28 April 2009

I Watched It So You Don't Have To: The Man Who Laughs

I'm a sucker for a good melodrama. Give me a couple of sympathetic characters, do awful shitty things to them for an hour and a half, let them get a brief, fleeting taste of the sweet life, and then cruelly wrench it away in an apoplectic fit of tragedy, and you'll have broken me. I will collapse into a ball and weep delicious tears of beautiful sadness, and I will thank you for it.

I expected that from The Man Who Laughs. I wanted it to piss on my brain and punch me in the solar plexus with extreme horrorshow moments that send its pathetically tormented protagonists through the emotional grinder. I did not get that. Visually, yes, it was excellent: moody, dark, and alive, the film was one of the final gasps of German Expressionism, which ranks alongside Italian Neorealism as one of the top Film Eras That Make You Want To Slit Your Wrists Because It's All So Fucking Depressing.

Storywise, though, The Man Who Laughs is a let down. I first heard of it as one of the visual inspirations for The Joker, and I became even further interested in it when it figured into the plot of The Black Dahlia, which is otherwise about as enjoyable as bathing in a Port-A-Potty. The setup sounded like my idea of a bleak good time, and the film's opening did not disappoint in that regard.

It begins with King James II being awoken by the film's villain, the court jester who has a name I don't want to spell out repeatedly, so I'll just call him Dickhole. Turns out that James' enemy, Lord Clancharlie (which is an awesome fucking name) has just been captured after returning to see his son. Unfortunately, Dickhole and James sold the son to that old reliable ethnic-other bad guy group, the Gypsies, who disfigured him by cutting up his face into a permanent smile-rictus. Lord Clancharlie is then put into the Iron Maiden (excellent!) and executed (bogus). (Yes, I went there.)

We then join Clancharlie's little son, Gwynplaine, as the Gypsies leave him behind as they board a ship in the middle of a snowstorm. As the ship sails away from England, Gwynplaine trudges off seeking shelter, passing beneath hung, decaying bodies and encountering a dead woman who still clutches a bawling infant in her frozen arms. Gwynplaine rescues the child and is taken in by a wandering philosopher, Ursus, and his pet wolf (with the now-unfortunate name of Homo; apparently it was a little jibe at man's inhumanity to man, but today only comes off as unintentional comedy, especially when one title card reads "Where are you taking me, Homo?" Reader, I cannot deny that I laughed). As Ursus cooks up a stew, he discovers Gwynplaine's perma-smile face and realizes that the baby is not only an orphan, it's also blind. Whammy!

How's that for a great fucking beginning? You've got Gwynplaine with a tragic defigurement that will forever mark him as a monstrous clown to the rest of humanity, unable to do anything but smile no matter what heartbreak befalls him. And then the blind girl, Dea, who naturally grows up to be beautiful and in love with Gwynplaine, who loves her back but is hesitant to make a move because how can she really love him when she doesn't know the true hideousness of his condition and etc.? And their loving father figure, who is not above making a buck by peddling his adopted son in a traveling freak show. Bring on the pathos!

Then the movie spends about an hour not doing much of anything. The protagonists end up at a fair where they begin staging a play with a troupe of clowns. Gwynplaine is popular because, you know, people are assholes and like laughing at things that are different from them. He hates it, and is sad a lot, but performs for them nonetheless, and pines for Dea, who pines right back. And for the longest time, nothing outside of general shittiness happens to them.

Meanwhile, we keep jumping into court to watch the latest machinations of Dickhole against the vivacious and wonderfully slutty duchess who inherited Gwynplaine's rightful place in the aristocracy. When Dickhole finds out that Gwynplaine is still alive and could usurp the duchess, he puts a plan into play to make it happen, because...well, he's not really given any motivation. I think he's just bored, and likes to be dick. Which is fine and all, but later on it kind of falls through. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, we spend some time with the Slutty Duchess and her Idiot Fiancee (a stereotype we continue to enjoy today, but wonderfully played here by Stuart Holmes), and she gets entangled with Gwynplaine because she's attracted to his differentness, and it gives him the motivation to finally make a move on Dea.

All this takes up way more time than it should. I kept yelling "Separate these fucking lovers already and get them pining!" But the movie took its sweet time. Eventually, with about twenty minutes to go, Gwynplaine gets made a Lord and the Queen orders him to marry the Slutty Duchess. The theater people, meanwhile, are told that he's dead, and they have a mildly affecting/amusing scene where they try to convince Dea that Gwynplaine is still alive by staging the play as if there was an audience there cheering on the leading man. Then Dickhole comes along and banishes them from England.

While they're on their way to the docks, Gwynplaine gets laughed at in the House of Lords. He refuses the Queen's order to marry the Slutty Duchess, yells at the assembled Peers, and decides Fuck it, I'm buggin' out. He makes his escape, but for some reason, the Dickhole and a collection of soldiers chase after him. I wasn't clear on why the Dickhole would continue to care about Gwynplaine. His little trick has been pulled, and he's unaffected by the fall out. So Gwynplaine tells the Queen to eat shit. What does the Dickhole care? Why doesn't he just hang back and let the soldiers do their thing?

As he's making his escape, Gwynplaine inadvertantly puts on one final show for a horde of people who recognize him and chase after him because Hey! It's that guy! From that show! and it briefly turns into A Hard Day's Night. The crowd tangles with the soldiers, Gwynplaine swordfights a guy, leaps off a roof, and runs around, eventually making it to the docks. Dea and Ursus are on a boat, sailing away, and Homo manages to alert Gwynplaine to their presence. He jumps into a boat and rows out to them, while Homo swims to the dock bites out Dickhole's throat and drowns him, and swims back to the boat.

And then the movie has the gall, the fucking gall, to give us a happy ending. What the fuck, movie? Don't you even know how tragic melodramas are supposed to end, especially those based on Victor Hugo novels? Were I watching this in a theater in 1928, I would have stood up and shouted, "Bushwa! This flick is a real flat tire! I'm gonna go get an edge on at a blind tiger and make whoopee with a jake tomato."

While watching it, I started to wonder if there have been any good melodramas released lately. The first two films that sprang to mind were Crash (which is an abomination to everything mankind holds dear) and The Departed. There are some who may dismiss The Departed as glorified pulp fiction, but that's why I love it so much. It's big and tragic, imbued with enough naturalism to make it seem real but not afraid to go for the surreal touches that tap into the underlying emotions, like the Chinatown chase and everyone's favorite Boston rat at the end. It's my favorite of genres, the Blend, with three parts drama to one part thriller and one part gangster. It's true: If you don't like The Departed, you can go fuck yourself.


  1. Congratulations on the beginning of this series. I look forward to know what other old "classics" I can feel good about skipping while making plans to watch Max Payne with McCarty. Tomorrow, actually.

  2. "Where are you taking me, Homo?" I laughed too.

  3. Mr Muschong! I loved your retelling of the story, probably better than I will like the film when I one day watch it. You are a funny fellow, indeed. But hey, we all know that. How the heck are you, anyway? Maggie

  4. Maggie! Things are going well here in the ol' NYC. I am living the high life whilst simultaneously squandering the precious time I have here on this earth. How's yourself?