The Man Who Laughs

US (1928) Dir. Paul Leni

In 1690 England, King James II (Samuel de Grasse) executes Lord Clancharlie for his rebellious actions and has a gypsy surgeon disfigure Clancharlie’s son Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr.) so his face is a permanent grin. Abandoned and homeless Gwynplaine on a winter night finds a dead woman cradling a newborn blind baby, which he rescues. They find shelter in a large wagon belonging to a charlatan named Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who, despite his ways, cannot abandon the two children. Ten years later Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) and Dea (Mary Philbin) are now young adults and in love, working as actors in Ursus’s travelling freakshow-cum-stage play with Gwynplaine the star attraction as “The Laughing Man”. Meanwhile Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) jester to the new regent Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) learns of Gwynplaine’s existence which will cause problems for Duchess Josiana (Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova) who has been living of the Clancharlie estate in his absence. To legitimise Josiana’s lifestyle the Queen orders that she and Gwynplaine marry.  

From the absurdly prolific pen of Victor Hugo, the man who gave us The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Les Miserables among others, comes another melodramatic period piece that has earned its place in the horror canon purely down to the eeriness of Conrad Veidt’s unsettling perma-grin, and the unsettling atmosphere created by German director Paul Leni who had already helmed 1927’s creepy mystery The Cat And The Canary. As one of the last silent films produced in Hollywood, The Man Who Laughs is also regarded as the last true example of German Expressionism in cinema, evident by the Gothic set designs that were supposed to represent 17th century London!

The story follows themes previously explored by Hugo – a poor disfigured man in love, the corruption of royalty and the aristocracy – and covers much ground with elements of drama, action, romance, intrigue and human interest. While some of the historical references are acceptable one has to take others with a pinch of salt, such as Duchess Josiana attired in slinky low cut dresses, or the presence of traditional clown make-up which didn’t appear until the 19th century.

Minor gripes though. The film lays out its unpleasant agenda from the start with the execution of Lord Clancharlie in the Iron Maiden (or Iron Lady as per the intertitles) and King James’s evil punishment for Gwynplaine (Hugo had a thing for unusual names didn’t he?). We don’t see the surgery take place but we don’t need to as the effect of this gruesome handiwork speaks for itself. The early scene in which young Gwynplaine is literally thrown off a boat by the gypsies into the snow is indicative of Leni’s ability to get under the audience’s skin with simplicity and not from the explicit. His mouth may be covered up but Gwynplaine’s pain is clear from his eyes, in a superb turn from young Julius Molnar Jr. who manages to bring out both the lost child and mature saviour of the baby with conviction.

Having grown together Gwynplaine and Dea are in love – or would be if Gwynplaine didn’t feel that his looks made him unworthy of the beautiful Dea’s heart. Aware of how sensitive Dea’s sense of touch is, Gwynplaine never lets her touch his lower face avoiding the inevitable revelation for as long as possible. When it does come, Dea philosophically exclaims “God made me blind so I can see the real Gwynplaine!” She’s a keeper, dude! Prior to the wedding, Josiana arranges a secret rendezvous with Gwynplaine to size him up, oddly enough finding herself both excited yet repelled by his grinning face. Gwynplaine accepts the invite to prove to himself that someone can find him attractive but it backfires when the Queen interferes, making Gwynplaine a peer and deporting Ursus and Dea.

It is no secret that the image created for this film was a direct influence on the character design of Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker while the two characters couldn’t be any more opposite. Gwynplaine is a gentle and sensitive soul as we see in his plight to spare Dea from the horror that is his visage. Initially the role of Gwynplaine was due to go to the Man of A Thousand Faces Lon Chaney – also marking a reunion with his Phantom Of The Opera co-star Mary Philbin – but his contract with MGM prohibited him working on this film for Universal. This fateful recasting pays dividends, as Veidt’s slimmer and angular features are far more suited to the image of Gwynplaine that Chaney’s, although what Chaney would have made of the role is now but a “what if?” dream for cineastes.

For Conrad Veidt his toughest challenge is to convey the pain and torment of his character with a huge grin on his face. It is one that he passes with flying colours, and speaking frankly, the fact this is a silent film adds to the effectiveness of his performances his eyes are forced to speak on his behalf. There is a noticeable eerie quality to his expression when he is on the brink of heartbreak yet his smile suggests otherwise. And when he finally mans up in the final act, the fire in his eyes coupled with the beaming grin creates something equally affecting for the viewer. Philbin gets to do little but serve as window dressing with her flowing blonde locks while the rest of the cast feast hungrily on the scenery, save for Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova who portrays Josiana as more of a flapper than nobility.

It may been one of the last bastions of its genre but The Man Who Laughs is a stirring and poignant tale that works best as a silent film, holding its head high a great example of its everlasting importance in cinema history. An overlooked classic for sure.