Classic Movies

Silent Horrors: The Man Who Laughs (1928)


I had every intention of getting this review up yesterday, but ran into a few roadblocks along the way. The DVD recorder was in use for the better part of the day, capturing the Karloff films I didn’t already have in my collection (I could have used the DVD player on the computer, but I was defragmenting it at the time), and I also went on a few errands to Publix (groceries) and Office Depot (copy paper and ink cartridges for the computer). By the time Karloff had left the building and I settled down to watch The Man Who Laughs (1928), I was too tired to write anything…so I postponed it till today.

Laughs, based on the Victor Hugo story L’Homme qui rit, is the story of Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar, Jr.), the son of an English nobleman who’s had the misfortune of getting on the bad side of King James II (Sam De Grasse). The monarch has arranged for a surgeon with a band of gypsies (known as Comprachicos) to carve a permanent rictus on the face of the young boy, so that he may “laugh forever at his fool of a father”—an arrangement loyally carried out by his jester, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst). (The nobleman, on the other hand, gets a trip to the torture device known as the Iron Maiden—which is quite a feat, since the film’s plot starts out in 1690 and the Maiden wasn’t invented until 1793.) With the stalwart backbone present in all political leaders, James then decrees that all Comprachicos be banished from England (specifically for their habit of mutilating children with radical facial surgery—“I am shocked…shocked to discover gambling going on here!”) and so the gypsies beat a hasty retreat out of Blighty. Gwynplaine’s “plastic surgeon,” Dr, Hardquannone (George Siegmann), tries to convince his fellow Comprachicos to take Gwynplaine with them, but is overruled when the others are worried about being found with the “evidence.” Gwynplaine wanders about in sub-freezing temperatures (and rescues a baby from a dying mother in the process) before being taken in by “Ursus the Philosopher” (Cesare Gravina) and Ursus’ pet wolf Homo.

Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin in The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Many years pass, and the now-adult Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) has partnered up with Ursus as a sideshow attraction (what else? “The Man Who Laughs”…). The baby is now a strikingly beautiful young woman named Dea (Mary Philbin) who, though blind at birth, loves Gwynplaine because she is able to see the inside of the man as a tender and noble soul without being repulsed by his hideous grin. Hardquannone has also caught up to Gwynplaine and his group, and arranges for a message to be sent to Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) informing her of Gwynplaine’s existence. Josiana, it would seem, inherited the lands that belonged to Gwynplaine’s father and when Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) learns of this situation (thanks to Barkilphedro, who has made quite a name for himself in the Royal Court as an obsequious little toady) she decides to punish Josiana (she’s a bit of a flighty sort, and refuses to know her place) by recognizing Gwynplaine as the true heir…and decreeing that Josiana marry Gwynplaine in order to maintain her station. Gwynplaine is arrested by the Queen’s men and restored to his place in the House of Lords (and if you were expecting me to ask: “What’s one more clown in the House of Lords?” I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you), but he renounces his title and, defying the Queen (“A king made me a clown! A queen made me a Peer! But first, God made me a man!”), runs off to reunite with Dea and Ursus as they are leaving by ship (under a decree, they have been “banished” from England).

Cesare Gravina and Philbin

Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert once remarked of this silent classic: “The Man Who Laughs is a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film.” I think that’s a nail-on-the-head description of this mesmerizing film, and while there are a good many films by director Paul Leni that I’ve not had the privilege of seeing I’d certainly say that Laughs is his best by far. Once again, Leni transcends what could have been a stuffy and conventional outing by steeping the narrative in Expressionistic style—a great example of this is a harrowing scene in which the young Gwynplaine wanders aimlessly in a snowstorm while in the distance, the shadows of those Comprachicos unlucky to have made it out of England are silhouetted against the sky, dangling from the hangman’s rope. Leni also borrows a few tricks from his directorial peers, notably the impressive editing during the climactic escape sequence (shades of D.W. Griffith). One of my favorite shots in the movie is a nice tracking bit where the would-be blackmailer Hardquannone follows several of Barkilphedro’s representatives around the corner of a carnival tent; the camera goes with them, and upon getting around the corner we see the good doctor getting the snot beat out of him and carted off to prison.Major kudos go out to cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton and art director Charles D. Hall (who, it can be said, played a huge role in establishing “the look” of future Universal horrors like Dracula [1931], Frankenstein [1931] and The Black Cat [1934]) for making this movie a virtual feast for the eyes.

The Man Who Laughs, as commenter mgconlan pointed out in the comments section of another post, was originally conceived as a vehicle for Lon Chaney after his success in the Universal releases The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923; also based on a work by Hugo) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). But by the time the project got underway in 1927, Chaney was under contract to M-G-M, and his success as one of that studio’s major breadwinners (he made four films for Leo the Lion that year, including The Unknown and the legendary London After Midnight) ruled out any participation in a Universal film, so the part went to Conrad Veidt. I agree with mgconlan that Chaney would had been nothing short of sensational in the part, but Veidt acquits himself extremely well in the title role, making full use of his eyes and elaborate hand gestures to convey the sorrow of a man with a smirk tattooed on his face.

Josephine Crowell as the Queen in The Man Who Laughs (1928)

What I found most interesting in some of the casting in Laughs is that while Gwynplaine is certainly a dyed-in-the-wool grotesque, some of the other male characters ain’t going to be cat walking much, either. Ursus is a stunted weed of a man with a bulbous nose and what appears to be a Brillo pad for hair, while the character of Barkilphedro possesses a visage that makes you wonder how he got into the jester business in the first place. The character of Lord Dirry-Moir (Stuart Holmes), the fiancé of Josiana, is also a real piece of work—with a facial expression (he reminded me a bit of character actor Billy de Wolfe) that screams “simpleton.” Only the women seem to emerge unscathed: Dea and Josiana are as lovely as can be—Philbin, who receives top-billing, is good in an otherwise thankless role (she spends most of her time onscreen simpering and simulating blindness with a thousand-yard stare); Baclanova, on the other hand, goes to town with the “bad girl” part—she’s perhaps best-known to classic movie buffs as the treacherous Cleopatra in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). (I must also confess that I had to stifle a chuckle when I saw actress Josephine Crowell as Queen Anne because I remember her more for her comic turn as Harold Lloyd’s nagging mother-in-law in his 1924 feature Hot Water (I also saw her recently in the Charley Chase two-reeler No Father to Guide Him [1925]).

Actor Veidt was required to wear a facial appliance to replicate the hideous Joker-like grin (yes, Batman creator Bob Kane acknowledged that Gwynplaine was the model for Gotham City’s criminal mastermind) but the result was that he was unable to speak, which nipped the plans to make Laughs a sound film in the bud. Instead, Universal produced the movie with a background of music and sound effects—which is sort of off-putting in places: the song When Love Comes Stealing crops up in several scenes even though no one appears to be singing it onscreen. I do think the sound effects are effective in a memorable scene when Ursus decides to keep Gwynplaine’s arrest a secret from Dea by getting his “players” to imitate the noisy crowds his play attracts every night (you can hear a faint “Gwynplaine! Gwynplaine!” on the soundtrack). I was curious as to how far Ursus could keep up the deception, but fortunately for him the show is stopped by representatives of the Queen before it can go on.

Conrad Veidt

Interestingly enough, the 1928 Laughs was not the first attempt to bring Hugo’s work to the screen; versions were also produced in 1909 (now considered lost) and 1921 (Das grinsende Gesicht)—and there was also an Italian version in 1966 entitled L’uomo che ride. Schlockmeister William Castle also used Laughs as the inspiration for his 1961 horror flick Mr. Sardonicus.

Kino Video released a restored version of The Man Who Laughs to DVD in 2003 and I’d like to state that it is one of that company’s best releases; the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna restored the visual images at the laboratories of L’Immagine Ritrovata, and Universal took charge of restoring the original Movietone soundtrack. It’s choc-a-bloc with some great extras: a twenty-minute documentary entitled The Making of The Man Who Laughs, a gallery of rare photographs and art, an essay on the film by Conrad Veidt On Screen author John Soister—and my particular favorite, home movies showing stars like Veidt, Camilla Horn, Delores del Rio, Greta Garbo and Emil Jannings relaxing at home. (One revealing sequence shows Jannings unable to finish drinking a glass of milk, which should have tipped everyone off at the time that he was a Nazi-in-the-making: Nazis never drink milk!)

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