Release Date: April 27th, 1928 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Paul Leni
Written by: J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Mary McLean, Charles E. Whittaker
Based on: The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
Music by: Ernö Rapée, Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack, William Axt, Sam Perry, Gustav Borch
Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Brandon Hurst, Olga V. Baklanova, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Samuel de Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell
Universal Pictures, 110 Minutes
“[via subtitles, to the House of Lords] A king made me a clown! A queen made me a Peer! But first, God made me a man!” – Gwynplaine
This is sort of the swan song to the typical German Expressionist style, even though it was an American film. The director was German and Conrad Veidt, the title character, originally made his mark in the expressionist film style. Plus, even though this takes place in England, the sets look very German, especially for the time.
Now while it shares a strong resemblance to German Expressionism, it isn’t as surreal as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or as brooding as Nosferatu. But it still has a darkness to it and even though IMDb and other places categorize this as horror, it is very light in that regard. In fact, the only thing one can argue that fits the horror genre is the grotesque disfigurement of the title character.
Veidt plays Gwynplaine, a man who, as a boy, had his mouth disfigured by a king to look like a creepy smile. As a child he meets Dea and over the years they fall in love, even though Gwynplaine feels he is unworthy of her due to his disfigurement. Gwynplaine constantly wears a scarf over his mouth unless he is performing in the freak show of his traveling carnival. Dea, however, is blind and she sees her blindness as a blessing as it lets her see the true Gwynplaine.
As the film rolls on, it is revealed that Gwynplaine has a right to the throne and he is then pushed into a marriage with a Duchess, who is pretty much a horny vixen that weirdly is turned on by his disfigurement. But all Gwynplaine cares about is spending his life with Dea in his arms.
The character of Gwynplaine is one of the most iconic in cinema history, even if he is mostly forgotten by modern audiences today. His look was the inspiration of the Joker in the Batman comics. He would also inspire the look of the title character in the iconic ’60s horror picture Mr. Sardonicus. Most recently, the origin of his smile was an inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker, as played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.
This also came out during the time when film was transitioning from silent pictures to sound. Initially, this was released as a purely silent movie but due to its quick success it was re-released with a score, it’s own theme song and added sound effects.
The plot is based off of a Victor Hugo story, which the studio thought would help capture some of the magic they had with the adaptation of his more famous story The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Regardless of that, The Man Who Laughs stands quite strongly on its own.
This is a well crafted movie, the narrative flows nicely and the acting is exceptional, as you fall in love with a few of these characters and you want to see Gwynplaine achieve the happiness he yearns for.
A solid motion picture, through and through, The Man Who Laughs is one of the finest pictures of its era.
Pairs well with: other German Expressionist films with a dark edge: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Golem, etc.