and Notre-Dame de Paris were able to transcend their subject by creating issues alternative interesting, such as the war between the gypsies and the nobles of Paris or the struggle for survival against the ghost, here the director fails to create the interest in the fate of the characters. As a result is this unpleasant feeling that the story does not advance, and it is not really helped by the staging of Paul Leni. This is where the main problem of the film ; the filmmaker did a ton for not much. I am thinking especially of the sequence where we are supposed to believe in the death of one of the characters, because the process is so outdated, and more coarsely at the scene, the story seems to get bogged down to the point where he would have taken off. The bias of the intimate drama would have been able to work, but it would have taken for that one is interested in the fate of the characters, or that the issues relating to them are better directed to feel a certain tension. It is difficult though to blame Conrad Veidt, the interpreter of Gwynplaine, who delivers a performance quite honorable, managing to use his eyes and his gestures to convey his emotions. Helped by a make-up very well done, though far less monstrous than that of the preceding creatures, he does not seek to impose itself as a tragic figure, but limits the surjeu to look instead for a sober welcome, that of a normal man, overwhelmed by his disability. Mary Philbin, who gives him the replica, is a lot better than in the Phantom of The Opera but it always lacks this purity that illuminerait the screen to each of his appearances. The rest of the actors hold their own, but shine for all, but some, such as Cesare Gravina sound terribly fake in some scenes. Anyway, the performers of the main characters can’t transcend a story that does not put them in value, and writing story is the main responsible of the failure of the film.

All, however, is not to throw in the Man who laughs, starting with a photograph, very neat and a realization, in fact, quite classic but effective. But when Paul Leni allows herself a few eccentricities, I particularly like the shot where the camera is mounted on a large wheel, leading us into a fast-moving and steady, the idea often fly and can be at the origin of a certain poetry. In particular, there is this scene where the clowns mimic the public, completely surreal, and which derives a certain beauty. The use of the very beautiful scenery is also interesting in the sense that the film has an undeniable atmosphere from the artistic direction and of the classical opposition always effective between the simplicity of the circus and the luxury of the powerful. Paul Leni is not a bad director, he recalls entering his film in the age of modernity during many sequences, and the film’s failure is all the more troubling. The editing faster, cutting more dynamic, gradually disappear as the film sinks into the love-drama and the excitement of the first few minutes, soon gives place to weariness, despite the game based on the look and the involvement of Conrad Veidt.

”The Man who laughs is not a bad movie, but it could have been much more”

The Man who laughs would have really been able to be a movie in the series UNIVERSAL MONSTERS. Of course, there are the same themes as in previous works of Rupert Julian and Wallace Worlsey, but the first few minutes foreshadowed such an epic, a fresco on the life of a man disfigured and his relation to the world, and is unfortunate to see that the film prefers to eventually lock himself in something more traditional and less ambitious. It lacks the chemistry in the couple, it lacks the audacity of a director who does not have the means to take advantage of his talent visible and undeniable, it lacks the charm and qualities that made the Phantom of The Opera for a great movie. The Man who laughs is not a bad work, but it would have to be much more. It is more of the latest achievement of this retrospective to be produced by Carl Laemmle, and it is unfortunate to end up on a production does not make justice to the ambition he shows in the first two films. Hoping that the Dracula of the great Tod Browning, first film produced by Carl Laemmle Jr, was able to make people forget about this disappointment !


Your opinion ?

The Light Festival, will take place from 8 to 16 October 2016, dan stous the cinemas of the grand Lyon.

– programming

– our coverage

– our retrospective UNIVERSAL MONSTERS


Original title : The Man Who Laughs

Achievement : Paul Leni

Scenario : J. Grubb Alexander

Main actors : Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova

Country of origin : United States

Output : 1928

Duration : 1 hour and 50 minutes

Distributor : Universal Pictures

Synopsis : In England, at the end of the Seventeenth century, king James got rid of his enemy, the Lord Clancharlie, and sells his young son, Gwynplaine, to child traffickers who disfigure. The boy runs away and saves himself from the cold with a baby blind, Dea. Both are collected by Ursus, a showman. Gwynplaine, dubbed “The Man who laughs”, becomes a famous actor travelling. The jester, Barkilphedro, discovers his ancestry and noble reveals to queen Anne, who had succeeded king James.



1923 – Our lady of Paris (★★★★☆)

“an excellent way for Universal to establish itself as a studio major”

1925 – The phantom of the opera (★★★★☆)

“a nugget of visual and omen yet beautiful things for the rest of the series”

1928 – The man who laughs (★★★☆☆)

“not a bad movie, but it could have been much more”
1931 – Dracula (★★★★★)

“Tod Browning performs a major work, whether on the movie or pure on the representation of Dracula on the big screen”
1931 – Frankenstein (★★★★★)

“an instant classic made to perfection”
1932 – The mummy (★★★★☆)

“a first film is flawed, awkward, but who let themselves be viewed with pleasure and even paying the luxury of moving his audience”

1933 – The invisible man (★★★★☆)

“the director tackles the themes of power and greed without concession and multiplies the sequences challenging morally”

1935 – The bride of Frankenstein (★★★★★)

“The work of James Whale stands out as the jewel ultimate of a series absolutely fascinating”

1941 – The Wolf man (★★★☆☆)

“THE LOUP-GAROU is still a film to see, registering visually and thematically, the continuity of the Universal Monsters, and who will enthrall you with the time an hour”

1954 – The creature from the black lagoon (★★★★★)

Jack Arnolds carries a film of great intelligence and an audacity all making honors the early masterpieces of the series, while creating his own myth”

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