The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Director: Paul Leni
Cast: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova
Runtime: 110 minutes
Release Date: 17th August 2020
Jamie Havlin gives his thoughts on one of the most visually striking and moving of all silent films, Paul Leni’s highly influential The Man Who Laughs.
Adapted from the Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel, the man who laughs of the title is Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt). We first see him as a child, a scarf pulled over his mouth to hide the ghoulish rictus smile carved into his face by allies of King James II, the intention behind this grotesque punishment being to remind him forever more that his supposedly treacherous father Lord Clancharlie was a fool. The King sentences this political enemy to death in an iron maiden and Gwynplaine is orphaned.
Wandering through the cold of a Cornish winter, he comes across a young woman sat in the snow who has fallen victim to hyperthermia, although the baby (Dea) she has been cradling has somehow survived the freezing temperatures. Along with Dea, Gwynplaine is taken in by Ursus, a travelling carnival showman.
Fast forward to the child and baby as adults, audiences flocking to see the Laughing Man, with most somehow finding the torture inflicted on Gwynplaine uproariously funny.
He perseveres and there is one bright side to his life. He gets close to Dea (Mary Philbin). She is now a beautiful and kind young woman, and she has grown to love her good-natured companion. Significantly, she never gets to see his face as she is blind. Because of his disfigurement, Gwynplaine suspects that he is unworthy of that love.
Another hurdle is put in Gwynplaine’s way when Queen Anne – who has by now ascended the throne – learns of his noble ancestry. She seeks him out and decrees that he must marry Duchess Josiana (Madonna lookalike Olga Baclanova), who has come into possession of Lord Clancharlie’s estates. This, according to the Queen, will ensure that their proper ownership can be rightfully restored. Gwynplaine is also instructed to take his seat in the House of Lords.
This is a fascinating example of the cinema of the late 1920s, an era when silent films were about to give way to the talkies. By the standards of today, the pace might be slow at times but the story, even when veering towards melodrama, is always involving.
Conrad Veidt’s performance is absolutely superb. The make-up artist who created his look also deserves special praise. Jack Pierce’s work became a direct influence for The Joker in early Batman comics and the onscreen adaptations that followed. Today, this is what The Man Who Laughs is likely best remembered for although the lighting and atmosphere of Paul Leni’s film would also serve as an inspiration for many of the Universal Studio’s horror movies that followed, including James Whale’s Frankenstein films (1931 and 1935).
Initially, the response of many critics was distinctly lukewarm but over the years the merits of The Man Who Laughs have been increasingly appreciated. Even though it was shot in Hollywood, Roger Ebert declared it ‘one of the final treasures of German silent Expressionism’, while The Los Angeles Times was full of admiration for Leni: ‘His bravura Expressionist style lifts this tempestuous tale above the level of tear-jerker to genuinely stirring experience.’
Sadly, the German-born director died soon after shooting The Man Who Laughs and only made one more film The Last Warning (1929).
The Masters of Cinema is proud to present the film on home video for the first time ever in the UK.
Special features include a new interview with horror expert Kim Newman, a new video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson, Paul Leni ‘The Man Who Laughs’ – featurette on the production of the film and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing.
For more on the film click here.
All words by Jamie Havlin. More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.