Thursday, December 11, 2008

Laughs from the Past

For kids of the era, the Monster-mania of the late 1950's and 1960's was a high water mark for creep culture. Famous Monsters of Filmland, the monthly bible of the movement, was a gloriously ghoulish glimpse of the famous and not so famous things of the past. In any given issue, you might find an interview with Boris Karloff, or full-page photos of werewolves. For those who weren't there, you get the picture. The mag was influential, so much so that director Peter Jackson recalled seeing stills from a long since vanished scene from the original King Kong, which inspired him to create the segment for his 2005 remake. It is the highlight of the film.

Forrest Ackerman, who died one week ago, was the brain behind FMoF. (Visions of the flying brain and attached spinal cords from Fiend without a Face invariably spring to mind). To him I owe a longtime fascination with a picture of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. Veidt had already made his mark on film history as the sleepwalker in the seminal Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when THWL came out in 1927. He would late create another timeless role as Major Strasser, who eats some Bogie-fired lead in Casablanca. Veidt plays Gwynplaine, the son of an anti-monarch rebel in 17th century England. He had been kidnapped as a lad and sold by the king into the hands of depraved gypsies, often the focal of intrigue in movies of the period. A surgeon, and who knew gypsies had medical staff, carve a huge clownish grin into the young boy's face. The image of Veidt with his frozen smile and sad eyes kept me awake when I was 6. I assumed the movie was a classic horror show.

It's not. It is a romantic melodrama and very affecting. However, like many over the top romances of the day, there are occasional inadvertent laughs. While the movie is silent, it has a soundtrack with occasional crowd noise and music. Without a hint of irony, a song called "When Love Comes Smiling" swells up as Gwynplaine realizes he is worthy of love. Words change meaning over time and are usually a source of unexpected yuks. In this case, it is hysterical. While ridiculous character names abound (Gwynplaine, Dr. Harquannone, Barkliphedro, et al), one actor suffers under the dreaded moniker of Homo. It may help that this role is that of a faithful and later murderous dog, and it also is of some solace that the furry thespian's real name is Zimbo. But when dialogue cards come up that scream "Be quiet Homo," "Where are you leading me Homo" and just plain "Homo," it is then the audience itself is left with a surgically affixed smile.

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