The Man Who Laughs from 1928 should be remembered alongside other silent classics like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame but somehow it slipped between the cracks over the years. Making this oversight more upsetting is the fact that this film was pretty much the blueprint for what would become the Universal horrors of the 1930s. More after the jump.
The film, a Carl Laemmle production, was directed by German émigré Paul Leni, who died much too young, but also brought other chillers like The Cat and the Canary (1927), the original haunted house movie, and Waxworks (1924) to the screen before his time was up. The Man Who Laughs was his second to last film. From his fatherland, Leni brought the expressionist themes of shadow over light – perfect for the genre.
Based on a French novel (by Victor Hugo) much like its predecessors Hunchback and Phantom, the film was a spectacle with a literal cast of thousands. Hugo’s story, adapted by J. Grubb Alexander also of Svengali and a master scenarist of the silent days, tells the tale of Gwynplaine, a man scarred by Gypsies to wear a permanent grin because of his father’s treachery.
Originally meant for Lon Chaney because of the monstrous make-up required for the part, the actor unfortunately could not get out of his contract or his hectic schedule to do it. Director Leni turned instead to his homeland, and actor Conrad Veidt. While probably best known as Major Strasser in Casablanca, the role that won him Gwynplaine was that of the frightening somnambulistic slave Caesare in the surreal German horror flick The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Easily Veidt slides into the role of Gwynplaine as a proper replacement for Chaney.
The make-up for Gwynplaine required hooks to turn the corners of Veidt’s mouth upward into the horrific grin. This apparatus forced the film to be silent rather than sound, which was just coming into its own at the time, for Veidt could not speak while wired up. This was designed by artist Jack Pierce who would later produce the familiar visage of the Frankenstein monster for Universal a few years later. The German-influenced expressionist sets of The Man Who Laughs also prove a precursor as they were devised by Charles D. Hall, later to work on both Frankenstein and Dracula.
The Joker’s Inspiration
It should be noted that the ghastly grimace of Gwynplaine was Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane’s inspiration for the Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, years later in 1940. The Joker’s pasty-face reminiscent of the make-up of the silents, and his horrid grin was also permanent, although caused by an acid chemical bath, like many of the caped crusader’s rogues gallery. This imagery was also probably in both Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger’s visions of the hideous villain. Many are the scene where you can see the Joker in Gwynplaine’s image.
Gwynplaine himself is not anything like the Joker, or even evil. Like the Phantom or the Hunchback, he is a sympathetic creature, misinterpreted by his deformity as a monster. And like those characters, and the master Lon Chaney who portrayed them, Conrad Veidt does most of his acting through his eyes, an amazing feat.
The True Villains
While the advertised terror is that of Gwynplaine, the horror of the Comprachicos, the Gypsies who scarred him, is worth a movie all unto itself. It surprises me that one hasn’t been done, other than the possibly ethnical offenses involved. I suppose no one in modern times wants to play with the stereotypes of Gypsies. These particular Gypsies however have a horrific practice of kidnapping children and carving them up. If that’s not a horror movie in the making, I don’t know what is.
The boy Gwynplaine is stranded in a cold, dead wasteland strewn with hanged corpses, where he finds a blind child, Dea, played by Mary Philbin, best known as Christine in Phantom, whom he cares for. Together they survive until found by Father Ursus the philosopher, who takes care of the two children as they grow up. Dea, being blind and unaware of his unending grin, adores her ‘brother’ Gwynplaine. He becomes known as a wandering entertainer, ‘the laughing man,’ and quite successfully so.
Knowing the love between Gwynplaine and Dea, Ursus seeks to marry them, but the laughing man is always fearful the beautiful girl will know his ugliness. The plot turns on the fact that our laughing man is actually heir to rich lands. Bad guys – Doctor Hardquononne the Gypsy surgeon who damaged our hero, Barkilphedro the conniving underling who had his father killed and Josianna the Duchess who now resides on those lands – plot to destroy or deceive Gwynplaine. The Duchess is played by the dangerously seductive Olga Baclanova, infamous villainess of Tod Browning’s Freaks.
As the deceitful Barkilphedro, who goes from jester to royal advisor is Brandon Hurst. He’s much better known for later roles as Silver the creepy butler in White Zombie and Merlin in 1931’s A Connecticut Yankee starring Will Rogers. However here, his own smile ironically sums up his own subtle sinister qualities. Great performance.
In an unfortunate glitch, look for the telephone wires in 17th century England. But on the good side, don’t miss the pretty and innocent Mary Philbin, America’s next sweetheart at the time, and the always evil (even when she’s good) Olga Baclanova as the Duchess, in the highlights of their careers in my opinion, and of course the powerful performance of Conrad Veidt in the title role. The film, a true lost classic of the silent horror genre, should not be missed.
The above appeared in a slightly different form on my pop culture blog, Welcome to Hell, back in 2005.