The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #1

The Man Who Laughs: A Forgotten Masterpiece  

Stephen D. Smith

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Few movie-goers regard any film not made in their lifetime as valuable. Within that minority, even fewer are motivated to embrace early cinema and keep it alive. For this reason, films like Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, have more or less quietly faded into obscurity.

Based on Victor Hugo’s politically-grounded human tragedy, The Laughing Man, the 1928 film was released with due fanfare and critical praise for the grand spectacle it was. The film could truly boast a cast of thousands, and a stellar cast of key players lead by German actor extraordinaire, Conrad Veidt, who for one rare film, was allowed to play not the villian, but the victim, the horribly disfigured Gwynplaine. Mary Philbin, whom genre fans remember as the beautiful operatic engenue in Lon Chaney’s classic 1925 film, Phantom of the Opera, was the leading lady in the role of Dea, a blind sideshow performer and childhood sweetheart of Gwynplaine. Produced for Universal, the film was supervised by Carl Laemmle, who had personally invited German director Paul Leni to “come on over” to the U.S. Leni’s direction, almost unrecognizable when compared to his stage-like setting of Universal’s 1927 The Cat and the Canary, returned to his expressionist style of directing most notable from his 1924 UFA film, Waxworks, which also starred Veidt. It would be difficult for a newcomer to this film, whether scholar or layman, to discern this American-made film from the rich gothic texturing of period German films. The elaborate sets and the “thousands” of period-dressed extras fattened the crowd scenes, transforming them into grand and claustrophobic compositions. The unique soundtrack of background music and rumbling crowds added to the overall production quality, while cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton contributed breathtaking camera angles reminiscent of the German expressionistic style of the day.

The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama focusing on one young man, the tragic Gwynplaine, a boy forced to watch the execution of his father, a 17th century Scottish Nobleman (also portrayed by Veidt) who has rebelled against the tyranical British throne of King James II (played nobly, albiet briefly, by Sam DeGrasse). To avoid more unrest, the King “spares” the life of the tortured boy, but not before ordering that his face be carved into a permanent smile. In this wounded state, young Gwynplaine is secretly placed in the charge of a band of gypsies who are to “exile” him in France. The motley group abandon him during a severe snowstorm in the French countryside.

The lost boy, in his personal state of shock, marches zombie-like through bitter cold and snow, in search of shelter. He comes across a baby, bundled and suckling her frozen and lifeless mother. Putting his own dispair aside, Gwynplaine rescues the child, holding her close to him, and trudges though the elements, until he comes upon the camp of a caravan of sideshow performers. The kindly actors take young Gwynplaine, and the tiny Dea, into their fold. The two grow up together in little more than a fade. Cut to twenty(?) years later. Gwynplaine is now known as the Man Who laughs, a popular clown. Though the jeers of the crowd pierce his heart daily, his popularity brings with it prosperity to his “family” of performers. He is in love with Dea, and she with him. While touring England, fate catches up with Gwynplaine, who, when discovered by nobility, is brought before the British throne to have his place in high society restored. But while this may appear to be a Cinderella story, in keeping with Hugo’s angst, such a revelation proves tragic for the young man.

Gwynplaine is indeed restored to his proper position, but is merely brought in as a pawn in a malicious scheme by other nobility, specifically the queen’s sister, who uses the gentle misfit as a tool and a plaything. Like all of Hugo’s great works, the story ultimately ends in sorrow. The author’s great compassion for the common person, and his disdain for nobility, especially English, dealt with extensively in works like Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Toilers of the Sea, and Les Miserables (yes, this was a Hugo novel before it was a musical!), comes shining through in what can only be described as a glorious tragedy. Like these others, the hero seldom wins, and the good is trampled, instead of triumphing.

Yet despite all of the tragedy the film depicts, it has to be one of the most romantic films ever made. Veidt’s powerful acting ability brings the character of Gwynplaine to life, not the Jack Pierce-designed make-up. Though the film is known for creating the image that Bob Kane would later use as inspiration for his Joker character from Batman, it is Veidt’s eyes which give the performance of a lifetime. It is a great accomplishment for any actor to convey emotion, but against so many adversities, from no sound, to the always noticeable grin, Veidt conveys grief, sorrow, joy, and passion so effectively, the viewer is lost in the performance. In fact, his portrayal is so moving, it overshadows the moderately captivating performance of Mary Philbin, and even the lusty performance by Olga Baclanova, who later starred in Tod Browning’s Freaks.

The Man Who Laughs is considered one of director Paul Leni’s best films; without a doubt his greatest American film. The director unfortunately died in 1929 at the age of 44 from blood poisoning leaving behind a legacy of artistic genius and many wonders of what he might have been able to do with sound and the horror classics of the 1930s.

A digitally restored print of the film, accompanied by a newly created score by Canadian composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, was featured at the Cannes Festival in 1998, with subsequent showings throughout the world. It appeared as an entry in the 37th Annual New York Film Festival in October of 1999. The film’s revival met with audience and critical praise, validating its rightful place in cinematic history.

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The Man Who Laughs (Universal, 1928). Cast: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova, Josephine Crowell, George Siegmann, Brandon Hurst, Sam De Grasse, Stuart Holmes, Cesare Gravina, Nick De Ruiz, Edgar Norton, Torbin Meyer, Julius Molnar, Jr., Charles Puffy, Frank Puglia, Jack Goodrich, Carmen Costello and Zimbo (Homo, the wolf). Directed by Paul Leni. B&W. 110 minutes.

There are complicated legal issues preventing any major video label from releasing this incredible work of art. However, it was produced in the late 1920s by Universal Studios, and could still, rightfully, be released by their home video label. If you want to see this film on video, write or e-mail Universal Home Video and tell them.

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Stephen D. Smith is a screenwriter and entertainment developer, currently writing and producing a television adventure series called Adventure Team: The Alex Cryss Chronicles™ and a film for the popular British pop group, Atomic Kitten. He is the former editor-in-chief of Monsterscene, a popular horror film journal which was published infrequently throughout the 1990s. He is a fan of classic horror films, and a follower of Jean Cocteau’s, citing La Belle et la Bête (1944) as his favorite film, followed closely by Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1991).

Copyright © 2000 by the author. All rights reserved.