The Man Who Laughs (1928)
The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Genre: Drama and Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.

Release Date: November 4th, 1928 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Paul Leni Actors: Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin, Olga Baclanova, Brandon Hurst, Cesare Gravina, Stuart Holmes, Sam DeGrasse, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell




n 17th century England, His Majesty King James II is rudely awoken by Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), the court jester – a devilish little man who sports false smiles and cruel jests. His latest intrusion isn’t a joke, however; the proud rebel Lord Clancharlie (Conrad Veidt) has been captured. Now in chains, with grime smeared across his face, Clancharlie has come back for his little boy, who is still alive. But the disgraced lord is horrified to discover that his son has had a hideous grin carved into his face by Comprachico surgeons: gypsy traders who deal with stolen children, disfiguring them for use as monstrous clowns and jesters. And with that final, petrifying acknowledgement, Clancharlie is hauled off to be entombed in a spiked casket – an Iron Lady.

Although the Comprachicos are banished from England, Barkilphedro spoke the truth. Clancharlie’s son, Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr.), has had his face drastically mutilated. Abandoned by the Comprachicos, Gwynplaine wanders through the snow-covered countryside before stumbling upon a blind baby girl, whose mother has frozen to death. He takes the infant to the home of Ursus the philosopher (Cesare Gravina), who raises the two of them as his own. Traveling from town to town in a green carriage, the trio finds prosperous times, with a now adult Gwynplaine (also Conrad Veidt) becoming renowned as a performer called “The Laughing Man.” And at his side, unable to see him as anything but a pillar of light, is the grown up Dea (Mary Philbin), now a stunning young blonde maid.

Based on Victor Hugo’s classic, “The Man Who Laughs” poses the same heartrending ideas that populate “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “Beauty and the Beast” (and even “Frankenstein”). Can outward ugliness be dismissed for inner beauty? It’s inspiring, sad, and powerful all at once, particularly as this 1928 adaptation, directed by Paul Leni, is a silent film. Of course, the striking visuals more than make up for the lack of aural interactions; music, makeup, mugging expressions, and amusing cinematography shape this picture well beyond its inherent limitations. Additionally, Veidt’s look (transformed by oversized dentures, metal hooks, and fishnet gauze, designed by Hollywood newcomer Jack Pierce) would lend to the styling of Batman’s archenemy, the Joker (which is quite a testament to this film’s influence).

Hugo’s fascination with human oddities gives “The Man Who Laughs” not only a unique protagonist, but also a wealth of colorful villains – somehow more extraordinarily hideous (in physical attributes and in actions) than the disfeatured visage of Gwynplaine. At the Southwark Fair – a conglomeration of sideshow freaks – audiences glimpse yet again the evil Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), who originally operated on the Laughing Man, and who now plots ruinous scandals on the Queen and her court, including the incorrigible Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) and her betrothed, the dimwitted Lord Dirry-Moir (Stuart Holmes). The antagonists vastly outnumber the heroes.

Though an early entry in dramatic horror, “The Man Who Laughs” tackles some remarkably dark and mature themes. Hints of nudity, promiscuity, lascivious acts, medieval torture, the mangling of children, the mistreatment of the abnormal, false imprisonment, and murder are but a few of the morbid inclusions in this haunting tragedy. Yet it also focuses on true love (and a most unusual love triangle) and the grave injustices that threaten – but could never prevail – to destroy it. As with many great literary works, the story possesses redemption and triumph, too – though not before some harrowing, swashbuckling circumstances. There are problems with the execution, primarily in Josiana’s conflicted motives (or a lack of clarification in her intentions, as her initial sympathy could be construed as machinations for manipulation), but the finale is extraordinarily grand.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10