Cinematic Century

1928 – The Man Who Laughs



So far here on this Cinematic Century project I haven’t really thrown any curve balls. I always like to give some context, and mention other great movies that were released in the years that I look at, but for the most part I haven’t really had a year where the film I chose to highlight was kind of surprising. But, that’s probably going to change today, because I’m not really sure how familiar people are with Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, especially when compared to other films that came out in 1928. However, as I’ve stated before, this project isn’t meant to highlight what I think are the finest films of each year. This is a list of what movies were my favorites. I know that can be a rather fine distinction, and some people will argue that there shouldn’t be a difference between the two. But, I think that that distinction can be rather well displayed in 1928. Because I’m sure the film that most people would laud as the “best” film of the year was Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s an incredibly powerful film, shot almost exclusively in close-ups, and it shows a trial that Joan of Arc is put on because of the heresy she preaches. It’s a very moving film, and an emotionally draining one. It’s full of terrific performances, especially Maria Falconetti as Joan, and it’s very innovative for the time. But, it can be a bit exhausting too. It’s a film that I respect immensely, but having seen it once really can’t imagine revisiting anytime soon. And that’s not what this series is about. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a beautiful film, and a true triumph. But it’s not my favorite film of 1928. And, I actually had some tough competition for that title. Charlie Chaplin released a film, which is usually a done deal for me, but I really think that the Circus is one of his weakest efforts, and despite some fun comedy it’s lacking in that emotional core that makes me love his work so much. Likewise, Buster Keaton released two films, but neither of them are really my favorite of his. Steamboat Bill, Jr is fine, and the Cameraman has some great moment, including a monkey wielding a machine gun, but I feel like it strove to be closer to a Chaplin film, and thus went out of Keaton’s strengths. So, with those quibbles I was able to confidently pick for my 1928 film a movie that is probably most well known today for an utterly absurd reason, The Man Who Laughs.

This film is based off of one of the countless adventure novels of Victor Hugo. It’s not necessarily one of his better known novels, and in fact is usually considered one of the weakest of his works. But, the reason that this film exists at all is a little silly. Basically, after Universal had massive success with their adaptation of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Lon Chaney, they decided that the key to that success must have been the combination of Chaney’s performance and Hugo’s source material. So, they ended up optioning several of Hugo’s novels, getting in a mad-dash to find he perfect work of his that could be adapted for Chaney. They ended up finding this film, but during the process of acquiring the rights to adapt it Chaney grew bored, and ended up leaving the project to create his version of the Phantom of the Opera. However, that still left Universal with the Man Who Laughs, once they finally acquired it. So, they decided to make the best of the situation, and allowed the German Expressionist-Horror director Paul Leni to give it his best shot. And, to replace Chaney, they chose Conrad Veidt, who we’ve already seen in Robert Weine’s the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And, despite the fact that every step of this production seemed plagued by second-choices, they ended up creating the fascinating and weird little film we’ll be discussing today. And, along the way, they ended up finding themselves some accidental fame. This is a film that isn’t widely remembered at this point, other than one strange footnote in it’s history. The makeup that Conrad Veidt wore, and his performance as a whole, is legendarily the inspiration that Bill Finger and Bob Kane used to create Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker. Whether that story is apocryphal or not, I’m not sure, but it’s probably the primary reason that most people know of this film at all. Which is a shame, because it’s fascinating.




The Man Who Laughs is the story of a young boy living in England in the late seventeenth century. His father was a nobleman serving under King James II, but when James’ court jester/adviser Barkilphedro convinces James to kill the nobleman, and take his land, the child is left alone. And, to cover their tracks, he’s given to a group of Spanish nomads known as the Comprachios who mutilate the boy’s face to give him a constant grin. They rename him Gwynplaine and intend to force him into a life as a harlequin. However, the Comprachios are soon exiled from England, and they leave Gwynplaine behind in a snowstorm to die. He ends up finding an orphaned baby in the storm, and together they come across a travelling entertainer known as Ursus. He takes the two children in, and raises them into adulthood. The baby, a girl they name Dea, becomes beautiful, but blind. And Gwynplaine becomes a famous performer, entertaining the masses as Ursus travels around the country with them. Gwynplaine and Dea even begin to fall in love, seemingly set to have a nice life together after their horrific childhoods.

However, that bliss becomes problematic when Gwynplaine’s fame draws the attention of a spoiled duchess named Josiana. She’s the illegitimate daughter of King James, and she’s been given the lands and titles of Gynplaine’s murdered father. None of them know this though, and Josiana just goes to the show out of morbid curiosity. She becomes fascinated with Gynplaine, and decides to gain some amusement out of stringing him along. She begins spending time with him, fooling him into thinking that she’s falling in love with him, which surprised him, since he’s recently been worried that Dea only loves him because she can’t see his disfigurement, but here’s a woman who can see it and is still interested. But, things are complicated even further when it’s brought to Barkilphedro’s attention that the son of the lord he arranged to me killed so many years ago is still alive. He makes it known that he’s seeking information about the boy, and ends up getting contacted by one of the Comprachios who lets him know that the boy they were given was named Gwynplaine, and is now a famous entertainer. This worried Barkilphedro, because the boy does have a legitimate claim to his father’s lands, which now belong to the Duchess.

When this problem is brought to the attention of Queen Anne though, she has a rather simple solution. She’s going to break off Josiana’s engagement, and force her to marry Gwynplaine. The Queen believes that if they give Gwynplaine his father’s lands and titles, and marries him off to the Duchess, everything will work out perfectly. The Queens men then arrive at Ursus’ show, and take Gwynplaine away to his new life, not really giving him any sort of choice. Ursus and Dea are baffled by this, and Dea becomes utterly heartbroken. Gwynplaine is quickly reinstated in his rightful place, and made the new Lord of Clancharlie. He’s then brought to the House of Lords, where everyone promptly begins mocking his appearance. Which is more than Gwylplaine can handle. He’s used to people gaining entertainment from his disfigurement, but always on his terms, and he just can’t stand this new life that’s being thrust upon him. So, he gives an impassioned speech to the Lords where he basically tells them all to go to hell, and he renounces his titles and engagement to the Duchess. The Queen is not happy with this decision, and Gwynplaine is forced to flee from the castle and the Queen’s guards, trying to escape them and return to his old life. Luckily, he comes across Ursus and Dea, who were in the process of being exiled from England. He’s able to reunite with them, and the three head off for a more humble and enjoyable life.




The Man Who Laughs is not an overly complex film. It’s basically a fable, and a rather modest one at that, despite the surprisingly large budget that it was given by Universal who were sure that it was going to be a hit along the lines of Hunchback. Really, the film is completely shouldered by the performance of Conrad Veidt. Which, if you’ve seen the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, isn’t that ridiculous an idea. Veidt is a terrific silent actor, and much like his role as Cesare, most of his emoting has to come from his eyes. The makeup that they give Veidt to wear to replicate the mutilation that Gwynplaine endured makes it so that his face is constantly held in a rigid grin, leaving just his eyes to convey all of the emotions that he’s forced to experience over the course of this story. And he does an exquisite job. Everyone else in the film is quite good in this film as well, but it’s Veidt who carries it, and he does a truly admirable job, bringing us along on a rollicking tale. I’m actually not overly familiar with the work of Victor Hugo, more of an Alexandre Dumas guy myself, but from what I know of his stories, this seems like a pretty solid example of his dramatic, almost swashbuckling tales.

Which makes it even stranger that this film is often considered a horror film. I’d heard about this movie for years, and primarily due to the whole Joker thing. Yeah, I’m one of those people. So, by looking at images of it, and seeing Paul Leni’s filmography, it was easy to assume that this film was an early entry in Universal’s monster films. Hell, a lot of the posters that you’ll find of this film put Gwynplaine’s face in prominent display, trying to make him look as malicious as possible. But, when you watch it, it really isn’t a horror film at all. Gwynplaine isn’t some monster getting revenge on a world that has done him wrong. He’s just a decent person, tossed into a ridiculous set of circumstances. He had a decent life, and had created a career taking advantage of the pain caused to him. But, he was seduced by what he assumed was a better life, only to find that it was not at all what he expected. The world of royalty mocked him just as much, if not more, than his previous life, so he had no choice but to flee. So, not exactly a horror story. But, I think it’s fascinating that a director can take a story, and put it through their own lens to create something that the story maybe never was meant to be. Leni’s style of Expressionism took an adventure story, and poured a strange amount of dread and horror into it, making Gwynplaine a far more frightening looking character than was probably intended. But, I think it ends up working out well. You may go into this movie expecting Gwynplaine to be some sort of monster, but you end up realizing that it isn’t him, but the aristocracy that’s the monsters. Leni took an adventure tale, put horror elements into it, and then used them to buck conventions and put up a mirror to the real villains and monsters of the story.



The Man Who Laughs was written by J Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Mary McLean, and Charles E Whittaker, directed by Paul Leni, and released by Universal Pictures, 1928.




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