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SCREENING ROOM

Leni's 'Man Who Laughs' a Silent, Stirring Experience

August 15, 1994|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

German director Paul Leni's best-known U.S. film is "The Cat and the Canary" (1927), the horror-suspense classic, but his American masterpiece is the rarely seen "The Man Who Laughs" (1928), which screens Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Silent Movie. Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel, it is precisely the kind of all-stops-out romantic adventure that needs the silent rather than sound medium for its maximum impact. In Leni it found its perfect director, for his bravura Expressionist style lifts this tempestuous tale above the level of tear-jerker to genuinely stirring experience.

Conrad Veidt, another ideal choice, stars as a man who in childhood had his face surgically altered to give him a permanent smile; it was part of his dire fate to have been the heir of a nobleman who rebelled against the rule of Britain's King James II. He and another orphan, a blind girl Dea (Mary Philbin), have been raised by a kindly strolling player (Stroheim favorite Cesare Gravina), and now form a part of a popular clown troupe.

The beautiful Dea loves Veidt's Gwynplaine, but even though she cannot see his grotesque countenance, he feels unworthy of any woman--until he catches the attention of a wanton, dangerous duchess (Olga Baclanova) in the frumpy Queen Anne's stultified court. Amid superbly designed settings the tormented Gwynplaine and the innocent Dea meet their destiny.

This is a blue-ribbon week for the Silent Movie, presenting on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. a double feature of rare and major Ernst Lubitsch films, "The Marriage Circle" (1924) and "One Arabian Night" (1921).

One of the director's personal favorites, "The Marriage Circle," is one of the earliest sophisticated films in the American cinema, a comedy of manners set in motion when the unhappily married and flirtatious Mizzi (Marie Prevost), newly arrived in Vienna, looks up her old friend Charlotte (Florence Vidor), who heretofore has enjoyed idyllic wedded bliss (not to mention immense wealth) with the tall and elegant Franz (Monte Blue).

Lubitsch and Pola Negri, who began working together in Europe, were as great a team as DeMille and Swanson, their rivals at Paramount. Made in Germany in 1920 as "Sumurun," "One Arabian Night," stars Negri as a fearless Gypsy dancer and Lubitsch himself as the hunchbacked clown proprietor of a band of entertainers. Determined to vamp the mighty sheik (Paul Wegener, famed as "The Golem"), Negri arrives in Baghdad as part of Lubitsch's caravan. A production elaborate to the point of campiness, "One Arabian Night" plays like a rowdy spoof of heady harem tales--only to have Lubitsch deftly turns the tables for an unexpectedly poignant finish.

Information: (213) 653-2389.

Lively: A series of Hong Kong pictures commences Wednesday at the Monica 4-Plex with a one-week run of "Drunken Master II," a lively if rambling sequel to the 1978 film that established Jackie Chan as a martial arts star; this time he's trying to prevent a nasty Brit from smuggling a piece of imperial jade out of China. The film's turn-of-century sense of period is as wobbly as Chan's disarming style of combat, referred to in the film's title. Chan at 40 is in great shape but a little old to play the son of gorgeous and witty Anita Mui.

Information: (310) 394-9741.

Focused: Soraya Mire's straightforward one-hour documentary "Fire Eyes" (opens Friday at the Sunset 5, at 1 p.m. daily for one week only) brings even greater focus and information than the recent "Warrior Marks" on the horrors of female genital mutilation, a practice that began in ancient Egypt and remains prevalent today in Northeast Africa, Malaysia and parts of India. (It is estimated that there are today between 80 million and 100 million women who have suffered this fate.)

Mire's film is at once a personal testament--she was subjected to circumcision and infibulation at 13 in her native Somalia--and a call for an end to this life-endangering custom that causes women hideous, enduring pain and chronic health problems. Mire's film makes clear what a formidable task it will be to stop it, for it is so ingrained in various and widespread cultures and it requires a change in the way men regard women as well as the way women regard themselves.

A Somali man, who cannot understand why anyone would want to do away with such a cruel, sexist tradition, remarks, "You have to have a door on your house . . . you can't leave your door open. The same with women."

Information: (213) 848-3500.

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