“A Comprachico surgeon carved a grin upon his face so he might laugh forever at his fool of a father.”
In 17th century France, a young boy (Julius Molnar Jr.) whose mouth has been carved into a permanent smile as punishment to his disloyal father is adopted by a kind mountebank named Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Years later, Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) and a young blind woman named Dea (Mary Philbin) find themselves in love, but Gwynplaine is unwilling to let Dea touch his disfigured face; meanwhile a fun-loving duchess (Olga Baclanova) toys with the idea of having Gwynplaine as a lover, but is surprised to learn that he’s actually a nobleman who is rightful heir to her property.
Former German set designer Paul Leni made only a handful of films in Hollywood before dying far too young from blood poisoning in 1929. His best known titles as a director are the episodic German fantasy film Waxworks (1924); a silent version of The Cat and the Canary (1927); and his penultimate feature, this unexpectedly creepy horror-melodrama based on a novel by Victor Hugo. There’s something inherently unsettling about facial disfigurement as represented on screen, with Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) perhaps epitomizing the sub-genre, and Hugo’s own The Phantom of the Opera (1925) offering a variation on the same theme of a disfigured man hiding his face from the sweet young woman he loves (played by Philbin in both films). Assisted by Jack Pierce’s stunning make-up design, Veidt fully inhabits the role of the unfortunate Gwynplaine, whose face is etched into a permanent smile no matter what his mood; it’s difficult to describe exactly how disturbing his scarred visage is until one sees it flashed across the screen time and again. (Veidt’s appearance here was acknowledged as a direct influence on Bob Kane, who created The Joker for DC Comics.)
Adding to the pathos of Veidt’s curse is the deeply disturbing backstory of how he received his disfigurement as a young boy; the thought of a group of malevolent gypsies known for causing permanent damage to young children chills me to my bones. Indeed, the film’s opening sequences are its most powerful, with the remainder of the storyline occasionally bogged down by the complex “hidden identity” narrative arc, which detracts from the twisted love triangle between Veidt, Philbin, and Baclanova (looking eerily like Madonna), whose fetishistic desires compel her to toy with Veidt’s emotions; although she’s best known for her iconic work as the villainess in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), she’s equally compelling in this role. Meanwhile, wild-haired Gravina brings unexpected pathos to his role as Gwynplaine and Dea’s caretaker, who comes across as refreshingly sympathetic and paternal rather than exploitative. Enormous credit for the film’s overall success, however, belongs to Leni and his behind-the-scenes crew, who film the entire storyline with Expressionistic flair, utilizing atmospheric sets and cinematography to effectively highlight the horror-driven drama behind Hugo’s narrative.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine
- Olga Baclanova as the Duchess Josiana
- Cesare Gravina as Ursus
- The unsettling first portion of the film
- Jack Pierce’s creepy makeup
- Atmospheric sets and cinematography
Yes, as a truly compelling silent horror-melodrama — and for Veidt’s noteworthy performance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.