A silent actor already not allowed to speak to give life to their character, but Conrad Veidt is technically given even more of a limitation than usual in his portrayal of the titular character. Veidt is not only not allowed not to speak a large portion of his face is already made up for him. That being the constant smile representing the deformity given to his character as an additional punishment for his own father, who was executed, for refusing to recognize King James. A smile large and purposefully grotesque which would ended up becoming inspiration for the creation of the Joker. Despite what the central character looks like, and the villain this film would help to create this is not a horror film, and Gwynplaine is most certainly not a monster. In fact this is not even a case in which his deformity causes people to really mistake him for one since Gwynplaine ends up becoming a clown. In this way the physicality of the performance is not the focal point exactly like say it would later be for Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, as Gwynplaine is a normal man besides what a surgeon did to him. The idea behind the character is past the smile and this presents an intriguing challenge for Veidt to over come with his performance.
Now even though the physical element I still would not say is the most striking part of his performance it still is well worth noting that Veidt's use of his physical presence. Although not a monster Veidt does not exactly carry himself as a wholly normal man either as there is something quite special about the way he physically performs the part. Veidt is someone who is marvelous in terms of making his body language come across the screen and with this as Veidt shows the way Gwynplaine interacts with people. This is this retired restrictive quality that Veidt shows as though he wants to avoid direct exposure with them as he knows what to expect from their reaction. Even in the moments where he is performing as a clown Veidt is tremendous in portraying this hesitation in his physical manner as though he is in a way fighting against his own popularity which seems to come from the crowd's fascination with his smile. Now the one person this is not the case for is the blind woman Dea (Mary Philbin), though Veidt does something fascinating with this well. When they are just interacting in general there is a greater warmth in Veidt's interactions with her depicting his honest nature as a man, but not when she is presenting her love to him directly which then again Veidt has Gwynplaine cower as though once again he is hiding from his own disfigurement, which he's sure would prevent any woman from loving him.
Now what's incredible is that physical element of his performance is not the most notable aspect of Veidt's work here, there is something else, although most of his face is covered by that smile his eyes are as free as any man's. Now the eyes are often the easiest place to spot a silent over actor as absurd bug eyes was too often the standard setting for many actors during the era. This can even be seen in Cesare Gravina's performance as Gwynplaine's caretaker, who always seems a bit surprised by everything at all times. The eyes though are the center of Veidt's work and this is masterstroke of his performance as so brilliantly uses it to reveal the man behind the "laugh". There is so much humanity that Veidt brings out of his eyes that is is absolutely heartbreaking to watch him in the film because of the sheer emotion that Veidt brings in just the top half of his face like that. The moments of sadness, as Gwynplaine is continually seen only for his smile and he starts to feel as though no one could see past that, are so palatable because of that heartbreak Veidt so well realizes in every torn look and tear. It's an astonishing performance in the way that Veidt makes the audience always see the man as the emotions from him are so keenly felt because he always offers as access to the very soul of the man that Gwynplaine is, not the freak he is mistaken for. The performance it reminds me most of is John Hurt's work in The Elephant Man, both actors are severely limited in that they must be covered to represent what so many see their characters as in the story. The beauty of the portrayals of Hurt and Veidt as their respective characters is that using the little they have they force we the audience to see what the others could not, the man not the monster.
Buster Keaton is most often compared to Charlie Chaplin obviously since they were both silent comedians, but also because they both frequently directed their films as well. It is interesting to compare their styles as both a director and an actor, and they certainly hold similarities in terms of the materiel. Both of them would stare as a fairly unassuming man who would fall into some absurd situation often in some way associated with his love interest. Now an obvious difference is found in Keaton being a tad more informal in terms of the character, Chaplin was most often the Tramp, whereas Keaton had less defined of a comical character. He did not have an exact suit nor was he made up in the way Chaplin was, and the defining element was the fact that it was Buster Keaton. As directors their films, although I must admit I've currently seen less of Keaton, often have a similair set up to get to the physical gags, though Keaton's approach is in way more realistic than Chaplin's more romantic approach. That's not to say the gags are not as absurd, but there is something grittier about them, as the danger often seems more real, perhaps because it was as Keaton really was simply standing in place as the whole front of a house fell around him in this film.
This carries over in a way to their separate performances as Chaplin would be grander in a certain way in regards to his character's emotions, as well as even with some of the gags seemed more apart of them in a different fashion than Keaton's approach. Keaton again is much more low key in his approach taking a rather dead pan approach, not quite the usual dead pan of indifference rather this sorrowful simple expression that is most often seen across his face. Keaton manages to derive this charm from just his whole sad sack manner that ends up being quite endearing while working particularly well, in technically the center of the film, that being the physical comedy. Again with Keaton there is something less exact, though most certainly was perhaps even more exact than Chaplin when filmed, in the gag sequences than Chaplin who often times there were specific moments where the Tramp was supposed to be performing within the film.
With Keaton his character usually is forced into the physical madness, which Keaton also makes incredibly funny in how off the cuff it feels within the film which is always aided to by his facial and physical reactions which always keep that meekness that makes it seem all the more haphazard and amusing. Now with Steamboat Bill Jr. I'll admit that it does not quite muster up the poignancy of some of Chaplin best efforts, although I quite preferred this film as well as Keaton's work than Chaplin's own film from 28 The Circus. That is not to say that Keaton purely aims for laughs, sine he does spend enough time to develop something in terms of father and son relationship as well as the romantic one. Neither are anything too substantial though still well realized in their own modest way. It is more than enough to in a way insulate the comic the moments with a certain dramatic pull, and for Keaton to be both a hero we can invest in while just being a guy with laugh at.
- Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs
- Erich von Stroheim in The Wedding March
- Emil Jannings in The Last Command
- Louis Wolheim in The Racket
- James Murray in The Crowd
- Jean Debucourt in The Fall of the House of Usher
- Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr.
- Warner Baxter in In Old Arizona
- George Bancroft in The Docks of New York
- Charles Chaplin in The Circus
- Charles Farrell in Street Angel
- Thomas Meighan in The Racket
- Edmund Lowe in In Old Arizona
- William Powell in The Last Command
- Lionel Barrymore in Sadie Thompson
- Eugène Silvain in The Passion of Joan of Arc
- Ernest Torrence in Steamboat Bill Jr.
- Lars Hanson in The Wind
- Montagu Love in The Wind
- Lewis Stone in A Woman of Affairs
- George E. Stone in The Racket
- Tom McGuire in Steamboat Bill Jr.
- Bert Roach in The Crowd