At one point in King of Jazz—Universal’s all talking! all singing! all dancing! extravaganza of 1930—an unbelievably young Bing Crosby
asks the Rhythm Boys “Just what kind of production is this?” “A Super-Super Special-Special Production!” they chime, in unison. The cheeky exchange was an in-joke at the expense of the studio that had already been in the business of “super-productions” well before it left silents reluctantly behind. The pursuit, or at least the promise, of the colossal was a persistent if erratic retrain from early in the history of an outfit whose name and bottom line were associated with penny-pinching programmers.
Industrious German émigré Carl Laemmle owned one Chicago nickelodeon in 1906, and, by 1915, inaugurated Universal City, the largest single moviemaking facility in the world. A genial man by mogul standards, Laemmle was also a frugal one. His studio built its success targeting rural markets not dominated by glossier fare (and the glossier studios’ monopolizing theater chains). There, audiences were content with the economical westerns, serials, and comedies that were “U’s” staple product. He was also hesitant to commit resources to trends like the feature-length (and later “talking”) pictures with their greatly increased costs.
Yet bigger movies also meant bigger profits—if also potentially bigger losses—in part because they could access the giant movie palaces of big cities, with their higher ticket prices and more discerning patrons. Laemmle was hardly indifferent to the notion of quality; early on, he reputedly junked a slew of finished films because he felt they were below the standard he wanted to be associated with. In 1916 he began an earnest pursuit of prestige, releasing films under hierarchical categories, with “Jewels” representing the cream of the crop in terms of marquee stars, production values, promotion, and budgets. Such gambles were “the only way Universal could achieve credibility” against its competitors, according to Universal Studio historian Bernard F. Dick.
These “A” pics weren’t all good and certainly weren’t all profitable. But they did enhance the studio’s reputation, notably when Laemmle took a chance on the Austrian-born Erich von Stroheim, an actor whose first directorial efforts (Blind Husbands, The Devil’s Passkey, Foolish Wives) were critical and popular sensations—albeit so extravagant they couldn’t quite recoup their costs. No such caveats applied to 1923’s “Super Jewel” The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an enormous undertaking that paid off. Its indelible star Lon Chaney had been a contract player at Universal a few years before, setting an unfortunate precedent for the studio when he left, feeling underappreciated in terms of both salary and roles. (Among many others who similarly slipped through the studio’s fingers were Valentino and Bette Davis.) When it mounted The Phantom of the Opera as a follow-up two years later, the studio had to beg for the actor’s services from Metro, where he had landed. Despite a troubled production, that film proved another lavish smash.
Metro wasn’t about to let its “Man of a Thousand Faces” profit a rival yet again, leaving no question that The Man Who Laughs, the follow-up to the Victor Hugo-derived Hunchback, would have to be played by someone else. But who? Laemmle, who made annual cross-Atlantic trips back home, found a ready-made creative team from his beloved Germany.
Paul Leni had done superb work as an art director for Lubitsch, E.A. Dupont, Alexander Korda, and Joe May and then caused a stir directing the macabre anthology film Waxworks (1924). The international hit featured a fearsome portrayal of Ivan the Terrible by Conrad Veidt, the gaunt giant who’d already chilled viewers in other menacing roles, such as the homicidal somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in addition to a more sympathetic turn in The Student of Prague, one of Germany’s biggest hits of 1926.
Signed to Universal, Leni leapt out of the Hollywood gate with The Cat and the Canary, a modestly scaled “old dark house” horror-comedy he invested with great style, and which earned great box-office. Lured to the U.S. by John Barrymore, Veidt also made a splash as the suave villain opposite his patron in Beloved Rogue (1926). Doll-like Mary Philbin, one of Universal’s biggest stars, completed the package—having already been terrorized by Chaney’s Phantom, she was a natural addition.
Published in 1869, seven years after Les Misérables, Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs is another epic tale of institutional injustice and social change. In 17th century England, cruel King James II (Sam De Grasse) executes a nobleman for the offense of not kissing his hand—but not before telling the man he’s already had his son permanently disfigured, his face surgically frozen into a ghastly grin. (Veidt wore false teeth and other apparatus to achieve the unnerving “Glasgow smile.”) Orphaned and impoverished, the boy Gwynplaine ends up a clownish freak at a traveling carnival, where he at least is loved by the blind Dea (Philbin), though he believes his deformity makes him unworthy of her. But when it’s discovered he is the rightful heir to an aristocratic fortune, scheming nobles seek him out for their own duplicitous ends.
A tortured Gothic romance rather than a “horror,” per se, The Man Who Laughs provided welcome challenge to a star who often played dual roles (here he’s both father and son) and whose enormous range was generally better deployed in Europe. Despite the fixed expression of Gwynplaine, Veidt’s protagonist is a figure of exquisite pathos. Perhaps his most striking adversary is a duchess who attempts to seduce him out of both covert greed and kinky desire played with daring, blunt sexuality by Olga Baclanova.
Universal spared no expense, spending more than $1 million and building fifty-plus sets. Leni’s German Expressionist wizardry is most evident in the opening reels, when the wicked King James court and the boy Gwynplaine’s panicked flight are portrayed in vividly grotesque terms. Even as the plot grows more sentimental, his control over camera movement and crowd scenes remains superb.
Planned well before the screen began to talk and completed in 1927, The Man Who Laughs was nonetheless held back until the next year while the studio jerry-rigged a soundtrack of canned music, Foley effects, and incidental dialogue to make a kinda-sorta talkie. By the time the film premiered, it seemed hopelessly out of step and was dismissed as overblown hokum. Critics were hostile, branding the story “morbid,” finding surprisingly little to praise in either direction or star turn. Audiences were simply absent.
The film was unlucky in many ways. Just a year later, Leni was dead of sepsis at age forty-four, while Philbin (after making a handful of films, including the quasi-horror Last Performance with Veidt) abruptly retired and became a recluse. Her costar returned to Germany with the advent of sound. He was insecure about his English but had also generally disliked his roles and the culture in Hollywood. Nonetheless, that’s where he wound up—a Jewish third wife combined with outspoken opposition to Hitler forced him to abandon his homeland for good in 1933. Eventually pulled back to California, he enjoyed playing evil Nazis and donating funds to the Allied cause (including a salary higher than Bogart or Bergman’s on Casablanca) before his own death from a heart attack at only age fifty.
The days of the “House of Laemmle” were also numbered. Carl Sr. soon left the business to better -educated but inexperienced Carl Jr., who pursued expensive quality with a zeal that proved the studio’s undoing. While nearly every studio suffered significant losses during the Great Depression, only Universal got into such straits that it was sold outright in 1936, its founding family ousted whole.
Still the least-known by far of Universal’s three silent “horror spectaculars,” The Man Who Laughs virtually vanished for decades, only resurfacing in the 1970s. Its legacy may be underappreciated, but can hardly be underestimated: Two of Leni’s key collaborators, art director Charles D. Hall and makeup wizard Jack P. Pierce, both translated their innovative work in the film to serve 1930s Universal horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, which in turn defined the look of screen horror (and particularly monsters) for decades to come. Anyone seeing Veidt’s Gwynplaine for the first time will draw a more obvious connection to an enduring icon of pop culture: His fixed grimace was an admitted inspiration for Batman’s archnemesis The Joker.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Berklee Silent Film Orchestra
Composers Phil Carlson, Benjamin Knorr, Marcelle Simpson, Sonia Coronado, Daniel Tauber, Emi Nishida, and Dai Haraguchi
Players Keren Satkin (flute), Andrew van der Paardt (oboe), Stephanie Clark (clarinets), Grant Bingham (bassoon), Braden Williams (horn), Jeremy Alvarez (trumpet), Ethan Santos (trombone), Eren Başbuğ (keyboard), Patrick Hanafin (percussion), Tania Mesa (violin), Nate Taylor (cello), and Michael Simon (contrabass)
Faculty Leaders Alison Plante (chair of film scoring), Assistant Professor Peter Bufano, and Rob Hayes (managing director)
Image credit: Pamela Gentile