Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1928. Universal Pictures. Titles by Walter Anthony, adaptation and continuity by J. Grubb Alexander, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Cinematography by Gilbert Warrenden. Produced by Carl Laemmle. Music by William Axt, Sam Perry, Erno Rapee. Production Design by Charles D. Hall, Thomas F. O’Neill, Joseph C. Wright. Costume Design by David Cox, Vera West. Film Editing by Edward L. Cahn.
Notable adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel that is highlighted by a superb performance by Conrad Veidt in the lead. He plays a traveling circus performer who is infamous for the smile surgically cut into his face by the “comprachicos” who abandoned him as a child; in this film his mouth is forced open to reveal big shiny teeth, later adaptations would do the more accurate, gruesome sliced cheeks but the effect here is still quite disturbing. He travels in his caravan with the man who rescued him from starvation as a child, along with a beautiful, blind woman (Mary Philbin) who was abandoned as a baby, and the two of them are now adults who are in love. Veidt wants to marry her, but feels that her not knowing the reality of his hideous face is equal to taking advantage of her, but when a noblewoman of the English court who enjoys slumming it in the low streets of London (Olga Baclanova) sees him and becomes erotically fascinated, his confidence improves. The plot thickens when the character’s lineage becomes known to the English court, his father (also played by Veidt) a nobleman who was executed by the king for treason. This brings our hero to court, which means both wealth and responsibility to his peers, but will that equal acceptance for the one thing that makes him stand out in so cruel a society? Although marketed as a horror film in the vein of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this is a beautifully shot, dramatic romance that emphasizes sympathy over spookiness. That said, the sight of Veidt in costume and makeup, which later inspired the creation of the Joker in the Batman comics and subsequent adaptations, is probably responsible for more than a few nightmares over the last decades.