Misfitting in America: Paul Leni, Conrad Veidt, and The Man Who Laughs

Gergely, Gabor (2021) Misfitting in America: Paul Leni, Conrad Veidt, and The Man Who Laughs. In: ReFocus: The Films of Paul Leni. ReFocus: The International Directors Series . Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9781474454513

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Abstract

Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), the “laughing mountebank”, the lost heir to the Clancharlie estates, has been seized by the Queen’s men. His beatific fiancée, the blind actress Dea (Mary Philbin) is the only cast member of the traveling sideshow unaware of his capture. When the hour of the performance is upon them, the playwright (in truth, freak-show entrepreneur) Ursus (Cesare Gravina) urges the troupe he had assembled around his two marketable wards to pretend nothing is wrong. Suddenly, the film’s soundtrack erupts with calls of “Gwynplaine.” Crowd sounds have been heard before, but these are recognizable human voices matched, albeit imperfectly, with individuals making the sound. The troupe’s intention is to convey the sense of an impatient mob in the stalls, but their dismay at Gwynplaine’s arrest is palpable, and the effect is of a handful of individuals mournfully calling out for a lost companion. The tearful Dea, visibly disturbed, perhaps aware that something is amiss, goes through the motions of the show, playing her part in the pretense of normality. Post-synchronized sound here permits multiple meanings to emerge. There is a remarkable, complex engagement with the illusion of presence. We watch as the blind actor cannot see behind the aural illusion to the pretense of a presence, which masks a silence. This silence is, in truth, Gwynplaine’s absence. This mise-en-scène of the unequal relationship between those who see and the one who cannot see conveys simultaneously the sense of a presence, and also the absence it is designed to mask. The figure of the person who cannot see in the context of a silent film is a possible figure of identification for the viewer of a silent film with added sound at the dawn of sound cinema. That is to say the selective use of sound (some sounds are heard, but others are not) places the audience in a position that can be likened to Dea’s, in that information perceived via one of the senses is partially complemented and at times contradicted by limited information available via another sense. The blurring of silent cinema where presence is not the product of a mutual referral between a body and a space, with aspects of sound cinema, which provided such eagerly seized opportunities to explore sonority, most notably in the Universal horror cycle of 1930-35, creates a moment of rich complexity. The production of the sounds of mirth typically provoked by Gwynplaine’s presence are intended to indicate his presence to one who cannot see that he is not in truth there. At the same time, however, the laughter sounds unconvincing to Dea, who has grown up listening to people laugh at Gwynplaine. Thus the sounds generated to create the illusion of Gwynplaine’s presence in effect refute the illusion they are intended to conjure up.
This essay digs deeper into this complex dynamic of absence and presence to argue that the film engages with the trauma of displacement, the only solution for which is a final displacement into a zone beyond community and ordered space, unlinked from the film’s present, the “here” and “now”. Indeed, Gwynplaine and Dea are reunited in ecstatic bliss on a ship sailing off to the painted horizon. The film’s play-within-a-film structure and its keen focus on the actor’s position in the community as a body onto which meanings are projected, a figure of identification and rejection, make this a meta-text that can provide an interpretive framework for the films of exile and émigré actors in Hollywood.

Keywords:Paul Leni, Conrad Veidt, Exile, Hollywood, Misfitting
Subjects:P Mass Communications and Documentation > P303 Film studies
Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Film & Media > Lincoln School of Film & Media (Film)
ID Code:43879
Deposited On:15 Feb 2021 10:22

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