Ever since its inception six months or so ago, Cinefamily has been wanting to put the Silent Movie Theater to its nominal use and screen silent movies, but with accompaniment from contemporary musicians rather than on a rinky-dink upright piano in the corner. And on Sunday night that admirable dream came true. The theater was packed, the atmosphere more that of a happening than screening, the DJ spinning some hot 60s garage, and a Robbie Robertson lookalike, accompanied by two versions of Dave Gilmore circa Ummagumma, were fooling around with guitars, organs and electrics; there were plenty of hats and hipsters and a few asymmetrical haircuts. It reminded me fondly of East London.
The spell of anticipation was broken somewhat by a tossed-off accompaniment to the supporting short, Méliès’ evergreen A Trip To The Moon (1902), but the musicians – Plastic Crimewave aka Steve Krakow (who creates the Galactic Zoo Dossier magazine/comic for Drag City), and locals Jimi Hey (former drummer for Beachwood Sparks) and Ariel Pink, the lo-fi pop wunderkind behind Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – knuckled down for the main attraction, Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928). Leni was the German expressionist master of Waxworks (1924) and, as was the vogue at the time, he’d been summoned from Germany to Hollywood and found himself under Carl Laemmele at Universal. He started well with The Cat and the Canary (1927) and followed up with this 18th-Century romp, adapted from a novel by Victor Hugo set in London under James II and Queen Anne.
Dispossessed aristo Gwynplaine grows up with a horribly disfigured face, a grin carved by the gypsies who practise grotesque surgery on children to exhibit them as freaks (sadly we see no other examples of their work). In a splendidly atmospheric opening, child Gwynplaine is abandoned on the Cornish coast by the sailing gypsies and, stumbling through a snowstorm, comes across a babe in the arms of its cold dead mother. They are taken in by the “philosopher” Ursus and his wolf-dog Homo. Gwynplaine grows up to be Conrad Veidt, his piercing soulful eyes perfectly offsetting the ghastly rictus (together with his strange conical haircut, the inspiration for Batman’s Joker).
The baby grows up to be Dea (Mary Philpin) wholesomely beautiful, drippy and, fortunately, blind. All together they travel the land as mountebanks in Ursus’s little green wagon, performing at fairs a playlet of which Gwynplaine is the star, “The Man Who Laughs.” This immediately gives the movie a great excuse for a lively zip through old-timey Southwark fair, the camera riding around the Ups and Downs, coursing through the carousing peasant crowd, or dissolving from painted sideshow posters to the attractions themselves (sadly we never see the five-legged cow either).
Meanwhile slutty duchess Josiane (Olga Baclanova) is enjoying the estate and riches of Gwynplaine’s executed father. First glimpsed climbing (butt naked!) in and out of her bath, with her jolie-laideur, her beauty spot and her full, small mouth, Baclanova is the perfect wanton, barely clutching a fur to hide her (lack of) modesty and offering a startling upskirt tease to jester-cum-vizier-cum-plot-device Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) who arrives with news of the rightful heir’s existence. That is before blowing off the queen’s concert to go romp at the fair, where she allows more liberties to the ruffians there than she does to her own betrothed, as the amusingly spaniel-like latter complains.
Unaware of his identity, she is fascinated by Gwynplaine and arranges an assignation. In the film’s most striking scene, he finds her waiting languorously in a negligee. As she stretches her body and strokes his face and nestles and nuzzles, she trembles almost visibly with desire and erotic fascination at his grotesque disfigurement; Gwynplaine’s good-hearted devotion to Dea forestalls the bizarre prospect of a kiss. It is a shame that the film does not pursue this exquisitely perverse attraction but little attention is paid to character or psychology after the initial set-up; the Queen decrees that Josiane should keep her wealth by marrying Gwynplaine, but she seems far less keen on him than before.
Gwynplaine for his part suffers mostly in silence (tho when he finally gets to express himself it’s with a cracker of an intertitle – “A king made me a jester, a queen made me a peer, but first, God made me a man!”) and Barkilphedro interferes for no purpose really other than mischief. But in the best Hugo tradition, the film is a romp, audience sympathy (or not) built in to the characteristics of the protagonists, an escalating pace of frenzy maintained and all being well as ends well. It’s no less enjoyable for that, and remarkable for some fantastically deft camerawork, classic expressionist lighting (if not sets), the underexplored undercurrents, and Veidt’s face itself, first make-up assignment for Jack Pierce, who went on to create all the Draculas, Frankensteins, wolf men et al for Universal’s celebrated horror period. And Homo ends up with a starring role, much to the appreciation of the audience, even if his name was stil uproarious the third time it appeared in the intertitles, for goodness’ sakes.
All this was accompanied by the rumbles and moans delay-drenched guitars, keyboard and some sort of groovebox, at times recalling the stuttering electronic distortion of Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack, exploding elsewhere with the clamorous electronic twittering of Nurse With Wound, most often taking after the floating waves of phase and echo of Flying Saucer Attack; the music was most successful when it coalesced into the the blissful, quasi-religious guitar and organ sound of Popul Vuh’s soundtracks or the smacked-out indie groove of Yo La Tengo’s live Jean Painleve soundtracks.
To accuse the musicians of mere random noodlings is a little too easy and unfair – unless you’re Carl Davis composing for the London Symphony Orchestra and Napoleon there’s nothing wrong with emulating the piano-player with the rinky-dink upright, a run-thru and quick fingers – but despite some shading in places, the accompaniment verged on the monotonous and numbing, not to say mildly headache-inducing (square, I know, but making electronic noise effectively is much harder than most give it credit for) and too rarely in support of or tonal relevance to the action onscreen. This was particularly detrimental to the final scenes, for which the music could not summon a crescendo of excitement to match the images it accompanied. But what a fun evening, with props going to the musicians in part for simply doing it, and in part for making a good stab (improvised film accompaniment is also much harder than people credit); and props to the Cinefamily for kicking off in such style what I can only hope will become a regular fixture.