November 6, 1928 [The Man Who Laughs]

In its deliberate blending of the sentimental with the grotesque, this is a Chaney picture sans Chaney--although Mary Philbin appears--this time blind, a melodramatic kindness for Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine, his face carved into a constant grin, his eyes always pleading that it fade, so he can mourn his losses--and maybe smile at Dea, the blind girl--another irony in a film whose strength lies in Veidt’s tortured posture, leaning his wet rictus away from feminine hands, desperate to be the hero despite the nightmare clown he presents.

And while the sets and camera angles remind us of Veidt’s Caligari-led somnambulist--everything stark, off-center and swaying--pathos dominates, its ironies heavy but nonetheless affecting; still, the audience groaned when Philbin--who has discovered the truth, both about his face and her love--kisses him, her lips against the stretched skin. Given our disgust, few of us were ready to allow love’s imagination to reach us, safe in our seats. But more than once I felt my face tugging at itself, assuming an unconscious, sympathetic grin of its own--and each time I quickly pulled it back to normal, a little disquieted that Veidt had turned mesmerist, no matter that the cause was True Love.


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