Paul Leni, 1928
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst
In a similar melodramatic vein as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Man Who Laughs is a transitional film for Universal, including plenty of horror elements and some of the most important figures of German Expressionism, director Paul Leni and star Conrad Veidt. Though The Man Who Laughs was initially intended to be a sound film, the elaborate prosthetics in Veidt’s face required it to be silent. As a result, it is one of the last great silent films from Hollywood. Because it was made during the transitional period, there are a few sound elements, such as a brief crowd soundtrack and a song, but this still qualifies as a silent film.
Set in the late 1700s and based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, Veidt stars as Gwynplaine, a young boy hideously mutilated because his rebellious father displeases the English king. He has a permanent smile cut into his face so that he can “always laugh at his fool of a father.” The child is abandoned and runs away, rescues an orphaned baby, and is taken in by a kind mountebank. He supports them all by performing as a tragic clown figure, the Man Who Laughs, but inside he is miserable and ashamed. The baby has grown into a beautiful, though blind woman, Dea, who loves Gwynplaine and hopes he will marry her. The queen learns of his existence and is determined to restore his title and inheritance to him. Unfortunately a rebellious young duchess holds his assets and the queen forces them to marry, partly to punish the duchess. Gwynplaine must choose between his title and the duchess and Dea, who truly loves him.
As I said, this is not a horror film, but Leni’s expressionist-themed visuals, the morbid elements of the plot, and Veidt’s fantastic performance and grotesque make up ensured its influence on future horror films, as well as on Bob Kane’s Batman comic. Gwynplaine’s demented smile allegedly inspired the Joker (my favorite comic book villain of all time). Unlike Lon Chaney’s epic melodramas (Chaney was unavailable for this film because of his contract with MGM) that influenced Universal horror films - The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera - Veidt’s Gwynplaine is a very different sort of character. Though he is mocked and ostracized his entire life and lives in shame and torment, he is still fundamentally a good character. And unlike Chaney’s darker, more twisted characters, Gwynplaine finds true love and has a happy ending. This is actually divergent from Hugo’s novel, where Gwynplaine and Dea die before ever realizing their love.
I would like to say that this is one of Veidt’s finest performances, but all of his diverse performances are nearly equally excellent. This performance and his starring role as the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remain his most iconic. His very simple make up for Gwynplaine involved prosthetic dentures that hooked into his mouth to pull the corners back, leaving behind a truly demented and unforgettable grin. His female costars, Mary Philbin and Olga Baclanova, are not as mesmerizing as Veidt, but manage to hold their own on screen. Philbin appeared in other early Universal horror films, such as playing Christine opposite Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera.
Ogla Baclanova as the Duchess Josiana is one of the most interesting female characters in American silent cinema. Josiana is rebellious and refuses to accept her place in court. She is also sexually adventurous, even wanton. Though she is engaged to another noble, she enjoys attending the town carnival in normal dress and allowing men to take liberties with her. She seduces Gwynplaine, though she is equally attracted to and repulsed by him. Ashamed of his face, he runs out in terror before their relationship can be consummated. Though Gwynplaine has a monster’s face, Josiana’s insatiable sexual appetite and complete lack of regard for social mores makes her the true monster of the film. Baclanova, who bears an odd resemblance to the pop singer Madonna, who go on to be in an even more memorable role a few years later in Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Part of what makes The Man Who Laughs such a powerful film is its refusal to follow the pattern established by Universal’s earlier epic melodramas. If you have not read the novel or seen one of the few other adaptations, you will likely have no idea what to expect from this treasure of a film. Leni’s direction is excellent and he delivers one powerful shot after another. Aside from the court scenes, the sets are claustrophobic. Too many people are packed into the carnival frames and the traveling wagon always seems too small for Gwynplaine, hiding and restricting him even as attempts to hide his face. There are many dizzying shots at the carnival of swirling machinery, circling carriage wheels and the spinning ferris wheel. These incredibly imaginative shots make the film worth watching even if you aren’t particularly fond of melodrama.
The monstrous characters that populate the film (of which Gwynplaine is the most benign) and carnivalesque atmosphere make this a must see and a great place to start if you are not already acquainted with silent film. You can watch the whole thing (it's pretty long, so brace yourself) right here online, or there is an excellent restored DVD from Kino. It includes some nice extras, such as a short making of documentary, a stills gallery, some short home movies of the actors, and more. Highly recommended.