I’d heard a lot about this silent picture over the years and was thrilled to find it posted on the internet.  Directed by German director Paul Leni, it stars Conrad Veidt (previously known as Cesare the Sonambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and American actress Mary Philbin from The Phantom of the Opera.   Other familiar faces are Cesare Gravinia from Greed and Olga Baclonova, later of Freaks.  Ms. Baclanova was something of a revelation in this picture for being almost an absolute dead-ringer for early career Madonna Ciccio.

The picture tells the tale of Gwynplaine, the son of an English nobleman who was sold into slavery by King James and handed over to the dreaded compraninos (Spanish for “children buyers).  His face was deliberaely disfigured, cutting at the corners of the mouth so he would have a perpetual smile.  Some have suggested that the character is the inspiration for Batman’s Joker.  That is possible.  The similarities are rather uncanny between the two characters.  But Gwynplaine is a sweet soul, who as he grows, is presented to the public as a clown and who wonders if he can ever fit in the normal world and romance the blind girl (Philbin) whom he loves.

The most striking thing about this picture is how deftly it handles horror and pathos.  Gwynplaine’s cruel fate is most horrifiying, yet Veidt plays him with a humanity that is completely believable and touching.  It is a top-notch performance, making him one of the few actors to match Lon Chaney in making a monster seem very human.  Philbin plays another sympathetic character as the love interest and Baclanova steals the show.  One wonders why she did not appear in more pictures.

The movie is marred by its final reel and the questionable need for a chase across the rooftops of London, echoing Phantom’s final chase a well.  It makes a fascinating character study into a rather pedestrian adventure and severely detracts from Veidt’s nearly perfect performance.  Yet despite that, this movie has stayed with me. It is one of the finest and most unforgettable of silent pictures.

S.D.

P.S.  This movie, along with many others, are available at http://www.archive.org.  Thanks to them for posting it.

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