Saturday, April 21, 2012

Oh, that face! 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928) Tuesday, May 1 in Manchester, N.H.

Now here's a silent film you can really sink your teeth into.

It's 'The Man Who Laughs' (1928), director Paul Leni's adaptation of a lesser-known Victor Hugo historical novel. Starring the great Conrad Veidt (that's him above, with the choppers) as Gwynplaine, whose face was permanently disfigured into a hideous grin in childhood, this one has it all: a great story, arresting visuals, and a make-up job that was so memorable it later inspired the look of 'The Joker' in the Batman comic books.

Okay, cue the hyena-like laughter. But never mind Gwynplaine's mouth: In programming silent films for the remainder of 2012, I've tried to stretch myself a bit with films such as 'The Man Who Laughs,' which I've never done before. For one thing, I'm eager to keep exploring the silent era, and there's nothing like doing music for a film to get a sense of how it ticks.

Also, you can't keep doing 'The General' (1927) and 'Phantom of the Opera' (1925) again and again without feeling like you're in a silent film rut. So 'The Man Who Laughs' will help keep things from getting stale, even as I do seem to rely on titles I've done previously, sometimes as a matter of convenience. (Hey, I do have a day job, you know.)

For new or unfamiliar titles, the monthly series at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library is turning out to be a good place to try them out and see how they play. It's a small auditorium (about 200 seats) and the costs and logistics of staging a screening there are relatively minimal. Turnout seems tilted toward knowledgeable film folks (and some silent film newbies, too) who are eager for something new in old movies, and that's what I'm hoping to provide.

A good example of a film that proved worth reviving was the John Ford drama 'Hangman's House' (1928), which I slotted for this past March just because it's set in Ireland and I wanted something to mark St. Patrick's Day. The movie, which includes an early cameo of a young John Wayne in a crowd scene, proved to be a mesmerizing experience, more so than I expected. So it's a keeper.

And 'The Man Who Laughs?' One good indication is that contemporary film critics are still writing about it. Roger Ebert, for instance, wrote an extensive analysis in 2004 as part of his 'Great Movies' series. We'll see on Tuesday, May 1. If you're up for joining us, here's the press release that went out to local media...

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Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

'The Man Who Laughs' (1928) to screen with live music in Manchester, N.H. on Tuesday, May 1

Creepy silent film melodrama starring Conrad Veidt inspired make-up for Batman's nemesis 'The Joker'

MANCHESTER, N.H.—'The Man Who Laughs' (1928), a silent drama featuring a title character forced to wear an insane grin all his life, will be screened with live music on Tuesday, May 1 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H. The film will be accompanied live by silent film music specialist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free; donations are encouraged.

'The Man Who Laughs,' directed by Paul Leni and starring Conrad Veidt, is a sprawling adaptation of a Victor Hugo historical novel set in 17th century England. Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, a child born of English nobility. After his father is executed, a cruel King James II orders a royal surgeon to hideously disfigure young Gwynplaine's face into a permanent smile, so that he may always laugh at his father's foolishness.

Abandoned and shunned, young Gwynplaine is left to make his way on his own. He learns to conceal his face from strangers, and befriends Dea, a blind girl who is not aware of his disfigurement. The pair are then adopted and put to work by a travelling impresario, who promotes Gwynplaine's face as a theatrical attraction. Gwynplaine and Dea grow to adulthood and eventually fall in love, but complications arise when Gwynplaine's noble lineage is revealed, entitling him to his father's confiscated estate—provided he marry another woman of noble birth.

Veidt, who starred earlier in the German expressionist horror classic 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1919), played the role of Gwynplaine by using a prosthetic device inside his mouth to force his face into a hideous grin and display outsized teeth. This striking look was later adapted by Batman creater Bob Kane as a model for the physical appearance of iconic villain 'The Joker.'

Critics have praised 'The Man Who Laughs' for its dark visual style and daring story content.

"'The Man Who Laughs' is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film," wrote Roger Ebert in 2004. "The film is more disturbing than it might have been because of Leni's mastery of visual style."

'The Man Who Laughs' is the latest in a monthly series of silent films presented with live music in the Manchester Public Library's vintage 1913 Carpenter Auditorium. A wide range of rarely seen silent films are shown at the library, with screenings generally taking place on the first Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m.

Upcoming silent film screenings at the Manchester Public Library include:

• Tuesday, June 5, 2012, 6 p.m.: 'Underworld' (1927); director Josef von Sternberg's groundbreaking tale of big city mobsters, widely considered the father of all gangster pictures. Tale follows crime boss "Bull" Weed (George Bancroft) as he battles rival 1920s gangsters. Incredible black-and-white photography; winner of first-ever Oscar for original story by Ben Hecht. Admission free, donations encouraged.

• Tuesday, June 26, 2012, 6 p.m.: 'Spite Marriage' (1929); Buster Keaton's last silent feature finds the poker-faced comic smitten so much by stage actress Trilby Drew (Dorothy Sebastian) that he joins the cast of her production. The fun really starts when she asks Buster to marry her, but only to get even with an old flame. Classic Keaton comedy, underrated and full of great routines. Admission free, donations encouraged.

• Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012, 6 p.m.: 'Four Sons' (1928); director John Ford's drama about four brothers from Bavaria who become embroiled in World War I — but not on the same side! Interesting period drama set in Europe, carried by great story but with plenty of historical interest as well. Admission free, donations encouraged.

• Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012, 6 p.m.: 'Chicago' (1927); the original big screen adaptation of the notorious Jazz Age tabloid scandal, based on true events. Dancer Roxie Hart is accused of murder! Is she innocent or headed for the slammer? Later made into the popular Broadway musical. Admission free, donations encouraged.

'The Man Who Laughs' will be shown on Tuesday, May 1 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H. Admission is free, with donations encouraged to defray expenses. For more information, visit

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For more info, contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • Images and cutlines attached. High-resolution digital images available upon request.

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