Victor Hugo was a man known for crafting such thought-provoking yet bleak works such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. The Man Who Laughs is no exception to that. The story revolves around a man named Gwynplaine, the son of a nobleman who was executed by the King, who is scarred as a boy by being given a permanent grin by a gang of gypsies. Discarded, he rescues a blind baby girl and both are raised into a travelling circus, but many years later, Gwynplaine soon becomes a pawn of royalty, which threatens his life of happiness with the woman he cares for the most.
Germanic expressionism gave rise to such classics in the early years of cinema, classics like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and soon its style started to seep into American moviemaking. This movie adaptation of Hugo’s novel is a great example of that. Conrad Veidt was part of that expressionist movement after appearing in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, so it made sense for him to take part of the central lead after Lon Chaney dropped out. The film itself, while having a rather simplistic plot, excels through its visual storytelling, which enables director Paul Leni to craft a dark and morose world. The design work involved is exceptional, filled to the brim with deliberately dark and twisted visual imagery, more so within the first half of the film.
Makeup genius Jack Pierce does an effective job with Veidt’s makeup, bringing that iconic grin to visceral reality. It’s not surprising then that the exact look and appearance of Veidt in this film was used as the basic template for Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson to create the iconic look of Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker, and director Todd Phillips himself said in interviews that this film served as an inspiration for his 2019 Joker film. The performances are solid, more so in the case of Conrad Veidt who, even though is restricted by his makeup, is able to convey so much emotion by doing so little.
The Man Who Laughs is an iconic piece of cinema that didn’t prove successful at the time but would go on to have a long-lasting legacy of its own, proving to be of major influence on the later classic monster movies by Universal. For fans of gothic cinema, silent cinema, and Germanic expressionism, this film is highly recommended.
Dir: Paul Leni
Scr: J. Grubb Alexander, Walter Anthony, Mary McLean, Charles E. Whittaker
Cast: Mary Philbin, Conrad Veidt, Brandon Hurst, Olga V. Baklanova, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Samuel de Grasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell
Prd: Paul Kohner
DOP: Gilbert Warrenton
Music: Ernö Rapée, Walter Hirsch, Lew Pollack, William Axt, Sam Perry, Gustav Borch
Country: United State
Runtime: 110 minutes
The Man Who Laughs is available on Blu-ray now.